“Do you have one on hand that we can see?” Mike asked.
Jeff immediately pivoted and gestured us to follow along. Within twenty steps we had reached one of the outdoor trailers. Jeff swung open the door as the cool air wafted out and disappeared behind the plastic curtain into the darkness. A second later he emerged from the cooler with a beautiful frozen ribeye. It was deep red and lacked the fat marbling I had become so accustomed to seeing.
What started as a jovial conservation about Jeff’s two weeks old chicks that we had just snuck in the barn to go see, quickly became a conversation about the industrial food system. As we moved from baby chicks to the beef produced on the farm Mike asked what grade Jeff’s beef would be considered.
“Low” said Jeff. “The FDA’s grading is only based on fat marbling.” Jeff raises Piedmontese cattle – a breed that is known for its higher lean-to-fat ratio, which results in less marbling but is touted for its health benefits and taste.
Earlier in the day Mike and I, and about 100 others, biked 26 miles and visited two other farms, Willoway and Wellspring, as part of Braise’s annual Tour de Farms. It’s an event that can be summed up as: work for your food to see those who work for your food. But, let’s be honest, although the numerous hills lit small fires in my quad muscles it’s the type of work that is disguised as fun. Bucolic panoramas, the open road, and farm fresh meals cooked by some of the best restaurants in Milwaukee – it’s an ideal way to spend a Sunday. Likewise, the Tour de Farms is an ideal foray into understanding and appreciating the work and care that goes into humanely raising animals and non-toxic produce for our consumption.
I stared at Jeff’s hands as he held the frozen ribeye and debunked the notion that the FDA’s grading scale has anything to do with quality. Years of eagerly participating in the education system has ingrained in me a direct correlation between letters and achievement, “A” being the best and “F” being unthinkable. Tour de Farms and other events that put me in human contact with the people growing my food have become my classroom these days. No grades. No tests. You judge how you’re doing by how you feel. And it feels good to walk the land and see the hands that allowed me to eat the food on my plate. Really good.
Milwaukee is lucky to have leaders like Chef Dave Swanson stepping up and making it easier to seek out ways to connect with food and farmers, and for farmers close-by like Jeff who grow and raise nourishing food. Spending time with these folks and people like them is a lesson in appreciation and hope, and that what underpins both is hard work.
To sign up for next year’s Tour de Farms, which I highly recommend, go to Braise’s events page as it gets closer to September. The event has limited space and quickly sells out. Also, check out their classes and CSA – information on both can be found on their website.
Meet Jeff or his wife Kathleen at a local farmer’s market, or just go visit them at the farm!
Visit Willoway Farms at one of their events.
Wellspring Farm offers a number of classes and opportunities to visit the farm.
Edible Milwaukee sends out a fantastic weekly email on local food events in the area.
I recently stumbled upon this podcast on the industrial food system. It’s definitely worth a listen.