Belcampo’s bubble: cow whispering and R.O.I. (hold the head cheese)


Been slowly digesting Elite Meat (heh), in the New Yorker food issue. I found Dana Goodyear’s  profile of Anya Fernald, CEO of sustainable meat purveyor Belcampo, pretty appealing–most of it, anyway.

“I live in a bubble and I’m trying to create a bubble,” Fernald told me. “I recognize that we’re creating a product that is financially non-viable for a lot of people. But I’m also prepared for when the health impact becomes undeniable and people decide to reprioritize their budgets. I think my bubble’s going to get bigger. Not because I’ll find more rich people—I think more of the rest of America is going to decide this is worth it.”

In most respects, I am all thumbs up about her venture. She seems charismatic, savvy and energetic, and has worked with diverse food economies and systems dating back to the late 90s, when she advised a consortium of Sicilian cheese makers. Belcampo meats are not cheap, and yet her declared (perhaps contradictory) goal is to bring sustainably raised meat to the widest possible public. “I want to be the next Safeway,” she states at one point.

I happen to be a big fan of some of her specific approaches to raising beef:

Unlike some grass-fed purveyors, who make a virtue of leanness, Fernald slaughters her animals later in their lives, when they have put on more weight and show the marbling usually associated with the feedlot.

Me too! I keep a herd of cows, and don’t slaughter till around the two-year mark. I love fat! Also, I religiously rotate pastures (though I lack the resources for the more intensive mobbing practiced at Belcampo. Would like to try someday, though). I have a stack of back issues of Stockman Grass Farmer. Often, I market my steers directly (as Fernald did once, from the back of a van).

So … Fernald and I are in the same line of work. Basically. But for the minor matter of a $50 million investment from Todd Robinson, she could be me, I her.

Parts of this profile read like something you’d see in Vogue:

On the morning of the meeting, I found Fernald, wearing a silk wrap dress and snakeskin heels, at a standing desk in the middle of Belcampo’s office in Oakland, her laptop propped on a pile of cookbooks from the high-integrity British mini-chain Leon.

Elsewhere, Goodyear describes a kids’ lunch as “bias-cut hot dogs, meant for the under-fives” and recounts savoring a “sausage, packed in a pig bung, which had cured for three months in a nineteen-forties root cellar.” Pretty easy to make fun of, I know. In the past I’ve written about how that sort of foodie preciousness has led to attacks on the whole idea of challenging the conventional food model (also, here).  (To be clear, I’m more or less pro-food, anti-foodie.)

Even benign things like humane care of animals can be taken to absurd extremes:

The last sounds a Belcampo animal will likely hear are “Sh-h-h, sh-h-h, sh-h-h,” whispered by a handler it has known since birth. After that, the “knocker,” equipped with a bolt pistol and headphones, renders it unconscious with a pop.

I’m never at ease with the idea of sending off animals I’d raised since birth to the building that turns them into meat. (Worse, of course, is having to dispatch them yourself). I can usually turn my back and walk away when I bring my steers in for processing. Once, though, when dropping off an old cow at the stockyards, I remember watching the hands unload her, and felt a major pang of guilt/sadness/regret as she hurried her gait up the ramp, eager to please, a good cow to the end. Hey, killing intelligent animals you spend a lot of time with is a sad thing. But saying “Sh-h-h, sh-h-h, sh-h-h” to a steer before stunning it? (… “the animal-whispering results in meat that is pure of stress-induced dark streaks.”) Well, if it makes you feel better about what you’re doing, fine. But this is more marketing point than science. A modest amount of stress is not going to ruin your meat. (I’m a big softie with my herd. Maybe this is me being defensive about not whispering to my cows in their final moments….)

And then there’s labor relations. In one anecdote, Fernald pays a visit to the processing facility, “the part of the company with the most failed drug tests and the greatest turnover” and can’t get the damn rustics to partake of the joy that is head cheese. One employee politely declines a sample of the brain delicacy, and returns to his repast of ketchup and spaghetti.


