by Deborah Reese, Co-owner, Fox Knob Farm
I am a hog farmer. If you had known me before 2017, you would say, “No way, impossible, never in a million years.” It’s a story many people could tell, as I am by far not the first person to give up a career and comfortable life in the city to move to the country in hopes of realizing a farming dream. Most of us new farmers and homesteaders have an origin story that includes a health crisis of some sort and the dawning realization that our food (among other things) has been poisoning us our whole lives, making us sick and fat. It’s only after we try like heck to source good quality local food—a daunting task—that we realize the whole system is broken. The state is our enemy, sabotaging our ability to produce, purchase, and consume clean, quality food at nearly every turn.
One stunning example: As in many states, in North Carolina it is illegal to milk your cow and sell that fresh raw milk to your neighbor (or anyone). If you want to purchase raw milk, you first have to find a farm producing it (good luck!), then ask to buy their “pet milk” (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) which must exclaim on the packaging “NOT FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION” in letters at least one-half inch in height and “IT IS NOT LEGAL TO SELL RAW MILK FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION IN NORTH CAROLINA.” Alternatively, you can join a formal herd share program, in which you technically own part of the cow, or, as many do, drive across state lines to South Carolina where you can buy raw milk in a retail store. Meanwhile, in Europe, raw milk vending machines are readily available. Don’t get me wrong, the state’s involvement in agriculture in Europe is devastating also, perhaps even worse than in the U.S., so this example merely shows the seemingly haphazard way various governments toy with our food choices. You don’t have to agree with me about raw milk being fantastic for your health, but I’m sure we can agree that each of us should be able to choose what we put in our own bodies.
If, like me, you’ve discovered the miracle of the carnivore diet, getting quality meat—and lots of it—will be your top concern. The USDA in combination with each state regulates how livestock must be slaughtered and processed in order to be sold to consumers. The processing facilities that meet the requirements are very few, because it is prohibitively expensive and time-consuming to create and maintain a certified facility. The state of North Carolina offers a slightly less expensive and time-consuming alternative, but if you choose it, you can only sell your meat inside the state, and even these facilities have a serious backlog. The result is a bottleneck in meat processing that has small producers waiting months, a year, or more, and driving for hours to get their animals processed. The rising cost of feeding an animal even one day past their readiness can absolutely destroy a small farm.
If you’ve gone down the food quality rabbit hole at all, you quickly learned just how terrible most of the meat available to purchase at the grocery store and most restaurants is. The animals are raised in horrible conditions, packed into a small space with no sunlight, standing on top of their own urine and feces all day, getting drugged and vaccinated to combat diseases caused by the conditions they’re in, and eating poor quality feed. These facilities are called CAFOs, Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations. These are the animals tying up the USDA processing facilities, getting the federal and state governments’ stamped seal of approval, and driving down the price of pork. North Carolina is the third largest producer of pork in the nation, made possible by a legislature that has a long history of supporting industrial pork production, primarily by allowing them to store and dispose of their waste through questionable methods. Three lawsuits resulted in juries awarding over $500 million to neighbors of hog facilities , in 2018, but have made little difference.
Meanwhile, the small producers who raise their animals on pastures where they can forage, get sunlight, and naturally spread their manure across a large swath of land (which is exactly what’s required to improve our soil quality and therefore environment, a technique known as regenerative agriculture) are struggling to get their meat to market. It’s worse than that—they are struggling to stay afloat, usually working another job or two so they can afford to keep feeding their animals while they wait for their processing dates, each day watching whatever small profit they hoped for drain away.
To combat this problem, some producers are taking advantage of a legal loophole put in place for deer hunters and people who raise animals only for their own consumption: custom exempt processing. If you shoot a deer, you can bring the carcass to a custom processing facility (still subject to inspection, but a lot less) and they will cut it up for you and package it, to be consumed only by you, your family, and your non-paying guests. Each package will be stamped with the words “NOT FOR SALE.” The same can apply for a hog or beef you raise, or a hog that you purchase “on the hoof” and have a farmer raise for you. Few consumers realize this option is available, and even fewer would know what to do with a whole hog or beef if they had it. (As hard as it is to believe, there is more to a hog than pork chops and bacon, and more to a cow than steaks and ground beef.) This is the route we have been taking, which has been somewhat working, until we got some bad news.
