Retro Musings from a Goat Cheese Farm
I just got offered a job teaching a week long culinary farm school experience out at the Quillisascut goat cheese farm in Eastern Washington. This is the very same farm that I spent a week on 2 years ago as part of a culinary professional farm retreat. I have often said that the week I spent on the farm was one of the most exciting culinary and personal mini-adventures of my life. I wrote about it then, in a journal. I thought it would be worthwhile to post it now, 2 years later... as I get ready to teach a similar program to culinary students this August (which, by the way, still has openings. If you are a culinary student or a serious home cook interested in a week-long farm experience similar to the one I describe on this site, check out Quillisascut's website.) Today, part one in a series of three.
(Written in October, 2004)
Quillisascut Farm School, Part One
I arrive, road weary, very happy and excited but terribly sleepy. This will remain my state the entire 5 days: Happy and Sleepy. I’m two dwarves in one. I am the only person in the group who works late hours. I am the only one in the group who visibly pales at the mention of the daily 5:30 am wake-up.
The farm school staff: There’s Karen Jurgensen. She used to head up Baci Catering and soon will be teaching over at Seattle Central. For the farm school’s last 2 years, she has been their chef. Karen is wonderful, knowledgeable, never preachy and capable of organizing 10-12 different kitchen projects all at the same time in limited space. There’s Joanna and Carter. Joanna takes care of many of the animals on the farm and anything else that is needed. Carter tends the garden and is the group named “dish-nazi” for his humorous neuroticism around the water-conserving dish routine.
And then we meet the Rick and Lora Lea (Misterly, the owners of the farm). Right away, I know I will like them. Warm, approachable, with a good sense of humor and their values firmly in the right place, they set the tone for what turns out to be, no doubt, one of the better and more interesting weeks of my life.
We immediately sit down to an amazing cheese platter, with 4-5 of their cheeses, bread baked in their outdoor brick oven, crackers, amazing grapes from their vineyard, seckel pears from a neighbor’s orchard, and walnuts from their tree. It’s not as if I haven’t been spoiled for a few years now but the food at Quillisascut still gives me pause because, literally, for the entire week, we eat the most amazing, diverse foods and 95% of it we harvest from their farm.
Enter the farm: we tour around the 36 (?) acre farm, check out their composting system, and the garden’s early fall harvest of greens, onions, late corn, beets and herbs. There’s an orchard and vineyard and throughout the week we find millions of different ways to use up the Italian plums.
Meet the animals: there’s Jet, the border collie puppy, in training to herd the goats and her supervisor, Libby, a simply amazing dog. Libby is a Komondor, a breed descended from Tibetan dogs, bred to guard herds and protect its family. Libby has amazing white cords, like dreadlocks, hanging all over her body. A thorough afternoon search reveals that she indeed has eyes.
Then there are the goats. As Rick says, “the most photographed goats in Washington state”. They all clamor to meet us, 30-40 of them, billys in with the ladies for YEE-HAW it’s breedin’ time in Pleasant Valley and everyone’s acting a bit strange. Joanne quips that “the second they put the normally sweet boys in with the girls, they about lost their minds, grunting, eyes rolled back, tongues hanging out, attacking the other males.” Sure enough, for the rest of the week, the goat love makes for some very funny dinner-time conversations.
We meet the 2 pigs, one will be butchered for a later class, one will be sold. We say hello and goodbye and thank you to a lamb that we know Rick will kill in the morning. We all get a bit quiet near the lamb. There are several roosters. One is very off-key and needs a new watch because he starts up way the hell before dawn. The other two like to perform a duet at the appropriate time.
Meet the chickens. They are huge, the biggest chickens I’ve ever seen and only 8 weeks old. They are Cornish Cross chickens. They reach 4-5 lbs in 6 weeks and 6-10 lbs in 8-12 weeks. I think these chickens are close to 10 pounds. They are kept in a chicken “tractor”, a mobile cage that allows the chicken to eat the alfalfa between the rows of grapes in the vineyard. Every day you just pick up the edge of the cage and move it and the chickens underneath to the next spot and you feed the chickens at the same time keeping down the weed growth.
And then the rest: quail and quail babies, and 2 quail eggs a day, ducks (Muscovy and Pekins), turkeys and 2 cows out in the pasture that used to be dairy cows. And lastly, what I called the “special farm” a testament to Rick and Lora Lea’s compassion or simply their inability to kill an animal just because they’re no longer productive due to injury: there’s a duck with a clipped wing that scoots around, a very tiny quail they helped birth out of its egg because it was too weak to get out on its own. And lastly, there’s a billy goat that got stepped on as a kid and its back end is paralyzed. Amazingly, it still chases the female goats.
Dinner, a movie, and bedtime:
Karen and crew make dinner: Beef taquitos with potatoes and corn (beef from a neighbor’s cow, potatoes and corn from the farm) with homemade corn and flour tortillas, roasted tomatillo and garlic salsa, squash and corn sauté with tomatoes, cumin scented slaw, pickled red onions and Carter’s home-brewed beer. Dessert: Cajeta ice cream with candied walnuts and cherries. Maybe it’s the smell of the country air and the big table overflowing with food and beer and good conversation but we all agree everything tastes better here.
We watch a documentary, Broken Limbs, about the Wenatchee apple industry and the struggle to stay small, organic, and sustainable in a world of small orchards being destroyed because they can’t compete with the huge operations. We see Wal-marts sprouting up everywhere. Concrete, corporate crops replacing orchards where apple trees lived for generations. Ultimately, the movie is about how to survive in this world by becoming a different kind of farmer, one who markets directly through CSAs or at farmer’s markets, or fruit stands… any creative way to sell directly to people, avoid depending solely on a middleman and be paid the money they deserve for the amazing product they provide.
It’s 9:30 p.m. and I’m supposed to go to sleep now because everyone else is and we have to get up at 5:30. But my night is just beginning. I finally drift off as the rooster with the bad watch starts up.
(Part 2 in a few days)