My bigger problem with Elite Meat is the quasi-messianic fervor the entrepreneur (and the scribe) have about what is at bottom a business venture.

“Our goals for 2014 and 2015,” Hanna-Korpi, an upbeat woman in her thirties wearing oversized eyeglasses and a short black dress, said. “Achieve eighteen million in revenue in 2015. How do we do it?”

The subhead ponders whether steak can Save the Planet. Where does that even come from?

That’s something for another post, I guess. At bottom, I have to address the fact that I am jealous –yes, I said it–of Fernald’s ambition and scale, and the fact that she can get 10 grand out of a single steer…. or that she has a $50 million stake from a single backer.

I find some aspects of her operation highly questionable, like  spending $1.3 million on a single winter’s hay just so she can raise cattle in California, where there is basically no water. Ah, but $50 million can cover up a lot of strange decisions….

Seriously, as a farmer, I’m watching what Fernald is doing with interest. She’s passionate and connected and I do hope she succeeds in her populist goals–in making sustainable and humanely raised meat into something ordinary families buy for weeknight dinner (just not every night). The food movement needs charismatic salespeople. Me, I can’t convince my neighbors to pay $15 for pasture-raised chickens. If she can change American attitudes towards meat and make her revenue goal of $18 million, more power to her. Also, I bet her parties are a lot of fun.

When life gives you lemons, you make … hamburger, lots and lots of hamburger



Heather and the kids were at the beach all last week. While I missed them dearly and eagerly awaited their return, I will say that it is also true that I reveled in being a bachelor and having the place to myself. But bad things tend to happen on the farm when I’m on my own.

When Friday dawned, I pondered my options for the coming day. Golf? Maybe a drive to Louisville or Lexington? Or perhaps visit a distillery? Be a nice day trip to Clermont, Loretto, Bardstown…

All that evaporated the moment I walked out to the pasture, coffee mug in hand, and came upon a commotion: the entire herd clustered around and nosing at a cow down on her side. I could see from the gate she had bloated. Her left side was grotesquely distended. It’s common to describe a bloated bovine as having blown up like a balloon. This is not an exaggeration.

I tried to stand the 1500-pound cow up. By myself. Futility. I started calling neighbors for help, left a few messages, and then got the vet assistant to pick up. He told me to get a hose down her to let off some of the gas. ASAP. Two years ago I had a heifer die of bloat a couple of hours after being turned out into a fresh clover paddock. (As it turns out, that heifer was the calf of the cow in question. A major aha! re the common genetics, but a little late to be useful).

Number 19 in happier times. I always think that bit of hay looks like a cigarette hanging out the corner of her mouth. That is the kind of attitude this cow had.

So I cut off a length of my garden hose and ran out to the cow, who was lying in mud, eyes rolled back in her head. I eased the hose (as easily as one can) down her throat. Enter my neighbor Mike, a seasoned cattleman of the old school, who told me the hose I was using was too flexible. I ran back to the house and cut a section of PE pipe, and ran back to the cow. No, Mike said, too stiff. So back to the house to cut a third section of hose, satisfactory to Mike, and we worked it down together. My job was to listen for the gas to see if we had the hose in the stomach. At one point I said I was not sure, and he asked me to hold it up so he could hear. When I did, a good-sized stream of bile and foam squirted into his ear. He took it in stride, and patiently explained that it was probably a good idea to hold the end of the hose NEXT to the ear. Ever the slow learner, five minutes later I had a pint of the same stuff running down my neck.

The cow’s left side was coming down some and she was able to breathe a little easier. Her eyes were closed, no longer rolled back. The next thing was to get her stood up, but in the mud that proved to be an impossible task, even after we were joined by my brother-in-law Tom. We wrapped a chain around her neck and tried to pull her up tug-of-war style, to no avail. Then we attached the chain to the hitch of Mike’s truck. We got her sitting, tucked her legs under her, and for just a second had her on her feet. Then she toppled over on to her right side. We repeated this comic routine for another 45 minutes. I was the last to realize this was not going to work.

“Well, you could beef her.”

