HOOKS, Texas — About three hours southeast of Pine Bluff in rural east Texas, a farmer is rethinking how we get the meat we eat. Annemarie Sullivan's “regenerative agriculture” derives from her respect for community, respect for the land and, most of all, respect for the chickens, pigs and cattle she raises as owner of Sullifarm and Kitchen in Hooks, Texas.
“While obviously I don't think there's anything morally wrong with eating meat, with killing the animal for our consumption, I think we should be super-respectful if we are going to take the life of an animal for our own survival and for our own health.
“I think when we lose respect for the animal and respect for that life, then we get the horror story of what farming is today, with factory farming,” Sullivan, 20, said during a recent tour of the farm.
It's a small-scale but ambitious operation on family land just a few miles from the nearest McDonald's and light years from the fast-food mentality.
There Sullivan raises livestock using techniques meant to honor each animal's nature and avoid unsustainable disruption of the land's capacity to nourish. An uncle she calls “a really big foodie” sparked her interest in looking more deeply at what we eat, where it comes from and how it affects our health. She considered becoming a naturopathic doctor, but did not want to be in school as long as that would take, and her interest then turned to food production.
“I guess it was kind of a realization that we have enough people telling us what to eat and not enough people actually growing really good food,” she said.
Her first idea was to run a raw-milk dairy, but regulations make doing so too time-consuming to be profitable on a small scale. Still, hand-milking cows for personal use remains a part of her daily routine. Sullivan calls her animals “pasture-fed,” avoiding other, often loaded labels in favor of showing people how she works. The meat she produces cannot be called organic because the animals eat some non-organic food.
“When people come out here and they actually see the way things are done, all the terms like 'free-range' and whether we're organic — all those, 'drug-free' and 'cage-free,' all the terms that you get at the grocery store — they just become so much less important,” she said.
What is significant is that none of the animals stays in one place very long.
“Moving is pretty much the most important aspect of what we do, and it's definitely what differentiates us from a more traditional farm,” Sullivan said.
The chickens roam free, allowed to forage naturally for their food. They are accustomed to a handful of geese and a dog named Blue hanging out among them.
Sullivan holds the cattle and pigs in areas enclosed by portable electric fences and moves them to fresh spots every few days. That lets the land regenerate what their grazing and rooting take from it.
“The main thing is their food source,” she said. “You are what your food eats.”
The system lets the animals behave as their instincts dictate, which ultimately results in them becoming better food, Sullivan said.
“If you let them live in an environment where they can express their instinctive nature, they're going to be happy. Like for pigs, letting them have the ability to root — not putting rings in their nose so they can't root or putting them on concrete where they have completely lost that ability — they're psychologically at ease, because they're doing what they instinctively know how to do. Same with chickens. If I lock them up in a cage, they would probably be less happy because they're not doing what their instincts are constantly telling them to do, which is to scratch and peck and forage for their food.
“That definitely affects the life of the animal. Maybe not in a way that it would affect us, but on a health level, it would definitely affect them because they're stressed.
“When you have a stressed animal, they're going to be less physically healthy, and that turns into less healthy meat for us to consume,” she said.
Sullivan supplements the animals' foraging by feeding them organic and natural breads that are past their expiration date for sale to people.
“It's a product that would normally go to waste, so that enables us to get it a lot cheaper than we would other grain products. Organic feed grain is exponentially high.
“So it enables us to produce really good food in an economic way,” she said. Donated feed such as a recent truckload of leftover Halloween pumpkins for the pigs also helps keep costs down.
Sullivan said she does not fear connecting with the animals she raises, though she understands why many people would.
“There's a couple different aspects that I think are very natural for people, but I also think they can be slightly unhealthy. And one of them is, 'I don't want to have any interaction with the animal. I want to see it on my plate, but I don't want to see how it lived, I don't want to see what it did, I don't want to see what it looked like. I don't want to see the animal. I just want to see the meat.'
“I understand that aspect, but I also think it's unhealthy, because it's basically avoiding the fact that you are eating meat. I don't think consciously you can just avoid that by just not caring, because then once you don't care about the animal you're consuming, you have issues like factory farming, which has no respect for the animal, no respect for its nature and its life.”
