Rodale Institute & Regen Ag Research in Georgia – Georgia Organics

Rodale Institute Many Fold Farm sheep

The South saw the most growth in organic farming from 2011-2016, and the Rodale Institute is looking to contribute to that expansion – through providing scientific research, economic models, and educational outreach at a Regional Resource Center (RRC), about an hour outside Atlanta in Chattahoochee Hills.

“There’s some data to show that areas that have research and education tend to have a higher concentration of organic farmers,” says Andrew Smith, PhD and Chief Scientist at Rodale. “We’re hoping to use this center to spark a movement and start to expand the amount of organic farmers in the region”.

The RRC is located on the site of Rebecca and Ross Williams’ Many Fold Farm, land formerly used for cheesemaking that also includes pasture-based livestock and forest. While the research site is starting on a small footprint of the 300+ acre farm, over time, Smith is hoping to expand. 

Many Folds Farm, Rodale Institute, Regenerative Ag, Georgia Organics, Shared Plates

Rebecca Williams is on the RRC board, helping facilitate some development work, and is excited to see what the RRC can do in the region. “This RRC is so important because it will offer southern farmers the opportunity to see organic and regenerative agriculture from the farmer’s perspective,” says Williams. “It will provide answers for farmers to the real questions they have… questions southern farmers want answers to before they make a change.”

Aiming to focus on vegetable production from the beginning, Rodale also hopes to take advantage of the farm’s already-existing setup for grazing sheep to study the impact of integrated crop and grazing systems on soil health .”Rodale prioritizes long-term systems trials,” says Smith. “Anything we do at Rodale, it has a focus on long-term soil health and regenerative agriculture”. 

Things are underway at the center, starting with breaking ground on fields identified for research. Rodale is also prioritizing hiring someone from the southeast to design research that fits the warmer temperatures and higher rainfall of the region.

 

“Research done by the RRC in southern soils, in a southern climate, from within the specifics of the cultural and economic realities of the region will provide real support that will allow regenerative organics to take root here,” says Williams. “I am excited to see new methods and techniques that can be used here in this region”.

With all of Rodale’s activities in Georgia, Smith will be presenting at the Georgia Organics conference. Smith will be speaking about Regenerative Organic Certification labeling, for which he has helped with the soil testing standard. Smith is also particularly excited about his session “about the science behind the principles of what we call Regenerative Organic Agriculture”, one of his areas of expertise. 

“The session could resonate with existing farmers, and also new farmers who are maybe thinking about organic for the first time and are planning the changes they might want to put on their farm,” says Smith.

“The farmers that I’ve met that are the most successful are lifelong learners,” says Smith. “And it doesn’t just have to be from a book – there’s scientists, there’s other farmers, there’s people in the industry.”  

“The more I get know farmers, the more I’m blown away by the amount of knowledge that they have, and the amount of learning that they continue to do.” And with Rodale’s new regional resource center, farmers in Georgia will have even more opportunity to learn and teach within their community.

Many Folds Farm, Rodale Institute, Georgia Organics, Shared Plates

Georgia Grains at DaySpring Farms – Georgia Organics

Nate Brett and Murray Brett DaySpring Farms

On a cool September morning, DaySpring Farms is in transition – the corn harvest is winding down, and the sweet potato and peas harvest will soon be amping up.

“But all year round, we’re milling,” says Nathan Brett, co-owner of DaySpring with his father, Murray Brett. “Our niche market is holding onto stuff that will store for a little while and we can sell over the course of a year.”

Day Springs Farm, Shared Plates, Georgia Organics, Nathan Brett, milling, corn, wheat, organic farming

Experimenting with market gardening in previous years, the father-and-son team has since switched to commodity crops. “We’re predominantly a two-man operation, so we have to think smart about what we get into,” says Nathan.

With 87 acres just outside of Danielsville, Georgia, Dayspring has “more acreage than a regular market garden, but less than most commodity farmers,” says Murray Brett, Nathan’s father. DaySpring saw early on in their business that there was an acreage threshold, even in organic commodity farming, to making a profit. Caught in the middle, DaySpring did a side step, getting into value-added commodity production and storage crops.

“We have the benefit of having one, if not the only, certified cleaning operation in the state,” says Nathan. Providing cleaning and milling on the same property allows DaySpring to make a larger profit percentage off of what they grow.

DaySpring sells their grains both wholesale and direct to consumer. Sarah Dodge, baker and owner of Atlanta-based Bread is Good, uses DaySpring bread flour and cornmeal in her products. She believes one thing sets DaySpring apart: “flavor, flavor, flavor!”

“I do my best to use as many local Georgia grains as I can for flavor, nutrition, and most of all digestibility,” says Sarah. “Good grains take time and patience, and Nathan and Murray are putting so much into making their grains shine”. 

DaySpring sits on the southern edge of where hard red winter wheat will vernalize and produce grain, making this Georgia-grown wheat even more unique. And with DaySpring’s grits and polenta production growing, Murray Brett adds, “with this flavor profile, our products speak for themselves”.

Day Springs Farm, Shared Plates, Georgia Organics, Nathan Brett, milling, corn, wheat, organic farming

During the Georgia Organics Athens 2020 conference, DaySpring will be hosting a Friday-morning farm tour. Depending on the winter, the February fields will either be in cover crop, or thick green fields of wheat in the early stages of filing out.

Nathan knows he’s found value in farm tours he’s attended in the past, seeing farm operations that allowed him to “take away their philosophy and methodology to make certain aspects of my operation better”.

Can’t make the farm tour? Don’t worry – DaySpring Farms will also be providing wheat and corn donations to the conference food menu. One way or another, you’ll want to try these locally-grown Georgia grains.

