Saturday, December 5, 2009

Farm Camp - Flying Pigs Farm Pigs, Tiashoke Farm, and the Agricultural Stewardship Association

Flying Pigs Farm is known for their fantastic pork; top NYC chefs (and regular people like me) clamor for it. I remember the time I got to the Union Square market at the relatively late hour (for me) of 11 o’clock only to find their bacon I had wanted to bring along on vacation was sold out. I left dejected.

As much as I have talked about the importance of the animals’ diet and humane treatment, there is a third, critical factor in flavor: genetics. Jen and Mike raise only Large Black, Gloucestershire Old Spot, and Tamworth rare heritage breed pigs. It’s worth noting there is an important distinction between “heritage breeds” and “rare heritage breeds”.

If an animal is classified as a “rare heritage breed” by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, it means there are only a few hundred left in existence in North America. According to the ALBC the United States has 300 Black Spots and 200 Gloucestershire Old Spots – that’s it. These are animals on the verge of extinction and as crazy as it may sound, the only way to truly affect their chance for survival is to breed them for eating.

A “heritage breed”, on the other hand, has pure genetics but may exist in the hundreds of thousand or even millions. The Berkshire pig is a good example of a heritage breed that numbers in the hundreds of thousands. I often see Berkshire pork on restaurant menus and have always assumed because it is a heritage breed it was from a small farm. It may be, but it’s also just as likely to be from a factory farm.

Aside from their rarity, what is so special about rare heritage pigs like Large Blacks, Gloucestershire Old Spots, and Tamworths? Up until World War II there were two types of pigs raised for consumption in the US – one for lard and one for meat. When lard fell out of favor in cooking, the pork industry started to focus only on meat pigs. The trend in pig genetics the last several decades has been to breed leaner and leaner pigs. Today’s factory farm-raised pigs typically have 7/8 inches of fat; Flying Pigs Farm pigs have 1 ½ – 2 inches of fat which, when cooked, bathes the meat in moisture. The additional lard is key to flavor and when combined with a good diet, makes for superior tasting meat.

You won’t see pork from rare heritage pigs in the supermarket anytime soon. These pigs are bred to live outdoors and do not do well in confinement. They also take a month or two longer than modern hybrids to mature. It’s expensive to raise pigs the way Jen and Mike do.

We met the pigs in the pasture next to the farmhouse. They were curious when we arrived and came right up to investigate their visitors. All three of these breeds love to forage which is made easier by their impressive snouts. Rooting around in the soil also helps the farm clear brush and reclaim pasture.

The metal huts strewn about protect the pigs from the weather. A pig cannot sweat and will die of sunstroke if they don’t have a place to take cover in the summer. In the winter, the huts are packed with straw to keep the pigs warm.

We traveled back to the hoop house where, separated from the chickens by a wall, were the piglets. The mommas are very protective of their little ones and will get aggressive if they feel any are threatened.

None of us were interested in messing with a 600 pound Large Black so we kept back and had a good laugh watching them. Hopefully these pictures capture how adorable they are - and playful and fast!

Back at the Barn

It was getting late and lucky for us, time for happy hour, food (including a Flying Pigs roasted pork shoulder that was beyond incredible), and some guest speakers.

Tiashoke Farm

As I mentioned before, dairy is king in Washington County. Before dinner we met the first of two dairy farmers scheduled for the trip, Stuart and Jessica Ziehm. They are owners of Tiashoke Farm and members of the Agri-Mark Dairy Cooperative, the largest dairy co-op in the Northeast and producer of Vermont’s Cabot cheese and its New York sister, McCadam.

Before the recession began in late 2008, milk prices were high due to increased foreign demand for milk and other dairy products such as cheese and ice cream. Dairy farmers ramped up their production by adding more cows to their farms. When the recession hit, demand plummeted but the cows kept giving milk. The result was a glut of milk prices at a 30 year low. In 2009, milk cost $1.50 a gallon to produce; the market was paying farmers $1.00 for that same gallon. Dairy farms have been closing left and right.