I hated the idea. Number 19 (her tag long since rubbed off on a T-post) was the last left alive of the first five cows I had bought to start the herd, and the first one to calve. She was a bossy old thing, probably the herd’s alpha cow, and I was kind of fond of her. But the consensus was that she was never getting up and I had to make a quick decision. Either take her for meat or call the Dead Truck.

We called a few local small processors. Not one was willing to come kill and quarter her in the pasture on such short notice. And apparently no processor is allowed (or willing) to hang and butcher halves or quarters of beeves they hadn’t killed themselves.

Another neighbor, Albert, had appeared, and Mike soon somehow managed to volunteer Albert for the job of killing and butchering the cow. Albert was less than keen at first, but he started talking it through. He said give me half an hour for lunch and if you haven’t figured anything else out, give me a call.

Albert had grown up on a farm, and had a business raising and training walking horses. Previously he had worked as a nuclear physicist for the military. We had a bit of shared bond as (over)educated farmers and outsiders, having arrived in central Kentucky from different places. He from Kansas, I from Minnesota. And it turns out he had worked in a butcher shop as a teenager. Between his skill set and my pristine copy of Basic Butchering of Livestock & Game, we could make a go of it.

So in the early afternoon Albert came and did the deed. We made idle conversation as the cow bled out, and that is never a pleasant thing to be near. Albert then chained the rear legs to the hay fork on his John Deere and hoisted the once-cow/now-carcass over to a grove of trees in front of the barn, out of the howling and at times bitter wind. Albert had asked his friend Brian, a fellow horseman, to join us, and he was strong, energetic and clever, an indispensable addition. The skinning and quartering of a 1500-pound animal is a big undertaking at any time, especially as we lacked certain power tools that would have made the job much easier. We had to take turns with a meat saw to bisect the thing. I continued to consult The Book. Dissect the bung, and tie it off with a piece of string. Each turned page had another smear of blood.

Having split the carcass, Albert drove the tractor to our back yard, where we commandeered our picnic table and an old sheet for the butchering. We worked at that from 4 til well after dark. Albert had the butchering skills, Brian and Tom, both hunters, applied their experience with deer to the larger animal, and I … well, I assisted in whatever ways I could. Mike said he had a powerful meat grinder, which was excellent news, but when we went to get it, we weren’t sure what to make of it. Someone, a cousin of Mike’s, had taken an old hand-cranked grinder, bolted it to a piece of barn timber, and attached a motor. It took us some time to assemble it and to gauge the amount of meat we could feed into it without making it grind to a halt. We soon realized that when it choked we could just manually spin the wheel, minding our fingers, to force stuck pieces of meat or fat through. My skills being on the low end of the hierarchy, I was on hamburger duty while the others separated the carcass into primal cuts and found the parts that might produce steaks.

“Do you care about the short ribs?” When I said I might want some, we had to find a way to cut them up. I remembered my circular saw, and set to cleaning the wood and cobwebs off. It spat flecks of beef all over the place, but was pretty useful in cutting up the ribs.

We had to stop when it was completely dark, and improvised ways to store the meat away from our dog and cats and whatever else might wander into the yard, attracted to the smell.

Saturday morning, while I was waiting for the others to show up, I observed the cows getting nutty: the scent of the blood got the entire herd into a crazy state. There was a lot of head butting and full-tilt sprinting across the pasture, and much bellowing. The bull, usually the mellowest of animals, was frantic. It was an awe-inspiring and slightly intimidating scene.

A  little before noon Tom and Albert came back to finish the butchering. We worked pretty much nonstop through the afternoon into the evening. The first Final Four game between UConn and Florida was midway through the first half when we had finally packed  both my chest freezers full and sent off a crate with Albert.

The work was hard and constant but we were all in good humor through both days. Albert said he probably would not have taken on the job if he had known what was involved, and I think we all agreed with that. I said I might be calling you again, knowing what all you can do. He said, I’ll be sure not to pick up the phone when I see your name and number.

