By Roger Williams Florida Weekly
-Mr. Tom Scannel owns Pineshine Farms on Pine Island, a place he calls “the last, best bus stop,” just over 100 acres where he raises and finishes beef and chickens on unenhanced grass pasture for restaurants, clubs and health-conscious, flavor-inspired local and regional customers. He sells eggs and chickens with beef that’s “non-GMO, corn-free, soy-free, antibiotic and hormone free, (and) 100 percent grass-fed,” he notes in a statement that rings like a mantra.
Other family farmers producing clean meat in the region are doing the same thing: Three Suns Ranch in Charlotte County raises and sells bison, beef and wild hog from its sprawling pastures on about 5,700 acres, for example. And Circle C Farms, with a retail butcher shop in Bonita Springs and “the big farm” of about 135 acres in Felda, sells a variety of clean meats born, raised and finished on grass, but also slaughtered in the family’s abattoir (or slaughterhouse) — humanely — and inspected there by a USDA official.
Circle C is the only farm in Florida with a USDA inspector on site every day of the working week certifying both white and red meat — and one of just three farms to do so in the United States, says Nicole Cruz, co-owner with her husband, Manny Cruz, of Circle C.
Together, and with nine employees including some other family members, they raise beef, pork, lamb, chickens, turkeys, ducks and guineas all in pasture from the first to the last day of their lives. Along with everything else, they have about 75 cows and calves at any one time, relying on seasonal rotations of animals through the pasture so cows will eat one type of grass, sheep another and chickens and hogs yet another — each species living off the land but also fertilizing it and allowing it to restore itself.
How it works
“Circle C” is chockablock with meaning. “The Circle from Circle C Farm is the circle of life: From the pasture to the plate, that animal is part of that circle,” says Mrs. Cruz, whose last name supplies the C to go with Circle.
The farm offers not just its own meat but slaughtering, butchering and inspection services to other farmers by having the USDA inspector on site for both white and red meat. Thus, any meat freshly harvested at Circle C can be sold locally or anywhere in the United States, from on-line orders and via FedEx.
Mr. Scannell takes advantage of the abattoir and government certification at Circle C, along with more than 10 other farmers in the region and individuals who raise an animal or two for their own consumption.
“We feel they treat our animals the way we would,” he says: gently, in an environment that takes away stress before they’re killed.
“Cattle can take up to two years for some farmers to prepare, and you don’t want them all jacked up and stressed out when they get here,” Mrs. Cruz explains.
“If Tom brings in a cow or two or three, they get to stay out in the working pens for a day — or two or three, if they need that time. Only when the animal is relaxed do we harvest that animal. If they need the extra days, they get that.”
It’s the final touch on a meat-raising and harvesting process good for both the animal and for the human consumer. In the case of Circle C’s own meat, they usually harvest cows at about 14 to 15 months of age, weighing about 1,000 pounds, but dressing out and “hanging” at just under 500 pounds. With sheep, for example, they harvest animals at about the same age and about 100 pounds. Even the pasture-raised chickens take many months to reach harvesting weights.
By contrast, meat typically sold in supermarkets comes from animals that weigh significantly more and have put on the weight in feed lots much more quickly, explains Mr. Scannell.
“Being a farmer, I grew up with the spoon of Monsanto in my mouth,” he recalls, citing the corporate giant that produces many of the chemical-based products that maintain contemporary corporate farm operations.
“But I’ve turned 180 degrees away from that model: growth hormones, antibiotics, the whole works. It’s deadly for our environment and humanity.”
So, he, the Cruz family and others like them are practicing what they call “regenerative agriculture”: producing healthier food with a minimum impact on land and people.
“The cow or steer raised on grass initially in the industrial agricultural world and sent off to a feed lot, is fed cheap GMO grains, a steady flow of amoxicillin because it’s standing in six inches of fecal matter so it has a low-grade pneumonia, and it’s fed something that lets it gain weight immediately — corn, which turns to sugar the minute it enters the system.”
To get those cows to feed lots and to raise the corn or grains that fatten them — between five and eight pounds of grain is required to add a single extra pound of fat to a cow in a feed lot, agricultural experts say — can take on the order of 85 gallons of diesel fuel, Mr. Scannell explains.
“You have an animal that was formerly solar-powered — it converts the energy of the sun by eating grass and digesting it, passing the energy to us — and now it takes 85 gallons of diesel fuel between raised grains and the feed lot, to get it to us.
“So now we’ve turned this carbon-neutral or even carbon-negative creature into a petro-chemical product,” he says.
We don’t do ourselves any favors by paying less and eating more of that meat, the clean-meat farmers insist.
“As we already long-since knew, you are what you eat and the better-quality meats you eat, the healthier you feel,” Mrs. Cruz says. “This beef has a better, higher-quality fat, these are higher-quality meats, so when you consume them, it’s better for your body. They’re actually good for you.”
And now Mr. Scannell sees farming and food-raising not the way a corporate farm cotton grower or a commercial industry supplier of bougainvillea might see it, but the way Hippocrates saw it in the fourth century B.C.: “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food,” he says, quoting the ancient Greek father of Western medicine.
Burned out by corporate farming and looking for a place perhaps less subject to hurricanes than Palm Beach County, he drove across State Road 80 into Lee County a few short years ago “and here was this island in the gulf, the biggest island in Florida, surrounded by all these developed islands, and it was Ag!” he says.
“How did that happen? They don’t make those kind of islands any more, and I still don’t understand how Pine Island missed all the development.”
Pineshine Farms was a citrus operation when he arrived, but after the first year the trees all got canker and the state removed them.
Only last year was he able to start selling his beef and become one of the increasing number of farmers “tearing apart agriculture and redefining it in an environmental, holistic, humane and healthy way,” he says.
Such an approach in the fields requires an entirely different economic approach, too.
“This requires the honest conversation about price,” says Mrs. Cruz. “We price our meats based on what it costs to remain sustainable. I can’t raise a chicken for 39 cents a pound (or 59 or 99 cents a pound).”
Prices, all listed on well-designed websites, vary from clean-meat producer to clean-meat producer and from meat to meat. But at Pineshine Farms, probably selling on the low-end, 90 percent lean ground beef is running $8.79 a pound, while sirloin steak is $11.79, bone-in ribeye is $17.49 and T-bone steaks, bone-in, are $17.79.
In roasts, bottom round is $9 a pound, brisket is $11, chuck steak is $6.99. Whole chickens are $7 per pound, and eggs run $5 per dozen.
That’s only a partial list of what’s available at Pineshine Farms, but it’s a complete idea all in a price list: Less is more, the farmers say. If you’re a standard supermarket meat shopper, eating a little less meat, even if you’re paying more, will give you a great deal more pleasure and health.
For him, farming is now about understanding the economics of a small-scale, says Mr. Scannell, who isn’t rolling in cash yet but hopes to make a decent living and leave a better, healthier environment.
“Commercial agriculture is all about economy of scale — you want to scale up and as a result your margins are leaner per unit of production. A cotton farmer pays $750,000 for a machine, so how’s he going to make that $40,000 payment?” he asks rhetorically.
Scale up. Grow more, sell more even if profit margins are smaller.
“This is 180 degrees different,” Mr. Scannell says of raising grass-fed beef on 100 acres. “There’s a lot of manual labor, and I’ve tried to take the capital intensity out of it so it’s doable for people, not just for wealthy landowners. There are less things to break and go wrong.”
And in the end — for him and for everybody else, he figures — “you don’t have to eat as much. But when you do eat meat, eat quality.”