The Rapidian

Eating local: when better isn't enough

Many consumers are misled by terms and certifications such as organic, local, free-range, and grass-fed making the food market difficult to navigate. Jill Johnson of Crane Dance Farm encourages consumers to ask the right questions to identify the food you thought you were buying.

/Briana Trudell

Underwriting support from:

Fulton Street Farmers Market Hours

May through December 18th
8:00 am - 3:00 pm
Tues./Wed./Fri./Sat.

January through April
10:00 am - 1:00 pm
Saturdays

Johnson wistles at the cows to which they all moo in response, "Hey lady, I'm not a piece of meat!"

Johnson wistles at the cows to which they all moo in response, "Hey lady, I'm not a piece of meat!" /Briana Trudell

A rainbow of eggs from a variety of heritage breed hens.

A rainbow of eggs from a variety of heritage breed hens. /Briana Trudell

Think about the last meal, snack, or handful of whatever that you ate. Did it contain meat? Was it organic? Local? Do you know how your meal, snack, or handful of whatever spent its living days? There has been an increase in the popularity of farmers markets as citizens are becoming more aware of the foods they eat, and the challenges and environmental impacts of our industrialized food system. It’s a neat concept: make fresh West Michigan produce available to city dwellers whose best bet of grocery shopping is at a convenience store where milk, jerky, Cheetos, and a Snickers bar will likely be your resulting tasty, but criminally non-nutritive, meal.

The farmers market feels like a polar opposite. Walking down the single aisle at the open air Fulton Street Farmers Market, you are embraced on either side with fresh produce, meat, eggs, dairy, flour, spices, and homemade goods; a far cry from the sickly green fluorescent lit, plastic laden aisles at the convenience store. You see the farmers at the market. You meet them. Talk with them. If you’re witty enough, you might even joke with them. This is the real deal, we think. The mental image is painted. The farms are lush and green, lit by a sunny clear blue sky that is never clouded with pesticides. The happy animals graze in vast green pastures as far as the eye can see.

Stop.

How do you know this? Do you really know how your produce is grown, and how the animals are raised? Have you assumed because it’s local it’s also organic? Likewise, have you assumed because it’s organic it’s also local? Or have you assumed because it’s local or organic that it’s also humane? You know what happens when you assume.

Meet Jill Johnson and Mary Wills, co-owners of Crane Dance Farm. Both first generation farmers with backgrounds in English studies, Johnson and Wills built Crane Dance Farm from the desire to improve our food production system. Johnson obtained her second bachelor’s degree in Agriculture from Western Michigan University, and Mary came to be a co-owner after volunteering on the farm and falling in love with it.  Their mission is simple. Johnson says, “Two women trying to do the best they can for a small part of the earth, and provide good food for people.” Every Saturday they offer up their pork, beef, lamb, poultry, and eggs to Grand Rapidians at the Fulton Street Farmers Market. But hold onto your wallets you hungry, hungry hippos! What did we just learn about assuming a mere paragraph ago?

Local? Crane Dance Farm is located in Middleville. Check. Organic? Take a quick glance at their website. Don’t see a darn thing about organic, do you? Curious. Looks like Jill and Mary have some ‘splainin’ to do…

Johnson, the founder of Crane Dance, is a disciple of Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm. Heard of him? He was featured in a little documentary called Food Inc., and a little book called The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. Salatin is a self-proclaimed “grass farmer,” meaning he puts his energy into growing diverse grasses and the animals do the rest of the work. He is a management intensive rotational grazing purist. His farm is the picture you painted of your farmers market product’s origin. Johnson came to Salatin’s philosophy after becoming aware of how inhumanely, unsustainably, and industrially our meat is produced in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs, pronounced “kay-foe”). In 1980, she decided she was going to have to raise her own animals or become vegetarian. Johnson must really like meat.

If Crane Dance farmers Johnson and Wills care so much about how food is produced then why the heck aren’t they organic? Organic is the best, right? According to Johnson in the 1980s before the certification era, “organic meant small, grass-fed, diversified, and humane.” Now it simply means the animals are fed certified organic feed and have some sort of access to the outdoors at some point in their lives. The industrial system has also stolen the term “free range” and that’s why they don’t use it for their poultry. While their ruminants, cows and sheep which only consume a variety of grasses and weeds, which they intelligently pick and choose from on a day-to-day basis dependent on their dietary needs, the pigs and poultry are provided grain in addition to the ability to forage. Most of this grain is certified organic or certified transitional organic, depending on availability. Jill and Mary decided it was important to support those farmers transitioning from conventional growing methods to organic, and buy directly from them. It takes three often discouraging years to make the certification in which expenses rise and yields decline. Their refusal to purchase grain from the place where almost all grain goes, the elevator, is a result of the elevator’s inability to keep organic grain separate from conventional and GMO grain. For Crane Dance, classifying themselves as grass-fed and meeting the Animal Welfare Approved standards are more indicative of their practices than being labeled “organic.” So, how do you decide between grass-fed and organic?

Ruminants, grass-eating mammals, have four stomachs. Grass is the only food their stomachs are truly able to utilize. From an environmental perspective, grass-fed results in a sustainable cycle of food turned compost, turned food. From a human health perspective, grass-fed meat has higher omega-3, beta-carotene, and CLAs (conjugated linoleic acids, known for their anti-cancer properties) content increases. Good ol’ meat farmin’ Wills used to not even eat red meat, as she was on a low cholesterol poultry diet. Johnson had her read “Why Grassfed is Best!” by Jo Robinson to dispel the meat myths she was dieting under. Turns out, she just needed the right meat, however, the health benefits of meat diminish when an animal is fed, or is finished on, grain. Grain also causes a myriad of health problems including acidosis, which can cause cows so much pain that they eat dirt and claw at their stomachs, as well as bloat, which can literally suffocate them. This, in addition to the uncompostable nitrogen rich feces they wade in, is why CAFO cows are always on antibiotics and have resident veterinarian nearby: they are always sick. Johnson describes CAFOs appearance as neat and tidy, but warns that there’s a reason why they’re often hidden behind a privacy fence of pine trees. “If anyone saw it, and knew the practices, you wouldn’t want to eat it. The animals are not in good health. They’re dirty, and tortured,” but she will be the first to tell you, “We’re the purists.”

Johnson and Wills sometimes leave their processor in tears because of the horrible condition some animals from other local farms, not CAFOs, are in. To avoid inhumanely and not sustainably raised product, Johnson encourages consumers to ask their farmers the tough questions. “The farmers that are not forthcoming and hesitate may have something to hide.”
 

Here’s how to grill ‘em:

  • How many acres is your farm? How many animals do you hold on it?
  • What do you feed your animals?
  • Were your animals born on your farm? If not, where did you get them?
  • Who is your processor?
  • Do you buy extra product to sell from your processor?
  • Where do you get your grain and/or hay?

A red flag to watch for is if the farmer never runs out of anything. It’s a solid indicator they buy extra product from their processor that they themselves did not raise.

The Fulton Street Farmers Market will be open for interrogation Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays 8:00 am to 3:00 pm until the last Saturday before Christmas. Bridge cards are accepted, and during the prolific summer months your SNAP benefits are doubled thanks to the Double Up Food Bucks program. Many vendors, especially those not specializing in produce, including Crane Dance Farm, still attend during the winter months. January through April the market is open every Saturday from 10:00 am to 1:00 pm. Don’t expect to get any eggs from Crane Dance Farm through the winter months, as they do not use lights to artificially encourage egg production from their hens. So pound that pavement, wield your knowledge, and demand the very best food for yourself, your family, and the environment.

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