After several warm days and some good rain, the green grass has returned. It’s such a change from last weekend when we were at the house. This weekend, the sticky lilac leaves have appeared, with the dollhouse-sized dark purple bouquets deep within. They will grow bigger every day; I love to watch it. The daffodils are blooming now at the house, about a week behind those at our campus home. It is always interesting to see the seasonal delay, when we travel back and forth on weekends. Just a thirty mile difference, but closer to the river on campus.
At our April dinner recently, and I was struck while serving some longtime patrons that although they had been here last summer, it felt like longer since I had seen them. I think the feeling came because we’ve now had a winter restaurant season as well. This is our first year doing dinners each month, rather than taking a break from February to June. There’s been a coziness about the early dark, with our candles that line the front windowsills visible when people arrive and the glow from the farmhouse windows. Of course, we can adjust menus to feature lots of root vegetables and heartier dishes that we might not serve in the summer. The best thing, though, about this winter has been our new greenhouse and the greens that it provided us: the fresh baby lettuce, sweet spinach, and long, thin carrots. We’re very excited about this new addition to our business, funded in part by our Kickstarter campaign. Our boys love it, too.
It’s a challenge to keep up with blogging when we’re not living at the house full time, and when our life is full enough that finding time to reflect on it is scanty. But it’s important to keep connected, and to keep a record here for friends far and wide.
We’re doing a lot of work these days, growing seedlings, planting them, and preparing fields for our CSA. I say “we” to be generous to myself, but Justin is doing the most. Having the kids this young is a real challenge, even though we have the support of family close by. I look forward to the time when we can all work together. We’ll write more soon.
– Dillon Naylor
This summer we plan on embarking on a new agricultural adventure — not commercially, but just as a hobby for ourselves: raising chickens. Although we have friends and family with experience raising chickens, for us it is a completely new and somewhat scary prospect. Having living creatures depending on us for sustenance is a responsibility of great weight.
Our first decision has been choosing a breed. The issue of breed is actually quite an interesting and important story. The almost universal choice for broilers (chickens raised for meat) among both confinement and free range farmers is the Cornish Cross, a breed developed in the 1950s for confinement houses. This breed was designed to grow very fast and to have a high proportion of breast meat. Unfortunately, when one selects for certain traits (such as quick growth), other traits get neglected. And so the Cornish Cross is a very frail animal. Its growth rate outstrips its internal organ development. It can’t walk well and easily becomes ill, which is why confinement operations feed a steady supply of antibiotics.
Sustainable farmers raising birds outside have corrected most of the unsustainable and downright sickening aspects of confinement poultry. But they continue to use the same breed, the Cornish Cross, which is designed for a confinement operation and although it certainly enjoys more humane conditions outside, it is not necessarily healthier. It is not a breed intended to range on grass, and it typically doesn’t. Cornish Cross birds raised outside certainly taste better than confinement birds because they tend to be fresher and cleaner, but their flavor is not that of older, heirloom breeds.
So it would seem obvious that sustainable farmers should use an older breed more suited to life outside. But they don’t. The reasons are largely economic. Because the Cornish Cross grows so quickly, it is efficient and profitable to grow. Many consumers already balk at the price of pastured poultry. If the cost increased significantly due to the slower growth rate of an heirloom breed, the market would likely just shrivel up in most places. To make matters worse, people have become accustomed to the large portion of breast meat of the Cornish Cross, and wouldn’t be satisfied with the heirloom alternative. Pastured poultry guru Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm has admitted that his use of the Cornish Cross is the least sustainable aspect of his operation. Still, as he says, there is no market for heirloom meat birds.
I don’t fault farmers at all for using the Cornish Cross for commercial production, because it really does seem to be the only economically viable option within our current culture and view toward food. Perhaps the real answer lies in a new breed which grows quickly but has better genetics for health and ranging. Unfortunately, there is little profit to be made in such work, though some are trying.
Fortunately, for those raising chickens as a hobby or for the pleasure of it, there are alternatives. After much research, we’ve settled on the Delaware breed, a dual purpose breed developed in the 1940s and intended for commercial production of both meat and eggs. In fact, it was the universal choice for commercial production until the introduction of the Cornish Cross in the 1950s. The Delaware is a relatively quick-growing bird, though it requires about 12 weeks (double that of the Cornish Cross). Another option is the Freedom Ranger breed, which was developed in the 1960s in France. But we’ll probably choose the Delaware for nostalgic reasons (it’s my home state). Either breed will have much less breast meat than a Cornish Cross, though I agree with Mario Batali that the breast meat is the least interesting part of the bird. I would happily trade more flavorful dark meat for a reduction in white. Just as important, the Delaware is a friendly, docile bird, but happy to range on grass (though all chickens derives most of their diet from grain). A big part of our interest in raising chickens is to give our young children an experience of livestock on the farm. Our three year old asks all the time about when we’ll be raising the chickens.
