Sustainably grown meat starts with the dirt
Growing up on the outskirts of Jacksonville Beach, Florida in the 1980s, Toni Carter became accustomed to caring for animals under the guidance of her father. In those days, it was not uncommon to raise cows, horses, and chickens on one’s property, or to get a call from a neighbor when one of those animals wandered down the street. Little did she know that background would come in handy years later when she ventured into ranching as a profession.
As a result of health issues about ten years ago, Carter’s physician advised her to follow a diet with foods that contained no chemicals, preservatives, or hormones. After a long stint in the corporate world, this was the spark she needed to change the trajectory of her life. Carter acquired an old horse farm in Sanderson, named it Cartwheel Ranch Meats and began raising dairy cows, beef cattle, hogs, and goats.
Pasture as preventative health care for livestock
On the day I visited the ranch, Carter’s passion to grow safe and nutritious meats was evident as she gave me a tour of the property. “They rarely require any medicine and can graze from the land with little additional feed,” she said, as she checked on the dairy cows in the pasture. When she needs to acquire feed in addition to the pasture grass, Carter gets it from the best source possible for their health and growth. Besides dairy cows, Carter raises Angus beef cattle, Berkshire hogs, and Lamancha goats. She makes yogurt from both cow and goat milk while the Angus cattle and male goats are sold for meat.
Carter’s commitment to producing sustainably grown meats comes at a time when consumers increasingly want to know where their food comes from, how it is produced, and whether its production is good or bad for the environment. Raising livestock for meat is seen by some as having a negative impact on the environment.
Is it possible to have a ranching operation that is beneficial to the land and can even slow climate change?
Healthy soil for a healthy planet
The health of the soil in the pastures where the animals graze is an essential component of Carter’s approach to farming. She avoids the use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides to ensure the animals don’t absorb any traces of these potentially harmful additives. This philosophy of soil management is part of an increasingly popular method of farming called regenerative agriculture, aimed at rebuilding topsoil, boosting biodiversity and reducing negative impacts to the environment caused by conventional farming.
The term regenerative agriculture was originally introduced in the 1980s by Robert Rodale of the Rodale Institute, a research center dedicated to promoting sustainable farming practices. While there are many definitions of this approach to farming, it is essentially a method to improve what you’re growing for yield, quality, and safety, while simultaneously improving soil fertility and health.
Industrial farming practices use inorganic fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, all of which can have a negative impact on soil health, human health, and the environment. With regenerative agriculture practices, farmers adopt methods that reduce or possibly eliminate these products. There are generally agreed upon principles for how to employ regenerative agriculture techniques: limit tillage, protect the soil, maintain living roots, increase biodiversity and integrate livestock.
The role of livestock in regenerative agriculture
The last criteria—to integrate livestock—is an optional practice. However, there are many benefits to employing livestock as it relates to improved soil health. One is the built-in source of natural fertilizer the livestock add to the soil. When grass is grazed, the plant responds to the need to regrow by pumping organic compounds into the soil to attract the soil microbes to their root system. The microbes feed on these compounds and in return, the microbes harvest nutrients and minerals from the soil to feed the grasses. This vibrant microbial activity in the root zone contributes to the production of organic matter in the soil, thereby improving soil health and fertility.
While Carter strives to grow her pastures sustainably at Cartwheel Ranch, she knows it will take time, patience and resources. Her goal for the next five years is to expand her pastures and to continue to implement regenerative agricultural practices. Nationwide, the percentage of farmers who implement regenerative agriculture practices is low but on an upward trend. Farmers using these methods are dwarfed by large agricultural businesses using synthetic chemicals that deplete the land. Applying an approach that improves soil health helps to regenerate natural resources rather than consuming them.
Regenerative agriculture is spreading because it addresses all of the components of the soil-plant-animal complex that comprise an agricultural operation. And farmers who implement these methods are discovering a reduction in life-cycle costs. Of course, there are those who believe that regenerative agriculture is a boutique fad that is not economically sustainable or feasible for the majority of farmers. But, if these principles are implemented properly, while there could be a short term reduction in yields and some increase in up-front costs to convert, over time the approach can significantly cut costs, with an increase in profit in just a few years. Farmers like Carter recognize that sustainably grown meats and produce are not only what customers increasingly want, it’s good for business, the environment and, ultimately, the planet.
*This story was originally published in Edible Northeast Florida. Photography by Jesse Brantman.