People often ask, “How did you get into farming?”. “Did you grow up on a farm in New York?”. The answer is plainly, “Not at all.” I grew up in the suburbs of Clearwater, Florida, spending most of my youth fishing in Tampa Bay. When I came to Ithaca in 2003, I had no idea that I would come to call this place my home. I fell in love with the Cornell campus, the gorges, the trees, the music, the hiking and biking, and most of all, the seasons. Coming from Florida, I had never experienced hibernation, or prepping for winter, or the joy that spring and summer brings to the community when the weather lifts! Experiencing this cycle and seeing the way people learn to move with the seasons, made a deep impression on me.
In 2012 I was hired for a position at The Piggery Farm, helping with sorting and loading pigs for market and taking care of chores a few days a week. The first thing I noticed working there was that I thrived when I had time to be outside and use my body. Which is still, to this day, one of the things I appreciate most about farm work. In addition, my job at The Piggery reminded me how much I love working with animals and how naturally it seemed to come to me. I enjoy making sure that all the elements of their lives are in order so that they are comfortable and healthy. The most delicate part of the raising hogs, farrowing new litters of piglets, is also some of the most exciting and gratifying work I get to do on the farm. I feel blessed to have found a lifestyle that I love, and I feel proud about the work I do with our hogs, but I am a greenhorn in so many ways– learning the hard way.
I am grateful to the many farmers and mentors who continue to teach me how to do a better job. My gratitude and respect goes out to you all!
A love story of roasting pigs…
This may not be as romantic as it sounds at first blush, but I have had long been intrigued by the process of killing, processing, and cooking animals. In the past few years this has evolved into a growing passion for whole pig roasts, but the inspiration is certainly from spending many fall vacations at my Aunt Trish & Uncle Ed’s home in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. With eyes as big as saucers, I got to do all the fun stuff– shoot every possible caliber off their back porch, string up deer, drive four wheelers, eat venison jerky and bear meat, and sometimes there was even some shine. When I started farming in New York years later, it didn’t take long for me to start developing an interest in slaughtering my own animals and learning how to cleanly process them on the farm. With a small dose of reading, and a much larger dose of trial & error, I started processing my own pigs for my birthday parties and making sausage for myself and friends. It may sound disturbing to some, but it is immensely gratifying process to handle the food that you, your family, and friends will eat– from birth to death to meat.
While the skills of the person roasting the pig are crucial, the quality and style of the smoker itself has a dramatic impact on the flavor. When I started out the only thing available to me was an old spit-style smoker trailer, which had been modified to have a flat grill-top. Simply said, a grill is not the way to roast a hog because the flames are directly beneath the meat and more importantly, the fat… After a few charred pigs, I had learned enough to avoid the rookie mistakes. Mainly, that you cannot allow any flames to touch the pig without a good chance of a severe grease fire. I was so grateful to have a small cohort of friends who dearly stood by me through some crazy moments of pig roasting in those early years.
Over time, I started to char the outside of the pigs less often… And I was starting to catering weddings that weren’t my friends’. So I began thinking more about how to create and preserve flavor in the meat rather than how to avoid burning it. I started using brines, mop sauce, foil to preserve moisture, going lower & slower, homemade BBQ sauces, and sometimes injections. Each roast, I would have friends tell me that, “This is the best one yet!” So I knew something was getting better, but I was also still working incredibly hard to pull off each event.
After several years of catering with the grill-top, grease-fire trailer– I decided that I needed to make an investment in a proper, off-set smoker. Rather than getting heat or smoke from flames that are directly below the meat, an off-set smoker has a “firebox” that houses all of the flames on one side and avoids the grease fire scenario. Then heat and smoke, but no flames, are forced horizontally across the meat, and then up and out a chimney. Thankfully I had just traded an old truck for $250 and a 500 gal diesel tank, so I set about finding a welder who would help me turn it into my dream smoker, and maybe teach me how to weld in the process. And wouldn’t you know it, I found the perfect man just across town! Sam at Aardac Welding in Brooktondale, allowed me to learn in his shop while working next to him, in part because he is incredibly generous person– but I also saw glimmer of excitement in his eye for the scale of the project. He had built many smaller smokers, but rarely do you see an off-set that can handle 2 full size hogs, 40 chickens, or 4 lambs. After completing the new smoker, the flavor and consistency of my pig roasts has continued to improve, and I have been able to start experimenting with slow-smoked chicken, lamb, and fish. I am looking forward to using this new smoker and our new commercial kitchen, completed in 2018, to continue serving delicious, local, smoked meats!