Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Born and grazed right here in North Carolina

I've met a number of farmers now who have come from non-farming backgrounds, folks who have chosen to embrace humble but fulfilling lives as organic produce and pastured meat farmers for all kinds of reasons. For some it's a sense of food injustice and a determination to make healthy food available where they live. For others, it's a distrust of the mainstream food industry practices (or the American consumer culture in general) that sets them on a path to sustainable farming. And for others, it's something they read that lights a fire under them: for Michael and Christy Underwood, it was an article in Gourmet Magazine (R.I.P.) on farmer Joel Salatin written back in 2002. To my former students who argued that something you read can't change your life, here's another example to the contrary.

Michael was finishing up a degree in History about seven years ago when he came across a feature in the now defunct food magazine. He was all worked up about what Salatin -- who has since been catapulted into farmer rockstardom when he was featured in "The Omnivore's Dilemma" (aka Ibti's Food Bible) as well as the documentaries "Food, Inc." and "Fresh" -- was doing in western Virginia. Michael wanted to be a part of this new, whole-ecosystem style of grass-based animal farming and broached the topic with his wife Christy, who was working on her own degree in English at UNC at the time, and she agreed it was a worthy pursuit. A farm internship at Polyface Farm (Salatin's operation) didn't materialize, but instead they worked with a farmer in Fairview, NC to learn how to raise pastured meat animals in their home state. A few years ago they began renting a plot of land and a house in Lawndale, NC and started raising pastured pork, lamb, and beef. And after I met Christy at the Charlotte Regional Farmers' Market last Saturday, they kindly agreed to let me work at their farm for a day or two as I made my way through western North Carolina (toward my impending third date with the Appalacian Mountains).

It's some intense work, especially in the southern summer climate, but Christy and I, and her two boys, Isaiah and Jeremiah, managed to water and feed the pigs before the real heat started. (Here's a pic I snapped of their boar as we went about our morning routine. He looked rather menacing at first, but then I sprayed a little cool water in the mud and I daresay he started smiling as he flopped over to wallow.) Then it was time to move portable electric fencing and herd the sheep and cattle to a new pasture. I tell you, anyone who complains about the higher price of pastured meat (vs. conventional feedlot fare) would sing a different tune if he had to trudge through tall grass and thorny blackberry patches in a pool of his own sweat to pull up and refence new paddocks every few days. (Yes, in case you're wondering, we did periodically stop to sample some wild blackberries as we fenced. It is *me* we're talking about here.) I was excited to at last see and help with a rotational grazing system that I'd heard and read so much about, and hot and tired as I was I felt rather proud when the ruminants calmly sidled into their new grassy salad bar. Our animal chores were, thankfully, completed by lunchtime, and after a lovely, veggie-filled meal the boys invited me to join them next door for a swim in the pool. Ahhhh.

Did I mention how HOT it was? I wimped out of helping Michael with tilling and weeding some of the vegetable patches in the stifling heat when he returned from working at his construction job midafternoon. I mean, how often am I around a swimming pool? But I did help Christy with dinner, which included a scrumptious, slow-cooked, herb-rubbed Underwood pork roast. It might have been even tastier than the stew I made with some Underwood beef last weekend at Laura's, but it's tough to tell. I think I was a bit biased by the lavendar-and-honey roasted carrots and homemade mead that their friends Jamie and Sara Jane -- the charming farming couple of nearby A Way of Life Farm -- brought to the meal. (More about my work with Jamie and Sara Jane coming soon.)

I can't help but marvel at the devotion and slow (but growing) success of these passionate entrepreneurs. They clearly love the land, the animals, and each other. Each day brings new trials but also new joys. And though it is not a glamorous or easy life, they seem happy. "At the very least, we eat well," Christy smiled during dinner. "It's one of the perks of the job." No kidding... Yum!

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

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