As we continue to work toward our goal of running a successful small farm, we’ve moved into a second stage of development: Divide and Conquer. While Christina is traveling around the US, charming butchers and market managers and scouting the surrounding area for livability and unmet demand for the products we want to produce, I’m learning how to produce these things at the kind of scale we’ll need to survive. It’s tough to be apart during this important phase in our lives (and right before we get married to boot), but we don’t want to spend years searching for a new home and we decided that this was the fastest way to make progress.
So until Thanksgiving I’m working as an apprentice at Fickle Creek Farm near Durham, North Carolina. While it’s still a small farm, Fickle Creek is pretty big. We’re nearly 300 acres spread across several properties, and active at five markets year round. But what’s best about Fickle Creek is that it’s so diversified. Similar to the way Christina and I have spread out the responsibility of our farm project, here at Fickle Creek we have a variety of products to minimize risk and spread out the workload. Everything here is dual purpose: the ducks lay eggs and eat slugs from dormant garden beds, the pigs eliminate invasive weeds while stuffing their snouts to make our bacon, and the sheep keep the grass at bay while pumping out a few lambs every spring. It’s one big organism.
It can be tempting to say that we want to just get really good at doing one or two things. But that’s not realistic for small farmers. We need to be good at ten things so that if one of them fails it doesn’t bring the ship down with it. And animals are very good at the few things they know how to do. If you provide them with a few basic things, they’ll work for you rather than you working for them. It takes a heckuva lot of planning and careful execution, but the reward is a life of pride in what you do.
It’s taken a lot of patience for us to get this far, but it finally feels like we’re moving forward on a plan that’s now been years in the making. Updates here will be less frequent than in the past, but stay tuned. Big things are happening.
I can’t believe we’ve been in Spain for a month already! With the help of very patient locals and the iPhone app, Duolingo, I’ve gone from being able to ask for a glass of wine to being able to talk about the pros and cons of NYC public schools, GMOs, and how to make cookies entirely in Spanish. Granted, I can only speak in the present tense and say things like “I much like it very.”
Our time in Spain has been split between cities that make my heart sing and rural towns where we have been climbing or working. We spent a long weekend in Barcelona, a few weeks climbing in central Spain, then up to San Sebastian in the Basque country where we ate everything in sight, and have spent the past two weeks on a farm outside of Segovia. Work, play, eat. Work, play, eat. In our opinion, that is the most satisfying way to travel.
Last week I went to a talk by Joel Salatin, the influential, self-described “lunatic farmer” profiled in The Omnivore’s Dilemma and many other publications. Salatin has been an important part of my conversion to food activism, so I was excited to hear what he had to say. I bought my ticket in advance – actually, so far in advance that I had ticket #1. I convinced a few friends on the fence to come, insisting that Salatin was a dynamic and engaging guy, and that he would put on a good show. I was half right.
Salatin is far less well-known here in NZ than he is in the US, so I wasn’t sure what to expect as far as turn out. I arrived a few minutes early to get a decent seat, and was pleasantly surprised by the number of people in the crowd. I snuck up front and sat next to an older couple that were getting involved in the local and sustainable agriculture movement after careers as high country sheep farmers. The rest of the room appeared to be folks from similar backgrounds: small farmers, younger activists, a dread-locked woman with a “McShit” t-shirt; an easy audience for a seasoned speaker like Salatin.
After a short introduction he came out to a warm welcome and quickly launched into his brand of farmer schtick. He talked about the evils of concentrated animal feedlot operations and the health benefits of food produced naturally. “Great,” I thought, “here comes the big finish.” But there was no big finish. He didn’t delve into any information that isn’t already better explained in his books. In fact, many talking points were repeated word-for-word. This left little time for discussion, and after a few massive softballs a good question came from the audience: “What do you do to replace the biomass that leaves your farm?” This was acknowledged as an excellent question and then forgotten as he spun into a discussion of integrating systems at the farm. I’m still curious about the answer.
I left disappointed and a little upset that I recommended the event to friends. I expected an enlightening discussion of new ideas and a real dialogue with invested parties and their unique problems so that we could all learn from the specific set of challenges that farmers in New Zealand face, which are undoubtedly different that the problems Salatin faces in Virginia. Perhaps he’d even learn something from us. But instead I got preached to as a member of the slow-food choir and a thinly-veiled public stroking.
Furthermore, Salatin’s delivery comes off less as the nice neighborly guy and more as a condescending know-it-all. His jokes were cheesy and he mixed in advanced vocabulary that felt as if it were pulled from a thesaurus to make him sound more polished and professional. Unless you’re speaking to a room full of mathematicians, calling something a “sigmoid curve,” when “s-curve” will do undermines the message. He talked AT us instead of speaking TO us.
