“Grammy, hamburger meat is not supposed to have a name!” protested one of our granddaughters when presented with what was actually a lamb-burger made from “Princess Lea.” Princess Lea was a 110 pound lamb purchased from a San Marcos High School FFA student at the San Diego County Fair.
For us, a freezer full of Princess Lea gave us a year’s supply of nutritious, hormone-free, growth enhancer-free, grass and alfalfa fed delicious meat to eat. Besides, we knew the student who raised her. She took the lamb for exercise walks and kept her stall clean. We even had met this lamb several times and looked forward to her becoming a healthy part of our family.
As active health-conscious eaters, we were aware of the publicity about the horrors of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) where the animals are confined and conditioned to eat cheap corn instead of grass and alfalfa. Books by the Berkeley, Calif., food gods, Michael Pollan and Alice Waters, and movies like “Food, Inc.” have shown us how animals spend a good portion of their life standing in their dung within the CAFO confinements. We understood how this has led to the growth of new lethal-to-humans microorganisms, such as Escherichia coli O157:H7, commonly called E. coli for short. Reports of outbreaks from E. coli-contaminated food occasionally make it into the press. It is fascinating to note that no one had heard of this bacterium, which thrives in CAFO feedlots, before 1980.
Add to that the global warming impact of the monoculture practices associated with raising corn, then the long haul of shipping the meat from the CAFOs to the centralized slaughter and butchering operations, then on to your neighborhood market, and it leads those of us seeking protein raised on the hoof to the question: Where can you get meat that is actually worth eating?
Surprisingly, the answer may be as near as your local high school. There, FFA (formerly called Future Farmers of America) students raise and lovingly care for pigs, goats, lambs and steers, usually at home. These students then sell their animals at fairs. San Diego County is blessed with three such events: the Eastern San Diego County Junior Fair in Lakeside in May, the Ramona Junior Fair in August, and of course, the San Diego County Fair held each June-July in Del Mar.
The students typically buy their baby animal in the fall-winter months and see to its care, feeding and exercise needs, selling it at auction at one of these fairs. Through this process the student not only learns the ins and outs of animal husbandry, but also the business practice of keeping track of food costs and any medical costs which may occur. Hopefully, the auction price brings in enough revenue to both recover their investment and produce a profit which they can put toward their future college costs.
However in many counties, that fairground auction event also provides an opportunity around which students, months before, can begin to solicit support pledges of a few pennies per pound from friends, relatives, their parent’s business acquaintances, etc. with the intent of applying those donations toward their college costs as well.
A 20-cent-per-pound pledge of support from Aunt Jane for Mary’s 110-pound little lamb yields an “add-on” bonus for Mary of $22 — which can be added on by the fair operators to what ever the auction price yields. The fair bills the person pledging the add-on, thus making the donation toward Mary’s lamb a tax-deductable contribution. The fair keeps 3 percent to cover their bookkeeping costs, and Mary gets the remaining 97 percent of the add-on donation, however, only when it is actually paid, teaching Mary yet another skill — how to be a bill collector as well.
According to Bo Shropshire, the lead member of the Imperial County Fair Board overseeing the student’s animal auctions, last year the students in Imperial County raised over $500,000 alone in add-ons which were added-on to the auction selling prices. By high school graduation time in Imperial and many other counties, students who have participated in eight years of 4H and FFA frequently have saved enough from the auction price and add-on contributions to completely pay for their college education — some have even funded their graduate schooling as well. We are trying to establish a similar system here in San Diego County for our Del Mar fair, so far without much success.
The 4H and FFA students themselves are an interesting group to get to know. Teachers tell us that they are often the best students in their classes. “You can’t own a pig or a plant and not learn responsibility and dependability” an honors physics teacher at Mission Hills High in San Marcos told us when we were first learning about FFA. “If you don’t learn those traits, the pig or plant will die,” she concluded. The responsibility and dependability traits translate into good study habits and attentiveness in class.
In San Diego County there are several local butchers who cater to the FFA students’ auction markets. Thus, persons purchasing an animal from an FFA student they perhaps have met can know that they will end up with a freezer full of carefully raised and nutritiously fed meat. And in that process, concerned persons who are seeking this source of healthy protein can also elect to get involved in changing the “add-on” system used at the San Diego County Fair to be more in line with the pro-college cost fund raising practices found in other counties.
And, at your option of course, you can get to know the pig, goat, steer or lamb ahead of time … to become on a first name basis, so to speak. For us, that makes us love each juicy morsel all the more.
Bon Appétit, bah, bah.
Helen Nielsen-Eckfield lives in Carlsbad.