January 31st, 2007
I go to the farmer’s market here in New York City’s Union Square a couple times a week. Wednesdays are the best because it isn’t as crowded as Saturday and some of my favorite vendors are there: Tamarack Hollow Farm (selling pigs and chickens) and Three Corner Field Farm (selling all things sheep- mutton, lamb, yogurt, cheese and milk). Not only are their products excellent but I almost always walk away from their stands having learned something about farming or about their experiences.
It is one thing to think about farming conceptually- farmers work the land, care for the animals, then they bring them to a central location and we pay them for their work- and quite another to consider what the farmer’s day is actually like. I know that since returning from our tour, and watching the temperature drop (finally) over the last couple weeks, when I walk out my front door and that first gust of wind blows through my jacket into my bones I often think about the farmer who got up earlier than I did and went to work outside. They aren’t the only ones who do this… cops, construction workers, garbage men, landscapers- all of them are up and outside too it’s just that I’ve had farming on my mind.
A couple weeks ago, on a particularly frigid Wednesday, I stopped by to see Karen Weinberg (owner of 3 Corner Field Farm) and shortly after I arrived she got a phone call that she absolutley had to take. I hung around her stand to field questions from customers while she paced in the patch of sunshine between her stand and the neighboring apple booth. As soon as she was on hold she explained that she had been waiting for this call for months- it was from the USDA.
The basics of the situation Karen was discussing with the USDA are this: Months ago there had been a problem at one of the slaughterhouses Karen uses for her lambs. Meat from another farmer had been tagged as potentially contaminated and the USDA had done an investigation. No conclusive evidence of actual contamination was found but the USDA put an indefinite hold on the any meat that was in the slaughterhouse during the time that the allegedly contaminated meat was there. Indefinite holds and perishable products don’t go together so well.
Karen had taken fifteen lambs to the slaughterhouse, watched them go in the front door and then never saw any trace of them after that.
The slaughterhouse wants her to take it up with the USDA because they had imposed this unending hold on the products and the USDA wants her to hold the slaughterhouse accountable because they had been in possession of the product at the time it disappeard.
Karen broke down what losing these lambs meant for her in financial terms- which is not insignificant. Retail pricing on the various cuts of lamb that she sells range from $9-15.50/lb. I looked at her and immediately thought of the emotional value of the animals. I remembered what she said to me this summer (we visited her this summer on the tour) when I asked her about the first time she took animals to slaughter. She said that the first time had been so chaotic- she was so worried about them escaping or something that she had not been able to be completely present to what was going on… and then she said that over time, as she felt more confident about how to transport them, taking the animals to slaughter had actually gotten harder.
And then I thought about all the time and care she had put into those lambs to then have to think that they were slaughtered and wasted. Not sold, cooked, eaten, and celebrated but wasted.
Here is the thing about this entire situation- most of us, even meat eaters, don’t like the idea of animals going to slaughter. And yet the reality of cheese is that one of its byproducts is young animals that are born for the purpose of kicking off the cycle of lactation in their mothers. Dairy farmers cannot afford to keep all of these young animals and let them live out their years on the farm. If they do keep them around, like Karen does, many of them have to be raised for meat because only a handful of the females are needed each season as replacements for milking ewes that are being retired.
Just for a minute lets put all the feelings we have about this situation aside and look at the slaughterhouse situation for non-industrial dairy farmers. If a dairy farmer wants to be able to sell meat from their animals in cuts (not as whole animals- the rules are different for this) then they have to have them slaughtered at a USDA regulated facility. Doesn’t sound so bad except that these facilities are more expensive and not necessarily the closest facilities to a given farm. The end result can be that the farmer pays more, might have to transport their animals farther (which creates more stress for the animals), and can have a difficult time finding such a facility that is willing to take a small volume of animals at a time.
Karen is left wondering why she paid more for this facility when the USDA doesn’t seem to be offering an incredible level of service to either the slaughterhouse or its customers.
Small slaughterhouses are going out of business all over the country because they cannot afford to build new facilities or upgrade existing ones to meet federal standards that have been developed with industrial animal processing plants in mind. This is a major problem for farmstead artisan cheesemakers or any other small dairy farms. Part of maintaining a network of sustainable agriculture and cheese production is ensuring the existence of regional slaughterhouses to support it. We absolutely want the animals from these farms to have the best possible experience throughout their lives- even at the end.
If you care about preserving small farms, the existence of these slaughterhouses (with acceptable sanitation and animal treatment practices) is mandatory. If you enjoy cheese, milk, butter and yogurt from these farms- even if you never eat the meat- this is still an issue you that needs your involvement. I don’t know how to fix this problem but I bet that a great next stop would be to talk to the farmers that provide you with great animal products (this includes dairy) and ask them if they need your support.