Friday, November 26, 2010

Setting a Big Table


An edited version of this story first appeared in the September/October 2010 issue of NW Palate magazine.

* * *

Clementine, the Catahoula leopard hound, has been anxious since dawn, not wanting to be too far from her owner, Clare Carver of Big Table Farm. Clare has been moody for the last couple of days. Even Clare’s husband, Brian, has been giving his wife a wide berth. When Clare goes up to the hill pasture to sit with her pigs, Picnic and Pancake, Clementine stations herself with a good view of the road. She knows something is coming, something that is making Clare sad, and she wants to be ready.

Clare Carver sits in the pen with her pigs, scratching their backs when they lean their 300-pound bodies against her, snorting and squinting in the bright sunlight. Like a couple of big dogs, they dash off to play with each other or to chase something in the bushes or to root through the grass in the pasture, but eventually they come back to get more attention from Clare. She's raised them from tiny weaner pigs, and today is their last day.

An inspired painter whose subjects are the cows, horses, chickens, goats, pigs, old trucks and tractors that populate the farm she owns with her husband, Brian Marcy, in Williams Canyon outside Gaston, Oregon,she also has a large vegetable garden that supplies most of the couple’s food and the large farm dinners they host for people who buy the wines Brian makes under the Big Table Farm label.

Growing up in a large Catholic family (she has eight brothers and sisters), Clare heard stories about the farm in upstate New York that her parents had bought in the late 50s. They sold the farm when Clare was seven and moved their large family to the suburbs of Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.

She carried those tales of the farm with her into her career as an advertising art director for an East Coast ad agency, and one day a consultant for the agency told her, “You need to go out and see the world. You shouldn’t be doing this because your life is going to look exactly the same in ten years as it does now.”

“It was a complete wake-up call,” Clare said. She sold all her belongings and moved to San Francisco to start her own business. Shortly after the move she began dating Brian, who was transitioning to making wine after working for several years as a beer brewer.

“With beer, the whole goal is to take varying inputs and make the same product year in and year out without considering season or ingredients,” she said. “In wine it’s just the opposite, where people expect the product to be affected by season and ingredients. It felt more creative to him.”

Their move to Oregon was prompted, oddly enough, by a season spent harvesting grapes in Australia.

“It was a really romantic time for us and we started looking around at the land,” she said. “Honestly, that was the first time it started to creep into our consciousness that we could have a farm as well as have a winery.”

Their requirements for their farm were fairly simple: It had to be within an hour of a big city so Clare could continue her graphic design business, it needed to be located in a wine-producing area so Brian could be a consulting winemaker while developing their vineyard and, of course, it had to be within their budget.

The farm they found in 2006 fit their list to a T: Close to Portland, it was in the middle of a burgeoning wine region. It had perfect southeast facing hills and a charming Victorian farmhouse. Their bid was accepted.

“We didn’t really know anything about farming, and we read ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma’ by Michael Pollan when we were closing on the property,” Clare said. “It totally changed the way we thought we were going to set up our farm.”

While the book is mostly about what Pollan believes is the broken food system in the United States, where people are disconnected from the sources of their food, he also writes about a visit to Polyface Farm in the Shenandoah Valley and farmer Joel Salatin. Salatin calls himself a “grass farmer” and believes in rotating the animals on the land to keep the soil and the plants, and thus the people who eat the animals and plants, healthy.

With Salatin’s principles in mind, they’re transforming the nearly ruined hillsides and pastures of their Big Table Farm to an organic, balanced system. Brian made a trailer, called the “chicken bus,” to transport their laying chickens from one area to the next. Goats clear blackberries and scrub, watched over by a “guard llama” who challenges any predators who get too close. The cows, pigs and Clare’s beloved draft horses are confined by electrified tape that can be easily moved when the pasture needs a break from grazing.

When Salatain made a trip to Oregon, she asked him about organic feed, an important part of the system at their farm.

