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One woman's quest to enjoy her dinner without guilt

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His cattle aren't grass-fed, but other than that the place conforms to most people's mental image of an environmentally friendly farm with relatively content animals.

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Even better, it's a closed cycle: Mr. Plapp and his brother grow the organic crops - corn, soybeans, wheat, barley, oats, and hay - that they need to feed their animals, while the manure all goes back to compost the fields.

"I love to compost," says Plapp enthusiastically, as he shows off various barns and a new organic flour operation.

He used to be a typical hog farmer, raising several thousand animals a year in close confines. But since deciding to go organic 10 years ago, he's become a full convert. One of the side benefits, he notes, is the connection it gives him to his customers.

"There's been 100 years of trying to separate us from the consumer - you don't get feedback," he says. Now, he can go into one of the Chicago restaurants that feature his meat, as he did with the Bistro Campagne recently, and the patrons treat him like a rock star.

I drove away feeling that Plapp's was the kind of farm I could feel happy supporting, if he sold directly to individuals instead of to restaurants. Still, since not all meat that says "free-range" - one of the most notoriously unregulated and meaningless labels out there - comes from a farm like his, what's the solution?

Animal activists will certainly continue to fight for more rigorous standards for animal care.

But to meet my own concerns, I found that with a small amount of research, online or by phone, I could learn a lot. Pollan suggests simply asking a farm if you can visit (whether you plan to or not).

"There are two kinds of farms - ones that welcome consumers, and ones that are terrified of consumers," he says.

A farm system that works

It wasn't hard for me to find a Midwest network of family farms called Wholesome Harvest that meets my criteria and sells to a supermarket near me. The founder, Wende Elliott, even used to be a vegetarian before moving to Iowa with her husband and starting to farm.

All 43 farms in their system voluntarily surpass the organic standards, which allow for confinement of animals.

"We don't think that's the picture people have when they pay for it," says Ms. Elliott. "To us, the heart of organic isn't only that it's not pesticide-treated, but that it's a regional food system, in sync with the seasons, has equitable treatment of farmers, and the highest possible treatment of the land and the animals." They add a "raised on pasture" label to their meat - something l I'll look for the next time I shop.

My decision isn't likely to satisfy animal-rights ethicists, many of whom think we'll one day look back at meat-eating the way we now look at slavery.

And I can't say I'll be certain that every piece of meat I'm served in a restaurant or friend's home meets my standards. But I'd hope that changing what I buy and where I buy it will send a tiny message about my values when it comes to dinner.

At the very least, it means I can enjoy my hamburger without guilt.


Websites discussing ethical eating options: A farm network promising ethical treatment of the land and the animals. localfood/ Helps you find nearby farms, of all types (meat, veggie, etc.), no matter where you live. Consumers Union guide to eco-labels and what they really mean.