Who Grew Your Food: Mike Wilk

carranza-memorialIf I say Tabernacle, New Jersey to people who are not from Tabernacle, New Jersey, they might know the town for one of two reasons: a) the ghost of pilot Emilio Carranza, the “Mexican Lindbergh,” who crashed there about 90 years ago, or b) it’s where the Jersey Devil lives. If you drive far enough down Carranza Road (it’s paved now, by the way), you will come to the monument in memory of Captain Carranza in the middle of the pines. But Tabernacle is more than haunted history and folklore. There are farms there, wonderful farms, producing a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, and lamb.

Lamb? Well, yes. Those loin chops come from an animal, and the animal has to be raised somewhere. Last week I had the opportunity to meet a farmer, Mike Wilk, and tour where these lambs are raised. Mike scored points by having me to the farm because while he never met me, he was willing to give me a tour. This let me know that he was going to be very transparent about his practices. This isn’t to say that a farmer who will not give you a tour is being purposefully opaque. Some farmers are cautious about visitors because they fear people bringing in bugs or germs that may have a negative impact on herd health.

The morning was a typical hot, humid New Jersey July morning – it was already in the 80’s at 8:00 am. You can discern a lot about a farm by the way it smells and one side effect of heat and humidity is an amplification of smells. Wilk Farm smells the way a farm should: like clean animals. If this were a scratch-n-sniff blog (are they coming soon?), I could add a dirty animal smell and a clean animal smell so you would be able to tell the difference.  If you have the opportunity to visit the farm where your food is produced, you quickly leanr to smell the difference.

We started out chatting in the shade near the house, with Mike pointing out things he needed to repair. I was laughing on the inside because I do this at my house, an old, always a work-in-progress place, a kind of apology to the new visitor that it isn’t some pristine dwelling. But most of the farmers I know are like this – there is always something else that needs to be fixed, improved, expanded, etc. Despite his pointing out the flaws, what I saw was a beautiful 25-acre piece of land, divided into pastures, with contented sheep grazing.

The sheep are Katadhins, a breed developed through selective breeding (much like dog breeders do, in search of superior traits) in Maine from African Hair Sheep imported from St. Croix that were bred with Suffolk and Hampshire among others. The traits the breeder was looking for in the lambs were lean, healthy animals that did not require shearing. Sheep with wool (like a Suffolk) require shearing. Sheep with hair naturally shed, like a dog, and do not require shearing. After a few generations, the breeder had very hearty animals. They are heat-tolerant and naturally disease resistant because of the St. Croix origins of the African Hair Sheep. Since they were bred in Maine, they also developed thick winter coats to help shield them from the cold.

What does this mean for Mike Wilk? It means they are fairly low maintenance. But low maintenance is in the eye of the beholder. Mike inspects every animal daily, looking for issues such as hooves that need to be trimmed (they grow like finger nails), or signs of anemia. Anemia is a signal that the animal has worms, and he will selectively treat that one animal that gets worms. He told me that seeing signs of worms right away and treating them right away keeps this from becoming a problem in the flock.

The lambs are born on the farm and the only time they spend in confinement is a day or two immediately after they are born to ensure bonding with the mom. They stay on this farm and graze the pasture for about 9 months, which is when they are ready to go to market. The animals always have access to clean water and shade. In the winter, they have a sheltered area that they can always access. What do they eat when there is snow on the ground? Mike puts out grass bales that he gets from a favorite producer because of the high quality of the grasses. He said that 20 big bales gets him through the winter. When I saw what was in his barn, I was surprised because it did not have that mold-must smell of old hay bales that I was expecting.

The lambs are processed by a family shop, Nello’s, in Nazareth, PA. The proprietor is a real, old-fashioned butcher who processes meat from “start to finish,” as opposed to some “butcher shops” that are purchasing cryo-vac’ed meat and cutting it into sale-able portions, which is a story for another day.

DSC_5494The good news for you, if you live in South Jersey, is that you can purchase Mike’s very high-quality, super-humanely raised lamb at the Collingswood Farmer’s Market. If you are interested in whole animals, you can contact Mike through his website, wilkfarm.com.

