Regarding food, most of us used to ask just one simple question: “What’s for dinner?” But in these enlightened times, we now realize the implications of how we nourish ourselves reach far beyond health and personal preference, into political, environmental, and moral territory.
We still want to know what’s for dinner, but we also want to know a whole lot more: Where was it grown? How was it transported? Under what conditions was it produced? Does it contain chemical additives? Will it raise my cholesterol level or cause an allergic reaction? Can I afford it? And, by the way, how does it taste?
John Sondgeroth of Heartland Meats, Inc. thinks you deserve to know the answers to all these questions. He and his wife, Pat, raise all-natural, hormone-free beef on an American Humane Certified family farm in Mendota, Illinois. The cattle are started on grass and finished on non-genetically-modified corn silage grown right on the farm, slaughtered locally and returned to the on-site processing plant, which is visited by federal inspectors five days a week.
There, the meat is individually vacuum-packaged and fresh frozen with no added sodium, preservatives, tenderizers or flavor enhancers, and sold direct to consumers at three of Chicago’s top-ranked farmers’ markets: Chicago’s Green City Market, the Evanston Farmers’ Market, and the Oak Park Farmers’ Market.
“From our farm gate to your dinner plate,” John Sondgeroth says, handing me a package of Heartland’s signature lean, tasty Piedmontese beef.
“We’re fourth-generation farmers,” he explains. The Sondgeroth family has owned a 1,400-acre plot in this rural area, 100 miles southwest of Chicago, since 1903. The farm passed from his great-grandfather to his grandfather and father, who continued to build and improve the farm over the years. Dad still keeps a watchful eye, but John took the helm in 1987.
Corn and soybeans are their cash crops, providing both the capital and the feed for the 300–400 head of cattle they raise every year. Their intention is to diversify to meet 21st century demand for lean, healthy, hormone-free beef.
“Taste, texture, consistency. That’s what keeps the customers coming back,” Sondgeroth says, as wife Pat sells one of their regulars an appetizing package of flank steak. A taste of Piedmontese beef from a supplier hooked them on the breed and the business. Italy’s number one beef breed originated in the Piedmont region. It was introduced in North America in the early 1980s, when health concerns over fat content in the all-American meat-and-potatoes diet created a demand for lean meat. Piedmontese is naturally lean, but tender and remarkably flavorful.
No Grades or Sell-By Dates
Heartland’s beef doesn’t carry a grade like the beef you’d buy in the grocery store. The grading system is based on marbling — the amount and distribution of fat within lean meat. In that context, their product would be labeled Select Plus — below several levels of the Prime and Choice cuts preferred by consumers. “But it tastes like prime,” Sondgeroth asserts. “You can cut it with a dinner knife.” For these attributes, he credits the cattle’s feed, the farm’s production methods, and the breed itself.
Something else you won’t see on the Heartland label is a “Sell-By” date. Fresh beef sold in grocery stores is dated because the quality of the product deteriorates, and refrigeration merely retards the growth of bacteria. But Heartland’s fresh-frozen, vacuum-packed meats are, as Sondgeroth explains, frozen not only in temperature but also in time. “The beef you buy in the grocery store has an expiration date. This package of meat [from Heartland Meats] can be stored in your freezer and eaten indefinitely.”
Sondgeroth’s statement raises questions as to the safety of the refrigerated and frozen meat we purchase at our local retailers. According to the USDA, daily inspection of any slaughterhouse that ships meat across state lines is mandatory. Product dating and grading of beef are voluntary, however.
Meat plants that ship intrastate are subject to state authority — and state requirements are, by law, at least equal to federal inspection laws. That should give all of us consumers peace of mind, right? Not really. Once the bulk shipments arrive at their final destination — the retail establishment where you shop — there’s no federal or state oversight.
“That’s the scary part for consumers,” Pat Sondgeroth says. “The meat-cutting department at your local butcher shop or grocery store isn’t required to send samples of their ground beef product to be tested for E. coli.” (Heartland Meats voluntarily sends samples for testing.) “If the temperature in the cutting room is too high, or the grinder isn’t cleaned properly, that ground beef could become contaminated.
If you purchase an individually wrapped portion of meat from Heartland Meats or any other product bearing an inspection label from the U.S Department of Agriculture, you have the assurance that the processor who shipped the meat is inspected every day they cut and process meat.
A Different Kind of Satisfaction
The Sondgeroths could opt to ship their cattle off to be slaughtered, butchered, and processed for less cost than having them slaughtered locally and returned to the farm for processing. That might enable them to turn a profit from the beef operation — something they aspire to in the future.
But for now, though not operating in the black, they have the satisfaction of producing meat that is heart-healthy, safe, tender, and tasty. The product that carries their name comes from the same animals they raised humanely on their farm, eating feed the family grew themselves and served with a little molasses sprinkled on top.
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Shopping at a farmers’ market — a staple of village life throughout history — is healthier for you while also being a socially and environmentally responsible act for your community. Buying locally grown food direct from the producer ensures that the produce you purchase is fresher — therefore, more nutritious, with superior taste and texture — than anything you’d be able to buy from a supermarket. Keeping food dollars circulating locally directly benefits your local economy. And, by not shipping produce over long distances, you reduce both fuel and excess packaging, which benefits the environment.
Ride your bicycle to the market and bring a reusable bag, and you’re living green! You’re also in for one heck of a good time. Today’s farmers’ markets have expanded to include all kinds of products, services, and entertainment. Many also provide a platform for local politicians, not-for-profits, and advocacy groups to interact with the public. Farmers’ markets are celebrating the fall harvest season all over the USA and Canada right now, each with its own distinct character and setting.
