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Archive for the ‘Eating’ Category

HOMEGROWN Life: County Fair Season Is Here

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014


HOMEGROWN-life-bryce-logo-150x150If you are a born and bred keeper of livestock, there are certain rights of passage that our agricultural system expects you to participate in. One of these is the annual cycle of county-based livestock breeding competitions we’ve come to celebrate in the form of county fairs.

For those not in the know, agriculturally driven counties have a strong tradition of holding summer convenings, where farmers get together in common spaces to compare their outputs, eat some fried junk food, and yuk it up in overalls and cowboy hats. (My people tend toward overalls, which we pronounce “over-hauls.”) The county fair is a celebrated institution. It’s an outgrowth of the kind of mindset that’s driven to grow more food, raise “better” breeding stock, use science and the understanding of genetics to learn from one another, and show off what we do on our individual farms.


Knowing our history is key to understanding how things work in the modern world. One-hundred-plus years ago, the country life movement helped inject professionalization, scientific inquiry, and educated competition into our agricultural system. The county fair is part of that great legacy as are the county-based, university-educated professionals who would live and work throughout the rural population, helping train a new generation of farmers. County-extension programs, as well as 4H, FFA, and other groups represent this history today.

My two boys, and my nieces and nephews, take part in our local 4H scene. As a family, we have a longstanding history of participating in and supporting the Bates County Fair, in Bates County, Missouri. It really is a sight to behold. Dozens and dozens of local youth work with their families to produce projects and livestock that demonstrate our agricultural capacity. There are contests for vegetable production, hog production, beef production, quilting, woodworking, jam making, photography, and even singing/performance art to wow the parents and grandparents.

The whole system is a beautiful conglomeration of hard work and community-minded spirit. It’s got some publicly financed support (that’s the university-driven outreach and extension system), but the primary driver is farmers and rural businesses working hard to create an event that serves and promotes youth entrepreneurship. Parents, grandparents, and small business owners have a stake in supporting the next generation of farmers.

This year my boys will be showing off their farming chops by participating in the goat- and swine-production contests. They’ll also be raising potatoes and tomatoes and peppers. And taking some photos, too.

Do we expect to win? No. Winning generally means spending thousands of dollars on breeding stock and high-powered feeds. We are in it for the experience rather than the competition side of the equation. I’m just glad they want to participate in the continuing agricultural legacy of the county fair system.

Plus, they have chores to accomplish every day. My boys are athletic and academic in nature. I was the same way. As farmers, we have to find ways to entice our young people to round out their education with daily activities that demonstrate a different way of living. Do your geometry. Work on your soccer footwork. But also feed your pig and make sure it has clean water.

It’s not the only way to live in the modern world. But it can connect you to a very basic human need to feed ourselves and our community with food. There’s a lot to be said about the mess of agriculture and its discontents related to fossil-fuel dependency and resource consumption. But there’s also a lot to say about a kid forming a bond with a growing goat or a gilt (a female but not-yet-mothering pig). It’s a real-life connection with a growing and breathing creature that depends on us for its sustenance.

I don’t particularly care whether my kids end up winning the county fair or not. Mostly, I care that my kids understand the annual cycle of living and dying and utilizing our resources responsibly. I care that they make a connection with the living creatures around us. I care that they care about the animals and plants here on the tallgrass prairies and the bottomland hardwoods that surround us.

HOMEGROWN-bryce-oates-150x150Bryce Oates is a farmer, father, writer, and conservationist in West Missouri. He lives and works on his family’s multigenerational farm, tending cattle, sheep, goats, and organic vegetables. His goals in life are simple: to wake up before the sun, catch a couple of fish, turn the compost pile, dig potatoes, and sit by the fire in the evening, watching the fireflies mimic the stars.

HOMEGROWN Life: Homemade Stock (Virtually Free!)

Wednesday, March 12th, 2014


HOMEGROWN-LIFE-LT-GREENGood food is expensive. If you grow it and/or raise it yourself, you know how much hard work it takes to put food on your table. A little part of me dies inside when I toss out bits and pieces of unusable food, even if it is going into the compost or out to the chickens. But I’ve learned that I no longer have to waste anything. I can make stock from all the leftovers. I love homemade stock, but again, I’m not a fan of using perfectly good food—and a lot of it—to make a big batch of stock. My homemade stock is the perfect meeting of the two: no waste of food leftovers and no need to use the good parts.


