RI Farms and Food
RI Farms and Food

Know about a great farm in your area? Know of a chef or restaurant that champions local food? Let us know.

Who we are

RI Farms & Food celebrates our state on a plate. Our monthly on-line community of farmers, harvesters, chefs and mindful eaters are driven by a passionate commitment to local, sustainable, affordable food. We care deeply about connecting our readers with great farm produce, humanely raised meats and fresh-caught fish from healthy nearby waters. We respect the land where we live, the animals we eat and the social fabric of the hard-working farm families and fishermen that bring the food to us.

Each month we'll visit some of the best markets and restaurants that share those values. We'll chat with chefs, growers and regular folks staking a claim in the resurgent local food story. We'll highlight fruits and vegetables at their seasonal best and explore interesting preparations and pairings with a variety of talented Rhode Islanders. We'll meet kids making good food choices and learning reverence for real food cooked right. We'll invite your photo submissions in a monthly contest and have some fun along the way. So pull up a chair, sit up straight at the table and tuck in your napkin...

Your contribution will help the RI Farms & Food to continue supporting local farms and chefs who are committed to sustainable, affordable food. We appreciate your support!

Farms and Food: The Book

Farms and Food

The mission of our book due to release in early spring 2012 is to recognize individuals and businesses comitted to the sustainable and local food movements, while providing readers with a beautiful cookbook and travelogue.

Contact us to get involved, pre-order or learn more.

Swine and Dine 2013

Rich Silvia was clearly smitten.  Right there in front of God and everybody, the White Horse Tavern’s executive chef eloquently professed his undying devotion.  He noted her intersting family history and the traditional manner of her upbringing, rare and refreshing in today’s world.  He recalled the first time he looked into her eyes and imagined their shared future.  The object of his affection remained quiet during this emotional outpouring, due in large part to the conditions under which she found herself in the company of the gathered celebrants.

Chef Silvia’s poetic musings were directed toward the silky golden nutty fat of an acorn-fed Tamworth pig raised at the Swiss Village Foundation nearby.   SVF is a privately funded non-profit facility dedicated to the collection and preservation of genetic maqterial for endangered heritage livestock breeds.   Our country’s shift away from small family farms raising efficient, regionally adapted animals to a standardized industrial model focused on a small number of breeds has greatly reduced the genetic diversity of our food supply.   Heritage breeds retain important fitness traits like mothering ability, parasite resistance, heat tolerance and forage utilization that have been lost in the race to maximize milk and meat production.  They also taste better due to slower growth rate that results in deep powerful flavor and the “terroir” of the land, making them the choice of many chefs committed to the resurgent farm-to-table movement.

Located on 45 rolling acres in historic Newport, SVF maintains a globally unique cryopreservation “seed bank” (frozen embryos and semen) and conservation plans for 40 rare breeds of cattle, goats, sheep and hogs that could be lost to our descendants.  The star of this evening’s dinner highlighting SVF’s important work was a Tamworth raised by herdsman Nick Bowley in the bellota style of the famous Iberico hogs fattened in the oak forests of Spain’s western provinces.  A jamon from one pata negra could easily set you back a couple or three car payments.    Our pasture-grown pig’s diet had been supplemented for 5 months with white oak acorns which are low in bitter tannins and produce a soft fat prized for its low melting point and sweet complex flavor.  Acorn-fed pork is high in healthy mono-unsaturated fats and oleic acid.  It has been called “olive oil on four feet”.

  The Tamworth, developed in England as a forest grazer, displays natural forage efficiency and maternal instinct well suited to small farm production.  Most commercial hogs can’t care for their own young and sometimes eat them due to high stress levels common in the shameful confinement facilities that deliver the vast majority of our country’s pork.  Pigs are highly intelligent and social animals that need to access pasture and woodlands in order to thrive.  Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania are studying Tamworths as a candidate for reintroducing these important survival traits and group dynamics into commercial herds before they are lost forever.

Chef Silvia’s team prepared a triumphant 5-course snout-to-tail meal that celebrated the noble swine in all of its myriad preparations.  Each course was paired with a wine that complemented the taste notes of the dish.  We started with a perfect first bite – a slice of head cheese (or terrine if you prefer).  The come-hither flavor of the head and neck meat speckled with luscious fat partnered with a classic port wine syrup and pickled golden raisins – fruit and pork are best of friends.  Next came a masterful little sammy – shredded cured country ham on brioche kissed with the earthy sweetness of truffle honey – a delight.  Croutons basted with that nutty golden clarified fat negotiated a happy truce between a light Ceasar salad and the dark power of a country pate.  The beautifully composed entree was cleverly presented as “Three Little Piggies” – crispy braised belly, pan-roasted loin & rillete with root vegetables.  Finally dulce de leche ice cream was crowned with chicharrones dusted with sugar and cinnamon.

