You notice the difference in Kris Hirth’s Old Pine Farm in Manchester the moment you turn into the dirt driveway — and have to swerve to avoid a chicken.
Poultry rules: The birds are sunning themselves in the grass, taking dust baths (wings flapping and dust puffing up as they chortle contentedly), pointedly ignoring the horde of barn cats that patrol the property.
Old Pine specializes in grass-fed meat, including beef, pork, chicken and emu. Hirth’s customers are mostly locals who, like 95% of Americans, eat meat — but want to be more responsible about the way they do it.
“We’ve all lost touch with the animals that become our meat,” said Catherine Friend, who operates a farm in Zumbrota, Minn., and whose book “The Compassionate Carnivore” (Da Capo Press, $24) was just released.
“For me, paying attention is the first step, and it’s the hardest because we’re busy. Sometimes we don’t even have time to eat, let alone eat right. It’s a matter of setting goals that you can achieve, so you don’t get discouraged. We don’t want this to be a fad.”
She advocates taking tiny steps to improve the meat you eat. For someone in a big city like Detroit, it might be eating one or two meals a month in which the meat came from farms that didn’t inject their animals with drugs or hormones, keep them stuffed in small interior spaces or fatten them up on feedlots with grains they wouldn’t naturally have eaten.
David Conner, research specialist at Michigan State University’s Department of Community, Agriculture, Recreation and Resource Studies, said studies show that pasture-based farms have a higher profit per animal, and that the farmers are generally happier, most likely because they don’t have as many conflicts with their neighbors over smell and other issues.
He said that a study he conducted last year showed that 80% of Michiganders believe pasture-raised meats are healthier, but that most mistakenly believe they are getting them already, probably because of unclear labeling.
More than 90% also said that given the opportunity, they’d be very or somewhat likely to purchase pasture-raised milk and beef, and that they would pay an average 41% more per pound.
Those who have made the switch say they started because they were trying to be healthier, but kept going because they like the taste.
Grass-fed meat in particular tastes noticeably different than conventionally raised products. It’s leaner, which means it cooks faster (it can be leathery if allowed to cook too long). It also has a more meaty taste because cuts have less fat.
“The taste is out of this world,” said Connie Bank, 58, a retired consultant in Webster Township. “I’d rather have hamburger than filet mignon if it’s going to be really tasty.”
Bank doesn’t consider herself obsessive about what she eats — “Some people are so freaked out over their diets, I hate that” — but she once avoided meat, mostly because she didn’t like what happened to it before she bought it, she said. But once she knew exactly where all her meat was coming from, she started eating more of it.
“Now we eat hamburgers a lot. Our friends count on us for Christmas roasts,” Bank said.
She doesn’t normally like ham, but as part of a purchase from a local pork farmer recently, she ended up with one. She roasted it with absolutely nothing on it, and said, “I wanted to cry, it was so good.
“If you eat animals that are loaded with chemicals, aren’t you going to be loaded with chemicals?”
There is plenty of debate about the health benefits of nonconventionally raised meat. Studies have shown that grass-fed beef is lower in saturated fat and higher in healthy omega-3 fatty acids than feedlot raised meats. Animals raised without hormones, antibiotics or other supplements don’t have traces of those chemicals in their systems.
But how meaningful that is in terms of health isn’t universally agreed upon. Erica Wald, a registered dietician for MFit, the community health promotion division of the University of Michigan Health System, points out that while there are plenty of small studies identifying some advantages, they haven’t risen to the national level yet.
“According to all the USDA/FDA information on it, there is no benefit to safety or nutrition to animals raised one way versus another,” she said. “Frankly, people just eat too much meat.”
Naturopathic doctor Diana Christoff Quinn of Ann Arbor has a different attitude.
“Animals tend to concentrate chemicals in their flesh,” she said. “I’m always recommending to people to look for organic, hormone-free, if possible grass-fed. Grass-fed cattle are lower in total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol and include more vitamins. They’re designed to live on grass and high-fiber diets.”
Old Pine keeps 70-80 egg-laying chickens, along with 50 meat birds. They all have free run of the outdoors, eating whatever they find. They are not injected with hormones or antibiotics.
Across the barnyard, a huge pen contains an almost humorous mix of goats, cows ranging from common Jerseys to big, shaggy, Scottish Highlanders, sheep and emus. They intermingle casually.
The cows bathe the barn cats with their gigantic tongues, baby goats chase any human who wanders near, and the sound of the emus — a deep, booming sound from inside their throats that sounds like someone pounding on a pair of bongo drums — rings out.
It’s a picturesque scene, and one that Hirth’s customers are buying into when they buy her meats. But if they want them, they have to get them directly from her.
Hirth has been approached by grocery stores and specialty markets in Ann Arbor looking to carry her cuts. But in order to sell the meat by the cut and not by the animal, she has to have them processed in a USDA-certified facility.
And that’s a problem for small farmers around the state, plenty of whom raise organic, pasture-raised or free-range meat.
USDA facilities tend to be oriented toward large farms, not small specialty farms. Those farmers are demanding — they want their own meat back, for example; they don’t want their animals fed the wrong thing while waiting for slaughter and processing; they want the whole process done humanely and they may want specialized cuts.
So most of them end up going to small, custom processors. But those facilities don’t tend to be certified — an official government process that is costly and time-consuming — and they may not be sensitive to farmers’ needs for uniform cuts that can be shrink-wrapped and sold at area markets.
Even specialty markets (Whole Foods, for example) rarely carry local products because of problems with processing. Instead, they sell organic or hormone-free and antibiotic-free meats from huge farms in other states. Bello Vino Marketplace in Ann Arbor actually resorted to growing its own grass-fed lamb and pork.
Rick Kissau, a 53-year-old farmer in Pittsford with possibly the happiest-looking flock of hens and ducks in the state, is about to open a USDA-certified processing facility that caters to small and organic farmers. He’s been getting daily calls from farms that are waiting to have their animals processed just so they can use him.
Even if you choose to buy directly from local farmers, you may have to decide: Do you want something from down the road, or from one further away that raises its meat more naturally?
“Everyone’s resources are going to be different, and everyone’s priorities will be different,” Friend said. “Everybody has to stop and say, ‘What’s important to me?’ and pursue it. I don’t think it’s possible to make the perfect meat choice. For many people, it’s factory meat or no meat.”
Sometimes it’s just a matter of talking to local farmers. Jim Koan is best known for raising apples at his organic Almar Orchards in Flushing. But his farm recently made national headlines for successfully using pigs to root out and destroy the plum curculio beetles that were invading his apples.
A happy bonus? The farm now sells the pigs for meat when they get too big (eventually they start rooting out the trees instead of eating the beetles), and he said that his apple-fed herd has been a hit with customers.
“Everybody that’s had the meat has gone nuts about it,” he said.
Kristin (K.T.) Tomey, 39, an assistant research scientist in the Department of Epidemiology at the University of Michigan, said she stopped being a vegetarian when she realized that local, nonconventionally grown meat was available. Eating meat was always an ethical concern for her, she said, not a nutrition one.
“Fifteen years ago, there really weren’t a lot of options,” she said. “Almost three years ago, I started to reconsider my choice to avoid meat. The most powerful way to change the system is to support farms that treat animals well. I feel like I’m supporting change.”
Plus, she admits, “I love meat. Grass-fed beef — it’s fabulous. It’s so much healthier. It cooks in two-thirds less time. It’s outrageous.”