One night, after a particularly trying day in Los Angeles, I fantasized about getting the hell out of Dodge and escaping to an organic farm where I could hang out with some animals and learn how to cook. Two days later, my friend called and said he had to work in New York for the week and would I like to go to his sister’s cooking school on an organic farm in New Jersey? Seriously. I am not making this up. I couldn’t say “YES!” fast enough. Flight booked, bags packed, I was on my way.
As soon as I arrived, I knew it was going to be everything I had fantasized about and more. What I didn’t know was that I was about to learn something that would profoundly deepen my commitment to supporting farmers who care about their land, the food they grow, and most importantly, animals.
THE FARM COOKING SCHOOL
The Farm Cooking School is situated on the Roots to River organic farm in Titusville, New Jersey. Never heard of Titusville? Neither had I, but this charming little town in the Delaware River Valley helps explain why New Jersey is the Garden State. Inside a little red barn at the top of a hill is a culinary mecca run by two former Gourmet magazine heavy-weights, Ian Knauer and Shelley Wiseman.Ian Knauer founded The Farm Cooking School with one goal. He wanted it to be a welcoming place where anyone (even those who burn toast) could learn how to cook. He quickly brought Shelley on board, and together, they made my dreams come true.I signed up for their week-long Foundations of Cooking Bootcamp. Each morning at 10:00, we sharpened our knives, stood over the long butcher-block table, and tried not to cut our fingers off. At noon, we ate our morning’s work outside on their garden table, where I thanked the heavens I wasn’t in LA.The cooking started up again at 6:00 pm for dinner. We learned how to make fresh pasta one night and Sri Lankan Chicken Curry the next. The food was some of the best I’ve ever had in my life.
During the breaks in the middle of the day, Shelly and Ian arranged various “field trips” for us, which included local, sustainable farms.
THE BOBOLINK DAIRY & BAKEHOUSE
The first farm we visited was the Bobolink Dairy & Bakehouse in Milford, New Jersey. It’s owned by Jonathan and Nina White.
Bobolink’s bread and pastries are made with heritage heirloom grains and cooked in their wood-fired oven. These hard-working farmers have a passion for making the highest quality cheese from free-range cows. Their cheese is so good, it won them a silver medal at the Farm Cheese Awards in Lyon, France. You can read about Nina’s adventures here.
Our day started with a private bread-making lesson with Nina (after a quick walk up a hill, but I’ll get to that later). She and I connected right away because she’s a former ballet dancer. There’s something about making bread that feels like a natural extension of dance. It’s very rhythmic and tactile.After we made bread, we had lunch on their idyllic property. Next, we were off to see how curd is cut—a critical part of the cheese making process.
But before any of the activities started, Nina took us up their hill to meet her ancient Kerry cattle from Ireland. We hadn’t made it halfway up the hill when the cows starting alerting each other to our presence. Their cries seemed otherworldly and echoed through the forest.When I got my first glimpse, I could tell these weren’t typical cows. These seemed mystical and I could almost sense their heritage.
I watched as the cows chased the flies and mosquitos away with their tails. (I’m mosquito bait and I hate flies, so I instantly felt their pain.) I asked if there was anything they could do to help with the flies.
No, said Nina. They just use their tails.
Then Nina added, But, you know, cows at conventional farms don’t have tails.
What?! Why? I asked.
She told me that when cows poop, some of their excrement sticks to their tails. This causes their feces to fly around when the farmers milk them. Rather than wash them down, some conventional farmers cut their tails off.
Her words hit me like bullets in my chest. My first emotion was sheer horror, then rage.
How many ways can we come up with to torture these animals? I wondered to myself. Aren’t their lives on factory farms miserable enough? Now we have to cut off their tails, too?
My mind was still twirling in circles, trying to recover from the tail conversation, when her words hit me again.
And they take their horns off, too.
But we don’t do that here, she was quick to add.
I didn’t want to know about any of this, but it was a good reminder of why it’s so important to support small famers like Nina and Jonathan. This is what we pay a few extra dollars for—better quality food (healthier for us) and humane treatment of animals (better for them).Nina and Jonathan are so committed to caring for their land and animals that their website isn’t Bobolink.com like you might expect. It’s Cowsoutside.com. I wished all farmers shared their philosophy.
Cows and other dairy animals should also live well: producing only as much milk as is healthful for them. This means that dairy animals should live out of doors, eating grass and being milked seasonally, and not indoors, being fed grain, animal by-products and hormones, and being milked to death.
When I got home, I researched the practice of cutting cows’ tails. It’s referred to in the industry as “tail docking.” The practice is not supported by the AVMA (a not-for-profit association representing more than 91,000 veterinarians) and seems to be slowing down.
Nina was right about the horns. Cows on factory farms have their horns removed with hot irons, and often without anesthesia. The horns can be dangerous for farm workers and for the animals. Yet somehow Nina and Jonathan survive without putting their animals through that horror.
