Anyone who's started the journey of exploring where their food actually comes from quickly learns to ask what a label means. By now, we should all know that grocery store labels like Organic, Free Range, Cage Free, Non-GMO, Pasture-Raised and the like are as much marketing labels as production practices. Some are more meaningful than others and not all are enforced though many ethical producers are using them now. Consumers are demanding more specialized products and food producers are trying to meet that demand, or at least appear to.
When we post adorable videos of pigs munching to their hearts content on pasture forage, people often ask a couple questions: 1) Do they eat anything else? 2) What exactly are they eating? 3) How do you keep pigs from destroying your pasture?
These are all really good questions, and exactly the sort of things that discerning customers should be asking. They go to the heart of the question, "what, exactly, is Pasture-Raised?"
So, I give you 4 things that Pasture-Raised is, 1 that it isn't, and the term I actually prefer to "Pasture-Raised".
1. Pasture-Raised is kind of the ecological gold standard. Theoretically.
Cage-free just means the animal isn't in a cage - big whoop. Free-range just means they have access to the outdoors, which can be a little pen that extends outside the warehouse - not impressed. Pasture-raised, however, denotes something else entirely. Or it should.
It should mean than an animal is...wait for it...raised on pasture. I've been seeing this designation on more products recently. I saw Pasture-Raised eggs for the first time at a middle-of-the-road super market about a year ago. It was $7 a dozen. I actually think that's a reasonable price for eggs (don't shoot me) laid by chickens raised in a pasture system. I also saw pasture-raised whole chicken at the same price per pound at the fancy grocery store recently.
Here's the deal, if the animals are actually raised on pasture and managed appropriately, the impact on both the animal and the land is overwhelmingly positive. Animals on well managed pasture can renovate degraded pastures and rebuild soil faster then you would believe.
As for the animals, the quality of life for those that are able to exhibit their natural behaviors is drastically improved. They are much happier.
Note that very few pigs are actually raised this way. Why?
A) It requires very intentional management.
Pigs can be really good for pastures, helping regenerate the soils and renovating degraded pastures. They can also destroy an already great pasture. It's all about the management. The same is true for other livestock, pigs are just harder workers.
B) It raises the cost of production (more on that later).
If good land and animal management practices are followed, it doesn't get much better than "Pasture-Raised." At least until you start to improve pasture systems by doing things like silvo-pasture and poly-culture agroforestry. But "Poly-Culture-Silvo-Pasture-Raised" is a mouth full.
2. Pasture-Raised is not regulated.
The US government regulates our food big time, as you know. Or at least, they've written a lot regulations. Enforcement? Eh.
Pasture-Raised is not a USDA regulated moniker. Though, you might be interested to know that the USDA has recently required that all ruminant (Sheep, Cows, Etc.) livestock labeled "Organic" graze on pasture at least 4 months of the year. The 120 day minimum is to account for the differences in grazing seasons throughout the country. You can't typically have animals on the same piece of pasture year round without wrecking it.
Having a designation that isn't yet regulated has it's advantages. It's expensive to become certified Organic. It allows the producer to point to a practice that may be of a higher standard than what might be required by the Organic label. For example, our pigs spend their whole lives outside, mostly on pasture, but the organic label doesn't require pigs to be raised on pasture. It allows us to point to a standard of practice without the prohibitive expense and dubious consistency of Organic certification.
There are also disadvantages, and I'll be the first to say that those are primarily for the consumer. Labels can of course obscure reality. Something that is "Pasture-Raised" but not Organic, does not have to adhere to the many other requirements that the Organic label is meant to regulate. Things such as growth hormones, antibiotics, or feed sources.
I know of a farm that touts itself as sustainable, permaculture, etc, but feeds its pigs expired Hostess cakes. Our labels can obscure reality as much they describe it. That's why I'm not trying to make an argument for more regulation. I'm making an argument for knowing your farmer. Labels are a summary that correlate to a variety of potential practices. Don't trust labels, trust trustworthy farmers that answer questions directly and clearly.
