Concerning swine: A look at meat at the Midtown Farmers Market

| Staff Writer

The landscape of healthy and sustainable food can seem impossibly vast—difficult (for some, too difficult) to feasibly navigate. Brands fill the field with buzzwords like “natural,” “organic,” “farm fresh” and on and on, and only some of these words have any real significance. Many see the subject of sustainable food as too expensive or esoteric to approach, as a matter of total vegan devotion or nothing. Meat, however, can be an area of confusion at a farmers’ market. Vegetarians and vegans, of course, represent one extreme—and barbecue pitmasters the other. Sustainable livestock farms, however, do fall somewhere curious in between.

Let’s try to dip a toe in at the Midtown Farmers Market, open from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Saturdays in the parking lots behind Seoul Taco, where you will find around 10 stalls: a pair of produce farms, one dairy stand, a bakery, a few crafts tables, a local band (this week, it’s Sadie Hawkins Day String Band, an Americana group) and more. And then, there’s Circle B Ranch, run by Marina and John Backes.

Community members buy fresh produce at the Midtown Farmers Market on the Delmar Loop. The market offers produce and goods from a variety of sellers every Saturday morning.David Chong | Student Life

Community members buy fresh produce at the Midtown Farmers Market on the Delmar Loop. The market offers produce and goods from a variety of sellers every Saturday morning.

Circle B Ranch raises hogs. It’s one of only a couple of meat sellers at the market. Circle B utilizes as much of the hogs as possible, selling over ten different cuts, including pork chops, tenderloins, Boston butt, jowl, belly, feet, two kinds of lard and a range of accompanying sauces. At the farmers market, the chops go for $9.50, sausages for $8.45 and bacon for $10 a pound.

What’s different about places like Circle B Ranch to traditional pig harvesting at factory farms? Factory farms, John Backes explained, don’t take their animals’ well-being into account.

“There’s so much psychological trauma for these hogs,” Backes said.

Swine barns of the factory-farm proportions usually have a few football field-sized hangars with as many as 2,000 hogs in each building. You can smell them from inside your car, through closed windows, from miles away. The living quarters for these hogs are cramped and uncomfortable. In fact, many large factories dock the pigs’ tails and clip their teeth when they’re six days old to reduce the effects of harmful violence between animals.

In contrast, Circle B’s 400 hogs roam free on the grassy, hilly and lightly forested 90-acre ranch outside Springfield, Mo. That’s roughly 68 football fields, or five to six hogs per field. They trot around (yes, pigs can run), forage in bushes, sleep in the sun and play with toys.

“Hogs don’t have pores for sweat,” Backes said. “So they don’t naturally smell—they are as smart as dogs, too.”

Backes does not give his hogs antibiotics or hormones—and they are Animal Welfare Approved and Certified Humane. This represents the best of the best in terms of personal, environmental and animal health.

Despite the extremes, there exist gradients in livestock conditions.

“If a commercial farm gives hogs one hour of sunlight, one hour in a yard and organic feed,” Backes said, “they can be certified organic.”

Some livestock farms are looking to rebrand their products toward the relatively small (though growing) “know your food, know your farmer” consumer subset. In an ironic way, these practices for natural and organic livestock farms—though much more ethical than those of the worst factory farms—may very well hurt Circle B’s business. Put simply, they represent growing competition in an already narrow market.

An abbreviated primer on the food subsidization that causes low (and high) prices:

Big agriculture in America operates as a quasi-government monopoly-type structure, underpinned by subsidized crops and livestock. The government gives the most money for seasonal seed and fertilizer and crop insurance to Midwestern farmers growing corn, wheat, soybeans and cotton, which are the main cash crops (national yearly corn subsidies alone hover around $2-4 billion). The payments and aid to farmers allow them to sell the crops cheaply, but the low-selling prices mean most need to cultivate hundreds of acres to make a living.

