Even in frigid weather, Ginger Myers' pigs are happy.
"As cold as it gets, the pigs are out there, snorting and playing like kids bundled up and running around," says the owner of Evermore Farm, a family-owned livestock and produce farm in Westminster. Myers is one of many farmers in the Baltimore area who believe that running a farm under the principles of "good stewardship" is the right approach for farmers, animals, consumers and the region as a whole.
Myers defines good stewardship as "the ethic of doing the best management we can — that's what we're doing from birth to plate. The breeds we select, the fact that we raise them on pasture 24/7, that we don't put additives in their feed."
There's a growing interest in Maryland and across the country in finding meat, poultry and eggs that come from animals who were raised in conditions more humane than what is found in typical "factory farms," which some criticize for their use of antibiotics, crowded conditions and food approaches that do not match animals' naturally intended diets.
More and more people are also seeking food that is free of antibiotics, is as natural as possible, and is from nearby farms.
"There's a local-food movement that's a groundswell that's not going away," Myers says. "It's not just a trend."
The interpretation of "good stewardship" varies from farm to farm.
At Clark's Never Sell the Land Farm in Howard County, seventh-generation farmer Nora Crist and her mother, Martha Clark, focus on raising their livestock in the way most conducive to the animals' natural lifestyles. That means allowing cows to adopt a "herd mentality" and rotating them from one field to another, and letting them continually graze on fresh grass to get the best nutrients.
Most farmers are careful not to denigrate others in agriculture, noting that it is a large industry and that different consumer groups have different needs and wants.
"Factory [farming] provides a lot of food for a lot of people," says Myers. "We're providing an alternative."
Small farmers are quick to point out the benefits of their alternative approach, which range from the happiness of animals to a boon for the local economy to better-tasting meat.
Animal welfare is first and foremost for many farmers and consumers. Raising animals under the principles of good stewardship is "the decent thing to do," says Winston Blick, owner of Clementine restaurant and Green Onion food market in Hamilton and one of the partners behind Genuine Food Company, an organization that bundles local, sustainably raised meat into easy-to-buy subscriptions for Baltimore residents.
"We know things are being grown for us to eat," Blick says." I don't think it's too much to ask to give them a decent life until we harvest them."
For the consumer, animals raised under these principles may also be more nutritious than others. According to Nora Crist, grassfed, pastured beef is better for humans "because the cows are not pumped full of antibiotics and steroids. Cows fed on corn have all those medications in them because they have so much acid in their stomachs."
The link between nontherapeutic antibiotic use in animals and illness in humans is a topic of frequent study. According to a 2013 Centers for Disease Control report, overuse of antibiotics in animals leads to the development of antibiotic-resistant infections, including salmonella and staphylococcus aureus, which are linked to outbreaks of food-borne illnesses among humans. The CDC reports that about 2 million illnesses occur each year as a result of antibiotic resistant infections; according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, 22 percent of these are food-borne.
The FDA implemented a plan late last year to phase out the practice of giving antibiotics to animals solely for the purpose of making them gain weight more quickly, though many have questioned whether farmers will comply since the rules are voluntary.
Crist also notes that in grassfed cattle, the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids is lower than in grain-fed beef. Higher ratios have been linked to heart disease, suggesting that grassfed beef may be healthier overall.
On a regional scale, supporting smaller farms can be boost the local economy. Blick likes the idea of buying directly from the farmer whenever possible, to pump money into small, local businesses.
Bolstering local farmers was part of the impetus behind Genuine Food Company, the organization Blick founded with farmers Bobby Prigel and Stephen Belkoff.
"It's good for the local economy if money stays at home," says Prigel, who acknowledges that as a small family farmer, he cannot compete in price with large-scale operations.
In 2012, Philip Gottwals and Tim Hosking founded Friends & Farms, a community-supported agriculture program that bundles products from local farmers into "baskets" sold directly to consumers. One of their motivations, says Gottwals, was to make it more economically viable for small farmers to adopt good stewardship practices. "It's a challenge in the Mid-Atlantic," he says, referencing local weather and land. "It's critical to keep producers here."
Local restaurateur Spike Gjerde, who cooks with sustainable and local meats at his restaurants Woodberry Kitchen, Artifact Coffee and Shoo-Fly Diner, says that one of the drivers behind his commitment to small farms is environmental. "You can see the impact of farming on the Chesapeake Bay. In the course of feeding our guests, I don't want to contribute to the further degradation of the ecosystem," he says. "Grass-raised animals, if done well, have significantly less runoff than those confined to a feedlot."