Long-Term Hoop House Research at Woodland Gardens – Georgia Organics

Woodland Gardens Hoop house high tunnel

Celia Barss, owner of Woodland Gardens, a 12+ acre organic farm just outside of Athens in Winterville, Georgia, know the benefits and weaknesses of hoop houses firsthand. With about an acre and a half of hoop houses, the oldest one at the 15-year mark, Barss recounts how her hoop houses started to suffer a decline in production, due to pest and disease pressure, around year ten.

One of the prime issues in Barrs’ hoop houses, which is common with most growers, is root knot nematodes, parasites that build up to large numbers in the beds and destroy root systems. “Everyone will end up having problems with it, because they’re present in our soil – it’s a matter of time,” says Barss.

“Our hoop houses have been here for a long time, so we’re seeing more of the problems,” she adds.

Dr. Elizabeth Little, extension plant pathologist and associate professor with University of Georgia, has been working with Barss and Woodland Gardens for over seven years, and she backs up the grower’s assessment. 

“It’s not just with Celia’s – hoop houses are valuable territory,” Little says. “They tend to be used extensively, and growers don’t always do the same cover crops and long-term rotations that they do in the fields”.

“Most of the small, local, organic producers have at least one hoop house,” adds Little. “But, they don’t really come with instructions,” she jokes. 

Little is evaluating different best management practices to keep issues like nematodes at bay, including cover crop rotations, non-host rotations, soil solarization in the summer, and different soil inputs. 

“There are challenges with the research. You can prove something and have results – but is it something that will work with the grower?”, says Barss.

According to Barss, because many growers get their first hoop houses through NRCS grants, this is an important issue for everyone. For growers with only a few houses who will want to push production, “you invest a lot in these hoop houses, so you need to get production out of them and stabilize farm income,” she adds.

Barss’ moveable hoop houses don’t experience the same level of nematodes issues, because the soil isn’t being as used as intensely. As for her old hoop houses, “I’m not using them as intensively as I used to, and in my newer houses, I’m not pushing it as much,” says Barss. “We’re still having success, enough of a return… but we have to negotiate and manage the problem”.

Celia Barss, Woodland Gardens, Georgia Organics, Shared Plates, Dr. Elizabeth Little, Organic Farming, Athens Georgia, high tunnel

Barss and Little will be sharing best preventative management practices that have come out of research and trials at their “Advanced Hoop House Soil Management” session at the Georgia Organics conference.

“Growers often aren’t aware of soil-borne problems that build for quite a while,” says Little. “It can help raise their awareness of potential issues, so they can take preventative measures as needed”.

On farm research is always a challenge, says Little, but “there’s a need for more research on what works in organics in Georgia”. But in partnering with Barss, Little can work to replicate results, providing critical research that is based on years-long, long-term trials. This research, says Barss, is about meeting the growers’ needs, whether they are “new farmers or farmers eight years in.”

Celia Barss, Woodland Gardens, Georgia Organics, Shared Plates, Dr. Elizabeth Little, Organic Farming, Athens Georgia , High Tunnel

Amplifying the Sheats’ Farm Restoration Project – Georgia Organics

Farm Restoration Project The Plate Sale Mike and Shyretha Sheats old smokehouse

Mike and Shyretha Sheats, the couple behind the multi-faceted The Plate Sale, spend their time juggling pop ups on Athens game days, taking care of their three-year-old daughter Luna, and working in Athens restaurants. In recent months, they’ve added sanding floors to their list, working to update Shyretha’s grandmother’s home and farm.

The 12-acre Farm Restoration Project, located in Oglethorpe county east of Athens, includes an old chicken yard, smokehouse, and heaps of old-growth foliage packed with wild plums, bamboo, and bitter orange trees. Shyretha’s grandmother had lived on the property until she passed away in 2012. 

Sheats Farm, Georgia Organics, Shared Plates, Athens GA, The Plate Sale

Shyretha, who grew up on the property just next door, saw it as an opportunity to build on the hard work her grandmother had done. “The least we could do is come back and keep it up,” adds Mike. 

“When you have that opportunity to restore something that’s been in your family, everyone in this community is in good support of that,” says Paul Sorah, farmer at Hearts of Harvest and member of the Athens Land Trust. Sorah has advised the Sheats how to navigate some beginning challenges on their farm.

As of October 2019, the Sheats have got their first cover crop, rye, in a pasture they plan to plant in the late spring. They’re thinking about starting with crops like peas, beans, and leafy greens, in addition to cut flowers and herbs, to continue conditioning the soil. With combined experience in the culinary and agriculture world, as well as support from mentors in Atlanta and Athens, the Sheats aim to one day provide employment and housing on the farm.

The couple is embracing land ownership, and planning on running a business collective off of the farm. Showing us an aerial photo of the farm taken in the 90s, Shyretha calls it “the blueprint”.

“Right now, the property is mostly overgrown,” says Shyretha. “We have a vision for the project as a whole, but it’s a process”. 

Sheats Farm, Georgia Organics, Shared Plates, Athens GA, The Plate Sale

Their goals are wide-ranging. “We want to grow things that are bountiful, that we can extend to the neighborhood,” in a CSA or pay-what-you-can model, says Shyretha. Longer-term projects also include growing ginger for a ginger concentrate beverage, adding high tunnels, and, of course, a future brick and mortar restaurant.

With all their projects, the Sheats have the support of the local food community. “Down here, we’re pretty tapped into the importance of local food systems,” says Sorah. “Small farms are the backbone of the future of sustaining accessible food for communities. We all support each other, because we understand that we’re much stronger as a collective together”.

The Sheats are well aware of their role in today’s conversation. Nationally, the USDA reports that black farmers made up 1.4% of the country’s 3.2 million farmers in 2012. The same study reports that in Georgia, black farmers make up 4% of the state’s total farmers. 