Early Saturday afternoon I seared a big brisket on the grill and stuck it into the oven to braise. Tom threw four strip steaks onto the grill, and we broke for lunch. I guess I had been apprehensive about actually eating this meat from a mature cow, meat that we had no way to properly age. But the steaks tasted amazing, as did the brisket, which we ate as we watched the Wildcats win yet another game with a last-second Aaron Harrison shot.

And last (Sunday) night came the true test, when I served up old number 19 to the wife and children. I had fears they would resist on sentimental grounds, or would think the meat tasted funny, and I would be stuck with two chest freezers full of beef I would have to eat myself. Fears unfounded, all three of them wanted a second helping!

I could easily insert some Wendell Berry-esque reflections on the nature of community and work, and they would be appropriate. But I’ve been out here in the country for over a decade now, and I am somewhat ambivalent about Mr. Berry. Sometimes (often) I give thanks and praise for his soul and wisdom. Bless His Heart.  I really do think he is the Greatest Living Kentuckian, if not in the running for Greatest Living American. But for me there are other times when it’s Goddamn Wendell Berry for getting me into this farming life. I know it’s not his fault. I’m coming to realize now that I lack many, or most, of the attributes necessary to become a good farmer, and am too scattered, too corrupted by modernity, too fond of bourbon and rock n roll and sleeping in and watching basketball all night while reading Vogue magazine. Lack of self-knowledge. That’s on me. I’m fairly sure Wendell might find me a peculiar kind of farmer if ever we met.

This weekend my farming adventure came together in a very Berry way, though, and ended well. Until the next farming catastrophe, it will be Wendell, Bless His Heart.

Number 19 was my first cow to calve. She was not crazy about me and my camera.
Bloat is nasty business.



Futureless farming?

I imagine there must be a proverb or several somewhere about the farmer who travels in springtime, when a huge chunk of the year’s work has to get done.

This year, I had to travel not once but three times in the crucial spring months, and since returning have been scrambling to rescue my little farmstead from total chaos. Calves still coming in, new chickens to tend to, the beehives thriving but needing a lot of attention, weeds galore in the garden. Weeds. Weeds. Weeds. WEEDS! (Did I mention weeds?)

But I think I’m getting there.

Which raises the question of “where is there”?

In general I’ve downplayed my farmerly ambitions by claiming only that I’m trying to feed my family better, and perhaps create a better sense of self-reliance. I do hold out a hope, not often expressed, that someday this farm will be our livelihood. Slowed food revolution, in this month’s American Prospect, makes me wonder how realistic that dream is.

The author, Heather Rogers,  offers a thorough look at the state of the American organic or alternative or sustainable farmer, seen from a policy perspective as well as through the eyes of Morse Pitts, who farms in the Hudson Valley and can charge what for me is a jaw-dropping price of $14 for a dozen eggs at the Union Square Greenmarket in Manhattan. In spite of this, and the fact that he is hard-working and resourceful, he still has had enough with a life that promises (and delivers) so many rewards, save one—the ability to earn a steady and decent living.

… despite having no mortgage debt (he inherited the place), a ready market, and loyal customers, Pitts wants to leave his farm. His town recently rezoned the area as industrial, and if he wants to cultivate soil that’s not surrounded by industry and its attendant potential for water and air pollution, he has to move. The problem is, he can’t afford to.

Aside from the standard instability farmers must endure — bad weather, pests, disease, and the vagaries of the market — holistic and organic growers face great but often overlooked economic hardship. They must shoulder far higher production costs than their conventional counterparts when it comes to everything from laborers to land. Without meaningful support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, their longevity hangs in the balance. In the meantime, the USDA showers billions on industrial agriculture. Growers who’ve gone the chemical, mechanized route have ready access to reasonable loans, direct subsidy payments to get through tough years, and crop insurance, plus robust research, marketing, and distribution resources. Whether organic and holistic growers raise crops, like Pitts does, or grass-fed, free-range livestock, they must contend with circumstances made harder by a USDA rigged to favor industrial agriculture and factory food.