You can experience this same incredible meal at the White Horse Tavern.  Due to high demand, an encore presentation made from the same animal has been scheduled for December 4th.  Tickets cost $135 each (plus tip and gratuity) and can be purchased by calling (401) 849-3600 or visiting www.whitehorsenewport.com.  You can learn more about efforts to preserve heritage livestock breeds at www.svffoundation.org or www.livestockconservancy.org.

No Comments | November 27th, 2013

The Boy Who Bought the Farm

Leave to the women the harvest yield;

Gird ye, men, for the sinister field;

A sabre instead of a scythe to wield;

War !!  Red War !!

(excerpted from The Call by Robert W. Service, stretcher bearer in the Royal Canadian Infantry, who dedicated a poignant collection of poems called Rhymes of a Red Cross Man to the memory of his brother Lieutenant Albert Service who was killed in action in France in 1916).

Today we remember the sacrifice of so many young people who left the green grass of home to serve and die in a foreign place.  They have given us the gift of freedom of speech and worship, the freedom from want and fear.  We would do well to reflect on the origin of the phrase that someone “bought the farm”.

Jack Burton wrote that this term dates back at least to World War II when each member of the U.S. armed services was issued a life insurance policy in the amount of $10,000, a great deal of money in those days.  Many of the troops were unmarried youngsters who named their parents as beneficiaries.  I was always of the opinion that a G.I.’s death benefit payout was used to settle the family farm’s mortgage and thus bestow a final lasting gift to loved ones left behind.  While this may be true in instances, it may be the product of sentimental Hollywood writers more than anything else.

Other theories abound.  Some etymological references note that a jet crashing on a farm enabled the farmer to sue the government for compensation.  Another version describes military men dreaming of returning home from the battlefront and settling down with a family to a peaceful farm life.  British and American fighter pilots, famous for their high-rolling bravado and dark gallows humor would refer to a pal “buying a plot of land” (gravesite) or “retiring early”.  If someone was killed his colleagues might wistfully say, “Well, he bought the farm early”.  The notion of this unfortunate “purchase” apparently dates back to World War I British battlefield parlance when some might be described as having “bought a packet” – a packet being a German bullet.

Whatever the exact source of this colorful imagery, we have many people to remember with gratitude for their inspiring service.  May we be worthy of their gift to us each day.

Respecting the Protein, PMB

No Comments | November 13th, 2012

Fall Flavors – Southwestern Pumpkin Chili

Bright fall days find us assailed by all things pumpkin – overspiced beers & waffles, cloyingly sweet lattes & donuts, soups & souffles that fell off the dessert cart.  Just when I think I’ve had enough of the great orange orb at harvest time I am reminded how well it works within the fall playbook, getting its savory on & elevating root vegetables, tart apples, hearty pork & game dishes to the culinary high ground.

Such was the case last week when my friend Casey Riley, executive  chef at the Newport Harbor Corporation, told me he needed two of my  pastured Silver Fox rabbits for a pumpkin – rabbit chili he was preparing for the  Aquidneck Land Trust Fall Benefit dinner.  Intrigued, I read up on food history and gained a perspective on the sublime and infinitely variable melange of stewed meat and peppers that “growed up” with the Lone Star State’s famous cattle drives and prison kitchens over the last hundred years.

Born of the “Spanish stews” brought out to San Antonio’s public square in decorated carts by immigrant Canary Islanders, a fiery “bowl of red” still brings every Texan home to Mama.  Frank and Jesse James decided not to rob Fort Worth because the chili con carne was so good and that should count for something.

This sacred alliance of meat cooked in fat and traditionally stewed with onion, chile piquin (and other) peppers, cumin, garlic and oregano is best enjoyed a day later after the flavors get to know each other.  Endless regional variations make sharing and comparing great fun.  An international society is committed to its cultural advancement and an assiduously defended competition circuit in which I competed years ago to no one’s notice guards its golden crown.  Heated discussions of technique and style can continue long into the night – beans or no beans, tomato or none, meat combinations or omissions, cubed or ground, chuck or sirloin.  Doctoral dissertations have examined the multitude of Capsicum species that build the elusive flavor profile – smoked, roasted, fresh, dried, ground and secretly added under cover of night.  When Casey, a native son of Las Cruces, New Mexico (home to the Chile Pepper Institute at NMSU), suggested a meeting of pumpkin, hot pepper infused honey, slow-roasted rabbit and dark smoky peppers, I knew he was preaching the gospel.  I had to have a go at it for my own self.

