I participated recently in Food Revolution Day at Google campus in Seattle, Washington. It was part of a broader event held nationally at all of the Google campuses and worldwide as part of Food Revolution Day. This is a day to reconnect people with real food and essential cooking skills. It was started by television personality Chef Jamie Oliver. He describes the Food Revolution on his website as:
“a chance for people to come together within their homes, schools, workplaces and communities to cook and share their kitchen skills, food knowledge and resources. Food Revolution Day aims to raise awareness about the importance of good food and better food education for everyone by focusing on three simple actions – cook it, share it, live it.”
When I found out that Google had invited me to participate in this event on behalf of Niman Ranch farmers, I was thrilled. I have been a huge fan of Jamie Oliver and his Food Revolution since it began. I understand the challenges and time constraints that we are all struggling with in this fast paced world, but I feel it is important to understand where your food comes from, and that cooking with your family is where lifelong memories are made. Nothing can beat a home cooked meal.
For the past ten years, Sophia and I have been living on a farm just a mile away from where I grew up. Last month, we finally decided to make a change and move into town. It was a tough decision, we’ll no doubt miss living on a farm, but we are close enough to still help my father. This realization made the transition a little bit easier.
Remember that six-pack of chickens we bought back in March? Well, they grew pretty fast and I have to confess their home our basement where we were keeping them became a bit of a nuisance. It was a real chore to clean it every day and the chickens were going through the feed like you wouldn’t believe. We brought those chickens with us when we moved into town and move them to a fancy little chicken run and hen house we found at our local farm supply store.
We’re going to try our hand at Urban Farming. We were so excited once the weather warmed up and we were able to move our chickens outside and test the new chicken house.
One of our spring activities on the farm is we begin to save some of our chicken eggs for incubating. It’s exciting to watch them as they hatch through the glass window of the incubator. This year we put eggs in the incubator on March 1 and are expected to hatch in 21 days.
You would never know spring break is here by the weather we have had. Last week while preparing for another blizzard and picking up some groceries, my daughter, Sophia, asked if we could check our local farmer supply store to see if they had baby chicks in yet, just to “look” at them.
Of course when we saw them there they were irresistible. Sophia asked if she could buy a few with her own money. She couldn’t wait for our eggs to hatch. The sign at the store said you could not buy fewer than six at a time. It seemed like a good idea knowing that we would be snowed in the following day and it was spring break. Nothing is more fun than a few fuzzy baby chicks. I guess you might call it, “spring chicken fever”.
It’s February and we are emerging from the dark days of winter. These are the days when a winter storm warning or dreaded “wintery mix” can leave us stuck on the farm for days. During these times I confess I sometimes yearn for the conveniences of city life.
Years ago, I took a job where I transferred to Los Angeles. Of course, it was beautiful in California. I remember stopping in at a local coffee shop and commenting to the barista what a nice day it was, a sentiment which seemed redundant after the first few days. People in Los Angeles were spoiled by the sunny days and mild weather, so they didn’t comment on it that much.
It must have been my Midwestern roots that inspired my fascination with the weather. Everyone in our little town of Thornton, where I come from, commented on it. The weather has a defining effect on daily life in Iowa. But even with the beautiful weather in California, I couldn’t wait to return to the Midwest. There is something about the connection with nature that creates a sense of autonomy and peace that can only be found on the farm. I missed my family too. My drive to return to the farm grew even stronger when my daughter was born.
With the beginning of the New Year I like to reflect on the past. Recently, I joined my mother and her group of friends who meet for coffee every Thursday morning. These women have known each other for decades. My mother remembers some of them from her childhood when the Danish Brotherhood, a national organization of Danes in America, would gather.
At ‘Coffee’ we discuss everything from the books we’re reading to exchanging recipes. The day I joined, we talked about what everyone made for dinner for the holidays. My mother and her friend Judy had each made a goose for Christmas Dinner that my father and his friend Daryl picked up from a local farmer. It had been years since my mother had cooked a goose. The consensus was that although goose typically has great flavor it was tough in texture. Talking goose reminded my mother that my grandfather had preferred goose fat on his bread rather than butter. The “grease” that drained to the bottom of the pan was almost always preserved.
We have been experiencing unusually warm temperatures this winter. Just two weeks ago I had to mow the yard, unheard of in December, but great weather for farm chores. I expressed my disappointment to my Dad that we probably wouldn’t be having a white Christmas but he reminded me how a mild winter works out just fine for taking care of the pigs.
