'Compassionate' slaughter

Posted: October 20, 2011

The sun is low in the sky on Dean Carlson's Chester County farm, where his Scottish Highland cows tilt their mop-top heads, showing off their venerable horns.

Gold-and-black-feathered chickens, known as Freedom Rangers for the unrestrained manner in which they are raised, poke their heads from a mobile henhouse.

And a crowd gathers in an open-air barn to sample roast pork sandwiches, made from heritage breed Ossabaw pigs that lived and died here.

Carlson is a onetime Chicago options trader who dropped the suit-and-tie style in 2010 to buy Wyebrook Farm in Honey Brook. If he had his way, all of his livestock would live and die here.

They'd experience stress-free slaughter on this 355-acre farm instead of enduring the anxiety and agitation of travel to a slaughterhouse.

This he wants out of compassion for the animals and because consumers are concerned about humane handling, too. And because travel could prompt the release of cortisol in the cow's bloodstream, tainting the meat.

Not that local meat processors are lacking, Carlson says.

But transporting live animals any distance is problematic, says Animal Welfare Approved (AWA), a national nonprofit that endorses the idea of on-farm slaughter, because that method supports the extra effort "compassionate farmers" put into pasture-raising their animals.

The vast majority of pigs, cows, lambs, and chickens in this country are still raised almost entirely indoors, squeezed into temperature-regulated buildings on large-scale industrial or "conventional" farms where their feed often contains growth hormones to make them fat quickly and antibiotics to fight off the diseases inherent in such close quarters.

In recent years, public sentiment has turned against industrial farming. AWA program director Andrew Gunther says the movement toward pasture-raised livestock benefits the planet, the community, and the animals.

Founded in 2005, AWA is working with 1,000 farmers across the country now, a 200 percent increase since 2009.

At Sweet Stem Farm in Lititz, Pa., Philip and Dee Horst Landis raise pigs, lambs, and cattle humanely and would prefer on-farm slaughter, too.

"My main concern is from the animals' perspective," says Philip Landis, who sells some of his products to Whole Foods stores. Joel Salatin, a sustainable-farming guru, teacher, and author at Polyface Farm in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, says Landis is an excellent example of a "compassionate farmer."

"We don't have an abattoir" - a slaughterhouse - "here," Landis says. "But ultimately that would be the pinnacle for us in terms of animal welfare. That would be our preference. Getting on a truck is stressful for animals."

There are mobile abattoirs - slaughterhouses on wheels, like a string of connected tractor-trailers that are accessible for USDA inspection and have separate "rooms" for slaughter, cutting, packing, refrigeration, and dry aging. At a purchase price of $250,000, a mobile abattoir is certainly less expensive than a brick-and-mortar structure.

Carlson is thinking about buying one himself or forming a co-op for joint ownership and use.

But that's not an option for the Landises, who rent their farmland.

Of course, every vegetarian out there has a simple solution: Don't eat animals.

But as long as humans do eat meat, the least an omnivore can do is learn about the slaughter process and methods that reduce the suffering of animals, Landis says.

He'll open his farm Saturday for a Snout-to-Tail tour (although he prefers the phrase Cheek to Cheek) organized by the nonprofit Fair Food, now in its 10th year of sponsoring local farm tours.

"We do up to six farm tours a year," says Ann Karlen, founding director of Fair Food. When they leave Sweet Stem, the group will tour Smucker's, a family-owned slaughterhouse in Mount Joy, then go to Green Meadow Farm in Gap for a tour with Glenn Brendle and a dinner prepared by Terence Feury of Fork restaurant in Center City. Tickets are $125. 

 The popularity of such tours doesn't entirely sit well with John Berry of Penn State Extension's Lehigh Valley office.

"The tagline I use is the 'food elite,' '' Berry says. "People who are more interested in artisan foods and in having things their neighbor doesn't have. They're hypersensitive to food safety," which leads to more regulations, which add to the consumer cost.

"Whenever there are E. coli recalls, the bar gets raised and there are more regs that add to the cost," Berry says.

In fact, in January nutritional labels will be required on all single cuts of meat. And in March, testing for six additional strains of E. coli in ground beef will be required. (Testing for just one strain is required now.)

"And while the USDA did nutritional analysis on conventionally grown cuts," says Jay Smucker, "it did not analyze grass-fed cuts. The agency says it's OK to use the one label for all."

All this talk about slaughter is not exactly appetizing.

"There isn't a whole lot to like about the slaughtering process," Landis says. "And I don't blame people for wanting to be somewhat removed from it. But if you are going to eat meat, it is pretty important to witness slaughtering."

Wyebrook Farm was in foreclosure when Carlson bought the property. He has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars improving the pastures, barns, and outbuildings.

In the summer, Carlson invited interns from the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan to live at the farm and learn about the process of pasture-raising animals.

Still, much work remains before Carlson achieves his vision for Wyebrook, which includes operating a small bed-and-breakfast there, renting the property out for weddings and other celebrations, and selling his beef, pork, and poultry, as well as sausage, hamburger, and cheese, in a stylishly refurbished 18th-century barn there.

"Conventional farming is completely premised on cheap fossil-fuel prices," Carlson says. "And if energy prices rise, we'll have a hard time producing food."

Sustainable farming minimizes fossil-fuel use and produces chemical-free food. It's healthier, better tasting, and better for animals and the environment, he says.

"I believe sustainable farming will become the norm again because economic realities will force it upon us."

Read previous stories in the series at www.philly.com/foodandfarm

Contact staff writer Dianna Marder at 215-854-4211, dmarder@phillynews.com, or @marderd on Twitter. Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/diannamarder.

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