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Where Does Your Food Come From?

More Americans are looking to take the mystery out of meat, by buying directly from ranchers or even raising cows, pigs and chickens themselves.

Back in the late 1970s, when I was a cub reporter in sparsely populated Franklin County, Maine, I was struck by how often I would see farm animals being raised in backyards: a few chickens here, a goat or two there, the occasional cow. An acquaintance of mine even published an article about his little menagerie, titled "Sheep in the Parlor." These weren't 4-H projects or political statements; they were just a practical way for people to provide their own eggs or milk or meat, an alternative to driving to a distant grocery store during the Carter-era energy shortage. Great idea, I'd think to myself. Why aren't more people doing it?

Now, finally, they are. Worried about health, food safety, the humane treatment of animals or simply seeking better taste, Americans are looking for ways to get closer to the source of their meat. More people want to know that their beef comes from cattle that have been fed grass (making the meat lower in "bad" fats and higher in beneficial omega-3 fatty acids) rather than animal by-products (a source of mad cow disease) and corn. And they want assurances that their poultry roamed outdoors instead of living in cramped cages. Since labels like cage-free and organic may not always mean what they imply, consumers are searching for other ways to determine the pedigree of their beef, pork and chicken—by moving to houses built on working ranches, buying directly from farmers and, yes, even raising the animals themselves.

Stephanie Martin is one such person. "I got to milk a cow once when I was five years old, and I've been waiting ever since to get involved again," she said, explaining how she and her husband, Brett, came to be building a house at Maytag Mountain Ranch, in south-central Colorado.

Maytag, a 3,000-acre working ranch where 27 houses will be constructed in the next few years (on lots priced from $895,000 to $1.5 million), will allow residents to participate in as much of the ranch work as they wish, from herding the grass-fed cattle to feeding the free-range chickens. For Martin and the other homeowners, the rewards are edible: Each will get a quarter of a steer a year from the ranch's herd and an ample supply of fresh eggs.

"I think people want to have a connection to their food, and I think the producers are now realizing that we need to be connected," said Russ Maytag, who started raising his cattle solely on grass five years ago and conceived of the project as a way to keep the ranch self-sustaining in the process. "We've let these large corporations get between us and the consumer."

A little more than 200 miles northwest of the Maytag ranch, Jeff Temple and his partners are creating Marabou, a similar project with room for 62 homes on a working ranch. Projects like Marabou help to keep a lifestyle alive. "It's pretty hard to have a cowboy when you don't have a cow," he noted. He said a typical fate for a ranch in his area, near Steamboat Springs, is to be cut into pieces that are "too big to mow and too small to ranch." His group, though, assembled five tracts that together will be large enough to run as a cattle ranch, and three full-time ranching families will live there along with the homeowners.

It's not necessary to move to a ranch to know where your food is coming from: More and more farmers are now selling meat directly to consumers. About 13 years ago, Mike Gale and his wife, Sally, with no ranching experience, took a leap of faith and left their jobs in Hawaii to move to a run-down family farm in Petaluma, California, that is now known as the Chileno Valley Ranch. They began by raising cattle for industrial production, watching their animals get shipped off to feedlots before they were slaughtered. "It just wasn't a very good feeling," Gale said, so they took another leap. They decided to keep the cattle in their own pastures and sell the meat themselves, by the quarter, half or whole animal.

"The first year we sold two, to eight people," Gale said. "The next year it jumped to 11. The third year Michael Pollan's 'This Steer's Life' came out and it was 41." (That year was 2002, and the reference is to a Jungle-like piece published in the New York Times Magazine that vividly described the problems with industrial beef.) Last year they sold 73 animals to 198 customers. "Coming from a surfing background," Gale said, "I can tell you, we're on the wave."

Even in Middle America, where the farms can be huge and the leanings conservative, people are pushing for direct contact with their farmers. Ronald P. Lemenager, a professor of cattle nutrition and management at Purdue University, tends 35 head of cattle in his spare time on 130 acres near West Lafayette, Indiana. He sells his dry-aged beef by word of mouth to customers who have heard about its flavor. "I know exactly what my customers want, how they want their product cut," he said. "I can tailor-match an individual animal to an individual customer."

Lately, Lemenager has been coaching other farmers in how to do what he has been doing for 25 years. Three years ago, he helped the Indiana Beef Cattle Association establish a program called Indiana Fresh from the Farm Beef, which helps connect producers directly with consumers. The point isn't to promote one particular agricultural philosophy, he said. It's to take the anonymity out of the process of putting meat on the table. It's to give people a chance to establish a relationship of trust with a rancher, much as they would with a doctor or contractor or barber. "There are some consumers who are interested in organic, some who want grass-fed, some who want corn-fed," Lemenager said. "If you're interested in one of those, you can find someone who produces that."

In some ways, knowing your farmer is a throwback to the preindustrial age of American agriculture—except that today, instead of visiting the farm next door, you can watch the animals over the Internet. Patrick Martins, cofounder of Heritage Foods USA, which is dedicated to the preservation and proliferation of the livestock breeds that ruled the farm before Tyson and Hormel, offers a "turkey cam" that allows anyone with a computer to check in on the birds at the Good Shepherd Turkey Ranch in Lindsborg, Kansas. For a preordered turkey, a consumer might be able to follow the bird from its earliest days until right before slaughter. "It's symbolic," Martins said. The principle: Good agriculture should have nothing to hide. Martins is especially enthusiastic about his new labeling system, which lets buyers plug a number into a computer to track where a particular turkey or cut of pork came from and get details on how the animal was raised. "The most important label on meat in this day and age is traceable," Martins said.

Of course, there's also the option of eliminating all the guesswork. Some people, like those Maine backyarders I remember from years ago, are choosing to raise the animals themselves. In many suburban areas this would clash with local zoning ordinances, but some homeowners with big enough properties and tolerant neighbors are raising laying hens or even pigs and cows.

Small local efforts might help counter a perception that the know-your-food trend is only for people who are wealthy enough to buy into places like Maytag Mountain Ranch. "It's easy to dismiss this stuff as elitist," said Brian Donahue, an environmental historian at Brandeis University who helped found the Land's Sake organic farm on public land in Weston, Massachusetts. "That way of looking at it, as a snobbish thing, is pushed a lot by people who have a vested interest in the existing agricultural system."

Donahue believes the potential is there for a true revolution in agriculture. "I think we can envision a rural America that is being resettled by ex-urbanites, most of whom are not going to be farmers but who are going to want to see a healthy landscape around them."

As a small step in this direction, Donahue and representatives from various farming foundations and interests established the Farm-Based Education Association earlier this year. He said the group hopes, among other things, to encourage towns to think bigger than "just a few hiking trails" when planning their open space and to try to incorporate farming. "It's kind of amazing what you can do on a few acres," he said.

Neil Genzlinger is a writer and editor at the New York Times.

Published November 2006
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