• Editor's Note Winter 2010

    Editor's Note Winter 2010

    Vermont is facing many challenges when it comes to local meat production: Grazing land is expensive, there aren’t enough facilities in which to process animals, and many residents refrain from buying local meat because they don’t know how to cook the unusual cuts sold by small farms. What exactly do you do with a pork loin or lamb shoulder?

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  • A Breed Apart

    A Breed Apart

    On a 40-acre hillside in Corinth, Ben Machin raises a flock of 60 Tunis sheep. They’re a “heritage breed”—a domesticated breed of animal that has a long genetic history but is now endangered. As industrial agriculture continues to rely on just a few breeds designed for maximum growth in the shortest amount of time, more sustainable farmers are raising heritage breeds as an alternative—and to save them. Ben, a 35-year-old farmer who also works as a forester with Redstart Forestry and Consulting, is managing the flock that his great-grandfather started in the 1920s. Local Banquet editor Caroline Abels recently spoke with Ben about his unique sheep and why heritage breeds matter.

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  • A Boost to the Butchers

    A Boost to the Butchers

    In March 2009, in an attempt to help strengthen Vermont’s meat-processing infrastructure, the Vermont Farm Viability Enhancement Program awarded $40,000 in grants to four facilities. For recipient Tony Brault, it was perfect timing; he had been planning to add on a spiffy retail area to his slaughterhouse. But for grantee Gary Barnes, who runs a meat market, the amount he was awarded would barely begin to cover the cost of adding on a separate processing area for wild game, so as of this writing, he had not collected the grant funds. Nevertheless, the grants helped both of these meat facilities in northern Vermont, with and without funding, and here’s how.

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  • We Have Sausage

    We Have Sausage

    Late in life my father was able to get the spicy breakfast sausage he loved as a kid sent north to him from the general store in the small southern town where he grew up. It was better than caviar, he once noted. Packed in dry ice, it was shipped only in the winter, when the weather was safe for fresh meat to travel. And when my infrequent visits home coincided with those deliveries, he would call out in greeting the welcome words, “We have sausage!”

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  • Farming & Feasting with the Robinsons: Winter

    Farming & Feasting with the Robinsons: Winter

    In the not-so-distant past, eating locally was a way of life and a matter of necessity. For four generations, the Robinson family farmed in Ferrisburgh, at the place known today as the Rokeby Museum. The museum’s collection includes correspondence and household records detailing the family’s ways of farming, preserving, and eating. In the last of this four-part series, we take a look at how the Robinsons cooked, ate, and farmed in the late 1800s.

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  • Close to Home

    Close to Home

    We’ve always believed that if you eat meat you should be able to kill it. We had our chance to put our beliefs into action this year.

    On two very different days, one in early July, the second in late October, we gathered with four friends to kill the 30 chickens and 10 turkeys we had co-raised. Although this past July wasn’t the hottest on record, the day we gathered was warm and the rain held off. On a cold and raw late October morning we met up again to process turkeys and a few older laying hens.

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  • Dairy farmers raise veal—with a conscience

    Dairy farmers raise veal—with a conscience

    It’s bad luck to be born a boy—on a dairy farm, that is. A farmer’s face will often fall at the sight of a newborn male calf, who obviously will never grow up to produce milk. “Girl?” someone might ask on hearing of a birth on the farm. “Nope—a bull,” the farmer might say. “I’ll call the truck.”

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  • Older dairy cows could become steady source of local beef

    Older dairy cows could become steady source of local beef

    It all starts with a single surprising statistic: 40,000 mature dairy cows leave the state each year. They are so-called “market cows”—dairy cattle who have stopped producing milk at an economically viable rate. They are culled from their herds and trucked primarily to Pennsylvania, where they and other cows from the Northeast are slaughtered and processed. Their meat then enters the industrial food distribution system.

