Wednesday, May 27, 2020
I met Josh at Grundhofer’s Old-fashion meats in Hugo. Just as the word “farm” will often conjure up a cliché’ for people- white picket fence with a rooster on it and a red barn- so too the word “butcher” will conjure up an image of, well, Josh.
|Bovine Mowers in May|
A big man with a husky voice, he looked like he could easily make short work of a side of beef. He had a heart to match. With his usual laissez faire approach to grammar, he took a genuine interest in our small farm.
“You must’ve grained them lambs you brought in. Marbled all through. Not like them other suckers last year.”
At the time, we were living in the driftless region,in Southwest WI. The sheep had clearly benefited from the incredible pasture there. In the fall, we trucked half of the feeder lambs back to the Minnesota side where Josh was able to do on-farm slaughter and custom butchering for us at a friend’s farm for our grass-fed lamb fans in the valley.
|Found in the Spud field|
I had thought the occupation of butchering would have made him insensitive to animals in general-but he had a genuine affection for goats. He had dreams of starting up a small abattoir of his own and raising his family on a hobby farm.
In the end, the rules and regulations of the USDA made it too expensive for him to attempt. Here he was. He had the skill, the will, and some capital pooled with a friend- with the guarantee of plenty of business. We weren’t the only small farmers around looking for a place to send our hogs, lambs, and bucks to. But he was looking at a start-up cost upwards of $60,000 for a small meat processing plant up to code.
A vertically integrated food system in which we rely on large processing plants for our brats, boneless skinless chicken breasts, and steaks for the grill, may seem like an efficient way to get lots of cheap food to many people fast, but all it takes is a crisis like the one we are currently in with Covid-19 to reveal how fragile and vulnerable such a system is.
Very quickly in a crisis, the same system that supplies so much for so many can deprive so many as well.
As the sign from the meat supplier on the Marine General Store’s freezer says:
We are not experiencing a meat shortage, but a delay in the processing of the meat available.
I understand the concern for food safety, but as a small farmer I also know there are few better guarantees of quality than small scale production. All our major e coli contaminations of recent years were traced back to mega farms.
|Romaine ready for it's close-up|
As backyard producers of livestock, we need more small abattoirs and laws which encourage rather than stifle them. People are starting to think outside the box. Reports of hog farms in Southern MN having to euthanize hundreds of animals because the plant they send them to daily is temporarily closed reveal a problem with our current model of food production. It was striking how, when the larger grocery stores were running out of meat, Swanks, the local butcher in St. Croix Falls, still had plenty.
Critics say it’ll never happen. Farms like ours- throwbacks to the 1940s golden age of mixed livestock and diversified crop farming are all but extinct. “You can’t turn back the clock” they say.
But if there’s one thing this Corona Virus has already taught us, it is that the world as we know it can change shockingly quickly. We may well reach a point one of these days where we’ll have no choice but to consider some simpler ways of putting meat on the table.
|the L.F.F. kitten tamer|
Tuesday, May 12, 2020
|the Little Flower Farm-Stand|
Some people have met the crisis binge watching their favorite BBC melodramas. Some have carted off cases of Guiness from the liquor store. One guy in the St. Croix river valley who shall remain nameless filled his grocery cart with the entire Cub Foods stock of Yoplait yogurt cups.
Our family has geared up for the future by reinvesting in the old- fashioned ways of living.
“A what?” the grocery clerk asked me, face blank, and fingers paused mid-air over the keypad.
“A Jersey cow.”
“ You know, a cow! A real cow! So I can make my own butter and icecream, and cheese. A cow.”
Once she realized I was not talking about some product called “Jersey Cow” which was the go-to item of the Corona Virus season, but a living breathing bovine- the kind we all remember from our kindergarten picture books, she chuckled.
“Well, if you got the land for it, why not!”
|Guarding against Frost|
Which is exactly what we were thinking, looking at our 6 acre farm. A good portion of it went to burdock last season. I have since learned that all parts of the Burdock plant are medicinal. So I’ve made some peace with the stuff. But after days of pulling it out of our pasture and pausing only to disentangle burrs from our hair, boots, jackets, gloves, eyebrows, and one year old baby, we were ready to consider ruminants.
