Some time ago, we took to heading out to the Canandaigua Farmer’s Market on Saturdays instead of the Geneva Farmer's Market on Thursdays. I just found getting to the Thursday one in Geneva too harrowing when I teach early those mornings. So: Canandaigua it was. And, there I found both old friends (like the Seneca Castle folks who raise sheep) and some new possibilities. Hurrah. So, here is an interview with Fred Forsburg of Honeyhill Farm, who I met over a decision about buying an organic chicken, one sunny Saturday morning in Canandaigua.
Bibliochef: Can you describe the Honeyhill Farm and how it came to be?
Fred: It’s an old farm first settled in 1848 near Conesus Lake. We purchased it in 1978 with a plan to farm “some day”. We had a large garden and raised our children here and I farmed a few crops part-time, constantly building my knowledge of equipment and methods. Time slipped by and the original plan seemed unworkable and then I was downsized in 2002. As I was already very disappointed by the corporate culture I jumped at the opportunity to run my own business, be my own boss, work with the seasons outside and never looked back. The farm is named for the hill on which it is situated.
Bibliiochef: We had a great discussion of how you raise your chickens when I met you at the Canandaigua Farmer’s Market. Can you tell readers how you came to raise chickens, how you currently raise them, and how that came to be? Also, can you describe how they get “processed” and who does that?
Fred: Since purchasing this place I have collected and read a library of small farming books, among them one by Joel Salatin, Pastured Poultry Profits; realizing a diverse operation was a more sustainable approach I added chickens in our second year of business. (For Salatin's site, click here.) We modified Salatin’s methods somewhat to fit our requirements and standards but the principals of raising chickens on grass are unchanged. We use a method called day range where they are able to run in the sun on grass unencumbered by any pens yet protected from predators by a moveable electric mesh fence that provides each flock plenty of space. The exercise and especially the pasture grass and clovers the birds relish provides us with a superior product and one we are most proud to offer. This combination of methods allows the chicken to live a life where each one has the ability to express their full chicken-ness (biological potential) sans stress or the need to medicate in any way. Beyond pasture they are provided certified organic grains and water free choice. We treat all our animals humanely and quietly and when it is time to slaughter it is done in a quiet and dignified manner by a nearby small family operation that maintains a very clean facility.
Bibliochef: What’s your favorite chicken recipe? How would you cook one of your chickens?
Fred: We cook them in every imaginable manner and love everyone! As we sell only whole chicken I recommend more than anything roasting the birds. Secretly I am encouraging people to try the dark meat (my personal favorite) as it is such a treat but infrequently enjoyed as fully 85% of chicken in the USA is sold as boneless white meat. We also encourage our customers to utilize the carcass for soup as it will be the best most will have ever tasted!
Bibliochef: I know, though, that chickens are not all that you grow and sell. I understand that “gourmet hard necked garlic” is a focus. Why garlic? What is hard neck garlic? And, can you describe how you grow it?
Fred: I started growing garlic as a gardener in 1992 as I thought it a quirky and fun vegetable. There are not many vegetables that one can become passionate about, garlic is that vegetable! Little passion is generated over string beans or summer squash but garlic growers never tire of learning, talking, and of course eating the stinky stuff. Indeed we eat it and sell it at all phases of growth i.e. green garlic, scapes, fresh garlic, cured garlic and pickled garlic scapes. Our big three: Garlic, Chicken and Tomatoes work well together as all three have non-overlapping management requirements. For example, when we plant garlic in October nothing else is growing on the farm, when we pull garlic the tomatoes are already planted but not yet ripe. The hard neck garlic is the superior garlic and when purchased from a local grower it will be the best you ever tasted.
Bibliochef: And heirloom tomatoes? What makes tomatoes “heirloom”? What sorts do you grow — and what are your favorites?
Fred: An heirloom is generally considered to be a variety that has been passed down, through several generations of a family because of its valued characteristics. They are classified into four categories:
1. Commercial Heirlooms: Open-pollinated varieties introduced before 1940, or tomato varieties more than 50 years in circulation.
2. Family Heirlooms: Seeds that have been passed down for several generations through a family.
3. Created Heirlooms: Crossing two known parents (either two heirlooms or an heirloom and a hybrid) and stabilizing the resulting seeds for how ever many years/generations it takes to retain the desired characteristics and eliminate the undesirable characteristics..
