“Why do you want to farm?”
I met his gaze through the steam and sizzle of the broccoli rabe wilting in my pan and replied without missing a beat, “I love food and I want to feed people.”
It was late spring of 2012 and Chris Pinto was still trying to figure out why this brassy girl from Brooklyn was content amongst the row crops of a farm field. We had first met in early March as apprentices at Garden of Eve Farm in Riverhead; we were both new to the North Fork and eager to work in the agricultural industry, but that’s where our similarities ended. Chris had previously worked on a commercial organic produce farm in Connecticut and milked cows on a dairy in Alabama, so he was well-equipped for what the apprenticeship had in store. His well-seasoned Muck Boots trumped my city girl Hunter wellies and compared to his, my harvest skills weren’t quite up to snuff. My competitive streak drove me to improve my skills in the field, however, and we soon found ourselves working shoulder to shoulder more often than not.
Over the course of the season, as we got to know each other and fell in love, he’d learn that my grandfather owned and operated a grocery store in Boro Park. My first word as a baby was “cookie.” Growing up, my father always took me food shopping, which taught me to seek quality over quantity. He also taught me the timeless trick of comparing the tenderness of the different parts of my hand to the done-ness of cooked meats.
All through college I worked front of house positions in a restaurant of great notoriety in the NoHo neighborhood of Manhattan. My tight relationships with the prep cooks and sushi chefs ensured that I could steer our clients towards a dining experience they’d never forget. Later, I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in West Africa. As I piled hand-harvested stalks of golden pearl millet into a goat skin pouch with my host family in Mali, I realized: I was meant for this kind of work.
The past nine years have seen Chris and I through many experiences in the agricultural industry here on the East End. Between the two of us, we’re familiar with growing produce, hops, orchard work, raising ruminant animals and finally, at the farm we founded together in 2015, our specialty of pasture-raised poultry and game birds. We’ve both worked on organic and non-organic operations, which exposed us to myriad methods, ethics and farming practices.
When you take the time to visit with other farmers and ask meaningful questions, you begin to understand that what works for one farm might not work for another. It would be unreasonable to expect every farm to be certified organic; it would be just as unreasonable to ask a greenhouse operation to suddenly convert to field grown crops. Farmers, being intimately connected with their land, know what management practices are best for their operations and how to effectively get food from their farm to your table.
This is why the recent trend for everyone to go “plant-based” is alarming for those of us in the agricultural community, specifically animal agriculture. I was left scratching my head when, earlier this year, Epicurious banned beef recipes from its platform and Eleven Madison Park announced that its menu would be going 100% vegan in the name of sustainability and combating climate change. I saw this as a fumbled opportunity to highlight farmers and ranchers that are working to improve soil conditions and sequester carbon — all while taking great care of their livestock and feeding the country. Purchasing a steak from the rancher down the road rather than cooking down a jackfruit, imported from who knows where, to resemble protein seems to me to be the more sustainable option.
The land that farmers use to raise animals is, more often than not, unsuitable for growing grains or produce. The land that our farm, Feisty Acres, currently stewards thanks to the Peconic Land Trust would be near impossible to grow produce on, but it’s perfect for raising game birds and poultry on pasture. Two out of the 11 acres that we lease used to be a parking lot. Over the decades, native plants and grasses have grown over the asphalt, but it’s still there under about three inches of topsoil and vegetation. To excavate the asphalt and rehab the land for plant production would do more damage than good. It would destroy the valuable microbes, bacteria and fungi that reside in the topsoil.
Instead, we rotate our chickens, ducks, turkeys, quail, and geese across the land without tilling or disturbing the soil. The manure from the birds adds nitrogen, magnesium and phosphorus, keeping the vegetation lush. This organic matter improves the land’s resiliency to drought, which is why when you pass by our barn on the North Road you might notice the pasture looking greener than the surrounding area, even in the middle of July.
The other 9 acres we lease is mostly woodland and hedgerows. To make this land suitable for crop production, one would need to remove the thousands of trees and shrubs and grade the land to make it flat. This would displace the hundreds of song birds, upland game birds, rabbits, mice, deer, insects and any other life that resides there. Instead, Chris and I have engineered movable poultry coops that can be used within the ecosystem that already exists — this benefits us, the land and the creatures among which we work.
Small farms and ranches receive all the fanfare in the local food movement. Still, we know that spending $8 per pound on a pasture raised chicken or $50 on a steak is not an option for the majority of people. If we relied solely on farms like ours to feed the country, we’d be very hungry.
Large farms and ranches often get a bum rap thanks to a handful of operators that neglect to adhere to stringent USDA regulations on manure storage and pesticide use. But these stories create unwarranted fear about animal agriculture: Inspectors visit large operations on as often as a monthly basis and big farms and ranches are also constantly adopting new technology to be more efficient and sustainable.
Large farmers use manure similarly to how we use it on our farm, fertilizing and improving the soil. Much of the feed and grains used to plump up barn-raised animals is by-product of other industries and unsuitable for humans to consume. Turning this by-product into feed helps mitigate food and industrial waste on an astronomical scale.
What about carbon emissions? According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the entire agricultural industry only accounts for 10% of the country’s annual greenhouse gases. Within that 10%, all of animal agriculture accounts for just 3.9% of annual greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, the transportation, electricity, and industrial sectors of our economy generate 77% of the country’s greenhouse gases. It’s time to stop biting the hands that feed us — and perhaps point fingers elsewhere.
The very act of farming is pro-planet and pro-conservation. Families pass down farms here on the North Fork and around the country from one generation to the next. The only way in which we can continue this tradition is by dedicating ourselves to the protection of the land and the local ecosystem. Because here’s a secret all farmers know: It’s employing the best management practices in the field that keeps our traditions alive and our farms profitable. Healthy soil makes for healthy crops, healthy animals and healthy communities. Even if you don’t personally eat meat, supporting animal agriculture is in everyone’s best interest.
I still have a passion for feeding people, and for the land Chris and I work and the animals we raise. When people understand how and by whom their food is grown, they are connected to their community in a tangible and meaningful way. Food — yes, including meat — brings us together unlike anything else.