Animal, Vegetable, Microbial

Lately at the farm, we've had a lot of questions about the rennet we use. So many, that it bears discussion. Or in this case, a bit of an educational rant. The main question we've been receiving has really been more of an objection: an objection to our use of animal rennet.

But first, a bit of science: rennet is a general term that refers to the enzyme chymosin. Chymosin is a protease enzyme that has the amazing ability to coagulate milk. Milk coagulation is the fundamental feature of cheesemaking. We coagulate milk in two ways: through the addition of lactic acid producing bacteria and through the addition of chymosin. Both perform proteolysis in different ways. Chymosin is exceptionally good at coagulating milk. Much more so than lactic acid bacteria. It works by cutting the proteins, specifically the kappa-caseins apart. This causes the hydrophilic casein particles to become hydrophobic. The proteins then re-bond, trapping water inside a new structure and thus, produces a gel.

Whew. OK. Here's the take home: rennet is largely responsible for the proteolysis of milk. Proteolysis causes the proteins in the milk to break up into amino acid chains. Amino acids are responsible for the production of flavor compounds in food. Let me say that again: amino acids are responsible for the production of flavor compounds in food.

All those scientists who sit in labs all day developing "natural" and "artificial" flavors for everything from candy to canned soup: they are manipulating amino acid chains. Cutting them. Binding them. Mixing them up.

And here's the deal: the more amino acid chains you have, and the more different ways you cut them, the more flavor happens. When someone says that the flavor of something is "complex" they are describing an interplay of tastes and aromas that is born out of the interactions of many different amino acid chains (and fatty acid chains, and sugars, and a whole bunch of other stuff) floating around in their food. The "Malliard reaction" that food folks get so exited about: that's a bunch of broken amino acids recombining with sugar as they are heated.

So, to recap: chymosin coagulates milk and in doing so, produces flavor. Chymosin is in rennet. But what else is in rennet? What the heck is rennet? Well, there are three answers. Animal, vegetable, and microbial.

Animal rennet is a suspension of enzymes and amino acids in water, the predominant enzyme being chymosin along with pepsin and lipase. It is a tea (of sorts) concocted from dried bits of milk-fed animal stomachs. Rennet is not, as it is commonly believed, found in animal stomachs. Rather, it is a concoction derived from animal stomachs. Rennet is the collected chemicals needed to break down milk, to digest it, as it were, outside the animal's stomach, for the purpose of making cheese. These enzymes have specific molecular structures that are unique to the species of animal that it comes from. Think about it: rennet is the collection of digestive enzymes found in the stomach of a milk-fed ruminant. These enzymes are evolved quite specifically to digest the milk of that specific animal. There are a lot of totally unstudied interactions that happen when species-specific milk and species-specific rennet interact. But we do know this: it is complex. And we know this too: it produces complex flavors.

The drying room at the Abia Laboratoires in France.
The drying room at the Abia Laboratoires in France.

Animal rennet, however, has a bit of a dark side (apart from the fact that it requires animal death, which, frankly, if you take issue with, you've come to the wrong blog and why are you reading about cheese anyway?). Most bovine rennet (the most commonly used animal rennet) is a by-product of the veal industry. The veal industry in the United States is notoriously inhumane. Is it possible to find animal rennet that is not a part of the industrial food complex? Yes. But it can be challenging. It is also, typically, not economical for larger producers.

Vegetable rennet is derived from thistle. It's made like animal rennet: the stamens are soaked in water to form a tea, but the enzyme is completely different. Thistle rennet's acting enzyme is cardosin, or cyprosin. It has very powerful coagulation properties and has its own, unique flavor profile. Cheeses made with thistle rennet often have strong bitter flavors and acidic tangs. It is traditional to certain Spanish and Italian cheeses.

A cardoon thistle. The purple stamens are used as a coagulant.
A cardoon thistle. The purple stamens are used as a coagulant.

Finally, there is microbial rennet, sometimes referred to as “vegetable” or “vegetarian” rennet. There are actually two types of microbial rennet. First is derived from a species of fungus called rhizomucor miehei or the mould mucor miehei other similar species of molds and fungi that, when fermented under specific conditions produces a protease that will coagulate milk.This is not a traditional practice anywhere and was created for the dairy industry to suit kosher and vegetarian markets. The flavors produced are generally bitter, but controllable with correct dosage. There are no secondary flavor components as with animal rennet. Chymosin is all you get here.

Then there is fermentation produced chymosin, or FPC. FPC is probably the most used rennet among industrial cheese manufacturers and is not uncommon in smaller cheesemaking operations. By some estimations, more than 90% of cheese produced uses FPC.It is made by gene splicing: first, theRNA sequence for chymosin from an animal source is removed and then inserted into microbial DNA, usually a sub-species of E. Coli (because they replicate very quickly). These genetically modified microbes are then fermented to produce pure chymosin. This chymosin is totally pure and highly concentrated. Did you catch that? This type of rennet is produced through genetic modification. It is a GMO product. It is also arguably not vegetarian, since bovine rennet is the initial source from which the chymosin is derived. It is also pure chymosin. There is nothing else, no other adjunct enzymes, peptides, no amino acids; thus, it has minimal flavor contributions to the finished cheese. It just coagulates milk really, really well. And guess what? It's super cheap. [As a matter of interest, FPC was the first FDA-approved GMO product: http://articles.latimes.com/1990-03-24/news/mn-681_1_genetically-engineered-product-for-food]

You can tell a lot about a cheesemaker by the type of rennet she or he uses. Much of the time, producers choose the “friendliest” rennet, one that is vegetarian, non-GMO, and Kosher/Halal to please the widest possible market. Some producers don't know about the GMO issue. Some don't care and want what works fast and can be gotten cheap. Still others feel that the other enzymes and amino acids found in animal rennet are important enough flavor contributors that they are worth justifying (or in some cases, ignoring) the ethical questions involved.

And so, we come back to the initial question we were asked: what type of rennet do we use? We fall into the latter group: we use animal rennet, specifically an ovine rennet that we buy from France. It is traditionally made, meaning that the animal stomachs are dried and made into the "meat tea" that is rennet. It has a salty, meaty aroma in the bottle. It's forgiving in measurement and dilution; in other words, if I miss-measure by a milliliter or two because I'm pouring by hand, it's not going to have a noticeable effect on the curd (unlike FPC and microbial coagulants). It gives us a smoother, more uniform curd. It gives a higher yield of finished cheese. Most importantly to us, because it is an ovine rennet being used with sheep milk, it is full of the enzymes and peptides that cause secondary flavor-producing reactions that impart deeper, more interesting flavors than other rennets we've used.

We produce an niche product. Our values are that of taste, tradition, and sustainability. We don't think that a product like microbial rennet or FPC that are made using inaccessible, industrial equipment and techniques (such as gene-splicing) is sustainable, especially when there is a good (if imperfect) more sustainable alternative available. We're also OK with not being vegetarian or Kosher. We're not trying to please a wide audience of cheese eaters. We are trying to add to the diversity of product and flavor out there. Our rennet choices reflect that intention. And, of course, we like how it tastes, which is our primary goal as cheeseamakers.

Some words about Brie.

Let's have a conversation about Brie.

But before we talk about Brie in specific, we should take a moment to understand something about cheese in general: while there are a zillion types of cheese in the world, nearly all of them fall into basic categories, or "families." These families attempt to group cheeses together based on a common quality not shared with other cheeses. For example, blue cheeses must have their distinctive blue mold; cheddars have their essential "cheddering" process to help define them; there is the pasta filata family of fresh cheeses that are heated and stretched, like mozzarella. The list goes on...

Brie is perhaps the most abused cheese name in all of the cheese-making and cheese-eating world. It seems that "brie" in North America has become the de facto name for any cheese with a white-mold exterior. The reality is, that Brie is not a family of cheese, but rather it falls into a family called "bloomy rind" or "soft-ripened" cheese. Brie is a soft, creamy, cow's milk cheese made using specific techniques in a specific part of the world. Here at Many Fold Farm, three of our cheeses fall into this category. So when someone asks us at a cheese tasting or at a farmers' market if our Garretts Ferry is a Brie, and then asks if the Rivertown is a Brie, it creates some confusion. How can two distinctly different cheeses both be Brie? Well, that's because neither of them are.

Brie is a bloomy-rind cheese made in the Brie region of France. It is AOC protected, meaning that anyone who is not making Brie in accordance with the AOC standards (within the EU) cannot call their product "Brie." Of course, that doesn't stop anyone outside the EU from calling their cheese "brie." Most "brie" made in or for the United States is characteristically smooth and uniform in texture with a thick, white rind, and a very mild, creamy taste. One would not be wrong to call the paste "bland" due to its mandatory pasteurization and short aging period, or the rind "unpalatable" due to its cakey thickness (often, when brie is served at cocktail parties, you see a picked-over cheese plate with a disemboweled shell of rind with bits of gooey paste smeared all over where folks have unceremoniously scraped out the poor cheeses' innards!). Sometimes, though, American cheesemakers make a soft-ripened white mold cheese with a gooey, creamy, smooth paste that is in the style of Brie, but is, to my mind, worlds better tasting. Sweetgrass Dairy's famous Green Hill is an outstanding example, as is Jasper Hill's Moses Sleeper.

So when you're at the grocery store or farmer's market and you're looking for "brie" to serve at your next cocktail party, or you've got one of those recipes for baked Brie in pastry, don't go with the bland "wannabe brie." Get something original and American; something that respects the cheesemaking traditions of a place and that does not attempt to be a re-place-ment. And for heaven's sake! Don't call it Brie!

 

 

 

The Farmer in You

The Ram Truck Super Bowl Ad. Let's talk about this for a minute. Let's talk about the fact that we didn't watch the Super Bowl on Sunday. We were at the farm. Fixing broken water lines, setting up a stove pipe, tending sick animals in the barn. We didn't even see this add until early this morning when a bunch of friends and family members emailed it to us. Let's talk about the fact that the text of  Paul Harvey's speech is totally beautiful and totally right on. That is actually what it's like. Even if it is an absurdly romanticized version of what it's actually like. And let's go ahead and get it out of the way the happy fact that Dodge will donate a million dollars in proceeds from the ad to the FFA, a most worthy cause. And let me also get out of the way the fact that our farm owns a Dodge Ram 3500 and we are very pleased with it.

