There is a saying among thru-hikers: “Don’t let all that hiking get in the way of your experience.” I decided to take this advice and called up an organic farmer close to the trail who I heard offered work-for-stay
to hikers. A gregarious man, “Dom” picked up the phone and immediately exclaimed “Your name means ‘quickly’ in Italian!” Apparently ‘presto’ had shown on his caller ID instead of my full name.
Thirty short minutes later I was at Moon in the Pond organic farm in Sheffield, MA being introduced to the farm apprentices. They were four 20-somethings who had not grown up on farms but had made the conscious decision to learn how to be a farmer. Two had just graduated from college, one was recently a bike messenger in Boston, and one had just finished doing environmental research in New Guinea. There were also three ‘house guests’ (temporary work for stay folks like me). One was the director of a community org called Slow Food, one was the recipe producer for the Martha Stewart show, and the last was a chef from NYC. Amongst this diverse crowd I was quickly put to work packaging recently-harvested vegetables for the local farmers market.
It was so interesting I decided to stay for four days. I learned so much. For example, did you know how much good vegetables rely on the waste of other farm animals? Dom explained to us, “as you muck out a pen and pile it for future use, you are creating the world’s best soil for our vegetables. Everything on a farm is a circle. The cows, chicken, ducks, sheep, etc all feed off the grass and hay. They in return dispense of their waste either in the fields or in their pens. The waste in the fields encourages new grass growth, and combined with field rotation of the animals, I always have healthy grass for my animals. The waste in the pens are mucked out into compost piles and make wonderful soil for our plants.”
The farm was small, but it had veal calves, sheep, oxen, cows, pigs, chickens, ducks, geese, and guinea hens. Plant-wise, they had everything from rasberries, garlic, and potatoes to lettuce, cabbage, and broccoli. My chores for the work-for-stay included mucking of animal pens, picking rasberries, weeding garlic fields, and coralling herds of ducks into their evening pens (all animals were free range during the day and stayed in mobile pens during the night).
I definitely have a new appreciation for the work that goes into quality organic food. Organic farming is HARD! The apprentices at the farm start work at 7 AM and finish at 7 PM with quick breaks for breakfast (9 AM) and lunch (2 PM). Everyday. No ‘weekends.’ Ok they do get one day off a week but can never all take the same day off because the farm must be functioning everyday. With so much diversity in animals and plants, and without the benefit of chemical treating of fields, the list of chores is long and complex! Do you think your normal beef is given free reign of a field and freshly mucked pen everyday? No way…it spends it’s life indoors in a cage, machine dispensed food into it’s trough that is far from natural. In an economy that thrives on effeciency, an organic farm is anything but effecient. It can’t concentrate on how to deliver the most beef per sq footage of land and resources it possesses. But it can deliver quality. I’m sure everyone has varying opinions on the politics of food in the USA, and I highly recommend ‘The Omnivores Dilemma’ by Michael Pollan to explore the issues. That book is one of the reasons I was inspired to check out this farm.
Beyond the politics of small organic farms vs more economical corporate farms, I can tell you with all certainty that the food at Moon in the Pond is amazing. Relating to the title of this entry, there is a big push against the current FDA regulation that all milk sold to consumers must be pasteurized. I’m in no way an expert on this issue but Dominic clearly is against pasteurization. Because it wasn’t being sold to me, but rather served in the privacy of their farm, I had the luxury of fresh milk every morning…straight from the cow and briefly chilled for breakfast. The picture below is me enjoying a big old jar of the creamiest, freshest tasting milk I’ve ever consumed. Fresh eggs from the chickens were scrambled. With biscuits we had fresh churned butter, still sitting in a pool of buttermilk. Evenings we had meat and vegetables, all from the farm. It was actually more physically demanding than a day on the trail, but I was rewarded with much better meals than my pre-packaged and dehydrated camp food. The apprentices and guests were wonderful to interact with and I can’t possibly put down everything I learned in this short entry.
So for this fourth of July I wasn’t enjoying the typical grill-out with friends and fireworks show. I was instead literally shoveling shit from an oxen pen into a compost pile. But you know what? When I think back to the 1700s era birth of our nation – when our economy was predominatly based on on the tilling of one’s own land – I can’t think of anything more American than mucking out an animal pen.