Can be debilitating. Frustrating. Enlightening. Enlivening. Challenging. Freeing. They’ll shove you out into the cold wearing nothing but a pair of socks. Nothing. Ask you to stretch your arms far beyond their fixed length. They will demand that you examine where you are standing, conisder your presence. Are you there?
The past seven days have easily been the least ‘productive’ of the entire trip. Seven days without visiting any farmers or writing any things or even planning for the future. And it was fantastic. Jim and I explored the coast of the west part of the US of America. After careful consideration, I’ve decided several things. First of all, it is quite misty. If you go, bring a rain jacket. And pants. Second, in many parts, especially southern Oregon and northern California, there are many large trees. In preparation, perhaps do some neck exercises. They are remarkable. Finally, there are many neat things to take photographs of. Like large mounds of kelp and delicious melty horizons and very pretty sunsets.
We have landed in Davis, California. We will stay here until Thursday, when I’ll be joining The Greenhorns in Winters, for one of their Young Farmers’ Mixers and doing some documentation. Then, it’s on to the Bay Area, where there are many good people doing many good things.
In case you didn’t believe me, here are some pictures from the coast.
The conditions are nauseatingly predictable. It’s a miracle I’vnt vomited on my keyboard just thinking about using myself sitting next to Lauren in a car to grab your attention. She is talking on a portable telephone. I am not. There are sprinkles of water falling from the sky. The windshield wipers humwumm across their already mentioned place of residence.
I am not speaking. Fortunately, Lauren is:
“…well, ok, howabout this, we’ll harvest the stomach and if you want it you can have it, otherwise we’ll keep it for ourselves. Howabout…oh ok you want the lungs. And the small intestine….yeah they’re good for…Ok, you want them? Great.”
And the windshield wipers humwumm across their already mentioned place of residence.
It’s not so often these days that one’s ears are partial to such a conversation, though I’ve got to say mine were barely pricked by the subject matter. Perhaps if I were an innocent bystander on the street, I would have double tooken (yeah I know), but after spending a week with a family of abattoirs and butchers, its sort of standard operating procedure.
Head cheese at the dinner table, pig legs above the kitchen sink, sausages in the garage, pigs just beyond the backyard. It’s not just conversation that infuses the Sheard’s life with the beautiful reality that they are carnivores.
Walk through their front door and before you can slap a mongoose with a willow stick your nose will swoon with the sweetsmokysalty aromas of bacon. It lingers and wafts on gentle currents that flow throughout the first floor, the same ones that act on the various fleshy hunks formerly known as swine hanging in the kitchen. Well on their way to donning the titles prosciutto, pancetta, guanciale, and bacon, they hang like trophies. Placards. Crests, coats of arms. They are truly something to be proud of.
The charcuterie in the kitchen are an indicator of a lifestyle. Of a craft. Of an intense and deep body of knowledge. They are an outward material expression of how Brandon and Lauren live their life, of what they believe. There are two years of charcuterie hanging there, patiently watching every dinner Brandon cooks for his family. Every breakfast whipped up by Lauren. The prosciutto does not complain when Wallace revels with porcine squeals, sticky hands moving with remarkable swiftness, from the honey jar to his mouth.
Beyond the personal implications of the fermenting animal flesh* in the Sheards’ kitchen, they are also business investments. Products. The first fruits in a nascent business endeavor they call Farmstead Meatsmith.
“So what’s that all about?! Neither of those words are actually words! I don’t pay attention to gibberish.” If you are screaming this, which you are, I would have to start from the beginning.
Farmstead, as it turns out, is actually a word. I forgive your contemptuous outburst. A farmstead, according to my nifty dashboard dictionary, is a farm and its buildings. True, but boring. Let’s delve.
Farm, as Brandon and Lauren have expressed, is an increasingly specific descriptor of a farming endeavor that is family owned and managed. It has a deep connection to the land on which it is placed and the cultures and peoples that share roots in the same soil. Farms produce products that people eat or use. A stead is a place or role that someone or something has to fill. Therefore we have farmstead as a rich word combining the complex and webulous (new word. Bing!) implications of a farm and a farmer married with place-based intentions and roles. A farmstead is a locally and culturally rooted agricultural business intended to serve it’s similarly small-scaled immediate community of producers.