But after the beautiful, God-filled images are done, once Harvey's eloquent storytelling passes, I am jolted out of my teary-eyed revery when I read the words: "for the farmer in you." And suddenly I know how Paul McCartney felt when Michael Jackson allowed Nike to use "Revolution" in one of their ads. It's my life, it's the life of thousands of people, and it's really hard and it's really real, and it's being used to sell cars. And that feels weird.

As Americans, I think there is a "farmer in all of us." Thomas Jefferson's vision for America was "a nation of farmers." We have been an agrarian society for some time. Until very recently. Very recently, farming has become a an industrialized behemoth, growing vast monocultures, practiced by a vanishing few and to a large extent, propped up through government subsidies. This is not what Jefferson had in mind. As a result, farming is mostly a nostalgic notion rather than a lived reality. And that is what Dodge is capitalizing on. We miss our farming roots. We love and respect everything about what Harvey says. But we don't live it. We aren't farmers. Instead there is an elusive farmer "in us" that needs attention. So, they hope we buy it. They hope drive a big truck we probably don't need in order to cling to that American farming ideal. Dodge has successfully commodified the feeling of farming to match up with the rest of agriculture. It feels kind of ikky.

Now, don't get me wrong. I dig capitalism, I'm cool with advertising, and I'm definitely cool with using romance to sell stuff. I, too, use the romance of farming to sell my product. But I do so in the service of a farm. To a small family business. To all that this ad holds up. Dodge is leveraging that feeling to sell a truck. And while trucks are part of the farming landscape, Dodge has manipulated our collective love of farming, or at least our collective love of the idea of farming as understood through a single object and linked that object to something that sheer profit can't touch, all in order to make a profit. So kudos to Madison Ave. Don Draper says a resounding "YES!" But don't be fooled. The farmer in you can do better than buy a truck.

A moment

I'm having a moment. It's the moment, right before lambing, right before milking, right before the work of the year kicks off that makes me crazy. It is the feeling that something is coming. Something is coming and I need to step up. It's what a swimmer feels right before she jumps in the pool for a big race, the feeling a gymnast has in that fraction of a second, whirling through the air: “am I going to stick this?” It's a precipice and it sucks. It's a moment of being out of control, relying entirely on your training, on your habits, on circumstance, but not on your mind. Unwelcome thoughts appear in my mind: what if all the lambs die? What if they're all too small? What if they're all too big? What if all the ewes die? Or get mastitis? What if they never go into milk? Are they even pregnant? How will I make cheese this year if the ewes aren't even pregnant? What if they're all born early?What if not enough ewes are pregnant to make enough cheese to pay the bills?

It goes on and on... my mind spins and frets in its knowledge that it is useless here. It's all just going to happen. It's like I'm riding this wave, this wave called Mother Nature and I'm begging her to work with me, to not toss me around or crush me. I don't want to end up face-first in the sand (or a coral reef, for that matter!); I'm pleading with her to work with me so I can ride this transition, to stick this landing... to make it to the other side.

Coq au Vin, or, the magic the French use to coax the most inedible meat possible into something delicious

When we butchered our old laying hens a couple of weeks ago, we also butchered about six roosters who had been living among the hens, fertilizing eggs and maintaining the pecking order, as it were. We butchered them last. We should have done them first when our energy was freshest. Roosters are some tough mothas! Their skin is tough to cut, requiring constant re-honing of the knives, and their cavities are impossible to open up: it took the full-strength of both my arms to pull them open enough to remove their innards. You can actually see the striations in the bands of muscle tissue, the thought of which made my jaws clench in fear of excessive mastication and the need for dental floss. To look at an old rooster carcass, one imagines a meat that has more in common with rubber bands than with actual food.

Thinking of cooking these roosters, I remembered that Chef Linton Hopkins gave a fantastic talk at the Georgia Organics conference a few years ago: he discussed the merits of the "lesser" cuts of beef, such as tongue and heart. He suggested that when cooking these meats, one has to consider what that part of the animal did in life and prepare it using the complementary characteristics. A tongue or a heart is constantly in motion, working ceaselessly chewing cud, ripping out grass, or pumping blood day and night. Thus, these cuts need a lot of long, slow cooking at a low temperature. A tenderloin, on the other hand, is a muscle that is barely used, thus it is soft and needs only the shortest amount of cooking at a very high temperature.

A chicken is no different, only, instead of specific parts, the whole body is what we are concerned with. A young chicken, hen or rooster, has not had the chance to work its muscles for very long, and so, the meat is very tender. This is why most roasting birds are slaughtered at or before 12 weeks of age. Industrially-produced chickens are butchered even sooner (and at a much higher body weight due to inhumane breeding practices and concentrate feeds laced with growth hormone).

An old farm hen or rooster, though, has lived several years: pecking, scratching, fighting, roosting, nesting. Roosters are especially active. They have to service a lot of hens, provide them with protection from other roosters and predators (yes, a rooster can fight off a hawk or a raccoon if inclined), and maintain the social order of the flock through engaging in and breaking-up fights. They are big, muscly, and tough in life, and so they are also in death.

So, how do you cook a cock? Coq au Vin, of course! This dish is quintessential French peasant food. It is designed, through long, slow cooking in wine (which is highly acidic and thereby breaks down muscle tissue) to turn an otherwise inedible rooster into something that is, frankly, succulent. It is a food borne out of the frugality of farm life. While old roosters and hens in our modern food system are sold as dog food, or processed into thin, salty canned soups, or are otherwise lost to the industrial food machine, a small farm or farm hobbyist can access a traditional staple of French cuisine that just isn't the same when you use a store-bought fryer.

In fact, when researching to find a good recipe to work from for coq au vin, I could not find one that gave instructions for actually using a "coq." They all called for a regular fryer or pieces of a fryer. As if in lament for the lack of availability of roosters, Lynne Rosetto Kasper titles her recipe for coq au vin, "Coq au Vin Nouveau!" Gentle readers, this is not coq au vin. In fact, it is everything coq au vin is not: it has a short cooking time and relies on modern conveniences such as "canned, low-sodium chicken broth", "skinless chicken thighs," and bizarrely, "white wine."  Nouveau indeed!

I eventually found a recipe over at the Smitten Kitchen based off of the classic Julia Child recipe. It still called for a regular fryer, but the elements were all there: a whole bird, cut into pieces, browned with lardons, stewed in Cognac and good red wine, the sauce finished with a buerre manie, and served with browned mushrooms and caramelized pearl onions.

There, doesn't that sound better? I thought so.

 I was finally able to find a recipe that actually called for a "coq" or "cockerel" in my trusty Larousse Gastronomique, which connected up with what I found at the Smitten Kitchen, only it called for a longer cooking time and to thicken the sauce not only with the buerre maine, but with the cockerel's's blood as well. I wish I had saved some!

And so, I present to you, the coq au vin that I made with a couple of old roosters in the traditional mode:

A note on ingredients: I used old roosters, but old stew hens will also work well for this. Use a young chicken or hen only if you can't find old birds. Or better yet, make a different dish suited to a more tender meat!

Please also, do not feel constrained to use the standard button mushrooms for this. I used some fantastic oyster mushrooms from our fellow farmer, Michael over at Indian Ridge Farm, who has the most amazing, large, and beautiful mushrooms I have ever seen. Many recipes call for morels (which are expensive and hard to find), but I say this is one area where you should really play with what is locally and seasonally available: chanterelles, shiitake, hen of the woods, oyster, etc. Just remember, whatever mushrooms you use, fry them in batches with lots of space between them, otherwise they won't brown.

Equipment:

A heavy, 10-inch, fireproof casserole such as cast iron or enamelware (DO NOT use nonstick), long matches, a fine, mesh strainer, parchment paper

Ingredients:

6-ounces bacon, cut into lardons
4 tablespoons butter
2 old roosters, cut into pieces
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/2 cup Cognac, Armanac, or strong Brandy
6 cups (about 1.5 bottles) young, full-bodied, French red wine such as Burgundy, Beaujolais, or Cotes du Rhone
2 cups brown chicken stock or beef stock
1 tablespoon tomato paste
4 cloves mashed garlic
1 teaspoon thyme
2 bay leaves
Salt and pepper

For the buerre maine:
6 tablespoons flour
4 tablespoons softened butter

1/2 to 1 pound caramelized pearl onions
1 pound sautéed mushrooms (see note above)

Method:

In your large, flame-proof casserole, melt butter until it is hot and foaming. Add the lardons and fry slowly until browned and crisp. Set aside the lardons, but leave the hot fat in the pan. Season the rooster pieces with salt and pepper, then gently brown, letting any bits of fat and skin turn golden and slightly crisp on the edges. Pour in the Cognac and carefully light it. When the flames die down, add the wine, tomato paste, garlic, thyme, and bay leaves. Let simmer for a few minutes. Then, cover tightly with a layer of parchment paper and foil or oven-proof lid. Place in a 200 degree oven and braise for 3-4 hours (longer if you have time). After the braise is complete, remove the bits of chicken. They should be falling off the bone. Filter the juices through a fine strainer and refrigerate for a few hours, or overnight.

Meanwhile, make the buerre maine by kneading the flour and soft butter together until you have a homogeneous paste. Set aside.

Remove the layer of fat from the refrigerated sauce and heat. Whisk in your buerre maine until everything has dissolved. Reduce the sauce by about 15% , it should coat the back of a spoon nicely. Adjust seasoning.

Add the chicken back to the sauce. At this point, you can refrigerate your coq au vin for a few days before serving, if you wish.

For the accompanying mushrooms and onions (taken directly from Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking):

Oignons Glacés a Brun [Brown-braised Onions]

For 18 to 24 peeled white onions about 1 inch in diameter:
1 1/2 tablespoons butter
1 1/2 tablespoons oil
A 9- to 10-inch enameled skillet
1/2 cup of brown stock, canned beef bouillon, dry white wine, red wine or water
Salt and pepper to taste
A medium herb bouquet: 3 parsley springs, 1/2 bay leaf, and 1/4 teaspoon thyme tied in cheesecloth

When the butter and oil are bubbling the skillet, add the onions and sauté over moderate heat for about 10 minutes, rolling the onions about so they will brown as evenly as possible. Be careful not to break their skins. You cannot expect to brown them uniformly.

Pour in the liquid, season to taste, and add the herb bouquet. Cover and simmer slowly for 40 to 50 minutes until the onions are perfectly tender but retain their shape, and the liquid has evaporated. Remove the herb bouquet. Serve them as they are.

