Recently, I have given more thought to where my food comes from. Perhaps it is a luxury of aging, because until recently I was most concerned with how quickly I could obtain and consume food, with little consideration to how it tasted and more concern to just getting it down and moving on with whatever I was doing. I made fast food faster!
My mother baked a great deal when I was growing up, and my father always kept a garden. We picked berries and fruit and mom did some canning. I never learned how; instead I protested "why can't we have store-bought?" <like everyone else> How funny that now I find myself wishing I had learned more about raising my own food!
The change began with news of so many recalls, disease and questions of food integrity. I happened to pick up a couple books and learned more. "Plenty", by Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon, the creators of the 100-mile diet, was interesting but a little hard-core for my taste. "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" by Barbara Kingsolver was a more realistic read for me, partly because they were in a position to grow some of their own food and also because they clearly supported farmers who responsibly raised meat. In the resource section I saw a link to Slow Food USA and wascurious.
Slow Food apparently began as a protest to the infiltration of McDonald's "fast food" in Italy. From there, the concept spread to the USA (www.slowfoodusa.org) and to local groups. In Wisconsin there are only two, Milwaukee and Madison based. In reading the web site, I discovered that they were offering a joint event at the Fountain Prairie Inn and Farms, and that-- such good fortune, considering my schedule-- I would be able to attend! Fountain Prairie Farms is a 280 acre working farm and Guest House, located in Fall River, with the largest herd of Highland Cattle in Wisconsin. The Highland Cattle are a shaggy, heirloom breed. John and Dorothy Priskeare stewards of the land and animals and believe in cultivating an environment for sustainability. Their web site is: www.fountainprairie.com.
The lovely Sunday afternoon was everything I had hoped it would be, and more! We were seated on three covered wagons on which we would ride for the tour of the farm, and received welcomes and introductions. We met Pete Blokhuis, the meat processor that they use. Pete should actually have a much loftier title, perhaps meat artisan? He was born in the Netherlands, and his father owned a meat market there. Pete was sent to trade meat school where he learned the German method of using all of the animal, and not wasting. His poor father was disappointed when Pete chose to seek fortune overseas, first working for an uncle in Canada in the meat business, and ultimately owning his own USDA approved and certified organic business in Rudolph, Wi. John Priske said that you don't tell Pete how to process your meat, and that in their relationship they have learned the value of actually TASTING the flavor of meat rather than the spices and disguise. You can read about the organic process there at: http://www.mosesorganic.org/broadcaster/14.6meatprocess.html
Next we were treated to a cooking demonstration by David Swanson of "Braise to Go", a traveling culinary school. www.braiseculinaryschool.com
They do cooking classes, catering and also do something I find very interesting; they visit farms around the state, walk the farm and harvest what is produced there to create a meal. There is actually a job title of "forager". David is as entertaining as he is knowledgeable as he prepared Pork Rillettes. The common term is "potted pork" and it is a frequent picnic meal in France, served with a white chablis and a crusty baguette. We were privy to a taste test, served with basil mayonnaise. Delicious! David told us that creating braise is the training wheels for making pate, working with meat and fat.
I selected the right wagon to ride on! John Priske was our tour guide, but there were several other extremely knowledgeable folks seated immediately behind me. What luck! I met the couple who own Door Creek Orchard (www.doorcreekorchard.com) and raise Black Welsh Sheep. However, I count myself extremely lucky to have discovered Ray and Antoniewicz! Initially, I only knew that Ray was very helpful and educational, without treating me as a novice idiot, something I readily admit to being in this field. I am a dreamer of the highest order, and imagine myself a farmer but lack the reality of the skills to take me there. Ray so kindly ignored that and answered my questions seriously. It was only later in the tour that I learned he is a retired Professor Emeritus in the Department of Animal Sciences at UW-Madison and is regularly on Public Radio (http://www.a-zfarm.com/radio2-07.htm) discussing various events and their A-Z Farm, www.A-ZFarm.com, where they raise sheep, chickens and rabbits.
