We’ve long been fans of honest food. By that, we mean food that is what it seems, or pretends to be. In today’s industry of buzzwords, fast-talking brokers, media saturation, and lots of options, it’s challenging to find honest products on the market today. Lots of companies want to claim the “natural” label. There are more and more certified organic producers of everything from cactus pears to lamb, and the standards are really very broad. You can usually assume that a certified organic product is raised to a higher standard than one that is not, but not always. Some claim the “All Natural” label, but cramming chickens into cages where they never see a blade of grass or the light of day is hardly “natural.”
I’m bringing this up because we’ve tried really hard to find the best meat and dairy products we can for you. Everyone has marketing materials showing stoic animals in pristine pasture, appearing the picture of health and husbandry. Read the fine print, or lack of it. there are labels out there commanding premium prices for breeding programs that do little more than inbreed animals to manage their genetics. They might not get growth hormones or antibiotics, but is that natural? Many of these producers also do not pasture their animals, yet ask premium prices for their “all-natural” signature breeds.
I grew up in a small town in a farming family, and have eaten a lot of pork, chicken, beef, and you-name-the-wild-animal over the years. One thing I can say for sure: certain breeds are better than others, but what really matters is what the animals are fed and how they live their lives. We want our hogs and chickens to live the way they’re supposed to – with sunshine and green matter all around them. Not all certified organic animals are raised this way, and almost all non-organic animals are raised inside crowded buildings and never see a blade of grass or ray of sunshine in their lives. Regulations still allow these animals to be called “all-natural” if they are not given drugs before market.
I started this project with the notion that we’d be using Niman Ranch for pork, Tallgrass Beef for beef, and working on the chicken part, but always seeking the equivalent product for the best price. Gunthorp Farm, familiar to many of us around Chicago, has made it clear that they can supply our chicken needs, which is awesome, and very exciting. Next is a visit to the farm, which is always a joy for me, as a farm boy at heart. From lettuce to eggs, a farm visit has always been a litmus test for me, an while I can’t possibly visit every small farm that raises animals for Niman or Tallgrass, there’s a story behind each farm we can visit. I’ve been interested in Gunthorp for a long time. These folks seem to be as passionate about animal husbandry as I am about good bread, so this should be a hoot.
Niman Ranch, which is one of the first producers to be certified by the Animal Welfare Institute, will carry most of our pork, supplemented by supplies from Gunthorp. I’ve been on farms that supply Niman, and can personally vouch for their standards. Screw the brochures and buzzwords. The story is much the same with Tallgrass, which not only raises the steer on grass, but insists on finishing it on grass as well. Cows, as cud-chewing animals, are not supposed to eat grains, so can a grain-finished ribeye be considered “natural?” You can settle the grain-versus-grassfed question for yourself at Big Jones, based on flavor alone.
I hope that, over time, you can tour these farms with us via this blog, so stay tuned.