On a recent weekday, author and farmer Shannon Hayes is running late for her lunch break and phone conversation. Speaking from Sap Bush Hollow Farm in rural Scoharie County, New York, she apologizes, explaining that she got caught up in making sausage — 40 pounds of it. Then she goes on to say that 40 pounds is really not that much, that she usually makes about 150 pounds a day, a grand total of 600 pounds of sausage per week to take to market.
For anyone conjuring an idealized image of farming, Hayes’s brief description of the labor-intensive process of sausage-making in the farm’s meat processing facility should take the romance out of the idea. Farming is hard work — our ancestors knew this — but Hayes is passionate about her profession. “For years I talked about farming like it was hard work, but my life has this lovely rhythm to it,” she says. “Emotionally, it’s not hard work at all. Living in an apartment in Manhattan seems harder to me.”
Hayes will bring her home-grown experiences at Sap Bush Hollow Farm — where her family raises all-natural, grass-fed lamb, beef, pork, and poultry — to the Princeton area on Tuesday and Wednesday, June 16 and 17, for three events that will explore the ecological, culinary, and animal-welfare benefits of pasture-based farming.
On Tuesday, June 16, Eno Terra restaurant in Kingston hosts the Grass-fed Gourmet Wine Dinner, a five-course dinner designed to showcase the culinary pleasures of pasture-raised foods. The menu will offer grass-fed organic beef, pastured poultry and eggs, as well as handmade farmstead cheeses, all produced on local family farms. Hayes will speak about the benefits and joys of pasture-based farming between courses.
On Wednesday, June 17, Hayes makes two appearances. In the morning, she speaks about the inspiration and research for her forthcoming book, “Radical Homemaking: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture,” at the Whole Earth Center in Princeton. Hayes’ third book explores the nationwide phenomenon of men and women who have rejected the pressures of America’s consumer culture and have instead focused their energy on family and community. Through her interviews and travels, Hayes has learned that this is not only a lifestyle decision, but an ecological and political act as well.
In the evening, Hayes presents a fast-paced and fact-filled workshop on the proper way to grill a variety of cuts of pasture-raised meats. The Sunset Grass-fed Grilling Workshop will take place on the grounds of Cherry Grove Farm, a 400-acre organic pastured livestock farm in Lawrenceville. Sharing wisdom from her second book, “The Farmer and the Grill” (Left to Write Press, 2008), Hayes will discuss the finer details of mastering the grill. She says to come hungry, because there will be ample sampling.
“It’s a flesh feast,” Hayes says. “This workshop is coming at just the right time of the year, as people are going into the grilling season. These are the most expensive cuts of meat, and things really can go wrong. I traveled to Argentina and studied their style of grilling, and have adapted this technique to the American Weber (grill).”
Hayes says people can be caught by surprise when they put grass-fed meats on the barbeque. It requires a more subtle understanding of the meat itself. “You think you’re cooking with fire, but you’re actually cooking with the essence of the fire — dancing with the embers,” Hayes says. “You’re working with the elements outside, such as wind, and allowing the meat to do its own work for you. You want to get a nice sear and then take it off the grill, allowing the sugars to caramelize on the meat. We’ll be talking about this as well as learning about the different cuts of meat. Since every farmer and butcher is different, every piece of meat is different. If you’re committed to quality meat, this is a great investment.”
Touted as “America’s favorite foodie farm girl,” Hayes, 35, appeared on the foodie radar screen with her first book, “The Grass-Fed Gourmet” (Eating Fresh Publications, 2004). After earning a master’s degree and PhD in sustainable agriculture and community development from Cornell University in 2001, Hayes combined scholarship and research with personal experience “down on the farm” to write about the many benefits of grass-fed animal products.
Just one of the positive issues for grass-fed and locally raised meat is the fact that it is more environmentally friendly to the planet. Hayes points out that the average piece of mass-produced meat travels some 1,800 miles before it reaches your plate, whereas locally raised food travels 50 miles or less.
