Does the world feel a little unsettled right now? Yeah, me too.
I don’t have kids at home (OK, our kid is 22 and has a job that he is not able to do from home, so there’s THAT extra feeling of stress in our household), BUT I know that life has suddenly gotten a lot more complicated. Many of us are working at home (hey, like farmers!), and trying to find ways to keep some structure for our families. Even those of us without kids home from school are thinking about our parents and our neighbors and the uncertain future of the next few weeks or months.
I’ve been reading a great book called The Obstacle is the Way, about turning times of difficulty into triumphant results. It’s really helping me take the challenges that we are facing and look at them with a different eye. How can we do good in the world? How can our “separation” become a kind of “better togetherness”? How do we build community when we have to socially distance?
By sending double the love out into the world in our words and actions.
I have a friend who just did a one-day food drive for the Food Shelf, to help shore up struggling families. Local stores are holding the first hour or so of the shopping day for the most at-risk folks, so they get to shop with the fewest people and [hopefully] the least danger. I’m seeing online art classes pop up and live yoga classes, and on-farm videos and lamb tours (sorry, our lambs aren’t coming for a while yet!). Restaurants are delivering, people are buying gift certificates to help businesses through the economic downturn.
Our challenges are where our greatest creativity can come from.
I’ve been thinking a bunch about how to support folks in food need within our community, since food and community are what we’re all about. I was going to save this idea for the classic Fall holiday time, but I think we should start now.
Our annual batch of pigs are scheduled to go to the butcher on May 7. I would love to send a whole pig directly to the Randolph Area Food Shelf and I could use your help. I don’t mind waiving my time to raise the pig, but I would really appreciate any assistance in covering the cost of purchasing the pig, feeding it and getting it processed. We will likely arrange to put it into a variety of easy-to-cook cuts like sausage and chops so people can get fresh, hot meals on the table quickly.
Getting high-protein pork into the hands of families can really help keep them healthy, feel full and reduce stress. And taking action to help others helps everyone feel better through empowerment and kindness, and all the wonderful human things we lean on each other for.
Oh! And I found this recipe in The Gourmet Butcher’s Guide to Meat, by our friend Cole Ward. It’s a special recipe for pork hocks from the Tuscany region of Italy. I think food is the most classic way to create connection between the shared circumstances of people going through life, don’t you? P.S. I think this recipe sounds delicious as a roast or chops, too.
Pork Hocks (Stinco di maiale al forno)
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
Brush hocks with salt dampened slightly so it adheres to the
meat; rub in minced garlic, rosemary, salt, and pepper.
Place a metal baking rack or roasting rack into a shallow pan. Place the pork on top, and pour red wine (ideally, Chianti!) into the bottom.
When the outside of the pork gets crispy, lower the
temperature to 275 degrees, and continue to cook until the internal temperature
reaches 145 degrees.
Goes nicely with side dishes of turnips, lentils, or beans.
A friend of mine recently said, “When our foundations shake and we feel unstable, that’s when we grow. That’s when we find out what we are made of.” I’ve been thinking lately about the difference between 2019 and 2020. For me, 2019 was full of new ideas and directions—so many that, as another friend described, felt “like drinking from a fire hose”. The sheer amount that I read, experienced, grew, and shifted in 2019 makes me feel like an almost entirely new person (with the same brain and memories—just a very different perspective on them!).
For those who follow along with our Facebook or Instagram social media, which is sometimes better and certainly more up to date than my longer blog posts, you might know about some of the things we experienced and [mostly] accomplished in 2019 to move our farm forward as a business in service to you and us and our Central Vermont community. It was a heck of a [Fire Hose!] list:
I initiated, conducted and successfully completed a crowdfunding campaign through iFundWomen to establish a yurt for stylish and comfortable on-farm stays. For the campaign I worked with a coach to refine my message; mapped out my participants; developed the budget; determined rewards; recorded, edited and produced my own video; and assembled all the social media materials to send out. The biggest, hardest thing I did? I learned to make direct requests to people. Nothing to hide behind, and the most exposed I’ve ever felt in my life. Wow.
I attended a seven-day-long, “farm MBA in-a-week” program called Ranching for Profit (RFP). RFP is based on the premise that just because we know how to raise livestock, it does not mean that we automatically know how to run a business that raises livestock. Believe it or not, dear friends and customers…we do want our farms and ranches to be run like businesses. Businesses exist to serve customers, and healthy businesses are constructed in such a way that the actual owners can step away without a gap in service, and can enjoy themselves without burning out or going bankrupt. We want our farm business to be that…for you, for us, for everyone. We want to be around in this community for a long time.
As a result of taking RFP School, I ended up reading at least 16 business and financially related books in 2019. It’s amazing how many audio books and business podcasts you can absorb while you move sheep fence.
I enrolled in the follow-up program to RFP, called Executive Link (EL). I now have a farm board of advisors, and I serve on their boards. We are all shaping up and changing our businesses. We are learning new tools to help each other through individual and collective challenges and decisions. We have three board meetings a year, with dedicated homework in between each, and travel trips to visit each other and share more professional development. Most importantly, we keep each other accountable.
I traveled to Wyoming in July as part of EL, and to meet other graduates of RFP from across the country. I can’t overstate this–many of you who know me well know that I work in agriculture professionally—most farms and ranches in this country are not in a healthy position financially, socially, or personally. Connecting with these amazing folks from across the country both energized me and also showed me how far I still need to go to have a healthy business. It was good to see how far the journey might be, and it strengthened my resolve to get us there.
I restructured our farm and home cash flow through a new system called Profit First. In the first quarter, my farm profit was $19.27. That’s OK; I’ve never actually had any profit before! The mental shift that I went through just to accept that I could have profit was worth the time and money spent on RFP and EL.
