As far as media attention goes, April 11, 2014, was a banner day for Greg Finch. As the lone supplier of antibiotic-free, pastured Vermont pork to the highly acclaimed 5-Knives, a specialized supplier of local pork, Finch was offered what amounted to subsidized advertising space in the Burlington Free Press. The paper’s staff reporter, Sally Pollak—who told me she met Finch at a coffeehouse—served as stenographer for Finch, who delivered his talking points:
To [raise pigs] without the modern crutches of medicine, it’s management that makes you successful.... Doing things the right way all the time.... I take the best information I can find and adapt it to what I do.
This time around, with local foods, the farmer is a big part of the market, which is the exciting part of it.... It’s more of a collaboration. It’s much better for the farmer, and more vibrant for the farm.
I’m very, very careful about bio-security.
Experienced observers will recognize these remarks as boilerplate rhetoric, the kind that characterizes much of today’s food writing. A year later, though, Finch finds himself mired in media muck rather than admiration.
The Vermont Agency of Agriculture recently revealed that much of Finch’s “Vermont” pork came from Pennsylvania pigs. Twice a month Finch headed south to an auction house in New Holland, purchased 50 or so conventionally raised pigs, and hauled them back to the Green Mountain State, where he had them processed into “local” bellies, hams, and other choice cuts.
It was a profitable move while it lasted. Finch paid 60 cents a pound for the pigs in Pennsylvania. Sally Pollak, for one, admitted spending about $13 a pound for Finch’s ham at City Market, a Burlington co-op. It was price she deemed well justified. “It was a delicious piece of meat,” she wrote.
The more a food system fragments to serve localized markets the harder it becomes to regulate, at least in the way that we currently understand regulation.
The fact that such culinary chicanery can happen is distressing enough, especially for anyone who values locally sourced meat or, for that matter, honesty. And while it appears the punishment for Finch’s duplicity will be harsh—he faces tens of thousands of dollars in fines for 94 counts of violating the state’s importation laws— there’s another, even more disturbing, dot to which this story connects.
Consumers paying top dollar for falsely advertised boutique pork won’t be happy to learn that, two days before the Finch allegations broke, the New Holland auction house he frequented was cited for animal welfare violations.
Workers at New Holland Sales Stables tossed an injured goat and sheep onto a carcass pile, whereupon the animals “remained overnight in freezing weather,” according to Lancaster Online. Both animals were eventually euthanized because “of the severity of their condition.” “Misleading advertising about animal welfare is rampant in the meat industry, and this may be yet another case of it,” says Paul Shapiro, vice president for farm animal protection at the Humane Society of the United States.
In an agricultural landscape populated with more and more non-industrial animal farms—which are increasingly favored by conscientious consumers—it’s tempting to dismiss the Finch incident as a one off. But his case all too accurately reflects two of the most entrenched problems faced by downsized farms in a decentralizing food system: regulation and scale.
The more a food system fragments to serve localized markets the harder it becomes to regulate, at least in the way that we currently understand regulation (which, although far from perfect, is federally mandated and executed through standardized United States Department of Agriculture procedures). Sure, Finch got caught. But the only reason for that is the USDA inspection procedure that Finch’s pigs went through at the slaughterhouse. It was there that a federal inspector noticed “NH”—New Holland—tattoos on the pigs.
When it comes to scale, farmers choosing to raise animals in a non-industrial manner must—unless they are farming as a hobby—seek wider markets to survive. Connecting with a commercially successful retailer—think Niman and Whole Foods—means scaling up to meet orders. Given the growing popularity of boutique meat, the pressure intensifies quickly for small producers to do the near impossible: generate high volume output through low-volume techniques.
With 5-Knives and Finch, this pressure became acute. One purchaser of Finch’s pork told VtDigger: “My feeling ... is that [Finch] was trying to make the volume, he cut some corners and he made a really, really, really careless mistake.” Chris Bailey, CEO of Vermont Smoke and Cure, which oversaw the 5-Knives label, is perhaps now more aware of this problem than ever. “We’ll never again let any producers tell us that we can’t come onto their farm,” he says.
As I’ve noted before, a powerful libertarian impulse drives the Food Movement. The deregulatory approach that made Finch’s move possible suits many in the movement just fine. Even those in the movement who advocate for stronger regulatory oversight limit their proposals to industrial operations, working under the impression that small farmers plugged into local economies are somehow ipso facto honest farmers. Vermonters eating abused factory-raised pigs while thinking they’re eating pastured local pork are the latest example of how foolish this idea is.
The Things We Eat is a regular Pacific Standard column from James McWilliams on food, agriculture, and the American diet.