Transporting a pig for slaughter is not only extremely difficult and stressful, it can impact the meat quality. It is far better for the animal and everyone involved to do the slaughter on the farm. One amazing young man does this job in our area: he drives his truck equipped with a crane to our farm, quickly and humanely kills the animal while it is happily grazing, then does the skinning and evisceration before wrapping the carcass and transporting it to our processor. His skill is truly something to behold. It all works wonderfully, so of course the state had to step in. We found out last week that the North Carolina Department of Agriculture is trying to force this young man to shut down his on-site slaughter service unless he can conform to the USDA’s Mobile Slaughter Unit Compliance Guide, which after you read it you know is an utterly impossible task (unless you have about a quarter million extra dollars lying around, and only clients who are willing to invest an additional amount to prepare for the unit’s arrival on the farm).
Let this sink in for a moment: we are raising our own hog for our own consumption, and we cannot legally slaughter it and have it processed by the people we choose in the way we feel is the most humane. We sure as heck couldn’t dream of doing that and then selling the meat to you.
Switching gears for a moment, have you heard yet about just how toxic industrial seed oils are? We were conned into believing something that began as an industrial waste product was “heart healthy” and better than traditionally used fats like butter and lard. Fortunately, most people are aware of the truth now, and want to go back to cooking the way we used to, with healthy animal fats. Butter is fantastic, but burns at higher temperatures. Lard and tallow are better options for higher heat cooking, but where can you buy them? (Beware the lard at the grocery store, since it usually includes the same hydrogenated oil that makes Crisco so toxic.) Lard is made by slowly cooking finely chopped pork fat until the liquid lard is “rendered.” I have vast personal experience with this, and use my lard in just about all my cooking (including the best chocolate chip cookies you’ve ever tasted), and in my homemade body and face creams. What if you wanted to buy some lard from me? Well, you can’t.
Value-added products used to be a staple of farmers’ incomes. They would take the fresh produce and meats produced with care on their farm and make them into delicious homemade items and sell them. Jams and jellies, canned goods, pies, stews… all the things I would love to be able to buy from my neighboring farms to make eating healthy local food a little easier. But selling value-added products like these requires having a licensed commercial kitchen, an expense and bureaucratic nightmare that most of us can’t afford. You can go to the grocery store any day of the week and buy products loaded with poor quality ingredients; high fructose corn syrup, chemical sweeteners, preservatives, toxic dyes, MSG, GMO/glyphosate-sprayed grains, and a host of other bad things. But because I process pork fat into lard in my unlicensed kitchen, it would be illegal for me to sell it to you, regardless of whether you know me, have personally inspected my kitchen, deemed it clean and safe, and signed a liability waiver. You don’t have a free market choice of food available because we the producers must risk fines and even imprisonment if we sell you something the state has disallowed.
But the problems are much worse than your choices being limited and my ability to sell meat. We’re all familiar with “the invisible foot of government” as Milton Friedman put it, but most people do not realize the extent of the damage done by the state’s involvement in our agricultural systems. Rather than lecture you about how bad for health high fructose corn syrup is (I’m sure you already know that), I’ll use it as an example to explain how American farm subsidies and price supports destroyed agriculture, the ability of small farms to compete, our soil quality, and our health.
As Saifedean Ammous writes in The Fiat Standard: “By subsidizing the production of the cheapest foods and recommending them to Americans as the optimal components of their diet, the extent of price increases and currency debasement is less obvious.” In other words, as a tactic to mask inflation, the federal government has been pushing farmers to grow cheaper nutritionally-poor crops, and then convince the American public to eat them using false messages of health benefits while steering them away from more expensive and nutritionally dense foods like meat.
In the 1970s, Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz told farmers to “get big or get out.” Billions of dollars of subsidies flowed almost exclusively to large farms that conformed, and the monocropping of corn, wheat, and soy began in earnest, requiring chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and genetically modified high-yield seeds. This type of industrial agriculture results in soils that are depleted of their nutrients and biodiversity, whose toxins are washed into ground waters and streams, and the vapid harvests produced are largely processed into products like high fructose corn syrup used in almost all sodas and processed food. Junk food and beverage companies are happy to use HFCS since it’s cheaper than sugar due to the federal subsidies, the overproduction of corn inspired by those subsidies, and the high quotas on sugar imports. Most wheat and soy crops share a similar fate, being processed into health-destroying products that can barely be called “food.” Obesity, heart problems, cancers, diabetes, and other chronic diseases now plague nearly half of Americans.
