With so many labels vying for your sustainable food dollar, it is becoming increasingly difficult to decide which is best.
The labels should make it easier, but how many of us really know what the certified Organic or the various steps of the GAP animal welfare labels really entail?
When it comes to pork, there are a lot of reasons to be diligent in finding out just how the pigs are raised. The good news is that some small farmers are turning their backs on confinement of any kind and choosing to raise their pigs entirely on pasture without hormones or drugs like ractopamine.
Circle B Ranch might be the ideal place to be a pig. The idyllic farm nestled in Missouri’s Ozark countryside was founded by New Jersey transplants, Marina and John Backes. Rather than adopting conventional farming techniques, the two have committed to working with the land rather than against it, carefully building every element of the ranch to have a minimum impact on the landscape, with maximum benefits for their hormone-free and largely antibiotic-free Berkshire and Kurabota hogs.
Instead of being raised in confinements on grain diets, Circle B pigs are free to graze the ranch’s pasture and wooded areas, foraging for natural nuts, grasses, roots and berries. By raising and harvesting their animals humanely, the Backes’ are providing a natural, humane and sustainable alternative to modern hog production, and producing some of the best bacon, sausage, charcuterie and specialty cuts around.
The pair recently acquired an additional 100 acres, ensuring Circle B Ranch hogs have even more space to forage, farrow and simply be pigs.
How do pasture raised Circle B hogs differ from those raised in confinements?
We do not own a barn. Our animals are allowed to free range and exercise all their instincts, like wallowing and rooting. Farrowing is done on their own and they can choose to farrow in the woods or in small huts provided by us. Well over 50 percent of what the hogs eat is foraged, and their diet is supplemented with a corn soybean mash.
It’s obvious the physical environment impacts the health and wellbeing of pigs, but how might these animals also help improve their environment?
Recently the state did a soil sampling analysis and it indicated ‘no amendments necessary.’ Just plant seed and watch it grow. The pigs also remove grubs and damage-causing insects from the pasture, as well as invasive plants like wild rose and blackberry.
Why was it important for you that the ranch adhere to Certified Humane Raised and Handled and Animal Welfare Approved standards of operation, and what do these standards entail?
We consider these certifications the gold standard of animal treatment. They entail everything from genetic control to medication, rodent control, feed and parasite control. These certifications also provide transparency for our consumers since they can access the Animal Welfare site where our farming practices are published for all to see.
In terms of nutrition and flavor, how do your Berkshire-Kurabotas compare to those just raised on organic feed?
Our motto is ‘A happy hog is a good tasting hog.’ Since our animals are allowed to forage for grasses, roots and bugs, as well as ingest mineral-rich dirt, their diet is far more nutritious than a confinement-raised animal. They are also allowed to run and play in sunlight all day. Just imagine you as a human confined all day and the health problems you would develop. It’s the same with hogs. Which would you prefer to eat?
Why is farrowing so critical to a sow’s mental and physical health?
We believe in allowing the sow to exercise all her instincts — farrowing naturally being one of them. We know it produces a healthy hearty animal, which in the long run is a healthy product for the consumer.
What is your response to people who claim responsibly reared meat is simply too expensive?
Confinement raising has been successful in producing an abundance of an inexpensively priced product. Overall, pasture raising is much more expensive, but some producers of naturally raised meat are overpriced. Like any product, the consumer has to shop for the best deal.
What influenced your decision to not provide heated barns for your pigs?
A barn is just not an efficient enclosure and the heat loss is tremendous. Small range huts are heated with the hog’s body heat. They nestle close to each other and the hut retains the heat.
In contrast to your work at Circle B, there is a growing movement against raising farm animals at all. This group asserts that raising animals takes an extraordinary amount of resources: land, water, grain, etc., and is harmful to the environment regardless of efforts to raise animals responsibly and sustainably. What do you believe is the appropriate role of animal husbandry in a sustainable agricultural system?
We don’t react to extremist groups merely promoting a poorly thought out ideology. Most of these groups have a vegan agenda, which in our opinion offers no research or intelligent observations. Animal husbandry as we practice it is the appropriate way.
What informed your decision to eschew hormones and unnecessary antibiotics?
Problems with immunity and a father who was a medical doctor and who for years discouraged the overuse of antibiotics.
Why was it also important to Circle B to manage butchering and processing? How does handling of the hog prior to processing impact the quality and flavor of the meat?
Gentle, humane handling is beneficial to meat quality. Hogs are provided food and water up to the minute of processing. A hog under stress also releases adrenaline, which may toughen and harm the flavor of the meat.
What does it mean to be a responsible, environmentally minded farmer in 2015?
Good farm management and restricted use of harmful chemical substances. Good pasture management for overgrazing, protection of water sources and standing water. Avoiding animal density which can mean manure run off.
Where can customers find Circle B Ranch products?
Local grocery stores in Springfield, Mo., St, Louis, Columbia, Mo., and Kansas city, as well as at farmers markets and online.
Visit the Circle B website to learn more about their farm and buy directly online
Ethical Foods Meat Buying Guide: How to buy sustainable, humane pork, beef, lamb and goat