New to cooking with lamb?  Never made anything but lamb chops?  Get some ground lamb and try some “Gyro Burgers”!

Gyro Burgers

  • 1 lb. ground lamb
  • 2 T finely chopped onion
  • 2 t minced garlic
  • 1 t minced fresh oregano
  • 1 t minced fresh marjoram
  • 1 t minced fresh rosemary
  • 1 t minced fresh thyme
  • 1 t salt
  • 1/2 t black pepper

Combine all ingredients and mix thoroughly.  Divide meat into 4 and form into patties.  Grill to desired doneness.  Serve with cucumbers and yogurt.

Focus on One: Grow Your Own

photo(1)This is the time of year when gardeners get the itch. We’ve had a fairly mild winter, and some very warm weather recently here in the Mid- Atlantic States. The urge to plant things has become almost insatiable, especially when you love to Grow Your Own!

But I must exercise caution. Looking ahead to the weather forecast this week, I see night temperatures in the 20’s. Crestfallen, I wonder if I will lose all of the blossoms on my apple tree and make a mental note that on top of everything else I need to do tomorrow, I must get out and push straw over my strawberry plants so they don’t get nipped by the impending frost.

And while I may be a slave to the weather, I feel an incredible sense of empowerment about food when I have grown it myself. As soon as I say this, I brace myself for the defensive responses:

  • “I have a black thumb.”
  • “I live in an apartment and don’t have anywhere to grow anything.”
  • “I don’t have time to maintain a garden.”
  • “I don’t like getting dirty, and I might break a nail.”

Gardening does not have to be a huge undertaking. You don’t even have to be particularly good at plants. But you will need to get dirt on your hands – at least once! Don’t think about gardening in traditional terms. Think smaller is better. For the past few years, rather than having one big garden, I have been cultivating in long narrow beds that once had flowers. Instead of a border of zinnias, I look at a border of tomatoes.

But that won’t work for everyone, either, especially if you don’t have any ground. The solution to this problem is containers. Container gardening is becoming very popular because it is much, much easier to take care of containers.

Choosing Containers: You can put plants in just about any concave item, as long as it is large enough for root growth and has drainage. There are many great ideas out on the web. I love recycling things and three of my favorite containers are recycled water bottles. Using the techniques here for seed starter pots made from small bottles, I used the bottles from the big water cooler at work.

The containers can be used to brighten up corners, or define spaces, the same as you would with flowers, but instead of the six-pack of pansies, you can grow any number of herbs such as basil and cilantro. Perennial herbs, like oregano, can be left in the pots, and will come back year after year. Window or banister boxes are great for growing lettuces early in the season before it gets too hot. Then they can be replaced with herbs.

If you have the space for larger containers, you can grow tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, or even potatoes! Depending on varieties and your preferences, plants can trail their vines or be trained on fences or trellises. A friend of mine had these rather large planter boxes that ran down one side of her deck. When she moved into her house, they were planted with half dead shrubs and ornamental grasses. We spent a long weekend tearing all of that out, and carting dirt in. That summer she grew tomatoes, peppers, and carrots.

While I consider my containers low maintenance, they are by no means No-maintenance. Because the eco-system of a container is not the same as the eco-system of a garden, the containers will need a little help from you. In the garden, if things get dry, roots can go deep to get to the moisture. That is not the case in a container – there is only so deep a root can go. Therefore, you must be sure that the containers are getting enough water.

Also, there are a limited number of nutrients available in the soil in a pot, so I would recommend fertilizing regularly. This is what I use: I take a heaping scoop of compost in a bucket and then fill the bucket with water and let it sit in a shady spot for 3 or 4 days. Strain the liquid by carefully pouring it through a fine sieve, or an old colander lined with cheese-cloth or a piece of old cotton sheet. Dilute it with more water until it looks like tea your grandmother makes using two dunks of a bag (that she will use at least 16more times). Use this “tea” to water the plants. Water around the edges of the container.

The other bonus is that if you plant early, and then find that there is frost in your forecast, containers can be moved inside, or easily covered for protection.

