27 July 2008

Eating Locally

I was a vegetarian for several years. Meat just tasted "wrong" - I couldn't stomach it, the smell made me ill, and my health just seemed better when I wasn't eating meat. Before I made the switch to vegetarianism, I'd been eating way too much fast food meat - chicken nuggets, pre-configured frozen meals, and McBurgers. No wonder I didn't feel well.

I had always loved rice and veggies, but as a full time vegetarian I learned to use spices and sauces to make whole meals of the ingredients I had known before in plainer guises. Chickpeas in curry powder over rice, spicy lentil soup, vegetarian chili seasoned with cumin and coriander ... it was delicious. For more than four years I ate no meat at all.

Then, gradually, I noticed that meat started looking good. The smell was appetizing. I knew that a change in diet would need to be made gradually, and I wasn't at all sure that this was a direction I wanted to follow. After all, there are those who say the corn and grain used to feed the beef we eat would be more efficiently (and more justly) used to feed human beings who cannot afford the expense and luxury of meat. There's something to be said about that.

At the same time, I was starting to think about the need to eat locally: the more kilometers your food travels to make it to your plate, the more fuel is used to get it from the source to the destination ... and in a world of increasing fuel prices, 'long distance food' is rapidly becoming more expensive: look at the spikes in rice prices in the last few months. Then there is the moral imperative of reducing one's eco-footprint - that's just one of those things that seems 'inherently good'. Eating locally means encouraging the local market while easing your impact on the environment: so eating locally is a good thing.

Here is where I hit a problem: there is no local rice. It just doesn't grow here. Grain? Well, sure, there's grain ... but not a lot of it, that's a Saskatchewan thing. Chickpeas? I have no idea if those will even grow in this climate. I kind of doubt it. So ... what kind of food is truly local?


Alberta Beef. Everyone here has seen the bumper stickers and billboards ... I love Alberta Beef. I have friends who are beef producers: buying from them supports a local business (two, in fact, the farmer and the processor). The cattle travel from the farm to the processor (about 30 minutes away) and back home to a freezer at the farm, where we pick out whatever cuts we want, weigh them on the scale, and pay a flat rate per pound for some of the best beef you could imagine.

So, I started eating meat again and it has worked out well for me. When I'm eating out, I still opt for vegetarian choices most of the time ... I tell people that I only eat animals I know. :) It's not quite true - I don't actually know the animals I'm eating when I buy from my beef producing friends, but I know where they were raised, and how. I know they weren't given growth hormones or fed antibiotics just to make them grow faster.

With our lambs, though, I will really be eating animals I know. Our first lambs will be headed to the processor soon, making the same trip the beef we've been eating has been on. I'm looking forward to tasting meat raised on nothing but grass and hay, animals I truly have known for all of their (admittedly short) lives.

Some people ask how we could possibly eat the animals we've raised and known by name. My answer is this: a happy lamb is a tasty lamb. We know that our sheep were happy here - they had fresh water, and lots of good grass and good quality hay to eat. They were never bothered by predators, as our dogs keep the coyotes at a very respectful distance, and they were not pestered by humans forcing them to eat things they were never meant to eat or stabbing them with unnecessary needles. Sure, they're vaccinated against the common sheep diseases - we don't want any of our animals to get sick - and if a sheep does get sick, they're treated to the best care we can provide. But as a matter of course, they're allowed to just be sheep.

The Reluctant Farmer delivered a couple of lambs to the slaughterhouse a couple of weeks back: they followed him contentedly out of the trailer and into the pen, completely unconcerned and unafraid. The buffalo in the next paddock were stomping and snorting, the cow on the other side was running in circles and bellowing ... but our lambs just stood there calmly looking around. We know the processors make their actual end quick and painless, and so we can be proud of our part in making their lives (and their inevitable deaths) as comfortable as possible.

And then ... they end up on our dinner table, where the love and care we poured into them comes back to nourish our family. How could it get any better than that?

1 comment:

  1. Frazzle - about the argument that you can feed more people off the land that's growing beef (for example) with a vegetarian diet.... not so. As a reformed vegan (strict vegan - no leather, no candy or soy yogurt with gelatin etc.) I did a lot of a research on this. I recall having a complete epiphany when I realized I come from beef ranching (in Ontario) and knew something about growing food. You couldn't grow food crop grains in the area that my Uncle's beef cows were growing. It's like that here as well. There are some spots where you could maybe grow corn but most of the farmers grow hay because it's the only truly reliable crop.

    I've seen research about this in a few places - and it's even more true about sheep and goats. In Iceland, there's no way you could grow any food crops except sheep or goats where the sheep are ranging.

    So, while that old saw is likely true on a per square foot measure - it's often not in terms of what the land can be used for. And, like you say, it's also local and therefore much better for the environment.

    One final plug for eating humanely raised meat (I don't eat restaurant meat in the US because of the CAFOs - Western Canada's not as bad - yet!) - it's an essential part of getting through winter in northern regions. Many people stored their food "on the hoof" for winter and if something happened to spoil their put by crops, they could rely on the animals to sustain them.

    Phew -long post.

    BTW - congrats on Sasha. One of the guys who bought one of my ram lambs this year offered me dairy cows. A pair. Not this year says I but I can see it happening in the future.


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