Champignons Sautés Au Buerre [Sautéed Mushrooms]

A 10-inch enameled skillet
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon oil
1/2 pound fresh mushrooms, washed, well dried, left whole if small, sliced or quartered if large
1 to 2 tablespoons minced shallots or green onions (optional)
Salt and pepper

Place the skillet over high heat with the butter and oil. As soon as you see the butter foam has begun to subside, indicating that it is hot enough, add the mushrooms. Toss and shake the pan for 4 to 5 minutes. During their sauté the mushrooms will at first absorb the fat. In 2 to 3 minutes the fat will reappear on their surface, and the mushrooms will begin to brown. As soon as they have browned lightly, remove from heat.

 

Serve the coq au vin hot, with the mushrooms and onions scattered on top. Buttered egg noodles or boiled potatoes make an excellent and traditional accompaniment, as does a bitter green salad such as arugula, endive, or frissée.

 

Enjoy!

 

 

Good Grass.

Well, I've been sick for the past week. Flat-out-bed-rest-can't-move-drugged-up sick. It's the complete opposite of what my life has been like since we started making cheese. I've gone from day-in-day-out 10–12 hour days, juggling everywhich thing to a full, solid week of being unable to do anything at all. Full stop. The upshot is that I've been doing a lot of thinking in my convalescence. The seasons have started to shift, which is our usual cue to begin a more reflective, less active time of year. I've been cooking up projects and hammering out ideas for how things can move more smoothly next season.

I've been thinking a lot about the grass. I recently found myself saying to someone  that the grass is the indicator for all other aspects of the health of the farm. I believe this to be true. Our grass needs to be better. We have some spots where the sward is thin, where weeds are too many. Drought didn't help us. We ran out of grass just as the drought and high temperatures peaked in July, which was a bit of a shock after two years of not being able to keep up with the grass! Worms were terrible, a sign that the grass was poor this year—too short, not enough nutrition—we found ourselves grateful that we were able to supplement the ewes with hay and feed in the parlor. The ram lambs grew terribly and succumbed to worms constantly, despite our vigilant deworming program. It was as if the moment the dewormer left their system, the worms blossomed and the poor animals had nothing to fight back with. All these problems point back to the grass. Good grass means good nutrition, which means the animals can fight worm infections much, much better. Good grass means taller grass, since the worms can't climb the stem if it is longer than 8 inches. Good grass means high organic matter, which means better drought tolerance. But why did we not have these things? Listening to the Joel Salatins and Dennis Stoltzfooses of the world converted me to the gospel of grass: grass solves all feed problems on the farm. Rotational grazing is the paramount solution! And it is. But what I'm begining to see is that for the grass farming to do all its cracked-up to do, you have to get there first.

I had a bitter moment this summer when we ran out of grass and I had so many animals struggling. As I wrote the check for the hay I had to buy to keep my animals alive, I couldn't help but feel that I had been sold a bill of goods by the grassfarming movement. Why wasn't this working? We rotate daily using a moderate stocking density, we use chickens in our rotation... what was going on? Yes, we started grazing a bit early this Spring and should have waited until the sward had really taken hold. Maybe we could use a new fencing regimin to graze faster and at a higher destiny. But there was something else bothering me.

The answer came to me as I walked up and down the fields, looking down at the dry July grass, treading over the rise and fall of the terraces, formed to grow cotton, the last bush of which was still growing here less than 100 years ago. With a great wave of sadness, it occurred to me "that's where the fertility is." Gone to make cloth. Every last bit of it exported from the spot where I was standing lost in the great chain of commerce. I wanted to cry out at my forebears, "How dare you! How dare you leave me in this situation! Do you not know how hard it is to farm? How dare you make it even harder on those who are here now!" To understand my outrage, one first has to understand something about fertility.

Fertility is an abstract concept, but is firmly grounded in biological reality. In biology, the ability to reproduce is the pinnacle of life: if a life form has enough to not only continue on living itself, but to thrive, it can reproduce. This is, in a nutshell, fertility. Literally it means "to bear," as in to hold or carry. It is the ability of a living thing to carry on life: the carrying capacity for life. If there is not enough of the stuff a life form needs to go on living, then it dies or fails to reproduce. This is the absence of fertility. The fertility of a piece of land is related directly to the quantity of life it can bear. The quantity of life the land can sustain without input is directly related to the quantity of organic matter, that is poop (and other decaying things). Decay is the primary attractor for life. Microbes, bacteria, and fungi love organic matter and are essential to the propagation of plants growing in it. Microbes create and release nutrients in the soil so that plants can access them. Enough organic matter, especially if it is held together with lots of roots, and the soil acts as a sponge, holding in water. Not enough organic matter and you have hardpan: water trickles off the soil; roots can't take hold in it. Fertility can be directly measured by the quantity of organic matter in soil.

Getting fertility is a bit of a problem, because if you have more fertility, it's easier to get more. If you don't have much, it's hard to get. Think of it like an endowment at a school or big institution. The more money in the endowment, the more money the endowment can generate to create useful programs and provide scholarships. Then, more people are positively affected by the institution to give donations and grow the endowment. If a school has a small endowment, it is very hard to operate: hard to give scholarships, hard to attract the best teachers, and hard to ask people for more money. A school with a large endowment has a lot of fiscal fertility: it has more, so it can make and do more.

Here is the most important feature of an endowment: the school never spends the endowment itself, only the interest it throws off. Fertility in the land is no different. The land can be like a huge bank, holding fertility within it. If you have enough fertility, the land will throw off a kind of "interest" in the form of enough nutrition and water to support more life than what is needed in that specific place. This is the opportunity human beings seized upon with the advent of agriculture: the ability of a fertile piece of land to support more than could live on that one spot. We realized that we can work with nature to provide an endowment that better ensures our survival. But like its financial counterpart, fertility has to be properly managed if it is to remain effective. And so the words of Wendell Berry flooded my mind as I looked at the rolling terraces, seeing cotton where grass is now, harvested and exported, harvested and exported, fertility never to return:

Invest in the millennium.
Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion--put your ear close,
and hear the faint chattering of the songs that are to come.

These words suggest the antidote to the spendthrift farming we have practiced now for generations. Most farms operate on a minimum of fertility. Grass is very poor because the fertility has been extracted by generations previous, so fertilizers are brought in along with hay or other feedstuffs to keep the animals alive. Most farms don't rotate, so whatever organic matter the stock leaves behind does not have time to set in before the cow, sheep, or goat comes back to take out more. Then the animal is sold off, typically to a feedlot where it is fed more fertility from elsewhere, then sold off again as meat to faraway places. It's as if one deposited money in an investment, but then kept coming back to take more money out before the investment matures.

No one in their right mind would expect good growth with such behavior. It's divestment in place of investment. It's bad business. The notion that what you can take out is directly related to what you put in is rendered irrelevant. Basic economics be damned to the false values of endless consumption. Farms have become pass-throughs for fertility, like some security exchanged and traded on Wall Street (which, by the by, is not for nothing called the stock market!). Instead they ought to be a place where fertility can be deposited and held and allowed to accumulate. I understand now why I have had to buy hay, why the grass is poor in places, and why my animals suffer from disease. I understand that I have to mitigate and provide crutches when trying to use a system that relies on fertility I don't have as much as it replenishes it. Because of what my forbears took away, I have to add inputs in order to get it back. I have to put in some of what they took out if I am to expect any kind of return on my investment in this land and in these animals. It's not something I fully accounted for emotionally, financially, or otherwise. But that said, it is my goal and the goal of our farm to leave the land better than when we got it.

"It takes great thinking and work to keep from working. "

This week, there has been a lot of talk about the USDA's nutrition guidelines. The great pyramid of my childhood has been revised. I mean, let's be honest, this was crazy:

I remember looking at this kind of pyramid as a kid in my public school cafeteria and would feel a pang of anxiety. My good-girl, type-A over-achieving, follow the rules and guidelines self would heap pasta onto her plate in a spasm of fear about how I would eat the recommended 11 servings of graina along with everything else I had to eat to be "healthy." Fortunately, the carb overload would calm me down just enough to nearly fall asleep in my afternoon classes. Sometimes I wonder how my kid self would have responded to this, revised pyramid:

Huh? Wait, that's just a big pile of food. A big pile of food and some colors that appear to be beaming down from the heavens. Why are some of the items illustrated and others photographs? Were there only clip-art carrots but not apples? Did they just do a Google image search for "bread" and stick in the first result? And excuse me, but what are those little blobs emanating from the purple beam and why are they also floating around the green beam? And why is there a photograph of canola oil in the milk section? Or is it in the fruit section? And what's with the stick figure? Are we supposed to climb something? Perhaps he's going up to the heavens to ask the gods for some key to understanding the great mystery of how this was ever considered an "improvement" or how anyone ever conceived that such a chart would be at all helpful. Or maybe this new pyramid tells us what we all needed to know: THROW ALL YOUR FOOD ON THE FLOOR AND GO CLIMB SOME STAIRS, YOU FATTIES! (thanks Fitbomb).

Somebody apparently, was also confused, and so the USDA released its new, revised nutrition guideline visualization. Behold:

Welcome to the "My Plate" revolution, the new panacea of nutrition information. So clean, so simple, so not a pyramid! "What's easier to understand than a plate?" our First Lady asks when this was unveiled this week. This is what our plate should look like, we are told. This is the way to good health; half a plate of vegetables and fruit, half a plate of grains and protein, and a little dairy on the side. Simple, right? Easy to follow. We've hit graphic design gold! But wait, I'm confused again. Doesn't dairy have protein in it? Don't grains? Don't some veggies, too? Are beans a veggie or a protein? Also, where are the fats? Is butter "dairy" and margarine, since it's made from soy "protein"? Let me put it in terms of something familair to school children, the standardized test:

Which of these items does not fit in the series?

Fruits, Vegetables, Grains, Protein, Dairy

a) Dairy

b) Grains

c) Protein

d) None of the above

Yeah, that's right, protein. Why? Because fruits, veggies, grains, and dairy are foods; protein isn't a food, it's a nutrient. It's in foods. In point of fact, there is protein in foods from each of the food categories on the chart. Now, I do think that protein here is probably being used as a euphemism for meat, but meat is not comprehensive enough. What about fish or eggs? And what about vegetarians? And can't dairy count as a protein? See the quandary? What I'm getting at here is that food is more complex than this graphic can reasonably handle. The simplicity of this graphic leaves room fr the kinds of absurdity Bill Cosby  points out in his famous routine where, instead of cooking breakfast for his children, Bill gives them chocolate cake and grapefruit juice. By the standards of MyPlate, his wife would have no cause to admonish him: cake has a bit of protein from eggs, has a hearty serving of grains, and a serving of dairy. With the addition of the grapefruit juice, the only thing missing is the vegetable! Perhaps this could be corrected by giving the children carrot cake!