The parts that you wouldn’t eat anyways get used to make more food, meaning stock is virtually free to make. Onion and garlic skins and trimmings, the outer leaves and cores of cabbage, carrot ends and leafy ends of celery, winter squash skin, corn cobs, pepper tops and cores, and the woody stems from herbs like rosemary and thyme are just some of the vegetative parts you can add. We also like to throw in carcasses and bones from roasted chickens, turkeys, and rabbits. Old stewing hens can go in whole; pull the meat off after cooking and use it for later meals. You can just do vegetables if you want, or you can add other types of meat and bone, such as beef or pork. You can even mix the types of animals you use, if you want.


There are some things, however, you don’t want to add to your stock. Avoid really starchy foods like potatoes and sweet potatoes. Don’t use toxic or fatty vegetable parts either, like avocado skins and pits or tomato tops (tomato skins and cores are OK).

As you cook various meals, collect all the trimmings and put them in a bag and freeze them. This allows you to collect a large amount of scraps to make a big batch of stock. You can also do smaller amounts and make just enough stock for a pot of soup, but since time is at a premium for some us, it works better to do big batches and then pressure can the stock for later use. You can also freeze the stock if you have plenty of freezer space, which unfortunately is also at a premium for us. One-gallon freezer bags work great for this. You can use some types of Mason jars to freeze the stock, as well, but it takes longer to defrost those. With gallon freezer bags, all you need to do is heat the outside enough so that it slips out of the bag into a large pot. The other benefit of freezing the stock rather than pressure canning is that you can skip the step of refrigerating it so you can skim the fat off. Just cool it down first before putting it into containers. (You don’t want to melt the bag or stress the glass more than necessary.)


Once you have enough scraps, put them in a large stock pot and add just enough water so that the scraps are nearly covered. We use a big 7-gallon stock pot, so we wait until we have a LOT of scraps. You can choose to add salt now, later, or not at all. I like to wait until it’s almost done so I can taste it. The amount of salt will depend on your personal preference and how much stock you make at once. It isn’t necessary, though, if you are concerned about your salt intake.

A good stock is going to take several hours to make. Turn the heat on high and get it up to a boil. Then reduce the heat and let it simmer on the stove for several hours, usually about eight hours. Occasionally add more water as needed. You will know it’s done when the carcasses completely fall apart and the stock has a good flavor. Taste it occasionally. When you like the flavor, it’s done. Allow it to cool and then, with some large tongs, start pulling out the larger pieces of scraps to discard. If there’s meat you can pick, you can start pulling it off and putting it in another bowl. Once all of the large scraps are out, line a colander with cheese cloth and strain the remaining broth to get out the small bits and pieces you couldn’t remove with the tongs.

Once strained it, you can freeze or pressure can it. If you pressure can, put the stock in the fridge for at least 24 hours. You want the fats in it to solidify so you can skim them off. You can skip this step if you are only doing vegetable stock.

Since I’ve started making my own stock, I’ve found that I no longer have to buy it because the scraps we produce are enough to make stock regularly. Bonus is that it’s healthier because there isn’t any MSG (or MSG by another name), and you can control the sodium.


Rachel-Dog-Island-FarmRachel’s friends in college used to call her a Renaissance woman. She was always doing something crafty, creative, or utilitarian. She still is. Instead of arts and crafts, her focus these days has been farming as much of her urban quarter-acre as humanly possible. Along with her husband, she runs Dog Island Farm, in the San Francisco Bay Area. They raise chickens, goats, rabbits, dogs, cats, and a kid. They’re always keeping busy. If Rachel isn’t out in the yard, she’s in the kitchen making something from scratch. Homemade always tastes better!


HOMEGROWN Life: A Farmer Mulls Vegetarianism. Thoughtfully.

Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014


HOMEGROWN-life-logoI’m a farmer who cares about living within the rhythms of the annual cycle of living and dying. I might have fairly complicated human ambitions, but those are tempered by a grounded sense of the soil and the climate and the sunshine and the rain. These things help keep me mostly honest, at least when it comes to my agricultural endeavors.

