I am a big fan of the NPR food radio series Stirring the Pot by Stefanie Sacks. On a recent trip, returning to Estia’s Little Kitchen from my Estia’s Back Porch location in Darien, CT, I happened to catch Stefanie’s show featuring her friend Dan Gibson and his Grazin’ Angus Acres farm. Yesterday, with Stefanie’s introduction, I was invited to visit the farm in Ghent, NY and spend time learning about what it means to be a restaurateur selling “Animal Welfare Approved” products.
As a child, traveling from state to state on vacation in the Ford wagon was always a family experience. My father was a grain merchant for Cargill. He ran shipping and milling operations for one of what we now refer to as the Big 3 (Cargill, IBP, Smithfield). Riding in the back of the wagon was my chosen spot. It kept me away from my sisters, allowed for a little extra room and provided a view of America from 3 large windows. Through those windows I watched American farmland, row after row.
Sometimes we’d stop at the roadside. Dad would get out and my sisters and I would follow. He’d pull an ear of corn and remove the husk. This was feed corn and he’d have a story to tell about this or that, the timing of an upcoming harvest or the challenge of enduring a dry summer. On occasion a farmer would approach us and the 2 men would engage in conversation, the sound of my fathers voice and that of the hard working man from Cozad, Nebraska still finds its way into my dreams from time to time—childhood memories are mesmerizing.
We all perceive things in our own way. The taste and nutritional benefits of what we eat is one of the things I think is perceived differently by almost everyone. While I was raised to appreciate the homegrown food on my plate (harvested from my Grandmother’s garden) because it tasted delicious and looked fabulous, the source and methods of raising the products she used seemed natural and in many ways normal.
My fathers approach to feeding the world was more fundamental, he was focused on the masses and saw the natural approach as a niche market. He had been raised to pull eggs from the chicken coop and milk cows on his own, but the world beyond his hometown of Whitewater, Wisconsin was very different and he didn’t fuss over what he knew and what he could provide to others. We perceived the act of feeding the world differently. As he aged and stepped away from the Board of Trade, and I became a chef and restaurateur, those views on food and the importance of impacting the senses as well as the nutritional values for my guests were often the topic of hours of conversation.
Talking with Dan Gibson yesterday took me back to Cozad. Mr. Gibson runs the 400 acre farm in Ghent, NY called Grazin’ Angus Acres and he’s just as passionate about his work as any of those men who made time to talk with my father in Americas heartland back in the 1960’s. The Grazin’ operation is focused on grass-fed proteins, beef, pork, chicken and eggs. The Gibson family has come together to set an example fitting for the most successful entrepreneur.
When Dan had reached his limit on airplanes and hotel stays as an executive in finance at Starwood Worldwide, he chose to step out of the corporate world and focus his creative energy on building a family farm. Along with his son Keith, a veteran from the Iraq war who served our country as a medic on the front lines, and his daughter whom I didn’t meet, the Gibson family define today’s farm to table programming with a passion for growing and serving clean honest food. They do it their way—perhaps not the traditional approach to a family farm, but one that needs to be replicated across the country.
As we stood outside the Gibson family barn, Dan and Keith shared their story of how the animals interact on the farm. Chickens raised for their eggs are moved about the property in portable coops on wheels. As they move across fields that have recently been occupied by grazing cattle, they perform a service to the farm by helping to break down the manure strewn landscape; hunting for bugs and larvae that otherwise would spawn flies and other farm yard pests. It’s a win win for the farmer and the animals as the eggs they lay are higher in nutritional value and look more beautiful than any egg purchased from a corporate producer. And the chicken roam freely, maintaining a healthy life as they serve the farm. The pigs and cattle live an equally respectable life, roaming on the rolling hills.
The Grazin’ operation reaches well beyond Ghent by first delivering it’s harvest in beef cattle, tamworth pigs and chickens to a local slaughter house in a humane and low impact approach. The animals are handled in the same manner as they go through all of the processes from the truck to the market. Once the processing phase is complete, the family takes their products directly to market—from the grills and stoves in their Grazin’ restaurants in Hudson, NY and Manhattan, to the Union Square farmer’s market—for retail in the form of prime cuts like pork chops and skirt steaks.
The idea of transitioning from the boardroom to the farm field, controlling products integrity from the farm to the plate, isn’t for everyone. Mr. Gibson has found it to be the right fit for his family. He’s brought an old tradition to present day life in an admirable way. His products are wholesome and high in nutritional value. He says that pursuing a diet rich in foods sourced from what might be called the patchwork of American farms that grow vegetables and raise animals with a natural approach is like making a commitment to a balanced environment.
If we all make an effort to seek out the best quality products with the least amount of additives we will not only be enriching our lives and the quality of our American farm lands; we will be setting an example for our children the way my grandmother did for her family in Whitewater. Perhaps it’s not something that every family can do every day, not every restaurant menu can achieve at every price point, but we can all make an effort to move in the direction that the Gibson family has taken.
To perceive the benefits of a grass-fed burger or a free-range egg over the other options available in today’s supermarket is a first step. Finding ways to source those hormone free alternatives and incorporate them into a families routine is step number 2. Deciding to reduce the amount of protein on the plate and reinforce the serving with vegetables grown without pesticides and harmful chemical fertilizers can be done one meal at a time. Perhaps not every meal of the week, but why not start by celebrating at the family table with a lunch or dinner obtained at a market that gives you access to the person who took time and care in growing clean food on a weekly basis. It’s a start worthy of consideration.