Part of the problem with the previous iterations of these food charts is the complexity of eating. Older graphics have been criticized as "vague." There is a lot of food out there and, as omnivores, we can eat pretty much all of it. I think the first government food chart was probably the best, as it wisely counsels us to "Eat some food from each group every day… [and] eat any other foods you want." It may indeed be a vague suggestion, but tell me what is so specific about "grains, dairy, fruit, protein, and vegetables"?

These inconsistencies aside, what may be most informative about this graphic is how it reflects the way we are collectivly thinking about food. MyPlate, graphically, suggests neat categories where foods can be defined and clearly understood, but in a world where folks aren't sure about whether a tomato is a fruit or a vegetable, I wonder hour realistic this is, or how meaningful. Additionally, MyPlate assumes that its categories and ratios are ideal for most people. But what are most people in the "melting pot" of America? MyPlate presents itself as a kind of proscription for eating, but this isn't Scandinavia or Japan where people are genetically similar and thrive on similar, traditional diets. In a country with tremendous diversity, isn't MyPlate bound to be less than ideal for some groups? And so here's what disturbs me most about MyPlate: with its categorizing and simplifying, with its lack of deference to the inherent diversity of foods (and by extension, people), it shows that we are thinking about how we eat food the same way we think about how we grow food: as a monoculture.

I saw another chart today, twos diagrams of the White House Kitchen Garden:

 

The first diagram is full of the diverse bounty of late spring: an assortment of leafy green veggies, root veggies, varied salad greens, peas, and blueberries that, come summer, will shift into tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, and beans. These kinds of foods are passively supported through things like, well, the White House Garden. It's bounty and diversity are subsumed by a quaintness, an utter lack of seriousness. In the second diagram, we see serious agriculture. It's serious for a number of reasons, not least of which is the fact that it is actively supported through government subsidies and is so cheap and so plentiful that it finds its way into our diet from all angles: a monoculture of starch in the form of corn, rice, wheat, and soybeans. The idea of MyPlate is to make sure people eat a veriety of the right foods, it hopes that its vageries will be interpreted to reflect the White House Garden. How quaint. The reality is this:

 

Courtesy of CBS news. Click the image to see the original video.

Yummy. Dry, brown, corn syrup-laced slurry bread is the "grain"; corn syrup-soaked mandarin oranges are the "fruit"; sad, canned, overcooked green beans represents the vegetable; and protein looks, well, like protein, you know, that stuff they're growing in labs these days. Oh, and don't forget the delicious corn-fed, denatured (pasteurized, homogenized, and defatted) 2% milk. THIS ISN'T A MEAL, PEOPLE! THIS IS CATEGORIES. Neat, tidy, bland-ass, fat-free categories. Call it food segregation. Everything is orderly, everything is in its place. On a standardized test, this meal would get an A. This type of eating, through MyPlate, is what we are culturally subsidizing. When we teach our children how to eat, this is what we want them to have. Trouble is, they don't want to eat it anyway. I mean, who would? What in the world is appetizing about MyPlate? This interpretation (and it is the dominent one in school cafeterias) supports a false dichotomy: good food tastes bad, bad food tastes good. They are rarely given the option of good food that also tastes good. Children will eat what tastes good. What tastes good and is also good for you? A meal. Foods that go together, that harmoniously blend and meld through the medium of fat, that are fresh and in-season, that are whole, that satisfy our appetite by giving us both the calories AND nutrients as well as the combinations that help us metabolize those nutrients that we need to make it though the day with energy and alertness. But we don't do this, and so, our children will keep eating their onion rings.

Bill Cosby is right. We have hemmed and hawed about what we eat and what we should eat, we have consulted experts, read the science, considered the needs of our agricultural economy, hired a graphic designer, written speeches, and pass out pamphlets. Indeed, it takes a lot of thinking and work to keep from working.

What's an egg worth?

Over the past few weeks, we have been selling eggs from our wonderful chickens to the community around our farm. We've used several outlets, including selling at a local CSA pickup location, our local farmer's market, our own CSA subscription program, a few dozen to our fabulous local farm-to-table restaurant, the Hil, most recently at the East Atlanta Village Farmers Market, and on a call-us-if-you-want-some-and-we'll-drop-them-off-for-you basis. The eggs we have been selling thus far can be classified as "pullet eggs" meaning that they are the eggs from immature, adolescent chickens. These eggs are of irregular, and often smaller size, and have other irregularities, such as double yolks. While the majority of folks have been really happy with their eggs, we've had a few balkers. Some don't love the small size, while others don't love the large price (we sell our eggs for $6, retail). Being someone who aims to please, I've considered how I could alter the price of my eggs to be more agreeable to these customers. I could compromise and stop buying organic feed, I could not sell my pullet eggs and simply wait for the size to become more regular or otherwise sell them for a lower price. However, I cannot, with good conscious, do these things. Sure, there is a point where you have to put your ideals aside for the benefit of the business, however, in my case, I simply can't afford to sell my eggs for less, and furthermore, most of my customers appreciate these eggs, both for their overall quality, as well as for the benefit of supporting a small, sustainable farm.

There was a week there where I fretted a lot about the eggs. I had a pretty serious backlog of unsold eggs. I've got my local CSA customers, whom I love and have allowed me to see first-hand the real benefits of the CSA model. However, I had several bad days in a row at my local farmer's market, the worst of which I sold only five dozen in three hours. Right now we're getting about 35-40 dozen per week from our 145 or so hens. Chickens take a while to get to the point where they are all laying every day, and in the record heat we've been having, it takes even more time. I knew that if I couldn't sell them all now, what on earth was I going to do later? I frantically began searching for other options, trying to figure out what I could do to either entice the customers I had further, or to get more of them.

The answer to my woes came, as so often it does for many of us young Georgia farmers, in the form of Judith Winfrey of Love is Love Farm. Judith is our very own rock-star farmer, food activist, leader, and general liaison to anyone and everyone in the farm-to-table world in Georgia. She answered my Facebook shout out looking for a farmer's market that was looking for eggs. Judith manages the super-duper-awesome East Atlanta Village Farmer's Market, where I have been selling out of eggs at my $6/doz price every week.

Having successfully crossed my first business hurtle (thanks to the powers that be that it was a small one!), I got to thinking more seriously about the value of food, and specifically, what an egg is worth.When I discussed egg pricing with Judith, she said that she's stood by Love is Love's $7/dozen price, despite the turned-up noses. She said, "I guess people really are getting to know the true cost of food." She's right, I think, and there's a fair few of them who aren't happy about it.

Recently, Time Magazine published an article based on a USDA study that showed that an organic egg was not appreciably different from a regular, industrial egg, and thus asserting that the price difference is bunk. However, what Time Magazine fails to mention is the tools the USDA used to measure egg quality in its study, the Haugh Unit. This tool is used to measure the physical characteristics of an egg, primarily with regard to freshness (the height of the albumen directly correlates with freshness). Of course, almost all eggs, industrial or organic are no more than a few hours to a few days old when they are graded. They are therefore, always fresh at the time of grading and get to bear the Grade A stamp (provided they have a reasonably uniform shell, and show a white and an in-tact yolk when candled), no matter how fresh they are by the time they arrive at your supermarket. Infuriatingly, the Time article also asserts that factory farm eggs are "safer" than organic eggs 1) without siting the claim, and 2) without noting that the organic eggs in a grocery store are industrially produced as well, and are therefore subjected to the same standards and regulations as non-organic factory eggs. One article I came across in responce to the Time article works to redress the mis-measurement of organic eggs and, quite rightly, asserts that the Haugh Unit is not a measure of nutritional value. While I applaude this, I can't help but think that there is some real value in debating the differences, nutritional and otherwise, in a typical industrial egg and an industrially-produced organic egg. This value is not just for the sake of debate, but really and truly because I do not believe that the differences are in fact appreciable and I think that is something worth exploring and pointing out.

What neither the Time article nor the USDA research address is the existence of small-scale producers who direct-market their eggs, many of whom manage their hens on pasture.  Pasture, folks, not "free range" and not "Organic". "Free Range" has a specific USDA definition that in no way includes grass nor guarantees that the birds will actually find their way outside. "Organic" likewise, has a specific USDA definition that primarily addresses the feed and drugs given to an animal. A pasture-raised hen actually lives on fresh, green grasses with access to sunshine and insects that she wants to leave her nest box to enjoy. If she eats a certified organic feed to supplement her intake on pasture, all the better for the health of your chickens and your customers who can be assured there is not chemical residues or other funky stuff in their eggs. I am stunned at the fundamental lack or research going into showing the public that it is this, this egg which you can ONLY get (as far as I am aware) directly from a farm, farmer's market, or supermarket that has a direct relationship with such a farmer, is not only ethically superior, but a nutritionally superior product.

Studies from the Journal of Nutrition and the Journal of Animal Science point in this direction, but unfortunately, only publications such as Mother Earth News (while wonderful, it is not scholarly and not widely read by nutrition "experts") have published anything that seeks to find direct links. We have to understand that until the USDA starts to look at an egg from a nutritional standpoint and conducts the research that will allow it to have real nutritional data on different egg production methods, we will be stuck with, frankly, lame comparisons of "freshness" of eggs laid in one style of factory farming versus another style of factory farming. The really good egg, unfortunately, gets left by the wayside while customers are left unaware of the real value of their egg.

Michael Pollan, in a recent Wall Street Journal interview, lays it out plainly:

We've been conditioned by artificially cheap food to be shocked when a box of strawberries costs $3.

But it's important to know that farmers aren't getting wealthy. When you see strawberries being sold for $1 a box, picture the kind of labor it takes to pick those strawberries and the kind of chemicals it takes to produce those kinds of strawberries without hand weeding.

Eight dollars for a dozen eggs sounds outrageous, but when you think that you can make a delicious meal from two eggs, that's $1.50. It's really not that much when we think of how we waste money in our lives.