As he has done in so many other areas, the president raised hopes for progressive farmers to the sky, and then sent them crashing. An organic garden at the White House! Beehives! But not a heck of a lot of tangible things have been delivered to folks like us. And even modest things like the Know Your Farmer campaign have met with angry resistance. “In an April letter to the new agriculture secretary, agribusiness-friendly senators Saxby Chambliss, John McCain, and Pat Roberts opposed even the meager support the USDA is giving small unconventional growers. ‘American families and rural farmers are hurting in today’s economy, and it’s unclear to us how propping up the urban locavore markets addresses their needs.'” Which of course is a hugely disingenuous piece of cow dung. And then there’s the “urban locavore” dig—a “trendy food choice” by well-to-do foodie snobs doing their evil mischief again. You know, if it weren’t for Alice Waters, America could be made whole again.

It’s a really good article, if not particularly encouraging for me, or for any of the other kooks out there who want to eat real food that isn’t farmed in ways that are killing the earth. I recommend you read the whole thing….

Not especially profound musings on farming

The thing about farming is this. You never really know if you’re doing it right.

I found both of my donkeys dead in the trees yesterday. My guess is that they grazed something poisonous, most likely poison hemlock, which is everywhere in the early spring.

After finding them, I took to Googling around on the subject of poisonous plants and livestock. And yeah, maybe I should have been alert to the possibility that my donkeys or cows would try some new forage, especially as the grass has not really taken off yet.

I might have realized that the donkeys always tend to eat last. They get shoved out of the prime grazing areas and kept away from the round bales by the cows. Still,  they looked in great health, even after a hard winter.

Being a good farmer takes time. And lots of observation. And the conclusions he draws from those observations can be useful, or they can be dead ends. They can involve seeing something insignificant as important.

When donkeys up and die, or a cow dies, or has a stillborn calf, or when I find a dead beehive filled with honey, I have to interpret some maddeningly ambiguous signs. I might take action based on these signs, but are they the correct actions? Am I grazing the cows efficiently?  I judge by how the pasture looks the following year. But is that nice clover growth a result of my clever grazing management, or just because we had an exceptionally wet spring? It’ll be years before I really know, and then will I know what I know any more than I do now?

A line from a senior year contemporary American poetry seminar has stuck with me: experience prepares you for what will never happen again. That used to haunt me. Now, not so much.

The useless farmer in winter

I know. Winter on a farm is much worse in Minnesota, my home state, where temperatures can stay below zero for weeks on end. But by Kentucky standards, this has been a hard winter. And for me, that’s plenty hard.  Sub-freezing temperatures and howling winds make taking care of farm beasts stressful–for the beasts, and (especially) for the farmer. I spend most of my time fretting about water, hay, wind, ice, and mud.

I’m against keeping cows in barns. I don’t have a totally sound basis for this stance, but I feel strongly about it, for some reason. My 13 cows are outside all winter. That wasn’t a problem last year, but last year was a milder winter, the ice storm notwithstanding.

The hay I’ve put out for my seven pregnant cows is of pretty poor quality. It comes from my neighbor, who loaned me a bull for breeding in August. It only took the bull a few weeks to finish his business, but he has been with us ever since, eating as much hay as three cows. My neighbor and I have a strange relationship.

Last week I weaned four calves off their mamas, and my timing couldn’t have been worse. The pen where I’ve put the calves is totally exposed to the wind, which gusted to 40-some mph and  brought the wind chill into negative numbers the night before last.

I have nice hay for the calves, in square bales. The mamas much prefer the square bales to the big round ones I’ve set out for them, to the point where they pretty much ignore their hay, and fight over every scrap of the calves’ hay that happens to blow out of the pen.

Generally speaking, it’s a good thing that I spend a lot of time among my cows. They are all extremely tame and calm because I’m familar to them. But I cannot lie: they are BOSSY BITCHES. It’s always crystal clear if they’re unhappy with a state of affairs. And they are unhappy.

