Who Grew Your Food: Shane Robbins

When I lived out west, one of the treats I really loved was getting bison burgers.  I liked the flavor and texture.  This was well before I taught myself much about food.  I was drawn to bison because it felt “western” and “exotic.”  Later, as I was educating myself about meat, bison came up a lot.  It is a leaner animal, and usually ranged, so it is eating grass, what it is meant to eat.  When we looked into obtaining bison, we found two major problems.  First, and foremost, no one raised bison locally, and second, even the far away places we did find it, it was cost prohibitive.  Luckily, as more people look to get involved with food production, more opportunities arise for consumers to purchase things like bison being raised closer to home.

Enter Shane Robbins, owner of Buck Wild Bison.

I had the opportunity to speak with Shane at the Collingswood Farmer’s Market a couple of weeks ago.  The very thing that drove me to write a book about eating better is what drove Shane to get involved with farming — he loves to eat.  The reason he chose to start raising bison was multi-faceted.  He became interested in the animal upon learning how close they came to extinction.  When one considers that the bison once roamed this country so thickly that a story was passed down about a settler and his family who took three days to pass through a single herd, it is mind-boggling to think that they could have been wiped out.  Shane learned about ranchers’ efforts to save and repopulate bison herds and wanted to be a part of it.

Because bison are an indigenous species, they are naturally adapted to North American living conditions and live “wild” in ways that other species cannot.  Almost every domesticated food animal in the common American diet came from somewhere else, mostly from Europe along with the people who were settling here.  The big exception is the turkey, but what we eat has little resemblance to that splendid wild bird that is experiencing a huge resurgence in Southern New Jersey.  But when that wild bird was prolific along the coast, prior to the 1600’s, it had buffalo for company.  The herds were not as large as those out west, and as the population increased, the buffalo population decreased.

What does all of this mean for Shane?  It means that bison are adapted.  They don’t get sick like other food animals.  They don’t require much more than weekly inspection.  Unlike cows, they calve on their own with no problems.  The caution is this: they are still wild, a little on the shy-side, can run 40 mph, and can jump a 5′ fence.  For the moment, that fence is in Pennsylvania, where Shane is leasing land from a “surrogate” farmer, who keeps an eye on things when he can’t be there.  Long term, though, Shane hopes to get a farm in New Jersey and bring things a little closer to home.

The bison are processed at Smucker’s in Mt. Joy, PA, where they are dry-aged for 21 days and then custom cut.  Shane brings a large variety to the market including burgers, roasts, sausage.  The day that I spoke with him, he was sold out of just about everything.

Why should you try bison?  It is a lean meat, with a nice beefy flavor.  Bison is easier to cook than grass-fed beef, which tends to dry out if you aren’t careful.  The Omega-3 to Omega-6 ratio is much better than that of conventional beef and is heavy on CLA’s (good for your joints).  It has fewer calories than grass-fed beef (about 20% fewer) and conventional beef (about 35% fewer).

Who Grew Your Food: Specca Farm

There is this farm stand on Rt. 206, on the Southbound side and anyone who lives south of the Columbus Market, or uses Rt. 206 to and from the shore, know it: The Corn Stop.  It has been there as long as I can remember. Last weekend, I was teaching a class and needed some peaches for a recipe I was making, so I went there so I could at least get something local.  The woman behind the counter was wearing a Specca Farm shirt so asked where the farm was and when she told me, I remembered why I knew the name.  Many years ago, I took my children strawberry picking there.  They are located just outside of Mt. Holly, NJ and grow very fine produce.

Later in the week, I had the opportunity to talk to Lisa Specca about the farm.  Her husband’s grandfather, Romeo Specca came from Italy after World War I and started work in this country as a gardener.  After some time, he was able to purchase some land in Philadelphia (where Franklin Mills Mall is today!) and begin his farming career.  In 1958, when his property was purchased to make way for the great new North-South Interstate 95, he purchased land in Burlington County, New Jersey, and founded the Specca Farm we know today.  His son David continued the farm and passed it on to his son, David (that’s David II), who runs the farm with his wife Lisa and their children, David (that’s III) and Steven.

The farm began as many in NJ, as a truck farm, taking produce into Philadelphia markets.  David I began the “U-Pick” as a side business that gained popularity over the decades.  They are not open all summer.  The crops they grow for U-Pick are not harvested all summer, so for example, right now, in July, they are closed.  In the early spring they open for a variety of greens, including Broccoli Rabe, of which they have four varieties, each with its own fan-base.  Later in the Spring they have strawberries.

They open again in late summer, mid-August, which is really when the harvest in New Jersey kicks into high gear.  Tomatoes and cucumbers are peaking, okra and green beans are plentiful.  And they stay open until Christmas allowing for the wonderful fall vegetables NJ has to offer, like cabbages, broccoli, and cauliflower that all thrive in the cooler temperatures of autumn.

The farm is a conventional grower because they are not yet able to produce enough compost and manure to use as fertilizer in their fields.  They use an IPM (Integrated Pest Management) system that includes minimal spray, and only sprays that are labeled “Next Day Harvest”.  David II’s off-farm work at the Burlington County Eco-Complex keeps him well aware of the environmental issues facing our county and holds land stewardship as a high priority.

What does The Corn Stop have to do with any of this?  Well, when the previous owner retired, and the business became available, the Speccas decided to give retail a try.  Lisa is excited about the new opportunity.  The Corn Stop is not selling exclusively Specca Farm produce, but produce from a variety of sources in order to provide more variety in what they have to offer.  If it can be grown locally, and is in season right now, The Corn Stop has it.

If you want more information about the U-Pick, you can check out Specca Farms on Facebook.  Not into Facebook?  You can call them at 609/267-4445 and listen to a recording of what will be available for U-Pick.