Disjoint a dressed pasture-grazed rabbit and place in Ziploc bag with rice vinegar, white balsamic vinegar, Aquidneck Hot Honey, 4 cloves of chopped garlic, ground herbs, sea salt and cracked pepper. Evacuate air from the bag so meat is entirely encased in liquid.  Place in refrigerator for 4 hours or longer.

Split a 4-pound sugar pumpkin in half.  Reserve seeds to toast with salt pepper and chili powder for garnish.  Rub pumpkin with butter and/or olive oil, drizzle with Aquidneck Hot Honey, sprinkle with sea salt, cracked pepper, ground ancho and chipotle peppers (my friend makes a blend called Mojjo), cinnamon and allspice (I did not use too heavy a hand for these last two but you might like it more).  Roast at 350 for over an hour till fork tender all the way to the rind.  You can cut the halfs into 4 pieces each to increase surface area.  Baste with the liquid halfway through.  Let cool till you can handle to scrape out the flesh.

Rehydrate 4 dried guajillo and 4 Ancho peppers in simmering water for an hour and scrape flesh off the skins making sure you do not include the seeds in resulting paste.  Remove rabbit pieces from bag and rub with chile paste reserving brine.  Sprinkle with salt, cracked pepper & Mojjo or chili powder.  Pour a little of the rehydrating liquid in the bottom of the pan and roast uncovered at 275 for 2.5 hours turning once.  Meat should come easily off the bone.  Shred into a bowl.  Get all the good bits from around the neck and shoulders into the chopped onion you are going to caramelize.

Chop a big Spanish onion to medium dice and cook over gentle heat with reserved rabbit brine and scrapings from the rabbit pan loosened with half a beer or some more pepper liquid.  Clean the rabbit carcass fully with all the little meat scraps but no bone going into the onion.  Cook 10-20 minutes till well colored and liquid reduced by half.  Scoop pumpkin flesh into a big pot and mash up with shredded  meat and onion making sure it is moist but not watery.  Adjust seasonings with salt and chili powder.  Enjoy with friends.

No Comments | October 22nd, 2012

Blue Ribbon Bunnies

I hope you are including a visit to a county fair among your summer plans.  The powerful pulling horses, the quilts and pies, the mullets and questionable tattoos,  the dairy barn, the girls in Timberlands and Daisy Dukes with a Skoal ring (dang !!), the rigged games where you might win a pair of inflatable sunglasses – for me it’s all righter than a paper tray of deep-fried Oreos with a corn fritter chaser.  This year, however, marked the first time I was entered in the livestock competition – guided by my rabbit partner and consigliere Lois Fulton – my “other Mom”.

Lois has raised and shown rabbits (Reds and Rexes)  for decades seeking the best example of the breed standard and has baskets of ribbons taking up space.  Considered a local expert among rabbit folk, I called her shortly after getting started with two pairs of Silver Foxes two years ago.  I wanted to raise special pastured bunnies – rabbits that would give us their gift just one time each.  We had met several years earlier when the Cub Scout Pack I was leading visited her great little farm to learn about organic gardening and composting with worms.

I got the sense at first that Lois wasn’t thrilled about the prospect of a meat pen.  A retired nurse, Lois is a nurturing caregiver so  raising rabbits that will not celebrate a birthday ran against the cut of her jib.   She saw I was intent on growing rare meat rabbits on grass in a high-welfare system that could be differentially marketed to discerning and culturally diverse public.  After all, lapin and conejo is popular fare on French, Spanish and Italian country tables and under-represented in this country.  Soon enough she fell in love with the big gentle heritage breed and accepted our production goals.  Silver Foxes are excellent mothers with large, fast-growing kits.  Lois took a few of my does when I exceeded 6 pasture pens that get moved each day and retained a few female kits to grow out to breeding age.  We went to Maryland over the winter for more breeding stock and now have 13 does producing litters that go to some of Rhode Island’s finest restaurants at 16  weeks of age.

We entered a senior doe (breeding age) and a junior buck (subadult – meat bunny chosen from the two shown) in the Washington County Fair and both received first place blue cards as prime examples of breed standard in outstanding condition.  There were no other Silver Foxes competing.  Our beautiful Jenny was in the running for Best In Show but was disqualified for some brown fur on her skirt (the bottom of the flank).  Apparently the judge thought it was sunburn from being outside.  Darn right – that’s where the good food is.  I’ll take goldenrod and wood sorrel over a fancy ribbon any day.  The ribbon doesn’t taste that good.


