Top | Opinion
(article, Mark Hall)
[%pageBreakSettings nobreak=true] I have just hung up the phone after talking with the owner of a Thai restaurant in a neighboring city. He wanted to order 100 pounds of locally produced boneless and skinless chicken breasts. Every week. I had to break the news to him that we can only raise 300 of our outdoor birds each year. We sell them to our list of loyal customers who happily snap them up whole, frozen, right from our farm freezers. Lover's Creek Farm is a small farm, rather than a butcher shop. Besides, if we sold all our chicken breasts, we would be left with wings, drumsticks, and a whole lot of soup bones. A different restaurant called in January, wanting to order chicken for its midwinter Lake Country Delicious promotions. When I mentioned the price per pound, the owner abruptly hung up the phone. I never got a chance to describe how we raise our birds. Earlier this week, June, one of our regular customers, emailed to see if she could drop by to get some meat. She and her husband, Sid, arrived an hour later, and spent several hundred dollars on grass-fed beef roasts, wood-smoked bacon, and a few whole chickens. [%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Pigs at Lover's Creek Farm."] Before they left, the pair took a quick tour of the barnyard, where they got in close with five of our rapidly growing Tamworth market hogs. “Oh, they’re just so curious,” June called out across the yard. Moments later, her jeans were slopped up in rich brown mud, thanks to a few overly enthusiastic pig snouts. June and Sid truly value the flavor and quality of their food, and simply cannot get enough of their visits to a farm that reminds them of their own rural upbringing. Since it was a warm sunny spring day, Sid even took a few whacks at a huge stump of maple sitting in the firewood pile, just for old times’ sake. In a time when so much coverage about local food and local farms focuses on glitzy restaurant meals, celebrity chefs, and flashy magazine spreads, we find our faithful customers are the ones who know the most about local food and how best to enjoy it. Many of them have large families and like the savings and convenience of buying their beef and pork by the side. A number of them are homeschoolers and incorporate food — and where it comes from — into their own homegrown curriculums. And they can be geniuses when it comes to stretching the meat for their families. When we sell at farmers’ markets, the most popular cuts are quick-cook, quick-serve barbecue favorites, such as steaks, chops, and sausages. Mostly, those customers say they don’t want to deal with any leftovers. Roasts are an awful lot of trouble for them, spare ribs and whole chickens even more so. But those old reliable farm-gate customers can’t get enough. Susan, one of the homeschoolers, does not like pork at all. Yet her kids and husband love it, so she persists in buying it for them. When Carl picked up his most recent side of pork, he was practically licking his lips right there in the laneway. And the way he cradled the armloads of cuts and carefully tucked them away in the trunk, you’d think he was putting a baby to sleep in a car seat. Patti is almost afraid to leave her husband and kids alone in the kitchen, because the meat disappears so fast. Her 13-year-old son will cook up a full pound of ground beef for breakfast. When her husband prepares dinner, he is quite happy to throw two pounds per meal into chili. When Patti has her way, she carefully parcels out just a few sausages into her spaghetti sauce to make it just meaty enough. She will also carefully harvest the last bits of the meat from the chicken bones before finally boiling down the carcass for stock. She saves the scraps for her chicken-flavored spaghetti sauce. If our customers aren't busy teaching us how to be thrifty, they're sharing new cooking ideas. Several will order fresh pork belly — unsmoked bacon — in large pieces. They bake these with a barbecue sauce or sweet maple syrup. In recent years, people have been purchasing lots of shoulder and other roasts for pulled pork and pulled beef. Others are experimenting with all kinds of cuts in their own patio smokers and barbecues, for better or worse. One market customer good-naturedly bought pork-loin roasts three weeks in a row as he struggled to learn how to cook them on his barbecue. The fourth week he returned, grinning. “I finally did it. It wasn’t burned. It was great!” he crowed. As much as we are happy to educate new customers in how we raise our animals, how to choose cuts, and how to cook them, we are constantly amazed at what our customers willingly share with us. We enjoy many jars of jam and preserves, often from old family recipes for condiments that go great with cold meats. We have had the pleasure of tasting relishes and chutneys from Britain, the Ukraine, and Germany. Last Christmas, we noshed on a fresh-baked Scandinavian holiday bread and cookies. If only they would leave us the recipes, too. We have learned how parents, uncles, and cousins raised pigs and cattle in bygone years. We have heard tales of pet chickens and geese that serve as watchdogs. We have learned valuable tips on planting tomatoes (plant the seedlings deep) and about five different theories on how to best grow potatoes (in hills, in trenches — take your pick). Waiting for this year’s growing season is a brown bag full of little black seeds for some kind of self-sowing Portuguese greens, given to me by one of our chicken enthusiasts last fall. Most of all, we have seen dozens of youngsters happily plant themselves facedown in the biggest, baddest, muddiest puddle on the farm. There are many days, of course, when we despair that “nobody cooks at home anymore” and “everyone’s stocking up on frozen entrées at the supermarket.” But then we have days when we ship a couple of pigs that we haven’t presold as sides yet, but which we really need to get out of the barn because they’re growing too large to keep any longer. Out of the blue, we’ll be rewarded with a knock on the door or an email from another enthusiastic would-be customer. Last week, Jenny, a newly graduated nurse practitioner who just moved to our township, called up. “I love free-range chicken," she said. "And I would like some beef organs for the new puppy I’ve rescued.” And could she bring a couple of friends, one of whom is looking for an internship on a local ecological farm? p(bio). Mark Hall is a farmer in Ontario.