farming: how grey is the new green

*disclaimer: some of these words and images might be offensive to some readers/viewers – if that’s the case, you seriously need to rethink what you consider offensive; otherwise, read on

We live with rules. We have regulations and laws for almost everything – from best before dates on food to the height of a secondary building on my property (less than 17′). A packet of silica gel buried in the toe of new shoes advises us not to consume it. Dude, it’s silica gel. As if.

Arguably, rules can help to keep us safe and allow for recourse. People who operate outside of the rules are penalized and held to task. We see this when persons perpetrate crimes: break the law, pay the price.

What happens when regulations that should protect us instead act as a barrier for us? Ideally, we lobby government to amend the rules. Sometimes the rules don’t fit, and we find ourselves unable to reconcile what we think is best for us with what those we’ve elected think should happen.

Of late I’ve noticed a quiet movement in my local farming (and farm-loving) community. This movement operates without leadership, and is woven into the culture of local, slow, and other food tags. Its grass-roots feel is slightly anarchistic in a wholesome way. I refer to it as the greying of farm culture.

I have (happily) become an unofficial recorder of events at Covert Farms – an organic, family-owned grower/producer in the Okanagan (I made the zombie apocalypse cut; long story, but a big deal). This spring I was invited to witness a lamb cull which I wrote about for EAT Magazine. Recently, I attended a bull slaughter. 

That’s right – a bull slaughter. I won’t dress the words in anything other than what they are: people killed two animals for meat. It’s more acceptable to say cull than it is to throw down slaughter, and I’m not sure why. It might have something to do with how we define the word, and popular culture hasn’t done it any favours.

slaughter / n. & v. noun 1. the killing of an animal or animals. 2. the killing of many persons or animals at once or continuously; carnage, massacre. verb 1. kill (people) in a ruthless manner or on a great scale. 2. kills (animals) esp in large numbers.

This definition is from the 9th edition of The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English, published in 1995. The first part uses neutral language – the latter inflamatory. How can one word be so loaded? We made it that way.

I spent a day on the farm with Gene Covert, Derek Uhlemann, and three others as they slaughtered two Scottish highland bulls. According to British Columbia’s Ministry of Health, the slaughter of animals for personal use is unregulated – as long as the meat isn’t sold. Let me be clear: these folks purchased the animals and slaughtered them for personal consumption.

In meat inspection and processing, there are (as of 2007) only a few classes of license in this province: Class A allows slaughter and processing (cut & wrap) for retail purposes and Class B allows slaughter only (for retail in the province); secondary tier licenses D and E permit on-farm slaughter of a limited number of animals in each class, confined to regional application (extremely remote areas), and with limits on retail.

All of this means I can’t go to Covert Farms and purchase a steak that came from a locally raised and mindfully slaughtered cow. That really sucks. Others feel the same, and I’m slowly discovering who they are. Here’s where grey is becoming the new green.

This grey zone I see emerging is located in the awkward gaps left behind by an ill-fitting framework. People – intelligent, thoughtful people – are farming these grey areas with care. Locals are banding together to create a sustainable food system that doesn’t fit in the big player rules.

Each invitation to the farm feeds my yearning for a community food system. I’m not alone – I see it in the eyes of everyone present, every time. Knife in hand, one person said “If I can’t handle this today, I shouldn’t be eating the meat I eat.” A bold but fair statement.

I’m not sure where days like these will lead, but I glimpse a larger written work lingering in the shadows. This grey area has more than a few stories in it and I’m hopeful for an opportunity to share them with a larger audience.

Meanwhile, I respectfully and humbly present a few images from another day on the farm with Gene, Derek, and friends – taking the bull literally by the horns.

