The following is by Ethicurean buddy Rachel Cole. Rachel has worked for Alice Waters's Cafe Fanny, apprenticed on an organic farm, and worked with Jessica Prentice at Three Stone Hearth Community Kitchen. She is in her final year of a master’s in holistic health education at John F. Kennedy University and has written for the Mighty Foods and Eggbeater websites. Her academic and career interests focus on nourishment, cooking, health, and more broadly, reconnection — including to our bodies, the kitchen, the land, our food, and pleasure.
I am fortunate to live in the San Francisco Bay Area, where year-round we can eat foods produced within 100 miles of our homes, feast on a diverse, abundant range of organic fruits and vegetables and ethically-raised animals, and are not too surprised to pass Alice Waters while doing our weekly farmers market shopping. Living in this environment — this bubble — can make the prospect of vacationing elsewhere appear as appetizing as a barren table.
This past holiday season, I headed to Tucson, Arizona, where my grandfather lives. As excited as I was to celebrate with those I love, from the moment I booked my plane ticket in September, I was pondering how we might prepare a Christmas dinner I could feel good about. In Barbara Kingsolver’s book “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle,” she explains that a large motive for her family's exodus from their desert home in Tucson to the greener pastures of southern Virginia was to live, and more importantly to eat, sustainably. The challenges facing Tucson and the surrounding areas are real and concerning. As Kingsolver writes:
Like many other modern U.S. cities, [Tucson] might as well be a space station where human sustenance is concerned. Virtually every unit of food consumed there moves into town in a refrigerated module from somewhere far away. Every ounce of the city’s drinking, washing, and goldfish-bowl-filling water is pumped from a nonrenewable source — a fossil aquifer that is dropping so fast, sometimes the ground crumbles.
I was heading straight to the table that Kingsolver had pushed herself away from. While all of us were looking forward to sampling the local diet of beans and corn during our 10-day visit, I knew my family would prefer meat for Christmas dinner. Could I find a source for pasture-raised animals anywhere near Tucson, or should I pack a holiday roast in my suitcase?
With a little research and help from the Tucson Slow Food website, I was able to find a farm in nearby Wilcox (about 80 miles away) that sold pastured lamb. Unfortunately, by the time we connected, they were sold out for the holidays. Being a close community, they passed me on to their neighbors at Visser Family Farms, where I talked to Kathy Visser and was able to order two legs of lamb for our holiday feast, along with a box of organic Pink Lady apples from their neighbor’s farm.
Kathy’s farm doesn’t regularly sell lamb in Tucson, but she had an appointment in the city so we arranged for a brief "meet & meat" in the parking lot of the local Sears. With cooler in tow, I found Kathy (right) and had a chat in which I learned quite a bit about her sheep and the challenges that she and her husband, Christo, face as small-scale ranchers in a desert climate trying to raise animals naturally on pasture.
The Dorper sheep of Visser Farm
Kathy and Christo, a native of South Africa, are among a growing number of ranchers raising Dorper sheep in America. The breed dates to the 1930s, when South African ranchers found their sheep were unable to compete with the taste of New Zealand lamb in London markets. In order to offer a comparable product, they crossbred the Dorset Horn and Blackhead Persian sheep. The resulting sheep, the Dorper, produced not only remarkably good-tasting meat, but also did well in a wide range of extreme climates.
For the Vissers, this breed is a perfect match for the challenges presented by southern Arizona’s desert climate. Dorper sheep can tolerate temperatures well into the hundreds and go without water for up to three days. They also have a unique coat that combines hair and wool, which they shed naturally in the spring and summer to stay cool, and grow back in the winter. Generally, the only time they are shorn is for livestock show presentations.
Christo describes the sheep’s diet on the Vissers' 160 acres as a “salad bar,” a term popularized by Virginia farmer Joel Salatin. They eat a rotational diet of sweet white clover (a legume), tall fescue grass (a perennial drought-tolerant grass), rye grass, and orchard grass, which "all contribute to the beautiful marbling, delicate flavor and incredible demand for Dorper lamb.” Their system allows for the sheep to have access almost-year round to fresh forage on pasture. In the drier winter months, if the rainfall is too low or weather too cold, the Vissers rely on stockpiled feed from their own pastures for the sheep.