Meatsmith. This one certainly doesn’t exist. Excuse me, hasn’t existed before this. Well, meat is pretty straightforward…right? Lets take meat as the flesh of animals that we eat. Commonplace on many plates across this country and unfortunately increasingly around the world, meat is dinner. Meat is sustenance. Meat is life and meat is flesh. Meat comes from animals, and in the case of Brandon and Lauren, meat is a gesture of relation, respect and culture, as opposed to, shall we say other, less intentional manifestations of meat consumption.
Smith, short for blacksmith, is a craftsman. A tradesman. An artist and a community member. A village blacksmith is one who can quite literally forge any necessary piece, part, or tool to cater to anyone’s request. He is a product of years of intricate knowledge passed down, manifested in an exquisitely particular niche. His is a producer as well as an artisan. His products are a result of utter and complete transformation. He takes a virtually unusable material and creates utility. His goods are inseparably a product of utility and artisanship.
Have we sufficiently tenderized the derivation? You didn’t ask for a McGeeian breakdown, but you got it sister. A Meatsmith is a craftsman of flesh. An alchemist. She takes animals and turns them into desirable, useful, beautiful, delicious, and respectful products. Lauren and Brandon Sheard are meatsmiths. They serve farmsteads.Farmstead Meatsmith. Delightful.
Did the fellow who invented the elastic underpants band enjoy instantaneous fortune and international notoriety? The housewife that accidentally dropped a dollop of frosting on top of the muffins cooling under the precariously placed bowl overtop? Regardless of whether or not recognition comes back to the proprietors of ingenious ideas, we see that there are clear and distinct societal needs for certain innovations. I can, and will in just a few words, confidently say that Farmstead Meatsmith is a business vision of magnificent importance and spectacular implication.
There are plenty of drab, systemically informational reasons that Farmstead Meatsmithis well timed, like the disappearance of local slaughterhouses and processing facilities, the pile of policies preventing them, the flight of knowledge of how to properly, intentionally, transform animals into meat, and gabbity gab.
Truly, the most compelling argument, or evidence if you prefer to call it, is that as a result of the scale on which they operate, it is a manifestation of all of the generally non-practiced, yet well vocalized boons of local economics. Though unstated, they are a social enterprise – their financial bottom line is inextricably linked with social and environmental conscientiousness – facets that are inarguably part of a responsible business when dealing with friends and neighbors in a small community.
Beyond the structure of their business, however, there is yet another alarmingly inspiring aspect (businesspeople of a different disposition may choose to insert a different adjective to follow ‘alarmingly.’) Brandon and Lauren have managed to weave in to their model: education.
More often than not, Brandon invites the owner of the animals he will slaughter, butcher or cure to be present and even participate. He will take extra time to instruct the farmer. He will share his knowledge. Reveal his secrets. To anyone that is interested.
I’m no businessman. I can count on my fingers alone the number of times a tie has mingled with my collarbone, but I’m pretty sure that a cornerstone of traditional business practices is to keep your secrets of success well hidden in the vaults labeled ‘Prosperity.’
Brandon acknowledges it, posing the question just as much to me as to himself, whether or not he will eventually work himself out of business. If he is imparting the knowledge on which his trade is based, then will his customers continue to be that? Or will they themselves become endowed with enough knowledge to perform Brandon’s currently specialized task?
Farmstead Meatsmith is an open-source model working within an open-source movement. That which we now casually call the ‘local food movement,’ is one of inclusivity, of community. It is a revival of older agrarian societal structures. We have people returning to trades, developing skill sets unique to their craft. Not so long ago, there were town butchers.