What’s the solution? Eliminate the state from your plate, of course. Make Harry Browne proud and live as if you were free. Bypass the government and big retail middlemen and go straight to the source. If you choose not to farm yourself, find farms close to you that meet your standards and buy from them. And I mean your standards, not the standards set by the state for what may qualify as “organic.” Many foods labeled “organic” have been greenwashed and are little to no better than the usual grocery store fare. A farm may not want the red tape, expense, strings, and moral quandaries that often come with official certifications, but that doesn’t mean they’re not raising high-quality food.
I won’t lie to you, it can be difficult, highly inconvenient, and time-consuming to get your hands on quality local food from multiple farms week-in and week-out, spend the time to prepare it, and make the necessary changes in your diet and expectations. You may not be motivated until you have a health crisis of your own, but that day is (sadly) inevitable. Start at your local farmer’s markets, and buy everything they can legally sell you first. Judge the quality of the food you’re eating by taste and how well you feel after eating it; nutrient-dense food reveals itself quickly. Sometimes looks can help, but sometimes they can hinder. While grocery store pork is usually almost white, our pork is so red you can easily mistake it for beef, an indication our pigs have been raised on pasture with room to roam, as exercised muscles have a higher myoglobin concentration. Fruits and vegetables grown naturally may have odd shapes, sizes, colors, or blemishes, but that just tells you it’s not from a large producer who throws away anything less than ideal looking, and covered in wax or Apeel to mask the fact that it was harvested before its time and has traveled for days or weeks to get to the store.
Establish yourself as a trusted regular customer, eventually asking to tour their farm and if you like what you see, place a large order. Be prepared to pay the true cost of the food, not the state subsidized cost that you see in the grocery store, and pay in cash (or alternative currencies, if your farmer is able). Perhaps even pay in advance to help front the farmer the cost of the production (CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture, often a subscription service that may include delivery) and herd shares are designed for that purpose). Don’t be one of the many customers that only want to buy bacon; the farmer has a whole animal that needs to get sold if they are to stay in business. Consider it a culinary learning opportunity. Perhaps one day you can convince your local farmers that you won’t rat them out for selling you unsanctioned goods, and you can start buying what you really want to buy from them. If they have enough customers like you, they can stay in business and produce more, but they may need some encouragement. With friends you trust, consider buying a whole animal together on the hoof, and with some money up front, the farmer can raise it for you. Eventually you, your neighbors, and your nearby farmers will be part of a community and food ecosystem that needs no outside subsidies-with-strings and tolerates no outside interference. That may not be the complete freedom we’re all longing for, but it’s a darn good start.
Additional resources to explore:
- How to find your local farms: LocalHarvest.org and EatWild.com, among others. Or, find them in person at your local farmer’s market.
- Books by Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm: Folks This Ain’t Normal and Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal: War Stories from the Local Food Front
- General healthy food resources and raw milk finder: The Weston A. Price Foundation, westonaprice.org
- Book by Saifedean Ammous: The Fiat Standard: The Debt Slavery Alternative to Human Civilization, especially the chapter on fiat food
- Book by David R. Montgomery: Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations
- 2009 documentary by Tracy-Louise Ward featuring Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: Pig Business
- A must-watch cartoon originally made in 2005 by The Sierra Club, and now mysteriously removed from their main website (well, not so mysterious after you watch it): The True Cost of Food
- Raw Milk Legal States [Updated March 2023] by World Population Review
- NC Statute § 106-266.35
- A Campaign for Real Milk, A Project of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Raw Milk Finder
- Raw Milk Vending Machines Take Over Europe by Sam Brasch, Modern Farmer, March 25, 2014
- A Big Look At Big Hog In North Carolina by Amanda Magnus, Frank Stasion, WUNC, May 29, 2018
- An Update on North Carolina Nuisance Lawsuits by Kitt Tovar, August 31, 2018, Iowa State University
- USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture
- The Oiling of America by Sally Fallon and Mary G. Enig, PhD, Weston A. Price Foundation, January 17, 2019
- How Industrial Seed Oils Are Making Us Sick by Chris Kresser, M.S., February 19, 2019
- How Agriculture Bureaucrats Are Manipulating Food Prices—and Our Diets by Sammy Cartagena, Mises Institute, March 21, 2022
- The Secret History of Why Soda Companies Switched From Sugar to High-Fructose Corn Syrup by Tom Philpott, Mother Jones, July 26, 2019
- Red or White: What Kind of Meat Is Pork? By Ariane Lang, Msc, MBA, Healthline, June 5, 2020