By Michael Hastings
Media General News Service
Published: April 28, 2009
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CHINA GROVE – Lee Menius grew up on a farm where animals were raised the conventional way for many years. Now he’s trying something different.
Since World War II, his family had bred beef cattle in Rowan County with antibiotics and hormones. Then they sold them to feedlot operations where they would be raised on grain instead of a grass diet.
In the 1990s, Menius and a friend went on some farm tours that showed alternative ways of raising animals.
“The more I looked at it, the more it made sense,” Menius said. “Instead of having the environment work against you, you work with the natural cycle.”
In 2001, Lee and his wife, Domisty, started moving away from conventional livestock agriculture toward raising animals naturally in pastures, slaughtering them humanely and selling the meat directly to consumers.
“We’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do,” Menius said.
Menius’ Wild Turkey Farms now has beef, laying hens and pigs that are all raised in pastures. Menius said he has not had any incidence of the swine flu that has been reported elsewhere in the past week. “We see all our animals twice a day,” he said. “If anything looks suspicious, we have veterinarians that we work closely with.”
Last year, Menius started participating in a program for his pigs called Animal Welfare Approved (AWA), run by the Animal Welfare Institute, a nonproft based in Washington.
The AWA program is one of several in this country that recognizes farmers and food producers who use humane practices for raising livestock. Others are the American Humane Certified by the American Humane Association and Certified Humane Raised and Handled by Humane Farm Animal Care. Whole Foods Market is set to introduce its own program this year.
These programs promote an alternative to the factory farms that have dominated for 50 years. They typically offer technical advice as well as help with marketing. And they appeal to the growing segment of consumers who want to know where their meat, poultry and eggs come from. And they want to know that the animals were raised in the best possible way. All of them use certification labels that go on packages of meat so consumers know what they are getting.
The World Society for the Protection of Animals recommends all three programs, rating their labels superior to the USDA Organic label. But in a report last year, the society rated the AWA as having the most stringent standards.
AWA has certified 30 farms in North Carolina since the program started in 2006. It has certified about 300 farms nationwide. AWA works only with independent family farms. “We want to work with farmers who can make the decisions and who have full control,” said Andrew Gunther, the director of the AWA program.
Though a certain size of farm is not a condition of participation, AWA tends to works with smaller farms that can”t afford to pay a fee for auditing and other services.
The AWA is hoping that its label program will help consumers who sometimes are confused by labels. “‘Naturally raised’ or ‘free range’ are by affidavit only and there’s no legal definition,” Gunther said. “It’s not fair to consumers. A farmer needs a way to demonstrate or explain why consumers should trust his products.”
The centerpiece of AWA’s standards has to do with confinement, or the lack of it. AWA insists that animals be raised outdoors in pastures, not in crowded feedlots, cages or crates.
The program has separate standards for different animals, but all of them cover everything from the genetics of the breeds, to the nutrition, weaning, pasture management and slaughter.
Beef cattle standards, for example, prohibit tail docking (cutting off the end of the tail) cloned or genetically engineered animals and growth hormones. Calves must have access to high-quality forage from the age of seven days. Cattle must have continuous access to outside pastures. Pesticides and herbicides are not allowed on cattle grazing areas.
The guidelines also specify that if slaughter is not done on the farm, the slaughterhouses must be inspected and approved by AWA auditors.
Because a lot of livestock has been bred for close confinement indoors, some animals don’t have the skeletal or other development needed to thrive outdoors. So the AWA has genetic standards to make sure that farmers use the right breeds for pastures. “We don’t allow genetics that are unsuitable for outdoors,” Gunther said. Menius is raising Berkshire pigs at Wild Turkey Farms. He also works for N.C. State University in the N.C. Choices program. As technical services coordinator, he works mainly on a project studying the environmental impact of hog farming.
On his farm, Menius’ pigs have lots of room in rotating pastures that allow them ample grazing. Boars get to hang out in wooded areas where they can forage for nuts and other vegetation. Pregnant sows get individual farrowing huts that are specially designed with sloping sides to avoid the possibility of a sow accidentally laying on one of its piglets.
Menius said he likes the AWA program because it’s rigorous and practical. For instance, AWA generally does not allow nose rings on pigs. This practice is designed to keep pigs from rooting in the ground, because they can tear up a field of grass quickly. But AWA allows Menius to use nose rings because rooting on his farm can cause problems with soil erosion.
“It’s a good, balanced program,” Menius said.
AWA also helps move farmers in the right direction even when they don’t meet AWA standards. For example, AWA gave Menius $8,000 to build a mobile processing unit for his chickens, though his chickens don’t meet the genetics standard yet. The unit includes a pneumatic stunner that humanely renders a chicken unconscious before slaughter.
Menius will be able to rent his unit to area farmers who don’t have enough chickens to justify a trip to a slaughterhouse but they want to slaughter their chickens in a humane way.
Like many farmers in the AWA program, Menius sells his meat directly to consumers. He sells at three farmers markets, including the Salisbury farmers market. Others may sell directly off the farm, to restaurants or sometimes to small independent grocery stores. Gunther said that farmers in the program get marketing help in the form of press releases, signs for their farms and banners to hang at farmers markets.
AWA also works to help educate farmers and consumers. It has organized a May 8 workshop to teach farmers and consumers about the benefits of Menius’ mobile poultry processor.
Menius said that humanely treated animals sold directly to consumers at such places as the Salisbury and Davidson County farmers markets allows him and other farmers to get a premium price for a better product.
“To other people, it might be a financial opportunity,” he said. “To me, it’s the right thing to do. It’s the right thing for the environment. It’s the right thing for the pig. It’s the right thing for us. And because of all that, the marketing just falls into place.