By Steve Baragona, Voice of America
Cows wander through the rusted remains of a couple of old huts on James Lamb’s farm. They’re all that’s left from the days when he raised hogs outside his home in Clinton, North Carolina.
Those huts used to be where the pigs could get out of the elements. But growing up in the 1980s and 90s, Lamb saw that small-scale farmers had a hard time competing with the big companies.
“They had better consistency, better pork quality, better genetics,” Lamb said. “So after college, in ’98, I decided to try and modernize.”
He gave up on his backyard huts and built two industrial-scale hog barns, each of which can hold 1,500 animals at a time.
He got started at an awkward time. His first pigs arrived the day before his wedding.
“My wife, she was kind-of upset that I wasn’t prioritizing on what was important. But I told her if she just tell me where to show up and I’ll take care of the pig stuff,” he said. “So, it worked out.”
Large-scale pork production has worked out for American consumers, too.
These highly efficient systems have helped reduce the price of a pork chop by nearly 20 percent since 1998, according to government figures. Lamb says it’s a good value.
“Producing the way I do is a better pork quality for the money,” he said.
Intensive livestock production methods are gaining favor around the world, and many experts say that’s a good thing. The demand for meat is growing, but the land, water and feed required to produce it are limited.
“If we are to produce within the constraints that we are facing today, efficiency, I think, is key,” said Carolyn Opio, a livestock expert with the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.
But efficiency comes with downsides. The waste from thousands of confined animals can pollute waterways and produce greenhouse gases.
Antibiotics and other chemicals in the animals’ diets raise concerns with some health experts. And some feel conditions are inhumane.
Back to basics
So today a growing number of people are returning to small-scale farming.
People like Kevin Summers, who raises a small herd of heritage-breed hogs in Amissville, Virginia. Summers was not raised on a farm.
“I was a city boy,” he said. “My cousins all laughed at me for being a city boy and they can’t get over the fact that I’m raising pigs and chickens and stuff.”
But he’s part of a movement that rejects industrial-scale food production.
“In order to feed the world, I think this is a better way,” he said. “It’s a cleaner way. It’s a more humane way.”
More Americans today want to know where their food comes from. And they like the personal touch that Summers gives his hogs.
“I can see the entire process unfold before my eyes and know that they had a good life and were healthy and happy,” he said.
The hogs feast on bruised apples and old pumpkins that would otherwise get thrown away, which cuts down on food waste. And, Summers notes, small scale means less pollution.
But it also means higher prices.
Summers says it’s still possible to meet global demand this way. “It would just involve people making the choice to buy this kind of food and say that, ‘I care about something other than just the cost.’”
The choice between low-cost and efficient, and expensive but eco-friendly, is one that more and more people around the world are making with the growing demand for meat, milk and eggs.
By Steve Baragona, Voice of America
On November 22, Americans observe Thanksgiving, an iconic harvest festival with roots in the nation’s 17th-century settlement by European colonists.
Roasted turkey is the traditional centerpiece. But the breeds of turkey which were on the table in early America have nearly disappeared, replaced by a domesticated bird that is bigger, faster-growing and cheaper to raise.
Around the world, many traditional livestock breeds are disappearing as industrial meat production takes over from small producers. But some are trying to preserve the old varieties as insurance against an uncertain future.
A sprinkle of corn, and Rachel Summers’ turkeys come running. She raises a small flock of a breed called Standard Bronze at Crowfoot Farm, about an hour from Washington.
These are birds with history, Summers says. “They are what you would have found in colonial barnyards.”
And you’ll find them today in re-creations of those 17th and 18th-century barnyards, like the ones here at Claude Moore Colonial Farm outside Washington, where workers in period costumes are chopping wood for the fire.
Summers started volunteering at the farm when she was just 11. It was here, she says, she grew to love and appreciate these uncommon birds.
“When I started learning more about their history and their place in the world now, I realized how rare they are and how important it is to preserve them,” Summers says.
Julie Long, a turkey researcher at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, says today’s commercial birds were bred for size, then crossed with white-feathered varieties to produce unblemished skin.
“The heritage breeds are at risk simply because they are not being used commercially,” Long says. “Those birds became very popular in about the 50s and just took over the market at that point.”
Efficiency trumps diversity
Heritage breeds nearly disappeared. Today there are fewer than 10,000 Standard Bronze turkeys left, according to the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy.
Local livestock breeds are threatened in many parts of the world. One reason is because efficiency is trumping diversity in order to meet the growing demand for animal protein.
But Long says it would be a mistake to lose the heritage breeds.
“It’s best to keep these around, sort of as an insurance policy,” Long added. “You may never need those genetics. But if you do and they’re gone, then you’re out of luck.”
Genetic insurance policy
That genetic “insurance policy” could provide tolerance for harsher environments brought on by climate change. Or resistance to new diseases. Or better ability to forage for themselves as the cost of commercial feed goes up.
One key to saving these rare breeds, experts say, may be found in the kitchen. John Critchley, executive chef of Urbana Restaurant in downtown Washington, prefers heritage birds to the standard supermarket variety.
“To me it has a better mouthfeel,” says Critchley. “It has a richer taste, a more buttery finish to it.”
A growing number of chefs and consumers are seeking out flavors they say have been lost in modern agriculture.
Sales of heritage turkeys for Thanksgiving are up. Rachel Summers hopes this niche market will help preserve not just the flavor, but all the other useful traits of these heritage birds.
“I’m not just raising these turkeys to sell for Thanksgiving,” said Summers. “I want to have them be available as a resource to the world, if needed. Just our few turkeys. We’re just preserving a little piece of that here on our little farm.”
Just as Thanksgiving is about tradition, heritage turkeys are about keeping tradition alive.
Thirty-one-year-old Amissville resident Rachel Summers was born in the 20th century, but one could say she grew up in the 18th.
“When I was 11, my family visited Claude Moore Colonial Farm and I immediately fell in love with that kind of life,” she said, recalling her first encounter with the 18th-century living history museum and working farm in McLean. “I had to be a part of it.