Panelists, Filmmaker Weigh Meat Methods

4/13/2013 7:00 AM
By Laura Zoeller Southwestern Pa. Correspondent

WASHINGTON, Pa. — As people become more interested in where their food comes from, a cultural shift in how farming is done is also occurring, according to Graham Merriweather, director and producer of the movie “American Meat.”

The documentary, which chronicles some of the methods and opinions of farmers working in commodities-style and grass-fed meat production, was screened and discussed recently at Washington & Jefferson College by a panel of people with a knowledge of and interest in the meat industry.

“I had three goals in mind when making this movie,” Merriweather said. “I wanted to thank America’s farmers, because people eat on the run and rarely pause to reflect on the fact that people have dedicated their lives to producing that food.

“I wanted to show support for young farmers by highlighting that those who choose to get involved often have to overcome huge barriers just to enter the field, and they need help and information wherever they can get it,” he said.

“And I wanted to educate people that their food choices matter,” Merriweather said. “Every dollar we spend on food should be spent with an awareness of where the money is going and who it is benefiting.”

The movie points out that farmers running commodity farms can produce exponentially larger amounts of meat in far less time and with far less labor cost.

One farmer interviewed in the film said that the hog operation he worked on as a child had 500 hogs and it took all day to care for them. On his current-day commodity hog farm, he cares for 10,000 pigs in two hours.

“It is far cheaper to produce meat in the commodity hog operation, and families, especially one-parent households, need cheap protein,” Merriweather said.

“But if government subsidies that are given to commodity operations were offered to grass-fed operations, grass-fed meat would be more affordable as well,” he said.

“Cost has been a challenge for us over the past 35 years,” said John Jamison, owner of Jamison Farm, a grass-fed lamb operation in Latrobe, Pa.

“There is no denying that our meat is more expensive than feed-lot lamb,” he said. “On a nine-acre feed lot in Iowa, 24,000 lambs will be housed versus the 200 to 300 lambs we run in a nine-acre parcel of pasture and then rotate to other paddocks.

“But ours are healthier, requiring less medical intervention,” Jamison said, “and they taste better than commodity lamb because the animals are able to utilize the grass we feed them better than the corn. ...

“The oil from corn goes into the lamb fat and makes it taste bad, causing many people to believe they don’t like lamb meat at all,” he said.

“Government regulations are also a challenge,” Merriweather said. “Rules are good, but they need to make sense when compared to the operation’s size.

“Building specifications, for example, can be cost-prohibitive to small operations,” he said.

“Regulations also affect buyers,” said Jamie Moore, director of sourcing and sustainability for Eat’n Park Hospitality Group.

“In Pennsylvania, we have to buy from a federally certified facility, while in Ohio, we can purchase from ones that are state certified,” he said.

“This type of inconsistency in regulation application can cripple the industry. It also affects the cost of a product, and keeps them from being more widely utilized,” Moore said.

“Many people in this country believe that in order to be economically sound, you have to toss out the ecological considerations,” Merriweather said. “But alternative methods are being used that are achieving both goals.

“Rotational grazing, rotating animals — like chickens on pasture directly after the cows — and direct marketing from the farm are practices that have been successful for grass-fed operations in controlling manure, achieving maximum yield from pasture and product sales,” he said.

“When I began filming the movie, I believed there were good farms and bad farms,” Merriweather said, “but after I spent over three years filming on a lot of farms that use very different methods, I discovered that there are no bad farms.

“All farms have families behind them, and they are all doing the best they can and trying to survive,” he said. “I do believe that the pendulum is beginning to swing away from commodity production, however.

“People are beginning to re-evaluate their lives and are redefining what it is to be wealthy. They are OK with making less money if it means more happiness,” Merriweather said. “They are shifting their focus back to family and meaning in their lives, and many are incorporating small farms into those plans.

“It is a very exciting time to be in agriculture and involved with food,” he said.

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