If you have visited Camp Stevens in the last two years, you have likely seen, or at least heard tell, of the pigs we have been raising. Tomorrow, we will be posting an entry about the slaughtering of one of these pigs. It will not be gory, but if you’re squeamish, or prefer to see your meat well done on your plate and nowhere else, you might want to take a day’s break from our blog.
While in so many ways it has been a natural evolution for our garden operation to grow from produce to eggs and, over the last year or so, into meat production, it also brings with it its share of both practical and philosophical challenges. There are conflicts familiar to anyone who has debated a food purchase in a grocery store, visited (or grown up on) a farm, or who’s read ‘Charlotte’s Web.’ The one conclusion we’d like to say we’ve reached in confidence – other than that the pork really is quite delicious – is that in their lives and in their deaths, these animals have been cared for, appreciated and treated with dignity.
Here are a few considerations we continue to evaluate about our evolving garden and farm operations and production:
- It’s not a coincidence that the pigs arrive during the summer, at their smallest and cutest, when they’ll be engaging the most with campers. While we are honest with the campers about what the “point” of the pigs is, they won’t see or eat the end product, so likely the pigs remain pet-like in many of their minds. Does this sanitized view educate them, or is it a disservice?
- As many of you are aware, we don’t typically serve red meat or pork at Camp Stevens, for both human health and environmental reasons. We’ve long said that if we could find a source of responsibly, locally-raised beef or pork, that we would reevaluate that tenet of our food philosophy (provided, of course, that it would make sense with our budget.). Does that change who we are as an organization?
- When it comes to the actual slaughter, are we truly treating these animals with the same care and dignity we’ve tried to give them the rest of their lives? When they are killed one at a time – and in front of one another – are they afraid?
- We serve over 10,000 guests a year, and more than 50,000 meals. At that volume, what contribution can 1,200-1,500 pounds of pork really make? From pen construction to daily feeding through the actual slaughter, preparation, cooking and storage: Is the investment worth it? And how do we really measure the worth?
- It’s proving pretty complicated to find a way to serve pork we have raised strictly “by the book.” USDA rules don’t seem to quite have a category for an operation like ours, one that’s small (micro, really), and where the meat is both raised and served at one site (I should note that these USDA rules apply to hoofed animals. The guidelines around poultry are a good deal more flexible.). To this point, we’ve been operating in a few admittedly grey areas:
1. We were able to serve the pork at our Board of Visitors weekend, because our guests that weekend aren’t paying for their stay (They are generous contributors throughout the year, and this is the weekend that we honor and thank them.). To serve the pork to any other retreat center guests, students or campers, the pigs will have to be transported to our closest USDA-approved facility in Modesto (Requiring a horse trailer, if anyone has one to lend…) for slaughter. So, with transport and time to consider (That’s a 900+ mile roundtrip.), we’re back to the questions of environmental impact and investment . Beyond that: Does it devalue how we’ve tried to raise these animals, and how we can talk about the end product, to essentially “feed” them into the conventional meat processing system at the very end?
2. Last year, we raised three pigs and sold twelve “pig shares.” The deal there is that if you own a live animal, government oversight isn’t required at that animal’s slaughter. A USDA-certified butcher came up to Camp Stevens to slaughter the pigs, and then took the animals to his Escondido shop for butchering, delivering to us neat consumer-ready packages of hams, pork chops, bacon, sausages, etc. These we divided up into 25-pound shares, and distributed to those who had previously bought in. To consider with this option: Is there value in raising meat that we don’t serve to our guests?
For both the short term (We do, after all, still have four growing pigs to care for and consider) and the long term, perhaps the biggest of all of the above-outlined considerations is: What have we missed in the USDA guidelines? Or, which grey area do we want to operate within?
These are just a few of the discussions that our staff has had amongst ourselves and with guests over the last year or so, and we know there are dozens of other questions to consider. We hope you’ll share your thoughts in the comments below.