What is artificially cheap food? Food that is subsidized. A single egg may cost $0.50 to produce (which is what ours cost), but when you start feeding them corn that is subsidized and providing housing that is subsidized, and drugs that allow them to live in cheap conditions that are subsidized, and disposing of the toxic waste chickens produce in an industrial setting that we don't pay for, you have a veritable cornucopia of costs that you and I, taxpayers, cover that I promise you, ends up being more than $0.50 an egg. I recently had a conversation with Owen Masterson (of GROW!) where we thought somebody out there needs to do the research (or if it's been done, let us know where), add up all the costs, and let us all know what an industrially-produced egg actually costs. It would be powerful, powerful knowledge.

Last week at market, I watched a woman with three young children pay for grass-fed steaks and ground beef with food stamps. I wanted to cry with joy. Some folks might be annoyed. They'd say this woman could get a whole lot more food for that money if she shopped at Kroger. But hold on a moment my fellow taxpayer and let us ask: how much more? What kind of more? More calories? Probably. Probably in the form of processed sugar and refined carbohydrates, leading her and her children a few steps closer to obesity. The meat she would be purchasing at Kroger would certainly be corn-fed, contributing to heart disease and other serious degenerative illnesses linked to corn-fed beef consumption, and because it's cheaper, she could buy more of it, filling bellies a little longer now, and costing thousands in healthcare and suffering later.

And so I implore you, farmer's market shoppers, when you're at market, buying good, clean, and fair food for your family, realize that, unlike the supermarket where you're paying very little for a whole lot of bad stuff (yes, even if you're buying organic), you're paying a little more for a lot more of the good stuff.

A quick update: Take a look at these stats from today's New York Times. My favorite part of the article is, "Many people don't approve of cage confinement, but they're 'basically asking for the cost of their food to go up' said George L. Siemon, the CEO of Organic Valley Farmers cooperative, 'you're not going to produce eggs that sell for $1.50 a dozen without cages." Indeed, Mr. Siemon, customers are asking for the price of their food to go up. It seems, contrary to the designs of industrial agriculture, that the consumer is in fact motivated my more than cost.

sheep go to heaven, goats go to hell

The other night I was rifling through the internet, looking for bells for our dairy ewes. We have been considering using bells for some time, largely because they add a magical sound to the already magical sight of sheep in a green field, but also because they are quite practical to help find sheep, especially if one has gone astray. In my search, I ran across the video above. As I sat and watched, transfixed by the tinkling bells, vibrantly green grass, peaceful sheep, and the amazing sight of the waterfall that frames a pastoral landscape that would have made Theocritus weep, my sense of awe came to an abrupt, angry halt. The author of the video addresses the sheep, "hi sheep!" which is, of course, adorable. However, her companion, in the background, innocently inquires, "how can you. . . what is the difference between sheep and goats?" [email protected]!)*&^%$#!

Ok, yes, I accept that not everyone has the same interest in livestock that I do, not everyone has made it their business to gain intimate knowledge of the wonderful world of ruminant creatures. But for the love of god, didn't they go to kindergarten? Are farm animals simply not covered in kindergarten anymore, or only in some schools? I am continually stunned by the way many of the adults I have encountered since beginning this endeavor have collapsed "sheep" and "goat" into one being. At least every other time someone asks me about the farm, they ask, "how are the goats coming along?" when these people, my friends, neighbors, and acquaintances, all very smart, savvy people, all of whom have been told that we raise sheep, can't seem to separate sheep from goat. I find this troubling. Honestly, I have no bias here. I've got nothing against goats. I love goats. I plan to keep a goat or two as a kind of farm ambassador for people who want to visit the farm and pet the critters. Goat milk is lovely. Chevre, a fresh delicious goats milk cheese, is a large part of the reason I want to make cheese at all. The first cheese I ever made was a goat cheese. Goats are great. Sheep are super. I make no distinction between them on merit. I do make a distinction, however, between species. Make no mistake, I would not begrudge someone mistaking a baboon for a mandrill the same way I wouldn't begrudge someone for not knowing the difference between a standard TIE-Fighter for Darth Vader's TIE-Advanced X-1 Starfighter (though, those of you who know me well might argue otherwise!) Given that we live as members of the Western World, not central Africa or a galaxy far far away, these distinctions are pure esoterica. No, what is troubling is how very, very disconnected people have become from the very animals that have assisted us in our pursuit of civilization for a millennia. So clear was the division of sheep and goat in the ancient world that St. Matthew saw fit to use the distinction between the two species as a metaphor for the separation of the blessed and the damned!

Are we so far removed from our agrarian ancestry that our brains no longer see the difference between two similar, but altogether different species? Indeed, two species that have shared our history and have helped to form what we are today. It used to be that everyone knew the difference between a white oak and a red oak. Now you're lucky if a person knows the difference between an oak and a pine. Are our livestock going the same way? Will chickens and ducks soon be collapsed together? To put a very contemporary spin on it, I feel like it's as if Paris Hilton were being constantly confused with Ivanka Trump, only, blonde, celebrity, socialite heiresses are not fundamental to the bedrock of human civilization. Who knows, maybe, at the end of the day, the distinction is just as trivial. Frankly, I'm over it already, but I can't help but wonder if perhaps this indistinct perception between sheep and goats is a larger reflection of how our lives have become ill-defined and uncertain; we can no longer make fundamental distinctions; perhaps lines have crossed and blurred on some greater, cosmic level. Or maybe, just maybe, we all would do well to spend a little more time outside, paying attention, and giving attention to the creatures that give us what we eat. But that is just my totally biased opinion.

what cheese am I eating now?

Eureka! I've had an idea. In my attempt to become an ever-more educated cheese-maker I also am working to become an ever-more educated cheese-eater. Given that I have the great benefit of having an excellent cheesemonger here in Atlanta to provide me with a wide and ever-changing variety of cheeses from both near and far, I am starting my first series on this blog: what cheese am I eating now?

In this series of posts, I will let the folks at home know what new cheese is in my fridge, where it comes from, any history or interesting features I can dig up, and of course, how it tastes. This endeavor will also let me practice describing the taste of cheese, which is more difficult than it seems. Just so you know, when I describe something as baby barf or wet hay, I'm not making it up. I'm using a flavor wheel for cheese aromatics. It's a bit of a pseudo-science, since it depends so heavily on the individual taster, but it's good to work within a framework of agreed-upon terms rather than to just make something up.

Additionally, I will give the cheese a rating. I cooked up this scale a couple of years ago when I first started journaling cheeses, and I like it:

0: truly awful, why oh why did anyone ever make this? (pre-shredded, store brand, or generally poorly made: too much salt, too ammoniated, too propreonic, etc.) 1: Reasonable, overall unpleasant, but has some redeeming virtues, what I call "sandwich cheese" (a mediocre version of a standard cheese: Tillamook, etc.) 2: I don't like it, but I can see that someone else would. (Lumiere) 3: Good, solid standard D.O.P. cheese, par for the course, what you would expect (Parmigiano-Reggiano, Roqufort, Gruyere, Emmentaler) 4: Excellent, a very good, very nice cheese with unique and overall pleasant qualities, few complaints (Constant Bliss) 5: Supurb, really exceptional cheese, once I start eating, it can be hard to stop, great affection, no complaints (Bonne Buche, Green Hill) 6: Out of this world, mind-blowing, perfect in all ways, in line with personal and universal harmonies of flavour (Cashel Blue, Roaring Forties Blue)

Again, this is just where I put things. I claim no universal cheese-tasting knowledge nor exceptional abilities. This system is just a tool to communicate what I like.

Our debut cheese is Sampietrino:

When I was visiting Star, Tim (my local, wonderful cheesemonger) presented me with a huge, square brick of cheese. He suggested building a house with it. It's brick-like structure is where this cheese gets its name. Sampietrini refers to the cubic pavers used in typical Italian roads.

I am always entertained at how the Italians name foods after the appearance of commonplace things. I'm thinking of cappuccino, the coffee drink named for the Capuchin monks, who wore a brown robe with a white hood, called a capuccio. The visual analogy is clear in both cases. Indeed, there's nothing fancy or pretentious about these names. They just happen to be old and foreign and in need of a bit of context. I often quote Tim, who says, "it's just cheese!" Part of what makes him such a good cheesemonger is the fact that he does his part to divest us of any misconceptions we may have about cheese being an elite food. The other day, Tim was lamenting the fact that a local cheesemaker gave one of their cheeses a German name. The farm is not in Germany, it's not a German-style cheese, and the cheesemakers aren't German. It's pretty much a way to make the cheese seem fancier. As Garrison Keillor writes in this month's National Geographic, "nothing that is farm oriented or pigcentric is even remotely upscale." It's preserved milk, after all, and the process comes with all the dirt and grime and body fluids (after all, what is milk but a body fluid?) that comes with raising livestock. Cheese is about place, it's about where it's made and the folks who live there and who got to eat it first. If your cheese looks like the bricks used to pave your local streets, why not call it that? If it smells like the pigs who live at your neighbor's down the road, name it after the neighbor. But I digress.

Tim cut in and let me try a few thin slices. It was fantastic. The texture is really beautiful. It's a semi-hard aged cheese, but its cross-section looks like a bloomy-rind: creamy near the rind that becomes dense and slightly crumbly towards the center (the picture does not do it justice). It's a combination of cow and sheep milk, so it's got a lovely, super-creamy mouthfeel and is quite complex. The rind is nutty and strongly grassy with quite a bit of barnyard and some ammonia. The cheese itself is sweet, mildly salty, and lactic in the center, and becomes more complex in the creamier outer areas where there are flavors of cooked cabbage and leather. It's also got some pretty serious umami going on. Very, very delicious. (4)


Jefferson, Kalman, and a theory of idleness

I ran across this today, which made my heart leap for joy. Maria Kalman, who is undoubtably one of my favourite writers/ artists in existence did a piece for the New York Timeson her trip to Monticello. Wowza.

My favourite frames in the piece:

and,


The image of the chart made my heart skip. Here was some sort of proof that Jefferson was a farmer that linked to me. I too have this chart, torn from a local organics magazine, posted in my kitchen. It's not hand drawn, and it has colours and graphics and an all the trappings of modern printing, but it's fundamentally the same: seasons were the same for Jefferson as they are for me. A stones' throw into history and there it is, people eating asparagus in April, melons in August, eggplant in October, and carrots almost year-long. Jefferson bothered to make a chart of what was at market and when. This was important information that somehow we have collectively forgotten to take note of until very recently, and it's only the smallest handful.