Respecting the Protein, PMB

No Comments | August 20th, 2012

The Grass of a Nation


I know of no other grass that has had a hand in recruiting Division I collegiate student(?)-athletes and has a whole belt named after it.  Or has the yearly arrival of its ripened seed heads more eagerly anticipated and celebrated in dance.  Or saved the Pilgrim’s asses thanks to Squanto’s herring trick.  Or features a beatific Native American maiden extolling its virtues and offering it up for adoration (can I be the only one who entertained a boyhood fantasy involving the Mazola girl ??)

Zea mays, known to us as corn and to the world’s scientific community as maize, is an annual cereal grain native to Mexico that can grow up to 39 feet tall and was domesticated by the Olmec and Mayan people more than 2500 years ago.  The nutritious seeds could be dried and preserved, forming the basis of an extensive trade network that supported highly developed urban centers throughout the present-day southern US.  Loren Spears, director of the Tomaquag Indian Memorial Museum in Exeter, RI www.tomaquagmuseum.com, tells how corn came here in Crow’s ear to save her people during a starving time.

Planted with beans and squash, the “Three Sisters” represent the first known example of organic companion planting.  Leguminous beans fix nitrogen required by needy corn for its fast growth.  The broad leaves of the squash shade the ground discouraging weeds, protecting moisture levels and forming a green manure that builds rich topsoil.  Hard as flint, the Indian corn needed to be ground and parched to be made palatable.  Today’s sweet corn derives from a genetic variant that accumulates more sugar and less starch in the ear and can be eaten standing in the field.

In these parts no summer table is complete without a platter of steamed or roasted corn, kids munching away typewriter-style.  When folks head for the beach, I head for Confreda Farms www.confredas.com, an excellent source for tasty sweet corn picked that day.  As our state’s largest vegetable grower, Vinny Confreda maintains a commitment to freshness taught to him by Pop and being passed on to sons Jonathan and Vinny Jr.  His crews start picking daily at 2:00 AM in order to have orders ready for the supermarkets and farmstands they supply.  Like a summer camp romance, the sweetness is fleeting as a firefly – sugars quickly convert into gluey starch.  The Confreda family promises that the corn you buy at their store was picked that morning.  The day’s unsold ears are taken to food pantries or recycled as livestock feed.

With over 400 acres cultivated on 18 parcels from coastal Warwick to western Cranston, Vinny has the luxury of planting his corn in stages according to climatic variations among the various fields.  They grow a Butter & Sugar bicolor and a SuperSweet yellow Mirai rather than the transgenic (GMO) varieties that describe about 85% of our nation’s corn crop.  Confreda’s native corn arrives earliest to market and keeps on coming right through September.  While they do not farm organically due to the continuous high yields required, manager Ray Aubin emphasizes the care he takes in the application of chemicals on the land.

Not only does the nitrogen fertilizer he needs leach out of the soil causing algae blooms and low-oxygen conditions in our coastal waters, it is expensive !!  Ray determines his minimum effective requirement through tissue culture method and proceeds cautiously timing his applications to avoid major rain events.  He plants a winter rye & wheat mix in the fall that prevents erosion and is plowed under in the spring to increase fertility.  Pesticides and fungicides are used sparingly and only as needed under the tutelage of Rhode Island Dept of Ag.

I find myself frequently experimenting with new uses for summer corn and have perfected a black bean salsa to accompany your grilled chicken or burger.  Dried black beans are boiled for 10 minutes in salted water – water changed and soaked overnight with some cumin and ground chipotle powder.  Next day simmered for another hour or two till almost soft.  Toss in steamed Confreda corn cut off the cob, some of Mama Confreda’s chopped fresh garden tomatoes and a chopped raw red onion.  Squeeze in a lime, pinch of cumin and chipotle or ancho powder or both, salt to taste and a small handful of chopped cilantro unless you are cooking for my wife.  A cool and delicious nod to the ancient Southwestern people who lit this candle.  Enjoy !!

No Comments | July 25th, 2012

The Perfect Father’s Day

Family foraging trips provide local food lovers with annual sensory memories, connections with the land that sustain and remind us of those who no longer make the trip.  The journey to the farm or the woods expands the food experience into past and future and rewards the collector with an appreciation of the haul.  Beach plum spots in the Hamptons are hard-earned and protected with a black-ops level of plausible deniability.  My friend Laura was finally granted required security clearance during her fifth summer on the East End.  Around here reliable mushroom logs carry the same aura of mystery.  It’s uncomfortable to even ask where.

Store-bought items have no such power.  Fumigated, plastic-wrapped and bar-coded blueberries can hardly remind you of warm granite and a favorite New Hampshire mountainside.  Or teenage girls in bathing suits with a faceful of pie.  The tangy fermented smell of fallen apples can only be found in the long grass of a Scituate orchard.

