The Meat Racket

Countdown to the 2014 Bellevue Farmers Market Season

Another reason to shop at the Market

Yesterday we spied this fellow in the yard. He looks a little the worse for wear, but I imagine that's because he's had to survive on grass and the neighbor's flowers alone, for the past few months. And he's been holding his little rabbity breath for the moment when my husband puts in the seedlings and plant starts, so he can gnaw them down to the roots and put some variety in his diet. Worse yet, my animal-loving daughter spied a second rabbit by the deck.

Q: What's exponentially worse than seeing a rabbit in your yard?

A: Seeing two rabbits in your yard. Because--well--you do the math.

I wonder how many home gardeners are also card-carrying PETA members...Anyway, here's hoping the plastic owl my husband put out by the pea plants last year does its voodoo again. If you have other anti-rabbit tricks, besides throwing boots or investing in a BB gun, do share.

A co-worker mentioned someone's brainstorm: this organization is raising rabbits for meat. I've only ever eaten rabbit once, and it had many little bones to pick out, but apparently they're going with raising the ginormous variety--so presumably the bones are easier to locate and remove.

Take me to your carrots. Or use me as an ottoman.

When you think how quickly rabbits reproduce, these little mammals might even give Tyson chickens a run for the money. (Tyson, according to a book I read this week, produces 2 billion eggs per year to be hatched and transported to contract farmers, who then raise them to slaughter weight.)

In all seriousness, meat is big, big business in our country, and the more I learn about the main producers of American chicken, pork, and beef, the more grateful I am that our Market offers an alternative. If you've read The Omnivore's Dilemma or seen documentaries about animals suffering in the system, you know the usual reasons to feel guilty about eating conventional meat, but The Meat Racket traces the rise of  vertically-integrated meat production over the past several decades and examines its effect on rural towns and independent farmers. (Spoiler alert: the effect was not good.)

In a nutshell, producers like Tyson now own the chicken production process nationwide, from egg to slaughter to new-product development. The only piece they stay out of is the actual fattening of the chickens because the margins are so low. That piece they hand off to "farmers" under contract. The farmer takes out giant loans to build state-of-the-art chicken warehouses, they receive chicks from Tyson, they raise them, and they sell them back to Tyson. But how they're paid depends on a "tournament" system, in which the farmers are pitted against each other, with the lowest weight-gainers receiving the least money. Underperform long enough and you're out. But how can you keep up, if the tournament always favors those with the newest and most expensive investments? If you come in below average a couple times, you can't even pay the mortgages on the buildings you have. So you declare bankruptcy and sell to recent immigrants, for whom working 24/7 and sleeping on the floor by the chickens still beats the conditions from which they fled. And they take your place as serfs, until they, too, fall behind.

Discouragingly, what began with chicken production has now spread to pork and beef, with subsequent declines in animal husbandry, food quality, and the ability of farmers to make ends meet. We have our cheap meat, yes, but we lose our farmers, and counties sucked into the machine suffer from poverty, population decline, and environmental degradation. When we eat meat in restaurants, cafeterias, schools, or buy it at the store, we participate with Tyson, ConAgra, Cargill, Smithfield Farms, and JBS in bringing this about.

So that's the bummer. What's the alternative? Meat raised humanely and economically sustainably, such as we find at farmers markets. Yes, it's more expensive. Farmers market meat producers do their work without benefit of growth hormones, massive economies of scale, crushing their workers, making the animals miserable, or having guaranteed corporate contracts, all things that bring prices down. Nor is it likely our farmers will ever reap government benefits or even share them more evenly with big producers, since they don't have the nearly $6 million Big Meat spends annually, lobbying Congress to protect their way of doing business. All they have is us, the growing number of consumers who opt out. To afford the meat we want to eat, we make cutbacks elsewhere, or we eat meat less often.

Just an idea this Market season (which begins next Thursday, 5/15!)...try some of the delicious and wonderful chicken, pork, or beef our farmers raise, and see if taste alone doesn't convert you! If it doesn't, well--I suppose there are always the backyard rabbits.