“Here, our family could keep the land and build off of what has been done for 40-60 years,” says Mike. Gesturing to Luna, playing nearby, he adds, “and we can pass it on to someone else – creating generational wealth”. 

Sheats Farm, Georgia Organics, Shared Plates, Athens GA, The Plate Sale

Mike is also interested in the using the land to showcase the food from this particular region. “Most of the spotlight on southern food is about low country cuisine or Appalachian food,” he says, but “the Georgia woods are a totally different environment”.

The Sheats are aiming to secure a location for their restaurant by the end of 2020, as well as leasing out agricultural space on the farm. Currently, they’re staying busy with opportunities networking for resources, sponsorships, and funding.

On the host committee for the Georgia Organics 2020 conference in Athens, Mike and Shyretha are looking forward to the networking at the conference, connecting with progressive farmers to talk about the future of farming. 

“We’re discussing how we can contribute, how to we fit in the scope of farming,” says Mike. It’s about preservation, he says, “but it’s about amplifying as well.”

“It’s making a statement, and using this as a voice to then tell the stories that we want to keep going”.

Sheats Farm, Georgia Organics, Shared Plates, Athens GA, The Plate Sale

Organic Farming & The Biology of Weeds – Georgia Organics

Nick Basinger UGA University of Georgia Weed Science

“The climate here in Georgia makes weeds and weed management one of our toughest production challenges,” says Michael Wall, Director of Farmer Services at Georgia Organics.

Dr. Nick Basinger, Assistant Professor of Weed Science in UGA’s Department of Crop and Soil Sciences, knows this challenge well – and he’s ready to speak about it during his session, “Know Your Enemy: The Biology of Weeds” at the Georgia Organics Conference. 

Weed Science, Georgia Organics, UGA, Dr. Nick Basinger, Shared Plates, Organic Farming

With a background in the organic and biodynamic world, as well as years of research at North Carolina State and University of Georgia, Basinger has seen firsthand how much time these farms spent battling weeds.

“Growers have a lot on their plate in terms of production challenges, but for many organic growers, weeds are their biggest problem,” says Basinger. “It’s important to understand when to implement weed control practices, and the potential losses they could have if they don’t”.

Basinger says that the timing of the Georgia Organics Conference is perfect for this discussion.

“Come February, farmers are going into a critical time of the year,” he says. “If farmers can have weed control as part of their plan of action, they can essentially start with a cleaner field before some of the more challenging times later in their season”. 

Basinger’s approach prioritizes understanding the ecological factors behind why certain weeds are located where they are in the field. “Don’t stick a bandaid on it and say we’re going to cultivate these out – instead, get to the root of the problem,” he explains.

Using timed tillage or planting, based on when weeds sprout, can have “a huge impact in the amount of weed control farmers have to implement,” says Basinger. It’s all about protecting crops when they are most vulnerable.

“A big focus of my program is talking about integrated weed management,” says Basinger. “It’s analyzing all the different ‘little hammer’ management practices to get to an integrated approach”. This includes integrating controllable factors (row spacing, planting day, seeding rate) and uncontrollable factors (rainfall, temperature) to manage weeds most effectively.

Weed Science, Georgia Organics, UGA, Dr. Nick Basinger, Shared Plates, Organic Farming

Michael Wall agrees that this sort of advance planning. “Understanding more about the biology of weeds, when and how they will seed out and spread, can allow our growers to be much more proactive, and can let them deal with their weed problems before they get out of hand”.

“It’s important to have an understanding of what weeds are going to be problematic when, and which weeds are the most competitive,” says Basinger. To help farmers work on their weed identification, the first step toward understanding plant biology, Basinger will also bring resources from books to weed ID apps.

For the farmers who struggled with weeds last year, Basinger advises them to stay two steps ahead this year. “Weeds are pre-programmed to come up at a certain time, persist, and go to seed at a certain time,” he adds. “But if you can understand their biology, you can understand what their Achilles Heel is”.

Erin Wilson and Athens’ The National – Georgia Organics

Erin Wilson the National

“Over the years, small change makers have done so much to make Athens a rich, southern small town,” says Erin Wilson, gazing out the front window of The National, a well-established restaurant in the heart of downtown.

After coming to University of Georgia in 2007 to study Public Relations, Erin quickly fell in love with the vibrant Athens community. The city’s energy pulled her to stay after graduation, where she found a home in the local restaurant scene.

“I was asking myself, ‘how can this PR skill set be used for [something] that I felt good about?’” says Erin. “This town really inspires me, the people in it really inspire me, and working at The National brought it all together”.

Erin Wilson The National Athens GA

At The National, Erin is able to combine her passion for writing, community building, and food. Originally starting as a host and a PR intern, Erin is now General Manager and Partner, overseeing day-to-day operations as well as the long-term growth of the business.

The National is well-known in Athens and beyond for their commitment to quality food, built on farm-centric sourcing. The restaurant has helped grow the Athens good food movement through investing in local producers.

“The audience that we have from this restaurant, its reputation, its time in existence – it affords us the opportunity to uplift people,” says Erin. “Why put your money out into the world, where you’ll never see it back, when you can put it out into your community and see it grow people who you want to see grow?”

As for the role of restaurants in general, Erin adds, “I think restaurants being on board is essential for the good food movement to progress”. Because such a range of people dining out, she believes, restaurants can demonstrate to a wide audience how sourcing good ingredients makes for delicious food.

Erin Wilson The National Athens GA
Customers’ take these ideas from restaurants, Erin says, to the farmers market, to a CSA, to the grocery store, to their homes. “I think restaurants are a gateway – the more that access is grown, and the more that restaurants can facilitate that access, the more people adjust their thinking about food,” explains Erin.

