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The ultimate farm to table: A Berkshire family harvest

The next time you are at the butcher’s counter, give a thought to where your food comes from, what it required of the fully committed people who get it to your table.

Becket — As the air cools down and the leaves fall from the trees, farmers throughout the Berkshires are harvesting what they have been nurturing since early spring. Ken Smith of Becket, Massachusetts, is similar to these farmers with one exception — he is a hobbyist. I consider knitting a hobby, but Ken considers raising, feeding, caring for four pigs, fifteen turkeys, a couple dozen ducks, and a few dozen chickens a hobby. Not only does he raise these animals, he transitions them from livestock to what most of us refer to as food.

Ken Smith's four pigs taking an afternoon snooze in the 'Hog Mahal.' Photo: Anne Dwyer
Ken Smith’s four pigs taking an afternoon snooze in the ‘Hog Mahal.’ Photo: Anne Dwyer

Ken and Ann Smith, along with friend and neighbor Tarcisio Ramos, started this hobby on a whim last year by adding two pigs to Tarcisio’s homesteading, that was already home to chickens, ducks, turkeys and last but not least, two very nice goats. All of these creatures are under the watchful eyes of Tundra, a 140-pound Great Pyrenees. Last year’s experience was satisfying on so many levels, and brought the local community together in unexpected ways. So they upped the ante this year.

Ken Smith, at his farm in Becket.
Ken Smith, at his farm in Becket.

In the shadow of Ken’s business, Cullen Grace, a custom cabinetry and woodworking enterprise, they cleared 2 acres of wooded land in their backyard and began growing their “farm.” This “farm” doesn’t have a name; it’s simply called home. In March, Ken and Tarcisio, purchased four piglets – of the Chester/Berkshire breed – 15 turkeys, 24 ducks, a few dozen chickens and began caring for these animals for the ultimate purpose of harvesting them for food in the autumn.

Over the next 7 months these animals roamed freely amongst each other, ate together, and slept together, all under the protection of Tundra, with the two goats as part of the family. As expected, a pecking order was established. The chickens took control early with the turkeys and pigs falling in line, all the while the ducks moved almost as one, all together.

These animals led a good life. Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Canyon Ranch, and other local restaurants were more than happy to contribute food scraps for the pigs to devour. At least two, 300-pound barrels from Canyon Ranch, and multiple large bins from Jacob’s Pillow, were filled with vegetable cuttings, stale bread, some meat scraps (no pork), dairy, egg shells and any other food remnants that would normally be thrown away. This community contribution was key for the healthy life and growth of these animals, as they ate over 3 tons of scraps from March to October. The poultry picked through some of this, but fed mostly on purchased grains. All animals thrived. The pigs — two girls, two boys — grew to between 390 and 410 pounds each, the ducks reached around 10 pig-and-goatpounds each, the turkeys were well over 30 pounds each, and the chickens flourished as well. Tundra held his own at 140 as he dined on the previous year’s meat scraps, and the goats seemed pretty happy and healthy themselves continuing on as pets. Ken explained to me that the quality of the pork meat and food-cost-ratio generally goes down over 300 pounds, but that doesn’t apply to these pigs because they were able to eat very high quality, donated food, continuing to grow to the higher weight nearing or at 400 pounds.

Caring for this “farm” is a lot of work. The food needs to be picked up at least bi-weekly, emptied into troughs daily, poultry needs to be fed, stalls mucked out, animals need a constant supply of clean water, and then there’s keeping the whole 2 acres clean and safe. It’s a big job. It’s a big responsibility. There’s work and heavy lifting to be done everyday, no matter the weather, or if you just don’t feel like it. They need you.

The 'Hog Mahal,' sleeping quarters for the Chester/Berkshire pigs.
The ‘Hog Mahal,’ sleeping quarters for the Chester/Berkshire pigs.

After the feeding, housing (the pigs sleep in the “Hog Mahal”), nurturing and raising, there comes a day to harvest the pigs, turkeys, chickens, and ducks. These animals are not named. These animals are not pets. These animals are slaughtered in the most humane way possible. Ken describes it as “a psychological or spiritual quiet that kind of occurs, people are respectful.”

And he adds: “I don’t not think about it, and I don’t take it for granted.” He finds it astonishing how quickly, fowl and pigs alike, go from a sentient being to being something very close to what we’re used to seeing at the market.

cropped-single-turkeyAll fowl are quickly decapitated. The ducks were done in two batches, one in August, and one in September. A duck that weighs 10 pounds live will yield a 7 or 8 pound dressed duck – that’s a big duck. Most of the chickens had already been done before I visited and one 30-plus pound turkey had already been dressed. Very impressive.

As we spoke, the large beautiful turkeys, and the rest of the chickens, strutted and clucked all around us. Their time will come and it will be peaceful and purposeful. All fowl is bled, then dipped into a hot water bath quickly to aid in the easier removal of the feathers. The mechanical plucker is an example of genius human ingenuity. [pic of feathering machine] It is a drum made of stainless steel with rubber-like fingers sticking out on the inside. As the bird rotates in the drum, the rubbery fingers can pluck a bird clean in about a minute. Amazing.

