Monday, February 22, 2010

Farm-to-plate, part one

Editor's note: This is the first of a three-part series following a group of Kendall College chef-instructors and students on a trip to Southern Illinois University's (SIU) College of Agricultural Sciences.

Contributed by Dana Cox,
Kendall College School of Culinary Arts, Chicago

Just after Labor Day last fall, seven culinary and pastry students, and three chef-instructors (including me) hopped a train from Chicago to Carbondale, Ill., to immerse ourselves in the agricultural life for five days. Our mission? To better understand and appreciate where food comes from. What happens before we pop open a box of pork loins or bag of haricot verts? We would soon discover just that.

Monday evening we arrive in the heart of Southern Illinois University's (SIU) campus in Carbondale and are met by Dr. Sylvia Smith, our hosting professor who teaches in SIU's foods and nutrition program. We couldn't have asked for a more qualified guide. Smith earned her PhD with a thesis in culinary tourism. Piling into the van (aptly donated to SIU by Anheuser Busch), we are headed to the Green Retreat, a working farm with cabins and guest homes constructed for those weary of urban life and in search of pastoral peace and quiet.

The chefs' guesthouse would soon be filled with teachers, administrators and students from SIU anxious to greet us and give us a tour of the farm. Our first dinner there is composed of sausages and brats made from local bison, grass-fed beef and conventionally raised pork (clearly these folks spoke our language).

Dairy Research
Our first full day begins early with a trip to the research dairy run by SIU staff member Chet Stuemke. This facility houses and milks 36 cows. Stuemke explains that the "ladies" are milked twice a day, and the earlier milking produces a higher volume of milk. Cows there yield about 35 to 40 pounds of milk per day, or 9 to 10 gallons if the "pint-per-pound" expression holds true.

Kendall's Sarah Roberts learns to milk with machines at SIU research dairy

We all take a turn at using the milking machine, which greatly improves the efficiency of the process, but also requires vigilant sanitation of udders, workers' hands and the suction cups on the machine.
Stuemke allows us to put our fingers inside the cups and experience the pressure that will be applied to the cows' teats. Rumination, Stuemke tells us, creates a great deal of heat, so cows actually feel better and produce more during colder months, as the weather provides some relief. A student comments that his cows are on the skinny side, which Stuemke says is appropriate for their job as dairy cows. They should be thought of as athletes, he says, adding that the constant milking does not allow them to put on body fat. They would develop fat livers if not milked consistently, which is potentially life threatening. They give us a couple gallons of fresh (raw) milk, an amazing luxury not available to non-farm dwellers (milk in grocery stores must be pasteurized for sale to the public).

Specialty Vegetables
The next stop of the day is to see Dr. Alan Walters, specialty horticulturalist at SIU who is studying the impact of compost on organic crops. Every few feet of green bean vines have been treated with varying amounts of compost, and he urges us to notice the vibrancy of color and hardiness of the beans more generously fed with compost, produced from SIU's cafeteria waste and hard-working worms. We pick a bushel or two of beans (photo, below), to be used later in the week for a dinner under the stars we will produce for local farmers, vintners and academics.

Walters informs us that SIU is prolific in winter pumpkin and horseradish production. Collinsville, Ill., is the horseradish capital of the world, and Libby's canned pumpkin is grown down the street in Morton, Ill. Processing pumpkins, used for canning, have lots of flavorful flesh and don't resemble the crayon-orange jack-o'-lanterns in the supermarket.