As for the 2020 Georgia Organics Conference in Athens, Erin is excited to share what The National does in the city. “I hope we can be as engaged with conference goers as possible,” she says, adding that The National is open for a coffee in the morning, a midday break, or a cocktail after the conference.

“Come here and see how Athens is doing so much for the farming community in this town – and how the restaurants are buying into it.”

“That openness is where it starts” – Meating

A classically-trained restaurant chef turned butcher and charcutier, Rusty Bowers opened Pine Street Market, a retail and wholesale butchery, in 2008. He recently partnered with Riverview Farms, his main sourcing partner for the last decade, to open another retail store, Chop Shop. Rusty sat down to speak with us about selling meat retail, his approach to meat waste, and how he’s seen customers change in the last decade.

Pine Street Market Rusty Bowers Weighing Meat Scale

Corinne Kocher: Pine Street Market has been around since 2008. How has it grown and changed over the last decade?

Rusty Bowers: I’ve been going over old documents recently, and I found my early 2007 business plan. It was going to be a tiny room, two household size refrigerators, one for raw product and one as a curing cave. I was going to have four wholesale customers and that was it, no store, no nothing. I started as only salami, because I thought that no one would spend money on higher-end sausage, because you can get sausage at the grocery store for like four bucks. 

About six months after we opened, I realized I had to grow to stay alive, so I started making bacon. And then with the trim from the bacon, the trim from the salami, I started making sausage. Once the retail store was open, our customers started coming in saying, “I want a pork chop”.

 Originally I had envisioned it as a sort of charcuterie shop, but what I quickly realized is that our customers and neighbors were excited about humanely raised meats and wanted to try heritage  pork chops, grass fed steaks, humane chicken, the everyday meats that they would have throughout the week.  

Pine Street Market Rusty Bowers cured sausage

So it slowly grew. Later in 2009, we were able to grow to processing whole animals, starting with sides of local, heritage pork. And it made more sense – I had always wanted  to showcase the beautiful pork and grass fed from Riverview Farms and humanely raised chickens from Springer Mountain Farms. Now we can be more sustainable with the farms; we can take more from the farms.

In 2008 it was just me. Now we have four full-time butchers, we have a general manager, retail associates, delivery drivers, and we’re growing.

Currently, you practice “whole animal butchery”, working with entire animals. But when you first started your business, you used “primal cuts”. How did you make that transition?

I don’t see a way around that [using primal cuts] at the beginning. Because we had to learn on the job and be as close to zero waste as possible. We would have had high waste if we had started with whole animals. My fear was that I buy a whole animal to make salami, I can’t sell some of it, and I throw half of the animal away. I was going to disrespect the life of the animal. 

So originally we were just buying the hams and shoulders. And by the middle of 2009, we could finally handle doing whole animal. Now, every Monday we get a side of beef from Riverview Farms, and six whole pigs that we break down each week.

From a waste perspective, what is it like doing whole animal butchery?

For me personally, being a classically trained chef and working as that for 15 years before I started Pine Street, what really helped was that I worked under extremely frugal French chefs. The executive chef would go around the kitchen as we were prepping for dinner service. He would empty your trash can into a roasting pan, and add up what he thought you had incorrectly thrown away. He was looking for trimmings of carrots, the top of the red pepper, the tiny pieces you assumed didn’t matter. He would add it up in his head, holding out his hand and demanding in a thick accent, “$2.50, you owe me $2.50 and if you do not pay me you must leave.”

Living that example on the day-to-day gives you that mindset – not only from a cost standpoint but out of respect for the animals and farmers. Our goal at Pine Street is that you can lift the trash can with two fingers at the end of the day – it should be, at most, some spent bones from a broth, paper towels, empty boxes of spice containers, plastic wrap, that kind of stuff.

The other thing that’s really helped me is the several avenues of sales that we have – wholesale, butchering classes, retail, farmers markets, and our new store, Chop Shop. A great example of this would be wholesale customers like George and Michael with Korean Wives [Atlanta-area restaurant group] and Noona, Ramen Station, Taiyo Ramen – buying the leftover bones, skins, and trotters. These lesser used cuts make amazing broth, soups, and ramen that are difficult to sell at the retail counter. True whole animal butchery means finding ways to use every last piece.  We wouldn’t have it any other way.

What really helped was that I worked under extremely frugal French chefs… would empty your trash can into a roasting pan, and add up what he thought you had incorrectly thrown away. He would add it up in his head, holding out his hand and demanding in a thick accent, “$2.50, you owe me $2.50 and if you do not pay me you must leave.”

How does this differ from grocery stores?

Grocery stores are not butchering at the store; it is cases of vacuumed sealed big cuts of meat that they cut and portion for the meat case. These boxes of meat are coming from a distribution center of mass-produced, commodity meat and have usually spent several months in a freezer.  These are animal breed for mass production, not from a local farm where they are raised for flavor.  

For us, we have the beauty and freedom of two shops, so we can always do something with the meat and not waste it. A big box grocery store doesn’t have that freedom – when our staff have an idea, we let them go for it. For example, our staff a while ago realized that we were ending the week with extra beef fat. Together we came up with a solution: Beef Butter. We render the beef fat with black pepper and herbs and blend it with grass fed butter. We now offer it to go with the steak you’ll be cooking at home. What better way to compliment a steak?! 

I don’t think you have that flexibility in the grocery store, so their waste looks different. But we’ve developed that flexibility to go with using whole animals and day-to-day business.

I think one of the most difficult things about selling meat retail, compared to restaurants, is that people at restaurants may be more adventurous, because they don’t need to prepare the meat themselves. But in retail, education about meat has to be central to what you do, because they will cook it themselves.

I agree. We are so proud to be working with Riverview Farms and we want to share that love with our customers. Beautifully, humanely-raised pork – birthed on the farm, which is really important to me. It grows; it’s processed. It comes here, Danny [production team leader] and the crew cut the perfect pork chop. It goes up in the deli case, you take it home, you burn it, and you say, “that’s a bad pork chop”.

