Monday, December 7, 2009

Farm Camp - Battenkill Valley Creamery, Mapleland Farms, Garden of Spices

Battenkill Valley Creamery
Our first stop of the day was at Battenkill Valley Creamery, a dairy that has been in the McEachrom family for 110 years. For many years the family was, like Stuart and Jessica from Tiashoke Farm, a member of Agri-Mark Co-op.
In 2007 the McEachrons, sensing a desire from their customers for local products and their willingness to pay a little more for it, decide to break with the co-op and began bottling their own milk.
They converted a building on their property to a milk bottling facility and Battenkill Creamery was born. Today the milk from their 350 Holstein, Jersey, and Holstein-Jersey Cross cows goes from cow to shelf in just 12 hours and can be purchased from the creamery as well as 40 + restaurants, coffee shops, and markets in the Washington County area. Their milk is also sold in New York City through Basis Food.
We met with Sean McEachron and he walked us through the milk bottling process and explained the different types of pasteurization. I was surprised to hear they keep their milking cows inside despite having 80 acres of pasture. Sean said that allows them to maintain uniformity in the milk flavor which their customers prefer. I personally like to see and taste a difference in my milk from summer to winter but understand that’s not for everyone. We had a milk tasting and it was so good and so fresh that most of our group decided it was worth lugging a bottle three hours home!
Battenkill Valley Creamery’s gamble at going local is thankfully paying off. Business has been very good and they have expanded into ice cream as well. Given all the bad news surrounding US dairies, it’s wonderful to hear a success story. Maybe – hopefully – more dairies will find a way to follow suit.

Mapleland Farms

Our next stop was Mapleland Farms sugarhouse in the southeast corner of Argyle, New York. It’s quiet around a sugarhouse this time of year; maple syrup season in New York generally doesn’t get going until February when the days reach into the 40’s and the nights dip back below freezing. Mapleland co-owner David Campbell was good enough to meet with our group and discuss the maple syrup business. We couldn’t ask for a more qualified teacher -- David is the current president of the New York State Maple Producers Association and along with his brother, Terry, has been running Mapleland since 1972.

Maple syrup production occurs almost exclusively in the northeastern United States and eastern Canada, where sugar maple trees grow. Of all the different species of maple trees, sugar maple sap contains the most sugar and has the most pleasing flavor. Soil, minerals, weather conditions, and processing techniques all affect the quality and taste of maple syrup; Canadian syrup tastes different from Vermont syrup, which tastes different from New York syrup.

What constitutes pure maple syrup varies slightly among states and provinces but all mandate it must contain a minimum of 66% sugar and can only be made from the evaporation of pure maple sap. The United States/USDA, Vermont, and Canada all grade syrup by color, although they use slightly different terminology. Color is an indicator to flavor intensity. In general, the darker the syrup, the more concentrated and strong the flavors.
The average NY state maple producer taps 1,500 trees a season. Mapleland averages 7,500 – 8,500 taps, making them one of the larger producers in the state. A sugar maple tree must mature 30 or 40 years before tapping can begin but as long as the tree remains healthy it can be tapped for the rest of its life, about 150 years. Only 10% of a tree’s sap is taken for maple syrup in a given season and in two to three years the hole bored into the tree to retrieve the sap will have healed over.
Like the Campbells, most commercial maple producers have modernized their equipment and no longer use traditional buckets and wooden spouts to collect their sap. Instead, they connect their trees (collectively known as a sugar bush) with plastic tubing through which the sap flows to collecting tanks. “Sugaring off” season happens when the days get warm and the nights are cool, creating pressure in the trees that cause the sap to start running from their roots to their branches. This is the time to start tapping.

Sap is mostly water and must be boiled down to the desired sugar content and color to become syrup. It takes approximately 40 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of syrup.
New York State accounts for 20% of all maple syrup production in the United States, behind only Vermont. Quebec, the world leader, dominates with 75% of the overall market in part because of their concerted effort to market the product internationally. The Canadians have also banding their small producers together into large, powerful co-ops which then have the clout to set industry prices, something the United States producers have yet to do on such a large scale.

New York State is currently tapping only 1% of their trees (compared to 2% in Vermont and 1/3 of all trees in Canada) so there is plenty of room to grow the industry here. David talked about efforts to step up New York State’s own marketing plans and possibly increases the number of trees being called into production.
During the height of “sugaring off” season in March, look for Maple Weekends planned throughout the state. It’s a great chance to witness first hand how the maple syrup process works, not to mention get outside and experience the beautiful countryside.