I drafted a two-year plan to grow the farm business to a point where it will support a full-time person. When I posed the question in early 2019, I didn’t even know whether this might be possible; now there’s a path forward.
We hosted six on-farm events in 2019, from a womens’ grilling class to a five-course on-farm dinner to a meat cutting workshop.
I hired an accountant and bookkeeping company to help keep me properly advised and moving forward successfully as my business grows. As a person who had done my own taxes for the past 38 years, this felt like maybe THE craziest change, but I need to focus on putting my energy and time into the best places for my skillset and the best result. I should be telling you all the story of the farm, and making connections with YOU instead of doing my taxes…right?
We welcomed 26 lambs to the farm, with close to 20 of them receiving names through our crowd-funding campaign. Welcome Mable, Myrtle, Lydia, G.O.A.T., and Baarya Stark, just to name a few.
I have begun to spend multiple mornings a week working on my business. From developing better lists and systems, to planning out our yearly cash flow and strategizing around enterprises to build up, these focused mornings are about laying that foundation for the future.
While visiting another farm last summer I learned about Tentrr, which connects campers to sites similar to AirBnb. We are in communication with Tentrr to have a site set up and renting as soon as May.
We established the first year of a long-term relationship with another women-owned farm nearby to triple our outdoor, heritage pork offerings while keeping our dollars and your food from piglet-to-plate within a 20-mile radius. Talk about reducing those food miles!
After the successful yurt crowd funding campaign, we were able to construct the yurt platform and order the yurt itself. It arrived in late December 2019 (to cap the year!), and is wrapped and waiting in its shipping boxes to be installed in May, with a tentative June rental start date.
This list isn’t there just to make myself feel better about how exhausting 2019 was (it was!), it’s about taking a few moments to look back at what happened when the foundations began to shake. It’s about celebrating that the combination of new ideas and action can change lives and situations. It’s about deciding what the right course is and refining that through habits and routines and systems, we blossom with creativity and joy. It’s about really owning our mission: Celebrating Food, Family and Farm in the Heart of Vermont. It’s figuring out what we are made of.
For me, 2019 was about changing the way that I think. The last twelve months have taught me that I’m ready to grow beyond who I have been and how I have functioned. I might be a [mostly] solo farmer blessed with a kick-butt grilling partner and in-house musician, but we can’t limit ourselves to just US. The answer is in the team. We’ve got to overcome the self-limiting cultures of farming and Vermont, and all the things that make us assume that working alone is the best and only way to be. I’m developing systems for each of our farm enterprises to make sure that our business serves our customers and community, whether I have enough hours in the day, or not. It’s not about me; it’s about finding ways for Howling Wolf Farm and Randolph, Vermont to thrive for a long time to come, which will allow Jenn and Chris to be part of both.
So here’s 2020, and we’re looking forward. I loved the new ideas of 2019, and I’m pretty grateful for the foundation shaking opportunities. That said, 2020 is the Year to Make It Happen. This is the year to strengthen new foundations, where we establish our two types of farm stay. This is the year when we crank up the pork and lamb availability. This is the year when we jump on AirBnb Experiences and start to offer farm visits and workshops to bring passionate visitors to the farm so they can really understand how well-managed grazing can save the world, and how connecting with and buying from local farms is one of the most powerful, real-life actions possible. This is the year we refine systems. This is the year we increase the art offerings on the farm. This is the year we take time for ourselves to better understand and create what others are looking for in agri- and eco-tourism. This is the year that we really start the journey.
I’ve long maintained that we truly started farming in 2000; the first year that we sold pigs to other people and did more than raise livestock (poultry) for ourselves. Twenty years later, I think we are actually stepping into our role as a solid farm business serving our community.
I didn’t expect it to take this long, but I’ve always been a bit of a late bloomer. Thanks for sticking with me on this journey. I promise it’s been worth the wait.
It’s been about six weeks in our crowdfunding campaign, and we’ve had some ups and downs. Wow, it was an amazing start. Right away folks jumped on. Lots watched our kickoff livestream, and we had a couple of big rewards chosen. It was energizing. And then I got busy at work, and didn’t keep the campaign in the forefront of people’s minds so much. It slowed down.
We got to 10% and then to 12%…and we’ve been stuck there for a while. When I’m up on Facebook promoting it, we have supporters choosing rewards. When I don’t, we don’t. I totally get it: energy flows where attention goes.
The scary part is what’s next. All along, my iFundWomen coaches and community have said, “the direct ask is how people get funded”. And that terrifies me. Asking for help terrifies me. I’ve written about this before; feeling like I’ve evolved so much as a human and adult that I’ve grown to ask for help and not expect to do everything myself. Maybe I have in lots of places, but not this. Not money. Money is personal, somehow. Money is wrapped up in value—valuing oneself enough to think that other people will also find value in you. I was never very good at asking for a raise, either. Overdeliver on value and hope they noticeand reward that, that’s been my motto.
The funniest part is that the yurt crowdfunder isn’t a donation situation, and it doesn’t come from the furthest recesses of my own hopes and dreams. It’s actually an embodiment of the values of our customers. When asking our customers last year about the things that they (you!) like about us, and why you even ARE our customers and supporters, we heard this:
We want to know that the animals we eat have had lives and been cared for.
We want to know that the land has been cared for.
We want to be better at preparing the meats from your farm (how can we be better cooks and grillers?).
We want to belong to an extended family and a REAL farm.
We want Vermont to stay in farming.
When you read that, it pretty much sounds like FOOD, FAMILY and FARM, doesn’t it? Cool. I think so, too. What you want and what we are—they are the same thing. We are reflections of each other, and that’s why we’re drawn together.
This campaign is an extension of that food, family and farm concept, and we have not been seeking handouts based on a random idea or simply seeking well wishes. Buying rewards through our campaign is pre-buying a future vacation or experience for you and your loved one(s), or a retreat for yourself. We do have a donation option (which several folks have chosen, thank you for being so sweet!), but most of the rewards are based on a trade of value. Overdeliver, we hope. That’s the point, anyway.
