“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!

Getting Out of Peanuts and Corn – Regenerative Organic Alliance

It can look very risky to get out of peanuts and corn. 

We heard this refrain over and over during our time at White Oak Pastures. The entire agriculture system in the south, like in much of this country, is designed to reward the cultivation of commodity crops like peanuts, corn, soybeans, and cotton. With federal crop insurance, subsidized production costs, and export incentives, industrialized, centralized, commoditized agriculture may not have large margins, but the margins seem safe and steady. 

Much of the land in the American southeast is extraordinarily fertile, and here in Bluffton, Georgia, the soil is especially rich. Combined with a steady 55+ inches of rain each year, spread out fairly evenly, the natural fertility of the region has led to intense agricultural cultivation over the centuries – after all, this is the Gulf Coastal Plain topsoil that once supported the Kolomoki civilization (which was at one point the largest population center north of Mexico).

Kolomoki Mounds Georgia

A temple mound built between 250-950 CE at Kolomoki State Park, approximately 7 miles from downtown Bluffton

Kylan Hoover, hog manager at White Oak Pastures, has previously spoken about the natural resiliency of the southeast ecosystems and their non-brittle characteristics (check out part three of this story, here). He mentions this natural characteristic as perhaps part of the reason Allan Savory lacks as much of an influence in this region. 

“I think Savory is more popular in the west, and the southeast had less buy in. But it’s not just a cultural thing, like some people like to say,” explains Kylan. “There’s a reason why land isn’t for sale as often.”

Kylan is talking about the innate productivity of much of the land in the southeast. The natural resiliency of a non-brittle ecosystem, combined with governmental incentives, tends to lean away from ideas of managed, bounded, holistic land use. The system has been designed for inputs pumped in, everything you can grow pumped out.

The easy path is not regeneration – but exportation. “If you had the profitability of USDA-subsidized, insured agriculture – and steady rainfall, like they have here – why would you take the risk of changing it?” asks Kylan.

Especially if, for example, there were other factors at play – a family, a tradition, an established way of doing things. Kylan, coming from an agricultural family himself, adds, “it’s crazy to do something different, in generational farms, simply because you do not want to be the one to lose the farm.” He’s dead serious. “Then you’ll be the one who all your descendents talk about – the one who lost the family farm.”

But say you had the land, you had the family tradition, you had that pressure to keep the business viable – and then you made wild changes. What if you take that risk?

White Oak Pastures, Harris, Regenerative Organic Alliance, Shared Plates, Bluffton Georgia

Portrait of James Edward Harris (1839-1909) in the White Oak Pastures office 

During our visit, driving around downtown Bluffton with Will Harris III of White Oak Pastures, I spot some tucked away coves and parks in between faded houses. Thinking of the mischief you could get into in a small town, I ask Will if there were many teenagers in the area. 

Will is quiet, and gives me a long side-eyed look. “Nobody’s ever asked me that,” he responds. He looks thoughtful as he explains that when he was a kid, he would go downtown any day in the summer to find other kids to play baseball with. But by the time he was raising his own family, 20 years later, “you couldn’t even make a baseball team, even with every single kid in the town.”

During his and his dad’s lifetime, Will saw this lively agricultural community become dead row crop land. Writers (including me) have speculated for pages about what nudged Will down a different path, and the man is notoriously averse to nailing down one specific reason. But if you see that evolution in your hometown, and you want to return there anyway – maybe what you think of as “risky” starts to change.

Will did a wild thing – he started to get out of the commodity beef operation, the livestock equivalent of peanuts and corn, transforming his farm, over the course of years, into a completely different ecosystem. The Harris family farm was taking a risk – tearing up the playbook, and returning to a kind of radically traditional agriculture.

White Oak Pastures abattoir on farm processing

After touring around White Oak Pastures with Kylan to see the hogs, I sit with Kylan and Mark Harrison, the poultry manager, to take a break. We start to talk about their current focus: investing time and resources into training and reorganization of their departments. These two managers are drawing from quite a bit of experience in their fields to help further develop White Oak Pastures’ livestock programs. 