Of course this doesn’t change the fact that I still agree with a lot of what Salatin says (though definitely not all), and I think he’s done the world a lot of good by preaching his message. I suppose I’ll just need to find another farmer rock star’s poster to hang on my bedroom wall.
“What are you going to to when you go home?” is a question we hear with some frequency. It usually follows “are you ever going home?” Don’t worry, moms and dads, the answer is “yes.”
We do plan to return to the US, and our plans for when that time comes are still taking shape. Now we call on you, fair readers, to poke and prod and hopefully, make helpful suggestions to our plan.
A few months ago we publicly announced that we’re interested in starting a farm, but that’s pretty vague. Farms vary wildly in size and purpose; there’s everything from the small self-sufficiency holding to the massive corporate behemoth. Where do we want to fall on that spectrum? What do we want to grow?
We certainly want to be larger than the very small guys. We want to be as self-sufficient as possible, but we also want to live off this endeavor and buy things that we can’t produce: coffee, chocolate, entertainment. Maybe we’ll make our own honey and beer, but we want the flexibility to buy stuff: gadgets, books, or The Meaning of Life (with free shipping!) on eBay. We haven’t gone completely off the deep end.
And we definitely want to be smaller than the big guys. We don’t want row crops or a concentrated feeding operation. We don’t want to poison the earth with herbicides and suck the nutrients completely out of the ground.
So now that you’ve got a pretty good idea what we don’t want, maybe what we do want will make more sense. We want a diversity of vegetables, fruit trees, and animals. We love pork so pigs are pretty much guaranteed. Their ability to consume a lot of farm by-products is also a plus. These kiwis have taught me a lot about the value and ease of sheep, though they are “dumb as,” in the vernacular. The farm-raised lamb chops, which are probably the juiciest cut of meat I’ve ever tasted, didn’t hurt. Goats are smart and efficient at turning grass into milk, but cows cut down on the labor involved in harvesting that milk. So we’re still up in the air in the dairy department. Chickens, ducks, and guinea fowl are also very likely in our future. Geese and their midnight honking are definitely not. So we’re going to produce a lot of different stuff. What are we going to do with it all?
At first, we’ll sell at markets and add value with prepared foods: spreads, sauces, etc. We’ll need a licensed commercial kitchen to keep Johnny Law off our backs, but we’re hoping to rent a space for food preparation until we can build our own.
Ultimately, we want to open a full service restaurant on the property. We’ll operate as a casual cafe for breakfast and lunch, with wifi access and delicious coffee, baked goods, and a small menu of simple food. For the dinner service we’ll move up market to a slightly fancier version of the same. Our dining room will be a place you wouldn’t mind taking your kids at 6 o’clock or a date at 8. Prices will be accessible and again, the menu would be limited. And of course, we’ll supply as much of the food served as possible from the farm. We’ll welcome patrons to take a walk around and see where the pork chop that they’re about to eat rooted for nuts, or pick an apple off that tree with heavily laden branches for a snack before their meal. We’ll bring food to people and bring people to food. Our vision is for a welcoming place that inspires the community and makes people excited to spend time there, be it on a date or just to swing by for some eggs.
Further down the line, we’ll incorporate education. We’ll host a small army of WWOOFers, welcome school groups, and offer courses to the public. We’ll have an internship/apprentice program and bring our products to underserved markets.
Finding the right place for this will be difficult. We think that a 20-30 acre plot of land will be small enough to be manageable at first, while giving us room to grow as we get better at this farming thing. Climate and length of growing season are factors to consider, but we’re prepared to use greenhouses and tall tunnels to artificially lengthen the season. Annual precipitation and access to water are huge factors, and we’d rather consistent rain than committing to constantly moving irrigation around.
We need a community that would be excited about supporting a farm-to-table restaurant, but doesn’t already have lots of great options in that category. We need a location that’s accessible for the walk-up cafe crowd, but also a significant chunk of land to do our growing. For our own sanity, we need outdoor recreation close by; we’re avid rock climbers, hikers, and cyclists. We’d like to be within a few hours of an international airport, so we can get out and welcome visitors without too much hassle. We want the perfect spot, and, I think, this will be the most difficult part of this endeavor. Or at least the first most difficult part.
I hope you can see that we’ve thought about this a lot, and also that we’ve got a long way to go. We have a solid idea of what we want, but really don’t know anything at all about achieving it. So we need your help. Comment, email, text, Facebook, smoke signal, or carrier pigeon us your thoughts, advice, reservations, whatever.
