Spending time on a farm tends to lead to deep philosophical conversations about the nature of life and society. A few weeks ago, I found myself engaged in one such conversation with Rachel Kornstein, farmer at Beavercreek's Boondockers Farm. The topic: our nation's awareness of heirloom plants versus its ignorance of heritage animals, and why information and access to heirloom plants is so much more accessible.
I can easily find multiple varieties of fairly obscure vegetables at the farmers' market, or even some grocery stores. And if I polled a random selection of non-chain restaurants, I'd presume that a large percentage list an "heirloom tomato" as one of its burger ingredients. But how much information can you glean about the meat in that burger? Some might list the cooperative at which the meat is processed, or proudly share that the meat is "100% Angus beef, USDA certified". If you're lucky, the restaurant will list the farm on which the animal was raised. But only the rarest restaurant will list the breed of animal you're eating. Ultimately, it's easier for a person to be drawn to – and comfortable with – an heirloom variety of a tomato than a heritage variety of beef. Because in order to acknowledge that there are multiple different breeds of animal, one has to first acknowledge that they're eating an animal.
I plant heirloom vegetable varieties in my garden because I want the most flavorful food I can produce and because I want to ensure, even on the smallest of small scales, genetic diversity of these plants. Like nearly every word associated with food, 'heritage' and 'heirloom' are traveling the same course as 'natural' and 'sustainable', are already overused and misinterpreted.
Heritage and heirloom basically mean the same thing: heritage applies to animals, while heirloom identifies vegetables and fruits. "Heritage" animals refer to breeds that were common on farms before the development of specialized, industrial breeds. Heirloom fruits and vegetables, unlike hybrid, or even genetically modified plants, are a collection of varieties that haven't been grown in vast quantities commercially and are at least 75 years old.
Industrial agriculture relies on non-heritage breeds. Instead of depending on animals' innate ability to withstand disease, thrive on pasture, and adapt to their environment, these breeds are bred to produce vast quantities of milk or eggs and fatten up quickly. Before the advent of modern agriculture, farmers raised thousands of different animal breeds and plants. Today, we eat from a narrow pool, where foods are listed by a single name – melon, apple, zucchini, bean – rather than their variety. Instead of choosing among Cershownskis (melon), Baldwins (apple), Cocozelles (zucchini), or Black Valentines (bean), all varieties are lumped together. And in some cases, we only have a few varieties to choose from. In 1903, Americans grew almost 500 different varieties of lettuce. By 1983, we had only 36 varieties left to plant.
As modern agriculture managed to simultaneously consolidate and expand, our diets moved in the same direction. We grow millions of acres of corn, but the millions of corn stalks dotting the landscapes are all the same, mostly genetically modified, variety of dent corn. We slaughter over 9 million chickens each year, but these chickens are nearly identical, from Virginia to California, bred to be breast-heavy and quick-growing. A fairly predictable crisis comes from this bland, uniform (and cruel) approach: by reducing the genetic diversity derived from a multi-faceted system with inherent checks and balances built in, we're now only a superweed or virus away from jeopardizing a large percentage of our food supply.
Sustainable Table reports that in the past 15 years, 190 breeds of farm animals have gone extinct worldwide, and there are currently 1,500 others at risk of becoming extinct. Farmers who raise heritage breeds do so to encourage robust genetic diversity in the breed, and to preserve valuable traits within the species.
Rachel and her partner, Evan Gregoire, are working to make the conversation around heritage meat less uncomfortable. Their farm, nestled between two rolling country roads, framed by pine trees and situated above three small lakes, houses hundreds upon hundreds of Ancona and Saxony ducks and Delaware chickens, along with Dutch Belted and Jersey dairy cows, Gloucestershire Old Spots pigs, Great Pyrenees guardian dogs, and a large collection of heirloom tomato plants. Through sheer force of will, continued self-directed learning, and tender respect for their animals, the exceptional products they raise are helping to slowly shift awareness of people and from restaurants in their radius. As Rachel emphatically states, "If you have a birth to slaughter system you can afford to save a breed."
On my first visit to Boondockers Farm, I drove to the address listed on my phone and encountered a locked gate. Although I'd arranged this visit via email, I wasn't comfortable driving in without first alerting someone I was there. From the gate, I took in the classic white farmhouse directly in front of me and the yard dotted with chickens and crowing roosters. To my left, past rows of blueberry bushes, rose a picturesque barn, mostly red, but flaked with yellows and greens. Beyond that, I could glimpse a few other buildings. There was a light mist in the air and the scene was fittingly pastoral – and quiet – until I saw a woman in a red hoodie zoom by on a dirt bike. I watched the bike speed to a far field, where the rider dismounted to adjust fencing that surrounded at least 100 ducks, before taking off to another field that I couldn't see from my limited vantage point.
