This is the second in a series about my get-together with Tara Smith of Tara Firma Farms in Petaluma.
Tara Firma is focused on raising cattle, pigs and chickens. Many of the vegetables that end up its CSA farm boxes are from neighboring farms like County Line, Marin Roots, and First Light Farm, so not only is the farm producing great food, it’s also acting as a sales channel for other local producers. This is clearly a business with a number of different missions.
As we talk I’m amazed by how much is happening around us. People arrive to shop at the store and visit piglets, staff members roll by on tractors en route to moving cattle, a maternal chicken clucks over to say hi. If you thought that throwing in an executive lifestyle to run a farm was opting for the quiet life, think again.
We leave our sunny spot to start the tour of the farm and as we walk up the muddy track to the pigs’ current patch, I learn why it’s so important that we as consumers become more connected to the food we eat. Everything I hear reminds me of what I learned from Carlo Petrini, the father of the slow food movement, at last year’s National Heirloom Expo.
Tara explains to me that it’s not so much what the animals eat that makes a big difference to the quality of their meat, what is of the utmost importance is the kind of life they lead. This is news to me. After all, we focus on “grass-fed” vs. “stress-free” when looking at labels, but it makes complete sense the more I think about it. Just as society is learning that stress in humans is the biggest contributor to ill health, the same is true for animals.
Imagine living in a small artificially lit stall being fed food your body wasn’t designed to digest, and occasionally being prodded by an electric paddle. Wouldn’t you get sick too? (Come to think of it, sounds like cubicle life in corporate America.) And in industrial farming, it’s these inevitable stress-induced illnesses that have led to the over-use of antibiotics in animals, which in turn has led to breeding genetically engineered, disease-resistant plants and animals. We then eat that meat and those plants, and I’ll be darned if the state of the U.S. population’s health isn’t worse than ever before. Vicious cycle anyone?
It turns out that there is a simple solution to this problem. If you raise animals in their natural habit without stress, you significantly reduce the risk of their ever getting ill. This makes their meat taste better and ensures it can deliver the nutrients we need to thrive and feel completely awesome. And this, dear readers, is why it matters so much that you know what happened to your food before it lands on your plate.
But enough of that. Back to the farm tour. First we check on the mamma pigs and their many babies, and what becomes abundantly clear on this farm is that the animals are all having a great time. There’s not a squalid feedlot in sight. The pigs are rooting around in the grass and wallowing in mud, the chickens literally wander free on the range, the cows graze in a “roaming” pattern, not hemmed into one field, and are given fresh pasture every couple of days. This is also of vital importance for the environment – more on that in my next piece.
As we wander, Tara tells me that within 10 weeks of taking possession of the farm, their first chickens were ready to be sold which leads me to ask, “What was it like to kill your first animal?”
“I’m not a person who would ask anyone to do anything I haven’t done, don’t know how to do, or I can’t instruct,” she tells me. “The night before we were going to process them, I spoke to the chickens, looking for that spiritual connection, and told them I had to do this for my “people” [the farm visitors due the next day]. I watched videos on how to do it. We put the chicken upside in a cone and it’s very calm. You use a very sharp knife and it isn’t violent. It’s quick and instant and it’s over.” I was grateful to be disabused of the notion I’ve long held, that chickens run around after their have been heads cut-off. Turns out, this type of end would only toughen the meat.
In the beginning, Tara gave away a free chicken to anyone who toured the farm as an incentive to sign up for a farm box, and it worked. By the end of their first year they had 75 customers, mostly in Marin. Today their business is profitable and they are close to their goal of 1,000 customers. They have learned to focus on door-to-door deliveries which eliminates a lot of the headaches associated with central drop-off points. Yes, I too have forgotten to pick up my farm box on occasion. And the farm tours, which are central to Tara’s goal of educating people, now attract over 200 people each weekend in the peak seasons of spring and summer.
If you’d like to sign up for a farm box, or visit the farm, go to www.tarafirmafarms.com for more information.
To learn more about why you often have to pay a little extra for amazing, organic food, and to understand the environmental benefits of intensive rotational grazing techniques, read on.
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