On a bright June day we followed happy sounds to a South County strawberry field swarming with kids.  Fragile, fragrant, short-lived and vastly superior to the woody & tasteless imposters shipped in from California, our local red treasures are eagerly anticipated with good reason, appearing in a variety of treats that can only be enjoyed during these long days when school lets out.  My old Grandpa Tick Tock would have his with a proper biscuit so that was what we set out to make last weekend.

The Garden Strawberry (Fragaria x ananassa) is not actually a berry, but rather an aggregate accessory fruit, structurally similar to a pineapple.  The fleshy torus upon which we dine supports up to 200 pistils (female reproductive structures) that each develop a seed inside a hard coating called an achene.  Developed from the wild woodland strawberry (F. vesca), the hybridized variety we know today was improved for cultivation in France 300 years by crossing with collected American and Chilean wild species and selecting for larger fruit and extended blooming season.  The common name derives from the term “streabariye”, coined by the Benedictine monk Aelfric in 995 AD in reference to its penchant for stoloniferous straying by surface runners.

The perennial herbs are grown today in long mounded rows irrigated at  root level through trickle tubes to prevent fungal problems associated with moisture on the leaves.  The plants are heavily mulched with straw to help the crowns overwinter and persist for about three years before declining crop requires them to be plowed under.  Wild woodland strawberries are still commercially gathered in Turkey, Italy and Eastern Europe for superior jams and liqueurs.  The fruits are high in Vitamin C and antioxidants and figure prominently in the folklore of native people who have sought them out for millenia.  Slovakian legend has a Cinderella character sent out gathering in winter by the evil sister but the Council of Seasons see she is “sweet in life and character” and deliver her safely.  Closer to home, Seneca lore links the early blooming fruit with rebirth and tells of a path to the heavens lined with strawberry plants.

For our version of heaven on a plate, 1 1/2 pounds of berries are stemmed, quartered, placed in a non-metal bowl with 3 tablespoons of natural cane sugar and stirred gently to coat evenly.  Place in refrigerator to cool while the juices are drawn out.  Preheat oven to 400 and make batter by combining 2 c flour, 2 T sugar, 3/4 t salt, 2 t baking powder, 1/4 t baking soda and 1 1/2 c heavy cream and turning out into an ungreased 8×8 square pan.  Bake for 18-20 minutes or until golden brown.  Allow biscuits to cool, slice horizontally and assemble with whipped cream.  Strawberries don’t keep well and should be frozen or dehydrated if you’re not going to use them within a few days.  Store in a cool dry place.

Like so many things in life, the moment doesn’t last so enjoy them with your sweetheart and look forward to next year’s trip together.

No Comments | June 18th, 2012

Corn Meets Stone – 309 Years and Counting at Rhode Island’s Oldest Water-Powered Grist Mill

Growing, catching, finding and making according to local seasonal conditions gives homegrown food its “ground truth”, a profound connection with a place.  These foods are usually tastiest and are best enjoyed close to the source.  This is true everywhere.  Here in South County the preservation of jonnycakes, our most iconic food identity, is quite literally in the hands of one man.

 Old-time Swamp Yankee Bob Smith feels the stone-ground cornmeal spilling out of the wooden spout at Carpenter’s Grist Mill for texture.  Sharp-witted and spry at 86, this living bit of history is tougher than the whitecap flint “co-ahn” that has been ground there in Perryville between water-powered, one-pass granite stones every year since 1703.

His toughness might be ascribed in some small part to his 60 combat missions in a B-17 Flying Fortress over Nazi occupied France and Holland a lifetime ago.  Many was the day when 30 or more of the 120 planes that departed in the morning did not return.  After completing his service, Bob enrolled at URI.  One day he offered an attractive young woman a ride up the hill in his Dodge coupe.  Diane will tell you, “He says he picked me up hitchhiking!!”

Their love of local history led Bob and Diane to purchase and restore the neglected mill in 1986.  Recently the Smiths bequeathed the mill to the South Kingstown Land Trust.  Now they are training a new generation to take it over.  On this day, as always, Bob and two apprentice millers grind the same corn given to early European settlers by native Wampanoag people when the newcomers’ imported wheat and barley crops failed.  Hard and inedible raw, flint corn is ground into a highly nutritious meal with a subtle nutty flavor found nowhere else in the world.

Mixed into a meal and cooked on a hot stone, these unleavened “journey cakes” traveled well in the days before refrigeration.  Flint corn thrives along our south shore due to the moist night air and mild tempering effect of Block Island Sound.  Flint corn is tough.  Each plant puts out a single ear, instead of the three to four on modern varieties, but each kernel is full of flavor and concentrated nutrients.  To keep its line uncontaminated by stray pollen from hybrids it needs to be grown at least a half mile away from other corn.  Only two local farmers still grow it.

