I just returned from visiting a most remarkable livestock farm on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. – I was there to participate in a Chicken Choosin’ and to find out which of 10 heritage chicken breeds is the best, culinarily speaking. The event, which was sponsored by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, Humane Farm Animal Care, Slow Food U.S.A, Chefs Collaborative and Ayrshire Farm, was held at Ayrshire, near Upperville, Virginia. I was lucky enough to stay at the farm, where I was placed in the gracious care of several staff members who are passionate about domestic animals, organic vegetables and sustainable agriculture.
Ayrshire farm is the brainchild of Cisco Systems cofounder Sandy Lerner. The enterprise is home to Shire horses, Highland, Shorthorn and Ancient White Park cattle, Gloucestershire Old Spot and Tamworth hogs, and many rare and/or endangered heritage poultry breeds. The farm is certified organic, certified humane and employs a level of husbandry and land stewardship that improves the soil, air and water and allows the animals to live out their genetic potential.
Large Animal Manager Don Schrider gave me a behind-the-scenes tour of the farm’s beef and hog operations. Both are pasture based and both are organic. The farm’s cattle are grazed using a management intensive rotation system. Animals are fenced out of waterways and springheads except for brief periods when they need to be grazed off using fairly high stocking rates. Don says the grazing strategy actually improves the stream bank ecosystem, a practice that’s backed up with sound science. Likewise the hogs spend most of their lives in cross-fenced woodlots populated with some of the largest mature oaks and sycamores that I’ve ever seen. The pigs don’t get everything they need from the forest floor, but the woodland pasturing significantly improves their health, and flavor, and substantially reduces the organic feed bill. All slaughter animals are brought into roomy feedlots with access to pasture for finishing on an organic ration that keeps them healthy and happy, and that produces some of the best tasting and most nutritious meat available.
Ayrshire Farm’s production and marketing strategies allow it to follow animals from the field to the abattoir and back to its very own U.S. Department of Agriculture-inspected meat and poultry processing facilities. And once processed, much of the bounty is served at the farm’s Hunter’s Head Tavern in nearby Upperville, or sold at the farm’s Home Farm Store located several miles closer to Washington in Middleburg, Virginia. I ate the most delicious ribeye steak at Hunter’s Head. It came from a steer that graded beautifully and whose carcass was aged for about two score days. The meat was juicy, flavorful and tender. Thanks much to Don, Susie Hass and Mimi Stein for hosting that lovely meal.
The famed Dorking chicken took top honors at the Chicken Choosin’. Folks in Britain have been singing that bird’s table praises for centuries. Thanks to committed sustainable operations like Ayrshire Farm and organizations like the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, we can all enjoy the gifts heritage breeds such as the Dorking have to offer.
Whether it’s milking your first cow, or roasting that bounty of chile peppers, we’d love to know what you’re up to this season. We’d especially like to learn how you plan to grow more food next year. If you keep a country journal and would like to share it through a blog at www.Grit.com or www.CommunityChickens.com, just let me know (email@example.com).
See you in November.
Hank Will raises hair sheep, heritage cattle and many varieties of open-pollinated corn with his wife, Karen, on their rural Osage County, Kansas farm. His home life is a perfect complement to his professional life as editor in chief at GRIT and Capper’s Farmer magazines. Connect with him on Google+.