From pasture to plate: Exploring local meat in Homer

  • Jenni Medley of Blood, Sweat, and Food interacts with a heritage Tamworth hog rooting on pasture at the farm off East Hill Road. (Photo by Jennifer Tarnacki)
  • (Photo by Jennifer Tarnacki)
  • Blood, Sweat, and Food co-owner Beau Burgess, center, holds a turkey fresh from the oven. Next to him are co-owners Aryn Young, left, Jenni Medley, second from right, and Tony Burgess, far right. (Photo by Jennifer Tarnacki)
  • A cold-hardy heritage Tamworth breed hog. (Photo by Jennifer Tarnacki)
  • Blood, Sweat, and Food co-owners Beau Burgess, left, Jenni Medley, center, and Aryn Young, right. (Photo by Jennifer Tarnacki)

Ask around, and attitudes toward the source of the meat people eat run the gamut from not wanting to see, touch or think about beef unless it’s shrink wrapped in a burger shape, to wanting breakfast eggs to come from a chicken who had a free range home and high self-esteem.

With so many labels on the meat and eggs people consume, from organic to grass fed to pasture raised to non-GMO to free range, it quickly becomes confusing: What does it all mean? For those who want to be conscious carnivores, transparency can be difficult. Blood, Sweat, and Food Farm brings local, sustainable meat to Homer. The only certified meat breeder in Alaska, they’ve successfully imported and are breeding, raising and selling a cold-hardy breed of heritage Tamworth hogs on their farm in Homer.

“There’s plenty of vegetable farmers, but a lack of meat breeders in Alaska” co-owners Beau Burgess, Tony Burgess, Aryn Young and Jenni Medley explained.

Under the farm’s management intensive grazing system, the animals get the bulk of their diet from pasture, rooting and foraging as their instinct intended. The rest of their diet comes from naturally grown hay, with seaweed as supplement. In addition to piglets and shares of half and whole hogs, they provide duck eggs, free range turkeys and broiler chickens to Homer residents. They sell at the Homer Farmers Market and through the Kenai Food Hub. For the meat lovers among residents, they are offering a unique 6-month community shared agriculture (CSA) box of a seasonal variety of their meat cuts, delivered monthly anywhere in town.

“Ever tried a local, free range turkey?” Medley asked. “It’s nothing like you’ve ever tasted.”

Locavorism is a buzz word. Cities around the country are adopting the ethos of “eating local.” A shorter distance from farm to fork has a range of benefits, from bolstering the local economy to improving food security to reducing energy demands of shipping and transporting.

“There’s been a real push to buy local, a higher demand for locally sourced food,” said Robert Gibson, president of Alaska Land and Cattle Company. “Lots of chefs and farmers on the Kenai have been talking about it.”

Eating local offers the benefit of transparency of sourcing, as well as fresher food and less impact on the environment. Considering Alaska’s low food security, creating a strong local foodshed could have an impact.

Part of the inspiration for the farm plan at Blood, Sweat, and Food was this food security issue.

“We’re three days out from no food.” Medley said.

While Homerites may be in a cosmic hamlet, the meat shipping industry is global enough that the cuts of bacon and pork in local grocery stores passed through dozens if not hundreds of hands in multiple states, and purchasing power in remote Homer affects big agribusiness. Shipping industrially manufactured food is the cheapest option in the current paradigm; up to 60 percent of America’s meat comes from confined animal feeding operations. But often those cheap prices don’t reflect the environmental, health and societal costs.

For those who want to eat meat in an environmentally friendly way, the choices can be dizzying. Organic as a definition as slipped into murky territory when the organic label can include beef that has flown 5,000 miles from Australia. When your food is better traveled than you, labels can be deceiving; organic in letter but not in spirit. What truly seems to matter to a discerning eater, then, is the whole picture: your food’s ecological footprint.

At Blood, Sweat, and Food Farms they’re raising their meat with total transparency: they have an open farm policy, where any customer can come any time. Customers know exactly what their pig is eating, where it’s foraging and what’s going into its body and, therefore, into theirs. The owners emphasized that it’s all about the taste and quality, and high quality bridges all gaps.

“We don’t care if you’re the most hippie dippy tree hugger or a gun-toting redneck. Taste and quality are universal,” Beau Burgess said. The taste does the persuasion for them. “When people taste our meat, they say they’ll be lifelong customers.”

At the farm they work with nature; the animals root, forage and nibble on pasture before moving to the next patch of fresh grass. This grazing provides them with abundant micronutrients, and their manure in turn fertilizes and builds up the soil for further grazing or growing crops. It’s a closed loop. Nature’s solutions are always elegant; they’ve had years to evolve to perfection.

“Our system is a zero-waste model. Because our animals are moving across pasture the waste gets distributed back into the soil, contributing to soil health.” Beau Burgess explained.

Farmers are picking up on the wisdom inherent in nature, and using solutions arising out of agroecology principles to respond to the environmental and health issues caused by industrial farming.

“Unlike the factory farm, in our system there’s no room for pathogens to build up” Beau Burgess said.

Their system is so healthy they’ve never had a single piglet die.

Local food economies have different consumer demographics; local food is for people who judge value differently, who don’t see a chicken as just a chicken, a product, a commodity. Though the cheapest cuts on the market are often from factory farms, Beau insists their meat is not even close to the $1.19 per pound butterball you buy in a store.

“It’s a different product entirely,” he said.

“You put more money in up front for our product, but you get more value out over time,” Medley said. “Our customers want to use every last bit of bone for soup it’s so good. We’ve had people come in with food allergies and leave without them. It’s incredible. The quality of the life of the animal is directly linked to taste.”

Customers can purchase a piglet to raise themselves, or a share of a half or whole hog. The price of the butcher comes with the cost of the hog.

“It’s still warm when it gets to McNeil Canyon Meats for processing,” Burgess said. “There’s no fresher meat.”

The quality of their meat is something they feel passionately about, and they want to share their bounty.

“Good food is central to community. It’s powerful,” Medley said. “I feel blessed that I’ve created a life for myself where I get to eat this kind of food, and I want to share it with others. Not to mention it’s good for the economy, and the environment.”

“Support us; we’re awesome,” Burgess joked.

Convinced eating local is the way to go? Other options for local meat in Homer include Diamond Bar Ranch and Fox River Cattleman’s Association. Further afield on Kodiak Island lies Sitkinak Ranch, whose cattle are raised on a remote pasture and roam free year round on the abundant grassland. You can order online for $5.87 per lb.

To order from Blood, Sweat and Food, visit their website bloodsweatfood.com or contact sales@bloodsweatfood.com. For further research on local food in Alaska, visit Agrilicious, Alaska Grown or Eat Wild.

Jennifer Tarnaki is a freelance writer living in Homer.

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