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  • Hannah Ridge

What's "ethical" to the Ethical Farming Fund?

The words “humanely raised” are an increasingly common marketing term on animal products. Unlike with the labels “cage-free” and “organic,” there is no legal definition of “humanely raised.” Hypothetically, any food company or farmer could describe their product this way. So how do you know if it’s accurate?

In a best-case scenario, you can see the farm and ask the farmer questions to find out whether their practices meet your definition of "humane." The second best option is a third-party certification that fulfills your standards. (We usually recommend Animal Welfare Approved by A Greener World, Certified Humane, and the 5-Step Certification Program by the Global Animal Partnership). Unfortunately, few if any farms in Western Pennsylvania have any animal welfare certifications. That’s where the Ethical Farming Fund comes in.

Over the years that we've been compiling a list of ethical farms serving Southwestern PA, the list has been constantly changing. We are always adding farms and updating their listed offerings (e.g., beef, eggs, pork), but occasionally we remove farms or some of their products. To understand why, here’s what a farm needs to do to be recommended by us:

1. The farm must meet our animal welfare standards.

Our standards are loosely based on the criteria from our favorite certification organizations. Ours are not as specific, because we do not currently have the resources to audit the animal welfare claims farmers make. In some instances, not all species on a farm meet our criteria, so we only recommend species that do. For example, if a farm’s chickens are raised according to our standards, but their turkeys are not, we only list the chickens. It's worth noting that if a farm doesn't meet any of these animal welfare standards, they may still be eligible for our Farmraiser Grant (the sole purpose of which is to help farmers improve their animal welfare practices).

2. The farm must market their products directly to the customer.

Direct support is key to the success of the local food movement. That said, not all small farms sell directly to the consumer; some sell their finished animals at an auction or to a processor. The product then belongs to someone else and is combined with product from many other farms. This may be necessary for the farm's scale or capabilities, but we cannot recommend their products without a chain of custody. We do make exceptions for farms that sell only through certain farmer-owned cooperatives, like Penn's Corner Farm Alliance, because of their high standards of transparency.

3. The farm must serve Southwestern PA or be located within 100 miles of Pittsburgh. Eating food that is produced closer to home is a critical part of a sustainable food system. The word "local" is generally understood (but not regulated) to mean within a 100-mile radius. A 100-mile radius around Pittsburgh includes parts of West Virginia, Ohio and Maryland, and reaches almost halfway across Pennsylvania. Despite this wide area, we may still recommend a farm that is a bit farther away, as long as it directly serves Southwestern PA.

4. Any product we recommend must be raised exclusively on the farm.

This seems like a no-brainer, right? Unfortunately, there are many farms—yes, even local ones—that put their name on product that they bought at auction or from another farm. This dishonest practice undermines the standards to which so many other farms and food businesses hold themselves, so we do not recommend any species/products that are supplemented from other sources. On a case-by-case basis, we may still list a farm that doesn't raise everything they sell, but only for foods that still meet this standard. (For example, one farm that sells beef raised solely on their farm also takes their neighbor's lamb to market for them. We only recommend their beef.)

If a farm appears to meet these four criteria, either according to our research or by talking directly to the farmer, we add them to the list. If it comes to our attention that one or more of the above criteria are not truly being met, we remove the farm until they can prove that they are meeting our standards. Our ultimate obligation is to animal welfare and food system transparency, and we are always thinking about how we can most effectively improve Southwestern Pennsylvania's foodshed.

To see a list of farms that sell food that meets our standards, check out Pittsburgh's Guide to Humanely Raised Food.

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