As the summer days arrive, more and more people are making visits to their local farmers markets to sample fresh grown produce right from the farm. I too enjoy going to different markets to see what people are producing on their acreage around the state and also to visit with not only the vendors, but those who frequent our markets as purchasers as well. It’s good to hear their stories about the produce they are looking for and the reasons they like buying fresh. The markets are also seeing an increase of farmers selling their freshly harvested meats produced on the farms located nearby and consumers are enjoying a good selection of quality products.
I see many consumers at these markets looking for products grown the way farming was done in years gone by or back when I was a farm boy. However, the good part is that our farmers today are doing a better job with more information on growing a safe product. The years I spent growing up on a farm in rural Tennessee was a time prior to good science-based medical treatment for farm animals, as well as a time of very little other protection for growing healthy livestock. Our pigs, chickens and some of the other livestock on our farm were raised in a farming atmosphere of what is called today “free range” and way beyond organic. The pigs rooted around in a woods lot out back of the barn and food scraps from the kitchen often was a staple of their diet. Chickens were kept in a fenced-in lot near the garden and their only exposure to the chicken house was when they flew up in the nest to lay eggs and roost for the night. The rest of the time they were “free lot” in their roaming, which made walking to gather the eggs for us humans a little precarious as we had to really watch were we stepped, if you know what I mean. Summertime meant going barefooted for us children and having to get up the eggs caused a lot of tiptoeing to and from the henhouse. Dog fennel weeds came in very handy, but that’s another story.
All the hog meat we consumed on our farm came from the pigs produced in those woods lots behind the barn and was processed right there on the farm. It never failed during the “hog-killin” days in the winter, as those involved would gather around the smokehouse to trim out the meat, that the topic of trichinellosis would come up. As a child, the word and its discussion fascinated me, as well as sent a feeling of fear inside my body just thinking you could get a worm in your insides from eating a piece of ham. Of course, that fear went away later during the winter months whenever my mother would put a piece of fried country ham on a good-sized buttermilk biscuit for breakfast. Everyone knew that the parasite was associated with undercooked pork and took precautions to prevent it from being a problem.
Over the years, the pork industry has changed a lot from the days of our barn lot enterprise. Pigs remain in climate controlled and ventilated barns that have pens large enough to allow them to move around with other pigs their age and size. They are fed balanced diets along with receiving antibiotics to prevent the parasites that not only can affect their health, but the consuming public’s health as well. These animals are also removed from antibiotics for a period of time prior to being processed to allow any medicines left in their systems to go away. This practice is used to protect the consumer and the food chain.
But, in the last few years, some consumers have requested that we allow our pork to be reared, once again, in open fields and become antibiotic-free with no preventative medicines given. I’ve lived that method of care and do have to say I do appreciate today’s swine production methods much more.
In a study from Ohio State University a few years ago, it was found in a comparison of pigs raised in antibiotic-free and conventional pork production settings, that the pigs raised out in fields without their antibiotic shots had higher rates of three foodborne pathogens than did the pigs raised in barns and getting regular antibiotic medicines. The report said that more than half of the pigs on antibiotic-free farms tested positive for salmonella, compared to 39 percent of conventionally raised pigs infected with the bacterial pathogen. The thing that caught my attention was that they also found that two naturally raised pigs, of the total 616 sampled, tested positive for Trichinella spiralis, a parasite considered virtually eradicated from conventional U.S. pork operations. When a parasite shows up that folks thought was eradicated years ago, that is one piece of history I think we do not need to repeat. Modern day practices in agriculture were developed for a reason and those reasons in most cases deal with healthier products and safer foods for the consumer. If you go back to doing what you once did, you will once again get the same results.
Visit your local farmers market for a safe product and enjoy the summer with some straight from the farm produce.
– Pettus L. Read is Director of Communications for the Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation. He may be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org