Now, the pigs. One at a time the pigs are led down a shoot made of wooden pallets, baited with food, and closed in with an additional pallet to isolate it. It takes one .30-30 bullet to the flat part of the skull, in between the ears to quietly — and instantaneously — drop the pig. The carotid arteries are then slit and the pig is hung upside down by the back thighs to bleed out. This only takes a few minutes. Then the entire pig is dropped into a large vat of hot water to open the follicles so as to aid in the removal of the hair by hand scraping carefully from the skin. The pig is then re-hung and the head is removed skillfully with a knife. The pig is now ready to be gutted. I will not go into the details but will tell you it also requires a very specialized skill. The interior cavity is emptied of organs, being very careful not to puncture any that could contaminate the pork, and cleaned out with a power washer. The heart, liver, and head are kept for pâtés, blood sausages, headcheese and other offal delicacies. With a SKILSAW, the carcass is split down the backbone from neck to tail and is now ready to be butchered.

Ken assembled a group of family, close friends, neighbors, and a professional butcher to take part in the tremendous job of pork processing – butchering – eight, 200-plus pound pig halves.

At the Family Harvest, Ken Smith gathered friends and family: Steve Gaertner, Tim Gooding, Rick Watson, Judi Gooding in front, Laura Watson behind her, Emmalyn Smith Gaertner, Ken Smith, Nancy Doucette, Ann Smith, Tarcisio Ramos, and Jake Levin,. Photo: Anne Dwyer The Roving Butcher
At the Family Harvest, Ken Smith gathered friends and family to bear witness to the butchering of the pigs: from left, Steve Gaertner, Tim Gooding, Rick Watson, Judi Gooding in front, Laura Watson behind her, Emmalyn Smith Gaertner, Ken Smith, Nancy Doucette, Ann Smith, Tarcisio Ramos, and Jake Levin, The Roving Butcher. Photo; Anne Dwyer

[ insert pic of people here. left to right; Steve Gaertner, Tim Gooding, Rick Watson, Judi Gooding in front, Laura Watson behind her, Emmalyn Smith Gaertner, Ken Smith, Nancy Doucette, Ann Smith, Tarcisio Ramos, and Jake Levin The Roving Butcher] On the Sunday of the first snow, the group came together at the Berkshire Harvest Rental Kitchen in Lee. This legal, fully functioning and well equipped rental kitchen is a sort of gift from Rod Clark, the owner, to help farm and local food businesses thrive and is rented by the hour, after paying your membership due of $1. Under the direction and advisement of Jake Levin, “The Roving Butcher,” everyone was given a job to do. First, Jake very slowly and carefully butchered one pig half as a demonstration. The leaf lard at the belly is removed first. Then the tenderloin

Roving Butcher Jake Levin with butchered pig. Photo: Anne Dwyer
Roving Butcher Jake Levin with butchered pig. Photo: Anne Dwyer

and on to cut between the 5th and 6th rib to separate the picnic shoulder from the pork, or Boston, butt. Now the ribs are exposed and are cut horizontally to define short, country style ribs, and baby back ribs. Once the baby back ribs are

A tub of belly for bacon. Photo: Anne Dwyer
A tub of belly for bacon. Photo: Anne Dwyer

removed underneath is the BACON! The top ribs can be cut into pork chops, bone-in or without, pork sirloin roasts, with or without bone. Pockets of meat near the neck are set aside to make Coppa — a cured and dried salami type of treat. The legs are trimmed for hams or prosciutto, or cut up for use in sausages. There is a lot of prime meat scraps to use in the sausages as well. The jowls are used for Guanciale – like a pancetta – and hocks are brined for cooking. The leaf lard is rendered down to clean lard and some cracklings. Bones and trimmed feet are boiled down for stock and demi glace, and other useful scraps become high quality dog food. Nothing is wasted. Nothing.

Vacuum sealed pig roast. Photo: Anne Dwyer
Vacuum sealed pig roast. Photo: Anne Dwyer

All cuts are scaled, labeled, vacuum sealed, and inventoried. As of this writing, the live weight of the four pigs was 1,740 pounds and approximately 1,400 pounds of pork has been accounted for. The processed meat total is 946 pounds. That includes roasts, bacon, sausages and brined or cured cuts. The other 454 pounds is used for lard, stock, demi-glace, organ meat, and last, but not least, dog food. Nothing goes to waste, as it should be.

Ken, incredibly committed, had thought of everything. From the choice of breeder, the feeding and caring for, the slaughter, and finally what cuts and charcuterie he wanted to process. Recipes were scaled out to the gram and prepackaged into batches. He prepped for, but not limited to; coppa, lonza, guanciale, bacon, pancetta, finocchiona cured sausage, sweet Italian sausage, dried chorizo, brown butter and sage sausage, garlic and herb sausage, chops, hams, ribs, roasts, hocks, lard, demi glace and dog meat. This was as close to “farm to table” as you could get.

This “home/farm” endeavor will provide multiple families and friends with delicious, cared for, food for many months to come, perhaps a year. The satisfaction and fulfillment these families must feel is tremendous. The endless hours. The inevitable learning. Executing otherwise unknown tasks. The exhaustion. The community effort. The anticipation. The reward. The graciousness they will undoubtedly experience when they enjoy what they have grown and harvested.

I consider myself honored to have been witness to this continuation of the cycle of life. We should all be so fortunate, and humbled, to appreciate what it really takes to feed a village. The next time you are at the butcher’s counter, give a thought to where your food comes from, what it required of the fully committed people who get it to your table and celebrate them.

Thank you, one and all.

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