Yurt stays—the most logical of rewards in a yurt-funding campaign! Of course you might want to stay in a yurt, on the farm. A weekend might be perfect for a getaway. A week is better for a real detoxification from the hustle and bustle. A month could get that novel you’ve always been planning to write completed (and we don’t mind splitting into two two-week stays, either–we’re flexible like that). Yurt stays also make an excellent option for a wedding gift, an anniversary gift, a group retreat or reunion, or a valuable prize in a raffle.
Grilling workshops are all about the food, and people who love to eat and cook. We know we love to eat and cook when we teach those workshops, and standing around with a group of people who also love to eat can be a transformational and bonding experience. At the very least, a tasty and filling experience, even if you’re not going for the spiritual or communal aspects!
On-farm dinners are for the eaters who don’t need to cook everything themselves, but just want to enjoy the space. If you have haven’t seen the pictures of the farm that I’ve posted nearly every day for the last several years, this is a special spot. The view of Randolph, the wildlife, the apple and locust trees…we feel very lucky to live here and we want to share that experience with you, because it’s better WITH YOU.
Music. We offered a musical playlist for a few reasons. We have friends near and far without a lot of money, but with plenty of love and well wishes. Are these friends going to make it for an in-person visit? Possibly not any time soon, and the budget’s not there anyway. So how do we make that connection with extended family? Music, of course! As you choose a musical reward and listen to a playlist *I* have personally curated, we are connected. You make us smile and we make you smile, and BOOM—we are joined through time and space, and right next to each other again like old times– an audio hug.
Finally, we’ve offered lamb naming. Originally envisioned as a way for barbecue friends to tease Chris (and they DO love to tease Chris—aww, FAMILY!), the lamb names have become an extra way to enjoy connection. Some lambs are named for beloved grandmas and uncles, some are named for their final destination (the dinner table). Regardless of your relationship with the food you eat (or don’t eat!), here’s a way to join your own hopes and sense of humor with a real animal on a real farm. And you can come visit it if you want, too. We even made a slideshow to share pictures of the named (and still available!) lambs!.
We’ve designed the yurt campaign to reinforce the things that you’ve told us you love about us, and created rewards around them. Now the toughest part (for me) comes:the direct ask. My coaches have said over and over, “you have to ask directly.” So I am. Between now and the end of our campaign, June 21 (SOLSTICE—the farmer holiday!), I will be asking DIRECTLY. I’m asking everyone I know. We know you want to support us, and we NEED you to do so.
Yes, we could get a loan for the yurt, it’s true. But loans and debt are the death of small farms, and we already have enough of those (the loans and debt). That’s why we’re trying something new, and it’s so scary. It’s frankly easier to go to a faceless bank and ask for a loan that might end your business than to ask friends and family you know love you for an honest exchange of money and value. How messed up is that?
Thank you for liking, sharing, and most importantlyfinancially supporting this yurt campaign as we strive to Celebrate Food, Family and Farm in the Heart of Vermont. It’s not just a tag line. It’s who we are.
I don’t know how you were raised, but I feel like I had a typical rural Vermont upbringing. My parents were (and are!) fiercely independent, and self-sufficiency was one of my primary lessons. There wasn’t a thing I couldn’t do, or learn, or be responsible for.
And that’s how I conducted my life, for about 48 years.
I was (and still am!) an avid lifelong learner. I love learning new things and have wide and varied interests. I studied martial arts. I took pottery classes. I took voice lessons. I got a Bachelor’s degree in one topic and a Master’s degree in another. I learned about competitive cooking, became a certified BBQ judge, and how to bake and work with desserts semi-professionally. When there are conferences or trainings in areas I have any interest in at all, I tend to go. I always use my available professional development money at work every year. I decided I wanted to farm and took business planning classes. I’ve attended more than 300 workshops and on-farm events, as an organizer and attendee, and have learned something from every one.
And I was raised to do it myself. One of my earliest memories is my Dad saying, “If you want it done right, you have to do it yourself”. I took that to heart. I gained all these skills so that I would be a useful employee and a useful human, and capable so that I wouldn’t have to depend on anyone else. I pushed and pushed. It’s a wonder that my friends still talk to me, given that my drive to push meant that I have not been as available or as good a friend as I’d like (and I recognize that my farm life interferes with that, too).
After about 35 years, I recognized that I had a problem. I worked at a nonprofit and was always behind on the bookkeeping in favor of other projects that I had brought on myself. We had a very capable and wonderful office assistant, who took over that work. The day that the bank statements came in the mail, she had everything reconciled and turned into our Executive Director. Previously, I had taken weeks, if not the whole month to get them to him. Gently, she reminded me she could do other work to help me too, but my grip was too tight. I could see the problem, but really had no idea how to change. There was too much work to do to stop and show anyone else.
When I was 42, I became the supervisor of two people. I was grateful to have such nice, capable and easy people to supervise, and felt we worked well together. I still did what I did, and when they offered to help, I said, “Thank you but I’ve got it” (even when I didn’t).
When I was 46, I received another in a long line of annual reviews that said, “you do a great job, and you’re an asset to our (university extension) group” (which felt wonderful!) and then the gut punch “…but your teammates tell me they are worried about you, and frustrated that you are not sharing more of the workload, like you don’t trust them.”
For years, I had just handled things. I had said yes because I felt like I needed to *protect* the team, and that by NOT passing things to them, I was actually being a good leader. I thought that shielding my team was a good thing, and suddenly the light began to dawn on me that despite being a supervisor, I was still gripping all the work, the thoughts, the responsibilities too tightly. Ten years after the first conversations about this, I had learned nothing about REAL delegation, trust or supportive leadership.
