Probably unthinkable for most Americans, and to be honest, not necessarily a good idea—even in theory.
The potential problems with food-safety and accident or injuries alone would argue against most people deciding to become weekend ranchers and meatpackers.
But consider for a moment another food-related industry responsible for a product consumed by a large percentage of adults, if not as many as the overwhelming majority who eat meat and poultry. I’m talking about beer breweries.
Once upon a time in the distant past—the 1980s—the typical beer drinker basically had two choices: You could purchase bottles or cans of light, fizzy “American-style” lagers, or shell out for expensive, hard-to-find imports that were often months old and less-than palatable by the time they reached the shelves in some small deli or specialty grocery.
Then came a technological revolution that launched the brew pubs and small specialty breweries that began crafting a whole new generation of hearty, flavorful beers that mimicked the best European imports. In the space of a few short years, the brands, choices and quality options available virtually everywhere alcoholic beverages were sold expanded dramatically.
Home brewing of beer (and wine) was always a small-scale sideline indulged in by thousands of aficionados, but the arrival of advanced technology that allowed hundreds of commercial operators to enter the industry changed forever the beer-drinking public’s preferences and purchase patterns—for the better, most people would agree.
Clearing a high bar
What if a similar scenario could take place in animal husbandry? What if “ordinary” people—at least those with the wherewithal, financial and otherwise, that mirrors the entrepreneurs who launched so many of the regional breweries—could begin raising livestock and marketing meat products? Would such a development help expand the marketplace for meat products, perhaps even lend a certain cachet to eating meat that has been lost in the industrial scale of modern production and processing?
I have to believe it could.
Of course, the bar is raised quite a bit higher in terms of raising animals and butchering them for consumption, versus buying sacks of barley and hops and dumping them into a fermentation tank. Plenty of people have started commercial beer-making operations in their garages. But even a small-scale production and butchering program would require far more knowledge, regulatory compliance and capital investment.
But here’s why I hold out hopes that such a movement to have “home-brewed beef” could eventually emerge: The single greatest leverage that anti-animal activists have is the alleged ecological havoc that beef, pork and chicken production create, in terms of climate change, resource depletion and diversion of food crops to feed supplies. If—and it remains a gigantic “if”—hundreds, thousands of people could begin producing their own meat and poultry it would undercut the arguments against modern livestock production more effectively than any pro-industry messaging ever could.
In some areas of the country it’s already happening, Alaska being one of them, as a recent article in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported.
In that far northern town, a local veterinarian and her partners are raising their own beef in a homemade feedlot. Dr. Deanna Thornell was quoted as saying that the project is “a natural extension” of such initiatives as 4-H kids raising livestock.
Thornell and a group of friends and neighbors banded together to buy eight Angus steers, splitting the costs and responsibilities of raising the animals. The group works together to process the meat, doing their own butchering and packaging as a team, according to the story. Manure from the animals is used in Thornell’s gardens and greenhouse, and the rest is given away
“Anyone can do this,” she told the newspaper. “You just need a section of property, and you’ve got to have a good fence. Ours is a community project, which is so beneficial, and it’s an easy way to get food. Just throw them hay and give them grain.”
Thornell then raises an issue perhaps more potentially powerful than considerations of environmental impact: food security.
“I look at the big picture of America and what would happen in an emergency,” she said. “It’s common sense to raise your own food.”
Of course, it takes far more than common sense to raise beef, or any other meat animal. But the synergies evident in combining animal husbandry with raising crops speak for themselves, as does the impact of local food production, both of which thoroughly negate the anti-meat arguments.
And there’s one other positive side effect: Appreciation of the animals themselves.
Thornell said one of her fondest dreams is that children could be more involved in food production. “I wish kids could be there for the kill so they would know the respect we should give food,” she was quoted as saying. “When they see a little package at the store it’s not the same.”
The revolution in beer-making was driven by the traditional business drivers of quality and competitive pricing. It resulted in more and better choices for consumers, which is a positive, but hardly profound outcome.
A parallel development in meat and poultry would be far more revolutionary.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.