Salatin’s answer? “People can handle nudists and they can handle Buddhists, but they can’t handle nudist Buddhists.

“What he was saying is that people can handle the concept of pasture, they can get their head around that. But when you start talking about pasture and then you start talking about organic feed, they hold their heads and scream.”

She told Salatin that while that might be the case in his home state of Virginia, she felt that Northwesterners were able to handle that kind of information. Like the fact that she flat out refuses to send any of her animals to processing facilities to be slaughtered.

“The primary reason is because of the stress on the animal,” she said. “The stress and the adrenaline that goes through the animal changes the meat, and there’s hard science behind that.”

Take pigs, she said. They’re very smart and sensitive, so when they’re put into a truck for the first time in their life, it’s terribly stressful. And a pig’s sense of smell is even keener than a dog’s.

“Can you imagine what a processing center smells like to a pig?” she asked. “It makes my hair stand up just to think about it. Those poor animals.”

Because strict federal regulations require any meat that is sold to the public has to be processed in a USDA-approved facility, the meat from her pasture-slaughtered pigs can’t be sold in supermarkets or at farmers' markets. This is despite the growing demand for just the kind of pasture-raised meat she and other small-scale farmers in the region are producing.

With small processing plants closing down because of the recession, it’s hard for small producers to get their animals into larger slaughter facilities. With just a handful of USDA-approved mobile slaughter trucks in the entire Northwest, there isn’t one available for Clare’s farm.

Which brings us back to Clementine standing watch and Clare waiting with her pigs in their hillside pasture. When the truck from Frontier Custom Cutting finally pulls into the driveway in the late morning, Clemmie starts barking. She won’t stop until it leaves.

Richard, a burly man wearing orange rubber overalls and carrying a black rifle, walks up the hill. While Clare distracts Picnic with some fresh eggs, Richard puts the rifle behind Pancake’s ear and pulls the trigger. Then he walks over to Picnic munching on her egg and does the same.

Clare feels it’s the most respectful way to kill them.

“The bullet goes right to the spinal cord, but their heart is still pumping, so they’re essentially brain dead,” she said. “It’s a little violent but it doesn’t last very long. That part is the part I hate to watch, but dying is dying and it’s not pretty. It is what it is.

“I really hope when it’s my time I get afforded a respectful, quick death,” she added. “That’s what I would want. So I do the best I can for my animals in that sense.”

And each time she allows herself to feel the loss.

“It’s the way you feel when a human dies. They’re gone…really gone,” she said. ”I go out to their pasture the next day and I’m like, oh, they’re gone. It’s a reminder of how much power we have and how careful we have to be of that power, that we just created and took this life.

An observer could note that, in the way they run their farm and raise their animals, she and Brian haven’t chosen an easy route. And, like the move to Oregon and buying the land, it’s all been done without a business plan.

“If we had a business plan some things might be smoother for us,” Clare said. “But, like anything in life, it’s like, ‘Well, I’m going up that hill and maybe I’m not going to take the straightest path. But maybe I’m going to see some things I didn’t expect if I don’t have an exact map of how I’m going to get there.

“Sure, if we had a business plan we might get to the top of the hill faster,” she continued, “but we’re still going up there because we have the same goals and that hasn’t changed. Or if it does, we talk about it and we change it together.”

Asked about the best part of their lives on Big Table Farm, she thought for a moment, then answered.

“Almost every morning when I do chores I look around and this incredibly deep sense of satisfaction strikes me,” she said. “Being deeply happy with this path we’re on now.”

4 comments:

Clare Carver said...

WOWZERS - thank you darling for your unending support and for coming out to the farm yesterday AND for delivering eggs!! it was so nice to see you brief as it was... big hugs!!! clarela

KAB said...

You two, my dear, are doing something important on your farm, and I hope that telling your story may inspire others to act on their dreams. Love you!

seh said...

Fabulous! Just Fabulous!!

KAB said...

Thanks, SEH…I felt lucky to get to know such a great couple!