I’m not sure the enterprise will be profitable or the best use of our time from an economic point of view, but that’s not the point. Our hope is to get our feet wet with livestock while giving our boys an important experience and providing our family with a truly humanely-raised chicken.
On February 8 and 9, I (Justin) attended the 22nd annual PASA conference in State College, PA. This conference is the premier sustainable agricultural conference on the east coast, maybe in the country. One of the reasons is that the organization is intentionally inclusive: although most of its members are organic, it is not an exclusively organic farming association. Its founders were wise to take a “big tent” approach, and the result has been a broader membership and more influence than many other regional organic farming associations. My first conference was in 2000, the 9th annual conference, at which attendance first reached 1000. This year, and for the past several, attendance has reached over 2000+. In fact, through my extended family, my ties to PASA go back even further. My father-in-law, who had the first CSA in our area, was present for the first conference in 1992, and my wife Dillon was the typist for PASA’s newsletter in the mid-90’s.
For all these reasons my connection to PASA run deep. Even though I’ve only been able to attend about half the conferences these past 13 years, my experience at the conference is always transformative. Most of the important ideas that have pushed our businesses forward have come from the conference: the knowledge to start a website, the idea to operate a restaurant on the farm, the possibility of raising money through Kickstarter, and most recently the skills needed to begin making cheeses and curing meats!
This year’s conference was focused on around two keynote addresses: one from Charles Eisenstein and the second from Ben Hewitt. The two couldn’t have been more different: the former a Harvard grad, the latter a high school dropout. The former a resident of suburbia using his pen as a sword in the arena of ideas; the latter a farmer in rural Vermont, fighting the daily battles with nature which give a farmer his resilience and independence. The two also adopted opposite styles. Charles spoke with no notes; indeed with no prepared remarks at all, it seemed. Ben, the high school dropout, read a lecture as eloquent and carefully crafted as any professor of writing. Yet, both spoke to the same hopes and dreams we all seem to have on some level: to live in a more just world, to replace the sickness of a money economy with one based on things of true value, to restore health to both people and the earth. Both men would be labeled quixotic by the world, impractical dreamers divorced from the hard-nosed real world. And yet, both men understand that it is the very assumptions about the way the world operates which paralyzes many from living their lives with greater integrity and meaning. Both men understand that timidity and fear dominate the lives of many and that trust in fragile things is required to break such fear and insecurity. And both men understand that change doesn’t come only from great acts of those in power, but the quiet, imperceptible actions of individuals. Finally, both men understand that change in the world comes only when we begin by changing ourselves, when we see others not as the enemy but as kindred souls, and when we decide that the only change that ultimately matters is our own decision to live in the way our conscience demands.
What a fall it has been! On August 30 we welcomed our third son, Thomas John, into our life. At the same time, we returned to our off farm teaching work, and in October, we re-opened the restaurant for monthly events after some time off to spend with Thomas. Finally, just this week we solidified plans to expand our little vegetable CSA and finished (almost) building a hoop house in the kitchen garden to supply the restaurant through the winter and early spring months! Stressfull to be sure, but it feels more like an abundance of riches!
The hoop house was the third and final project resulting from our spring Kickstarter campaign, in which almost 60 supporters donated over $4000 to the farm for several important capital projects, including the hoop house. We were thrilled to experience such support, just as we’ve been humbled by the continued support for the restaurant and our small, but growing CSA.
And I rose
in rainy Autumn
And walked abroad in a shower of all my days.
Dylan Thomas, “Poem in October”
In his wonderful book Shop Class as Soulcraft, Matthew Crawford — who earned his phD in political philosophy at the University of Chicago but ended up trading in his lucrative position at a Washington think tank for his own business repairing motorcycles — reports that his wife could sniff him at the end of the day and tell what sorts of solvents he’d used that day in his repairs. This anecdote has always struck me, in part because it seems so unattractive and repulsive, and it part because it seems so attractive and desirable. Like many, I am at once drawn to and repelled by the sort of work Crawford describes, and it’s a tension worth considering.
There is a side to Old Tioga Farm which guests at the restaurant never see: the equipment which makes the “farm” part of our business possible. Because our farming is currently limited to growing vegetables for a small number of clients, our equipment is quite modest compared to most farms: hand tools, a few mowers, a weed-whacker, and a two-wheeled walk-behind tractor. The latter is our pride and joy: a Grillo 107d. This lovely machine is Italian-made, and its neon tiller box always make me smile. Unfortunately, I’m not good with machines. I was raised in a city, never learned to hammer a nail properly, and am deficient in mechanical intuition. Yesterday I changed the oil, about a year overdue — no way to treat a beloved, expensive, and essential machine — negligence due mostly to avoiding getting all greasy and dirty.
Still, once one takes the plunge, it’s easy to get into it. Getting some oil or diesel on your hands makes you feel like you’re doing real work, like you know how to really do something. To understand the machine, to work with it and repair it, is the most empowering of work. My ignorance and unfamiliarity with the machine makes me ashamed, and makes me want to learn how to take the engine apart or take a job in small engine repair. In that moment of clarity, mechanical knowledge seems essential and much to be desired.