My chickens, in contrast, are wonderful winter animals. They are laying lots of eggs and seem to have no problem roosting in a frigid hen house. I feed them well, but they can’t supplement what I give them with foraging in the ice and snow, so they too are always hungry, and follow me around in a pack whenever I am outside. They even swarm around me when I am up with the cows, and fearlessly peck around beneath the legs of the big beasts, who are not terribly bothered by their presence.

I have a pair of donkeys I’ve grown attached to, but have always been a little ambivalent about having, since they came as the result of an executive decision by my wife, who thought it would be nice to have them.  They are funny, skittish beasts, and the cows try to run them off at every opportunity. When it comes to defending the coffee can of sweet feed I give them every day,  they stand their ground quite nicely,  fending off the cows with sharp rearward kicks while they eat.

And then there’s the bees, who should be able to overwinter by themselves with no extra help from me. And yet the first cold snap killed one of my three hives. Weirdly, it was the one with the most honey in it. Why did they die? I really don’t know. Perhaps there weren’t enough bees to make a warm cluster. Perhaps they were weakened by disease or parasites. Dead bees tell no tales.  Or it might have  been the wind.

I determined that the bees also needed a wind break, but I could not find anything close at hand, so I parked my rusting 1988 Chevy Cheyenne  across the path of the wind. Which was a good idea, but with an unforeseen consequence. My spot in front of the hive is situated on a slight downslope, and is up against a fence.  The Cheyenne’s traction is negligible in the best of times, so as soon as I stopped I realized there was little hope of my backing out of that patch of icy snow, and the fence kept me from going forward. Unwilling to go without the truck til the ground thaws and then dries out (which could be as late as May), I had to snip a hole in a woven wire fence to drive the truck through.  It was just the latest in a series of clumsy desecrations of the farmstead to make up for a poorly thought out decision.

But so far everyone is surviving. All the animals are alive and on the property.  I am not a good farmer, but I’m better than I was.

Cryopreservation: Swine of the times

surgery on a sheep
Sheep surgery at the SVF Foundation. photo: New York Times

Is it quibbling to question  the New York Times’ decision to run Rare Breeds, Frozen in Time in the Dining and Wine section, instead of the Science Times?

The story is about the SVF Foundation, a livestock preservation farm/lab that freezes and stores the sperm and embryos of heritage breeds. The writer, Barry Estabrook, does a good job in sketching out the potential catastrophe underlying current industrial livestock techniques, which (in)breeds so aggressively for value-adding uniform characteristics that it weakens the genetic makeup of popular lines. Holsteins, for example, “make up 93 percent of America’s dairy herd. Fewer than 20 champion bulls are responsible for half the genes,” according to the Holstein Association USA.

“Think of this as a safety valve program,” said Dr. George Saperstein, the [SVF] foundation’s chief scientific adviser, who is chairman of the Department of Environmental and Population Health at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. “If there was a disaster, if something like the potato famine of livestock ever hit, these frozen embryos [of selected heritage breeds] would be made available, and in one generation we would be back in business.”

Peter Borden, SVF’s executive director, explains the obvious advantages heritage breeds present. They “have not been continuously ‘improved’ by humans…. They have been shaped by natural survival-of-the-fittest forces and can get along without human intervention.”

What a concept. An animal unimproved by man! This is in marked contrast to the modern “standardized”  factory hog as portrayed in Nathaneal Johnson’s terrific 2006 Harper’s article Swine of the times: The making of the modern pig. (Such a good title. Couldn’t resist stealing it.)

The goal of modern factory livestock farming is the same for pork, beef, chicken, whatever. The business model, based as it is on efficiency and massive scale, finds it desirable to have “standardized” animals that grow at predictable rates and produce predictably uniform meat. The uniformity is necessary for, among other things, the slaughterhouse assembly line, one of the highest expressions of the deranged genius of industrial agriculture.  Writes Johnson, “As swine carcasses move down the conveyor belt, at Hormel’s Austin, Minnesota, packing plant, they hit a curved knife, which slices the cylindrical loin from the inside of the body cavity. If the animals aren’t just the right proportions, the knife will hit the wrong spot, wasting meat or cutting into bone.”

