Questions to Ask

Asking questions is the best way to ensure that you’re purchasing sustainably raised, healthful foods and supporting sustainable farmers. Here are some questions to get you started.

Questions to Ask a Beef Farmer
Questions to Ask a Dairy Farmer
Questions to Ask a Hog Farmer
Questions to Ask a Poultry Farmer
Questions to Ask a Produce Farmer

 

Questions to Ask a Beef Farmer

Are your animals raised on pasture? When cows are raised on pasture or in fields, they graze outdoors and have plenty of room to roam and a diversity of grasses to eat. Cows belong to a group of animals called ruminants, whose stomachs are best suited to digest grasses. Ideally, you should choose beef from cows grazed on pasture.

Are your animals fed anything else besides grass, hay and grass silage? On factory farms, feed may be supplemented with unsavory additives such as animal byproducts, rotten food, poultry manure and feathers, and even cement dust. The best answer to this question is that the cows ate only grass, hay, and silage. Beyond that, you want to be sure that the cows had a 100% vegetarian diet. Many farmers, including some sustainable farmers, supplement cows’ diet with corn. While this is still vegetarian feed, it’s important to remember that cows are not well adapted to eating corn, and a large amount of corn in a cow’s diet can make it sick.

How are your animals finished? “Finishing” is the weight-gaining process an animal undergoes as it’s readied for slaughter. If an animal is finished on pasture, it eats only grasses and hay up until slaughter and is 100% grassfed. If an animal is finished on grain, it means that for a certain amount of time before slaughter, it was fed grain. The most common grain used, and the hardest for a cow to digest, is corn. Many farmers maintain that grain gives meat the marbling and texture that most consumers are used to, but providing only grain to a cow will make it sick.

Sustainable farmers and ranchers have different opinions about finishing; while some believe that cows should only be fed grasses since they can’t digest grains properly, others raise their cows on pasture, but finish them on grain, or a mixture of grain, grasses, and hay, referring to the diet as “grain supplemented.”

Feedlots
Conventional producers finish cattle in feedlots, which can contain hundreds or thousands of animals in confined conditions that compromise animal health and welfare, and produce huge amounts of animal waste that pollutes the environment and threatens public health. You should avoid beef produced this way.

Are your cows ever given antibiotics? Some consumers only want to eat meat from animals that were never given antibiotics, even to treat illness. Other consumers are comfortable with the therapeutic use of antibiotics, meaning that the animals are treated with antibiotics only if they get sick. Any animal fed a low dose of antibiotics on a continual basis, either to promote growth or to ward off possible disease, is an animal that was raised unsustainably on a factory farm; meat from these animals should be avoided.

Are hormones or other growth promoters ever given to your cows? Conventionally raised cattle are often given hormones and growth promoters to make them grow faster. The practice of giving animals any type of growth promoter is not sustainable and should be avoided. Sustainable farmers and ranchers do not administer hormones to their livestock.

 

Questions to Ask a Dairy Farmer

Are your cows raised on pasture? When cows are raised on pasture or in fields, they graze outdoors and have plenty of room to roam and a diversity of grasses to eat. Cows belong to a group of animals called ruminants, whose stomachs are best suited to digest grasses, so pastures are their ideal feeding grounds. Ideally, the farmer will tell you that the cow grazed on fields and ate a vegetarian diet.

Of course, cows are often brought indoors to be milked, and in the winter may spend time sheltered in a barn, but the animals should have access to pasture for several hours a day during spring, summer, and fall.

Are your cows fed anything else besides grass, hay and grass silage? On factory farms, cows’ feed may be supplemented with unsavory additives such as animal byproducts, rotten food, poultry manure and feathers, and even cement dust.

The best answer to this question is that the cows ate only grass, hay, and silage. Beyond that, you want to be sure that the cows had a 100% vegetarian diet. Many farmers, including some sustainable farmers, supplement their cows’ diet with corn. While this is still classified as vegetarian feed, it’s important to remember that cows are not well suited to eating corn, and a large amount of corn in the animal’s diet can make it sick.

Are your cows given rBGH? On some factory farms, dairy cows receive recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), a genetically engineered hormone that artificially boosts milk production. Unfortunately, this practice reduces cows’ lifespans, and increases the risk of several health problems, including mastisis, a painful udder infection. As a result, use of rBGH often causes increased reliance on antibiotics. Use of rBGH is now banned in the European Union, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada due to animal and human health concerns. You should avoid buying milk or other dairy products from cows given rBGH.