A few weeks ago, I attended a presentation by The Localizing Food Tour, a group that puts on presentations and hands on workshops for communities to help them create a sustainable, local food supply. It was a super charged, energetic talk on food politics and issues like the upcoming food bill that is to be passed here in NZ, the possibility of a new trade agreement with the States and China, genetically engineered crops, and how these things affect us common folk. Their mission seems to be two fold: to educate people about food politics and to facilitate action in the community.
One would hope that the discussion around food would be about feeding and nurturing people, just as one would assume that decisions about education would be focused on educating students. Ultimately, food politics, like education politics, isn’t about how to support and strengthen people. It is about control and money. Shocker.
Jon Foote, the presenter, spoke about genetical engineered foods and how people’s eating habits have changed from whole, real foods, to packaged, processed foods and the corresponding rise in diseases and learning disabilities. I learned about irradiated fruits and vegetables, a process that keeps perishable foods from rotting and bruising, but kills the nutrients and puts radiation in your food. Irradiated foods do not have to be labeled.
Doesn’t that piss you off? That you make a point of eating healthy food, but you aren’t getting what you pay for? That you are trying to put something good in your body, but really you are consuming radiation, which we all know, treats cancer by killing cells. Killing nutrients. This is a legal practice. Why is this legal? Certainly not to provide healthy food to citizens, but simply to make money.
The solution is to learn about what you are eating, about what is in season and what grows well in your region. Support the community and good, honest people who specialize in growing good food. The presentation ended on a high note, imploring people to think about how you spend your dollar and what you do with your time. They also stressed that communities are stronger than individuals, so support one another and help your neighbors. I like that.
The Localizing Food Tour led a two day workshop developing an action plan to provide a sustainable, healthy food source for the people of Wanaka, just as they had done in Southland, Dunedin, Oamaru, and will do in almost every town in New Zealand over the next year. They emphasized community gardens, edible plants in public spaces, land sharing between farmers who may not use all of their land and those who want to grow food, but have no land. They brought attention to what Wanaka is already doing, to people who are saving seeds that grow well in this region, to the group who is developing a food forest outside of town, and to various community events.
Throughout the presentation, people referred to “what’s happening in America.” They talked about how large corporations, like Monsanto and the corn industry, influence government decisions regarding food and the health of the nation. They spoke about us like a bunch of uneducated fat kids, following a manipulative government that picks on all of the little guys. And for the most part, they were right, but it was uncomfortable to hear people who I respect talking about my country with so little respect.
Zach and I want to change that. We want to be a part of a community like Wanaka, but need to be that positive force in an American community. We’re not done traveling. We may never be done traveling, but that is what we plan to do when we get back.
This is the second in a series of posts on politics and food. Please forgive us if it gets a little heavy in here for the next few weeks. Your regularly scheduled programming will resume shortly.
Beliefs are based on many different factors. Some we inherit from our parents, some from our teachers and peers, and others from media. But the most lasting and powerful beliefs come from personal experiences. Sometimes the circumstances are right and these things align to make us passionate about something. This is how I became interested in food and farming. I hope that the story of my influences will help you consider why you believe the things that you believe.
It began, as many great things seem to, on the couch. Several years ago I was looking for a way to kill a few hours in front of the television, and popped in a DVD that had been collecting dust for several weeks on my bookshelf. It was a Netflix mail order disc that I’d received by accident and felt compelled to watch before sending it back for something more action-packed. It was a little documentary called Food, Inc., and it made an impression on me.
Still, I didn’t act immediately. Sure, I started “voting with my wallet” and buying more local and organic products. But I didn’t drop everything and become an activist waiving signs and stomping around Washington. My life continued pretty much as it had for the last five years.
A few months later I picked up a copy of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dillemma. At this point I was a vessel primed for Pollan’s preaching, so he converted me to the ways of the green revolution fully. This was no longer just something I thought about; it was part of who I was.
My diet in college consisted of prepackaged foods filled with preservatives and chemicals. Now I was eating better and my body was thanking me for it. I felt better waking up in the morning and going to bed at night. Maybe cutting out drinking thirty beers every other night helped too, but we’ll never know. Anyway, I felt like a million bucks and that was good enough for me. If other people were still eating fast food and guzzling soda that was their problem.