Kendall chef-instructor Dina Altieri (at right) investigates a squash blossom with Dr. Alan Walters (left), specialty produce researcher

Vermiculture (Worm Composting)
Andilee Warner, SIU's resident vermiculture expert and recycling coordinator, entertains us next at the agriculture school's compost center. Warner's facility is funded by grants with the objective of putting café and farm waste to work and keeping it out of landfills. She and millions of red wiggler worms (assisted by a food pulper from Hobart Corp., which makes rice-sized morsels of the food) break down tons of agriculture and foodservice product into valuable "worm castings," which can provide nutrient to crops. It's important to keep the worms happy, says Warner, as content critters have lots of sex, which produces eggs and means more compost. One accommodation made for the worms is that waste is allowed to pre-compost and go through its "hot phase" before being fed to the worms. The worms are also stimulated by coffee grounds donated by local Starbucks outlets. They are astoundingly efficient, eating half their body weight in 24 hours' time:
1 pound of worms >>> eat 1/2 pound of waste >>>> produce 2 ounces castings
Warner says there are different ways to approach composting: bunker systems, forced air and flow-through reactors. The latter is used at SIU and involves feeding the waste from the top and harvesting the finished matter at the bottom.

Only weeks prior to our trip, says Warner, the government signed SB99 into law, an act making commercial composting less prohibitive. Warner introduces us to a new term--the "archeology of garbage"--which refers to how waste is created, transported and stored. She often visits concerts, state fairs and the like with willing workers (not easily nauseated) to sort and categorize garbage produced by such events with the hope of identifying where the lion's share of waste is created so that waste reduction and processing strategy is based in reality.

Grains /Cereals
Tuesday afternoon we return to the fields to meet with Bryan Young, "weed scientist" and agronomist. He's not investigating the habits of the dandelion here; rather he studies cereals such as corn (both edible and field corn, fed to livestock), soy and sorghum. Summer cereals are those such as corn and soy, which are planted in early spring and harvested by fall. Winter grains, such as wheat, are planted before the ground freezes and stays dormant all winter, sprouting early in the spring. Soft red winter wheat is most commonly grown in Illinois, as it's the most profitable for our climate.

Sampling field corn

Soy, Young explains, is desirable for its oil and protein content and can produce about 50 bushels per acre here--60 if it's planted more densely, which also makes the harvest more difficult as plants are forced to grow taller. Soy is self-pollinated, and has already done so once flowers open, making hybridization of soy impossible. Corn, we would discover, is a much more complex creature than we'd imagined. Corn silks, which the cook removes when corn is husked and cleaned, are actually tubes that connect to every kernel on the cob, as each individual kernel must be pollinated. The tassels atop the corn are its pollen. Dry, hot summers can mean the pollen dries up and cannot function properly.

Our next stop on the tour would reveal that SIU's research has impacts far beyond the cornfields. Dr. Jesse Trushenski, physiology researcher at the aquaculture facility, meets us in a seemingly remote and secure field. Expecting to see tanks and whirlpools of fish, we are surprised by this destination. Here we'd be introduced to "extensive," or outdoor aquaculture. Dr. Trushenski walks us down rows of square, manmade ponds--they have 90 here--and points out that outdoor installations such as these are low-input with relatively low control, also yielding a low output. What, then, is the advantage of this type of fish farming? The goal of their research is to develop a model that can be replicated in developing parts of the world, where the initial investment needs to be minimal. All that is manipulated within this environment is that the pond is "fed" to encourage algae growth and attract the sorts of crawlers that shrimp like to eat. Hybrid bass (a cross between striped and white) are also raised in ponds such as these. Chosen varieties must be comfortable with some degree of density, since as many as 500 animals may reside in a pond.
An outdoor aquaculture facility at SIU

Once inside, the humming tanks we anticipated were filled with freshwater prawns, trout and even a variety of rainforest fish called pacu. The pacu, relatives of the piranha, are being husbanded here to restock the species in their native waters of South America. Their impressive teeth are utilized to crush the seeds and pits of vegetation they eat, which even includes persimmons that fall in the water.