I live out here on the homeplace because I like it. I enjoy living with plants and animals around me. I am part of the place’s ecology. I am a living and breathing creature, albeit one who can wield immense power via tools like fencing and knives and fossil-fuel-driven engines.

So that’s why I’ve chosen to explore a concept that I’ve struggled with over the years: vegetarianism.

I want to say first and foremost that I’m 100 percent pro-veggie. I grow veggies by the truckloads. I eat them every day. I feel strongly that people eat way too few green plants and way too much other junk. I am concerned about American fatness and heart disease and diabetes. I think most Americans would be better off if we quadrupled our intake of vegetables. My recipe for a better nation would include more farmers growing more and better veggies and more people cooking and eating them.

I’m also a good enviro with street cred. I hate factory livestock operations. I don’t like monoculture. I believe in preserving wilderness. I feel strongly that our society’s inability and lack of political will to deal with greenhouse-gas emissions is likely harming both human economy and nonhuman ecology in incredibly negative ways. I think we should work hard to decrease fossil-fuel emissions. I am, and have been, an activist involved with each of these issues.

I don’t believe in the mainstream agricultural prescriptions of genetic engineering, indoor meat production, or anhydrous ammonia fertilizer. They do more harm than good, and they are all very expensive, short-term solutions to the long-term question of how humans can feed a growing population.

Heck, I even struggle with the very concept of agriculture and civilization as a way of being human. I don’t like to kill animals. I am not that comfortable with the concept of living beings as my “property.” I don’t feel good about the concept of “owning the land.”

With all that said, though, I still eat meat. I kill and cut up and cook the animals I’ve cared for and fed. I sell animals to people who do the same. In my West Missouri climate, and with the land being what it is, animals are an essential component of a functioning ecosystem.

I really don’t know how to explain myself to vegetarians other than to say that we have this land around us. It’s made of soil and topography and vegetation. The sun shines. The rain falls. Things grow. Other things eat the things that grow. And other things eat the things that eat the things that grow. As my dad likes to tell my kids while we’re fishing, “The big fish eats the little fish, and that’s what makes the world go around.”

This all crystallized in my mind this week, so I had to speak up. I’m a consistent Grist reader, and there has been a lot of discussion over there recently about whether or not you can really be a good enviro while eating meat. Should we really rid the world of cows since they burp and fart methane? Is PETA really targeting small-scale, farmer-friendly butcher shops with billboards about the ethics of meat eating?

I think a lot about the practice of raising and eating animals. I struggle with the ethics of living the way I do. I am not comfortable with how agriculture is sometimes dependent upon the death of other creatures.



But then again, this week began the annual cycle on our farm of newly born babies from momma animals that need our care. Two of my goats birthed in very cold weather. Like it or not, these creatures require me to help them with feed and protection from the elements. They require me to separate them from predators and even from their goat friends so they can have their children in peace. They need me to give them clean water to drink.

I’m not even sure what all of this means. I’m not trying to be too high and mighty. There is no way that the common act of raising a few animals and some produce is heroic. Instead, I’m trying to explain a confusing situation. I’m sure the more PETA-minded would liken me to some kind of dictator. But that’s not how it feels when I’m playing nursemaid to a first-time goat momma who’s trying to make sure her babies are alive and well. That’s not how it feels when I hook up a heat lamp that gives these goats warmth and a chance to survive a harsh winter’s night. That’s not how it feels to live with the creatures I live with, despite the questions and conundrums of living an agricultural life.

Now, I don’t expect these words to talk anyone out of vegetarianism. I don’t even expect most people to understand my point of view. I don’t fully understand it myself. There’s a lot more to say on this topic, but I guess I want people to understand that even us farmers might not feel glowingly about our state of affairs. We have questions, too. At least, some of us do.

Bryce-OatesBryce Oates is a farmer, father, writer, and conservationist in West Missouri. He lives and works on his family’s multigenerational farm, tending cattle, sheep, goats, and organic vegetables. His goals in life are simple: to wake up before the sun, catch a couple of fish, turn the compost pile, dig potatoes, and sit by the fire in the evening, watching the fireflies mimic the stars.