Are your cows ever given antibiotics? Some consumers want to know that the cows were never given antibiotics, even to treat illness. Other consumers are comfortable with therapeutic antibiotic use, meaning that the animals are treated with antibiotics only if they get sick. You need to decide which is best for you. Any animal fed a low dose of antibiotics on a continual basis, either to promote growth or to ward off possible disease, is an animal that was raised unsustainably on a factory farm. Dairy products from these animals should be avoided.

How long do dairy cows stay in your herd? Sustainable dairies may keep cows for 10 to 15 years. Industrial operations that use rBGH and other supplements that cause health problems often need to replace cows every five to seven years.

 

Questions to Ask a Hog Farmer

How are your hogs raised? Ideally, you’re looking for hogs that have been raised outdoors on pasture. In areas of the country where winters are cold, hogs should have comfortable barns or sustainable structures, like hoop houses (plastic-covered greenhouses), where they have space to carry out their natural behaviors such as rooting and nesting, and they should be provided proper bedding materials such as straw. Even in winter months, hogs should have the ability to go outdoors.

Where are your hogs born? One of the most troubling aspects of factory hog production is the treatment of pregnant sows (female pigs). The sows may spend their entire lives in “farrowing pens,” small crates with metal bars that are too small to turn around in, standing on slatted floors, with every natural instinct to build nests and nurture piglets thwarted. Many farmers buy the piglets they raise, so it’s better if they weren’t born in one of these industrial facilities. The best scenario is if the hogs are born and spend their lives on a sustainable farm.

How much time do your hogs spend outdoors each day? Having “access” to outdoors isn’t good enough — some companies interpret that as a small opening onto a concrete patio. Find out if the hogs go out onto fields or pasture, and ask how much time each day the animals spend there. There’s a big difference between four minutes and four hours.

What do you feed your hogs? Sustainably raised hogs are allowed to forage in the dirt and eat roots and bugs. Their diets are supplemented with corn, soy, vegetables and vegetable peelings, extra dairy products, and table scraps. Ideally, a farmer will grow the grain and soybeans that are fed to the animals. Factory farmed hogs are raised primarily on genetically modified corn and soy, and their feed can be supplemented with a range of unsavory additives.

Are your hogs ever given antibiotics? Some consumers only want to eat meat from animals that were never given antibiotics, even to treat illness. Other consumers are comfortable with the therapeutic use of antibiotics, meaning that the animals are treated with antibiotics only if they get sick. Decide which is best for you. Any animal fed a low dose of antibiotics on a continual basis, either to promote growth or to ward off possible disease, is an animal that was raised on an unsustainable factory farm. Meat from these animals should be avoided.

Are hormones or feed additives given to your hogs? By law, hormones cannot be given to hogs, but they can be fed additives to make them grow faster. There is concern that these additives may affect human health. It is best to find farmers who do not feed their animals any type of hormones, growth enhancers or synthetic feed additives.

 

Questions to Ask a Poultry Farmer

How are your chickens raised? On pasture, indoors, confined? Are they caged? Ideally, you’ll want to choose poultry that has been raised outdoors in a natural state. In cold or very hot climates, raising poultry outdoors may not be feasible year-round, so you should look for poultry raised humanely, even if the birds spend significant time indoors. The most important factors are the number of animals raised together, the size of the space they live in, and whether they’re provided with straw and other materials they’d naturally have access to if they were outside. There is no hard and fast rule for how many chickens should be in a given area, but most sustainable farming advocates maintain that hens need three to four square feet per bird. Ask your farmer to describe the enclosure the hens are kept in, and how much room they have to move around. Don’t rely on labels for your answers; many egg cartons say “cage-free” or “free range,” but those labels can apply to birds that are packed into a crowded building, with little or no access to the outdoors.

How much time do your chickens spend outdoors each day? There’s a big difference between an animal that only has access to outdoors for 10 minutes a day and one that spends 10 hours a day or its whole life outdoors. Ideally, you should choose chickens that spent a significant amount of time outside in a natural environment with continual access to both indoor and outdoor spaces. Farmers should be able to explain to you why they the birds the way they do — you should feel comfortable with the explanation if they are raising their animals sustainably.

Are your hens force molted? Molting is the process through which a chicken replaces its old feathers with new ones. It’s part of a hen’s natural reproductive cycle and happens each year. Molting occurs as days grow shorter and can be stimulated by any form of stress. During this period, the birds stop producing eggs for a few weeks as new feathers grow. After a molt, a hen’s production increases to near-peak levels and the quality of the eggs is improved. With forced molting, hens are not given any food for 5 to 14 days, forcing all of them to molt simultaneously over a very short time period. Forced molting is inhumane and unsustainable; hens that are force molted have compromised immune systems and may be more susceptible to salmonella. You should avoid eggs from chickens raised this way.