The second image, the one of Jefferson's daughter, gets me at a very personal level. I think it amusing that Jefferson outwardly seems to deplore idleness in this quotation, considering the fact that it is only by idleness that he was able to accomplish so much. The best teacher I ever had regularly quoted Cervantes' address to his audience in the prologue to Don Quixote, "Desocupado lector, " idle reader. For my teacher, idleness was an incredibly important idea. Only the idle have time to read. Idleness, in essence, my teacher defined as time not spent in the pursuit of survival. He interpreted this idea slightly differently than I do. For my teacher, idleness is created when we don't have to hunt or gather or farm or make clothes; it is the work we do when there is no work that we must do. For my teacher, idleness is the product of a refined society that allows for "idle pursiuts" such as reading and writing, inventing algebra or triple-sash windows. Of course, this idea begs the argument that the whole reason we have people who can be idle and who can engage in idle prsuits is because others cannot afford to; that there are some who must always be working in order for others to be idle. Let's use Jefferson as an example, who, despite his intellectual passion for agriculture, had slaves to work his fields. Because of their lack of idle time, Jefferson had an abundance of it, in which he could walk and wonder at the world and do things like make charts of when things were growing. In essence, the reason some can is by the fact that others cannot. This is a problem. Yet, if we had no idle people, we would not have symphonies, epic poetry, the calculus, film, newspapers, iPods, indeed any of the great and small creative endeavors that make us human.

I would therefore, like to posit a slightly different philosophy of idleness. In essence, it is this: Only when we as human beings become fully competent at what we must do to survive can we fully create and enjoy the things we must do in order to be human. I often consider the moment in Masonobu Fukuoka's One Straw Revolution when he describes how he found bits of poetry tucked into the walls of his old farmhouse; he exposits that the farmers of the past did not toil endlessly in the fields, rather, they had time for poetry as well as time for the growing of crops. Fukuoka suggests that in our contemporary effort to make agriculture more productive, we somehow make the work less efficient for the farmer and his or her quality of life suffers tremendously as a result. When a handful of farmers work all day and all night so that others do not have to work the soil at all in order to eat, their time for idle pursuits is co-opted. Fukuoka shows us, however, that it does not have to be this way, he thinks, as do I, that there is room for both, indeed, there must be room for both.

Jefferson would have undoubtably loved Fukuoka. Indeed, when I am asked what historical figures I would like to have dinner with, it would, without question, be these two men; mostly because I believe Jefferson would have been fascinated by and learned tremendously from Fukouoka. The way Fukouka learned from the land, the way he watched and mirrored nature in order to let her do most of the work of farming, in essence, the way a little bit of very hard work and careful observation and interpretation of nature could yield plenty of food as well as plenty of time, time that allows for both survival and idleness, without the moral uncertainty that plagued Jefferson (at least in this one respect) would have be a marvelous discussion to overhear.

Fukouka, and those precious few farmers out there like him are fully competent at what they do, have time, time to write books, give lectures, cook meals, teach their children; they have time to consider new inventions that will make their lives a little easier, they have time to walk, time to participate in politics, and as Jefferson exhorts, time to think and time to wonder at what they do all day. The fully competent farmer must know how to do a bit of absolutely everything. We have sadly relegated farming into the realm of specialization, but specialization, we are wisely told, is for insects. There is nothing that can't be learned through farming for it keeps us "always doing."


what to do with a willing worker and English major: a responce to the New York Times article "Many Summer Internships Are Going Organic"

I've been meaning to write for some time about an article that appeared in the New York Times several weeks ago, in which I discovered that I now fit into a box. Apparently, there is an influx of liberal arts majors, English majors, in particular, who are choosing to abandon their books and potential Ph. D.'s (at least temporarily) and search for a "real experience" working on a farm.

Armed with copies of "The Omnivore's Dilemma," the article tells us, internship-seeking students offer farms little more than the educated and impassioned where what the farmers really need are "farm hands". I take farm-hands to mean folks who know how to work hard and fast with little complaint and whose intentions are to do a good job for a day's wage. Conversely, it seems, these liberal arts students are interested in pursuing a Pollanesque ideal. Clearly, the article sets up a certain tension that looks like there's a world of "real farmers" and a world of "wannabe farmers".

It's true: there are many saber-rattlers in the organic/local/ethical food movement who have raised the battle cry for good food and who have made eating into a political act (and rightly so). The present young and educated, like their 1960's counterparts, are perhaps the most prone to answer this call. But, the fact of the matter is that farming is more than politics and ideals. It's a lot of sweat and sleepless nights. People like Michael Pollan and Barbera Kingsolver are not farmers. They are writers. It is their job to use words to convey ideas and ideals that are meaningful and important that fall into our logical framework and that pull strongly at our own pathos. And yet we wonder why English majors are suddenly attracted to food and farms?

But I also wonder about the farmers themselves; those folks who break their necks making ends meet. . . the folks who get sweaty and dirty not for the experience, but because they have to; because it is their lives and livelihoods (to say nothing of the success or failure of this movement towards sustainable agriculture) on the line. But are these farmers not themselves idealistic? Something the Times article simply does not address is how is it that the farmers themselves came to farm. Sure, many farmers inherit their farm, they grew up doing the work, and maybe for some it was the only option. But not all. Some folks choose to farm. Indeed, every farmer out there made the choice to do the work he or she does on some level, and no choice is ever purely practical. There is inherent, incontrovertible romance in the desire to farm. If there weren't, why on earth would we keep doing it? We would all own vast acres of corn and soybeans in Nebraska if it was simply about putting calories on American tables. Put plainly, it would be a job. I don't believe that farming is just a job. No good farmer would ever tell you that. It's a vocation, it is something that must be done for our survival and so a desire, a calling to do it must occur.

It seems from the increase in interest among the young and educated that Pollan has propagated, that there are some who are being reacquainted with this fundamental call. And yes, “these are kids who are not used to living in a small trailer or doing any kind of work. . . most of them are privileged and think they want to try something new. They need structure." Indeed, they need to be taught. They need to learn what it is to work hard and get dirty and, moreover, they need not "trade poetry books for sheep." Liberal arts students, perhaps, are better prepared to be farmers than the agro-economy student. These English majors have minds that are prepared to make the link between poetry and that which creates poetry: experience. These students need to learn how to use their understanding of poetry to better understand sheep and worms and poop, sweat and sore bodies. They need to be taught the hardest lesson; that poetry comes from suffering, it guides us and shows us how to do things better and helps us to understand why we do them at all. Once a student can marry the suffering of life with thinking about the suffering of life, the world will get a worker and a farmer more willing and more capable than any merely working for a wage.

It seems that some farmers who hire interns expect free labour. But you get what you pay for. Students are passionate, but unskilled. If a farm needs farmhands, hire farmhands. Pay them a good wage and expect them to work hard and achieve results with little input. But an intern is a different thing all together. It seems that some farmers think that the work itself will provide the experience. It will, but not without creating tension on the farm. It is the job of the farmer who puts interns on his or her farm to turn the students' desire for experience (perhaps born as much from the poetry they read as from the saber-rattlers) into a desire for education, and then to fulfill it.

I worry that this lack of distinction between "farm-hand" and "intern" is driving a wedge in this new agricultural movement. There is a tendency to shun the young and enthusiastic intern who would, "report her organic farmer for using antibiotics on sick sheep" rather than to teach her and to use her passion for the benefit, rather than the detriment of sustainable farming. Indeed, if education is how we best preserve our culture, and we, as farmers and as eaters want a world with good farms and a culture that values our work, we must use the flames that Pollan has ignited and direct that passion (and sometimes cool it down a bit). We do this through teaching.

I know this all sounds like one more thing farmers have to do; teach a bunch of spoiled, inflamed kids about farming; but honestly, the work of the farmer is just this. Farming is about more than the cultivation of crops; seed to table, though an ambitious and difficult goal in and of itself, is not enough. It is about the cultivation of people. Farming is not only science, it is not just botany, biology, chemistry, and economics; it is an art. It is the interplay of all disciplines of knowledge and is a singular tool for teaching and learning. And these interested young, willing workers with their liberal arts degrees are a valuable crop too few farmers are cultivating.


Art, Aesthetics, Agriculture?

In case some of you were wondering why a pair of urban intellectuals such as ourselves ever became interested in farming, I have found a wonderful visual aid. The agricultural publication Dairy Today has, for the duration of its time in print, subscribed to the norm in its appearance. Most agricultural publications, or really any “blue collar” interest magazine wears a nondescript face:dairy-today-1.png  In this cover from 2005 we see a very straightforward design. No bells, no whistles. Really no design whatsoever. There are a few choice words on the cover that might, or might not entice you to buy this magazine. If you did want it, your reasoning would be purely cerebral. The image chosen is really what gets me: the dirty cows and insane perspective of filthy face-first bovine really peaks interest in the field of dairying, doesn’t it. I mean, come on! He looks like he’s ready keel over and die in a wasteland of mud and stink. Who’s for ice cream?! This kind of cover represents the standard of farming magazines, and to a large extent, farming in general. Ask the average person what farming is, ask what it looks like, what kind of work it is, and this is what you’ll hear: hard, drudgery, dirty, laborious, and gruelling with little reward. Indeed. And most farmers will tell you that that is not far from reality. There is, in farming, a kind of glorification of a lifestyle of self-induced poverty and satisfaction with the mediocre. I say self-induced because I do not believe that poverty and mediocrity are inherent traits of agriculture. Someone chose the image on Dairy Today, someone chose that typeface and those colours, someone chose to make it look so uninviting you would have to be desperate to want to take any interest in it. Worse still, this magazine’s appearance is either appealing enough or (more likely) totally irrelevant to the farmers who keep the magazine in publication. Ok, fine, maybe the articles are really good and that’s the attraction. But the point here is not the content of the magazine but rather, the content of an image presented of a dying and essential practice. The assumption of this cover is that one would not actively choose to farm unless it was the only option presented to you, or at best, there was some familial link that you take pride in. The point is that farmers are content to think of their profession as lowly. There is no desire to make it attractive, no desire to make it interesting to the average person, who, by the way, cannot live, that is live: breathe, work, play, make art, write songs, save lives, study aerodynamics or medicine, or literature, invent calculus and do all manner of worldly pursuits without farmers and farming. And farmers think of themselves as lowly, mediocre, humble? Can you imagine the panic if farmers were to go on strike? And you thought having to go without fresh episodes of SNL or Lost is rough. How can we ask people in this modern world, who take almost all of their food, sustenance, and means of survival for granted, to take pause and consider where their food came from and how it tastes when the farmers take themselves for granted?