Part of this is the practical training that every manager must do. Mark admits, “I tell everyone around me that they should be able to have my job in 24 months, because I may move on.” But upon closer inspection, the deeper level of their work starts to become clearer – and goes beyond basic training.

White Oak Pastures practices holistic, regenerative land management, including rotational grazing, perennial cropping, and natural cycles of fertilizer and pest control. Many principles of this type of agriculture, while not exactly common today, were widespread just a few generations ago. And while traditional practices are growing more popular today, in the last few generations, some knowledge has been lost. 

“The issue with the [regenerative agriculture] industry is that most people who have generational knowledge about farming are on the conventional side,” says Kylan. Many multi-generational family farms use industrialized, centralized, commoditized methods, because of the perceived risk of “getting out of peanuts and corn”. In contrast, within the regenerative agriculture space, you frequently find many farmers who are agricultural transplants, career changers or well-meaning activists who may not have a background in agriculture.

But White Oak Pastures is an example of a small but growing number of family farms who are transitioning from conventional industrial farming to more regenerative methods – a generational farm, trying to turn in a completely different direction. This background puts White Oak Pastures, and its managers, in a unique position. 

Every farm (and organization for that matter), is operating under some sort of guidebook, a type of Standard Operating Procedure. Whether written out or not, general guidelines for how things are done need to be passed on, to ensure continuity in operations across seasons, people, and generations. Family farms, usually implicitly, have a standard operating procedure – one generation trains the next. Farm families pass on how things are done, transmitting experience and rules. 

But what do you do when you want to do something differently than your parents did? When Will Harris decided to leave commodity cattle production, he wasn’t just changing his production methods – he was leaving behind the playbook that his father had been writing on the farm. 

And when you tear up the playbook of a generational farm, you need to write a new one – one that refers back to the traditional knowledge in your family and also incorporates new developments in the understanding of natural systems. This is the task that Will, his daughters, and managers like Kylan and Mark are working on. They’re rewriting the rules for this kind of farming – and these new guidelines are focused on regenerating.

*****

White Oak Pastures is constantly trying out new systems, experimenting and completing trials of new projects. Talking to Jacqueline DeWitt, the farm’s compost and many-other-projects manager, over a farm lunch, she mentions how many of her projects overlap with a number of different departments. 

“Everything is so interconnected at White Oak Pastures,” says Jacqueline. “If I want to make a small change in the compost process somewhere, I need to talk to so many different people – feeding and grazing and birthing and the kill floor – and see how it all fits together, to get everyone on the same page.”

This system is more complicated than peanuts and corn. And it requires a lot more collaboration, effort, people – and, as the operation grows, new rules.

The new playbook at White Oak Pastures contains a lot of new, and old, ideas, all aimed toward the regeneration of the land and improving the health of the soil, animals, and people involved. Managers like Kylan and Mark are establishing new grazing rotations, breeding methods, and feeding systems. The farm’s operating procedures include a focus on achieving “zero waste”, using every part of the animal possible and returning whatever cannot be used back to the ecosystem. Within the community, White Oak Pastures invests in farm employee retention initiatives like hosting repetitive motion training for workers in the butchery plants or looking into starting a child care facility in Bluffton.

But the biggest tear-up-the-playbook moment has come in the form of a recently released study from White Oak Pastures and a third-party ecological outcome verification firm. The study took a comprehensive look at all carbon generating and sequestering activities of the farm, and found that, overall, White Oak Pastures sequesters more carbon in the soil than its cows emit during their entire lifetimes. This news flew in the face of the expectations that most people have regarding livestock and climate change. The results of this study are still echoing around the agricultural world – making the move toward regenerative, holistic land management suddenly seems a little less risky.