The loftier objectives of fish farming are not only economic but also to promote sustainability. Eighty percent of the seafood we eat in the U.S. is imported, which means considerable carbon expenditure as well as fishing practices that can be profit-, rather than planet-centric. Fish that are exclusively fed corn and soy don't have the Omega-3 fatty acid profile desirable to health-conscious consumers, but fish fed oil and meal from fatty fish will develop these healing fats. They have discovered at SIU that fish can be "finished" with this marine-rich diet for the last 1/2 pound of body weight, ending up with the same nutritive specs as a fish that has eaten seafood its entire life.

Swine Farm
Our day would end with Dr. Gary Apgar, who refers to himself "the pig guy," with a big smile. Before heading to the barns to see the 100 hogs raised and studied here, Apgar had prepared a presentation for us, and we couldn't have been happier to sit and absorb for a moment after an ambitious (and hot) day of agrarian sightseeing.

Apgar explains that the hog is a remarkably profitable animal, as it is headed to market in a matter of months after birth, and that virtually the whole animal is used either for food or as a component of numerous products for other industries. In the 1980s, the fat-free craze hurt the pork industry, as consumers' view of pork as a fatty food discouraged sales and considerably. The pork industry responded by engineering a meatier, leaner pig via breeding and diet. Thus, the modern-day hog achieves market weight (approximately 260 pounds, according to Apgar) more quickly, has a longer trunk (the portion of the body that pork chops, loin and bacon come from) and has less body fat than the pigs of yesteryear. Apgar tells us, too, that the nation's largest purchaser of pork products is retailer Walmart, and that the company dictates the wholesale price paid for hogs. Farmers, then, are placed into the role of "price takers," having to get their animals to market within the parameters of what the discount behemoth will pay them.

A staff member from the facility responsible for insemination of the female "gestation" animals (sows whose job it is to have one litter after the other) joins us to demonstrate the tools used for impregnation. The sex organ of the male hog is corkscrew shaped, as is the apparatus used to inseminate the females. One sperm sample from a worthy stud (based on his size, leanness and number of teats) can inseminate 12 to 14 sows, producing more than 100 offspring bearing his meaty likeness. The process is done artificially, but the females must be inspired into estrus again after they have given birth. As the animals are separated by sex and weight/age, females are "exposed" to a male that is placed in a run adjacent to theirs. Periodically, we are told, the motivating male must be replaced, as the sows tire of him and need a new romantic lead to generate the required level of porcine lust.

Next, we make our way with Apgar to the buildings where the hogs are housed. The piglets, only weeks old, are kept in a trailer and are startled at the sight of us. Apgar pulls one from the trailer and hands him over to a willing Kendall student. Pigs are more intelligent than the average dog, which is evident in the inquisitive expression of the piglet as he eyes the group. Dr. Apgar explains that each hog's ears are notched shortly after birth to indicate their birth month, lineage and future job within the system. They once used tags to record this information, but aggressive pigs will pull them out of their barn mates' ears when there is discord.

SIU's Gary Apgar (left) explains ear notching system

The larger buildings on the farm house the animals as they grow and put on weight. They are separated into sections, with each group getting larger as we get deeper into the building. Their feed is primarily corn-based, which helps to put weight on them within the desired timeframe. Live green foods, although they produce healthful properties in meat, are thought to be inefficient foods in commercial farming, as animals take much longer to achieve a desirable size on grass and the like.

Because pigs do not possess an internal body temperature regulation capacity as humans do, they will wallow in mud. Since these animals live on a concrete surface, they will roll in their own waste to achieve this surface "evaporative" cooling. The aroma of this plant is something I won't soon forget.

Adolescent pigs in the swine barn

Our final point on the swine tour is the farrowing center, where the gestation sows give birth. There are claw-like devices about the size of a large pig in each pen. These are restraints, we're told, to keep the mothers from rolling over on their babies. The pigs are so stout today that they can literally crush their newborns with a simple position change. There is a small tube hanging over each pen, which Apgar points out is a source of water to drip on the mother and provide some of that evaporative cooling. Gestation mothers have an average of eight-plus piglets per litter, and they can give birth every 4 to 5 months.

Part two | Part three