Garden of Spices
We went from sugarhouse to slaughterhouse. The Garden of Spices in Greenwich, NY is home to Ben and Jeanette Shaw and their 9 (!) children. The family raises chickens, ducks, and turkeys on their 70-acre farm, which also serves as the area’s poultry processing center. This is where Flying Pigs bring their broilers when they are grown and ready to go to market. And that’s why we were there, too; the birds we caught last night were in the back of Mike’s pick-up, their fate pretty much sealed.
But before I get to THAT, a bit about the Shaw’s farm. They raise their birds on all natural feed and never use hormones. They live outside on pasture, get plenty of exercise, and supplement their diet with natural vegetation and occasional treats like pumpkin which the turkeys appeared to love.
Aside from the pumpkins, they lead a life very much like a wild turkey. Similar treatment for the ducks and chickens results in birds that, when compared to their industrial-raised cousins, are leaner and less fatty, and have more flavorful, omega-3 rich meat.
A word of warning: If you’re like my friend Angie and were grossed out by my post a few days ago mentioning that chickens eat bugs and grubs, trust me, you won’t want to read any further!

After our tour it was time to get down to business. Maybe I should have taken pictures; at the time I thought it too gruesome and descriptions might be better. In retrospect, the rooms themselves really aren’t so terrible-looking. The “killing room” (I know, I know!) is fairly small, with a couple of metal cones hung on the wall, pointy end facing down. Think of an orange traffic cone only in metal and without the square base. They are known, yes, as killing cones.

Off to the left of the cones was a large tub of hot water where the chickens are immersed immediately after being killed. Scalding the bird for about a minute helps loosen the feathers. Right next to the scalder was a tub picker, a machine that rotates at high speed and has rubber fingers mounted on the interior of the tub. In about 30 seconds the speed and friction of the fingers results in a bird sans feathers. Then it’s time to eviscerate.

Yuck. This next step ranks up there with the killing cones. I’ll spare you too much detail but will say the process involves a pair of scissors, a knife, your hands, and a metal trough to collect, um, unwanted chicken parts. The eviscerating room is connected to the killing room by a small window where the birds are passed through.

If the guys in our group were squeamish about the task at hand they kept it amongst themselves. The five of us girls were pretty squeamish, except for Betty who has had more experience with this kind of thing. We made sure we went first.

Ben gave us a demonstration on how to pick up the bird, hold it upside down by its feet, and place it in a cone. Hanging on to the neck, he slit its throat with a knife and then continued to hold onto it for another minute or so allowing the chicken to “bleed-out”. Then it’s on to the scalder, etc.

I was jealous of Louise because she got to go first and get it over with. Jealous, that is, until she went to slit the throat. You can’t imagine what a tension-packed moment this is for the novice. Even if your favorite meal is coq au vin, when faced with a living animal and a knife in your hand, it’s the moment of truth. Just how much do you really love roasted chicken??

When Louise went to make her cut, little happened. She tried again and then again and finally accomplished the task. You couldn’t ask for a more decent, thoughtful man than Ben but geez, couldn’t he have sharpened the knives before we got there?! That produced a dicey moment for Louise but after a quick sharpening of the knives, this step was much easier for the rest of us.

In truth, I found watching other people slaughter their chickens harder than actually doing it myself. Once I committed myself to going through with it, I could focus on what needed to be done as well as making it the least traumatic as possible for my bird. Knowing nothing about chickens, in my mind I reasoned that meant being gentle when picking it up by its feet, not flinging it about before it got to the cone, and being quick with the cut. I doubt the bird was grateful for my care, but it made me feel better!

So the question is, if it bothered me so much, why do it? I certainly wasn’t required to kill a chicken as part of attending camp. But as a person with a greater than average interest in understanding how the food on my plate got there, I thought it important, when given the opportunity, to experience what it means to take a life for food.

There used to be a time when eating meat at a meal was considered a treat, not a given. I wasn’t always aware of this but the more I’ve learned, the more careful – and grateful - I’ve gotten about my meat intake.

I realize doing the actual killing is a bit extreme and if I never had to process another chicken in my life I wouldn’t complain. But I could do it again because it’s honest, and that’s what I’m interested in - honest, wholesome food.

After we finished, Ben wrapped up our visit by talking about how he deals with doing this for a living. For starters, he doesn’t enjoy it and never gets used to it. It is also only one job of many he has on the farm. The other six days of the week he spends outside caring for the animals. They have a good life! Processing is a necessary evil as long as we eat meat and poultry. I find it comforting to know there are places like the Garden of Spices that are responsible and humane.

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