Sawkill Farm considers the whole animal
BY NIKKI GOTH ITOI PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROY GUMPEL
The first time Sawkill Farm founder Michael Robertson invited Kallie Weinkle to dinner, he cooked her beef bourguignon. She traveled from Brooklyn two hours north to Red Hook for the date. He didn’t know she was a vegetarian, and she decided not to clue him in that night.
Fast-forward four years, and the now husband-wife team raise chickens, cattle, sheep and pigs on 140 acres of hilly pastureland in Red Hook. Their roadside farm store located inside a hulking red barn opened in May 2013, and their Thursday to Sunday retail business has been picking up steadily ever since.
Freezers in the farm store hold everything from lamb merguez sausage to flank steak and oxtail. Hundreds of cartons of multicolored eggs sell out each week. Bone broth made by simmering beef bones and vegetables with vinegar for 24 hours goes for $8.50 a quart at the Union Square Greenmarket in Manhattan, where they sell on Wednesdays—a relative bargain considering the competition in the area sells it for $9 a cup, or more.
Rotational grazing, transparent farming practices and a whole animal philosophy were a key to Sawkill Farm’s early success. Some shoppers are moved by the latest nutrition research, which suggests we need to eat more healthy fats. Sustainable farms like this one may be in the right place at the right time, since some of the best sources of natural, unprocessed fat come from pasture-raised, grass-fed animals. As mainstream consumers start to change what they eat, these young farmers could find themselves at the epicenter of a surge in demand for everything they make.
ZERO WASTE FARMING
The farm, the store and the land are a draw for a growing customer base that frequents the property to stock up and indulge in the pastoral vibe. “We put a lot of value in our son knowing where his food comes from and seeing that animals are raised humanely,” says Sawkill Farm customer Douglas Lee. On most visits, he brings his two-year-old to the farm to walk the fields and greet the animals. He represents a generation of young parents who want their children to have a meaningful connection to their food.
Beyond worthy principles, the Robertsons also want, and need, to stay afloat as a business. Four years into their farming adventure, the couple has found a way to uphold their ethical and economic goals: They are committed to using the whole animal—hide, fat, organs, wool and all.
Our ancestors would have starved to death if they just lopped off head and tail, only to eat the middle, as the conventional meat industry does today. But to practice the whole animal concept in modern times, you need a creative spark, an instinct for marketing and a compulsive drive to reduce waste on the farm. Accordingly, Sawkill Farm makes sausage and hot dogs, baker’s leaf lard (the highest grade rendered animal fat intended for cooking and baking), chicken liver pâté and chicken potpies made from the stock and meat of older egg layers that would be too tough to roast.
FROM SUET TO SOAP
For Kallie Robertson, the shorter days of winter unleash a creative streak that’s dormant during Sawkill’s frantic harvest season. “Summer is gogo- go,” she says. “Winter is the time when we can reflect and explore.” Kallie is a designer who started an urban farm and worked for Farmigo in Brooklyn, an online farm-to-table grocery service, before she moved to Red Hook to be with Michael. This winter, she dabbles in late-afternoon knitting with a moody gray yarn that’s woven from her sheep’s own wool and left undyed to show off its natural color. Often, a pot of beef stew simmers on the stove for hours while she works on packaging design, learns how to tan leather and researches what to do with pigskins.
She’s also busy planning the next phase of a growing tallow-based soap business. In a new commercial kitchen that adjoins the farm store, Kallie transforms vats of suet, the raw animal fat used to make tallow, into bars of lavender, fennel, grapefruit, peppermint and lemongrass scented soap. The fragrance is so inviting, you’re tempted to take a bite. It’s a time-intensive process to render and purify the fat. Kallie needs a day to produce 60 pounds of tallow, a couple of hours to make a batch that yields 300 bars and then four to six weeks to cure before wrapping, packaging and sending it all to market. One year into the experiment, she is running out of tallow to keep up with wholesale demand.
“Soap is scalable for us, whereas having more animals grazing is not,” she explains, referring to the signifi cant costs of raising animals and cultivating suitable pasture land.
UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL
While Kallie focuses on the farm store, Michael tends to the animals. He purchased the land for Sawkill Farm in 2010, after completing an apprenticeship at Hawthorne Valley Farm in Ghent and serving as agricultural director at the Queens County Farm Museum.
“I’ve always been interested in transparency,” he says. “We try to bring our customers as close as they can get to knowing where their meat comes from. They can see how we interact with livestock.” Sawkill is not set up as an educational farm, but there is plenty to see most times of the year, and curious customers often catch Michael or Kallie for a chat when they pop in to the farm store to buy a package of short ribs to braise or to pick up a pork shoulder for taco night or just drop by to breathe in some farm air.
The fields in this part of the valley are narrow and not especially flat. Michael has to be über-effi cient in the grazing rotations to get the most out of the pasture that’s available. “We’re constantly trying to improve the system,” he says. Come spring, two fluffy white Maremma sheepdogs, a breed customarily used in Italy for herding and guarding livestock, help move the herd of Romney, Finn, Gotland and Icelandic sheep every three days. Black angus cattle change pasture every three to five days.
Mobile chicken coops also move from field to field each week. In between, there will be lambs to bottle feed, baby chicks in the brooder and hopefully a litter of Tamworth piglets to welcome to the farm. Finding creative ways to use the entire animal is both a short-term survival tactic and a long-term philosophy that keeps the Robertsons true to their mission. They can feed loyal customers, while protecting the environment and treating animals with respect. It’s a symbiotic kind of dance, for the moment.
Disruption looms on the horizon, however. In the last few years, much of what we all believed about nutrition for half a century has been turned on its head. Cholesterol does not cause heart disease after all. Humans need healthy fat to thrive. And sugar has become the new Public Enemy #1. As revised dietary recommendations reach the mainstream, fattier cuts of meat will be desired once again, especially if they come from pastured, grass-fed sources that contain optimal ratios of essential fatty acids. The whole animal concept may come back in vogue once again, despite a recent report from the World Health Organization that suggests overconsumption of processed meat may lead to certain types of cancer.
Sawkill Farm is a niche business that caters to early adopters today. But it’s a strange new reality when a dozen pastured eggs costs $10 and a shot of sipping broth is the new $4 latte. What happens when 8 million people in New York City want this way of life? Do sustainable farms become the heroes of food reform, or are they going to prove to be unscalable and be swallowed by corporate investors?
Kallie laughs at the thought. She immediately thinks of shoppers she’s encountered when she tries to sell her beef tallow soaps in ordinary retail settings. (Gross!)
“It’s hard to imagine,” she says, “but of course we’d love to have that problem.” The opportunity—and all of the challenges that come with it—may come sooner than any of us expect.
Other area farms have been equally as resourceful as Sawkill Farm and found they can market less popular cuts by describing them differently. At Stone & Thistle Farm in the western Catskills, a surplus of pork hocks (or the pig’s knuckle) over the summer led to a new idea: Rebrand the cut as pork shanks, borrowing a more familiar term from the beef butcher (think osso bucco, which is simply a cross-cut section of veal shank with a sizable portion of bone). Stone & Thistle proprietor Denise Warren gathered recipes to hand out at farmers markets and gave away free samples of BBQ pork hocks. She added special pricing to sweeten the deal—buy two packages and get a jar of peach salsa for free. All 50 packages were gone in a flash. This kind of practical ingenuity is precisely what farms like Sawkill see as a means for honest and sustainable survival.
7782 Albany Post Road, Red Hook
The farm store is open Thursday–Sunday 10am–5pm year-round