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  • Windowsill Greens

    Windowsill Greens

    In the dead of winter—when fresh salad greens are scarce, expensive, and probably not local—I grow shoots (the stem and first leaves of a plant grown in soil) and have fresh, colorful, crispy, and delicious greens that are ready to use every day. Pea shoots, sunflower greens, buckwheat lettuce, radish greens, and broccoli greens are my favorites—they offer a fantastic mix of flavors and make a great-looking tossed salad. Shoots are also inexpensive and easy to grow, benefit your compost pile, and provide colorful trays of growing plants that can make the dark days of winter a little brighter. Good-bye cabin fever!

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  • Farmers' Kitchen—Green Mountain Ducks

    Farmers' Kitchen—Green Mountain Ducks

    North Branch Farm, in the mountains of Ripton, is an unlikely place for ducks, but we’ve been raising them on a very small scale each summer for the last four years. Pekins are our favorite meat ducks to raise—they’re fast growing and white and beautiful. And they have lots of fat.

    “Lots of fat?” you might ask. “Why would we want that?” Or maybe you already know. Local duck fat is a localvore’s dream. Any food lover’s dream, actually. It is delicious to cook with as a replacement for oil or butter, and it keeps beautifully in a glass jar in the fridge.

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  • Last Morsel—Carnivore with a Caveat

    Last Morsel—Carnivore with a Caveat

    I stopped eating meat at the impassioned age of 14, when a biology teacher showed a film called Diet for a New America, which graphically described the many and various evils of the modern meat industry. I dumped that day’s turkey sandwich in the garbage and didn’t touch meat again for nine years. My reasoning was three-fold: I believed that vegetarianism was better for my body, better for the planet, and decreased the total suffering of the world. I knew that certain responsible farming practices could, in theory, mitigate or overcome most of my objections to meat, but I’d never seen them in practice and didn’t know how to judge them or trust their claims.

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  • How to cut a chicken

    How to cut a chicken

    The kitchen skills of our grandparents have largely gone unused since the appearance of ready-made foods in American grocery stores. Yet if we want to eat local food, we must often cook from scratch. Here is a guide to cutting a whole, uncooked chicken—a necessary skill if we want to eat the fresh local birds that Vermonters are beginning to raise again in large numbers. Once you’ve broken down a chicken, you’re good to go with all sorts of recipes!

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A Breed Apart

Ben Machin
Ben Machin

Written By

Caroline Abels

Written on

December 01 , 2009

On a 40-acre hillside in Corinth, Ben Machin raises a flock of 60 Tunis sheep. They’re a “heritage breed”—a domesticated breed of animal that has a long genetic history but is now endangered. As industrial agriculture continues to rely on just a few breeds designed for maximum growth in the shortest amount of time, more sustainable farmers are raising heritage breeds as an alternative—and to save them. Ben, a 35-year-old farmer who also works as a forester with Redstart Forestry and Consulting, is managing the flock that his great-grandfather started in the 1920s. Local Banquet editor Caroline Abels recently spoke with Ben about his unique sheep and why heritage breeds matter.

What’s special about the Tunis breed?

The Tunis is one of the oldest American livestock breeds, dating to the turn of the 18th century, when there were some sheep introduced from northern Africa, from Tunisia, that were then crossed with sheep in America. This breed was developed that way and they were kept by Thomas Jefferson, among others. They almost went extinct during the Civil War because they were popular in the South and were largely destroyed during the war. They were just about wiped out. Now they’re a rare breed. They’re on the “watch list” of The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy but they’re coming back. Their numbers have grown significantly over the last 10 to 15 years.

Why do you think that is?

I think it’s a combination of things. The showing of Tunis at fairs, livestock expos, and wool festivals has increased because people like their appearance. They have this cinnamon-colored head, long ears, and they’re friendly and relaxed. They’re medium-size animals so they’re fairly easy to handle. The reason I’m excited about them, and one of the reasons they’re growing in popularity, is that they do really well on grass. Historically they haven’t been fed much grain, so they don’t have really high nutritional needs. In the petroleum era many livestock breeds have become adapted to high production. They’re given high inputs, so that means lots of grain, which is all petroleum-based. This is a different approach. Tunis mature pretty fast but don’t need grain. The only petroleum inputs here are for the tractors to make hay for winter. Otherwise, it’s just grass.