Well, it seems that Dairy Today has caught on:

dairy-today-2.png  Hello, and welcome to the 21st century. Welcome to a world that has the ability to appreciate art and aesthetics, which, by the way, farming has a stake in. Look at this cow! She’s beautiful, she’s got personality, she’s got her tongue in her nose! And check out that typeface and setting. Wow. I love that the dot on the I of Dairy is the dot in the dot com of the website. How very edgy. Hell, I would pick up this magazine regardless of the articles. What do you see in this cover? Whimsy, maybe. There’s something about the baby blue here with the cow and the big Dairy at the top that makes me think ice cream cone. Plainly, this cover is sexy. It plays on eros: our desires. I desire this cow. I desire dairy products. I desire food. I desire to slip off the cover of this magazine and see just what’s inside. And hopefully, just maybe, I desire to look under the skirt of agriculture and see just where and how food is made. I mean, how different is it to ask how babies are made? Everything in agriculture is sexy. Come on, udders? How do you think those udders got so big and full of milk? Well, little Johnny, when a mommy cow and a daddy cow love each other very much. . . you catch my drift? Farming is all about reproduction, regeneration, and recreation. There is such joy in being a party to that process, such joy in being in a position to assist in and engender that process. Farming is not inherently unattractive, it is inherently attractive. This new cover is more telling of what farming actually is than the old one. And why not bring the inherent sexiness of farming into the bright light of day? We’ve been doing it with cooking for a good while now. Hell, my copy of Nigella Lawson’s cookbook Forever Summer depicts the author, beautiful and busty offering up a gorgeous clutch of round, red, ripe tomatoes. Food, not sexy? Huh? If there is an art of cooking and an art of eating, God Almighty, why not an art of farming? Look at that tongue!

And so, I return to my question. Why would a pair of urban intellectuals want to go into farming? It’s self-evident.

For more on Dairy Today's new look and an awesome video of how to art direct a cow, check it out.

The Trouble With Pigs

You hear it over and over that pigs are the most intelligent farm animals. People often say pigs are smarter than dogs. Intelligence comes in a lot of varieties, however, and the pig's greatest talent is for stubbornness. Now, I'm not just slandering the species because of my constant frustration with escaping swine, though they have a Houdini-like proclivity for moving through electric fences. The stubbornness of a pig extends even beyond its own best interests. You can open a gate, sixteen feet wide, and the pig will still try to root up and ram through the fence two feet to the right of the gate. It prefers to move in a straight line, obstacles be damned. But unfortunately, even as a member of the species that claims to be wisest of the wise, I can't claim that we are above such singlemindedness. Names and faces have been changed to protect the innocent: Recently Rebecca and I had the opportunity to observe the annual winter meeting of the West Timbuktu (ahem) Farmers Market (WTFM). Several things are wrong to begin with: the member farmers of the market, who govern it, only meet twice a year; the market schedules its meetings on the same day the weekly market occurs, that is to say after a long, hard day of work; and the market has no formal decision-making process other than a show of hands. The result is an agenda with a dozen major points of discussion on it, none of which can possibly be resolved in a single meeting. The attempt to do so without any organizing principle for the meeting leads to three hours and change of meandering discussion, arguing, bickering, and outright misconstrual.

Members of the market divide themselves into old-school and new-school. The old-school marketers tend to be truck farmers who grow a great variety of vegetables in their back yard and go to the market for enjoyment and supplementary income. The new-school are folks, such as the farmers I work for, who derive their entire livelihood from the land. These folks are interested in running the market profitably but fairly. The WTFM has been around for 25 years and was founded by the old-school. They think of the market as a convenient place to make a few bucks on a Saturday. The new-school sees the market as a community forum, a cooperative business venture, and, to some, a platform for social change. The new-school would like to see the market expand gradually but substantially. The old-school is a priori opposed to change.

The new farmers know that, to expand, the market needs a dedicated manager to enforce rules, work with the press to promote the WTFM, and take care of general secretarial duties. In the present arrangement these tasks are handled by member farmers who, during market season, hardly have enough time to tie their shoes. The new-school wants to hire a part-time, passionate young person to book advertisements ("Vine-ripe tomatoes available next week!"), hire performing artists ("Steel String Theory appearing next week at the West Timbuktu Farmers Market!"), and manage the market's general business ("Wow, we really have $1000 left over in the budget!?"). The old-school won't see the logic in this and argues that the only people who would apply would be, like themselves, looking to pick up a few extra bucks on the weekend. Obviously they've never heard of Slow Food, WWOOF (Willing Workers on Organic Farms), the organic or local food movements, or militant veganism. I can think of at least six people, just among my own friends, who might cut off a toe to get a job like this one; forget being paid for it; forget that Asheville is full of underpaid, over-motivated neo-Aquarians

The controversy between new- and old-school is mainly over money. The current fee structure requires member farmers to pay $25 per year in dues. Do the math: that's 7¢ per day, two bucks a month. Day members, who have access to five slots on a first-come, first-served basis, pay $5 per day and stop paying after 6 visits, which means they effectively pay the same as permanent member farmers without getting a reserved space. This allows the market to pay for insurance, about three newspaper ads per season, and six mentions on the local NPR station. The new-school would like to raise the permanent member dues to $50 per year and day member fees to $25 per day with no maximum. Day members make an average of $400 per market day; some make over $1000. That alone justifies the increase in day member fees; they simply haven't kept pace with inflation, and I don't think that they have changed since they were set in the mid-80's. The old-school argues that "no one would come" if the market raised day fees. As for permanent member fees, $50 per year amounts to about $4.00 per month, less than a gallon and a half of gas. The old school argues that the increase is too steep and many people stated that it would be a financial burden on them that might prevent them from taking part in the market. I don't know the economics of their lives, but I do see how much produce they sell on a Saturday.

So, the meeting went on for three hours and nothing was decided. We pigs butted heads and compared snout lengths, but got no closer to the other side of the fence. I may be frustrated with the perspective of the old-school, but the new-school shares no less blame for the lack of progress. These folks badly need to learn the meaning of consensus. The embittered stubbornness over $25 per year is the reason so many old farmers were driven out of business: a complete unwillingness to adapt old ways in order to preserve them.

Death to Turkeys

There are now 38 more dead Turkeys in the world. At 5:30 in the morning, Ross and I pulled on our coats and headed down the hill. We met Kirley and Ty (our fellow farm-workers) dressed in rubber boots; prepared for a messy day. We raised all our hoods, put on gloves and went bird-napping in the before-dawn dark. It is a surreal thing; approaching a flock of Turkeys out in a field, in the dead of night. It felt like doing something illicit, like we should have been wearing balaclavas. The first part of killing pastured Turkeys is catching them. One catches Turkeys by, well, grabbing them, sort of bear-hug style to keep them from flapping and scratching at you. Fortunately, they are more docile at night, though the first one Kirley caught went for her face with its beak. They are both heavy and strong, so sometimes, when I caught one, their sheer weight caused me to drop the beast. I tell you, it took some adrenaline to do it. There were no severe injuries, thankfully. We gently set each bird, individually into the livestock trailer. Only when there were three left did catching them become really difficult. They seemed to realise that their numbers had dwindled dramatically and that those birds that left did not seem to be coming back. We decided to grab all three of them pretty much at once to avoid a showdown, which more or less worked, except I lost my nerve and Kirley had to come grab my solitary, slightly panicked bird. Once we successfully loaded the turkey's we drove about forty minutes to Jamie's buddy Sean's house. He has a really great poultry processing facility in his yard that was completely worth the trip, especially considering that where we normally process is in plain view of where the elementary school children tour around the farm on a daily basis. Sean is an interesting guy. He's tall, lanky, and his hair is balding but for a horseshoe of black ringlets that give him the slight appearance of a Hasidic Jew in carhart overalls. He believes in the most insane conspiracy theories, his wife is a bit of a Jesus-freak (but in a good, not-at-all-scary way), and I later found out that that pistol his five-year-old son, who was running around with his two-year-old sister playing cowboys with, was real. Despite these unnerving characteristics, Sean's a cool guy. He has a couple of Milking Devon's and Jersey's, both heritage breeds. When we got there, Sean was milking the Devon who was red, horned, and bad-tempered. Milking Devons were the first cattle brought to North America by the pilgrims. There's only about 400 left in the world. Sean sees the importance of preserving the genetics of an historical breed, so he raises a few. By the time we finished milking and had a cup of coffee, the scalder was hot enough to begin slaughtering and butchering.

Jamie, our fearless and very experienced leader, started the process. He grabbed a turkey by its feet. It flapped around for a minute. Really, I couldn't help admiring how beautiful they are in this contorted position; arching their back and neck in this lovely "S" shape, wings outstretched. He gently put the bird, head-first into a silver cone and reached in to coax the turkey's fleshy head out the bottom. With a knife I wished were a bit sharper, Jamie found the artery in the bird's neck, just below it's head, and slit it open. Jamie really was a master at this. The bird flapped and struggled minimally, and stayed fairly clean. Kirley went next. She had slaughtered chickens before, but was more intimidated by the turkeys. She wasn't altogether sure of herself, but bravely (and now I think I understand where the turn of phrase comes from) took a stab. Her inexperience showed, as did that of everyone else there who slaughtered except for Jamie. Their cuts were much less precise, which I think did hurt the birds, as well as caused them to struggle a lot more. I use struggle gingerly. It was difficult to tell if the bird was alive or dead when it flapped around (only once actually pulling itself out of the cone, which was difficult to watch). I was sure that it was a "chicken with its head cut off" type of reaction where the nervous system shuts down by erupting violently, but I questioned it, since every time Jamie killed a bird this did not happen nearly as much. I was the only one who chose to refrain from killing. Maybe it was lack of courage, but I rationalised that I wanted to watch, learn, and to try to get my head around the idea of killing and how to do it better. I also reasoned that I lacked access to a sharper knife, which I am sure makes the process less painful for the birds.