Will Harris White Oak Pastures snake

Our favorite picture of Will Harris – it may have little to directly do with regenerative agriculture, but it tells you a whole lot about a man willing to pull over his truck to move a snake off the road. What were you thinking was risky, again?

“Everything here is a work in progress,” says Will. “The to-do list is freaking incredible.”

He continues. “Sometimes I have to say, ‘you know, we’ve been at this 153 years, maybe we ain’t doing this today.'”

Writing a new playbook, one based on regenerative agriculture, is a never-ending process, and maybe it doesn’t need to get done today. But taking the risk in the first place, seeing the faulty logic behind the rules that you’ve been given – and acting on it – is the first step. This is what can lead to entirely new playbooks, ideas, and contributions from a whole community. And these are the playbooks that may end up influencing people far beyond your pastured acres.

“Everything has gotten more complex,” Jenni Harris declares. We’re talking about the overlap between pasture management, soil regeneration, and the farm business, and she’s pulling in facts and figures from every which direction. “We’ve always had a lot going on, but because we had resiliency in our minds and attitudes, we didn’t say ‘fuck this’,” she recounts. “We said ‘we’ll figure it out’.”

“We’ll figure it out” seems to be the perfect response to anyone telling you that “it’s risky”. At White Oak Pastures, the Harris family frequently cites their family prayer of “plenty of good work and the strength to do it”. Writing the new playbook will certainly give them the good work, and, judging from their never-ending ideas and resilient attitudes – it seems like they have the strength to do it.

*****

Part four of a four-part series on the human side of regenerative agriculture and the Regenerative Organic Alliance.

Part one

Part two

Part three

“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.

Pigs, and Weathering the Storm – Regenerative Organic Alliance

“Well, just look at a pig’s face,” instructs Kylan Hoover, swine manager at White Oak Pastures. We’re standing next to the fence lining the border forest, watching the herd of pigs that had come running over at Kylan’s confident approach. He’s got one foot propped up on the fence, his hands gesturing toward the pigs crowding around.

“See how there’s a flat disc up front, their nose? Think about their face as a shovel. The top of the disc is the cutting edge, the disc is the bottom side of the shovel.”

Kylan starts to mimic a shovel with his hands. “When pigs root, looking for food, they do a scooping movement.” He sighs and drops his arms. “Do you see it? A pig’s basic movement is tilling the soil.”

White Oak Pastures hogs pasture raised pigs

Kylan is part of the management team at White Oak Pastures, an operation known for practicing and advocating holistic, regenerative land management practices. “Regenerative agriculture” is no simple thing – keeping the life in the soil intact requires a lot of moving parts. In a regenerative pasture system, you’re trying to build a diverse ecosystem of different kinds of perennial polycultures. You’re wanting resilient, established root systems in the ground. You’re working to sequester carbon in the organic matter in the soil, keeping the nutrients and minerals you already have in the ground as well. All of this usually means… avoiding tillage.

“It’s tricky to use pigs instead of cows in your regenerative rotation, because pigs are a destructive event.” Kylan looks back at the pigs. “So we’re out here trying to regenerate the soil, keep the tilth, the bacteria, mycelium, etc intact – and if pigs were on the pasture, they would turn over the soil and bake it in the sun.”

He knows the question most people want to ask. Why the hell would you use pigs in your holistic grazing operation?

White Oak Pastures is usually associated with cattle. Will Harris III had inherited a conventional commodity cattle operation. During Will’s return toward holistic, “radically traditional” agriculture over the last 20 years, cattle remained the backbone of the operation. But that growth toward regenerative practices also grew the number of species living on the farm. Today, over 10 species make up a verifiable ecosystem of different kinds of animal impact – including herds of pigs.

But while feral pigs roam all over south Georgia (and an individual hog can cause an enormous amount of destruction by itself), domestic pigs can cause an even bigger impact when concentrated in herds. So most people ask: where do you put a herd of pigs, to limit their damage?

