I became a vegetarian when I was twelve years old. I'm now twenty-seven, so I have been primarily meat-free for most of my life.
I have had meat a few times since then. For example when I was eating lunch in a small French town two years ago, the cafe I went to didn't have vegetarian options, so I ordered a chicken dish with an incredible brie sauce. When in Rome, right? (Or France.)
Being meat-free for so long has made me start to wonder: what is my adult body like if I eat meat? After fifteen years of being a vegetarian, do I still feel the same way about meat? Is there a good balance between eating meat and maintaining ethical and sustainable standards? That is what this whole series is about.
For the next four weeks I will make meat at least three times a week, eating leftovers in between (if there are any). Each week will focus on a specific meat. Here's the catch, though: I can't eat CAFO meat. One of the reasons I became a vegetarian all those years ago was because of the ethics behind eating meat, and CAFO meat is unacceptable. It is cruel, it is unhealthy, it is unsustainable--I won't do it. So, for this month of eating meat I am diving into the local meat production of my home. The meat I eat must be raised ethically, locally, and sustainably, and the animals must be happy critters before they are sent to the slaughter.
It was in this vein that I found and visited Utah Natural Meat.
Utah Natural Meat is located in the west Salt Lake Valley. Customers can come buy meat at the same place the animals are grown, and that's part of the farm's philosophy. Shane, the fifth generation farmer who showed me around the farm, said, "We like people to come here. Labels [on food] can be misleading, so if people come here they can verify where [their meat] is coming from. It helps build a relationship with their food."
This philosophy is integrated into every aspect of Shane's farming techniques. Instead of tractors, he uses horses to carry wagons and carts. Shane says using horses helps him to stay more connected to the process, and that it's more fun. The reduction in use of fossil fuels and pollution helps keep the financial costs and environmental costs low (unless you count the pollution from the horses' farts, as Shane's son gleefully pointed out).
Treating the animals with respect and giving them what they need adds to the overall quality of the meat. Utah Natural Meat is concerned with high-quality, not the high-speed quantity of what has become traditional meat production. Shane raises his animals by "giving the animals what they need instead of treating something when they get ill." I asked him about pigs because I have heard they are a difficult and messy animal to raise. "Each animal has it's own smell," he said. "When the smell becomes overwhelming you know you did something wrong." He said if you give the animals enough space, the right kind of nutrition, and treatment the meat will be better--even if it takes longer to finish.
Utah Natural Meats offers a variety of meat including chicken, beef, lamb, pork, and also offers fresh milk and eggs. The breed of lamb is not the traditional wool sheep, but is instead a hair sheep. This kind of sheep takes longer to finish (about a year instead of 6-8 months), but the flavor is better and avoids the undesirable mutton taste.
Farming in Utah--a state notoriously dry--takes resourcefulness and care. Utah Natural Meat has an innovative method of growing grass that reduces water use by 95 percent. The animals on this farm are grass-fed and finished, but instead of growing acres upon acres of grass, Utah Natural Meat uses a mixture of sunflower, barley, and wheat seeds to grow hydroponic sprouts, which are then taken to the animals.
Every day, the seeds and sprouts are rotated inside large rectangular containers with a large door on the front, and one on the back. The sprouts that are ready to be eaten (after six days of growing) are removed and the containers they were in are washed. New seeds are spread out in the washed bins and placed at the front of the container. The rows of bins from the days prior are pushed forward so the oldest seeds/sprouts are towards the back. The pallets of fresh sprouts are vibrant green and lovely to behold.
Shane says this system cuts down on water and results in zero waste. The animals eat the sprouts and the roots, leaving nothing behind. The choice of which plants to include is the result of striking a balance between good nutrition, the right kind of nutrition, availability, and price. He said, "Each plant carries with it certain values." The sprouts are also easier to digest for the animals, and because the plants aren't fully grown and started losing nutrients, they pack a bigger nutritional punch.
At the end of my visit, I bought some chicken (chicken is butchered on the premises, while by law other animals must be slaughtered at an inspected meat shop) and will use it for my first foray into eating meat for my little experiment. While I plan to investigate other sources of quality and ethical meat in Utah, I can put my stamp of approval on Utah Natural Meat.
Watching Shane bottle-feed a lamb that had been rejected by its mother, I was struck by how odd the situation was for a longtime vegetarian such as myself. This little lamb was adorable and sweet, but is being grown to be eaten--as was the case for most of the animals I saw. But that is part of the purpose of this experiment. I have happily chosen to abstain from meat for the last fifteen years, but I don't have a moral objection to other people eating meat. However, I do have a moral objection to the distance our culture puts between the source of our food and what we put on our plate--and that holds true for all food items, not only meat.
But if I am going to experiment with eating meat, I have to see where it comes from. I have to face the face of the adorable lambs and the funny pigs, and respect the reality that these critters are being raised specifically to become food. The next month will show me how this ultimately impacts my body and my ethical compass. In the mean time, stay tuned for my experiences with cooking meat.