 The long thin golden ears are harvested in late fall and stored outdoors over the winter in covered slat-sided corn cribs where the moisture content drops from 25% down to 10%-12%.  Grinding commences in the spring.  A gate-operated sluiceway channels pond water three feet deep to produce enough power to turn the 2000-pound rotating top stone at 100 revolutions per minute.  Bob turns the screw-crank on an overhead hoist to lift the great runner stone a few thousandths of an inch above the stationary bedstone below.  They must never touch.

With bright twinkling eyes, he notes how the 13″-thick top stone, dated 1868, originally measured 18″ thick !!  “Some kids must have 5 inches of granite in their bellies”, he hypothesizes with a chuckle.  Bob goes on to emphasize the importance of the miller’s vigilant attention.

He must watch and listen for the sight and sound of its proper turning, wary of the trace smell when too much friction might scorch the meal.  The old saying “Keep your nose to the grindstone” originally referred to this task before becoming a generic term for drudgery.  The dedicated work of the artisan does not translate into the world of technology….

Jonnycakes have survived centuries of vigorous debate here in “Li’l Rhody”.  East Bay cooks prefer a thinner “lacy” batter made with cold milk.  The Smiths (and your author) will go to our graves clinging to the thicker West Bay style with its golden crust and creamy polenta-like interior.  The proper South County jonnycake gains it ascendance by scalding the meal with boiling water and thinning it slightly with a little milk.  Silver-dollar sized dollops are dropped onto well-seasoned cast-iron that has had a recent encounter with bacon.  Please no sugar or maple syrup – “yah cah’nt taste the co’ahn, boy !!”  Not just for breakfast, these thicker cakes make a splendid companion for savory dishes like chicken and gravy or creamed cod with spinach and onions.

The halls of the State House have echoed over the years with contentious exchanges relating to this greatly loved little disc, reminiscent of the millstone so instrumental in its production.  Representatives Boyd of Portsmouth and Caswell of Narragansett nearly came to blows in 1922 over claims relating to THE definitive recipe.  Scurrilous defamation passed back and forth.  “Newport hick feed !!” “South County mush !!”  The combatants were eventually separated and a draw was declared, though the friendly rivalry continues to this day.

In a rare fit of common sense, the Rhode Island State Legislature enacted one of the country’s great legal protections regarding the appellation of a local food tradition.  It was decided by a vote that Jonnycake meal may only bear the charming countrified spelling, without the “h”, if it is made from corn grown and stone-ground right here in Rhode Island.  Long live “truth in labeling !!”

I’ll Have the Ammonia……..

 Humans eat meat because, unlike plants, we cannot synthesize some kinds of amino acids and must ingest them. Our country’s recent appetite for large portions of cheap protein has driven the beef industry (not small sustainable farmers) to find ways to repurpose connective tissue, fatty toss-offs and  inedible scrap traditionally used for pet food and cooking oil.  Remarkably, this butcher’s waste is turned into 60-pound frozen blocks of additive filler called Boneless Lean Beef Trim (BLBT).  Banned in the UK for human consumption, this questionable product extender is found in low-end beef patties at ball parks and in school lunches across America but has somehow managed to avoid being identified as an ingredient.  

Beef Products International in South Dakota achieves this magic via mechanical separation in a centrifuge resulting in a mash that is passed  through a tube in the presence of ammonium hydroxide, raising the pH and (usually) killing off potentially high levels of harmful bacteria.  The notable point here is NOT the use of ammonium hydroxide (a common leavening and pH control agent in baked goods, caramel and condiments) but the dangerous and potentially lethal levels of Salmonella and E. coli  in the industrial feedlot product being processed.  One need not look far to discover the recent history of recalls and contamination events.

70% of  US ground beef sold contains  BLBT (affectionately called “pink slime”).  15% of a hamburger may be comprised of the stuff without acknowledgement of its presence.  While McDonalds, Taco Bell and Burger King have discontinued its use, The US Department of Agriculture recently signed up for 7 million more pounds for the school lunch program.  

The Food Insight website notes : “Ammonium hydroxide can be used as an antimicrobial to control pathogens, such as E. coli O157:H7, which may be present in beef. In the treatment, naturally occurring levels of ammonium hydroxide in beef are increased slightly to create a pH that eliminates harmful bacteria.” 