The mild weather didn’t last long. This week a winter storm snuck up on us and our local meteorologist predicted that we could expect 4-6 inches of snow with high wind gusts up to 40 MPH. Almost out of no where we found ourselves under a blizzard warning.
Sophia was excited at the prospect of having a snow day from school. To prepare for the storm, I went grocery shopping to make sure we wouldn’t run out of the essentials, milk, bread, and most importantly, coffee.
We woke up the next morning and, sure enough, we found ourselves buried under a blanket of fresh white snow. It was like winter had descended upon us overnight. My phone was ringing all morning with news about the storm. My sister lost electricity in Des Moines due to the damage from downed trees that just couldn’t handle the weight from so much snow at one time. Sophia’s wish had come true, there would be no school.
During the month of November we often take time to reflect on the things we are thankful for, which is why this is the perfect time for Part III of my reflections on the Niman Ranch Farmer Appreciation Dinner. This event is our opportunity to show appreciation for the farmers’ hard work and integrity.
Upon checking into the hotel, it was exciting and fun bumping into other Niman Ranch farmers. This is one of the few opportunities we have to reconnect with one another. It’s like one big family reunion.
The chefs were busy at work in the kitchen when I arrived at the hotel. So many things still had to be coordinated to ensure the evening was a success.
We had worked with Raygun to create special t-shirts for the farmers and attendees at the event. But we still needed to pick them up from their store in East Village and set up the T-Shirt Tent in the foyer. Des Moines’ East Village and SoHo are as hip as the ones in New York City only a small town version and just walking distance from the hotel.
This year’s 14th annual Niman Ranch Farmer Appreciation Dinner was a unique farm-to-table event which celebrated the hard work and independent spirit of the farmers who supply humanely and sustainably raised pork for Niman Ranch.
Chefs: Jeffery Surprise, Frederic Morineau, Scott Pampuch, Jordon Barnett, Niman Ranch Executive Chef Andrew Hunter, John Villa, Tyson Grant and Charles Kassels
Six chefs, who are committed to honoring these farmers in their kitchens and restaurants around the country, and abroad, cooked a six-course meal to celebrate the farmers. The attendance at the Niman Ranch Farmer Appreciation Dinner has grown tremendously the first year we had fewer than100 guests and this year’s event sold out at 400 guests.
The featured chefs were selected because they have shown true leadership in their communities by raising awareness that great food starts at the farm. Each chef has shown their commitment to excellent food and their support of traditional, humane and sustainable farming practices employed by Niman Ranch farmers and others in their community. The 2012 Niman Ranch Farmer Appreciation Dinner featured chefs were:
Posted in Niman Ranch, Sarah Willis, Sustainable Farming Advocate
Tagged confinement free hogs, family farming, free range hogs, gestation crate-free, humanely raised hogs, humanely raised pork, Sustainable farming, sustainably rasied pork, U.S. family farmers
It all started in mid-July. Sophia and I bought some sweet corn from a local purveyor, I am not going to name names, and that very night I made it for supper for my parents and a few friends. I was embarrassed by just how tasteless and chewy it was. It just wasn’t as sweet and tender as the corn we were used to; my father even seemed to think that perhaps I was sold field corn instead.
Peaches and Cream Iowa Sweet Corn
So that started our sweet corn tasting extravaganza. We were on a mission to find the best sweet corn. The next day we bought the Candy Corn variety of sweet corn from another family farmer. What a contrast, it was beautiful with golden yellow nuggets, sweet yet savory especially when covered in salted butter. My father liked this much more however, he was certain that the Peaches and Cream variety was better yet.
Early in July we had a special visitor to the Willis family farm, Ken Myers and his two adorable children stopped by during their summer vacation. Ken had visited us a few years ago with a group from Chipotle Mexican Grill. To support its mission of Food With Integrity, each year Chipotle sends employees by the bus-load to visit our farm to gain a deeper understanding of what the mission means. The employees learn more about farming sustainably, the humane treatment of farm animals and how all of this plays into the flavor of Niman Ranch pork.
The Meyer family at the Willis Dream Farm
Ken was so inspired by his trip to our farm that he has been telling his children stories ever since and wanted them to see our pigs the way he did : pasture-raised, curious and friendly. When they arrived it was one of the hottest days during this hot and dry Iowa summer. The pigs were just lazing about and were not very interested in our visitors. However, they were interested in the mudhole by the water tank, which the pigs use to cool down on hot summer days. The children were excited to walk into the field and finally see the pigs they had heard so much about.