It's hard to miss the stories these days about factory farming, hog waste lagoons and giant meat processing plants. Whether it's concerns about animal welfare, the survival of small farms, environmental impact, food safety or the treatment of workers, industrial-strength food production raises a myriad of questions and concerns.
Much of the time, that kind of food production seems inevitable—dominated by big business, supported by lawmakers and inadequately monitored by regulators. So it's refreshing to see a state government program aimed at counteracting all of that.
The N.C. Choices program, a joint project of the Center for Environmental Farming Systems at N.C. A&T, N.C. State and the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, is hoping to encourage local food production and sales by working with both farmers and consumers. Its initial effort is aimed at hog farming—helping small farmers raise swine using alternative production methods that are better for the hogs, profitable for the farmers and good for the consumer and the local economy. Eventually, it would like to branch into cattle and plant production.
To find out more about the project, I talked with Project Manager Jennifer Curtis last week over coffee at Raleigh's Global Village, and she enthusiastically described the role N.C. Choices plays in the field. To learn more—and get a list of places locally raised pork is available—go to www.ncchoices.com.
Independent: You have described N.C. Choices as a clearinghouse of information for both farmers and consumers. What kind of info is it your mission to convey?
Jennifer Curtis: N.C. Choices provides hog farmers with the information and support they need to earn a living using sustainable strategies, which include animal health and welfare, on-farm conservation practices, processing options, meat quality and direct marketing opportunities. With consumers, the initiative focuses on the value of buying sustainable pork, including how it supports local, independent farmers and their communities, enhances environmental quality, allows animals to exhibit their natural behaviors, and of course tastes great.
How do you see your conduit of information educating consumers for change?
Purchasing local, sustainable food products is one of the most important choices an individual can make to create positive change in the world. The choice to support local farms strengthens our economy, enhances our communities and reduces both fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. And, local, sustainable food is fresher, often more nutritious and tastes better. It's also getting easier to find. Through our Web site and our public outreach, we aim to make it easier for consumers to connect with local pork producers and to educate them about the value of their food choices. For example, most consumers likely do not realize that the average meal travels 1,500 miles before it reaches the family table.
How does N.C. Choices practically support local hog farmers?
Local, independent farmers who want to raise a relatively small number of hogs outdoors using alternative production practices have not had much research data or technical expertise available to support or inform them. Together with staff at N.C. A&T and NCSU, and the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, we're trying to change that by getting current, pertinent information into growers' hands so they can produce high-quality pork for new, niche markets and make a living doing it. We're finding that farmers really appreciate being connected to and learning from each other through the networking and community building that N.C. Choices is able to support [e.g., through monthly educational workshops, weekly news updates and a quarterly newsletter]. And we're also exploring new, innovative marketing strategies for farmers to sell their meat directly to consumers and thereby retain a greater proportion of the profits.
Why the focus on meat—pork, specifically?
North Carolina now produces 40 percent of the nation's pork, yet the number of hog farmers has decreased dramatically. This means that the size of farms has gotten much larger. The public has maintained pressure to change these large-scale confinement pork operations because of concerns including water and air quality pollution from storing hog waste in lagoons, animal welfare issues such as the crates used to confine gestating sows, and poor working conditions in meat packing plants. N.C. Choices is committed to helping farmers fill the market demand these concerns create by helping develop profitable alternative models of production and marketing that support a more sustainable approach to pork production.
Can you talk to us about why it is generally so difficult to find and buy locally raised and processed meat products?
Most of the farmers we work with are selling their meat at farmers' markets, to restaurants and through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) groups. As individuals become more aware of the value of their food choices, the demand for their products increases. The big problem they face is poor access to meat slaughtering and butchering facilities. If you're a relatively small farmer with only a few animals a week that need to be slaughtered, there are very few places that will work with you, because you don't have enough volume to make it worth their effort. Those few meat processors who do work with small independent farmers are not equipped to make value-added products like bacon, smoked sausage, hot dogs or cured hams. Anyone in the food business knows that most of the money lies in value-added products. So, even though local farmers are experiencing unprecedented demand, they're not able to fully capitalize on it, and this puts them at a real financial disadvantage. Most of our farmers making value-added products travel out of state to have this done, sometimes as far as four hours away. We at N.C. Choices believe this is a major loss for our state and something ought to be done about it.
Isn't it harder for cattle and hog farmers—meat producers—to remain independent of the industrial end of the business? Why is that?
Yes, it's very difficult. The model of agriculture we have in this country emphasizes cheap food and squeezes farmers into a corner. And that's where organizations such as N.C. Choices can really help, by educating consumers and by working with farmers to learn a host of new skills, including business planning, marketing, meat handling and food safety.
What is the role of meat in the sustainable agriculture movement?
N.C. Choices is all about supporting local, sustainable food production. Livestock is a key component of sustainable agriculture. Animal waste, for example, does not need to be a huge environmental problem; it can be a source of nutrients for subsequent crops when handled correctly, and forages can be wonderful soil-building crops. Integrating animals—rather than separating and concentrating them—into crop production is an ecological approach to farming.
You've characterized N.C. Choices as a liaison between farmers and consumers. Can you explain that connection more fully?
Our Web site profiles all of our farmers across the state and tells consumers where they can buy their meats—typically this will be at the farmers' market, through CSAs, at restaurants (Zely and Ritz, Enoteca Vin and Lantern in the Triangle) and in a few instances retail grocery stores (Weaver Street Market and Whole Foods in Chapel Hill). Triangle residents can also find sustainably raised pork at the Carrboro, Durham, Hillsborough and Raleigh farmers' markets. We're adding farmers every month, so our listings will continue to increase. We're also in the process of pilot testing direct market models to make it easier for consumers to purchase local, sustainable meats in their neighborhoods, at church or at work. We'll have more on that in six months.
In one of our earlier conversations, you mentioned one of the great pleasures of your job as project manager is working directly with farmers and hearing their stories. Do you have one you'd like to share with us in closing?
I can't pick only one story but I will say that their collective stories give me great hope for the future of farming in North Carolina. We have young families just starting out, veteran farmers bringing back traditional ways of raising animals, limited-resource farmers carving out a niche for their products, middle-class professionals making career changes, retirees trying their hand at raising heritage-breed animals, and the list goes on; the cast of characters in sustainable meat production ensures there is never a dull moment. All of us at N.C. Choices are inspired to be a part of a growing community of farmers, customers, chefs, meat processors, county agents, researchers and environmental advocates who are helping to build a local, more sustainable food system.