How did you come to get this flock?

My great-grandfather started them in the early or mid-1920s. He got two registered Tunis sheep and started breeding from there. He kept them from when he was 30 until he died, and then my grandfather had them from that point onward. I was visiting my grandfather in the nursing home several years ago, just before he died, and we got to talking about the sheep. He was telling me their story and it was obvious how much he cared about them. At the time I was interested in getting back into agriculture, having grown up on a farm and not having done any agricultural activities for 10 or 15 years. My uncle was looking after the flock while my grandfather was in the nursing home and he was not going to keep them after my grandfather passed away. I bought them from my uncle right after my grandfather died. So they’re 80 to 85 years continuously managed. There’s only one other flock in the country that’s been managed for a similar period of time.

Do you buy sheep from other people’s flocks and introduce them into yours?

Yes, but as people have gotten more and more interested in showing Tunis, they’ve developed larger and larger animals because they compete well in the show ring. So there aren’t a lot of flocks left in the country that have maintained the small size that is traditional. I’m going all the way to North Carolina this month to buy some sheep from one other flock that has the attributes I’m looking for: small, fine-boned, good on grass, and not historically fed a lot of grain. I’m trying to keep it purebred Tunis but trying to bring in genetics that are of the old style to build the flock back up.

Have you been selling them for meat or wool?

I’ve been keeping all the female lambs to build the flock and selling all the male lambs at about six months of age. I’ve only had about 15 to 25 to sell every year, although I expect to have 100-150 to sell each year within three years. Another reason the breed is increasing in popularity is that the meat is very mild flavored. It’s sweet; it isn’t strong or gamey. All the old records for the breed say it was the preferred breed in the higher-end establishments in all the eastern cities back when Tunis was a prevalent breed. I’m not a connoisseur so I really don’t know, but it tastes good to me. I offer the wool to anyone who is interested in spinning or weaving. It’s a high-quality fleece, but at this point most of the wool ends up as compost or mulch due to lack of demand.

Why is it important to keep heritage breeds alive?

Since they pre-date the era of high technology and petroleum, they’re generally simpler animals that anyone can manage. They don’t need a lot of grain and don’t need a lot of help getting pregnant or birthing. They also tend to be more resistant to parasites because they were in systems where they had to develop resistance, as opposed to being in the more sterile, controlled, indoor environments of today. They also tend to be multiple-use animals—like the Devon cow, which is used for milk and meat. It’s a good milking animal but it’s not the greatest milking animal. It’s not the greatest beef animal but it’s a good beef animal. Similarly, the Tunis are not the best at any one thing but they’re pretty good at everything: heavy milkers, good fleece, and good for meat production.

Given the longevity of your flock and the rarity of the breed, do you feel an added responsibility that perhaps other livestock farmers don’t feel?

It’s an exciting challenge. When I bought the flock, my mother, whose side of the family cared for the flock all those years, said, “You don’t have to do this.” So I thought about it, but decided I wanted to do it. When it isn’t fun or doesn’t make sense to me, I’ll pass it along to somebody else. There are other Tunis breeders out there and I’m confident the breed will survive. I hope I can be part of that, but I’m not the only one doing the work.

To find out more about Tunis sheep or heritage breeds, start with the website of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy: www.albc-usa.org. Soon, Tamarack Tunis, the name Ben has given his flock, will have a website at www.tamaracktunis.com.

Photo by Elizabeth Ferry

About the Author

Caroline Abels

Caroline Abels

Caroline Abels is the editor of Local Banquet and the founder-editor of Humaneitarian.org, a website that inspires people to buy and eat humanely raised meat.

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A quarterly magazine devoted to covering local food, sustainable farming, and the many people building the Vermont food system.

Vermont's Local Banquet Magazine illuminates the connections between local food and Vermont communities. Our stories, interviews, and essays reveal how Vermont residents are building their local food systems, how farmers are faring in a time of great opportunity and challenge, and how Vermont’s agricultural landscape is changing as the localvore movement shapes what is grown and raised here.

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