Now I knew I was doing it wrong, but I still didn’t know how
to do it differently. The old habits
were SO ingrained. The volunteers at my
annual conference asked, “Can I do anything to help?” and my answer, “No, that’s
OK”, which always led me to be the last person cleaning and packing long after
everyone else had gone home. The
birthday party or Thanksgiving guests who asked if they could do dishes to
help, or chop the vegetables.
What I didn’t realize for a long time is that my friends and family and teammates still asked, but even when I said no, they ignored me and quietly helped anyway. Dishes were magically done during the birthday party. Cheese and crackers and veggies were suddenly on the table during the pre-Thanksgiving festivities, and signage, boxes and display tables were packed and loaded onto a hotel cart after the conference.
Even though I didn’t allow
myself to look to the team, the team was there.
Still I didn’t get it. I thought I did. I even wrote a long blog post about asking for help and how important that is, and how so many people helped us get to the farm. We are still so grateful for that, and many people did help us (and still do), but deep down in my heart, I still thought that this whole thing (the farm, our life, my job), is entirely on me.
And then lightning
In February, I had the great privilege of being able to attend Ranching for Profit School. For more than 30 years, RFP has been the premiere educational experience for ranchers (livestock farmers) around the country (and other countries, through their partner schools). I was excited to learn more about how to make my farm more profitable, and also to better understand what helps other farms be more successful, as graduates of this program clearly are.
Before the School started, we had some reading and pre-work to do at home, and were expected to come to the School with the answers completed for a 50 question test of what we had learned. We arrived and were placed into assigned table/teams, with people who would become our “board of directors” for the week.
The group exercise with the homework involved us discussing
every answer to the 50 questions with our team, to decide on the right answer,
and then scoring our personal answers and the group answers against the correct
answers. We then went around the room
and each table announce their highest individual score and then their team
I had the highest score at our table, which made me feel pretty good. I did feel a little bit like a ringer, that it had more to do with my extension job experience and the opportunity to learn from so many people and in so many places, but I admit that it made my ego feel pretty good about itself. Apparently, I was pretty smart.
Our team score was HIGHER. And as we went around every one of the other tables, their team score was higher than any individual high score. This time, the metaphorical gut punch went straight to my core.
Maybe I had talked myself into thinking I had the best ideas and didn’t need anyone, because I was so headstrong about being self-sufficient. Maybe if I hadn’t been so good at going it alone (see: high score), I might have figured this all out sooner. The Answer is in the Team. No matter how smart or capable or successful we are alone, we are MORE as a TEAM.
I spent the week practicing with my team. I didn’t push. I asked. I asked for their ideas and suggestions about the case study problems we were solving together. I asked if they could share tasks we were doing (when my default would have been to just jump up and do them). And on the last day when we worked through specific challenges for each farm, my teammates offered ideas and suggestions to each other and to me with a perceptiveness that I can’t begin to describe. I learned to trust the team in a way that I have never allowed myself to be before, and just as importantly, I got to practice it for a week.
After the School, I enrolled in a follow up program called EL, which is a year-long commitment and a lot of work serving on a board with, and for, another group of farmers. I needed to do that to keep myself moving forward, but I think deep down I need to keep practicing what it’s like to build and trust a team. I’m working harder on it in my job life; trying to talk less and listen more, actively passing things (with trust) to others to handle them. I’m trying to loosen the illusion of control that I’ve been clinging to, because the team is bigger and stronger and smarter and more capable TOGETHER than I am alone. And when I forget that, I have a meeting with my EL board, and they remind me.
Now I’m practicing. I’m practicing at work when I pause and say, “Yes, here’s a job that would really help me out, thank you.” And I’m practicing when I work on developing farm systems that can be performed by other people if I get sick or have to be away. I’m practicing when I hold back my vision of a thing and ask for others’ visions first. I’m practicing as I redesign my farm and life to be something that incorporates the strengths, skills and passion of the people around me. I’m practicing as I work to develop a life that I can leave for a while to spend time with friends and family.
Recently, I came across a quote by Stephen Covey, well-known author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I once felt dismissive of authors writing about personal improvement, thinking they were get-rich-quick people, and therefore not to be trusted. Maybe I just wasn’t in the right place in my life to appreciate the message. Covey says, ‘Dependent people need others to get what they want. Independent people can get what they want through their own effort. Interdependent people combine their own efforts with the efforts of others to achieve their greatest success.’
I have been proud of my independence, but I think I’m
finally ready to build something greater than any one person alone.
We are grateful for this year, and especially for YOU.
We know it’s the time when lots of folks look around and find gratitude in the things they have, which is wonderful, and something we all should do much more of, and not just in the six weeks between Thanksgiving and the New Year.
As we’ve trucked along this summer, particularly starting in April and May with our on-farm events, we have had so many reasons to be inspired and thankful and grateful and hopeful about what our farm is growing into, and what it means for you and for us.
We have a vision to “create food, family and farm in the heart of Vermont”. Yes, OK, that sounds like a canned tag line in some ways, but it’s the absolute truth. We love food. We’ve strengthened our existing family and found new family through sharing, cooking, and competing in food. Farming in the way that we do, caring for the land as an ecosystem and a place for connection and education, allows us to create an outdoor classroom for students of all ages. Our farm is simply the embodiment of the idea that home is where your heart is. For us, that’s literally the Heart of Vermont, Randolph.
In 2018, we set out to test some ideas about sharing this vision with more people, and new people. We want to grow the family! And people responded, like:
Deb & Gary who saw an ad for our grilling class in the local Front Porch Forum listerv and just thought it sounded like a fun thing to do.
Kathi, Al and Mary Lou who were each looking for a short getaway from an ordinary evening at our on-farm BBQ dinner.
Sue and Jenny, who came to our pop-up Village Idiots concert and BBQ dinner.