[laughs] And I immediately think, “Only one person in this circle messed up. And it wasn’t us.”  So the logical step is to help inform our customers on how to properly cook the meat!

Customers want and need tips on how to cook humanely raised meat because it cooks differently than grocery store pork. I love that! So we’ve started to show people how to dry rub, talking about the love of brining (with brining it’s a lot harder to overcook). Or we talk about the right way to cook sausage, because everyone cooks it backwards. We’re educating people through demonstrations, classes, newsletters, pamphlets.

But also, customers will come in and say, “what do you guys have?” So the education starts with the employee, and then it goes to the customers in the shop.

Pine Street Market Rusty Bowers shop

This company has gone through hard times, and still not let go of quality. So people come in, and we say, “hey, have you had a Pork Secreto? They’re delicious!” and they say, “everything I’ve had here is delicious, I’m going to try a Secreto!” If we’re going to be part of this community we’ve got to do everything we do consistently week after week.

How do you deal with attitudes people have about meat, especially meat that they are going to take home and prepare themselves?

Part of our job, and we talk about this in the training for the retail counter, is taking the fear out of meat. When you walk into the shop, it can be intimidating. So that’s part of the reason why we do things like making recipe cards, explaining how to cook pork, chicken, and beef – to take that fear out of it, so you can just grab the card and say, “oh yeah I knew that”, and feel like you got it.

I think people are starting to realize that you can’t just eat ribeye steak or tenderloin. I do have customers come in, and they say, “okay I want 60 pounds of tenderloin” and it’s like, man, that’s not possible – we don’t even get that in a month. But it’s just what they’re used to – we’re all sensitive, all of us, and we don’t want to be told that were wrong. So to go to the butcher shop, and you see they don’t have boneless skinless chicken breast, so you think you can’t eat chicken, or they don’t have a ribeye or New York strip so you can’t eat steak, you don’t know what to do.

There are also other expectations people have, from other places – we have “all-natural pork and beef frankfurter”. It’s a long title, but it needs that because if I call it a hot dog, you’re going to think it’s $4 a pound. If I call it a pork and beef frankfurter you’re going to say, “what’s really in there?” So it has to be “all-natural pork and beef frankfurter” for people to be like, “okay, that title fits in with my view of meat”.

Pine Street Market sausages

You partner with Riverview Farms to source your animals. A humanely-raised pig can take something like eight months to get to the weight you want. What are the challenges that come with sourcing on such long timelines?

Right now, the weather is driving us crazy, because we haven’t had one of those long cold snaps to where we can get some beautiful fat back on a pig. We need that fattier stuff, that richer flavor, to do things like cure lardo. But if a pig is sitting outside, all hot in a mud puddle, they’re not going to take on a lot of fat. That is the beauty of whole animal butchery combined with such a strong relationship with our farmers, together we have to make it work.

So how do you deal with those long timelines, when you’re trying to meet retail expectations?

The only way it can work is by having the different outlets. Like I said, we sell online, wholesale, retail at Pine Street and now Chop Shop, farmers markets, etc. We have high-end clients who say, “send me four different types of charcuterie this week.” That saves us, because our cured meats take anywhere from 3 to 8 months to cure and something like an unexpected change in the weather or increased retail demand can affect what we have on hand. We make projections of what we’re going to need, but that’s mostly just from the gut. Things can change, and we have to adjust.

How have your customers have changed their expectations or buying habits over the years?

When we first started we could not sell pancetta. Customers thought that was weird, “why would I buy pancetta, that should be at a restaurant.” But now we sell guanciales, ears, rillettes, and pates – our customers are growing with us.

We are forever growing, like doing monthly butcher boxes to test out new ideas – the next one will have lap cheong salami and nduja, which no one would have tried in 2009. Having our customers trust us and try the new items we make means the world to me.

Pine Street Market teaches a lot of butchery classes to the public. How does this fit in with your business model?

I learned a lot in school [at the Culinary Institute of America] about making us “sticky”, making customers stick to us. I view us as not being a butcher shop; we are a “lifestyle shop”. 

We look at it from that avenue – you could go to Walmart, you can go to Kroger, you have all these take places that sell beef and chicken and pork. But you’re choosing to come to Chop Shop, Pine Street – you’re choosing to buy into that culture, being a part of humanely raised, local, sustainable food.

We have a sausage making class, and at first I thought it was just going to be  good ol’ boys who go hunting and want to make some deer sausage, which would have been fine. But as it turns out it’s about fifty-fifty male-female. Most often, it’s people who want to learn about what we do, and then they say, “I get the process, but that’s too complex, so I’m going to go buy sausage in your store.”

Pine Street Market stuffing sausage

The same with the whole hog class, they learn that the butt comes from the front of the pig, why spare ribs are better than baby back, and why chops should be brined. Explaining those stories and reasons, it helps educate our customers, and it helps our whole business.

When people visit Pine Street Market, they can see directly into the butchery side of the business. Why that design?

For me I need to know where our animals come from I want to meet the producer, walk the farm, tour the slaughterhouse, all before I feel comfortable working with that supplier. That openness is where it starts – building trust with the customer means being wide open. That’s why we have a plexiglass window in the store; it’s like an open kitchen. You can stop in at anytime.

What do you think the future of butchery shops, retail meat looks like?

I think I think we’re going to see more and more beautiful boutique companies, celebrating regional stuff popping up. I think we’re going to see Tyson, Purdue, Cargill, Hormel, all the larger meat producers looking for people like us to partner with. It is the same as Anheuser-Busch wanting to buy up high-end boutique craft breweries, and having it in their portfolio and distribute it on a larger level.

