Last summer, in the run-up to Cheese 2019, I traveled to Valsesia and Castelnuovo di Ceva in Piedmont to visit two small-scale livestock farms.
On one, Emanuela Ceruti and her family raise 16 Swiss Original Braunvieh cows and 37 Vallesana goats, while on another, Gian Vittorio Porasso tends a flock of 100 Roccaverano goats. For both of them, their main activity is cheese production. And it was a beautiful experience to observe what lies behind the end result of a form of macagn or re-crutin d’crava.
Gian Vittorio’s farm lies at 800 meters above sea level, close to Piedmont’s border with Liguria. In the summer, Emanuela brings her animals up to an altitude of 961 meters, to the Alpe Lincée. In both cases, the animals live outdoors for as long as the weather allows. In the hot summer months they graze on fresh grass while in the winter, when the weather turns bad and the pastures are covered in snow, they are given hay and other local crops.
The animals’ presence is important for the environment. Their grazing keeps the pastures in order so they can play their function of sequestering carbon dioxide. What’s more, the farmers have an active relationship with the mountain environment. Sometimes this involves carving out small plots of pasture from the woods and the wild vegetation, other times it means resowing pieces of land that have dried out due to particularly arid weather. The pastures are given constant care and attention.
Manure also has a crucial role to play. The animals’ dung is used to naturally fertilize the farms’ fields and vegetable plots, making it a resource rather than a polluting waste product in need of disposal, as it is on conventional industrial farms.
When we think about the kind of livestock farms we’d like to see more of, we think about a business working in harmony, not in competition, with environmental resources. Does that sound like wishful thinking? It’s not: A study carried out by Indaco2 of a number of Slow Food Presidia in different categories (including meat, cheese, fruit and olives) looked at the life cycle analysis (LCA) and the carbon footprint of the products, estimating the greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide) emitted into the atmosphere during their life cycle. The study took into account feed production, including the cultivation of forage and grains used to feed the animals, weaning and farming practices and processing and packaging. The carbon footprint calculation showed that the Presidia products, as well as bringing added value to their places of origin, had a considerably higher level of compatibility with environmental resources compared to conventional industrial products.
What’s more, a quality environment is also an environment that protects and reflects local biodiversity. On Gian Vittorio’s farm the coats of the Roccaverano goats vary in color from ivory to honey to caramel to chocolate to almost black. Many have the typical beard and curved horns of the breed, with the horns of the males particularly large and twisting. Over on Emanuela’s farm, I had my first introduction to Vallesana goats. Also beautiful, they have a solid black coat from the nose to halfway along the body, then white from there to the tail. If I’d been on an intensive farm, I’d probably only have seen the white Saanen goats so beloved of intensive farming. What does all this mean? That small-scale farms often protect biodiversity as well as the environment: Local breeds are not only suited to living outdoors, but often struggle to thrive in confined spaces.
While a non-expert might find it hard to see the effects of a good livestock farm on the quality of the environment, when it comes to animal welfare the differences are immediately clear.
First, it’s impossible not to see how important open spaces are. When Gian Vittorio took me up to the gate of the shed, the goats were there already, overseen by their guardians—large Caucasian Shepherd dogs, ready to protect the flock from predators—agitating to get out into the pasture, bleating and ringing their bells. Once the gate was opened, they rushed out, heading for their favorite areas. The most undisciplined lingered behind, nibbling on the first tufts of fresh grass they found, while the others moved nimbly through the woods until they reached a spacious clearing. Here they spent the whole day, until 6pm, when they returned to the shed to be milked. When I visited Emanuela, it was late afternoon, and the cows were all in their shed. Due to the uncommonly hot summer, even at 961 meters above sea level, they had had to spend the day indoors, before being granted the luxury of pasturing outside in the cool night air, under a starry sky.
As I spent time with these two exemplary farmers, I thought about how happy—can you call animals happy?—goats, cows and sheep are when they are free to churn up the grass with their hooves, sniff tufts of grass and leafy branches and choose what they feel like eating from an immense outdoor buffet of food. It might be a taste of fescue, ryegrass or cocksfoot—all from the family of grasses—or a nibble of leguminous plants like alfalfa, berseem clover or vetch. When they have access to a meadow rich in different plant species, it’s likely that they’ll choose to graze a little on one, a little on another. Pasture-fed animals have diet that is much richer, healthier and more varied than animals on most conventional farms, where their everyday meals tend to be based on corn silage.
I noticed many other things on my visits. For example, all the animals clearly had beautiful horns and were all in good health without needing to be pumped full of preventative antibiotics. Their behavior was placid and calm, without signs of fear, and they easily accepted the presence of stranger amongst them.
Something that’s rarely thought about is that a higher level of animal welfare corresponds to a higher level of human well-being.
If a farmer establishes a relationship with her animals, the animals will learn to trust her. The farmer has seen them grow according to natural rhythms, cared for them when they are sick, given them shelter from the elements and fed them. The farmer knows they are sentient beings, and is inspired by an approach of love and benevolence in her dealings with them. Even when taking the animals to the slaughterhouse, she will feel compassion and pity for them. The farmer will have a strong sense of the value of her work, and of the time she spends with the animals. All of this can be summed up as “care,” and can be perceived in the gentle stroke of a nose, a pat on a back, the naming of all the animals or just a generic “Good girls !” There are many gestures that show us how a relationship of mutual trust has developed between farmer and animals, and this relationship underpins a greater sense of well-being on both sides.
On the contrary, if farmers are used to working with large numbers, and to seeing the animals as machines, then a lack of empathy is highly likely, leading to the animals being subject to all kinds of dehumanizing cruelties . A good livestock farm, in other words, has positive effects not just on the animals, but also the farmers themselves.
One of the questions I asked myself after visiting these two small farms is to what extent their practices could be applied to a larger scale. The answer is probably that if the size of a farm increases, so do the compromises that have to be made. There is less time to dedicate to individual animals, less empathy, less understanding of all the members of a group. In short a completely different approach.
On small farms, the animals are seen as sentient beings, capable of feeling emotions, and the farmer works together with them, respecting their natural inclinations. On large farms, the animals are little more than machines to be exploited as much as possible, with a constant demand for more milk, more eggs, more meat, faster and faster, in order to make up for the costs of a livestock farm on a large scale.
WHAT CAN WE DO AS CONSUMERS?
As a consumer, even before I became part of the Slow Food movement, I always thought that it was necessary to support a production system like the one I’ve just described, a system based on the right approach to those key factors of environment, welfare, care and size. And I always thought that as consumers there is much that we can do, even if often it doesn’t seem like it.
We just need to realize how closely interlinked consumption practices are with production practices. We need to understand that small farms, local breeds and strict animal welfare criteria can never satisfy high consumer demand, especially when associated with the desire to pay less and less for what we put on our plates. And so we need to change our behavior. If we want to eat meat multiple times every day, and pay little for it, then we also have to accept compromises, because no ethical livestock farm, with positive effects on the environment and animal welfare, can meet elevated consumption demands. Just like a good farmer seeks to work in harmony with the natural resources and their animals, so too must we, by consuming less meat, selecting higher-quality meat and being ready to pay a fair price for what we choose to eat. By choosing cheeses made from the milk of cows who have grazed outdoors on summer pastures. By choosing eggs laid by chickens who ranged freely outdoors. And also by choosing delicious alternatives to animal protein. Most importantly, by always asking ourselves, what is the impact of our choices?
by Silvia Ceriani, [email protected]
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