Unsung heroes of the local foods movement
By Sarah Boumphrey, CG Science
“Locavores,” followers of the local foods movement, can be an amusing study in neurotic eating habits. As they scan the shelves in stores, they estimate the distance traveled and the petroleum burned, fret over the living and political conditions in the countries from which the food came, and ponder the impact their food has had on the world’s environment. More often than not, when they decide against an exotic food product, they are standing in the produce department.
But what about meat?
Locavores are concerned with meat quality, but often have few means of finding answers. Where does the meat come from? Under what conditions was the animal slaughtered? Was the animal healthy? Were prophylactic antibiotics administered? What did it eat? What kind of hygiene was involved in its preparation?
Much of the meat that Americans consume comes from a handful of large “farms.” They do not resemble the farms of a younger America, but are instead economically efficient slaughtering houses that span acres. They also employ dubious agricultural, environmental and economical techniques that have been well documented in scores of books and movies on the subject, most notably in “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” “Fast Food Nation,” “Super Size Me,” and “Food, Inc.”
So what is a well-intentioned locavore to do? (Besides wallow in feelings of guilt while gnawing on that Tyson brand chicken leg.) For a start, he can take off that organically produced, cruelty-free hair-shirt he is wearing and trade it for camouflage. It is time to hunt.
One would scarcely think of a hunter as a participant in the local foods movement, but beyond the hunting blinds and the tree stands lies the ultimate locavore.
Often hunters spend days or weeks tracking a deer. They study its habits, size it up for meat, check to see if it is injured or sick and generally make sure that one of their coveted hunting permits will be spent on good meat.
“It all depends on the maturity of the deer,” said Madison Carter, a Nelsonville native who has bow hunted since childhood. “Body size and rack size. The smaller bucks I pass up to give them a chance to get bigger and pass on good genes.”
Carter says that he also looks at the age of does, which may graze in groups. “[Younger deer meat] is tender,” he said, “and if there are a bunch in a certain area, they might not all make it through a hard winter.” Sustainability of a herd is important for hunters who plan to hunt in the same area for years to come.
In contrast to commercial feedlots, what a deer is eating or if it received antibiotics is not an issue in the wild. Traditionally farmed cows produce approximately 43 gallons of manure daily, according to the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, which is a growing environmental concern. Deer droppings, however, are a natural part of nutrient cycling.
An average-sized deer will yield approximately 25 to 30 pounds of meat, and an Ohio deer hunting permit costs between $15 and $24. If a hunter butchers his own meat, that can average out to less than a dollar per pound for grass-fed, organic meat with a minimum carbon footprint.
“It’s more lean,” Carter said. “Plus, there are no hormones added. It’s about as natural as it gets.”
Killing a deer is only a small part of making meat.
Often, hunters prefer to let a professional handle the rest of the job. Nate Dowler and his father, Todd, run Dowler’s Deer Processing in Athens, and butcher approximately 300 deer a year for their customers. Dowler, an avid hunter who has processed deer his whole life, looks out for his customers.
“We don’t process anything we wouldn’t eat,” Dowler said. “Some deer have been shot before with an arrow and survived, but infection from old wounds can move throughout the whole deer.”
The difference between packaged meat from large processing plants and personally hunted meat is there is less ambiguity about the safety of the meat. In large-scale meat-processing plants, workers do not usually have a background in butchering, and generally work on a conveyor belt system. There each worker is responsible for removing and handling only one cut of meat from the butchered animal.
If a problem with the factory-processed meat arose, it is questionable whether the workers would be able to identify it.
“I worked at a butcher’s shop for a couple of years and there’s a lot you can miss if you’re not doing it yourself or if you don’t know what you’re doing,” Dowler said.
A deer processor, on the other hand, typically has ample experience in butchering. He will butcher the whole deer himself, and can easily recognize health and safety issues. Adding a more local, human touch to the butchering process can help remove worries about the quality of the meat.
“I feel like it’s 100 percent safer than buying meat from a store,” Dowler said about hunting. For those who are squeamish about hunting, some local processors, Dowler included, are hoping to be able to sell deer meat straight to consumers in the near future.
In the age of the local foods movement, hunting is the perfect way to eat in an environmentally ethical manner. And really, what better way could there be for an environmentalist to spend the day than sitting quietly in the midst of nature, waiting for dinner to arrive?