What are your chickens fed? Sustainably raised poultry eat grasses, greens, grains, and insects, whereas factory farmed poultry may be given feed containing a range of unsavory additives including bone, feathers, blood, other animal byproducts, manure, mineral and vitamin supplements, arsenic, enzymes, and antibiotics. If the farmer tells you that the feed was supplemented, ask about the specifics. Not all supplements are necessarily inhumane or unsustainable; for example, many sustainable farmers supplement healthy grain mixtures with flaxseed during the winter to boost levels of omega-3 fatty acids in the eggs. A sustainable farmer will be willing to tell you what supplements, if any, are used and why.

Are your chickens given antibiotics? In general, any animal continually given a low dose of antibiotics in order to promote growth and/or ward off disease is being raised on an unsustainable factory farm. Meat or eggs from these animals should be avoided. Some farmers, however, will administer antibiotics to their animals therapeutically if they become sick. Ask your farmer to explain any antibiotic use. Most sustainable farmers who raise laying hens on pasture never need to use antibiotics, but give your farmer the opportunity to explain his or her stance on antibiotic use, and make sure you feel comfortable with the response.

Are hormones or feed additives given to your poultry? By law, hormones cannot be given to poultry. But birds can be fed growth enhancers and feed additives to make them grow faster. These additives are not considered hormones, but there is concern that they may affect human health. It is best to find farmers who do not give their animals any hormones, growth enhancers, or any type of synthetic feed additives.

 

Questions to Ask a Produce Farmer

What pest control methods do you use on your farm? Pesticides are chemicals used to eliminate or control a variety of agricultural pests that can damage crops and livestock and reduce farm productivity. Their use damages the environment by polluting air, water, and soil, and threatens human health, causing neurological and endocrine system disorders, birth defects, cancer, and other diseases.

Organic and biodynamic farmers have shown that it’s not necessary to use chemical pesticides and herbicides in order to produce healthful, nutritious produce. Sustainable practices include growing pest-resistant crop varieties, using predatory insects to kill plant-eating pests, employing mechanical pest traps, and eliminating pest nesting areas by plowing under harvested crops.

What types of fertilizers do you use? Synthetic fertilizers are intended to increase growth and yield in vegetable crops but their use is unnecessary and can be harmful to humans and the environment. There are many effective and safe ways to fertilize soil including the use of compost or manure from sustainable pasture-based farms.

Do you use genetically engineered seeds on your farm? Many concerns have been raised over the inadequate testing of the effects of genetic engineering on the environment and human health. Critics of genetic engineering believe that GE foods must be proven safe before they are sold to the public. Specific concerns over genetic engineering include allergic reactions, gene mutation, antibiotic resistance, loss of nutrition and environmental damage.

Do you grow any heirloom varieties? Heirloom fruits and vegetables have been passed down for generations, and are treasured for their unique and delicious flavors, textures, and stories. While not necessarily an indicator of environmental sustainability, a farmer’s choice to grow heirloom varieties is still important in that doing so helps preserve genetic diversity by ensuring that these unique plant varieties don’t become extinct. If a farmer doesn’t grow any heirloom vegetables, ask them to consider doing so next season. Most farmers are eager to meet the demands and desires of their customers.

How many different types of produce do you grow? Crop diversity is a good indicator of sustainability when it comes to produce farming. Many sustainable farmers rotate crops among different fields, allowing those not under production to lie fallow and recover under a cover crop. Ideally, a farm will grow a diversity of crops each season. However, some sustainable farmers do focus on a particular crop. If so, there are other issues to consider, such as crop rotation.

Is your farm certified organic, biodynamic or naturally grown? If a farm’s products are certified with a third party label, such as Demeter (biodynamic), USDA Organic, or Certified Naturally Grown, some of the work is done for you. You may want to research the criteria used by certifying organizations, and how their certification processes are conducted. Many of the questions above may be addressed by various certifications. It’s important to remember, however, that some farmers choose not to certify for financial or political reasons. This doesn’t mean that they’re not using organic or sustainable methods, or that you shouldn’t support them. It does mean that the responsibility lies with you to find out how they farm. Most farmers who choose not to have their produce certified will be willing to explain why and to answer your questions.

 


NOTE: Sustainable farmers are very open about how they raise their animals and grow their fruits and vegetables. Consider asking to visit their farms to see exactly how the animals are raised and how their produce is grown. Many farmers welcome visitors. If you purchase products from a company advertising that it distributes sustainably raised foods from family farmers and ranchers, seek out their written standards for their products. If they aren’t willing to share these with you, you may want to shop for a more forthcoming source. 

Glossary

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