The way I understand it, the reason the slitting of thoughts with a sharp knife is the preferred method of slaughter is this: think for a moment if you have you ever been cut with a sharp knife, a really sharp knife. If so, you probably didn't notice right away. You probably saw blood before you ever felt pain. Now, think of a less common injury, that of massive blood loss. Most people who have experienced heavy blood loss describe the sensation as a kind of fading, a swimming in and out of consciousness, or a dreamy, light-headedness. The idea behind slaughtering animals this way is that it is relatively painless and because of blood-loss, death happens quite comfortably for the animal. But the whole time we were killing turkeys, despite these thoughts, I couldn't help but wonder if this concept of "giving death" anthropomorphises these animals too much. Pretty much everything we did to these birds was better, less painful, and certainly less gruesome than what happens to them in nature. I remember going out into the sheep pasture one morning and finding a dead sheep; it's head and shoulder twisted unnaturally and all its internal organs removed. And on another morning, feeding the turkey's one dead, nothing left but bones and feathers in a brown, rotting heap. Another Turkey was sick. It's wing had somehow been broken, and as it steadily became worse, its own kind pecked it and abused it until its head was a bloody, grey mess and Ty finally, mercifully snapped its neck. We are so concerned for the mercy of the animals we eat, much more so than nature ever is. I can't help but wonder if this is another way that we have separated ourselves from nature, or if it is somehow in our nature to be merciful and to not want to cause harm and pain.

So, with those thoughts in my mind, I resigned myself to the process of scalding, plucking, eviscerating, and packaging. In order to pluck a bird easily, you have to heat the skin in water to just the right temperature for just the right amount of time. The machine is kind of like a rotisserie that pushes the bird with a metal plate in and out of the hot water for several minutes. The stink of hot wet dead bird became quite rank after mere minutes. Then, you pick up the hot, wet, dead bird that, mind you dry, already weighs some 40lbs, and wet at least 10 more, and hoist it into the plucker. The plucker is a large, stainless steel barrel lined with rubber, carrot-shaped nubs. When you turn the plucker on, the bird whirls around inside and the nubs serve to pull the feathers out in some mystery of physics I don't understand. It's pretty intense, watching this animal flap about, neck broken, being removed of its feathers. Then we pulled them out onto a table, removed the feet and heads, split open its belly and removed its entrails. I did a lot of this. I think because at this point the animal was becoming food, and I just sort of resonated with it. It was systematic and fascinating. Then the birds were cleaned with cold water, bagged, weighed, labelled, and put in the chest freezer. It was sort of amazing, having something that was alive not half and hour ago now bagged up and in a freezer, utterly changed, even unrecognisable from its original state. The whole process for 38 birds took about eight hours, including an hour lunch break and clean up. I learned all kinds of amazing and miraculous things about bodies and biology. It was such a powerful thing to see a 5 gallon bucket of blood set out for a few hours. It coagulated into a jello-like substance that was thick and dark and beautiful. There were buckets of unusable entrails, heads and feet and lungs, translucent oesophagus's, and bright green bile; yellow, shining intestines all twisting and curving. We bagged up livers and gizzards that were purpley and iridescent. I know, it seems so gross when I say it here in writing, but I can't stress how mesmerisingly beautiful it was to see: like a mystery of creation all laid out plain and vulgar, but no less mysterious.

By the end of the day I wasn't sure if I would ever eat turkey again, mostly due to the smell, but also, in part, due to the fact that my hands had the sensory memory of the soft squish of lungs being dug out of rib cages. We were all bloody, smelly, and exhausted. As we were driving away, I couldn't help but feel like I had been initiated, not only into the farm and the very essence of farming, but also into a shared experience of the rest of the world. In this month's National Geographic, there's an amazing photo of men in Bangladesh slaughtering a cow in the street. It's blood arches in a spray as the beast falls toward the ground, the men assisting in its death. The caption below reads that the slaughter is celebratory, in honour of Id al-Adha, a Muslim holiday in honour of Ibraham's willingness to sacrifice his son, Ishmael, at God's request. The story, though differing in detail between the Judeo-Christian and Islamic versions, is read similarly in all three traditions. It is a story of ultimate devotion to the divine and unwavering supplication to the will of God. It also shows that obedience to God, though it my look grim and painful, is always reconciled with unanticipated mercy (remember, God stops Abraham at just the right moment). For Abraham and Isaac (Ibrahim and Ishmael) the horrible journey towards death, indeed a total willingness to both kill and to die without fear is rewarded with joy and relief in the form of a sheep, willing to die in Isaac's stead. Fundamentally, this story links sacrifice with celebration, death with joy. And so, Ibrahim's life-affirming sacrifice it is celebrated in the Muslim world with, what else but sacrifice. Animals are ritually and publicly slaughtered and shared among the poor.

The take home message is that animal slaughter is old, it is common, it is even elemental to human existence. It was so in the ancient world and is so today. Animals die so that people might live and this natural order is to be celebrated. It is perhaps difficult for us here in the safe, sterile comfort of the Western world to associate violence with happiness, but we must face this unassailable truth: death is life. Imagine for a moment the happiness a family must feel when they acquire a cow, sheep, or goat that they can use perpetually for food. An animal is a perpetual source because it regenerates itself in the cycles of life, birth, and death. This process is jarring to the uninitiated, (yet so many of us here in the US literally worship this process in the form of Jesus). Imagine for a moment the great physical pains of most of the world, both past and present, of just how dirty and foul it can get. We now, in this country, live in a kind of golden bubble. We have the privilege and indeed, luxury of constant and unwavering food supply. So many of us have the privilege of never seeing an animal die (to say nothing of seeing a human being die). So many have the privilege of spending only twenty-percent of our income on food. So many have the privilege of never bloodying our hands, never sullying them in the planting of seeds and harvesting of roots, of never having smelled the stench of dead things. In short, a great many of us have the privilege of never having to get dirty in order to live. But someone else, somewhere does have to get dirty, and too many of us have the privilege to ignore them. It is this division of people, clean and unclean: those who see death and are willing to die just as much as their food is, and those who think that separation from death is the way to life. This division I reject. So, I got to know death a little better through the sacrifice of 38 birds, 38 birds that will be used to celebrate our bounty, that will be used to remind us of how grateful we are, or perhaps, how grateful we should be, and that will remind us that gratitude is the deepest way we are happy.

A Tourist is not Local, or, yet another diatribe about why I hate tourism despite understanding that it is a cash cow

One of the first things I had to do upon arriving at the farm is weed-whack the corn maze. A corn maze is, as many of you know, a cornfield that has been cut either by machine or by chemical into a path, sometimes in a pattern, that tourists run around in for the enjoyment of getting lost for several minutes and then haphazardly finding a way out. In England, there are many such mazes, there called, amusingly, maize mazes, which surely spawn from the old tradition of English garden mazes, usually cut from boxwood or other hedges. They are popular and they are fun. Many historic estates in England still maintain their old mazes or recreate new ones to add an element of enjoyment that is in-line with the history of the specific place. A corn maze, however economical and enjoyable, is fundamentally out of line on a meat-production farm in North Carolina. Our farm has a corn maze primarily to supplement the farm's income. Financially, a corn maze makes sense. If you have one, the tourist will come, they will spend their money.  What could possibly be at all wrong? The farmer makes additional income and the tourist has a good time and a happy memory of a farm and a quaintly pleasing impression of rural life. But it is just that that, an impression, that troubles me. In the case of our farm, and I'm sure many others, the impression the tourist leaves with is a false one. We do not raise corn for food, nor ethanol, nor feed, nor research. Corn is not what we do. Our farm uses the land to raise food. We are, as the former head of the Warren Wilson College Farm, John Pilson once told Ross, grass farmers. We take an abundant resource that is inedible to us, grass, let animals who can digest its nutrients eat it, and harvest that nutrition through the meat of that animal. Little of the land that we are on is suitable for raising grains and vegetables, so we raise the food that the land we are on can easily support.  Yet, the many tourists who visit our farm have no idea that this is at all what we actually do. Many don't even realise we raise animals for food at all. By and large, they come for the corn maze, maybe a few pumpkins, and leave without noticing the freezers of food in the store. The corn maze presents a lie for the sake of a good time and increased income.

A caveat to this argument, though, is that farmers need that increased income. Several times, I have discussed the problem farmers face of making adequate income. Jamie attests, and I think rightly so, that of the vast majority of the interest and the money being made on the local food movement is going to the image of the movement. People buy from Whole Foods and they feel like they've done their part. Restaurants will have three or four local food items on their menus and they attract those concerned for food ethics. Shops open to sell nothing but organic sheets spun from cotton grown in Egypt and woven in Thailand and their patrons feel like they've made a contribution to something ethical. All the while government regulations and big corporate farms try to jump on the bandwagon diluting the language of ethical eating so that "organic" is equivalent to "all-natural" and either means a food as nutritious and untarnished as "grass-finished". As a result, farmers still see very little of the billions of dollars made by Whole Foods and Earth Fare. It's not enough, and neither is a corn maze.

A farm that successfully raises, harvests, and sells its harvest should not ever feel that in order to be economically successful it must go out of its way in terms of skills, labour, and resources for something that ultimately amounts to a waste of time and land for the sake of a tourist who will never buy even one of our steaks, nor encourage others towards ethical farming and eating; who, when the time comes to decide whether to develop or preserve that farm land, will merely shake their heads and say, well, I'm sorry to see the corn maze go, I guess we'll have to find another one somewhere else.

And therein lies the crux of the problem. There is nothing local about a tourist. For a tourist, there is little incentive to look deeper than the initial good time had. Pleasure is just pleasure unless it has meaning attached to it. Carlo Petrini calls it taste: the marriage of pleasure with meaning. Though the smiles of a tourist have value and play their part in a persons life, there are better ways of getting those smiles and good feelings that will benefit a place an more levels than the fiscal and a person on more levels than amusement. I suggest on farm tours where people might learn the fun and amazement of how cows come when called, workshops on cooking with the food grown on the farm, or even prepared picnics for sale with farm food that can be enjoyed on the grounds, farm volunteer days where kids can come and enjoy shovelling manure, making bouquets for the farm store to sell, helping to press apple cider, or counting piglets, where adults can help repair structures and make improvements. By all means, make money: charge for the experience. The point is to serve the farm and get people to cultivate an authentic experience and an authentic relationship with the land that works to get them to appreciate the farm for what it is rather than what it isn't. And by all means, if you grow corn, have a corn maze. The point is to work towards the cultivation of a recurring relationship to the idea of the farm and to the idea of food, if not ours specifically, the importance of those that serve the tourist locally. It is our job, as much as it is our job to raise meat, to help people, to help tourists to see at one individual farm how the farms local to them also serve them and their community. Then, maybe, farmers will be able to make enough money that they can stop doing things that aren't their jobs.