Considering the animal: Part 2

2014-09-20 11.55.40A while back I shared my alarm at learning how badly animals are treated at factory farms, and vowed to find places I could buy humanely raised meat. My search ended just outside Saxapahaw–an aging North Carolina mill-town now enjoying a rural renaissance–at a place called Cozi Farms.

Owner Suzanne Nelson is all about renaissance, renewal, and rethinking the way we raise animals for food. After ditching a Capitol Hill journalist’s career eight years ago, she took on livestock farming upon realizing that it need not extract from the soil but can indeed regenerate it.

“It seemed like alchemy,” Suzanne explained to me after loading a customer’s car with boxes of frozen meat. “A cow can live on one acre but make four acres fertile.”

Suzanne’s passion for her land extends to the animals that live on it. Cozi cows, pigs, goats, sheep, chickens and turkeys live a free-roaming life about as idyllic as I can imagine. It doesn’t come cheap. She pays twice the going rate of conventional chicken feed for a locally milled organic blend (it smelled to me like oatmeal when I scooped up a handful). And simply having enough land for her animals has been a financial challenge.

At Cozi they process their birds in a bright, open-aired facility right on the farm. The other animals are taken to Micro Summit Processors, not the nearest facility but the one Suzanne hand-picked for their treatment of animals.

Buying Cozi meat is easy. You can visit the farm, or order it on-line for monthly delivery to one of six Triangle locations. I’m already signed up. The instructions and price list are on the Cozi website.

Dan Moore of Ninja Cow Farms
Dan Moore of Ninja Cow Farms

It turns out there are plenty of farms like Cozi within an hour or so from where I live, where one can buy direct from a farmer who will happily show you around. I walked through knee-high pasture grass with Dan Moore of Ninja Cow Farm outside Raleigh. “The Johnson grass is like chocolate cake to these cows,” he told me. I was also invited to the Healthy Hen, Asgard, Baldwin Beef and Lucky 3 farms though haven’t yet had a chance to visit.

Niti Bali of Farm to Fork Meat runs a store like none I’ve ever seen. It’s a twist on the Community Supported Agriculture or CSA model where you pay a subscription fee at the beginning of a season. But the financial commitment here is much less than what I’ve paid as a CSA buyer, and here you can browse the clean and inviting store and decide then and there what to buy.

The Farm to Fork CSA distribution center
Customers shopping at the Farm to Fork distribution center
The source of guilt-free meat closest to my home is the Carrboro Farmer’s Market, not two miles away.

On a recent Saturday morning I bought a slab of ribs from Eliza MacLean of Cane Creek Farm (I never thought I’d enjoy barbecue ribs again!) and two pounds of ground chuck from Graham Family Farm, who’s owner Louis told me his cows only have one bad day their whole life. “And it’s really just a few minutes,” he quickly added.

At the farmers market over in Durham, my friend Elisabeth Hargrove found a number of stands offering humanely raised meat, including Fickle Creek Farm, WeatherHand Farm and Spain Farm. With so many farmers market nowadays it’s easy for nearly anyone to say no to factory farmed meat.

Buying meat at a farm, or even a farmers market, is not as convenient as shopping at a grocery store. Weaver Street Market in Carrboro (one of my favorite places on earth) sells locally raised meat from farmers committed to raising animals ethically.

The Carrboro Farmers Market
The Carrboro Farmers Market

The grocery chain that goes whole hog (as it were) on touting their animal ethics is, no surprise, Whole Foods. At their meat counters you’ll see everything graded with big, color-coded numbers 1 through 5 according to the Global Animal Partnership rating scale. The higher the number, the better the animals were treated.

Unfortunately, at the Whole Foods in Chapel Hill most of the chicken for sale when I visit is rated only a 2. They usually have beef rated 4 (from nearby Baldwin Beef). I did see GAP 5 whole chickens last week, which I brought home to make my mom’s famous chicken and noodles. It was awesome.

Now for the cost thing. The sticker price for humanely raised meat appears to be 2 to 3 times that of factory farmed meat. Or more. I’m fine with this for two reasons. One, I’m lucky enough that I can afford it–and I know a great many people cannot. Two, I don’t need meat every day and certainly not at every meal. If I only buy half or a third as much meat as I used to, then even at these higher prices I’m not spending all that much more.

To me it’s no wonder the food industry has come up with factory farms. They’re just doing what industries do: developing ever cheaper product. And while the sticker price of disassembly line meat is attractively low, when you figure in the hidden cost of animal cruelty, environmental impact and everything else, the true price is staggering.

I cringe when I think back on how much money I’ve spent on factory farmed meat over the years. Like most Americans I just didn’t know what I was supporting. But now I do. And now I know how to stop supporting it and still enjoy Mom’s chicken and noodles. Even ribs.

Suzanne Nelson moving chickens to fresh grass at Cozi Farms
Suzanne Nelson moving chickens to fresh grass at Cozi Farms

Photos by Michael Durbin