3. Pasture-Raised is not exclusively pasture-raised.
We in the Pacific NW and most of the United States live in a temperate climate. That means we don't have a year round growing season. We have a growth window and a dormant season. It varies from place to place. Even pasture-raised animals are not getting their food directly from the pasture in the middle of winter. Trying to raise animals that way is a really good way to wreck your pasture and kill your animals.
In the case of pigs, this is even more obvious. Pigs are monogastric and omnivorous, like people. They don't typically do well if all they have to eat is grass. If the pasture is diverse enough (includes legumes and other high-protein plants), and you only have them during the growing season, they can be raised this way, but they grow slowly and don't have as good of body condition. I don't consider that approach to be best for their well-being, the quality of the pork or our economic viability. That means that the pasture is being supplemented and that they certainly aren't on it all the time.
In most places, during part of the year at least, there will be one or more sacrifice areas. These are places that are expected to be heavily impacted by animals in order to minimize the impact on grazing pastures. In this case, the animal is still raised outside, or partially inside, during the winter.
Sacrifice areas can actually be advantageous. The sacrifice area once used for a pig in the dead of winter can make a great annual garden in the summer.
In our case, up until this year, we have only raised animals during the growing season and have not needed a sacrifice area as a result. Our pigs have been on pasture for almost their entire lives, being born in late winter/early spring and harvested in mid-fall (for info on the way we've managed this system, check this out). That will change this year. We will be planning our breeding to miss the heart of winter, but we will still have some animals at times of the year that are too wet or cold to be on pasture without overworking it.
All of this is why I prefer the term "Pasture-Based" to "Pasture-Raised." Some might think that a downgrade, I just think it's more representative of reality. All our animals will spend all their lives outdoors and most of their lives on pasture. Pasture-based is a reference to the nature of our growing system. We grow our hogs (and our geese) in a system that is designed to maximize the life of land and animal by appropriately managing pastures and the livestock that use them.
4. Pasture-Raised is more expensive than...
Factory farming. The reason is related mostly to scale. Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO's) drastically increase the number of animals in a given space. In fact, that's the basis of the economic model. Get as many animals as possible in the smallest space physics and mortality rates will allow.
Raising animals according to the actual carrying capacity of a piece of land will mean a much higher land to animal ratio. Land is expensive.
Having said that, raising animals this way, when managed well, can also dramatically reduce the input cost per animal (if you take land cost out of the equation). There are no expansive warehouses to be built with their massive air conditioning systems and other energy costs. They get food from the land they are standing on rather than from a field in Kansas or some such. Mortality is also reduced as is the need for medical interventions of all kinds.
5. Pasture-Based does actually taste better.
Pastured animals spend more time walking around, exploring, being curious, playing, etc. As a result, they are more muscular and grow a richer meat that typically has more marbling. A sedentary lifestyle does not quality meat make. Because the grow out times are longer for pastured pork, especially if it's a heritage breed, the hogs are almost always going to be harvested after having been on pasture. Grow out time for a hog is 6-8 months compared to 4-5 in factory operations.
If you don't believe me, a side-by-side comparison of CAFO vs. Pastured Pork will convince you to leave it all behind, find a good farmer and buy their meat forever. I promise. Try it.
I believe that well managed pasture-based animal systems truly are the future of sustainable livestock farming. They are certainly its past. We aren't inventing much that is new, except to utilize modern technology to improve our ability to appropriately manage the relationship of land to animal. Knowing how to steward that relationship is the sum of humanities past success in agriculture and it is the hope for our future.
At Out of Ashes we are constantly learning and working to use the best of modern technology and the growing body of information on these kinds of approaches to grow awesome plants and animals.
As an aside, we're all sold out of pork for 2016 (months ahead of harvest!), but if you're interested in getting on the waiting list for 2017, let us know. We're doubling our production so more people can get in on ridiculously tasty meat grown with ethical and ecological stewardship practices at it's heart.