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Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food

by Linda Halley and Ryan Heinen | Know your farmer, know your food! I was amazed, some years back, when I found that easy-to-remember slogan on the header of a USDA web page. The behemoth federal agency never seemed to even notice the kinds of farmers one can “know.” It made me, as a grower who direct-markets my own farm-raised products, feel like a legitimate and relevant part of US agriculture. I used it as a selling point when trying to convince Whole Foods that their customers preferred kale from a local farmer over kale from California. But, the simple mandate, “know your farmer, know your food,” is more than a marketing pitch. Knowing something is certified organic doesn’t tell you where it is from. Knowing a product is local leaves a lot unstated about how it is raised.

Know Your Terms

Here at Gwenyn Hill Farm we talk to all of our customers on a regular basis. We find many are unclear about the “how, why, and where” of most of the food they buy. It is not that they don’t care, it is that they aren’t professional investigators. We have a commitment to transparency and educating those who eat the food we grow. We are proud to say what we do and do what we say when we use the terms certified organic, grass-fed, pastured, or free-range. 

For nearly 20 years, the USDA has defined “certified organic” and regulated how a farmer or processor can earn the right to use it. But, grass-fed, pastured, and free-range are relatively unregulated claims. Prior to 2001, farmers themselves formed certifying agencies and wrote organic standards. When it came time for a nationwide rule it was those same people, along with consumers and scientists, who helped craft the USDA organic standards. 

Know the Difference Between Grass-Fed and Grass-Finished

The standard for grass-fed meats began in a similar way. Farmers and ranchers formed an association and developed an agreed-upon definition. They worked with the USDA, encouraging them to define grass-fed and implement a labeling program. The USDA introduced their definition in 2006 but it failed to meet the rigor expected by the farmers and ranchers. The American Grass-fed Association moved ahead with their own stricter standards and began offering third party inspections and certifications in 2009. In 2016, the USDA dropped its definition of grass-fed, leaving consumers confused and unprotected. Its Ag Marketing Service claimed that it didn’t have the authority to define grass-fed and determine whether company claims on packaging were “truthful and not misleading.” What remains to defend the integrity of the term “grass-fed” are a few private organizations, American Grass-fed Association being the most widely recognized, willing to inspect farms and ranches and provide a grass-fed certification. One wonders exactly what you can believe when you see the claim grass-fed but not the AGA seal. As the saying goes, “know your farmer, know your food.”

Ryan Heinen, Gwenyn Hill’s Land and Livestock Manager, is committed to following all the AGA standards and is exploring the feasibility of obtaining their certification this coming season. In the meantime,  our on-farm marketing and “meet the farmer” policy will serve as verification of our TRUE 100% grass-fed, grass-finished meats. At Gwenyn Hill grass-fed means our livestock is raised on 100% pasture during the growing season, supplemented with minerals and winter-fed hay.  It means throughout their lives they are never fed grain of any kind. The cattle and sheep live in family groups with access to pasture year round. Environmental stewardship is of extreme importance. We graze livestock in order to improve our soil, water, wildlife, pastures and woodlands. 

Know Trustworthy Sources

To find out more about grass-fed meats we have provided some links to sites we actually trust. You can find just about anything on the internet, but we have confidence in these sources.

Health benefits of grass-fed beef  Or Top 50 Healthy Foods

Truth in labeling: local vs. imported  Or Truth in labeling: the definition of grass-fed

Environmental benefits of grass-fed meats

General reasons to choose grass-fed meat

American Grass-fed Association Certification Standards

Linda Halley is the General Manager of Gwenyn Hill Farm. She helped raise a pair of bottle-fed lambs when she was five. She’s glad to have sheep back on the farm, but hopes for NO bottle fed lambs.

Ryan Heinen is the Land and Livestock Manager of Gwenyn Hill Farm. His first love is his family, but a close second may be his cows.

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