Brasen Hill Farm

[happy hens pecking at feed]

This past weekend, my friend Sarah and I trekked up to Dudley, MA to visit our buddy Ellie’s farm. The weekend of farm life was an apt (though far in advance) prelude to some of the things I will be studying in-depth in Italy this fall.

Ellie and her boyfriend Theo started Brasen Hill Farm on 21 acres of land in southern Massachusetts this past fall. They come to Brasen Hill with a good deal of farming experience and with a commitment to high quality products and humanely raised animals — all of which I intend to learn more about at UNISG. They both attended the Practical Farm Training Program at the Farm School in Orange, MA in 2010-2011.

I spent all of last year reading Ellie’s blog, Barn None, which detailed their experiences working on a small, sustainable farm. I was in awe of Ellie as she learned welding, witnessed the birth of a calf, planted loads and loads of vegetables, and got to hang out with so many cute baby farm animals. So, when Ellie told me that she and Theo had plans to lease land for a small-scale, diversified, sustainable farm of their own, I knew I had to make a visit. And the possibility of hanging out with some lil’ lambs wasn’t the only draw. The work that Ellie and Theo are doing epitomizes what I think all farming should be like. I am extremely proud of their project and wanted to see the theories I have come to passionately support carried out firsthand.

 [new farm; old farm]

Brasen Hill Farm is located on land leased from an old-school dairy farmer whose primary business is in Framingham, MA. The owner has been leasing the land for at least a decade now, and the previous tenants didn’t do a good job of keeping up the land. When Ellie and Theo moved in, they had to do major overhaul on the farm house they would be living in (there was no toilet! no heat! no running water) and clean up the trash that past farmers had collected all over the property. According to Theo, some New England farmers are also hoarders — I suppose when one has the land to keep things found in junk yards, it’s easy to hoard.

Luckily, Ellie and Theo got their farm house liveable and the land cleaned up a bit in time to get crops ready for their first season and welcome a cast of layer hens (pictured above), chicks, broiler chickens, a farm dog named Russell, and two barn kittens. The chickens are fed organically and pasture-raised, which means that they have lots of bugs, grubs, and grass to eat, which makes for happy and healthy chickens. Ellie and Theo also built the greenhouse pictured above and got starter plants going for all kinds of herbs and vegetables, and even got crops, like onions and garlic, in the ground.

Sarah and I planned our visit well. We were on hand to plant potatoes and eat one of the first delicious Brasen Hill chickens (more on that later). We also arrived just days after these two lovely ladies:

[elloise (b&w) and lillian (brown) the llamas]

At first Sarah and I were confused — how do llamas belong on a small farm like Brasen Hill? Ellie explained that Elloise and Lillian will help keep foxes away the lambs and goats when they arrive (the goats come this Saturday!). For now, the llamas just graze and stare at you and hum when they get nervous. Yes — they stare. These are some judgmental ladies.

When the goats and lamb get to Brasen Hill, they will eat only grass. This is what goats and lamb (and cows, too) are meant to eat — not grain, which is what these animals get fed when raised conventionally. When animals that are meant to eat grass eat grain (usually corn), they can’t digest it properly, which makes them get sick. When they get sick, farmers feed them antibiotics. Feeding animals antibiotics consistently makes the bacteria that live in the animals’ digestive system drug-resistant, which makes for all kinds of bad stuff: E. coli in our food system, for example. On top of all the antibiotics present in corn-fed meat, feeding herbivores corn also makes for meat that contains more saturated fat and fewer omega-3 fatty acids. With all these risks, why do conventional farms go against nature and feed herbivores corn?  The reasoning is purely economic: corn is cheap and in surplus; cattle raised on corn gets fatter faster and is thus ready for slaughter at a younger age. This is why meat is no longer a luxury item in the United States; in some cases, buying meat is less expensive than buying produce.