The fact they don’t tell you is that the bacterial counts in the acidic intestinal tracts of grain-fed feedlot beef are 315 times higher than in grass-fed pastured animals with more alkaline (high pH) internal conditions. Starch-based diets enable the animals to fatten quickly in confined environment absent of their natural forage but reduce the health of the animal and create meat that is amazingly unhealthy for us.  The absence of plant roughage from their feedlot diet decreases saliva production that contains an valuable acid-buffering enzyme.  The result is acidosis, ulcerated stomach walls and liver abcesses.  Some feedlots utilize “by-product feedstuffs” that may include stale gummy bears, french fries, rotten potatos, pasta and the ground & cooked floor scrapings of poultry confinement growing operations (Univ. of Wisconsin study). Hungry yet ??

A University of California – Chico study comparing the intestinal flora of grass-fed vs. grain-fed animals noted that the bacteria present in the feedlot beef is much more likely to survive the acidic conditions of our own stomachs to persist and bloom. We evolved gastric juices to kill these things present in carrion and spoiled meat eaten by our distant ancestors.  Much of the repurposed trim used to make the pink blocks of BLBT comes from the outside of the animal and the perimeter of the abdominal cavity and would have a high likelihood of contact with this source of contamination.

Manure is a blessing when spread out over the land but too much of it in one place becomes a problem. Feedlots are filthy places where animals are continually standing in manure with elevated bacteria counts often developing foot problems that need treatment with antibiotics.  In dry conditions they are dusty places with high level of fecal particulate matter in the air.  This dangerous manure gets in lungs, on hands and cutting tools and into the foodstream given the volume and scale of the major processing plants killing more than 100 animals per hour.

In sharp contrast, the stomachs of grass-fed animals have a much higher pH level and vastly lower bacterial counts. Grass-fed beef is lower in saturated fats and calories, 3-4 times higher in good Omega-3 fatty acids, 5-8 times lower in bad Omega-6′s, with buttery yellow fat high in B-vitamins, Vitamin E and beneficial CLA (conjugated lineolic acid). 

 The animals are grown at a density matched to the carrying capacity of the land that supports them. Their manure enhances the organic capital in the soil beneath their feet and they trample the grass they don’t eat down into their hoofprints increasing humus production and water-holding capacity. If they are grazed in rotational fashion, the rested paddocks regrow incredible high-value forage in 30 days.

When the right animals with strong genetic potential to finish well on grass are grazed in this fashion for a long enough time to reach 1100 pound slaughter weight you can produce truly remarkable grass-fed & dry-aged beef.  Rhode Island producers of quality grass-fed beef include Watson Farm, (www.historicnewengland.org), Windmist Farm (www.windmistfarm.com) and Beaverhead Farm (401-932-8698) on Jamestown, Aquidneck Farms www.aquidneckfarms.com) in Portsmouth, Treaty Rock Farm (www.treatyrockfarm.com) in Little Compton and New England Grass Fed (www.newenglandgrassfed.com) – contract grazers based in South Kingstown.

Respecting the Protein, PMB

1 Comment | March 8th, 2012

Dirty Kids are Happy Kids


I took two baskets of rabbit manure to my friend Alex’s family one evening last spring. He and Beth, outnumbered by this point, preside over a happy raucous house full of music and dancing and art and good food. They make time in their busy lives to tend some raised garden beds with the girls and grow things that they cook together. Producing and sharing food with neighbors strengthens their social network in the spirit of old-fashioned country hospitality. Rural agrarian communities have historically succeeded by cultivating respect and concern for the person you may call on in time of need. A basket of squash or a bowl of raspberries can reach across boundaries and might help someone struggling to make ends meet.

 The need for healthy fresh produce is particularly critical in poor urban communities dominated by cheap empty carbs stripped of their nutritional value and processed for long shelf life. Overweight and undernourished, people in these “food deserts” suffer from disproportionate frequency of diabetes and other chronic health problems linked to recent separation from a local food system. For many people, the good choices are too difficult to make. Flavinoids seem to be the purview of the privileged.








Happily, some great people have been busy writing a different end to the story. For 30 years, Southside Community Land Trust in Providence has helped people turn vacant lots into community gardens through programming, seed sharing and technical support.

New Urban Farmers in Pawtucket eliminates barriers to healthy food and empowers low-income individuals, families, and at-risk youth on their home farm at Galego Court housing development. Education collaborates with new technology in the form of aquaponics, solar panels and geodesic domes. Kids access food-based learning, better outcomes and exciting business opportunities.      

 Society’s problems were thankfully not on the minds of these happy kids. We had fun chasing the dog, kicking a ball, spreading manure, picking radishes, hiding in the stick-and-log tipi-fort where “almost no one” can find you and making sure the neighbors knew there was rabbit poop.

The fragrant black soil had clearly enjoyed several years of organic amendment and felt  great to stick your hands in. We dug things up and turned over the compost pile. Labels were attached to sticks and everything was so exciting it required yelling even though I was only three feet away. The smile on my face lasted almost a week.

