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What’s a “Sustainable Farm”? Five Tests

By Julian Brookes | LaCrosse Tribune

In her book, The Compassionate Carnivore: Or, How to Keep Animals Happy, Save Old MacDonald’s Farm, Reduce Your Hoofprint and Still Eat Meat,author and sustainable farmer Catherine Friend describes how her attitude toward meat eating changed after she and her partner bought a farm and began raising sheep for meat. Until then she preferred not to think about where her meat came from. But her odyssey through the world of livestock and farming gave her an often painful education how our meat is raised, how we buy it and from whom. She remains a carnivore, but a much more conscious one for whom distinctions,  such as between raising animals on factory farms versus on sustainable farms, matter, because the quality of life of the animal — yes, the animal raised for meat — matters.

Along the way, Friend raises important questions, such as: What are the differences between factory, conventional, sustainable and organic farms? Why do we need to understand those differences? What do all those labels—from “organic” to “local” to “grass fed” and “pasture raised”—-really mean? If you’re buying from a small farmer, what are the key questions to ask? How do you find that small farmer, and what’s the best way to help her help you? Friend provides useful answers to all of these questions and more. Here’s one example: how to tell whether or not a farm is “sustainable.” Although sustainable farms may look very different from one another, she says, the all follow these basic principles. They:

  1. use animal manure and crop rotation to fertilize the soil instead of using chemicals.
  2. manage weeds and insects using minimal insecticides or herbicides.
  3. put ruminants (cud-chewing animals, such as cattle, sheep, and goats) out on pasture, using rotational grazing to most effectively harvest the grass.
  4. don’t use hormones to encourage growth.
  5. don’t use antibiotics unless necessary. If a farmer treats an animal with antibiotics, she will not sell the meat to customers as antibiotic-free meat. At the same time, she will not withhold life-saving drugs just to keep animals free of antibiotics.
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