I called the phone number I had. No answer. I texted. No response. Finally, not knowing what to do, I pulled to the side of the road and waited. Five minutes later, Evan called me. "I can see you sitting out there in your Mazda. Just open the gate and let yourself in." Oh! Once in, I parked, and seeing neither Evan nor Rachel, I started wandering the large property. I knew I'd eventually stumble into someone and was wrapped up in familiarizing myself with the 70 acre farm, particularly their magnificent barn.
This solitude lasted only a few minutes before I detected a presence beside me. As I crouched down to take a photo of a chicken, a tom turkey stepped into the frame. Whereas most farm animals treat me with wary disregard or mild interest, this particular turkey was toointerested and aware of me. I immediately sensed I was in its space and decided to walk in a different direction. It shadowed my walk, flaring its feathers. In fact, no matter what direction I headed in, as soon as I put the camera to my eye, the turkey edged closer. Realizing that I should introduce myself to the farmers before being pecked at by this turkey, I headed into the farmhouse, where I met Evan, who was heading to the egg incubator.
What I had mistaken for indifference as I idled at the locked gate was the fact that Evan and Rachel operate their farm in a near constant state of activity, a state that for nearly anyone else would dissolve into chaos, but for Boondockers is highly efficient and effective.
Evan and Rachel have been a couple for over a decade, and farmers for eight of those years. Neither started out as farmers; Evan has a degree in business administration and worked in Los Angeles before moving to Oregon, while Rachel has a culinary degree and considered a career as a pastry chef. After time in L.A., the couple moved to Eugene 9 years ago. While in their original tiny studio, they started tomato seedlings under their bed. Eventually, these seedlings grew into a large quantity of heirloom tomatoes which they sold to friends and chefs. Rachel was still in culinary school at this point, but beginning to feel increasingly uncomfortable about her complacency in a food system she wanted to change.
They bought their first two ducks after slugs and snails destroyed their garden. As Rachel describes it:
"Evan was reading a book by Eliot Coleman, and the book talked about ducks being the ultimate garden companion. And he likened them to the Schmoo – a cartoon character that looks like a blob – it will turn into anything you need. It will jump into a pan to fry itself if you're hungry."
A quick Google search led them to Dave Holderread of Holderread Waterfowl Preservation Center. As an expert on domesticated water fowl, Holderread strives to conserve rare breeds of domestic ducks and geese from around the world. He currently raises over 40 distinct breeds of ducks and geese. Holderread's Center is located in Corvallis, a mere hour's drive from Evan and Rachel's former home in Eugene. After hearing that they were interested in a utility breed of duck that they could help preserve, Holderread recommended the Ancona breed, a descendant of the Indian Runner Duck and the Belgian Huttegem Duck. Anconas are known as all-purpose, adaptable birds. They're excellent layers, produce flavorful meat, and will happily forage for food, including slugs – the perfect revenge against the seedling killers.
Rachel and Evan's two ducks lived in their yard, eating slugs and snails, enabling their vegetables to grow unharmed. And as they began to grow their duck population, they started to receive enthusiastic feedback from chefs about their eggs and tomatoes. Realizing that they had an opportunity to promote rare breeds to an eager audience, and seeking a connection to food and land that neither had had in their previous careers, Rachel and Evan decided to transition to full-time farming.
After moving among multiple locations in the Eugene area, their current farm in Beavercreek, Oregon, is what Rachel calls "a dream," sharing that she got goosebumps when she first saw the property. "We've never even had a barn before. I'm used to milking my cows out in the field, tied to a fence post preferably. Usually an electric fence – I've gotten shocked through the cow's udder. I was milking once tied to an electrical pole in a lightning storm. That was a bad idea," Rachel laughingly shared.
Because they're raising their large collection of birds on pasture, I rarely saw Rachel and Evan in the same area, except when Evan was passing through the kitchen on his way out. Rachel and Evan divide their tasks according to their personalities. Rachel is the ultimate animal lover, with an inimitable personality. I frequently found myself wondering about her energy level and eager willingness to engage in any and every conversation topic I posed. I watched as she treated each animal with care, holding a chick in the sunlight, patting a dog, rubbing a sick cow's head, tickling a piglet's nose, or herding a curious calf back to her mother. I witnessed exhausting work that, for the most part, didn't seem like work to Rachel. She rotated from animal to animal, nurturing them with water, feed, hay, and scraps of meat from the local butcher.