Barb, Billie Jo, Cat, and Didi, who shared teaching and learning and digging and looking at soil through magnifying glasses at our Land Listeners workshop.
Keegan and Isaiah, who came visiting as Randolph students, and are coming back as friends and farm helpers.
Rob and Gus and MB and Susan and Dave, who all came to help with farm tasks and events.
Ellen and Stuart who brought their grandson to see the lambs at our Lamb Open House, and Lori and Sarah who walked FANCY up the hill from our overflow parking area.
AND non-event friends who just wanted to see the place and what we do, like Siva and Darshon and Stephen and Francie and Dave and our guardian angel, Doug, who keeps an eye on sheep and the wildlife on the lower 40!
We love you all.
We tested all sorts of events this year, trying to offer a variety of cooking, eating, and educational experiences. We are grateful that each event brought old friends and new, and that everyone seemed to genuinely enjoy themselves and feel welcome.
As we look toward 2019, we’re dreaming up a new schedule (with dates to be finalized early in the new year). Lamb Open House will kick off the events season in the spring, with bouncing baby lambs from Lovey, Dot, Dulce, Brady, and the rest of the crew. We’ll be offering at least two grilling classes, with one focused on tailgate foods and one aimed at building women’s confidence in grilling (with a special award-winning female grillmaster!). We plan to host at least one on-farm dinner in mid summer, possibly a plated Saturday dinner or a Sunday asado. If all goes well, we’ll host at least a couple of farmer workshops around livestock and land management.
Do you have requests for particular events, or ideas about how we can better serve YOUR food, family and farm needs? Do you know someone you think would enjoy attending an on-farm event? Please encourage them to sign up for our email list, so they can be in the know about farm happenings!
Thank you all so much for the kindness, community and appreciation you’ve shown us this year, and we are looking forward to more fun, hugs and great food in 2019.
Jenn and Chris
P.S. AND watch for news about our 2019 yurt crowdfunding campaign, coming soon!
I’ve had customer-friends mention over and over how hard it is to make choices these days that they can feel good about. Whether you are feeding yourself, your kids or your grandkids, it’s tough.
Plenty of people might be telling you what to do or buy or wear or eat. Eat meat, or never eat meat. Only eat vegan or never eat vegan. Paleo, keto, vegetarian, organic, commercial, packaged, raw, local, or covered in BBQ sauce. My gosh, I feel for folks trying to make the best choices for themselves and the greater world. It’s not easy.
And I have no interest in making you feel bad about the choices that you do make. There’s enough of that, frankly. I’ve been there, and though I feel like I’m in a pretty good place nutritionally, socially and ecologically now, it’s been quite a path to get here.
I’ve mentioned before that I considered being a vegetarian, because I thought it was the responsible thing to do. It never stuck with me, although I certainly respect friends and family for whom it’s become a way of life. For me, meat and dairy were foods that my body needed, but more than that, I’ve continually looked back at what my ancestors regularly ate. Given my mostly European background with a little Native thrown in, meat and dairy feel pretty central to the menu. And interestingly, if you look at Scotland, England and New England, they are pretty grassed places (around the obvious trees). Perhaps that’s a part of why grass-based farming has such a pull for me? Hmmm.
I might get accused of being biased (I do admit that I am, we all are, but I try to be up front about it!), but in my line of professional work, it’s really important that we try to evaluate all the information coming in with as neutral an eye as possible. I’ve read plenty of research articles about how meat and dairy produced through confined-animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are more efficient uses of water, of energy, of transportation, of feed per ounce of end-product food. I get it, we can produce food really fast and really “efficiently” in CAFOs. But are we looking at the big picture? Are they the best choice?
I’m not here to bash CAFOs—there are plenty of people around who can do that. And, frankly, the large scale vegetable crop farms aren’t really much better. A whole lot of our collective diets these days come down to processed versions of corn, wheat, soy, and rice. With a side dish of potatoes.
So…how and where did I end up at peace as a farmer and eater? And how can you?
My suggestion: Use soil as your lens.
It all goes back to the soil, which I admit is a pretty funny thing for me to say (as an animal science, not a soil science, person). I’ve come to embrace that soil is the foundation from which everything else flows. Not just water and food, but economic development, civilization, communities, every product you can ever think of.
There’s a really neat book called Dirt by David Montgomery that describes how civilizations rose and fell based on their soil (as soil was lost, the civilizations died away). Building soil through natural systems took thousands of years of weathering rocks, followed by creatures living and dying and eating each other and leaving manure and repeating the cycles over and over again to add organic matter/soil carbon as a structure to grow food in. Increasingly, research is showing that we can create the organic matter side through good farming.
There are basically four rules to healthy soil:
Keep disturbance to a minimum—whether by plow, or animal hoof, or tractor tires or fire. These are all types of soil disturbance, and expose bare soil to the air where its carbon is lost. A little can be OK. A lot…makes soil wash away.
Keep it covered—like a blanket or a sponge, making sure something exists between the sky and bare soil (ideally plants!) means that water gets caught and held; something that’s increasingly important since we don’t know when the next rain is coming in lots of places.
Biodiversity is key—different plants feed different soil creatures, have different nutritional needs, thrive under different conditions (like heat or wet), have different root depths (some are really deep!), and produce different nutrients and chemicals. Growing a single crop of anything means that it’s a less stable system unless the conditions are just right for that one thing.
Living roots—we may not think much about this, but moving around minerals, breaking down manure (the dreaded thing no one wants in the water!), and feeding all those soil creatures, is able to happen because living roots are down in the soil. When we see a bare field with no greenery popping through—that means no living roots.
All the choices we make can do one of three things—build up soil, break down soil, or keep soil as it is. At the very least, we should try not to make things worse!
Wow, you might say, how can I make good soil choices, when I’m not a farmer?
