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.

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