I was struck by the Vissers' extensive efforts to be good stewards of the land. They understand intimately how important it is to maintain the health of the local environment and their animals and the interdependence of all parts of the local ecosystem. In addition to his work on the farm, Christo is a soil technician for the Wilcox-San Simon Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), and he applies his expertise in water conservation to the farm. He and Kathy chose the particular plant varieties for their pasture because they are drought-tolerant and consume minimal water. They use a combination of rain, level-basin floor irrigation, and a high-efficiency center-pivot sprinkler system to water their land. In addition, their pastures are designed so they do not need continual irrigation. Consequently, they can be “rested” and still maintain production.
Teaming up with the NRCS gave the Vissers access to valuable information from land surveying, mapping and soil sampling and analysis that helps them operate in accordance with their conservation values. They are also members and supporters of the Coronado Resource Conservation District, which works with farmers and the community through outreach and education to improve use and care of the land.
The Vissers' neighbors jokingly call their farm the “Serengeti of Wilcox” for the almost safari-like diversity of wildlife that it attracts. Certain areas of the farm are left undisturbed so that populations of birds, bugs, frogs, rabbits, and other critters can thrive as integral parts of the living plant and animal community. One can almost see Peter Rabbit himself happily hopping alongside the herd of sheep. They also describe themselves as “predator friendly,” choosing not to hunt, trap, or poison any predators or animals, instead relying on their Great Pyrenees dogs to ward off unwanted threats.
From seemingly small choices, like minimizing their car trips off the farm, to larger-impact areas, like harvesting fertilizer from the sheep, the Vissers do all they can to make the farm a healthy, closed-system operation and are always looking for new ways to shrink their environmental footprint even more. “All of these factors contribute to the health of the land that, in turn, complements the cycles of nature. Healthier soils and plants result in healthy and happy Dorper sheep,” Kathy told me.
Strength in numbers
In 2004, the Vissers teamed up with a small group of local ranchers to form the Chiricahua (cheer-ee-KAH-wah) Pastured Meat Producers. CPMP comprises five Dorper sheep ranchers who drive the group’s initiatives, and another 12 to 15 farms and ranches that join in for meetings and workshops. In addition to the collective herd of 800 to 1,000 Dorper sheep, some of the ranchers also raise pastured pork, beef, chickens, and turkeys. Their mission is to support each other in producing, marketing, and distributing high-quality products in an efficient and environmentally friendly way.
The primary problem facing this group of ranchers is that large-scale, industrial feedlots are able to bring their meat to market at a cost much lower than the Vissers can possibly match. In discussing her frustration with this competition, Kathy mentioned to me that a cattle farmer could easily get an extra 100 pounds of meat from a cow if they use steroid implants. The economic advantage of this choice is overwhelming — animals grow bigger faster, and reach market weight with less feed — this makes it very difficult for producers who, in the interest of the health of the animals, land, and the consumer, choose to forgo this route.
What the Vissers lack in quantity they strive to make up in quality. The Vissers have cut their herd back from nearly 1,000 sheep to around 300 so that they could put more energy into maintaining their standards. Even though Visser Family Farms is not certified organic, Kathy was quick to point out that the meat they sell is likely closer to consumers’ idea of organic than what is sometimes labeled as such in the grocery store. Certified organic meat can come from animals raised not out on pasture, but in a more or less feedlot environment in which they are fed an unnatural (and fattening) diet of organic grains. Consumers benefit from eating pastured animals like those on the CPMP farms because the meat has a healthier ratio of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids compared with animals raised on grain.