Ultimately, it comes down to waste management, says Debra English, who with her husband, Scott, owns Jack Straw Farm in Harford County. By allowing their cattle to graze in fields and by rotating fields, "our beef are out spreading the manure naturally, which puts all those lost nutrients back into the soil and not in our streams and waterways."
For consumers, taste matters, too, and meat purchased from the farm sometimes shocks the taste buds. Annapolis resident Kathy Dague and her neighbors have been buying meat from Wagon Wheel Farm in Mount Airy for about four years. Together, they buy several animals at once, splitting up the meat — which is sold in various cuts, just like at a traditional butcher shop — among families. "The pork tastes so clean," she says. "There's no greasy taste at all."
She notes that some of her neighbors consider the ground beef "too gamey." But Dague's family just thinks it tastes "beefy."
At Clementine, Blick says, his customers sometimes ask why their chicken tastes "tougher" than expected. "Our chickens walk around, they flap their wings," says Blick.
Though they still make up a small percentage of the industry as a whole, the number of good-stewardship farms is on the upswing, according to Jo Robinson, author of "Eating on the Wild Side" and editor of the website eatwild.com.
"I scoured the country in 1999 looking for people producing those sorts of animal products and selling to the public. I found 50 — that's not enough. Grassfed meat was considered ... cheap, tough and gamey. Year by year, more people tried and learned about the benefits. Now we have about 2,000 [good stewardship] farmers and ranchers about the country." That number includes 35 farms within reasonable driving distance of Baltimore.
The perception that grassfed beef is unappealing is only one of many misconceptions farmers say they work to combat. Most of them involve misinterpretations of language.
"There's so much confusion out there," says Myers, noting that when words like "natural" and "organic" are tossed around without consistently shared definitions, the meat-buying process can be challenging for both consumers and farmers.
Myers, like many farmers, deems buying local more important than staying "organic" in the legal sense. "I source straw from our neighbors and know how it's grown," she says. "They're not certified, but I'd have to go miles away and take dollars out of the community," she continues. "I think it's more important to stick with local business."
Because every farm prioritizes different things, when consumers search for the right farm to buy from, it's something of a "dating game," says Myers, who recommends visiting farms and asking multiple questions about how animals are raised.
Nora Crist of Clark's Farm reminds people that when buying meat, they can "take steps. They don't have to buy half a cow at one time. Buy a pound of ground beef and see how you like it."
Even when buying in small quantities, consumers should understand that buying good stewardship meat can be different than a standard trip to the supermarket. First, the meat is typically frozen, says Brian Schiner, owner of Wagon Wheel Farm.
"We sell frozen because we don't use any preservatives," he says, explaining that nonfrozen meat sold in grocery stores has usually been preserved with nitrates.
Consumers buying directly from Wagon Wheel can purchase meat by typical cuts or in bulk. "We sell it by the cuts, and some people go in with a family or neighbors and buy a whole cow. By the cut is an expensive way to buy meat," says Schiner.
According to Kathy Dague, buying in bulk from Wagon Wheel Farm works out to be less expensive than buying individual items of the same quality from the grocery store. "If you buy it in bulk the way we do, the prices are really reasonable," she says.
Dague says that sometimes when she runs out of Wagon Wheel meat, she supplements with a trip to Whole Foods. Other local options for sustainably raised meat include MOM's Organic Markets and small shops like Green Onion, Winston Blick's Hamilton shop.
Community-supported agriculture organizations (CSAs) are another alternative. Blick's Genuine Food Company sells three-month shares of meat for between $375 and $525. Each share includes a total of 60 pounds of meat (20 pounds per month), and the options include combinations of pork, beef and lamb.
Friends & Farms baskets include a variety of products, including at least two meat and/or seafood proteins. The large basket, designed for a family of four, costs $83 per week (long-term subscription discounts are available).
Farmers and restaurateurs say that even if consumers buy primarily from a store or CSA, they should take the opportunity to visit farms.
"It's fun," says Blick. "And farmers appreciate that you're taking the time to come out there."