If you can stomach learning more about dehorning, read this.
GOAT HILL FARM
A few days later, we went to another small farm called the Goat Hill Farm. They raise pigs, chickens, and turkeys. The pigs are free to roam around the property and eat low-lying grasses and shrubs. They wallow in mud and hang out with each other all day.It was hard not to think about where they would eventually end up, but I had to keep reminding myself that this farm is a million times more humane than what goes on at a conventional factory farm. These are the good guys. Still, I couldn’t do the work they do. These animals are too cute (and I don’t eat pork).
The farmers showed us around and explained how the pigs live a relatively natural life on the farm. As we watched the pigs roll around in the mud, I felt like it was Groundhog Day when our host said,
We keep their tails on, too.
Oh God, here we go again, I thought to myself.
What do you mean? I asked.
She told me that pigs get bored and anxious in confinement, so sometimes they bite each other’s tails to cope.
I later learned that while tail docking cows is on its way out, tail docking pigs is a standard industry practice.
A PIG’S LIFE
A pig’s life on a factory farm is pretty much hell. Most pigs never see the light of day. They are kept in cramped cages and stand on raised slatted floors above their own shit and urine.
The majority of the United States’ 118 million pigs are raised indoors in barren, cramped confined animal feeding operations (often referred to as “factory farms”), and are subjected to mutilations such as cutting off the tail (i.e., tail docking) and castration, both without pain medication. — Animal Welfare Institute
Farmers cut off piglets’ tails with a plier-like tool when they are just six days old. Not surprisingly, the AVMA has found that tail docking can cause all sorts of physiological and behavioral distress. The AVMA recommends that tail docking be eliminated from common practice and used in only limited circumstances, but that message hasn’t resonated with today’s factory farmers.
In today’s pork industry, mother pigs are squeezed into narrow metal stalls barely larger than their bodies and kept almost constantly pregnant or nursing. At the slaughterhouse, they’re hung upside down and bled to death, often while still conscious. — PETA
The life of a pig on a factory farm is something most people want to push out of their mind when they pick up a package of bacon at the market. But if we stay in denial about these practices, they will continue.
Pregnant sows are traditionally confined to crates for their four-month long gestation; while in the crates, these sows can only stand in place or lie down. Along with the severely restricted movement, they are deprived of any other mental and physical stimulation.
The sows are transferred to another type of enclosure, farrowing crates, shortly before they give birth. As well as being intensively restrictive, these crates limit physical interactions between the sow and her piglets except for suckling. After the piglets are weaned, the sows are impregnated and subjected to the same treatment again, creating a cruel cycle of stress and deprivation until they are slaughtered. — Animal Welfare Institute
Because factory farms are cesspools of bacteria, pigs are given antibiotics and some are sprayed down with insecticides. No substantial studies have been done to determine how these practices affect the meat and/or human health.
WE CAN DO BETTER THAN THIS
We as consumers set the standard for what is morally acceptable in a civilized society. And we can, and must, do better than this.
The United States ranks
the second worst country in the world
in animal cruelty.
WILL BUYING USDA ORGANIC HELP?
I’d love to tell you that buying USDA organic meat guarantees that the animal wasn’t subjected to cruel and inhumane practices, but I can’t.
Most animals on small organic farms aren’t, but in recent years, with the popularity of organic food surging, large-scale corporate farms have entered the organic market. Some of these farms have pressured the USDA to ease up on organic standards.
CASE IN POINT
For seven years, farmers and advocates pushed the USDA to establish stricter rules governing the humane treatment of animals on organic farms. The new rules called the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices, (OLPP), would have required that animals have enough room to sit, walk, stretch out, and stand up without touching either any other animal or the walls of the enclosure. And “year-round access to outdoor space, which must include contact with actual natural things, like plants and soil.” It would have put an end to “tail docking” and farmer’s claims that a small, screened-in porch is outdoor space. It would have given organic laying hens a full square foot of space when it’s indoors.
The OLPP rules were finalized on January 18, 2017, and had the support of consumers, organic farmers, organic handlers, retailers, trade associations, certifying agents and inspectors, and animal welfare advocates, but despite broad support, the Trump administration announced this March that it would be withdrawing the rules, likely due to industry pressure.
According to the National Pork Producers Council:
…animal production practices have nothing to do with the basic concept of organic.
Not so. Animal welfare standards are included in the USDA requirements for organic certification.
FACTORY FARMS POSING AS ORGANIC FARMS ARE DRIVING SMALL FARMERS OUT OF BUSINESS
When the USDA allows large-scale farms to skirt organic animal welfare standards, it threatens the integrity of the USDA organic label.