Two steers to make meat for us and our neighbors (and save us runs to Cost-co.), and a cow to give us milk, butter, cheese, whipping cream, ice cream, and a calf to boot. That sounded like a pro-active way to respond to “Shelter in Place”. While we reaped all those delicious rewards, they would be fertilizing our fields and keeping the burdock at bay.
|Marigold gives birth to "Boots" and "Dame Judi Dench"|
Anxiety was heightened because I was waiting for a shipment of freeze-dried cultures to inoculate my milk with, and start using my milk for cheese. Until it arrived I felt my hands were tied. On the plus side, the hens were laying more, as I poured surplus into their scrap bucket. The barn cats were sleek and lazy, their bellies filled with the high butterfat Jersey milk.
Eventually, with the help of a man named David Asher I was rescued by the very thing that was overwhelming me: the milk itself!
|Making Hard Cheese for Aging and Fresh Chevre|
One remarkable thing about the Covid-19 pandemic is that it has found us all sympathetically suffering many of the same things around the whole world. Less socialization, more isolation, a change to our normal routines…we are united with so many around the whole world in these new privations.
But for me, I found that the positive activity of making cheese like this has also given me a feeling of solidarity with much of the world that I didn’t have before. It’s easy to forget that not everyone in the world can just haul off and got to the store for cream cheese or crème fraiche if their recipes (or tastebuds) call for it! Straining yogurt like cheeses through cloth is how most of the cheese in the world is made and has been made for centuries.
“Shelter-in-Place” has made us rethink what both shelter and place really mean. We have found richer meaning in both words, since all this began.
|Early Spring Brassica Planting|
A lot has been said lately about how crazy it has been trying to relearn how to live with our spouses and children during this Covid-19 crisis. In between mad dashes to the grocery store and hand washing we’ve found we’ve grown out of practice. There are radio shows with therapists telling us how we can cope with the stress, and grieve our old lives. There are podcasts about how to survive your 5th grader’s math lesson and still keep your self-respect. When you ask someone how they are doing these days, you tend to get a knowing look and then a “hanging in there!” response- or something like it.
But I’ve noticed something fantastically positive in this pandemic. Home has become more of a home and less of a over-night motel or train station. One 7 year old Scandia resident, too young to play along with the “we’re all in this (horrible- disruptive- awful -trying- scary-situation) together” narrative said it best:
“I kind of like it, actually. Dad’s home a lot more now, so he takes us on walks. We’ve been drawing all the birds we see in our notebooks, and trying to identify is they are migratory or not. It’s really cool.”
I only just recently realized that since the Governor’s stay-at-home order went into effect I’ve begun to see tipis on our lawn, crafted with branches salvaged from the woods and tied with barn twine, the dress up chest has been emptied out and employed to dazzling effect. My broom went missing the other afternoon. It had been commandeered by a 4.5 foot Roman soldier who was using it as a spear to stand guard over the baby who was dressed in a toga and being carted around on a “palanquin” as “Julius Caesar” complete with a paper laurel wreath. Apparently the 7th grader had become momentarily seized with inspiration during her history lesson and enlisted her siblings into the reenactment.
Since the start of the crisis, I’ve stopped taking the kids to the stores. It has freed them up to be about the business of serious play that is the work of children. While so much of the state is out of work, the children are busy, engaged, and happily fulfilled. At first I worried about the cancelled swimming lessons. No more tea parties and baking days with friends-birthdays celebrated without guests. But then I found out how much I had been disrupting with jaunts into town or planned activities. Children are remarkably gifted with resourcefulness. Our job is just to allow them the environment that is conducive to this lively work of building mind and character, and remove many of the obstacles we’ve grown to think of as necessities. We can learn a lot from them.
Maria Montessori, an Italian education reformer born in Italy in 1870, was no stranger to these observations and to forced seclusion. During her internment as an Italian national during World War II she wrote a fantastic book about child development called “The Absorbent Mind”.
In it she writes:
“The child who concentrates is immensely happy; he ignores his neighbors or the visitors circulating around him. For the time being his spirit is like that of a hermit in the desert: a new consciousness has been born in him, that of his own individuality.”
|Evening Chores at the Barn|
|Making Goat Cheese|
“When he comes out of his concentration, he seems to perceive the world anew as a boundless filed for fresh discoveries….Love awakens in him for people and things…….To exist and mix with our fellow men we must sometimes retire into solitude and acquire strength; only then do we look with love on the creatures who are our fellows…”
It may well be that in order to really grow through this crisis, the best thing we can do is to shut our computer and i-pad and smart phones OFF. Stop reaching out for virtual unity, and invest in real unity with the ones closest. We may very well look back on this time as one of the best. I know the kids in the backyard tipi with Dad will!
Quotes are from Chapter 26 Discipline and the Teacher of The Absorbent Mind