These corn and soybean crops are usually not edible out of the ground. Instead they are converted for non-food uses (like ethanol from corn) and, more often, factory farm livestock feed. According to Food & Water Watch, these factory farms, which Backes said supply up to 98 percent of the meat sold in stores, hold at least 500 cows, 1,000 hogs, or 500,000+ annual broiler chickens (or, as we know it, chickens for eating). Average store-bought meat is extremely cheap for what it costs to raise the animals, due to the government subsidies for feed crops and payments to the livestock farms themselves, still in the billions of dollars per year. Because the price is so low, livestock farms only get a small profit from each animal and therefore require factory farms toincrease their production numbers to make enough overall profit. It’s like buying individual Tic Tacs for one cent and selling them for two—you have to sell a lot in order to make a living.

Circle B, on the other hand, raises hogs in a natural, largely unsubsidized network on the land. His prices reflect the real costs of rearing and processing his pork.

A note on produce:

The non-organic or local vegetables we find in produce sections of supermarkets are grown with exponentially fewer government subsidies than the major cash crops, so smaller, even less-subsidized organic and local farms can more easily compete. This is why the produce available at the Midtown Farmers Market from Long Acres Farm and others is not much more expensive—and even can be cheaper—than the same veggies found in our grocery stores.

So why does this system of subsidization exist?

Serious crop and livestock subsidization began in the early 1900s with the policy of protecting and insuring farmers and the rhetorical goal of “feeding America.” This incredibly streamlined, vertically integrated farming structure has largely succeeded in producing affordable food. It may not be food that’s good for you or ethical, and this may neglect the mountains of food that, for one reason or another, are wasted every day, but it is inexpensive. That does mean a lot.

The political issue is often one of branding. If a politician says, “We should support businesses like Circle B,” that politician means, “We should diversify subsidization to include local, sustainable farms.” Yet, the opposing politician will say, “Supporting Circle B means forsaking the larger corporate farms and precipitating more expensive food.” While it’s true that corporate farms would need to adapt, this statement doesn’t acknowledge how subsidization modified to accommodate sustainable livestock would help reduce those sustainable meat prices. If Circle B were paid simply to operate, its meat prices could approach those of corporate farm.

So, it’s complicated.

Talking business:

For an independent farm like Circle B, distribution—simply getting the product on shelves—can become one of the biggest hurdles they must confront. Backes said that he talked for a time with the Springfield school system to potentially provide their meats for school lunches. Administrators, like us all, wanted better-quality food for the kids. But when it came down to money, the ultimate determination, the schools couldn’t settle, and the plans fell through.

Grocery stores too are a territory in which the Backes have to fight for a position. “Stores charge fees to get your product on the shelves.” These slotting fees, often a one-time charge to producers, Backes said, “often pay the mortgages of these stores, who might not make much money from the actual sales.” Factory farms have the capital necessary to buy in, while smaller farms, like Circle B, struggle to make a noticeable presence.

Even then, customers aren’t always open to what Circle B stands for. The omnipresent issue of cost comes back. People expect prices that are underpinned by subsidized dollars. Backes said he has mostly abandoned the Springfield farmers’ markets. “I can’t tell you how many times people have come up to me and said meat is cheaper at Walmart. I always say, ‘so why are you here?’”

So how does Circle B survive?

They have been growing recently, taking advantage of opportunities with local grocery stores’ Community Support Agriculture (CSA) groups in Missouri. They have even begun selling to some cafeterias on Washington University’s medical campus.

“The chefs tell us they love it,” Backes said.

But when the administrators see the costs, things become more complicated, Backes explained. They’re in contact with local distributors, nearby butcher shops with a clientele prepared to pay slightly more.

The term “vote with your dollar” references the fact that you explicitly support any business you buy from. It’s like purchasing Girl Scout cookies: You get the product, but you also help the organization. One more customer for, say, Walmart, won’t make much difference, but one extra sale at some local place—a shop that may only expect a few sales per hour—can make a big difference. Embracing this idea means you can affect change, if only in the smallest sense, by choosing where to shop.

Back at the Midtown Farmers Market:

The fact is, limited subsidization keeps meat prices from Circle B high—too high for many to afford. Some markets have begun to accept electronic benefit transfer cards and food stamps, but few know about these relatively new policies. Shopping here is still a privilege, at this time.

That doesn’t take away, though, from the other fact, which is that some people, those who can, come back to Circle B, as they realize the ethical and gastronomic quality.

But, at places like the Midtown Farmers Market, Backes said, “dedicated, faithful customers keep us alive.”

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