Misinformation and lack of a shared language are significant stumbling blocks in the conversation about sustainably raised meat. A comprehensive guide to food label language, "Food Labeling for Dummies" can be found at animalwelfareapproved.org. Below are definitions for a few of the most common — and commonly misunderstood — terms:
•Cage free: Usually applied to eggs, this refers to the product of chickens that do not live in cages. It does not indicate, however, that the chickens have access to the outside or are in less-crowded conditions.
•Free range: This is not a legal definition, but generally indicates that outdoor access is provided. However, interested consumers should ask questions about exactly how much access is provided and the outdoor space used.
•Grassfed: This term is defined by the American Grassfed Association and indicates that livestock are pasture-, grass-, and/or forage-based.
•Locally grown: "Everyone has a different definition of local," says Wagon Wheel Farm's Brian Schiner, who recommends getting to the bottom of the "local" question by asking for the name of the farm where the meat was raised. He also warns, "It doesn't mean it's healthy. Just local."
•Natural: According to the USDA, this means the product does not contain any artificial ingredients or added color, and is minimally processed.
•Organic: Products labeled "organic" must meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Organic Program production and handling standards.
•Pastured: This indicates animals are raised outdoors or on a pasture, but it is not a legal term, so consumers should verify claims.
Where to buy sustainably raised meat
A decade ago, finding sustainably raised meat was a challenge. Today, it's available from a variety of sources. Locally, check out the following:
•CSA Organizations: To help consumers buy directly from farms — and to help farms more easily reach consumers — a handful of community-supported agriculture organizations have cropped up around the Baltimore area. Genuine Food Company (genuinefoodmd.com) sells seasonal packages of beef, pork and lamb for monthly fees, and Friends & Farms (friendsandfarms.com) sells weekly baskets including vegetables and proteins. Both work with local, sustainably minded farmers only.
What to ask at the farm
Farmers agree: The best way to know how your meat was raised is to visit the farm and get to know your farmer. "Go to the farm and check it out," says Brian Schiner of Wagon Wheel Farm in Mount Airy. He warns that some farmers may not be completely truthful about how they raise their animals. Visiting, he says, is the only way to be sure the animals are treated well. Call first — farmers are busy — and be prepared with a few questions:
Where are the animals? "If you're coming to a farm to buy chickens and there's not a chicken on that farm, I wonder where they're coming from," says Ginger Myers of Evermore Farm in Westminster. "Educate yourself."
What do you feed them? Take a look at the quality of the pasture. Is it well maintained? Does it appear healthy? "See how they're tending to the animals when they don't have a fresh grazing opportunity," suggests Jo Robinson, editor of eatwild.com. When grazing is not an option, animals should be eating "good-looking grass hay or grass silage, which is fermented grass," she says. Debra English of Jack Straw Farm goes a step further, urging consumers to ask how beef is "finished." She explains that some cows eat grass for most of their lives but grain at the end ("grain-finished"), which negates some of the benefits of grass feeding.
What happens when the animals leave here? Animals are typically transported to off-site processors for slaughter; farmers recommend asking about all the elements of that process. "I've found that most grass-based farmers go out of their way not to stress their animals and make sure they die quickly," says Robinson, noting that humane slaughter is important to many consumers.
Why do you do it? Restaurateur and shop owner Winston Blick suggests opening the conversation by asking farmers why they farm and why they raise animals the way they do. "I think, generally speaking, people who raise their animals right are decent people," he says, adding that they typically enjoy talking about what they do because it's what they love.
Consumers may discover a need to learn new techniques and adjust cooking styles to accommodate leaner meats and larger cuts.
Break it down: "We sell a lot of free-range chickens to folks who have never cut up a chicken in their lives," says Ginger Myers of Evermore Farm in Westminster. "They learn to do that, or learn to [cook in a] Crock-Pot. Part of my mission is to help customers learn how to get maximum flavor and maximum meals, since our meats aren't cheap."
Add fat: Annapolis resident Kathy Dague has noticed that the meat she buys from Wagon Wheel Farm is leaner than what she used to cook. "You have to add a little olive oil if you're cooking sausage or ground beef," she says. "And you have to cook it slower. It'll burn because there's so little fat in it."
Watch the time: Nora Crist of Clark's Never Sell the Land Farm in Howard County warns against overcooking. "The big stereotype is that grassfed meat is gamey and tough," she says. "It's not true. It's very tender, but you can't overcook it."