Sullivan said her approach is built upon the connection among respect, emotion and health.
“I think the more respect— the more time that you give to the animals that you're going to eat — the healthier they're going to be, the more hearty they're going to be, the more emotional connection you have,” she said. “I definitely want to raise an animal I know from the beginning this is its purpose, so I wouldn't get an emotional connection past that.
“You also have to control how you interact with your animals. But you can really, really respect the animal and take care of it as it should be taken care of, because in the end, this is what you're feeding yourself.
“Honestly, I think the more emotionally engaged with the animal that you are during its life, the more respectfully it's going to be raised, the more ethically it's going to be raised.”
Sullivan harvests and processes animals herself for personal use, but doing so for resale purposes means hiring a facility that follows state or Department of Agriculture regulations, and no such facility is closer than a two-hour drive away. In either case, she seeks to make the animals' death as stress-free and natural as possible.
“I find a facility that really has that same level of respect for the animal that I do. And nobody's going to be the same as doing it myself. I would really like to get to a point where I could do it myself legally. But finding a processor that has that same respect for the animal is really important because in that last period of time, if the animal is super-stressed, that's going to show up in the meat. And so I talk them through how I want it done.”
Sullivan has definite opinions on the matter.
“I don't think you should separate an animal from its natural environment,” she said. “I think it should die in an environment where it doesn't see it coming whatsoever.
“When I kill a pig, he's going to be out in that same pasture; he's going to be with his other pig friends. And when that animal drops, to the other animals it's completely natural. It's completely normal. So an animal drops next to them, they might look over, they might sniff, and then they'll just go back to doing their business of digging or eating or whatever they were doing. So I like to kill in that environment, because it kind of reflects nature.
“When you take an animal, and you run it through a concrete chute, and you try to control where it is and what it's doing, you can cause the animal to be stressed. So that's just something that I don't have as much control over when I use a different processor, which is why I like to be able to do it myself. But I talk people through it, and the processors that I use are also aware of making sure the animal's not stressed in that moment before they kill them. Oftentimes after the trailer ride, they'll let them settle down overnight, they'll let them sleep, they'll give them food and water, that sort of thing.”
No part of any of the animals goes to waste, another reflection of the respect with which they are treated.
“We waste a ton of food in today's world, or at least in this country, and that goes back to having no respect for the food or for the life that came before it, when you're throwing half your plate away,” she said. “And that's why another big portion of what we do is whole-animal butchery. So you can come here and you can buy everything from chicken feet, to a pig head, to your normal bacon and chops, and whole bird and that sort of thing. There's definitely no portion of an animal that should just be wasted because it's less desirable. I think if you have that respect for the animal, you're going to want to eat the entire thing.”
The end result is a complete variety of chicken, pork and beef products for sale at the farm and at outlets such as Texarkana, Texas, Farmers' Market. Sullifarm offers “PastureBox” combinations of cuts delivered to customers and, about four times a year, customers gather at the farm to eat a supper made exclusively of locally-sourced food.
“Farms are so often nowadays disconnected with food, which is crazy,” she said, “because that's what farms do; they produce food. But you would never go out to one of today's big, industrial farms and try something off the farm or eat something or cook something or have dinner out there, anything like that. So the 'and kitchen' comes from in the beginning, when I started wanting to do something where I can bring people out, which now we're doing with our farm-to-table dinners.
“It's not just a farm for production. I also want to educate on how to utilize the whole animal, how to cook. A big portion of it is not just food, but it's also supporting local, supporting the people who are around you, the people you can see and have a relationship with. Supporting your community.”
Sullivan said she has faith that her method can scale up and become the new normal.
“I would encourage other people to do what I'm doing,” she said. “I don't think this is a niche market. Even though I'm so small-scale, this model is one that can grow. I 100 percent believe that with this model, we can replace modern agriculture as it is right now. There's certainly not just one fix for that. There are so many aspects that come into play with how that shift would take place, but for me just starting out this way and having customers supporting this is just a big, huge portion of that.”