Getting to the meat of it

Author(s): Tim Brouk
Photographs by: Provided

A biological sciences alumna and “recovering” vegetarian is now a leading force in Indiana sustainable farming and meat processing.

Jessica Smith earned her bachelor’s degree in 1996 after only three years. A West Lafayette native, she grew up an animal lover and naturalist. She predicted a veterinary career.

After a few years working as an analytical chemist at Bioanalytical Systems in West Lafayette, Jessica and her husband, Erick Smith — a Purdue construction engineering and management alumnus — started This Old Farm in 2000. More than a decade later, the Smiths lead a farm alliance that puts locally raised meat and produce into stores and restaurants all over Indiana.

Located just outside Darlington, Ind., the 88-acre farm raises pigs and lambs for meat, which is processed just five miles down the road outside Colfax. Chickens are raised for meat and eggs. The animals are fed organically and enjoy a free-range lifestyle when weather cooperates. This translates into a healthier product. And Smith believes her biological sciences degree comes into play in agriculture.

“Biology does interrelate in looking at natural systems, if you think about what agriculture is,” Smith says. “Coming from a science background, I look at it with a different set of eyes.”

So how does a former vegetarian become in charge of about 20 employees at a meat-processing food hub? Smith says the passion to promote healthy, clean eating and distributing food to the masses outweighed her meat-free ways. Smith believes meat that dodges large processing plants and is taken care of properly with zero additives brings peace of mind and body.

This Old Farm sign

“I looked at processing as being a true roadblock to farming in general,” Smith explains. “I never thought I would be in the processing business. I was a vegetarian for a number of years, including my college years. I didn’t necessarily trust the meat industry. … But (processing) is a very key part of getting good food out to the marketplace. No one wants Bessie the cow to show up on their doorstep. It’s got to get processed.”

Lamb chops, chicken breasts, a signature sausage blend, ham, bacon and much more can be found in the entrees at restaurants like downtown Lafayette’s La Scala and Lafayette health food market Nature’s Pharm. Smith says the farm alliance includes more than 100 farms within a 400-mile radius. Together, the farms provide a widerange of food for Hoosiers.

Small farm challenges

Starting a first-generation farm in the Hoosier heartland is a difficult task. Agricultural companies or families who have been harvesting the land for generations own most farmland. The Smiths’ patch of Montgomery County started out with enough output to feed about 100 families. The couple wanted to reach out beyond their neighbors and farmers’ markets. They looked into regional distribution.

As momentum began to build for This Old Farm, disaster struck in the form of a grease fire on Dec. 27, 2010. The main building, which included the processing center and offices, was a total loss. Only one wall of the harvesting room, which is where the animals are slaughtered, was salvageable. Jessica said the firefighters offered to knock it down but she wanted some remnant of the original 1978 building to survive.

After much “blood, sweat and tears,” the Smiths rebuilt six months later and have since grown beyond pre-fire output.

market

From field to table

The harvesting room adjoins cold storage areas where dozens of sides of beef and a few pigs hang on a chilly February morning. The beef, brought in from allied farms, dangles from hooks, just like in the famous “Rocky” training scene. The USDA inspectors would frown on Sylvester Stallone’s meat pugilism, Smith is quick to point out.

Smith says consumers should know the journey of their meat. It makes sense that the fewer miles beef or pork has to travel, the better it will be in quality and taste.

On this morning, ham, sausage and bacon straight from This Old Farm is being processed. The huge hams are being cut into thick slices as is the bacon, courtesy of a large machine that slices and stacks strips from large hunks of pork belly. The bacon is then put on racks – 20 pounds a rack – and readied for packaging. It’s as simple as that. Another station has workers slapping labels over packaged sausage. Natural seasonings are the only additions to the ground pork mix, Smith says.

Smith says that, on average, meat travels up to 1,500 miles but most of her product is found within Indiana’s borders and surrounding states.

Sustainable success?

Through most of This Old Farm’s existence, the notion of eating locally raised food has been on the minds of many Americans. Organic is important to many consumers today. Smith says four major meat-processing companies process 80 percent of beef in the United States — Tyson, Cargill, JBS and National Beef. Large companies also own the majority of certain produce. Supporting smaller, independent initiatives like This Old Farm has become important not only to human health but the environment and economy as well.

“Certainly today there is more interest. Growing knowledge is there,” Smith says. “There is no reason we can’t have regional product from Indiana in the same places everybody likes to shop.

“The disconnect is great. People still don’t know where their food is coming from and how it was grown, and what Indiana is capable of doing. … if we can keep what’s grown in Indiana in Indiana, that’s fantastic. We’re the 14th-largest ag state but we import 95 percent of our food. We have a long way to go and a great amount of impact that can happen with just a small change in the marketplace.”

About 10 percent of This Old Farm’s food is produce. Romaine lettuce, squash, green beans, green peppers, zucchini and potatoes join the Smiths’ meat for distribution. With major drought in California and Texas, Smith says it is more important than ever to grow and distribute produce in Indiana.

“Three hundred and sixty-nine thousand acres of lettuce production in the U.S., 280,000 acres are in California and they didn’t plant this year because they don’t have any water to do so,” Smith says. “All of those stories point to the centralization of food systems. ... That certainly puts us in a place of fragility today, that we don’t have a lot of choice in our food supply. One contamination can really be widespread. That’s why we believe in the diversification of the ag system.

“We need to make sure the food safety angle is taken care of — expansion of a facility to take care of that headache, if you will, off of the farm so we can package and sanitize and have produce we can continue to move. If not, we’re going to lose the very few produce farmers we have in Indiana.”

Peter Waser, professor emeritus of biological sciences, had Smith in his Ecology course, BIOL 585. He recalls the future farmer as “an enthusiastic student.” Smith took an atypical career path for a biologist, but Waser is happy to see his former student thrive.

“It’s a pleasure to see her succeed in this venture,” Waser says. “Great to see her identify such a valuable niche as the one she occupies today — the result of a lot of commitment and effort on her part.”

“Her example reinforces my belief that understanding how the biological world works — including how we work — helps an educated citizen succeed no matter what her field is. The Ecology class she took from me was not human-centered, not an environmental science course, it focused on things like the mathematics of population growth, the ways that natural selection plays out in the natural world, and the way that energy flows through ecosystems.

“So I doubt that the details of those things come into her daily business decisions. But assimilating the way of thinking that scientists use, and especially being able to think about the energy and resource limits that all species — including our own — face surely played into her career choices. Or maybe she had that way of thinking already, and we just encouraged it.“

Pigs

A pair of pigs at This Old Farm.