Gene entices Taco Bill (left) and Black Cherry (right) with oats, hoping they’ll get just a little closer to centre stage.
Last-minute guidance from father to (eldest) son in preparation for a simultaneous firing.
A traditional drink to honour the animals. (at just past 8am)
Lining up to capture the moment for posterity.
No anthropormorphizing here, though they could look as if they were sleeping.
Everyone present relinquishes the lead to Gene, and they learn from him as they go.
Class on a Sunday: these homeschooled kids are taking in a science lesson – they’ll try their hands at dissecting (cow brain) later in the day.
Respectful concentration in all aspects of the slaughter.
Gene’s-eye-view. “This is when it gets surgical.” It’s not easy navigating a rapidly bloating stomach to salvage edible organs. “The enzymes don’t know the cow’s dead.”
Father and (youngest) son, readying the slaughtered bulls for transport to finish the process.
What should be a typical farm view is now a rare sight. This is how food happens – unlike what we’re accustomed to, it doesn’t begin in the store.
Taco Bill and Black Cherry will age up to 28 days. For now, Derek prepares a sample of skirt steak. Age: 4 hours.
Hours-fresh beef. The chewiness I experienced will diminish after cellular breakdown (the ageing), but the flavour was lovely.
Hang time. We’ll revisit Taco Bill and Black Cherry in a few weeks for butchering.

the rise of farm dinners

For many, the bulk of our food shopping is done in fluorescent-lit grocery store aisles with a weekly foray to the coveted local farmers market – if we’re lucky. We live anywhere from 4 to 8 process steps away from that vegetable in the ground or fruit on the tree. (don’t get me started on meat – read my thoughts about it here)

There are fewer chances to interact with food in the way we’re meant to – how we’ve been doing so for generations, until the last century. Not everyone can reside close to where our food comes from; and let’s face it, most of our food no longer comes from the farmer down the road.

With the growth of the Okanagan wine industry comes a rise in agri-food tourism. This is a good thing. It gives area farmers a chance to get their wares in front of folks who have substantial buying power – and therefore, consumer influence.

There are some folks doing it right. The Coverts are an Okanagan farm family going back several generations. Today, Gene and Shelly Covert operate the now organic farm and own Covert Family Estate winery. They get it: farmers markets, accessible and good food, mindful farming… you name it. They’re also helping change the face of wine, and I’ll bet they don’t even realize it. For consumer purposes, we’ve romanticized wine production – in the real world, farming isn’t all that pretty.

Gene’s just as likely to be out fixing irrigation as he is to be in the lab testing wine, and the last time I was at the farm Shelly was in a homeschooling session with their two boys. There’s paperwork and payroll, especially in the busy summer season when farm workers multiply exponentially, and their organic home delivery program doesn’t run itself.

So where does the winemaker dinner fit? Instead of adding to the facade perpetuated by so many, this is where the Covert family brings us in – all in – to their real world. (dressed up, yes – but farm glam, not city glam)

Weathered picnic tables line the patio, no linens required. Simple place settings reflect the afternoon sun and illuminate the dinner table. A fish is in the outdoor smoker, and a pig is roasting on the spit. Farm-fresh carrots and potatoes accompany the meal with no fanfare – just great taste.

We sit shoulder-to-shoulder and are served family-style on large sharing plates. Wine is poured, but not glorified. Guests are encouraged to sip and indulge at our own speed. The fish and pig are dressed table-side, right in front of us.

Dusk falls, and voices rise. We celebrate the miracle of pig fat – as a seasoning on vegetables or in the chewy goodness of ‘crackling’. We’re sated, and leave feeling like we’ve just enjoyed a lovely family meal. If Gene or Shelly were to ask any of us for help on the farm the next day, the answer would have been a resounding yes because that’s what family does.

As we invent new ways to remove ourselves from the mess of nature, it’s people like the Coverts who remind us why that might not be what we need. The farm dinner could be one solution to a problem we haven’t even begun to realize is staring us in the face, every day.

Pork fat is the answer – to almost any question. Here, our pig is adding juicy goodness to the roasted potatoes.
If I never see another white linen table cloth, I won’t be sad. The weathered grey of these picnic tables is beauty.
As pretty as it is, it’s not a prop – this old truck serves as a field guide for farm tours. It’s not afraid to get dirty.
The spring salmon goes from smoker to table side. No interruptions.
(l-r) Gene Covert, Derek Uhlemann, and Jeff Van Geest: the three people at the heart of feeding and watering us.
Roast pig, with potatoes and carrots (seasoned with salt, parsley, and pig drippings). Wine: Covert Farms 2007 Rosé (left), Tinhorn Creek 2011 Rosé (right). Did I say delicious? Delicious.
Two of the most badass chefs you’ll ever want to feed you.