After visiting at least a dozen Chicago area farmers’ markets over the past few months, Blue Planet Green Living‘s Chicago-based crew has selected two of our favorites for an in-depth look. Among the longest-running and best-attended markets in the metro area, they offer not only a superior selection of quality goods, but also a number of educational and special programs that benefit their communities.
More than a Market in Evanston
The Evanston Farmers’ Market meets every Saturday from mid-May through the first week of November. For more than 30 years, city and suburban residents have relied on the Evanston market as a premier source of fresh produce, meat, bakery, cheeses, and fresh flowers. The market also features entertainment and numerous information booths from area schools, political and advocacy groups, and charitable organizations.
Throughout the season, visitors and shoppers are treated to special events, including family recreational programs, educational seminars on local ecology from the local Parks and Forestry department, Public Works presentations, and cooking demonstrations.
A unique aspect of the Evanston market is its affiliation with Home Grown Artists, a program that showcases the work of hometown artists and artisans. Evanston boasts ten times the national average of artists residing and working in studios and galleries throughout the city. Special events programming at the market also includes ceramics and wood-carving classes and demonstrations.
The market also has a strategic partnership with Now We’re Cookin’, an Evanston facility that offers cooking classes and provides rentable commercial kitchen space and state-of-the-art demonstration and event space for corporate clients and local culinary businesses.
This past week, Now We’re Cookin presented their 2nd Annual Harvest Celebration, a fundraiser that benefits both the Evanston Market and the Land Connection, an Evanston-based not-for-profit which teaches sustainable farming practices and trains new farmers. Evening events spotlighted the market’s food products by incorporating them into dishes prepared by Evanston’s top chefs. If you’re in the Chicago area, it’s an event you won’t want to miss next year; watch for it on the Now We’re Cookin’ website.
Year-Round Produce in Lincoln Park
Chicago Green City Market (CGCM), the area’s only year-round, twice-weekly market, meets on Wednesdays and Saturdays. It’s held outdoors from May through October in the historic south end of Lincoln Park, moving inside to the south gallery of the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum from November through April.
Earlier this year, Chicago Green City Market received a grant from the Farmers Market Promotion Program, which is part of the USDA’s “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative. CGCM was the sole Illinois recipient from among the 260 known markets operating in the state.
“This is a giant step forward for us and will help expand the mission and vision of Chicago Green City Market,” said Lyle Allen, Executive Director of Chicago Green City Market. “Our mission is to provide a marketplace for purchasing sustainably grown food and to educate, promote and connect farmers and local producers directly to chefs, restaurateurs, and the greater Chicago community through the market itself, educational programming and special events.”
The grant dollars will fund GCM Farmer Scholarships that encourage participating farmers to attend workshops, conferences, and classes to ensure they will receive 3rd-Party Organic and/or Sustainable Certification by 2012 — as required by Green City Market. Funding will also be directed to the improvement of the Edible Gardens program, with the development of marketing and promotional materials and staffing.
A joint project of Green City Market and Cook County Master Gardeners at the University of Illinois Extension, Edible Gardens engages children in growing, weeding, composting and harvesting, while introducing them to the concept of “farm-to-table.” Located at Lincoln Park’s Farm in the Zoo, programs are available for school and summer-camp field trips.
Chicago Green City Market is creating a national marketplace model to distribute and promote local, sustainably grown food and educate the public as to the many benefits of consuming locally grown foods. The market features a variety of educational programs, one of the most popular being the weekly cooking demonstrations. Chefs from the area’s finest restaurants prepare dishes using locally produced, seasonal ingredients from the market’s farmers and producers. Local chefs are among the market’s highest-volume customers.
The market also sponsors the Locavore Challenge. Participants commit to eating locally grown and produced foods for two weeks. The Green City Information tent provides a list of local stores that sell locally produced food; names of locavores who have completed their pledge are listed on the market’s website.
Find a Farmers’ Market
As the buy-local movement has firmly taken root, and public support of small, sustainable, organic farming operations has grown, the number of farmers’ markets nationwide has skyrocketed. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) statistics, 1,755 known farmers’ markets were in operation in 1994, with the total climbing to 5,274 — an increase of more than 200 percent — in 2009.
Visit any of the following sites to find a farmers’ market near you — or search the Internet for other locations:
- USDA Agricultural Marketing Service: National Directory of Farmers’ Markets
- Farmers’ Markets in the US and Canada: Buy Local Think Global
- US Farmers’ Market: LocalHarvest
- Irish Farmers’ Markets
- Farmers’ Markets Italy: Verde Terre d’Acqua
Tour a Farm
There’s a wealth of information available online for people interested in touring farms and meeting the farmers who sell their produce at farmers’ markets.
State tourism sites such as Illinois Ag Fun Texas Farm Visit, Visit Iowa Farms, Visit New Jersey Farms, Hawaii Farms and Farm Tours, are excellent resources. Enter “visit farms” and your location in your favorite search engine to find farms you’d like to visit.
On the national scale, the USDA takes an active role in promoting the movement toward sustainable farming and working to improve direct market access for operators of small and medium-size farms.
But the US is hardly the only location for farm visits. For example, the Farms for Schools website provides a list of farm tours for school children in England. Leeton Farm Visits offer tours of various types of farms in New South Wales, Australia.
Before arranging a visit, check to be sure that the farms meet your own criteria, such as raising organic produce, vegetables, fruit, or livestock.
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