Even in frigid weather, Ginger Myers' pigs are happy.
"As cold as it gets, the pigs are out there, snorting and playing like kids bundled up and running around," says the owner of Evermore Farm, a family-owned livestock and produce farm in Westminster. Myers is one of many farmers in the Baltimore area who believe that running a farm under the principles of "good stewardship" is the right approach for farmers, animals, consumers and the region as a whole.
Myers defines good stewardship as "the ethic of doing the best management we can — that's what we're doing from birth to plate. The breeds we select, the fact that we raise them on pasture 24/7, that we don't put additives in their feed."
There's a growing interest in Maryland and across the country in finding meat, poultry and eggs that come from animals who were raised in conditions more humane than what is found in typical "factory farms," which some criticize for their use of antibiotics, crowded conditions and food approaches that do not match animals' naturally intended diets.
More and more people are also seeking food that is free of antibiotics, is as natural as possible, and is from nearby farms.
"There's a local-food movement that's a groundswell that's not going away," Myers says. "It's not just a trend."
The interpretation of "good stewardship" varies from farm to farm.
At Clark's Never Sell the Land Farm in Howard County, seventh-generation farmer Nora Crist and her mother, Martha Clark, focus on raising their livestock in the way most conducive to the animals' natural lifestyles. That means allowing cows to adopt a "herd mentality" and rotating them from one field to another, and letting them continually graze on fresh grass to get the best nutrients.
Most farmers are careful not to denigrate others in agriculture, noting that it is a large industry and that different consumer groups have different needs and wants.
"Factory [farming] provides a lot of food for a lot of people," says Myers. "We're providing an alternative."
Small farmers are quick to point out the benefits of their alternative approach, which range from the happiness of animals to a boon for the local economy to better-tasting meat.
Animal welfare is first and foremost for many farmers and consumers. Raising animals under the principles of good stewardship is "the decent thing to do," says Winston Blick, owner of Clementine restaurant and Green Onion food market in Hamilton and one of the partners behind Genuine Food Company, an organization that bundles local, sustainably raised meat into easy-to-buy subscriptions for Baltimore residents.
"We know things are being grown for us to eat," Blick says." I don't think it's too much to ask to give them a decent life until we harvest them."
For the consumer, animals raised under these principles may also be more nutritious than others. According to Nora Crist, grassfed, pastured beef is better for humans "because the cows are not pumped full of antibiotics and steroids. Cows fed on corn have all those medications in them because they have so much acid in their stomachs."
The link between nontherapeutic antibiotic use in animals and illness in humans is a topic of frequent study. According to a 2013 Centers for Disease Control report, overuse of antibiotics in animals leads to the development of antibiotic-resistant infections, including salmonella and staphylococcus aureus, which are linked to outbreaks of food-borne illnesses among humans. The CDC reports that about 2 million illnesses occur each year as a result of antibiotic resistant infections; according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, 22 percent of these are food-borne.
The FDA implemented a plan late last year to phase out the practice of giving antibiotics to animals solely for the purpose of making them gain weight more quickly, though many have questioned whether farmers will comply since the rules are voluntary.
Crist also notes that in grassfed cattle, the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids is lower than in grain-fed beef. Higher ratios have been linked to heart disease, suggesting that grassfed beef may be healthier overall.
On a regional scale, supporting smaller farms can be boost the local economy. Blick likes the idea of buying directly from the farmer whenever possible, to pump money into small, local businesses.
Bolstering local farmers was part of the impetus behind Genuine Food Company, the organization Blick founded with farmers Bobby Prigel and Stephen Belkoff.
"It's good for the local economy if money stays at home," says Prigel, who acknowledges that as a small family farmer, he cannot compete in price with large-scale operations.