Intern Tom and I have been making the rounds after work to the small farms of Central New Jersey – several organic vegetable farms, an orchard, and two grass-raised cattle ranches among them.
I've enjoyed our trips. They've reminded me what a beautiful place my home state remains to be in its most pastoral pockets. I've been all across the country and I think its green hills and fields are outshone by none.
These visits (in addition to my recent reading, and the natural observations that come with living on a farm for the first time) have also caused me to think more about the food I consume.
I've never been a vegetarian, and I doubt I ever will be, but I don't really like the alternative either – continuing to eat meat from cows, pigs, and chickens that live unhealthy lives in factory-like conditions. I bought my first pound of grass-fed ground beef a few weeks ago from a local cattle farmer, and this is what I think I purchased:
- The knowledge that the cow I was eating lived in a way that seems decent to me. It roamed a pasture eating grass, which is exactly what a cow will do when it is left to do as it pleases.
- The hope that the beef I was eating was healthier than the beef I would get from a cow raised in a feedlot and forced to gorge on corn and often worse.
- The further knowledge that my money was going to support a local farmer, whose farm might otherwise become a cement factory or something other than the beautiful natural vista it currently is.
In my idealized future, I'd like all the meat I consume to come from local, organic farmers who raise their animals humanely. Maybe one day I will follow through on this. But even in the last week, I've eaten many servings of the "other" meat. Why would I do this?
Two of the biggest reasons are certainly cost and convenience. The pound of ground beef I purchased fetched about $6. That's expensive, especially on an intern's salary. I could afford it if I was dearly committed to the notion of eating Good, but so far the temptations of Cheap have won out. The other factor is Easy. Meat that comes from factory-raised animals is nearly ubiquitous. Especially when I feel like grabbing a quick bite at a restaurant, or I have the option to eat a free sandwich lying around the farm, the convenience of just shoving the food in my mouth and chewing often wins out over some vague moral misgivings floating around the old Superego.
So, clearly, I'll be need to make a decision one of these days either to man up and eat only Moral Meat, or else strike some sort of balance that may at least be better than nothing.
Some of the same eating dilemmas trouble me as I browse the fruit and vegetable aisle of the supermarket these days. I know that the cheapest vegetables are often the ones grown with the aid of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. This produce is then shipped across the country, sometimes the world, in order to reach my supermarket -- using up valuable fossil fuels and contributing to global warming. The local organic stuff? Once again, it's often the most expensive. I've heard that subscriptions to some local CSAs run more than $700 a year.
I'm still trying to figure out what is the most responsible yet reasonable way to make my food-buying choices. There are many variables to consider, and economics is certainly one of them. I was talking to Tom today about this, and the ideology he's arrived at is roughly this:
Buying local does the most good. Organic local is best. Falling short of that, when choosing between local non-organic, and non-local organic, go with the locally grown food.
That sounds reasonable to me.
Better yet, if you can: Tend your own garden.
One other thought that didn't seem to fit anywhere else: The pigs we are raising on the farm seem so friendly and doglike to me that I might just have to give up pork altogether.