Along with a group of other small-scale farmers, Sea Breeze Farm of Vashon Island is raising veal in pastures instead of pens, hoping to replace the poster images of animal cruelty with a more holistic view of cattle farming that sustains a healthy ecosystem.
GEORGE PAGE is proud of the food he produces at Sea Breeze Farm — raw milk, grass-fed beef, fine charcuterie — and yet there’s one product he wouldn’t mind renaming.
“I kind of resist the term veal,” he says. “It has such a stigma attached to it.”
The shanks and chops and rich veal stocks from Page’s farm, though, are a world away from the images associated with veal in years past. The Vashon Island farm is one of a small number nationwide trying to reclaim “real veal,” at least on a small scale, for the tables of ethics-minded eaters.
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Page is almost glad when shoppers at the farmers market see veal on the Sea Breeze tables and ask, “Isn’t that cruel? Isn’t that awful?”
Then, he can tell them his small farm does not shackle calves in crates to produce the blandest, most tender meat possible, as calves were pictured in animal-rights posters of decades past. His calves drink milk, not “milk replacement.”
“It’s pretty straightforward and simple. We’re totally pasture-based, outside, year-round, and the calves are out there with their moms nursing,” Page says.
It sounds suspiciously basic for a meat freighted with as much emotional weight as a baby seal. And yet, on a springtime visit to the Sea Breeze pastures, it really is as old-fashioned as Page describes.
After driving up a dirt driveway and ducking under wooden fenceposts, we wander past older cows calmly grazing in knee-high grass and clover. We’re close enough to civilization to see new houses going up, but Puget Sound sparkles in the background, and it takes a hike through two fields to even find where the calves have wandered. Some males are earmarked for veal and will be slaughtered at three to five months of age, some will grow into older beef cattle. The dividing criteria might be as practical as whether it pencils out to keep the animal over the winter, as random as whether the farm needs an infusion of cash.
A dairy cow named Lucy — the first cow Page bought for the farm — looks up, a metal cowbell clanking around her neck. A young calf, “Chocolate Soup,” named by Page’s 6-year-old daughter, settles in the shade. Common farm practice is to avoid naming animals that are destined for slaughter. But Sea Breeze is still so small, with 20 or so cows at a given time, it’s hard to draw such lines.
“Every time we have a calf, it’s a pretty big event,” Page says.
Asked why he sells veal at all, given its limited use in modern American kitchens, Page first answers that it’s for the meat’s broad uses in pates and sausages and Sea Breeze’s other culinary delights. “I grow what I like to eat. It’s usually not for any reason more profound than that,” he says.
As he continues, though, the bigger answer is as much philosophy as food. In his view, large-scale modern farming has segmented animal husbandry, breaking up what was once a whole and healthy ecosystem. Byproducts — such as male calves on a dairy farm — then become problems rather than just pieces of the puzzle. At Sea Breeze, he wants every piece to play its part.
Page still has puzzles of his own, of course. Development, even on quiet Vashon, restricts the amount of available pasture for his animals. Labor costs are high for his style of farming, and he wonders whether customers will understand the price premium on what he sells. The farm’s small scale means that all products aren’t always available.
What does fit into place, though, is the feeling that the cows and calves belong where they are.
Mainstream veal production has changed since the days of the animal-cruelty posters. And yet, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says that modern veal calves are typically raised in “environmentally controlled veal barns” where they’re fed milk replacements and kept in individual stalls with slotted floors to deal with their waste. An American Veal Association industry paper still justifies tethering calves in stalls, saying, “The notion that calves need to physically turn around is not a documented need of calves.”
Page wonders sometimes whether it is even correct to call the meat he sells veal. It could be argued, he says, that the industry standard is that true veal must be confined, keeping the meat a pristine white. The nibbles of grass his calves swipe in the field tints their meat a pinkish hue, he says, and the exercise they get makes their flesh less delicate.
“We just accept the fact that our veal is a little pink, or rose-colored, and therefore has a little more flavor as well,” he says.
Maybe there’s a new name for it right there: “Not standard.” With veal, it could be the biggest selling point of all.
Rebekah Denn is a Seattle-based food writer. Courtney Blethen is a Seattle Times staff photographer.