4. Mystery Heirlooms: Varieties that are a product of natural cross-pollination of other heirloom varieties.
Some of our favorites are: Cherokee Purple, Green Zebra and Jaune Flamme. We grow 15-20 varieties annually and they are prized by our loyal customers.
Bibliochef: Your farm is Certified Organic — and you have used organic methods since 1978 according to some things I have read about Honeyhill Farm. What does “certified organic mean”? And how did you come to view organic methods as a good idea?
Fred: I was introduced to organic gardening and farming believe it or not in 1970 by happenstance. Shortly afterwards I had the opportunity to read about and meet the first certified organic farmer in the US and the leader of the movement, Paul Keene. [An editorial intrusion: for Keene's obituary, click here. And, for other stuff, try here.] He and his wife Betty also started and ran the first natural food store, Walnut Acres, in the country. We gardened organically since moving to this farm and raised our children here on Walnut Acres products and our own produce. [Editorial note: the Walnut Acres linked above is what happened to Walnut Acres once it was bought by others and is likely not at ALL what Walnut Acres was in its origins. So, don't take that link -- that I, Bibliochef inserted, too seriously!]
The USDA defines organic farming thus: "a production system which avoids the use of synthetically compounded fertilizers, pesticides, growth regulators and livestock feed additives. To the maximum extent feasible, organic farming systems rely on crop rotations, crop residues, animal manures, legumes, green manures, off-farm organic wastes, mechanical cultivation, mineral-bearing rocks, and aspects of biological pest control to maintain soil productivity and tilth, to supply plant nutrients, and to control insects, weeds and other pests." I add that it, while sustainable in most instances, it is more specific. It follows practices that attempt to replicate nature. It strives to enhance biological activity in the soil, minimize pollution of water and air and produce foods that are absolutely safe to eat, free of toxic chemical residues or additives.
Becoming certified is a laborious process that requires much knowledge both of methods and the requirements of the process. Honeyhill Farm is certified thru a third party certifier, NOFA-NY and they are sanctioned by the USDA. Part of this process requires us to stand for both scheduled and unscheduled inspections by our certifier. We must submit very detailed annual plans for all farm operations and review those plans at the scheduled inspection. We must be prepared to discuss any and all aspects of the plan, activities and the business with the inspector. We must defend any changes to the plan to the satisfaction of the inspector and the review committee. We are committed to Certified Organic as it remains still the best and most reliable method to determine whether a particular farm is knowledgeable of and follows the best practices allowed under the program.
Bibliochef: Your days must vary a lot seasonally, but can you describe what a day is like at Honeyhill Farm?
Fred: Most of what we do is based in the warmer months but there are lots of activities in winter and early spring as well, e.g., keeping the fence rows clear or at least not allowing them to grow larger. Non-farmers may not understand that the fence rows are constantly growing outward and if not mowed frequently and some trees removed annually one can loose a lot of growing space to the fence rows. We have 3 miles of fence row and if we lost only 4 feet a year to growth we would give up 60,000 square feet or 1.5 acres! Seed catalogs come before Christmas and we have to plan and order seeds by February 1 to ensure we can get what we want. While not a physical chore planning what one is to grow the following year is a serious task and one that involves a great deal of expense and risk!
Winter is always the best time to do mechanical repairs, repair fences and buildings, etc. During the growing season almost all daylight hours 7 days a week are needed for chores especially if there are animals on the farm. Animals always come first and must be tended to in an orderly basis twice a day. We like to recharge our batteries in the winter allowing time for reading, visiting and recreation.
Bibliochef: You have been at Honeyhill Farm since 1978. What would you say are the big changes in agriculture in upstate New York over the years?
Fred: The biggest change is the consolidation of agriculture into larger and larger farms. All our neighbors are out of business and most of that land had sprung up into houses. Most of these farmers have died and had no one willing to carry on the farm due to the realities of commodity agriculture. I am pleased however that there is a movement afoot where new and young farmers are starting small operations and selling directly to consumers. In many cases like us these new farmers were not raised on the farm but came to the field out of a desire to produce a higher quality product.
Bibliochef: I know you sell your produce and chickens at the Canandaigua Farmer’s Market. Do you go elsewhere? Besides buying chicken (and produce) directly from you at Farmer’s Markets, where can people find what you raise and grow?