Think about what plant the food you are buying comes from. Does it come from a bush that blooms year after year (like a blueberry or elderberry bush)? Or does it need to be tilled and replanted every year or two (like a strawberry)? Does it come from a tree, like a walnut, or does it get planted in a hill like a potato?
When you think about soil as the filter, these choices become a lot less about vegetarian vs. meat eater and a lot more about how each food was produced. Beef maybe isn’t so great when it’s fed a bunch of corn produced by tilling the same land year after year. Then again, neither is tofu, if the land those soybeans were grown on has been treated the same way.
On the flip side, a grass-fed animal leans heavily on a perennial grass system. Perennial systems are simply systems that last for multiple years. Whether than means grass, fruit bushes, nut trees, or the rhubarb plants in the corner of the yard, these are all examples where the soil is minimally disturbed to produce crops. Their living roots cycle (however slowly) even in cold weather, they grow with a diversity of plants around them, and they maintain a cover over the face of the soil.
Does this mean organic or local are good or bad? Does it mean supermarket food is? Is grass-fed always a good choice? Is tillage always bad? Are small farms infallible and big farms terrible? Whew, take a breath!
I’m not a big fan of extremes. The world is full of decisions and information; this is a simply a new way of weighing our choices.
My advice is to take a step back, think about whether the food you eat comes from a perennial or an annual system, and make the best choice you can. If you want to support improving the soils near where you live, that’s an extra motivation to support perennial farmers in your community. We’ll help build soil in your little civilization, which will have lasting benefits beyond the meat, milk, veggies or fruits you buy. If you’re already a fan and supporter, thanks on behalf of all of us!
Most of all, be kind to yourself and your food-buying habits. We’re all on a journey–learning new ways to look at the world–and that’s OK. Let’s keep learning together!
What a perfect response a friend and supporter of the farm shared with me recently. Thank you, dear one.
For a few months now, I’ve been trying to learn more about the things that connect you all to us, and how to better serve you as part of our greater community together. After all, if you’ve been reading my latest blog posts, this is really about each of us supporting each other and creating a stronger family where we can all thrive.
Chris and I genuinely want your lives to be better, and that’s part of why I’ve been asking all kinds of questions.
The answers have been surprising, and somehow not. We seem to be a group connected by a love of great food. Some of us shop at Whole Foods and some shop at the local market, but consistently foodie destinations are on the map.
Lots of us like to eat AND travel, possibly the best combination of all options. We travel to places where we meet old friends, like barbecue contests and coffee shops, and places where we find new experiences and meet new people. We are people who like to gather around and celebrate food.
Which is why the answers to one of my questions about guilty pleasures resounded especially with me. Some of you have mentioned guilt around eating meat, which prompted me to write an earlier blog post about reasons why you can allow yourself to feel good about eating meat, but what sort of knocks me out is that lots of our generalguilty pleasures seem to center around food!
(Even the delightful answer of “drinking coffee in my hot tub every morning” was a response to the “guilty pleasure” question. Personally, that’s a guilty pleasure I can get behind!)
Seriously though, why do we feel so guilty about food, and our enjoyment of it? Shouldn’t eating food, especially great food, be a joyful experience? Hasn’t food been at the center of our best gatherings? Does food not bring us together? If we travel long distances (and short ones) to find, purchase and experience food, why do we have to wrap it up in feelings of guilt and negativity?
Physical and emotional health rise up as our shared concerns in life, both for ourselves and our loved ones. We are seeking to be happy and healthy, we need to embrace self care, and we want to be good people. Life is complex and there’s not enough time to get everything done.
My proposal is this: let us try not to feel guilty about the things that give us pleasure in life. The world needs more health, happiness, kindness, helpfulness, self awareness, and care. Let’s all be that for each other and let’s encourage a little less guilt and a little more soul-filling.
So, go to that coffee shop and meet your friend. Hit the yoga class every Tuesday. Read lots. Travel and experience places through a delight of food, not in spite of it. And take that moment to enjoy your coffee in the hot tub!
If you’re looking for a little cozy, satisfying soul-and-stomach filler as the weather turns cool, here’s a recipe for my favorite citrus lamb stew, which works beautifully with nearly any cut of lamb, especially shanks.
Citrus-Braised Lamb Shanks
I know this says lamb shanks, and that’s the original recipe, but I have made this for every conceivable cut of lamb. Hands down the finest and most versatile recipe ever, and I have had someone ask for the recipe EVERY time!
(From Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage Meat Book). Serves 4, but very easily multiplied.
4 Howling Wolf Farm lambshanks
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
1 carrot, finely diced
1 onion, finely diced
2 celery stalks, finely diced
A few sprigs of thyme
2 bay leaves
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/2 bottle of white wine
1 cup lamb stock or water
Juice and grated zest of (each)
Salt and black pepper
Parsley to garnish
Heat some olive oil in a cast iron kettle or deep casserole dish. Add diced vegetables and sweat, without browning, until tender. Add thyme,bay, garlic, tomatoes, wine, lamb stock or water, along with most of the citrus juice and zest (hold a little back for later). Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a gentle simmer.
Heat a little more olive oil in a frying pan and brown the lamb shanks on all sides, seasoning with salt and pepper.
Add them to the casserole dish and cover with its lid. Cook in a low oven (250 degrees) (or transfer to a crock pot
to finish cooking) for 2.5 hours or until the meat is falling off the bone.
To serve, stir in remaining citrus juice and zest.
Terrific with potatoes, soft polenta, or creamy beans like cannellini.
Join our farm community and more lamb recipes are headed your way!
Cook Inspired with our Lamb: Six Tried-and-True Ways to Prepare a Classic
I feel like a whole bunch of people I care about are hurting right now. All around, our community suffers from grief, confusion, aimlessness, emptiness, loss, and pain. Be patient, friends. Have faith. Have faith in each other, in our human community, and in the bright and beautiful future ahead. Ask for help, and trust each other.
Let me share an example of faith and community.