 This spring I’ve decided to do all I can to encourage kids  and  families to garden and grow their own food as a rewarding lesson in self-determination, planning, perseverence and pragmatism. Any family that grows a garden and sends us a photo with a story written by the kid or kids describing the meal they grew on their own will receive a FREE package of 100% grass-fed & dry-aged ground beef from New England Grass Fed at the South Kingstown Farmers Market.                          







Alex’s thoughts on our evening’s adventures:

“Gardening with my kids provides my wife and I quality time with our girls – free from the distraction of TV and computer, we can show the kids how to be resourceful and how food is made. By taking care of the plants we can harvest food to eat instead of needing to purchase food. In doing so, we’re also demonstrating how a little work ethic can yield some great natural treats – and save money for other things. The girls like it because they can get dirty, dig for worms, that feed the turtles….great lessons in science. They also feel good about getting to pick the food – tomatoes, green beans, snow peas, strawberries, blueberries, lettuce, peppers, etc… There are some kids who actually believe food grows at the store ?!?!?!?”

1 Comment | February 14th, 2012

Big Metal Chicken

Emmittsburg, MD (AP) – The great bird stands at the edge of an empty field inscrutable and sphinx-like, resplendent in its rusty yellow and sky-blue plumage.  Its open beak issues a silent proclamation to the muddy furrows within earshot.  Local legend in northern Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains has the thing as something of an oracle.  The old-timers swear that if you circle it three times backwards in an anticlockwise fashion on the full moon sprinkling a line of cracked corn in an ever-widening circle it will predict the future success of your farming enterprises.  As a person who has frequently sought spiritual guidance from rural roadside attractions, I wanted to believe but it was a cold morning and we were there for rabbits.  We didn’t stick around for an answer.

Poised at the head of a long dirt drive, the rooster points the way to Whitmore Farm, an inspiring place where Will Morrow and friends raise a number of rare heritage breeds in an all-natural, free-ranging production model.  There are Katahdin sheep, a hair breed (no shearing ever) with great parasite resistance.  They run with the Tennessee Fainting Goats, a breed that was historically kept with sheep as a sacrificial lamb of sorts.  If a wolf got into the flock the goats would tense up and fall over due to their recessive myotonic gene,

providing an easy meal of opportunity for the furry intruder.  There are Delaware and Welsummer chickens, hardy meat and eggs breeds that forage on grass and bugs and enjoy a life outdoors guarded (mostly) by the Great Pyrenees rescue dogs that have come to the farm.  Of the six, only Joy is still struggling with her “little problem”.  The birds reach market weight in 12-14 weeks with rich flavorful breast meat and great texture, a far cry from the bland, flaccid, chemically-supported, confinement-raised product brought to you in less than 8 weeks by the good folks at Tyson.

There are Glocestershire Old Spot pigs eating the orchard trimmings.  There are hoop houses with baby lettuces and rare figs.  And there is a healthy breeding herd of the mighty Silver Fox rabbit, the peg o’ my heart.  Ohioan W.B. Garland developed the breed in the 1920′s by crossing a French Silver meat rabbit (Champagne d’Argent) with a

Checkered Giant.  Garland achieved size, hardiness, and fine bone structure (high dress-out percentage) in a handsome grizzled black package.  Silver Foxes thrive in pasture pens from March – November gaining muscle tone and producing a flavorful pink meat appreciated by many of Rhode Island’s most discerning chefs.  This grass-fed model takes longer than typical production houses but is well worth the effort.  Famous for their gentle disposition and excellent maternal instincts, the Silver Foxes are susceptible only to summer heat stress.  Their small litters and black hair (shows up on the carcass) have caused them to fall out of favor with commercial rabbit breeders and earned them endangered status on the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy watch list.


I first visited Whitmore Farm a year and a half ago for my foundation herd and returned last summer for more breeding stock.  After suffering some early setbacks, I added common New Zealand Whites (pictured above at left) to our program in order to reduce risk of catastrophic loss.  Realizing that we need to scale up operations in order to become profitable, I adopted a “divide and conquer” methodology.  I’ve recently outsourced adults and daily operations to two friends who are equipped with robust infrastructure and adequate winter breeding quarters.  Lois has raised a show herd of Rexes for many years and is new to the meat game.  Ed and Tracy are new organic farmers whose son just returned from an urban agriculture internship with Will Allen in Milwaukee, WI.  They are building a strong base of soil health as the foundation of their business plan.  After picking out 3 little Whitmore does (Judy, LuLu & Katrina) and a buck (W.B.) from a different bloodline, three intrepied wanderers headed up the dusty gravel road leaving a big metal chicken in the rearview mirror and wondering what they had signed on for.

No Comments | January 17th, 2012