And then Christina came home one day from work (she was teaching fourth grade in the South Bronx) and told me about the breakfast program at her school. The previous year, the school began supplying students with a small breakfast: cereal, milk, sometimes fresh fruit and yogurts. Some of the kids went from eating nothing at all before school, or worse, guzzling an energy drink loaded with caffeine and sugar, to being provided a real, reasonable meal. According to her, productivity skyrocketed. The morning became their most useful time. Behavioral issues disappeared. Students were more focused and had fewer “stomach aches” that were really just hunger pangs. A simple breakfast transformed her classroom and thus the lives and futures of the students in it. Oh, and her principal was considering cutting the breakfast program because it was too expensive.
This sent me into a blind rage. “How could anyone be so short-sighted? What is your principal thinking?! Find the money!” I know the realities of budget management require tough decisions, but Christina’s descriptions of the students before and after the breakfast program were undeniable. Kids need food to learn. Have you ever tried to dig a hole without a shovel? Having the right tools are essential parts of a job, and food is the most basic of our tools.
Now I was ready to act. I couldn’t do much to save the program at her school (which actually received an eleventh-hour stay of execution), but I could take some action in my own eventual backyard. So I’m in New Zealand, learning a trade and traveling the world, with my loyalties to home stronger than ever. I’ll return to the US armed with the skills and knowledge to bring more good food to markets where it’s needed most. Stay tuned for more about that last point, serving the underserved, next time.
We’ve spent the past four days up to our elbows in either pig or pork. Literally. Part of me thought that the process of slaughtering and butchering a pig was going to be sad and disgusting. But it just wasn’t. It was intense and it was challenging and there absolutely was one sad part and one disgusting part. But that is nothing compared to the rest of the process, which was absolutely invaluable. This is the story of how it went. Note: I feel that pictures are absolutely necessary to this post, but some images are quite graphic.
Around 2pm, Lyndal and Steve’s friends came over to shoot the pig. After discussing whether to use a .22 or a shotgun, and how to kill the first pig while keeping the second calm, the six of us headed out to the pig pen. Lyndal gave Squeak a pile of acorns to munch on while their friend quickly and calmly loaded the gun and BANG! Bubble let out a short squeal and fell to the ground.
GATE! EVERYBODY GRAB A LEG! NO CHRISTINA, LET THE BOYS! DRAG HER OUT, QUICK! SOMEONE MAKE THE GUN SAFE! BUCKETS, GET THE BUCKETS!
Bubble was dead within seconds of being shot, but the muscles in her legs continued to thrash violently, making it tricky to grab on. Squeak barely noticed that anything had happened. She was eating acorns while we were outside the pig pen, holding Bubble still and collecting the blood from Bubble’s jugular, both to drain from the carcass and to use for blood sausage later. The four guys loaded the pig on to the back of the trailer and drove her around to the front of the barn to hang in the gallows. “You alright?” Lyndal asked as we walked across the warm, sunny field, back toward the barn. “Yup. Just a little adrenaline-y” I said, as that was the only way I could describe it. Watching Bubble get shot and collecting the blood was uncomfortable. But after that, the pig stopped being a pig and became a carcass.
After the pig is killed and before it’s butchered, it has to be either skinned or scalded to remove the hair and then gutted. Otherwise we would have hairy bacon and our tenderloins might smell like poo. If a farmer is going to sell the meat, slaughtering, scalding and gutting must be done at an abattoir. Since this meat is for personal consumption, it can be done at the farm.
The boys took Squeak to be scalded in a bathtub full of hot water while us girls skinned Bubble, who was too big to fit in a tub. Using a skinning knife and starting at her ankles, Lyndal and I carefully cut the skin away from the fat and meat. This took about an hour and required intricate knife work since we didn’t want to damage the meat or puncture the belly, where the organs were held. When we got to the head we stopped, cut a circle around the head, and removed the head and the skin from the rest of the animal. This went into a wheelbarrow to bury in a hole.
Next, a line was cut down the center of the body to expose the organs. Not going to lie, this was the disgusting part. It smelled like hot poop. Because it was hot poop. Most of what is inside the pig is a gigantic large intestine that looks like a very full balloon, about to explode. Lyndal asked me to press against said warm, gigantic poo balloon to keep it from falling out. This way, she could remove the organs that she wanted to use for pate and terrines. I stepped to the side and gingerly put one hand on the large intestine.
“No, I mean really hold it,” she said.
So I lifted the other hand and leaned into the sack. Am I going to barf? No, you’re not. We’re cool. You got this. FUUUUCK that smells bad. Oh my god. Stop being a baby. But my finger is sliding in. And if it explodes… A few minutes later we were done. It didn’t explode. The mass of intestines slid into the wheelbarrow. It was bad, but the impending shit storm never came.