By joining together, the CPMP members can market their products as a single unit and thus be in a better position to meet any demand generated by their advertising. The CPMP meets at least once a month to help each other find ways to operate their farms more efficiently, with more environmentally awareness, and to explore methods of producing higher-quality meat. The CPMP has established guidelines for how animals under their brand are raised. Its members may not use growth hormones or antibiotics for animals sold for meat. Only sick animals may be treated with antibiotics, and in such cases the animal will then be removed from the meat program.
At present, there is a range of options available for those wanting to purchase CPMP pastured meat. Certain member-ranches participate in Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) buying clubs, or sell at weekly or bimonthly farmer’s markets in Sierra Vista and Bisbee. No area restaurants currently serve their meat, but they are open to all potential customers. Because their meat is slaughtered at state-inspected facilities, rather than larger USDA-inspected ones, it cannot be shipped out of state without several months' advance notice so that the animals can be processed at the federal site. However, new language in the Farm Bill legislation currently under consideration in Congress would allow state-inspected meat that meets federal standards to be shipped to other states.
“The Dorper sheep has been specifically bred for its delicate flavor, beautiful marbling, and tenderness," Kathy told me in a later followup email. "Many breeds have fair to good flavor, yet they are primarily wool breeds, with all the feed energy going into the wool and not the meat. But the Dorper breed converts its feed energy into meat production, thus producing an excellent flavor, and its uniform layer of fat contributes to its flavor and marbling." She adds that visiting New Zealanders tell her that hers is the only lamb they have tasted in the United States that tastes as good as home.
We ended up roasting just one of the legs we bought, and freezing the other for a future celebration. To prepare it, we used a recipe from "The Gourmet Cookbook" that calls for marinating the leg in a hibiscus-infused mixture. If you have access to a grocery store with a decent bulk spice or tea section, you can probably find loose hibiscus leaves; however, as the recipe says, good ol’ Red Zinger tea bags work just fine.
After the lamb marinated for about 14 hours (we flipped it once half way through), we removed it from its rosy-red bath and roasted it in the oven for a little over an hour. Once the meat was done and resting on a platter, we made a wonderful sauce by deglazing the pan, reducing the meat juices, and adding a touch of red currant jelly and a dab of butter. After straining the sauce, we poured it over slices of the lamb. It was the delicious centerpiece of our Christmas feast, which included a butter lettuce salad with Fuyu persimmons and avocado with shallot-lemon vinaigrette, balsamic braised purple cabbage and curly kale with fennel seeds, steamed broccoli, oven-caramelized herbed purple potatoes (smuggled in my suitcase from Berkeley) and Kombocha squash, and for dessert, an Indian pudding with homemade maple ice cream. (The apples I'd bought via Kathy were for snacking.)
The two bone-in legs of lamb we purchased weighed about 5.5 pounds each and cost $11 per pound; the total came to $120. While this is slightly more than we usually spend on our Ethicurean-friendly meat purchases, the money not only supported better farming practices, but also a remarkably superior-tasting product. We fed six hungry holiday eaters and for a few days, enjoyed some of the best leftovers around.
When asked what she would say to someone who says food like hers is too expensive, Kathy let out a sort of exasperated laugh-sigh, was quiet for a good minute, and then said, “Then you haven’t tasted our meat. The meat sells itself. People always come back and they don’t ask what it cost — it’s not even an issue.”
Our lamb was so truly scrumptious it honestly took me by surprise. There are times when something is so delicious that it makes you go ‘mmmm’ with satisfaction, and then there are times when you can’t even produce a sound because you're too focused on savoring every moment of every bite, then going in for seconds. The Vissers' lamb falls in to the latter category. Its rich, deep, non-gamey flavor was unlike any lamb I have ever tasted. Kathy and Christo have ample reason to be proud not only of their environmentally responsible farming methods, but of their excellent final product.
If you happen to be in the Tucson or Wilcox areas of Arizona, and want to arrange a visit to Visser Family Farms, or order their lamb, you can reach Kathy and Christo at (520) 249-7397 or (520) 384-1749, or via email: visserfamilyfarms [at] vtc.net.