An Ode to Farmer Ben and Bending Sickle Commuity Farm.
(image lifted from localharvest.org)
I recently heard about a curious hobby...apparently some crazy folks actually purchase uncooked food, and then take it home to prepare. Odd I know, but my accountant suggests I try it.
Fact # 2: My grandparents were Sicilian farmers. By the time I came into this world they were living in the Detroit area. Still they farmed. Their entire yard was consumed by tomatoes, zucchini, egg plant, strawberries, flowers and a host of random greens and herbs that even my now 80 year-old Aunt struggles to pronounce. And this was no farm mind you. They lived in a quintessential suburban-sprawl east-side neighborhood. Still they farmed.
And the food they didn't grow came from known sources - usually one of six or so Italian markets and bakeries they would bounce between depending on season and sales. My favorite was a shop I never had the fortune of visiting. The Chicken shop. This particular stop was in the 'old neighborhood,' Detroit - where my grandparents lived until the riots drove them, like so many of their peers out of the city. And though I never went, I've heard the story so many times that it’s became entrenched into my families narrative.
Here's how the story goes. A day or so before a big family dinner my grandfather would load up my older siblings and drive to the old neighborhood. He'd take them to a shop that had live chickens in the front room. LIVE chickens! They were brought in from a local farm. The kids would naively pick their favorite bird. Once the a bird was chosen, the shop keep would take said bird into the back room. Still oblivious, the kids would wait for their bird to be “dressed.” Finally, a good while later the shop keep would emerge from the back with the bird, now dead and without feathers, wrapped in butcher's paper.
Sure there's some traumatic humor involved in this story, and yes, we still taunt my sister about it, but there's an important lesson to be gleaned. You should know where your food comes from.
Fast forward forty years (christ I’m getting old).
This spring I made the conscious decision to “know where my food comes from.” I have a garden, but it’s more a hobby than sustaining food source. I needed more substantial supplies. Luckily Ann Arbor’s foodplain is in bloom. We have a tremendous amount of well suited local farmers and purveyors. Today’s blog is a serious shout-out to one of my new favorites, Farmer Ben.
Bending Sickle Community Farm
Have you heard about Tilian Farm Development Center? If the answer is no, google it and learn. I could, and some day may, write many a poetic blog posts about the wonderful people and activity behind Tilian. That’s not for today. The germane fact for today is that Tilian is the home to Bending Sickle Community Farm.
Bending Sickle is Ann Arbor’s newest livestock farm. And while I haven’t done very extensive research, I believe Bending Sickle to offer Ann Arbor’s only heritage breed CSA. MEAT! By the way, if you’re not familiar with CSAs, you can google that too.
I’m a proud carnivore. I believe in the food chain and I celebrate the opportunity to sink my teeth in to slaughtered flesh. PETA be damned. Now understand, while I easily turn my nose up to the emotionally charged politics of most animal rights groups, I’m still an educated and conscious consumer. I by no means advocate for or endorse the less savory practices employed by some commercial meat packers. I do advocate humane animal husbandry and processing of meat. Welcome Farmer Ben.
In June I joined the Bending Sickle CSA. I’ve now received two shares. I am endlessly impressed with the thought and care that goes into Bending Sickle. For those of you who still harbor “hippi-yippi” views of our local food supply, let me dispel the myths.
Yes - It’s really a farm. One of the most refreshing aspects of Bending Sickle is the jarringly natural setting. There are no veal fattening pens, or crowded, dark chicken coupes. This is a working farm. The animals roam free within their fenced-in confines. Members are welcome to visit the farm and walk the grounds and visit the animals, as I have done.
Throughout the season CSA members receive regular e-mail updates, filling inquiring minds with relevant facts and taunting anticipation. It’s an important component to the CSA model. We all strive to be educated consumers. The e-mails keep us connected and informed.
Once mature, Farmer Ben takes the animals to a certified organic, and properly USDA inspected facility for processing. CSA members receive frozen, hermetically sealed packages that can be thawed for immediate consumption of quickly packed in the freezer. Members also receive some well prepared recipe cards and handling suggestions.
Unlike weekly produce groups, the disbursement cycle for Bending Sickle is monthly. Just like produce though, the items included in each share vary based on growing season and harvest yield. To date I’ve received ducks and roasting chickens. Later this year I’ll also receive goats and hogs and turkey. I’m postponing the financial analysis of cost-per-pound, but to date I am perfectly content with the value of my share.
Selections from my Bending Sickly Booty (Duck, Perch, Chevre, Kefir)
Perhaps the coolest aspect of Bending Sickle and Ben’s approach to the CSA is his inclusion of additional items. Both disbursements have included perch or white fish fillets. The fish add two benefits. On a practical matter, it increased the yield of my share at a time when meat was slightly more scarce. On a more philosophical level though, including fish is a nod to the pragmatic intention of a CSA. Farmer Ben isn’t so arrogant as to say only meat from his land can be considered. And he’s promoting the greater community by giving credence to the great lakes and the Michigan’s fine anglers.
Speaking of pragmatic - goats produce milk. So Farmer Ben capitalizes on that fact. Each share to date has included a nice portion of fresh chèvre. For the turophile, this is not the pungent, formed and aged French cheese you’d buy at Zingerman’s - it’s flavor is clean, refreshing and light. I’ve used it in place of cream cheese, making a perfect summer snack of cracker, chèvre, salami and fresh pitted cherries. Unknowing friends were shocked to find that it was goats milk cheese. I also received some fresh kefir (goat yogurt).
Pretty cool huh? I’m already giddy about carving my Bending Sickle Turkey on Thanksgiving. Have you roasted a duck lately? Either had I. And all of this is available right here in Ann Arbor. Take that Vermont! Like my grandfather before me, I now have a “chicken shop” to become part of my family story. Right on Bending Sickle Community Farm.
My quest to “know where my food comes from” is more than an academic pursuit. It’s closely tied to my desire to buy local. Understand, many people mis-interpret the intent of “buy local.” Local for the mere sport of local is nothing more than charity (can you say Oldsmobile). We have to acknowledge that we live in a global economy that survives on commerce. Economic Darwinism will always prevail. My ode to Farmer Ben is a definitely a nod to quality, but it’s also a conscious decision to invest in our community. To celebrate and protect the things we hold dear. (woa - pretty grandious huh? Did I just get preachy?)
I love meat. And I love raising my family in Michigan. I’m grateful that I now have a way to source tremendous chops and, hopefully, help another man finance the ability to raise his own family right here in Washtenaw county. Here’s to you Farmer Ben. Crack a beer and Fire up the grill!
Speaking of beer, stay tuned for my next post on the Motor City Bike & Brew Tour and my pilgrimage to Short’s Brewing in Bellaire, MI. God bless summer in Michigan.
PS: Bending Sickle is still accepting members for the duration of this season. Open your wallets and join me in promoting sustainable carnivoires in Washtenaw County.