Yet, it’s easy in our other life to forget all about that feeling, to revel in the cleanliness and order of a well-kept city environment, keeping the aromas of both manure and diesel fuel far away and paying others to get their hands dirty by handling and caring for our machines.
As Crawford emphasizes in his book, however, the effects of being disconnected from our “stuff” has far reaching consequences. The loss of “agency” in our own lives ultimately deprives us of independence and power. With the loss of knowledge comes a loss of choice. Our building contractor once wryly pointed out that rural properties become dilapidated because people no longer know how to repair their own homes and can’t afford to pay someone else to do it. This is the consequence of giving up knowledge and power over our “stuff” and material world.
Will I ever know how to rebuild the Grillo’s engine? Perhaps not. But it is a goal worth striving and living for.
As organic produce has hit the mainstream during the past decade and a half, the inevitable criticism is of cost. One often encounters such sentiments as this: “Costly organic produce is fine for the wealthy few, but it’s too expensive for most people and we can’t feed the world that way.”
I do have some sympathy for this view. After all, neither a private school Latin teacher nor the proprietor of a small seasonal restaurant earns a princely wage. Paying triple the price for a pasture-raised organic chicken can be shocking at first. But ultimately the attitude that we can’t afford more for our food and that local, organic produce is elitist is an incorrect, disturbing, and damaging view, which does much to explain why the food culture of the US is so different from that of Italy and France, among others, where food is cherished and esteemed.
In the US we expect food to be cheap. Although Americans spent nearly 50% of their income on food in 1901, that amount has dropped to around 13% today, of which almost half is spent on eating out. This means only 7% of our income is spent on groceries. By contrast, we spend 33% on housing and 19% on transportation. This should give us great pause. Is the quality of our housing and transportation really worth around 8 times more to us than the quality of our food? It’s not surprising, then, that the quality of our food, both in stores and restaurants, is lacking compared to countries which value and prioritize food.
The very best imported artisanal pasta still only costs around $5 per pound, still less than a dollar per serving. Pasture-raised organic chicken, even at triple the price of supermarket chicken, still only costs around $2 for a moderate serving, about the cost per serving of a mediocre take-out pizza.
I would argue that Americans could and should spend at least twice as much money on groceries as they do currently. For twice the money, the entire food system could be transformed. We would no longer need cheap produce trucked from California or flown in from Chile. We wouldn’t need to live with or rationalize the immoral and disgusting conditions in which most animals are raised in this country. We wouldn’t need to be embarrassed that farmers are forced off the land unable to make a living.
We could have the same food culture as Italy and France if we chose to. All it requires is the desire to value food and the willingness to spend what it takes to raise high quality ingredients. Too often, when people hear even a partial description of the horrific conditions in which most livestock live and die in this country, they say “Stop! I don’t want to know!”, pretending that willful ignorance is a replacement for moral responsibility. Now is as good a time as any to commit to local, humanely-raised, high quality meats and produce. To find the farmers in your area, go to www.buylocalpa.com.
The Brandywine tomato might be the most famous tomato in the US, at least among gardeners. It is what is known as an “heirloom” variety: an old-time variety (usually from the 19th or early 20th century) genetically unchanged over time. As the long distance shipping of produce has developed in the past 100 years, breeders were forced to favor a new characteristic in produce: shelf life. Suddenly flavor was no longer the principal virtue of a vegetable. As a result, vegetables have become prettier in the past hundred years and they have certainly been bred to last longer, but they haven’t always become tastier. Something has to give, and often flavor is what suffers. This is an over-generalization, of course, but it is a significant trend.
And then there’s the Brandywine, one of the ugliest tomatoes I’ve ever grown. Its color isn’t uniform, it splits easily, not to mention that it’s hard to grow and has low yields. So why is it so famous? Its flavor is remarkable: rich, complex, and distinctive. It can also weigh in at over a pound. Many consider it the best tasting tomato they’ve ever had.
Like so many heirloom vegetables, the Brandywine was saved and popularized by Seed Savers Exchange, an organization dedicated to preserving old-time varieties. For the past 30 years, interest in Brandywine has exploded and it has entered gardening legend, gaining cult status.
I wouldn’t recommend it as one’s primary tomato variety in the garden, but a plant or two of Brandywine and/or one of other countless heirloom varieties will enhance your garden with increased flavor and history.
This summer I’ve been deeply moved by beets. It’s a vegetable we almost never buy, and even having grown them in the past, they have been only in the middle of our list of favorites. But this summer is different. Perhaps it’s the preparation: steaming or braising with a little water and butter instead of roasting them in the oven. Whatever the difference, this summer the levels of flavor and complexity have floored me. The beet is an earthy vegetable, and when really fresh (like with carrots and potatoes) they still taste something of the soil. But this aspect of the beet’s flavor, when balanced with the its sweetness and lovely soft texture, creates a harmony which I’ve been finding inspired and addictive.