For Kylan, and White Oak Pastures, it’s not always a question of limiting the destruction that pigs can do – it’s asking, “where can their intense damage be helpful?”

White Oak Pastures Kylan Hoover field

Pigs were added to White Oak Pastures’ ecosystem, partially, because the farm relies on diverse business revenue streams to do the work it does (pork, no surprise, can be good for business). But hogs were also added because a holistic land management system requires many different kinds of animals for different kinds of roles.

White Oak Pastures’ land management aims for a savannah landscape, which Will describes as a warm, seasonal, perennial multiculture. This savannah goal includes some 20-30% shade, providing resting areas for animals and encouraging more diverse plant species and ecosystems. White Oak plants hundreds of different trees in their pastures every year, including pecan, peach, and other local trees. But some land, especially new acquisitions, already contains some of shade.

“What corn is to Iowa, pine trees are to Georgia,” Will Harris tells us, driving past the strips of timberland that border some of his tracts of land. Over the years, Will has acquired a number of commodity crop fields, flanked by factory pine silviculture (tree cultivation).

Although we normally associate monoculture with crops like corn and soybeans, this pine was planted for commercial pulp production in very much the same way. Land under silviculture is a little disorienting to look at –  an eerily overdesigned forest, trees lined up neatly in evenly-spaced rows. But once the pine is no longer being harvested, if left alone, these monocultured pine plantations would turn into the kind of jungle you can see on the edge of the highway – thick, impenetrable forest that frequently ends up taken over by an invasive plant like kudzu or buckthorn.

But at White Oak Pastures, these border forest areas, many former pine plantations, are part of the plan: the farm is trying to grow what they call silvipasture, or “pasture in the woods”, providing that shade for the savannah. To kickstart the transition away from overgrown timberland and toward a healthy savannah ecosystem, they need to use some big animal impact.

And nobody does animal impact like pigs do animal impact.

White Oak Pastures hogs 1

“Put pigs in a longleaf pine plantation, and they’ll turn over the soil, expose it,” Kylan explains. If you keep them there for a week, or a month? “They’ll keep foraging, and if left long enough, they’ll even girdle the trees eventually.”

Omnivores, like pigs, play a special role in prescriptive grazing practices. “Herbivores are focused on moving, because they know what they can eat but they need to constantly find more of it and avoid carnivores. Carnivores are super focused, because if they don’t kill, they don’t eat,” explains Kylan. “Omnivores do a little of both, but they’re more motivated by curiosity – they’re asking, ‘can I eat that?'” (Kylan adds: “that’s why they’re smarter too – think pigs, raccoons, bears… humans.”)

At White Oak Pastures, curious, foraging pigs are “the first line” of opening up a pine forest and turning it into savannah. Pigs tear up holes in a forested, overgrown landscape, opening up brush so sun can hit the ground and new plant life can start. After the first team of pigs, sheep and goats can start to get through the holes, opening up even more of the forest. With brush cleared, humans, too, have the opportunity to come in, thin trees, and alter the plant life. Finally, cattle have the opportunity to come through.

Kylan takes us on a tour of different sections of what’s planned for silvipasture. We start with an area that hasn’t seen any animal impact yet, the woodlands dense with overlapping vegetation and canopy. Looking at the forest, it’s hard to imagine any animal, let alone cattle, ever fitting through the brush.

We then visit a rotation of other sections, seeing where the pigs had been at the month prior, the month before that, and the month before that.

Kylan stops at the last section, where the pigs had been in January, three months prior. “When they left, this was a moonscape,” he says. Now, it was totally green again – but unlike the thick jungle we had seen previously, sunlight was peeking through to the ground.

White Oak Pastures hogs 2

In October of 2018, Hurricane Michael, a category 3 hurricane (the first to directly land on the state in more than 100 years), swept through the southeast. Bluffton, Georgia, 100 miles from the gulf and with 300 feet elevation, doesn’t normally get hurricane effects. This storm, however, passed through with 115 mph winds and left devastating damage.

