A longtime vegetarian, Julie Bonney reintroduced meat to her diet last year as the next step toward better health.
The 50-year-old Ashland resident then took steps to ensure the animals she ate were just as healthy.
A hog raised on organic pasture and feed outside Ashland became the pork chops, sausage and bacon in Bonney's freezer. Ten custom-slaughtered chickens joined the pig. More than 40 pounds of salmon purchased in bulk from a farmers market fishmonger rounded out the year's supply of meat.
"I love it; I love knowing I'm putting healthy food in my body," Bonney says. "I love knowing the people who help create great meals for me because of their hard work."
The people are a growing number of small farmers and ranchers committed to humane, sustainable practices — sometimes circumnavigating prohibitive government regulations on slaughtering with on-farm exceptions — to bring a better meat to local customers.
"It's not wanting to participate in the feed-lot model," says Tracy Harding, manager of the Rogue Valley Growers and Crafters Market's Saturday sessions in Ashland.
The trend toward alternatives to the grocery-store meat case parallels consumers' increased awareness of food-safety issues, Harding says. A mounting environmental ethic decries factory farming for its massive carbon footprint. Recently published books have helped illuminate the murky depths of the United States' industrial food system.
Bonney's elevated consciousness about food emerged while reading Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals" (2006) and Barbara Kingsolver's "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life" (2007). The reality check the books provide coincided with Bonney's concern over food allergies and getting enough protein in a vegetarian diet.
Shopping for meat, Bonney tried to make "smart choices," such as avoiding products that contained nitrates or came from animals treated with antibiotics. She soon realized — with help from the above books — that labels like "free range" are misleading and didn't deliver on her idea of health.
Conversations at Bonney's workplace, an Ashland physician's office, revealed an obscure source of wholesome meat still on the hoof: the idyllic mountain ranch of Suzanne Willow, Bonney's former co-worker.
"I do have another choice here," Bonney says.
Willow, 63, and partner Lanita Witt, 59, have been raising hogs for about 25 years, starting with their daughter's first 4-H project. Fattened on the grass, roots and insects they can forage on organic pasture, as well as organic milk from the ranch's goats and vegetable scraps from its organic garden, her Berkshire and "blue butt" pigs develop more marbling, put on more fat and yield pink, tender meat, says Willow.
"They know the pigs are well-raised," Willow says of customers' feedback. "There's always been a demand."
Willow-Witt Ranch charges $4.95 per pound for whole or half hogs. Customers also pay fees for the kill, cut and wrap. But the hefty investment didn't deter Bonney from purchasing half of a Willow-Witt hog last year.
"How can you not get a beautiful product coming off that ranch and that setting?" Bonney asks.
The pork sustained Bonney and her husband, 65-year-old Bill Shanor, for nearly an entire year during which Bonney only purchased bacon a half-dozen times from the grocery store. The couple added to their cache of frozen meat after helping with Willow-Witt's on-site poultry processing
Debating whether they should raise their own chickens for meat, the couple got a hands-on taste of the enterprise. Shanor severed the birds' jugular veins before Bonney gutted and cleaned them, an experience that forever changed her relationship with food.
"You realize this is really a wonderful living creature," Bonney says. "There really is more reverence to the whole thing when you involve yourself that closely."
Bonney, Shanor and 19 other families involved themselves with a new aspect of Willow-Witt's operation this year: a community-supported agriculture program that provides 5-pound boxes of pork and goat meat to subscribers every month for six months. Willow and Witt launched the idea to bring their meat to a wider audience and to bring in more farm income during the winter.
A farming concept that has existed locally for about 15 years — primarily for produce — a CSA signs shareholders who contribute to the farm's yearly operating budget by purchasing a portion of the season's harvest in advance. Willow-Witt's six-month CSA membership costs $500.
Bonney and Shanor decided to expand their repertoire of meaty meals and purchased the mixed share of pork and goat meat, also called chevon. Although Shanor was leery, Bonney says she cooked goat shanks using one of Willow's recipes; both found it delicious. Willow-Witt also specializes in goat sausage, prepared to Willow's specifications by Taylor's Sausage in Cave Junction.
"It's milder than lamb because it doesn't have that fat content," Willow says.
"It's tender; it doesn't have any of that goat-y flavor," Bonney says.
Also raising goats and pigs, Yale Creek Ranch near Jacksonville debuts its CSA this month and offers customers additional options of beef, lamb and chicken for the same price as Willow-Witt. Beef-only shares can be purchased for $7 to $8 per pound. Beef wieners and salami cost an additional $7.50 per month. The CSA also will supply 100-pound shares with a six-month subscriber commitment.
The CSA model allows Yale Creek, a producer of organic, pasture-raised beef for the past decade, to sell its meat in smaller quantities. The cost of almost $1,000 for a half beef — and the meat's monopoly on freezer space — has become too much for some families to bear, says Tim Franklin, Yale Creek's manager.
"With the economy the way it is, it's just a lot to take on," Franklin says.
The price tag on locally raised meat may be higher than at grocery stores, but small-farm patrons say their local buying habits can be economical.
"We're not having big portions of meat every night," says Sheila Jarvis, 46, of Ashland. "I have just become a more frugal person with my food."
Citing "Omnivore" as the impetus "to get off the grid," Jarvis purchases her pork at the growers market from Grants Pass' Bickle Family Farm, divides a half-beef from Central Point's Martin Family Ranch among three other households and relies on Talent's Rogue Valley Brambles for chicken slaughtered every few months.
Rogue Valley Brambles also furnished a pasture-raised heritage turkey for Jarvis' Thanksgiving meal. Smaller than conventionally raised, broad-breasted turkeys, Rogue Valley Brambles' Bourbon reds and Holland whites cost $6.75 per pound, worth the extra expense for her family of four, particularly at the holidays, Jarvis says.
"It was absolutely fabulous."
Like many small farms locally, Rogue Valley Brambles is not certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture but assures customers that its practices are entirely organic. If given the choice, Jarvis says, she eschews organic in favor of locally raised and produced foods, not least because her choice benefits the Southern Oregon economy.
And — based on doctors' endorsement of pasture-raised meats for their higher levels of essential fatty acids and lower levels of saturated fat — Jarvis is convinced her health benefits, too.
"There's actually a difference in the nutrition we're getting."