Shortly thereafter the boys returned with Squeak. We compared pigs, shared about what each technique required, cleaned up and collapsed with a glass of wine and a plate full of cassoulet, made from last year’s sausages.
To get ourselves warmed up for the Day 2, day of marathon butchering, Zach and I had watched Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Pig in a Day, a DVD about butchering and preparing cuts of meat. The DVD was an hour an a half. While both instructional and exciting, it turns out they skipped some parts.
The first step to turning our two pigs into pork was to saw the pigs in half down the middle and then in to quarters so that they could be carried into the house where they would be butchered into cuts of meat. They skipped this part in the DVD. This first step took two hours. I was pretty bad at sawing. The handle got slippery with pig fat and it was a very awkward task, moving in and out of the gutted body cavity, but I tried. Zach picked up where I fell short. (Thanks, Zach!) I do think that we will raise and butcher our own pigs, but I am also keen on getting a fancy electric saw to make the job a little more bearable.
Once inside, we were set up so that Zach and I each had a half a pig and Lyndal had two halves. She would demonstrate on one half and we would watch, then we would each make the cuts on our pig. After staring at my pig for a few seconds, I had a Eureka! moment, “OOH! I think I found the tenderloin!” I did a little dance and pointed at it, nestled next to the ribs. I was very proud of myself for recognizing it from the DVD. “Cool, cut it out!” Lyndal told me. What? Stop. These pigs are their livelihood. They will provide meat for the next year, and here she is telling me, a totally inexperienced non-butcher, to go cut out one of the most prized cuts of meat. Just go do it. You’ll be fine. If you need help, just ask. That is kind of how they run things around here. They trust us to do a good job and to ask for help when necessary. It is wonderful to be trusted, but I often feel like, Who? Me? Do that? Okayyyy…. Which is exactly how I felt as I carefully cut away the connective tissue that held the tenderloin in place.
We cut tons of bacon sliced noisettes, deboned hams and removed ham hocks. We trimmed cuts from the belly and back and rolled them up for roasts, butterflied loins that would later but stuffed with pate, and cut up bits for stir fries, stews, and sausages. They butcher for the cuts of meat that they like to eat, which meant no chops and no ribs. Because they had not had good ribs. Okay, fair enough. But I make good ribs. So I took on making convincingly good ribs and Lyndal let us butcher them out.
This went on until both carcasses were gone, which was about 7pm. The sun had gone down and the foot and a half tall piles of bacon were threatening to fall over. Cutting boards and piles of fat littered every imaginable surface and each of us just stared at each other, knives dangling beside us, totally exhausted. Time to call it a day.
I by saying that this experience was intense and challenging. Carrying a quarter of a pig, or sawing through bone requires strength and the tiny knife work it takes to debone a piece of meat requires focus. It is no wonder that I was wiped out at the end of each day. I just had no idea how much work went into making something as commonplace as bacon. Just throw it in the pan, right?
We feasted on plates of huge ribs, mashed potatoes and Caeser salad. After a few bites, Lyndal pointed at her bone and said. “I like these.” Simple as that, and yet it meant loads to me. I represented Amer’ca well and won the approval of a farmer, our teacher, and fabulous chef.
Over the last few days, we’ve participated in the slaughter and butchering of two full-grown saddleback pigs, Bubble and Squeak. These pigs lived a good life. They had plenty of room to run, root, and wallow in the mud. They had shelter from the rain and shade from the sun. They ate vegetables multiple times every day. They lived and died so that we could slaughter them humanely and eat their meat.
This is a stark contrast to the life of an animal raised in a factory farm. They spend every minute of their life confined in a box so small that they can’t turn around, sleeping in their own shit and piss, and being force-fed a cocktail of chemicals designed to get them to optimal size as quickly as possible. You may think that the villains here are the owners and operators of factory farms, but they’re simply providing us with a product that we’ve asked for: cheap meat.
The real criminals are the consumers, loading their grocery carts with beef and ham that’s easy on the wallet at the cost of cruelty. Is your conscience really only worth the few extra dollars that it costs to buy from your local independent farmer? Does convenience trump morality? I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve been guilty of these crimes every week of my life, until now.
I’m happy to pledge that, beginning today, I won’t buy or eat meat of questionable provenance ever again. It’s a difficult step to take, but it’s the right one. It means that, when ordering at a restaurant or dining at a friend’s home, I’ll have to awkwardly ask if the meat they’re serving is humanely raised. If enough people ask, restaurants will be forced to buy better meat. Perhaps in the meantime I’ll be eating a lot of salad, but that’s not a terrible option. The alternative is far more disgusting.
Will you join me?