'American Meat' film screening and dinner March 10 highlights sustainable animal husbandry practices
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"The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated." — Gandhi
On Saturday, March 10, director (and Ann Arbor native) Graham Meriwether brings his film "American Meat" to town for its Michigan debut. Co-sponsored by Slow Food Huron Valley (of which I am a board member), Real Time Farms and Zingerman's Roadhouse, the film "looks at our agriculture from the perspective of the farmers, and provides real, everyday solutions for how we can shape our food system," says Meriwether.
Starting off the evening, Zingerman's Roadhouse is hosting a special pre-film American Meat dinner "highlighting Cornman Farms' really good local American meat."
James Beard Award-winning Chef Alex Young says, "As I started Cornman Farms, my children were participating in 4-H, and it became an important part of our vision to try and help local farmers to stay on the farm and grow really good food rather than build sub-divisions. What is most important to us is that the food is full flavored. In order to meet that criteria, we and our farmers grow old breeds of animals, practice good husbandry, and treat our farms sustainably."
Young's meaty menu includes the opportunity to try sustainably raised: "Steak tartar; pork pate; dirty po’boy; shaved beef poached in broth; turkey, chicken, pork, goat, lamb and beef roulade 'tastes;' with boiled potatoes, carrots and cabbage; and minced meat pie for dessert."
Issues around meat in the U.S. can be polarizing. This country has never produced more meat or had lower prices for that meat — which makes it very widely accessible. But we are learning that there are long-term costs for cheap, factory-farmed meat that include widespread environmental degradation, shameful conditions for workers and for animals and unanswered questions about the standard use of antibiotics and growth hormones that have negative consequences for people and animals.
As more people become aware of the problems with factory farmed meat, new solutions are developing. In 1906, education of the public with books like "The Jungle" by Upton Sinclair contributed to the creation of the Pure Food and Drug Act which helped end some of the worst abuses of the meatpacking industry, creating safer conditions for workers and safer food for consumers.
The film, American Meat, offers a balanced view of the issues from various farmers' perspectives, and features "Christian libertarian environmentalist capitalist lunatic” farmer Joel Salatin from Swoope, Va. who demonstrates respect for animals, workers and the environment while maintaining a profitable business.
Meriwether says Salatin "has been one of the pioneers of grass-based farming in America. As we went around the country, almost every grass-based farmer we talked to said they got into it, in part, because they'd read Joel's books. His agricultural methods, like the 'pigaerator' and the 'eggmobile,' utilize the natural relationship between animals to make the farm ecologically productive and economically profitable."
In a 2011 interview Salatin explains, "Our first responsibility is to try to figure out what kind of a habitat allows (animals) to fully express their physiological distinctiveness. The cow doesn’t eat corn; she doesn’t eat dead cows; she doesn’t eat cow manure, which is what is currently being fed to cows in the industrial food system. We feed cows grass, and that honors and respects the cow-ness of the cow.
Chickens — their beaks are not there for us to cut off, as industrial operations do. Their beaks are there for them to scratch and to hunt for insects. So we raise them out on pasture, in protected enclosures, in a free environment, so they can be birds. We look at nature and say, 'How do these animals live?' And we imitate that template."
Although there are still ways to buy meat from animals that were raised with the kind of respect that Salatin advocates, it's generally not through grocery store channels; it's direct from farmers.
In a recent keynote address, Andrew Kimbrell, director of the Center for Food Safety, called the corporatized food system a "cold evil." In this system, agribusiness spends millions of dollars lobbying to avoid common sense labeling and traceability of what's in our food. As a result, eaters are ignorant of the origins of their food and of the exact contents. And when there's a health catastrophe, there's often no way to know how or where it started.
Kimbrell says. "If people could see what McDonald's does to bring us hamburgers, no one would be sitting in their restaurants the slaughterhouses where 10 billion animals a year are killed, forests burned in South America, the loss of 10 million family farmers and 5 million farms the crimes being perpetrated against animals, soil and our rural communities would stop if that distance was broken," if there were ways for people to know.
Real Time Farms, co-sponsoring the screening of American Meat, is among the solutions to the forced ignorance we face about our food. The Real Time Farms website "allows you to see your food, learn how it was grown and visualize the journey it took to reach your table!" With photos from the actual farms, this "crowd-sourced" tool helps restaurants, like Zingerman's Roadhouse, show their customers what farms they work with and what parts of their menu comes from those farms.
The American Meat screening will be followed by a panel discussion about the issues raised in the film. The conversation will include Chef Alex Young, director Graham Meriwether, and Real Time Farms co-founder Karl Rosaen, speaking to issues around transparency in understanding our food system.
Perhaps more importantly farmers Kris Hirth, owner of Old Pine Farm meat CSA, and Goldman Award winner Lynn Henning will also talk about what the current system subsidizes and promotes, and the difficulty and pleasure in creating a new path.
Meriwether says, "Farmers across America are very hard working, humble people from whom I continue to learn much. The saddest part is seeing much of our small rural communities losing population. As technology makes it easier for one person to farm more acres, and the cost of land goes up, it makes it harder and harder for young people to get into farming. One of the challenges of our next 20 years, will be revitalizing rural America, and inspiring a new generations of farmers.
There are straightforward solutions in this documentary. People walk away empowered, with a clear idea of ways to support local agriculture. We are especially thrilled when people say this documentary has pushed them to consider farming."
Kim Bayer is a freelance writer and culinary researcher. Email her at kimbayer at gmail dot com.