Ray also told me of an event that I might be interested in, which is the Wisconsin Sheep & Wool Festival. For dog lovers, there is the "Crook & Whistle" stock dog trial, herding instinct tests, fiber arts classes, shearing demonstrations and much more. A small chord in my heart was also struck seeing the "Make it Yourself with Wool" contest included. When I was in high school, I participated in this contest, where you have to sew an article of clothing made of wool (no, you do not have to gather and spin it yourself!) and then model it in the competition. I did not get beyond the first level, but a school mate of mine did. I recall that I was so nervous that, instead of standing normally, I jammed my spine into the base of my pelvis, and the only possible result was that my butt stuck waaaaay out and I moved like I had the proverbial stick up there.... no modeling career for me! Some years later, I did do some modeling for print ads and fashion shows on a local level and somehow learned to move and turn more smoothly, despite my early emotional scars.
A tractor slowly pulled the wagons on a farm lane that allowed us to view the cattle, but from which the cattle could move away if they liked. The fencing is a New Zealand style from Gallagher, carrying 8000 volts and no amps. It is quite innocuous to the landscape, but apparently effective. John says it serves more as a mental barrier than a physical one. He has a reverence for those lives, and is with them from birth to death in many cases, as they live in huge pastures where they can lay in the shade along a rocky outcrop or graze in the grass pasture. They constructed squeeze chutes, as described in Temple Grandin's book, "Animals in Translation", as the tightness calms the animals. Another guest, who is vegan but markets their meat at the Farm Market, said that the Grow Local concept and John in particular, was mentioned in the service at the First Unitarian Society in Madison, www.fusmadison.com , just that morning. The sermon is available on line and by podcast.
There are cool season grasses for the cattle and warm grasses on the prairie, including bee balm, yellow coneflower, parsnip, purple prairie clover, black eyed susan and cup plant.
Part of the prairie is on a hillside where it was difficult to cultivate, and it didn’t make sense to crop it so it was placed in CRP and the Priskes hand-harvested seeds at Audubon, staying with local genotype grasses. They originally had to burn to regenerate and it took two years. A tall plant that was pointed out was identified as sweet clover, and I was told you can put it in your basement to get rid of spiders. The Priskes are CRP member and also participate in a program called The Conservation Security Program which serves to "reward the best and motivate the rest."
Red, white and burr oak, and hazelnut bushes, create an oak savannah. The trees break up the edge effect of the fields and provide haven for birds. The are five acres of trees, 28 acres in prairie and 60.6 acres total in the program, which includes a large body of water.
We could see herons and John reported was an attraction to ducks. Water acts as a kidney in the body, to cleanse the land around it. The tractor stopped at several vantage points so that we could stretch our legs and appreciate our surroundings. I did remember to include my epipen for a beesting allergy, but was reminded to be slightly more cautious as I tromped around for photographs after learning that there are also honeybees kept on the property. I laughed at the thought of the “free range people” wandering around in the grass, with the cattle in view behind them.
You might think that this is plenty to include in an afternoon’s introduction to Eating Local. However, upon our return to the Fountain Prairie Inn we were treated to the most wonderful lunch, including meats from the Priske farm and side dishes provided by Slow Food members. The menu included: Technicolor bean salad, Italian pork sausage, beef and pork bratwurst, swiss chard tart with pine nuts and goat cheese, garlic roasted potatoes, shortbread with blueberries, melon, sorghum ginger cookies and a number of other food items whose names I did not learn. I asked one member what a particular dish was and she identified the ingredients as potatoes, grilled and roasted corn, and shallots and said that it had originally began as a corn chowder before she realized it would be wonderful served cold! Elderberry punch and a drink from maple sugar were also offered. I chose the elderberry punch and am not embarking on research to see whether the elderberry is something that would grow well here.
On this map at Local Harvest (http://www.localharvest.org/) you can find local offerings. You might decide that the cardboard tasting supermarket tomato just cannot compare to the succulent red delight of the local farm market. Or, if you are even luckier (as I hope to be by next year) you can pluck one from your own garden and never have to wonder what pesticides and genetic engineering produced it. If you drive to FoxTal to pick up your puppy or return for training, I encourage you to visit the farm stand on the corner of Hwy 47 and Hwy 54 and know where your food comes from!