Five years ago this month, we moved into a little rental house in the village of Randolph, after selling our house of close to 16 years. In order to sell that house, we did some cleaning, threw items in storage, got it listed with a realtor, and made a handshake deal with our next-door neighbors. Larry, Sr. looked around, nodded his head and said, “yep, most likely going to buy the place”. That was May. We didn’t talk about it again until September.
In the mean time, we moved forward. We threw out eight(!) heaping pickup truckloads of old boxes, trash, books and toys for the thrift store, and built a mountain of scrap metal and items to leave by the roadside for neighbors to take freely. At a particular moment in the summer, we had to decide whether a modest windfall from Chris’ job would be used to buy our winter wood (the usual choice), or we would have faith that the house would sell and we could invest the money in other bills and other places. We stepped off the cliff without the net of firewood for the winter. It created a hard deadline.
We had no idea where we would be able to rent, and we had no idea where our sheep would live. We thought we would be in a place just temporarily while our land sold and we moved to the new farm we had picked out as *the* place (it wasn’t). I investigated several options for the sheep to move elsewhere; nothing fit our budget so we decided to keep looking for a different option.
If you are reading this blog and have followed our story at all, you know we ultimately found the right farm, and are working diligently to share a space of home and family and community and good food and lively music with the person reading this post, and more people like you.
This post isn’t just about good things happening in our particular life, it’s about having faith in humanity and community, and believing deep down in our hearts that things will be OK.
Our move from the old place is a shining example of that.
Our neighbors honored their handshake on an “as-is” property, which totally could have gone sideways. An acquaintance of 20 years connected us with her husband’s rental opportunity (and we grew closer by sharing some very pivotal life moments together). A friend of my dad’s from high school came to join us in painting the rental house, just because he was between painting jobs and had time. Our son had the support of his friends as we bounced between awkward living situations. Our family squeezed itself into a teeny rental to celebrate Thanksgiving as we collapsed after a marathon move.
Turned out, we didn’t didn’t need the wood, but we did need all the help we could get, and were grateful for it. There were plenty of slips and slides, but in every case, someone stepped in to help in some way.
That pretty much describes our experience in finding and buying the Tilton farm as well, except that we stopped denying our faith in the future and started asking for help on the heavy lift of our life’s dream. At first it was so hard to ask. That’s not the way we were raised, except that community *is* a way of life in rural Vermont. That’s how farmers got harvests in. It just was, and there was no shame in asking, especially when people or animals would starve otherwise. Community can’t happen, can’t grow, can’t build success…unless someone asks, “can you help me?” and someone else answers, “yes, what can I do?”.
So, as awkward as it was at first, when people asked if they could help move or paint or truck animals, we said yes. We asked for help with a financial shortfall—something we would *never* have dared do before. Every time we asked for help and someone did, we helped build their faith in people, too. See, helping people is what builds community over the long term. Helping other people makes US feel good. I’m coming to learn that not asking is a way of robbing someone *else* of feeling good.
This morning, I remembered a particular example to illustrate this last point. Several years ago, we met a new barbecue friend. He saw me hauling heavy equipment out of the trailer and rushed to help me. See, his parents raised him to always offer help, especially to a lady (his words). Me, I pushed away his help, because I saw myself as a strong farmer and an independent woman. Who won out of this situation? No one.
I hurt my new friend’s feelings by rejecting his kind offer, and I was more tired than I would have otherwise been if I’d accepted his help. It took me some time to see it, but I’ve learned that accepting help is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of openness and a way to help others feel useful and appreciated.
If you are hurting or struggling, my experience has been this:
The most powerful act of faith we can exercise is to let our community help us.
The most powerful action we can take to build a positive future…is to ask for that help.
Plenty of people love to eat meat, but are concerned that they shouldn’t, because of negative stories that they see about animal products. The environmental impacts of flooding manure lagoons; pictures of animals being treated poorly; the long distances food is trucked to get to our plates; and simply not knowing (or trusting) the companies or agricultural system where the animal came from.
I totally get that.
In college, I joined an animal rights group because I felt strongly that animals should be respected and treated well. I remember sitting in our second or third meeting, feeling a tremendous disconnect from the group’s organizers, who were vegan and proudly wore plastic shoes instead of leather ones. “How is it that plastic is a better choice than a natural product like leather? Shouldn’t we be connected to how our food affects the environment?”, I wondered. I left the group and found a more practical way to improve animal welfare.
Looking back, that was the very beginning of my path toward being a more responsible eater, and eventually, livestock farmer.
Along this path, I’ve been gathering reasons about why we should actually feel good (and not just NOT bad!) about supporting livestock farmers and buying products made from animals.
We care. I’ve come to understand first-hand that people who do not care about the animals that they partner with, depend upon, and ultimately gather food from (in one form or another) don’t last long as livestock farmers. This isn’t just a job that we can decide not to show up for, or call in sick to. It’s an intense and delicate balance to care enough to be willing to be tired, hot, wet, cold, stiff, muddy, and (name your discomfort) while pushing yourself to put the animals first. And then caring enough to end an animal’s life quickly, when they are sick, or when it’s time to harvest them. Last winter I had to euthanize my two oldest ewes, and I bawled like a baby, but it was the right thing to do because they were suffering.
We manage the land and the animals well. All of our management is focused on keeping the land and animals healthy. We pay attention to where manure builds up, how much rain is soaked up by the land and stays there (instead of running off to cause floods and damage), and give the animals fresh food every day. Our goal is to be part of a sustainable system that brings more wildlife onto the land, and grows more kinds of food on the same land. A great example includes the apple trees we have been pruning, which now bear more fruit, and attract the tasty, nutritional venison-producing deer! I spend time every day watching and documenting how the land is changing under our management, because I am out on it.
