October 19, 2010
Walking down the gravel road at Peaceful Pastures, I encountered some wandering chickens, a couple turkeys minding their own business, a large herd of cows staring at me while chewing intently, pigs lazily basking in the sun, a few cats hanging out with the sheep and two geese, named Fred and Ethel, walking together across an open field. Darrin and Jenny Drake, owners of Peaceful Pastures, call it Noah’s Ark, except minus a confined ark, replaced instead by hundreds of acres of farmland on which all the animals can freely roam. And when I say all, I mean all. Some of the chickens have been known to lay their eggs in trees.
But that’s how it rolls at Peaceful Pastures; the animals, farmers and land all work in harmony with one another and each seem happier as a result. There’s a cross between a goose and a duck that eats over 600 flies an hour, so they keep a few of them around for fly control; the cows have recently been taught to eat two species of invasive weeds which keeps the need to mow at a minimum, while supplying the cows with protein; the chickens enjoy insects and maggots; the geese have a thing for legumes such as clover which is found all over the fields; the sheep and goats like the brambles, bushes and weeds; and so it goes. It is a more holistic approach to farming and has allowed them to take full advantage of their land. “The different species will all work together if you let them,” Jenny tells me.
Jenny and Darrin have always been committed raising animals naturally and humanely, all while producing the very best meats possible. “Overall, our business/economic focus is not on maximum production but rather on minimum input, that’s minimum input for feed and labor.” Basically, by letting animals do what comes naturally to them, graze and forage for food, the farmers are able to focus on other things, not just feeding, and as a result, the animals are healthier, tastier and happier. For example, as Jenny explained to me, a commercial hog will finish (meaning, be ready to slaughter) in about 150 days, but their heritage breed of hogs finish in about 270 days. The difference in numbers may seem significant but, “our hogs get fed oats only twice a week and they’re loose the rest of the time. We don’t clean up after them, we don’t water them and they don’t get fed much, so while they may take longer to finish, we have less invested in them.”
Their Angus cattle is grass-fed and grass finished, as well as dry aged for more than a month to enhance its flavor and tenderness. Grass finished was a term new to me, as I had no idea that a farmer can fatten an animal up all they want in the last 30 – 90 days before processing and still call it grass-fed. “If you feed a cow grain, you’ll turn their system acidic (something that takes only 30 days to do) and that’s the environment that allows E. coli to grow and that’s also what literally changes the composition of their fats,” Jenny explains. “Grass fed animals that are only grass fed have the good omegas.”
With all the terms floating around out there; Organic, Free-Range, Grass-Fed, Grass Finished and Pastured, it can at times be overwhelming trying to keep up with who’s following what guidelines and what they all mean. But Jenny and Darrin keep it simple with their motto, “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food.” Ask them anything and they will give you an honest answer that comes from truly loving what they do. “If I were a chicken this is how I’d want to live,” Jenny tells me. And you really do get that feeling when you’re out at their farm, that if you were to come back as a farm animal in another life, this is the place you’d hope to end up.