White Oak Pastures knew the storm was coming and worked around the clock to prepare the farm for its arrival. When the storm had passed, the Harris family took stock of the damage. While no employee or community member was hurt, they had lost a significant number of their poultry, and some other animals had been wounded. A number of structures and fences, including those central to the plants and fulfillment centers, were damaged. Fortunately, on the operations side, only two truck shipments were delayed (and customers were extremely accommodating for both).

But overall, Will told us, “that storm damage kicked my ass”. Pointing to a number of enormous, old, downed trees in one of his pastures, he explained, “since we don’t normally have storms like that, there’s less of a natural thinning of trees. The damage was devastating for the trees at White Oak Pastures.”

After the storm, Jenni Harris, one of Will’s daughters and the Director of Marketing, received an outpouring of prayers and well wishes from White Oak Pastures’ supporters and customers. But while she appreciated the kind wishes, she knew that what White Oak Pastures needed most after the storm was, simply put, business. Jenni put out a call to action email to the farm’s community, asking for orders from the online store, to put production, processing, fulfillment, and the rest of the farm to work. The message ended with, “The Harris prayer has always been ‘We pray for plenty of good, hard work and the strength to do it.’ We have the strength, please give us the work.”

Jenni still looked dazed, describing the response, months later. “We had a bigger October than we did November and December, which has never happened. We were so grateful.” Customers and supporters flooded the farm with orders, adding business behind their well-wishes. According to Jenni, the amount of support from the community was overwhelming, “so we got to work”.

Business recovered, and over the months, farm operations slowly returned to a new normalcy. Hurricane Michael was an enormous challenge for White Oak Pastures, but the family and the business were able to withstand the hardship, and continue on.

With all the talk about building resiliency in the soil, it’s hard to avoid connections to the business and community. “Will, Kylan, a lot of our managers – they’re focused on the resiliency in the soil,” says Jenni. “I focus on the resiliency in our customer base, our business, our production.”

That focus on resiliency means that what you put out, you get back, in abundance. Resiliency in the land allows you to produce a bounty. Resiliency in your business, in your relationships with customers and business partners, means that you’ve created a community of support, just when you may need it most.

White Oak Pastures visitors tour

“This southern plain doesn’t have a proper rock for miles,” explains Kylan, smoothing a few small pebbles in his hand. “This is it.”

We’re not looking at much. Bailey, Kylan, and I have finished with our herd of pigs, and we’re crouched next to the red dirt road running alongside one of the former pine plantations, checking out the small, multi-color pebbles that line stream lines on the ground. Kylan tells us, “Will’s said that his dad always told him, ‘pebbly ground is the best ground’ – because that meant you had access to minerals.”

White Oak Pastures soil health pebbles field

Kylan points to the grasses edging the dirt road, whose roots are exposed in a cross section. “So if you have those materials, nutrients, on your land – you don’t want them washed away to the swamp, and then taken downstream.” The way to keep the minerals, the nutrients there, Kylan explains, is roots. “This is Georgia. It may have never had the 10-foot deep roots of the tall grass prairie, but the Longleaf Pine/Wiregrass ecosystem was one of the most biodiverse in North America.”

But White Oak Pastures’ regenerative agricultural practices, and long-term stewardship, are invested in getting roots deep in the ground. Every decision along the way, from how they use pig animal impact to creating a savannah through regenerative practices, is designed to support perennial polycultures and resiliency in the soil.

But for White Oak Pastures, focusing on the roots isn’t separate from focusing on the livestock, or the people. In Kylan’s words, “Savory talks about the connection between people, landscapes, and livestock – if you build those roots, animals and people will be supported by that.”

And at White Oak Pastures, the roots, the animals, and the people are still there – supported, resilient, and ready to weather any storm.

White Oak Pastures Kylan Hoover

Part three of a four-part series on the human side of regenerative agriculture and the Regenerative Organic Alliance.

Part one

Part two

Part four

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