October’s view from the farm
Know your farmer is a popular phrase right now and I have many who ask me, “What kinds of questions should I be asking a farmer? I stopped to think about it, and if I were buying produce I would be asking about their growing practices. “Are you certified organic? If not do you follow organic methods?” Many farmers are not getting certified, but still maintain organic standards. If I were buying meat my first question would be, “Do you feed any grain or are your animals 100 percent grass-fed?” I will go into more about the difference next. My second question would be, “Are your meat animals born on the farm or do you buy them off-farm?” If I were buying eggs, I would make sure the chickens were raised outside with access to grass and bugs as well as their grain. I would also ask about a visit to the farm and if they have an open barn day or let people tour.
What about grain?
Grain can be a controversial topic among farmers. Ruminants — cows, goats and sheep — have one stomach with multiple compartments for breaking down their food. A ruminant’s natural diet is forage-grass, hay bushes, shrubs and in a natural they may diet be eating some grain, but it would be secondary to grasses. The reason for feeding grain to ruminants is based for the most part on economics. Grain is fed for increased milk production and quicker weight gain. Most modern dairy cows, such as the Holstein, and the Hampshire sheep are bred for high production and rapid growth, and now require grain to maintain good health. Another reason for feeding grain is poor quality forage. When pastures are run down or poorly maintained, supplemental grain would be required to maintain the desired weight gain. However feeding grain to ruminants is like feeding donuts, it is neither healthy for the animal nor the humans who eat the animal. Grain feeding is also hard on the environment, from fossil fuel use in the planting and harvesting to the higher protein excess in the urine that can end up in our water sources. Good quality forage requires a lot of care of the soil. When I hear my grandson say emphatically that when he grows up he is going to work at Sunnyfield Farm, it makes me happy to think that the care of the soil will continue through many generations. Maintaining the quality of the land is neither easy nor cheap, and requires a long-term commitment, but the end results are better for the animal, the consumers and the environment.
Why is my grass-fed
steak so expensive?
For farmers, getting a meat animal to market faster is obviously going to keep the cost of raising that animal down. Here in New Hampshire, sending a steer at the end of year two would be preferable to feeding it through another winter. But the ability to do that usually depends on feeding grain. Grass-fed animals require a longer growth time. Animals that do well on grass are also smaller and more compact; the heritage breeds as they are called do not require the grain supplements, but the result can be a smaller market weight. We are also living in a culture that feels a steak needs to be a huge thing hanging off the edge of a plate. A healthy portion of nutrient-rich meat would be around 3 ounces. A rib steak here at Sunnyfield Farm weighs about 8 ounces and costs around $8, and would feed almost three people — two if you like a little more than 3 ounces. So when you are considering the costs, get more for your dollar with nutrient-rich foods.
Ruth Holmes is one of the principal farmers at Sunnyfield Farm, a nonprofit community farm in Peterborough.