Even if you have never grown a thing in your life, here is this month’s focus: Figure out one thing to grow that you can eat: whether it is basil on the banister, a tomato on the terrace, or a pepper on the patio. Things taste better super fresh, and it is fun to eat something your grew yourself.

Felony Milk

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Cows on Grass at Freedom Acres Farm

I am a felon.  I’ve not been convicted, nor even charged with anything.  And if I ever was charged, I’d be appalled that the government would waste money prosecuting a case over smuggled milk.

“Milk?” you ask.

Yes.  Milk.  I’m one of those people.  You know, the ones who drink raw milk.

“Raw?” you ask.

Well, not cooked, which is what pasteurization does.  And my argument for raw milk will come in another post.  The good news is that because I can’t buy it in a store because it is illegal to sell raw milk in NJ, I have to go directly to a farm.  In Pennsylvania.  And then bring it home, across state lines (that’s where the felony comes in), with the intention to drink it.

One of the big changes we made in our lives is trying to remove as many links as possible from our commodity chain.  We have a garden and we produce a goodly amount of tomatoes and cucumbers.  We have a thriving “s-berry” patch (an old farming superstition to not say anything good about them by name, or we jinx ’em!), as well as raspberries and young apple trees (so far so good on the apples, but who knows!).  Most of what we don’t grow ourselves, we get from a Community Supported Agriculture Farm (CSA) and local orchards.  And yes, in the winter, we sadly return to the grocery store…

At the moment, we are single-sourcing our meat, from Nature’s Sunlight Farm in Newville, PA.  I’m not going to get into our amazing relationship with the Nolt Family today because they are a post (or 6) in and of themselves.  No feedlot meat for us.  No battery-produced chickens.  No links between.  We pick it up from the farmer.

A beautiful Jersey cow at Freedom Acres Farm

Our raw milk odyssey has taken us up and down the NJ/PA border, finding different dairies, trying their product.  While all of the dairies with whom we dealt have wonderful milk, we felt that we were “trading out” on the various value-added products available, and that prices were kind of steep.

My friend Andrea (her name is changed to protect her from harm due to contraband milk smuggling collusion) called me a couple of weeks ago with a lead on a new farm.  She, as a resident of Pennsylvania, can legally purchase raw milk at a store.  However, she can save $4 a gallon by going directly to a farm.  She went and checked it out (doing nothing illegal, mind you, because her milk was not going to cross state lines).

Because she was so impressed with product, I had to go with her on the next milk run.  One blustery morning, I found myself at Freedom Acres Farm in Honey Brook, PA.  The farm is run by husband and wife team, Samuel and Esther Fisher.  Esther was at the door a minute after we arrived.  We brought in the “empties” and chatted about their products.

Andrea had warned me that the milk was going to be in big jars, but I had to chuckle when I saw the them.  They are institutional-sized pickle jars.  I find that irony really amusing.  Esther brought out a variety of cheeses, cream cheese and yogurt.  Samuel came in a bit later and started to chat with us in what I will call “teacher-mode” (enough people chide me about going into “teacher-mode,” so I do know it when I see it!), about pastured, grass-fed milk.  Andrea held up a hand and said, “Samuel, Natalie is the one who got me started on raw milk.”

I have been back, and plan to continue purchasing milk and dairy products from Freedom Acres.  The milk is creamy and delicious.  The cheeses are truly wonderful.  The cheddar is a house favorite.  The jalepeño cheddar wasn’t hot enough for my husband (but nothing ever is, unless his taste buds get seared off), but my son who has tastes the polar opposite of his father, thought it was delicious.  The Monterey Jack melts beautifully and has a nice silky consistency.

And oh, the butter.  The butter! Spring butter!  And if your head isn’t swimming in a moment of ecstasy thinking about spring butter, then you have never tasted it.  It is rich and has a flavor unlike anything I’ve ever spread on bread.  The color is a bright, deep yellow, and it is full of good nutrients like CLA!

If you are in the area of Honey Brook (or maybe even not so in the area… I’m driving over an hour to get there), I strongly recommend this farm.  The products are outstanding and the farmer and his wife are lovely people.

Freedom Acres Farm     Honey Brook, PA    610-273-2076