I think distribution, supply chains are opening up – people, especially small and medium companies, can open up more slaughterhouses, more cold storage. We’re seeing all that smaller infrastructure that we lost fill back in.

Pine Street Market wrapped packaged meat

What’s next for Pine Street Market?

We are excited to be figuring out how to expand our production to be able to supply mid-level grocery chains and large boutique stores. This starts with securing financing, additional humane meat suppliers, and a much larger facility!

“It’s an ethereal f**king experience” – Meating

Brian Wolfe is the executive chef at Kimball House, a restaurant in the Atlanta that serves “food and drinks that reflect the seasons, farms, and personalities of the people preparing them”. Brian brings a long-time interest in butchery to the kitchen, and he spoke with us about his choices as a chef in the protein-ordering process at Kimball House.

Kocher: How does your kitchen approach buying meat?

Wolfe: At Kimball House, I purchase all proteins for the restaurant except oysters. For our oysters, Bryan Rackley [Kimball House owner] knows all the oyster farmers and has visited most of the farms. So I try to base my ordering within that kind of ethos – ordering as local as possible, as sustainable as possible, and trying our best to know all the people we get our stuff from.

Evans Meats out of Birmingham has taken a lot of our business. They’re family-owned and small, which I’ve learned is a great sign for ordering proteins. We get seafood from them, caviar, a lot of stuff.

We do get some non-regional beef. Beef is hard – most of our beef comes from coops in the Midwest, and we buy prime beef because I think the taste and quality of prime beef is better than grass fed. But we also do work with local farms- we get rabbits from a guy in southern Georgia, pigs from a guy in southern Georgia, pigs and beef from a place in Nashville, lamb from a farm near Athens.

Brian Wolfe butchering whole hog

What are other approaches to sourcing proteins have you seen?

I’ve been cooking for 13 years or so, and in control of ordering only in the last 5. But you see all kinds of different systems at different places – some places rely on orders that are completely questionable. You should order from people you trust; you shouldn’t want to only look at dollars per pound. I mean, ethically, you should be driven by what you think is the best-sourced product, the best animals. Some places, you get a list and you order from cost analysis only – that was always really frustrating to me because I wanted this sustainable practice that wasn’t really there.

If you’re dealing with a purveyor who does a super high volume, when they’re purchasing they only think about money. It’s only about monetary value and quantity and profit. I get it; it’s a business. But that said, when they buy large amounts of meat, their quality control is very low, and the variance in quality of the product we receive is wide. Some of it will be beautiful, some of it will be awful.

What cuts of beef do you buy?

We order “subprimals”, four to five whole ribeyes and/or strip loin a week, and we break everything down in-house from there. We don’t order individually purchased steak.

I’m pretty proud of our beef program, because we don’t buy that much but we’ll use literally everything. There’s no waste at all. All the fat gets rendered to cook in, bones and silverskin are roasted for stock, all lean trim gets ground for family meal, for the menu we get bone-in ribeyes – we confit and deep fry the ribs and use it as an entree.

For example, we get hanger steaks, which is on the diaphragm of the cow. There’s only one of them per cow. It’s kind of an odd muscle with a large piece of meat separated by cartilage that runs through it, and people typically trim that middle part out because they don’t cook it properly. But we cure it and cook it for 24 hours at 135 degrees fahrenheit, low temperature, basically make a perfect mid rare and melt the cartilage – so we get to a full yield. 

Kimball House behind the scenes

The quick turnaround to getting it butchered, cleaned, cured, cooked, and on the menu within the week is necessary – because that’s a large expense, and margins are thin for every restaurant.

 You have to be organized and use every single thing – not all of it turns into profit, but most of it does. Our outlet for beef, mainly, is a steak dinner portion of our menu and hanger steak entree. Steak is popular on the menu, but there’s not much else we can do with it. I prefer buying a whole loin as opposed to a tenderloin, so I have all of the other parts, the bits and bobs, to use. 

Most people in our kitchen are trained to break down the steaks – they already have their vessels and containers, they know what they’re going to get. We have it pretty streamlined and make it quick.

Why the focus on a quick turnaround?

For any beef loin or half hog (I never get a whole pig unless it is smaller) or lamb, the quick turnaround to getting it butchered, cleaned, cured, cooked, and on the menu within the week is necessary – because that’s a large expense, and margins are thin for every restaurant.

For us it is more cost-effective to get a half hog. There’s only so many cuts on it but if you utilize it well, and it doesn’t go to charcuterie and remain standing inventory, you can make your money back pretty quickly. But getting it on the menu and sold has to be the priority.

We get incredible, show-quality lamb from Two Brothers Sheep Company, out near Athens, Georgia. It’s expensive, but when we put it on the menu, people buy it and love it and we can get that good turnaround. But I need to have a goal in mind from the second I start, because the guy will ask if I want a big lamb or a medium one when I order – so I need to know how busy I’m going to be that week and what I can sell.

What’s the key to making your money back on selling local meat?

Whenever our food cost allows, we try to get ahold of a whole or half animal, because it is really cost-effective in the long-run. Then, as a team, we figure out what we’re going to do with it. But having an endgame in mind – from the beginning – allows you do make your money back, not waste things, use it appropriately, and move forward from there.

For example, if I buy a pig, we might buy multiple heads. A lot of people don’t use the head because they think they can’t make money off of it, or they think people won’t eat it. But we do head cheese or Coppa di Testa, sell three slices of a pig’s head for $16 with a bunch of garnishes and accoutrements. But from that $25 head you can get 50 slices, and that’s a ton of money – you can almost make enough money on the pig’s head to pay for the whole pig. That’s what I’m looking for.

A lot of people just want it to be simple. They want easy, they don’t want to have to worry about what am I going to do with this, they just want to open a vacuum seal bag. But for me, this is more interesting.

