A LOOK AT WHAT FARM-TO-TABLE REALLY MEANS
Every year, sixty of us at the Wise Traditions conference get up before sunrise, crawl out of our warm beds and pile onto our warm and luxurious bus, putting our collective lives into the hands of our intrepid bus driver and set off into parts unknown. On-board farm breakfast arrives as freeways change into two-lane blacktops, then dirt roads, then to narrow curving farm driveways. Suburban sprawl reluctantly gives way to brown open fields, tall endless rows of corn awaiting harvest, then a pasture here, a woodland glade there. Hello! We have come to see from whence our food comes.
Every year, several farmers wake up even earlier than we do and begin to brace themselves for this strange busload of the curious. As they crawl out of their beds and pull on their boots and coveralls, they may be asking, “Now, why was it again that I agreed to do this?” And then, at last, it is time. And this unusual and wonderful dance begins, when people from two worlds, city mouse and country mouse, get a chance to meet. For the next ten to twelve hours we will get to experience people from different walks of life. We will be stepping on the land they love and seeing it with their eyes.
I’m describing the annual WAPF Guided Farm Visit, which takes place every year on the last full day of the conference. And each year it is different. Each year we see what it’s really like on another slice of farm and ranch life. We want it to be real, warts and all. Not some story book fantasy, not Old McDonald’s farm (sorry, folks, that doesn’t really exist), nor is it like a reality TV show. We may get our pant legs wet in the dewy morning grass and may step in cow poop, but we come away changed inside somehow—as well as happy to learn that there really are still all these crazy, inspiring people, willing to sacrifice everything, still interested in creating wholesome, humane, nutrient-dense farm food so the rest of us can thrive.
This year was about a glimpse of farm life in Lake Wobegone country, life on the edge of the prairie in Minnesota, actually life on the edge. This is not an easy calling. There were still thick crystals of white jack frost on the hayracks before the sun had warmed the wagons. We sat on the hay bales, wrapped in blankets generously provided by the farm family as we rode out to see the grass-fed cattle. As curious of us as we were of them, they peered at us from a few feet away, their breaths steaming, the bright shafts of morning sun piercing the clear blue sky and lighting up the plumes of frozen breath.
Satiated just from the noble presence of the beeves, and hearing the love from the farm family (it’s always so hard to ever leave…), we traveled down the road to a modest tie-stall dairy where the young couple milked cows twice a day, while caring for their three small children. A bonfire in the front yard greeted us and warmed our chilly hands, faces and feet. Not very many experiences are quite as enjoyable as drinking that delicious, velvety, chilled milk just a few hours after milking—from the cows we see right over there. We traced their day as they chilled the organic milk, then filtered it into half-gallon jugs to be hauled into town as full-fat, unhomogenized and raw milk for the city folks. Healthy, strong and vibrant, somehow these young farmers seem to be making it all work.
As evidence of the sweet harmony the making of great food brings, our banquet chef from the Hyatt Regency in Minneapolis, Collin Clemons, who had been providing us with cartloads of farm food for the past few days, sacrificed his day off to head to the little Mill St. Tavern in Cannon Falls where he spent his morning preparing our tender grass-fed beef chuckrolls, slicing them as we arrived, the glistening pink slices of meat rolling off his knife as we sat down to eat, sharing our stories and enjoying the cornucopia of local squashes, colorful potatoes, caramelized onions and other vegetables from the garden. We broke the sourdough bread and slathered it with great gobs of raw farm butter.
The crystal-clear fall day was warming up now and the sun streaming in the large windows of the restaurant brought us cheer. During lunch, our chef told us how he had become inspired by the WAPF’s uncanny ability to fill the hotel kitchen with over a semi-truck load of fresh local farm food, letting our own specialists invade the kitchen for a few days, working hand-in-hand to prepare all this stunningly healthy food.
We also heard from the man who grows free-range turkeys just outside Cannon Falls, over one hundred sixty thousand a year and what that is like, how different from factory farms. We were then able to visit the turkey farm, knowing that it would be virtually turkey-less given our tour was one week before Thanksgiving. Luckily for us, though, Ferndale Farms has one of the finest local farm stores in Minnesota where we were able to shop, snoop and sample. Smoked turkey anyone?
Only a couple of miles away we found ourselves doing something most people, carnivores included, have never done, and that perhaps some would not care to do: we visited Lorentz Meat Plant, a USDA slaughter plant, which was in full operation. Rated the most humane slaughter plant in the U.S., this is the same plant that Michael Pollan described in The Omnivore’s Dilemma as “the glass abattoir.” The fully-windowed viewing observatory straddles the kill floor on one side and is where the highest-ranking and most-respected meat cutters in the plant were killing bison. On the other side is the fabrication room, where men and women, swaddled in layers of hoodies, long johns and jackets, working all day at a brisk thirty-five degrees, were cutting, grinding and wrapping meat for Thousand Hills Cattle Company. We were able to meet many of the staff and even though everything is a serious, somber affair, it was clear to all of us that these people approach their career as a sacred task. Obviously, it is a task that certainly not everyone could or would do, but they were clearly aware that they were serving others by the beauty of their work.
We circled back to Minneapolis as the early November darkness was falling. Just a mile or two from our hotel, we continued our exploration of the final but equally essential aspect of the farm-to-table movement: the distribution and direct sales in the cities. We were at The Uptown Locavore, an indoor farmers market, open year-round, where the farmer doesn’t need to be present. This private buying club, not open to the public, springing from the Minneapolis WAPF chapter, designed and protected by the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, and operating fully on the honor system, makes available to its several hundred member families raw milk from cows, goats and sheep; grass-fed and pastured beef, goat, sheep, chicken, duck, turkey and eggs; vegetables; a full range of dairy products; as well as farm-made products such as kombucha, fermented krauts, jams, jellies, and much more. We were able to savor our day over local wines and beers, along with raw ice cream and desserts. And, so, alas, we bid each other au revoir, for another year, another fine time, and to all a good night.