That dystopian assembly line was the single image that stayed with me, and creeped me out, since I first read Johnson’s article.  Of course there are no tradeoffs for this uniformity, right? Wellllllll….. Writes Johnson:

The modern pig is so susceptible to disease that producers must take extreme measures to transform their barns into pathogen-free bubbles. The pigs are vulnerable because they live in close quarters; and because they are genetically uniform, a bug that breaches the defenses of one pig’s immune system can hop to the next. A bacterium stowing away between a traveling boar’s toes could wipe out half a herd.

Johnson paints the most vivid and frightening picture of modern industrial agriculture I’ve come across. It would give PETA-sympathetic folks conniptions.

In just a little more than a decade, the modern hog industry has produced a tower of efficiency-maximizing products, one stacked atop the next, each innovation fixing the problem the last fix created. It is a monumental if somewhat haphazard structure, composed of slatted floors and aluminum crates, automatic sorting scales and mechanized wet-dry feeders. It is constructed of Genepacker sows, Tylan antibiotic feed, Agro-Clean liquid detergent, Argus salmonella vaccine, Goldenpig foam-tipped disposable AI catheters, CL Sow Re-placer milk substitute, and Matrix estrus synchronizer.

Brilliant system, right? What could go wrong?

Sorry, I digressed a bit as I revisited “Swine of the times.” (Really a must-read, and it’s not behind the famous Harper’s firewall, for all you cheapskates who don’t subscribe to the world’s best magazine). Back to the Times article. It’s well worth a look, and the companion slide show is good too.  I just found it a little odd that the emphasis at the top of the article went on about “cutting-edge restaurants”* and “the next food trend” when much bigger issues, like the precariousness of the  food supply, are really what’s at stake here.


* and speaking of “cutting-edge restaurants”: when did it become conventional to prepend the chef/proprietor’s name to every mention? “David Schuttenberg’s Cabrito in the West Village, Rick Bayless’s Frontera Grill in Chicago and Tom Douglas’s Lola.” Annoying! I take off my hat to the restaurant PR flacks who made this a matter of journalistic policy at the Times.


New Decade: Fallin’/flyin’

At the dawn of the Millennium, my Monday mornings as a New York City cubicle warrior involved a leisurely routine of coffee drinking, subway riding (I went in a little late so I could have a seat), and  paper reading. Then I got to the office, and commenced to Web surfing and chatting with work buddies.  And eventually working, some days more than others. When I was sick or on vacation, I got the direct deposited check just the same. At the time, I felt underpaid, but from my perspective today, my salary in the year 2000 now seems like a fortune. It was a simple trade-off, my time and brainpower to further the goals of a major media organization whose overall effect on the world can at best be described as neutral.

I wanted something more. Emboldened by another small fortune, the meteoric appreciation in value of an old house in Brooklyn we bought at just the right time, my wife and I agreed it might be a good idea to revisit her ancestral abode and try living on a farm in central Kentucky. We had a bunch of money from the sale of the house, and the stock market would generate more than enough income to live on, even if our ventures didn’t pay the bills.

Needless to say, it didn’t work out quite that way. A decade passed, the larger world has become incredibly precarious, and I am the father of three with not a hell of a lot of earning power.

It’s still true that the rewards of this life are pretty exhilarating. Coming outside on a spring morning to see a new calf, born overnight, standing and suckling; eating meals entirely from our garden and livestock; watching a cloud of starlings at dusk a hundred yards long.

But on a morning like this a song from Crazy Heart comes at me pretty hard: Fallin’ feels like flyin’ for a while (or words to that effect).  All the intangible benefits of this life are wonderful, but what we’ve given up  in comfort and security sometimes seems like a lot. This morning, for example, waking to a house that is never warm enough in winter, in a week where the temperatures will top out in the low 20s every day, getting the kids off to school, then wriggling into my Carhartt jumpsuit, trudging outside on the crusty ground, moving a ramshackle hay ring, held together with wire, to a  new hay bale so my cattle can eat.  Today, it’s hard to see this as flyin.’

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