Evan exhibits a certain amount of jesting bravado when talking about himself. While I watched him butcher several ducks on a hot Friday afternoon, I chatted with him about where he'd learned to butcher, asking if he had apprenticed somewhere. His answer (with a wink): "I'm good at things." Despite Evan's wry temperament, when something wasn't done properly or on time, whether it was an intern who didn't communicate with him, or traffic causing a delay in delivery, his demeanor transitioned to an air of focused determination to get ahead of the rolling waves of work – and an awareness of just how to do that.
Along with Evan's interaction with chefs and delivery drives into Portland, the clearest role division I gleaned was with slaughter. Evan kills; Rachel eviscerates. The animals are slaughtered on a small scale. First, the ducks are stunned with an effective throat slit. They lose consciousness as they lose blood. After about a minute of being hung upside down to bleed out, each bird is transferred to a crate to rest. It's then dunked in boiling water to enable the feathers to loosen. The entire slaughtering process is quick and quiet. Once one bird has finished bleeding out, Evan retrieves the next duck from the holding pen around the corner.
Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall has said that if you decide to raise meat, you enter into a bargain with the animal you're raising. If you take an animal's life, you must give the animal a life that's better than what they'd create on their own. "We MUST offer animals a better deal in life than they'd get without our help," he writes. Much-lauded farmers like Joel Salatin, Frank Reese, and Bill Niman raise animals that are allowed to exhibit their natural characteristics. If the test of a content animal is allowing that animal to exhibit these natural characteristics, then Boondockers' collection of ducks, chickens, and cows are as relaxed as possible. There are chickens everywhere, brooding, dust-bathing, running around (and sometimes inside the house if someone forgets to close the door). The roosters strut around crowing, their loud cock-a-doodle-do dying in the back of their throat like a record being snatched off the table right as a song is finishing. Cows lazily stand beside the farmhouse's front door, chewing on grass. The ducks are in open pen enclosures, complete with blue kiddie pools filled with water, each group guarded by their personal Great Pyrenees. These dogs are Boondockers' right-hand canines. Without them, the ducks mortality rate would be much higher – and their access to the outside very limited. With the dogs' help, Rachel and Evan's hands-on time with the ducks consists of refreshing water, scattering feed if necessary, and moving fences. The dogs look after the ducks' well-being.
The chicks and ducklings are raised in the spacious barn and fed lamb meat to boost their nutrition. Even the injured birds aren't forgotten; the gimpy and sickly are separated in a box in the kitchen with hopes that they'll become strong enough to return to the flock.
After witnessing the Ancona's unique temperament and versatility, Evan and Rachel quickly transitioned from two ducklings in their yard to taking up the mantle of breed preservation. In 2010, they acquired all of Holderread's Ancona stock, feeling an immense responsibility to continue to raise and promote the breed. Along with Ancona ducks and their smaller collections of Saxony ducks and Delaware chickens, Rachel and Evan are researching breed preservation of several other animals, notably pigs and rabbits. They hope to acquire a few more Gloucestershire Old Spots and use their already strong connections with Portland chefs to promote this breed at farm dinners and eventually on restaurant menus. Boondockers works closely with Animal Welfare Approved; one of their biggest and most daunting goals for this next year is to work with AWA to develop a mobile poultry slaughter house, a system that would allow them to raise more birds while assisting other farms.
Because they operate a diverse rare breed animal farm, each day is different and potentially unpredictable. Certain tasks are regular occurrences, like moving the portable fencing, rotating the ducks to different fields, incubating eggs, and driving long stretches to the Post Office to ship ducklings and chicks. But in my five visits to Boondockers, I began to expect the unexpected each time I drove up their driveway, unlatching that gate. Often Rachel was speeding around on the four-wheeler, tending to the cows or ducks. And Evan frequently was camped upstairs, reaching out to restaurants, sharing updates on Facebook or Twitter, and constantly expanding Boondockers' reach. Evan and Rachel are uncompromising in their farm's mission. They're not just raising eggs and meat, they're challenging consumers to think about food differently, using their spot in Beavercreek to advance the public's connection between food security and flavor. In describing what other farms have done to save breeds, Rachel inadvertently described Boondockers' mission:
"[These farms] built the market for the products, banded together the farmers and saved breeds in an entirely grassroots way. I'm hopeful that if you have enough people with the same breed in a close area, you make an impact; everyone helps each other because they're all on the same page."
Their methods of outreach and promotion are varied enough to capture as diverse an audience as possible. Whether a customer relates by flavor, by conversing with a farmer, by having a chef transform an ingredient, or by visiting the farm and interacting with the wide range of animals (except for that Tom Turkey), Boondockers is leading the conversation around the vital importance of heritage animals.