Allowing the goats and lamb to graze benefits more than just the animals’ health and the quality of the meat they produce. The goats and lamb will essentially be mowing each pasture, uncovering yummy grubs and bugs for the chickens to peck up after the goats and lambs move to new land. This kind of farming makes so much sense — each animal plays a part in a closed circuit system. Farms like Brasen Hill are good for everyone and everything involved — the animals eat the diet their digestive systems were made for, they prepare the pasture for one another, the pasture is well taken care of by the natural actions of the animals, and the manure the animals produce nourishes the crops. This makes for the best quality, most nutritious food. You can taste the difference.

[farm fresh eggs]

Since this blog is called “the eater,” it is only fitting that I talk about what I ate at Brasen Hill. On Saturday morning, Ellie expertly fried some freshly laid eggs for us and toasted up some sandwich bread that Theo had made from scratch. These were literally the best quality eggs I’ve ever eaten. The yolks are a deeper color than those of supermarket eggs—almost orange—and practically luscious, that’s how rich they are. They resembled the eggs I was used to eating in Padova (the Italian word for yolk is “rosso,” which means red; that gives you an idea of how our farming norms differ from those of Italy). Though Sarah and I didn’t do much farm work besides helping to plant potatoes in burlap sacks, this is the sort of rich breakfast that being on a farm had me in the mood for. The trappings of farm life had me hungry all weekend.

On Saturday night, we ate chicken lovingly raised and cooked by Ellie and Theo. Ellie followed a family-favorite recipe for Chicken Marbella, which she’s kindly passed along below. Like the eggs, this chicken tasted much better than the kind of chicken you buy at the supermarket. First of all, it was more, well, chicken-y. Chicken Marbella is a robustly flavored dish, loaded with olives and capers and dried fruits, but in Ellie’s version the chicken itself came through. Along with our chicken, we had swiss chard from the garden, wild rice, and caramelized onions. We followed it up with an airy flourless chocolate cake that Sarah and I baked, made with Brasen Hill eggs. We have made the cake several times before at the Writers House and stand by Martha’s recipe—it’s fudgy without being overwhelmingly rich (i.e., you can eat it after a big meal and not feel ill).

So, thanks once again to Ellie and Theo for so graciously hosting Sarah and me. I hope to go back in August to meet the rest of the Brasen Hill gang and eat some more vegetables! And, if you happen to be in the area, support Brasen Hill! Ellie will be at the following farmer’s markets during the summer and fall of 2012.

  • Carlisle Farmers Market from 8-12pm every Saturday beginning June 16th. This market is at Kimball’s Farm Ice Cream, 343 Bedford Rd, Carlisle MA.
  • Grafton Farmers Market from 2-6:30pm (or dusk) every Thursday beginning June 28th. The market is on the Grafton Common in Grafton, MA.
  • Pawtucket Farmers Market from 12-3pm every Sunday beginning July 8th. This market is in Slater Park, Pawtucket, RI.

***

Chicken Marbella – courtesy of Ellie’s mom, Marty Wallace

Quarter a chicken (or two, or three)
6 cloves garlic
1/4 c dried oregano
Salt and Pepper
1/2 c red wine vinegar
1/2 c olive oil
1/2 c pitted olives
1 c dried apricots/figs/prunes
1/2 c capers with a bit of juice
6 bay leaves
Mix all this together and add chicken. Allow to marinate for 8 hours or overnight.
Preheat oven to 350.  Arrange chicken in one layer in a shallow baking dish.  Spoon marinade, fruit, olives and capers over the chicken and sprinkle with 1 cup brown sugar. Pour 1 cup dry white wine around the chicken.
Bake for 50 min-1 hour, basting occasionally.  Serve with fresh parsley and some of the juice.  You can put the rest of the juice in a sauceboat.
Serves 4-8, depending on how much chicken you use.  (Ellie used this amount of marinade for a whole chicken, plus two legs, two thighs and two wings, and it seemed like a good amount of liquid.)
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