Another example: we get trout from Bramlett Farms in North Georgia, non-eviscerated, and my butcher processes them. If we get enough eggs to cure for caviar, we can cure our own roe and sell it on a caviar service for $30-$50 a piece. If I sell five of those, I purchased all the trout and then I’m still selling trout fillets, and every bit of those sales are profit.

A lot of people just want it to be simple. They want easy, they don’t want to have to worry about what am I going to do with this, they just want to open a vacuum seal bag. But for me, this is more interesting. You start with an endgame in mind, and know how much everything is going to cost – that’s what allows me to buy local, high quality proteins like that.

So how do you sell an entire animal to a public that prefers certain prime cuts?

Part of buying whole hog, whole sides of beef is knowing what you’re going to do with it – but it’s also educating guests to value all of it, not just the cuts that they’ve heard of. 

Kimball House housemade brine

How do you educate the guests then?

I’ve never worked with more interested, engaged servers than the ones at Kimball House. The staff, the front of house, they want to talk about things before service, and they’ll watch me butcher.

I talked about the pig head earlier – people think that they won’t be able to sell it, but that’s the job of the front house staff: to sell. Guests usually want to be told what they need to get. People want to be sold an experience.

Our sales are funny, especially in proteins. With interesting proteins like head cheese, terrine, offal, weird stuff, if our sales aren’t good I’ll first look at the way it’s worded under the menu. Because it’s wild, how that manipulates our sales to an insane degree. So I look at the menu first, and then I’ll cook the dish for the servers. I’ll make them eat it, I’ll plate it for them, I’ll show them pictures of the farmers, we’ll discuss it – and the sales will go up.

People who know what head cheese is, love it. It’s probably like 70/30 for people who try it for the first time. The 30% who don’t like it just think about it too much, with their own head cheese.

So you find a generally positive guest reaction to using all the “bits and bobs” of an animal?

We are very fortunate to have a relatively knowledgeable clientele for the most part. I’m very lucky. We don’t have a big sign out front, we don’t get many people who randomly walk in not knowing what they’re getting into.

Of course sometimes servers will come back and be like “Well, table 12, seat 3 wants to know where this is from, where this is from, where this is from” [editor’s note: please watch this Portlandia sketch] When that does happen I feel decent about the fact that I have an answer for every single one of those questions. And most of it is very local, I know the names of some of these animals.

The animals you get have names? Or numbers?

No, some of our animals have names. It’s not sad for me, but the lady who brings the pigs in is sometimes crying when she delivers them, because she helps raise them. We had one named Socks – they fucked up, because that’s too cute – and she came in crying and saying, “I know I fucked up and spent way too much time with this pig, but I saved it for you guys because I know you’re going to do a really good job”.

And then that night after service we butchered this pig and I told everyone, “the lady who delivered this literally cried in our kitchen, so you need to be really careful with how you handle this animal.”

It goes down the line, from the people who raise the pig all the way down to the servers who are selling it. People take it really seriously and respect it.

What is it like to run a kitchen with a butchery focus? 

Cooks who get to work with the whole animal get creative. It’s a morale booster; people enjoy it. It gets people’s creative juices flowing. A lot of restaurants literally never butcher animals, because it is more work than one person can do in a reasonable amount of time. But it’s something I’m really passionate about, and it completely runs down the line and I can get people involved with the different parts of it.

And looking at the animal, you get acquainted, you can see the kind of life that it had. That’s changed who I’ve ordered pigs from in the past. If you get three pigs in a row that obviously had tons of kill stress – and we test the pH of the pork when it comes in, and you can see what happens when a pig has released hormones and adrenaline and was stressed out – it does change the feeling, the texture of the meat. It has everything to do with the final taste of the product.

Kimball House Brian Wolfe processing whole hog

In the culinary world, there’s the growing consciousness of eating seasonally – guests are increasingly willing to pay for local fruits and vegetables in season. But we rarely talk about eating meat seasonally. Is there a season for local pork belly?

Historically there was seasonality, but we don’t see it as much anymore. Feed and shelter are so readily available now, so the fat and the health of the pig should be good year-round. A hundred years ago, that wasn’t the case – you had a long spring and summer into fall, and when food is plentiful the pig is plentiful and healthy and fat. So you would kill your pig in the fall, because that’s when it is the largest, and you need all that fat for preserving things in the winter.

But now we don’t feel that seasonality as much – there are lamb and goats, animals that reproduce at specific times, there is a seasonality to when that animal is becoming ready. Rabbit is something I brought under the menu in the last couple of months, there are rabbit breeding seasons when they are healthier and more plentiful. But really, we’re only affected by the volume that we can get, not the quality, because animals in the modern age are taken care of way better.

Where you see seasonality in protein more is with fish and shellfish. You can only get flounder a couple times a year because of their migration and reproduction patterns. Crabs, crustaceans, bivalves, sure, but you don’t see it in meat on the sourcing side.

Do you ever apply the seasonal, local ideals we use for fruit, vegetables, etc, to the meat you buy and use on your menu?

You do see the seasonality in the preparation. Seasonally, when it’s cold, people want comfort foods, we’re going to braise more things, so pork sells better in the winter time because there are more large braising cuts. But the seasonality is mostly based on what we want to be doing at that particular moment, which is exciting and fun.

The choices we make in proteins honestly comes from what vegetables we have available. That also leads to creativity – “oh, we have these dope carrots in the walk-in, we’re going to do something with that”. It’s full-circle.

We’re very well connected with proteins, and we can get whatever we want whenever we want it for the most part – but I kind of wish it was harder to get, you know what I mean? I like a challenge of you “we have these things to work with, what do you do?” That’s kind of where we are with produce. Because we can get the same meat each week, but the produce is going to determine the menu.