We let animals have a life and express their natural behaviors. Pigs root, and sheep graze, and turkeys wander and fly. You may not realize, but pigs are great nappers. Much like us, they only get out of bed for a good reason (like breakfast), and they’re quite fond of a Sunday afternoon snooze (every day). They love to explore the world through their noses, and are quite easily bored. A small fenced area with a concrete floor doesn’t really allow a pig to be a pig in its fullest way. Poking around the roots of trees, finding nuts and berries, laying down in a warm patch of sun in the winter, or mud in the summer—these are signs of a pig at its happiest. They make little grunting sounds. That’s what happiness sounds like, and we want them to feel that right to the last moment.
We know (so you know) where the animal came from, how it was raised, and how it died. Some years ago, we bought the Spring piglets from a farm that didn’t raise their own; they shipped them in from Canada. I’m sure the folks in Canada did a fine job, but I really wanted to KNOW where the pigs had come from. I wanted to have a relationship with a person I knew, and be able to count on our relationship well into the future. I think it might also be worth mentioning that those pigs always seemed perpetually stressed, and nippy, throughout their lives. Was it breeding? Was it early life experience? Was it just that batch of piglets?
I’ll never know, because since then (for over 15 years), I’ve bought piglets from the same extended family, who live a couple of towns over. It’s not just that these folks are old friends and adopted family at this point, or that we (through our customers’ support) are helping to maintain two other small farms in addition to ourselves, or that these pigs are blue-ribbon winners at the local fair and are used to help kids get involved in 4H and caring for livestock themselves…NO, it’s about taking some of the mystery out of where our food comes from and adding in some trust. We trust that our friends raise great piglets (and they do).
Meat such as lamb is nutrient dense. There are good reasons humans have been eating meat for thousands of years, well before the beginning of formal agriculture. Registered dietician Diana Rodgers spends a good deal of time talking about the nutritional benefits of eating meat, and how not all types of meat are equal, either. According to Diana, “grass-fed lamb has a better than 1:2 ratio of omega 3’s to 6’s, where roasted chicken has a ratio of 1:8. It’s also has twice the iron, 3x zinc, and a 3oz portion of lamb contains 2.2 mcg of B12 compared to chicken which has only 0.3. Lamb is simply superior to chicken, nutritionally speaking. Also, for those looking to cause “least harm,” one lamb can produce a lot more meat than a chicken, and an animal raised outdoors on pasture has a much better life than one raised on 100% grain indoors under artificial lighting for its entire life.”
Some meat production is GOOD for the environment (and not just NOT bad). I know I’ve spent time and blog space above waxing poetic about the pigness of pigs, but the true animal heroines of land management are ruminants. In our case, the sheep. Ruminant animals like cows, sheep, goats, deer, and buffalo, are something magical. They can eat things we can’t eat (like grass), and gain nutrition from them. They have a multi-chambered stomach that acts like a giant beer vat, fermenting fiber to release proteins and sugars that are usable by the animals.
This is a process we humans are simply not designed to do, and it’s a big reason why nomadic people like the Maasaai of Kenya, and folks living in the Swiss Alps are able to survive in very harsh environments; ruminant animals can create food in places that we can not.
I will talk about what “good” grazing management means in another blog post, but the really important thing to understand about grazing animals and the environment is that the ecosystems of Earth co-evolved with animals. Grazing animals helped sequester carbon in the soil through plant roots, kept land open for nesting birds, built deep roots to hold soil in the Great Plains, and encouraged a wide variety of species from spiders and insects to wolves and bears. What we do now using portable fence is recreate what Nature did for millennia before we got involved.
We honor meat all the way to the plate. This is a big one for us, as foodies and cooks. We want to take good care of an animal and give it a full life, but we also want it to taste good. If we invest our time for months or years to raise an animal, and you invest your money to support us and the animal we raised on our farm, we think you should have the best eating experience possible. We want to help you understand how to cook meat properly and enjoy it to its fullest. With every “Stewie” steak and “Tennant” stew, we are grateful for the lives that they share with us, but also it’s an extra way for us to honor them by helping them taste as great as possible. We think the greatest way to honor a life is to lick the plate!
Being a responsible eater means being connected to the life and death that we are part of. Our goals as farmers and good stewards are to minimize and prioritize how much death is involved in our choice to eat. It’s been said, “everything eats and is eaten.” It’s true that something has to die for us to eat, whether you eat meat, vegetables, grains, or other foods. What might be interesting to know is that what’s the most obvious (above-ground animals) must balance with the less obvious (below-ground animals) in any food system.We simply can not assume that nothing dies when we eat.
It is true that a sheep dies and we eat it. But that sheep lived on grass that housed Orb Weaver spiders, ground wasps, grubs, and dung beetles. Under the soil, there might have been up to 14 tons (per acre) of bacteria, worms, insects, and fungi. In our pasture system, the soil has not been tilled for many years.
Tillage breaks up the soil “housing” microbes, worms and insects. Exposure to air releases carbon into the atmosphere, starving the microbes living there. Tillage is involved in the production of most common vegetable crops, and it is arguably responsible for more death per acre (by number or body weight) than any livestock farm. The path of greater life surviving, and a healthier farm ecosystem, means that the above-ground animal in the system must be harvested. And these concepts about life and death through soil management really put a different spin on whether our food choices are “sustainable” or not.
It tastes really, really good. Chris and I spend a lot of time eating meat, and it’s the star of the show, as it should be. When you feel a deep connection to a food, and you prepare it well, and the flavor knocks the park out of anything you can find in the supermarket; well, it sure feels like all the pieces have fallen together, just right.
If you’ve felt in your heart like buying local and pastured meats are the right way to go, I hope that by sharing some of my own reasons to eat meat, you’ll be better equipped to handle questions and comments by other people. And that you’ll in general have a better understanding of what sort of life you are contributing to and investing in: the farm, the animals, the soil, ours, and YOUR OWN.