Thus we have an interesting juxtaposition. The majority of businesses do not publish their activity in the way that Farmstead Meatsmith has chosen to. We must keep in mind that the dynamics of a bonbon shop on Vashon Island are quite different than a bonbon shop on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The question stands, then, whether theFarmstead Meatsmith model, which weighs local economies and community structure over the potential squandering of monetary profitability, can be replicable and viable in settings other than small agriculturally oriented communities. In fact, the question still stands, and Brandon and Lauren will be the first to admit, of whether said business model will be viable in small agriculturally oriented communities.
I would argue that localized and replicated businesses like Farmstead Meatsmith are necessary to the survival of the human race. When there is no more deceptively cheap energy to facilitate monsters like ADM spraying cheap animal products around the country, every community is going to need a Farmstead Meatsmith. Were I feeling spicy enough, I could extend that statement to any business venture. There are plenty of folks that have written far more coherently and eloquently on the topic (Bill McKibben, Wendell Berry, and The Transition Movement, to name a very few), and this is me throwing in my high five. Farmstead Meatsmith is the future.
Let’s call this essay an unprofessional, unsolicited shout out from Andrew to those visionary Doers out there, cultivating skills and turning them into innovative business ventures. The wave is on its way up – we’ve got terms emerging for these folks. Agripreneur. Agtivist (I thought I made this one up until stupid Grist already has a series by this name. And its stupid good.). Urban Agtivity. We’re on the up. And let’s call this an urge and plea to make catching snippets of casual discussion of eviscerating an animal nauseating predictable.
Stefan Meyer, farm manager of Growing Lots Urban Farm in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He’s finishing up his first year in production, having successfully served a seven-member CSA for the surrounding community. His farm is pretty rad, he’s basically farming concrete. Landscape cloth and soil on top of what was once called a parking lot. Solid.
To call them labrynthic would imply negativity. Give you the idea that you’ll become irrevocably entangled, wandering blindly, waiting for the Minotaur to find you and put an end to them. I would not, however, describe the way Godsil releases his words with any other metaphor. Olde’s labrynth is not made of prickly death bushes, nor does it house monsters of any sort. It guides you with densely packed metaphor framed by tomato plants. There are ornate examples, years of (r)Evolutionarily informed rhetoric, and fish. Lots of fish.
Godsil is an academic turned rebel turned roofer turned urban agricultural visionary. He is the co-founder of Sweetwater Organics, an intensive urban indoor aquaponics farm (modeled after Growing Power’s) housed in a formerly abandoned industrial building in the Bayside area of Milwaukee.
To try to describe Godsil’s personality, demeanor, essence will be to greatly demean the many facets that make him whole, but to start he is a veritable well of knowledge. An uncapped artesian aquifer, given the slightest instigation, stories and facts and figures and historical references and lessons will come pouring out of his boundless reservoir, presumably housed somewhere between his head and heart.
He is a humble man, sharing his belief that transparency and acknowledgement are key to proliferation. He is a pragmatic radical community-based agricultural activist. He is readily distractable. Excitable. He loves to share and learn and think. He’s got an active curiosity rivaled by few that have crossed my path in years. He started one of the largest, most innovative urban farms in the country two years ago. He is a Doer.
The following clip is an attempt at an introduction. A dropperful of the rich, astoundingly complex flavor of which James Olde Mercury Godsil is made.
It’s savory pumpkin pie. With caramelized onions and fried sage. Oh.
It turns out that it is not a fantastic idea to drink large amounts of apple cider in small amounts of time. Particularly if one’s stomach is not used to conversing with a half gallon of concentrated apple yumyum goodness in the span of several minutes. We’re not talking serious, life changing, “pull over the car cuzsomethingscomingoutandi’mnotquitesurewhere” kind of bad idea, but rather more of a rumbly gurgly, “maybe I should have thought about the welfare of the noses of those in proximity to me for the next 12 hours” situation. I have no regrets. The cider was fantastic. The farts were great. The donut was mediocre, to be honest, and that bite of pumpkin roll mingling with my buds was just about the pinnacle of my existence. I’ve got a thing for pumpkin flavored goodies.