I get excited by the seasonally available produce. Sometimes you have a lot to work with and sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you want to have a beet dish, but no one’s growing beets and you can’t. It was like that this year here, not many people grew beets for whatever fucking reason. 

A majority of my produce ordering is with farmers. Chefs and farmers are built way different, but I love working so closely together with them.

Kimball House Brian Wolfe whole hog

Why are sourcing your proteins this way and butchering so important to you?

Fitting in whole animal butchery is difficult. I don’t want it to be like that, but you have to have practice or learn under somebody. I’ve had years of practice at it and I’m finally getting better at it. But a lot of people get a whole pig and then they don’t know what the fuck to do with it and then they just go back to precuts. That’s why they get pre-portioned steaks and they don’t give a fuck about utilizing whole animals. And that’s a shame.

I’m learning and I’m able to teach people and I enjoy both of those things equally. When I have a deer that I or my dad killed at the restaurant, and I’m there late at night, listening to music and butchering it, it’s like an ethereal fucking experience that I really enjoy. It means a lot, and I think a lot of people miss that.  

When I have a deer that I or my dad killed at the restaurant, and I’m there late at night, listening to music and butchering it, it’s like an ethereal fucking experience that I really enjoy. It means a lot, and I think a lot of people miss that.

 I started to get this series of epiphanies at the beginning of my cooking career. One of them was about how I had watched my dad hunt my whole life. Eventually, I understood the importance of knowing where everything comes from – it was a crash course of “you go get it yourself or you don’t get one”. My dad had that hunting background, and he grew up working on farms, every summer from 7 until he was 19.

But I missed out on that agricultural experience that is a major part of his background, so I feel like I’m trying to make up for lost time in what I do. I deal with farmers everyday. I also help maintain our garden at Kimball House, and I think I look at things differently than some chefs who have never had the opportunity to be on the farm side. I was fortunate to be exposed to it, and now that makes it very, very important to me.

Suitcase Full of Honey – Chow Club

Yohana Solomon

When Yohana Solomon was preparing for her mother, Gezachin Fantaye, to visit from Ethiopia, the first thing she did was deep clean her kitchen. This is because she knows that in her family, visits are all about food.

“We wake up; we cook breakfast. Then breakfast will be done, and we’re getting ready for lunch. Then lunch is finished and somebody is coming over for dinner,” explains Yohana.

We are talking around a platter of tibs, a rich beef stew surrounded by rolls of injera, the omnipresent Ethiopian bread. Bailey and I had expected just a normal interview until Yohana, Gezachin, Aunt Shewaynesh, and Yohana’s daughter Seseni tumbled through the door with bags full of ingredients.

Into the kitchen we went, Gezachin quickly and efficiently adding everything to a sizzling saute pan and finishing a steaming-hot lunch in a matter of minutes. We now sit surrounding the communal platter, trading stories while tearing pieces of injera to scoop up the stew.

My own mother would be horrified with the amount of questions I am asking with a mouth full of food, but I can’t help it. Gezachin and Auntie are quite literally feeding me bite after bite, reaching across the table to politely (and relentlessly) offer me more food. Yohana explains this gesture, called “gursha” in Amharic, as a symbol of care and hospitality.

“You cannot do it just once, or you may have relationship troubles.” Yohana explains. I nod silently, as I continue to chew this delicious mouthful of food that Gezachin just carefully placed in my mouth. I can see her preparing another bite, her eye on me.

Yohana grins. “You have to say yes, otherwise the interview won’t go well.”

Old friendsIn my experience, there is no mother on earth who will let you leave their table hungry, and Gezachin is no exception. She traveled from Ethiopia to the US with luggage filled to the brim not with personal belongings, but with things to feed her family: Ethiopian herbs, spices, green coffee, and honey. Gezachin will be using these well-traveled ingredients to cook for her family, and anyone else in the vicinity, during her many-week stay.

When Yohana was growing up in Ethiopia, food was always at the center of the family. She doesn’t recall her mother directly teaching her any recipes, but through watching, tasting, and practice, Yohana learned how to cook Eritrean, Ethiopian, and Italian food. Yohana and her sisters were expected to cook for the family from a young age, and Yohana has taken those experiences with her as she has grown her own cooking and catering business in Atlanta.

Even now, with the family spread out between two continents, food is still the center of their relationship. This is Gezachin’s first visit in four years, and the self-described “ultimate foodie” family spends much of their visit deciding what they are going to eat next.

In particular, they seek out cuisines that they think have a lot of flavor, just like Ethiopian food – Gezachin lists Cuban, Chinese, Indian, Thai, and numerous Middle Eastern cuisines being among her favorite. Any American food she likes in particular?

“Burgers,” Gezachin says without hesitation. Yohana laughs.

Solomon Family

Mother and daughter also cook together, although they both describe the occasional “war in the kitchen”. Sometimes, one of them finds it best to leave the cooking to the other and just reconvene over the dinner table. Yohana says that while her mother might not have taught her strict recipes, she definitely lets you know what she thinks about your style.

“Gezachin means ‘one who conquers'”, explains Yohana, “and she lives up to her name.”

No matter the kitchen disagreement, the two of them love each other’s food, and they always return to a shared meal. Watching the jokes, laughter, and injera passed back and forth, the love between the pair is clear. “Food is her way of communicating that she cares.” Yohana says, smiling at her mom. Gezachin nods in agreement.

Gezachin’s visit to the US overlaps with our Mother’s Day holiday. I ask her what she thinks of the holiday, and the mother and daughter trade looks.

“Every day is mother’s day in our family.” Yohana replies.

And why shouldn’t it be? After all, this is a woman who comes to visit with a suitcase full of spices. Gezachin is prepared to show you how much she cares. She is prepared to feed you.