One of the benefits to being in a dairy co-op is strength in numbers – they have more buying power and can send their milk wherever it is needed. Stuart and Jessica are enthusiastic supporters of the co-op system, as would be expected. To be honest, as someone dedicated to supporting small, local producers, I didn’t expect to find much appealing about a farm that was a member of the largest Northeastern dairy co-op. However, listening to the Ziehm’s talk about how they run their operation, I was pleasantly surprised. They own a mix of 475 Holstein and Jersey cows, which live on half of their 1,200 acres in Buskirk, NY. The other 600 acres are used to grow grass and alphalfa to feed their cows.

Tiashoke Farm cows seem to lead a pretty nice life. They lay on beach sand which conforms to their bodies for added comfort and is cleaner and more sanitary than straw. Fans and mist keep the cows the right temperature. Similar to Flying Pigs Farm, the Ziehm’s do their best to keep their animals healthy. In the event one gets sick, she is taken out of the milk rotation to receive medical care and given four to five day to get the antibiotics out of her system before returning.

Agri-Mark works on a tier system and rewards farms with the healthiest cows. The better the cow management and care, the more money the farm receives for their milk. My issue with buying co-op milk is, no matter how good the milk produced by a dairy like Tiashoke Farm is, at the end of the day it is mixed with other milk from diaries throughout the Northeast. Who’s to say the other diaries take the same care of their cows? I would prefer to buy just Tiashoke Farm’s milk, not a mixed product. Stuart and Jessica see the desire of consumers to buy local products and are looking for ways to meet that need.

Agricultural Stewardship Association

The second speaker of the night was Teri Ptacek, the Executive Director of the Agricultural Stewardship Association. The ASA’s primary mission is to permanently protect the farmland of Washington County by establishing land trusts that run forever with the land and restrict commercial development. The backbone of the county’s farming community is the dairy farmers. Every dollar spent by a dairy farm gets spent four times in the community. If they disappear, so does the entire farming community. Pastures will turn over to forest and be unfarmable or a developer will build a McMansion in the middle of a large piece of land, making the land forever unsuitable for farming.

The ASA is eager to teach those of us in NYC what it means to farm and why we need to be concerned with what goes on in Washington County. If we want to continue to eat local food, we need to support organizations like Teri’s that strive to maintain open land for farming in New York State.

Time to box the chickens

Just as I suspected (and sort of feared), not only were we going to a chicken slaughterhouse the next day, we were doing the dirty work ourselves. Instead of “slaughter” everyone used the word “process” but no matter - it meant the same thing. Each camper that wanted to participate (and it appeared we all were) needed to go to the broiler pasture, grab a chicken, and put it in a cage (or “box”) to take to process the next day.

It had been a long day. I was finally warm, filled with food and a fair amount of wine, and not looking forward to venturing out into the cold, especially to pick up a poor, unsuspecting chicken. But, when in Rome….

We made our way to the pasture around 10 o’clock. It’s easiest to catch the birds at night while they are calm. The sky was crystal clear but with no moon, dark. This is where we went

But it looked more like this.

Well, maybe it wasn't that dark, but it sure felt like it. Eventually my eyes adjusted to the darkness and it became easier to see where I was going. I could make out the white feathers of the birds and hurried up the slope to where they were resting and scooped one up without a chase. As I made my way back down to the box, I was struck by the warmth and weight of my bird. In the dark, it didn’t feel much different from my cat. As I put the bird in the cage it would live in overnight, I knew what was coming for the bird and I felt sad about it. I could never do this for a living.


I stayed with a fellow camper at a farm in Argyle where our host and hostess raise a few pigs, chickens, and cattle on their 120 acres. It was an absolutely charming spot.

Over a breakfast of eggs we gathered that morning and venison sausage from a man who has hunted on their land since he was a child, our host, Remus, recalled meals they had over the summer where everything either came from their farm or the organic vegetable farm across the street. Remus worked in finance in New York City before moving here to live and found country living deeply satisfying. We went outside to watch him feed the pigs (talk about a frenzy!),

open up the eggmobile,

and move the cows from one pasture to another. Then we were off for the day.

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