Small, family-operated dairy farms with cows freely grazing on verdant pastures are going out of business as large confined animal operations with thousands of animals lined up in assembly-line fashion are expanding into the organic market. — The Journal Gazette
THE GOOD NEWS
According to Business Insider, a lot of big box stores and fast food companies have committed to phasing out gestation crates for pigs.
Gestation crates are used to produce 83 to 90 percent of American pork. The cages — 2 to 2½ feet wide and about 6½ feet long — have been banned in California and nine other states, although only one of those, Ohio, is a major pork producer. — SF Chronicle
Nestle has publicly “committed to eliminating surgical castration and tail docking.”
Twelve states have banned excessive animal confinement, but they only represent 7 percent of the 200 million hogs and pigs sold each year.
Kroger, the largest grocery chain in the U.S. by revenue, will phase out the use of pig gestation crates by 2025. While that’s great news, it means that pigs can expect 7 more years of inhumane treatment.
Here’s something to consider. In 2015, the National Milk Producers Federation established a 2022 deadline for ending the practice of tail docking dairy cows. But consumer pressure forced them to “hasten” their deadline by five years.
“There’s a higher authority than the USDA. There’s a higher authority than the federal courts where we’ve litigated some of these issues. And that’s the consumer. Their dollar has power,” said Mark Kastel at the Cornucopia Institute, a nonprofit public interest group focused on farm policy. — The Journal Gazette
HOW WE CAN CHANGE THIS
It’s fun to jump on the “everything is better with bacon” bandwagon, but we have to circle back to where bacon came from and remember that the pig had a miserable life.
Yes, we have to eat. And yes, there are a lot of hungry humans on Earth, but we don’t have to treat animals in inhumane ways. We can rise up from ranking second to the last in the world in animal cruelty practices.
THE 5 WORST STATES TO BE A FARM ANIMAL IN THE USA
So how can you help?
Limit your meat consumption or stop eating meat.
Obviously, eating less meat means fewer animals are killed or born into factory farms. Try Meatless Monday or investigate ways to eat a plant-based diet during the week.
There’s plenty of scientific evidence to support the health benefits of a plant-based diet. The Mediterranean Diet is one of the healthiest diets on Earth.
Stop buying factory-farmed meat
Every time you buy factory-farmed meat, you are likely exposing yourself to hormones, antibiotics, and meat from mentally distressed and unhealthy animals. Consider buying organic meat raised on small, family-run farms. If you need help finding a local farm in your area, read this.
Sign The Petition To Tell Trader Joe’s To Eliminate Gestation Crates
Buy USDA Certified Organic Meat
Yes, there are problems with the USDA organic label, but overall, the farming practices are better for human health, animal welfare, and the environment.
ANIMAL WELFARE ADD-ON LABELS
Each of these labels has an established set of standards for animal welfare, and compliance is verified by a third-party audit. If you are searching for another level of accountability when it comes to the welfare of animals, look for these labels on your organic meat.
Animal Welfare Approved (dairy, eggs, chicken, turkey, duck, goose, beef, lamb, pork, rabbit) You can use their directory to find farmers who comply with their standards.
Certified Humane (dairy, eggs, chicken, turkey, beef, lamb, pork)
American Humane Certified (dairy, eggs, chicken, turkey, beef, lamb, pork)
American Grass-fed Certified (dairy, beef, lamb, goat)
Global Animal Partnership (chicken, turkey, beef, pork)
Coming Soon! The Rodale Institute’s Regenerative Organic Certified
BECOME A VEGAN OR VEGETARIAN
While it may seem extreme, more and more people are giving up meat. In fact, veganism and vegetarianism has increased 600 percent since 2014.
Even celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, a critic of vegans, is becoming vegan. He recently posted this on Instagram.
Going to give this vegan thing a try…Yes guys you heard that right. Gx
When celebrity influencers like Gordon Ramsay turn away from meat because of industry practices, it should send a chilling message to meat farmers.
“It’s enough to turn anyone f***ing vegetarian, for God’s sake. And I’ve always sort of knocked vegetarians and vegans for missing out on the most amazing flavor you get from meat, but you can see why so many people change — instantly.” — Gordon Ramsay, Care2.com
IT’S UP TO US
Unfortunately, our government isn’t going to put animal health and welfare above industry profit. So it’s up to us. We as consumers are in the best position to stop the mistreatment of animals at factory farms. When you stop buying factory-farmed meat, and pay a few more dollars to support the small farmers doing it right, you literally help save a pig’s tail.
I went to The Farm Cooking School to learn how to cook, but I left knowing so much more than how to prepare and flavor food. My week in New Jersey reinforced in me how important it is to support farmers who commit their lives to caring for animals and the land. This is where nutrition and health starts, with the farm.
A big, loving thank you to The Farm Cooking School for so generously sharing their knowledge of cooking and introducing us to their local farmers. It was a week I’ll never forget.
Feature image courtesy of Susandaniels @iStock