Fred: We can be found at the following farmers markets: Victor Wednesdays 3-7, South Wedge (Rochester) Thursdays 4-8, Livonia Fridays 2-6 and Canandaigua Saturdays 8:30 – 12:30. We welcome visitors at the farm but request an advance telephone/email request as we are often out of sight or unavailable. Our location, phone and email are listed at the end of this interview!
Bibliochef: And now for some of the questions I ask all of the people I “speak” with! What’s the absolutely best meal you have ever had? What made it the best meal?
Fred: That is a very difficult question as I recall many great meals but the one that comes immediately to mind is the 2007 Little Lakes Food Festival dinner at Eagle Crest Vineyard on Hemlock Lake. As the founder and chairman of the festival I have the pleasure of procuring the finest local foods from farmers that I know personally and provide them to our excellent team of local chefs. This dinner is clearly a Localvores delight and is endorsed by Finger Lakes Culinary Bounty, Slow Food USA, Pride of NY, UnCork NY and other local food and travel organizations. The previous 3 years menus and chefs are listed on the website. The combination of superior local foods expertly prepared and an enthusiastic crowd make for a great meal.
Bibliochef: What music, films, books related to food would you recommend? Why? (These could be about food generally or about chickens or farming!)
Fred: My music tastes range from Blue Grass to Opera and Celtic to Classical, but for a really good time in an outdoor setting with good food and drink Celtic and Bluegrass are hard to beat! One of the best books I have read lately is The Omnivores Dilemma by Michael Pollan. Besides being a really skilled and entertaining writer this book resolves why we eat what we eat! It points out aspects of our food and our food system that are almost never considered. This book is required reading for all eaters! Joel Salatin writes books especially intended for small farms. His insights are crucial for an understanding of a balanced and sustainable food system.
Bibliochef: What do you eat for comfort food?
Fred: Chicken soup made from our pasture raised chicken is the tops!
Bibliochef: Do you have a favorite restaurant in the Finger Lakes?
Fred: A favorite restaurant would have to include one that specializes in New York and especially Finger Lakes food, wine and micro-brewed beers. The NY Wine and Culinary Center in Canandaigua would be an unbeatable destination!
Bibliochef: Hey,thanks for everything. This has been great and I have learned a lot.So, finally: what am I not asking that I should? What question have you never been asked that you have always wanted to be asked? What's your answer?
Fred: Well, after some thought, I have a few questions!
What are some of the benefits of farming like you do?
It is our distinct pleasure to grow good food that people appreciate and that is totally safe and free from any and all artificial substances. The thanks and appreciation of our enthusiastic customers makes all the effort worthwhile. Finally I get to work in the seasons creating something of objective value; this is more fulfilling than anything I had done previously.
What about the benefits of farmers markets to the customer/consumer?
Customers have an opportunity to purchase the freshest and highest quality products grown locally. Many of these products represent varieties not seen in the produce section of super markets. More over an interaction between consumer and producer is established building a community of trust and respect for the food, the consumer and producer.
When you buy direct from the farmer, you are re-establishing a time-honored connection between the eater and the grower. Knowing the farmer provides insight into the seasons, the weather, and the miracle of raising food. It provides access to a farmer and frequently the farm where adults and children can go to learn about nature and agriculture.
You mention the Little Lakes Food Festival previously, what is that?
The Little Lakes Food Festival is a celebration of Little Finger Lakes food, wine, music and the arts. All Livingston and Ontario counties are included as our four smaller lakes: Conesus, Hemlock, Canadice and Honeoye are entirely contained in these two counties. The festival showcases vendors of local products (52 in 2007) including music, art, food, wine and micro-brewed beers. Tastes are free and there is much to take home. I founded this festival in 2004 and remain the chairman however I have a dedicated staff of volunteers to help plan and carry out the festivities. There is additionally a dinner after the festival closes that is comprised of 100% local foods in multiple courses. Please see the website for details.
How is what you do now different than the corporation?
I am not just a cog in the wheel. From a business perspective a farmer that sells directly to the consumer must wear many more hats than one that sells to a commodity broker. I must perform all jobs not just one! This includes: planning, marketing, sales, R&D, implementation, packing, shipping, answering telephones, correspondence, taxes, etc; have I mentioned actually growing things?
Along with all this is that I am ultimately responsible and accountable for the quality of the product and the bottom line. It is a most rewarding lifestyle.
Bibliochef: Wow. Thanks. And I look forward to seeing you next year at the market! Meanwhile, here's the contact information for Honeyhill Farm:
6241 Price Rd.
Livonia, NY 14487-9523