“People are concerned about global warming and livestock’s long shadow, but there many other issues as well,” Hayes says. “Animals were ‘designed’ to roam in the fields, not to be pent up and standing in their own filth. (Factory farming) is not good for the animals and it’s not good for the workers. Take poultry (workers) in confinement facilities, for example, where the smell and presence of ammonia is terrible and detrimental to the respiratory system.” Dust and high levels of carbon dioxide also threaten those who work in large-scale farms and confinement facilities.
Hayes says that grass-fed farming pulls excess carbon dioxide out of the air, reducing the potential for global warming. In addition, small-scale farming increases the health of the animals, and therefore raises their nutritional value. “With a small farm, you can manage the pasture and manage the animals,” she says. “The farmer can keep an eye on each animal to monitor its health and growth. The flavor you get from healthy, grass-fed meats is incredible — it’s like getting into wine tasting. Year to year, wines taste differently and it’s the same with animals.”
Hayes grew up on Sap Bush Hollow Farm, with her parents, Jim and Adele Hayes. Her father was also an academic, head of the animal science department at SUNY Cobleskill where he was also in charge of the school’s slaughterhouse. Her mother was the director of the county’s planning and development agency. They still work on the farm.
With a passion for writing, Hayes studied creative writing at Binghamton University, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1995. Then it was on to Cornell, where she had hoped to shape an academic career at an agricultural college near her family’s farm. “I was on track for it, and was publishing under my own name even before I was done at Cornell,” Hayes says. But a professional or academic life wasn’t in the cards and “university politics” was a big part of her decision to focus her energy elsewhere. She humorously reflects that people are great but they can become a bit like “hogs raised in confinement” when put in power or in close proximity.
“What I really wanted was to farm and write, so I pursued academia because I thought I would have my summers off to farm,” Hayes says. Her husband, Bob Hooper, talked her into making the leap into full-time farming, with ample time to write. The couple now works on the farm while raising two daughters, Saoirse and Ula.
Even with all her duties on the farm, Hayes has also managed to write for the New York Times, Adirondack Magazine, Yankee Life, and Brain Child Magazine, to name just a few publications. She has also appeared numerous times to read her essays on Northeast Public Radio.
The family’s lifestyle is not for everyone and Hayes admits that money is tight and health insurance non-existent. However, when many people they knew lost a fortune in the stock market, or were downsized from their jobs, Hayes and her husband just kept on rolling (and making the sausage). In fact, they have been sharing their bounty with their formerly affluent friends. “It all comes out in the wash when you’re supported by your community,” Hayes says. “In my research for my new book, I met families who were living below the median income, but their social networks were highly developed. When that’s plugged in — when neighbors and families are taking care of each other — you don’t need money.”
Grass-fed Gourmet Wine Dinner, Eno Terra Restaurant, 4484 Route 27, Kingston. Tuesday, June 16, 6 p.m. Five-course dinner with organic beef, pastured poultry and eggs, and handmade farmstead cheeses. Farmer and author Shannon Hayes (“The Grassfed Gourmet”) explores the ecological and culinary benefits of pasture-based farming in between courses. Register. $80. 609-497-1777 or www.enoterra.com.
Radical Homemaking, Whole Earth Center, 360 Nassau Street, Princeton. Wednesday, June 17, 9 a.m. to 10 .m. “Politics, Ecology, and the Domestic Arts” presented by Shannon Hayes, author of “Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture.” She discusses what she discovered through her interviews with men and women throughout the country. Register. Free. 609-924-7429 or www.outsidejosh.blogspot.com.
Sunset Grass-Fed Grilling Workshop, Cherry Grove Farm, 3500 Lawrenceville Road, Lawrenceville. Wednesday, June 17, 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Shannon Hayes demonstrates the nuances of grilling a variety of grassfed meats. Register. $35. 609-219-0053 or www.cherrygrovefarm.com.