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The Work Ahead

Thursday, May 27th, 2010

Growing renewed relationships with our food, homes, and communities requires hard work. It’s time we embrace dirty hands.

Man, sheep, girl, dog - photo by Shannon Hayes

The separation of work and management is embarrassingly outdated. It’s hard work that builds the relationship with land that good stewardship requires.

Photo by Bob Hooper.

May hits us like an ice water dousing on a drowsy morning. It is simultaneously shocking and deeply refreshing. Winter’s leisurely breakfasts are suddenly a thing of the past: Bob and I scarcely have time to join each other for a cup of coffee before we find ourselves on our hands and knees weeding asparagus, donning nets to check on the beehives, pounding posts to trellis new grape vines, digging holes for new fruit trees, or heading down to the farm to make sausage before the farmer’s market starts. I help my dad vaccinate the sheep and bag fleeces for the mill; he examines the flock for parasites, moves the broilers out to pasture, checks the fences, hauls hay bales to the cattle to tide them over until the pastures are amply lush, and monitors the grasses and our very pregnant ewes. My mom faces an endless barrage of dishes to wash following our luncheon feasts (made larger to accommodate our springtime appetites), handles the incoming meat orders, and helps us care for the girls. But despite all our activity, we still feel as though we are in the calm before the storm that will hit when lambing season officially begins. All other away-from-home plans are subject to the whims of nature as our family readies to welcome the spring crop of newborns.

Thankfully, the commencement of lambing season also rings in the official start of our summer internships, with one or two students interested in a future in small farming joining us to share the labor and learn how the farm operates. Our relationships with these students often grow very close; over the years they’ve become a colorful web of extended family, delighting us with their ongoing adventures. This year, we have been particularly excited to welcome back a returning, much-adored second-year intern, as well as a new student from one of the state agricultural colleges. Our newest recruit comes from a small family farm that she has chosen to revive, and she is faced with the challenge of proving to her father that it can provide a livelihood before he’ll turn over the reins. Her internship with us is the final requirement for completing a four-year degree in agricultural business, and a springboard for initiating her own family farm renaissance.

Thus, we were surprised when, a few weeks ago, she visited my parents with an awkward message from her college adviser. Blushing and avoiding eye contact, she reported, “My adviser says I’m supposed to explain to you that I’m a good student.” When asked to explain the meaning behind her message, she reported (to paraphrase), “He says I’m supposed to be learning how to run a farm, not to do grunt work.”

That was a hard message for us to take. My mother pointed out that absolutely everyone on the farm does physical work. “No one carries a clipboard in this business,” she said. It is the physical work that puts us in tune with the rhythms of nature and sharpens our powers of observation to detect problems. When we have handled 100 robust chickens, our hands can swiftly detect that number 101 is in poor health. When we’ve battled thistles in the pastures, we become sensitive to the dangers of over-grazing. When we feel the meat in our own hands and observe the marbling and fat cover, we connect the quality of the food with the quality of the farming. When we prepare our food and wash our dishes, we become attuned to our own physical needs for rest and nourishment.

It is surprising that the person to raise an objection to this way of life would be a professor of agricultural business. Surely he, of all people, would comprehend that the success of a family farm is drawn from everyone’s involvement in the labor. This is how family farms have managed to survive: We are all both labor and management.

In fact, though, that’s not the model for modern, industrial agriculture. In our conventional food system, labor is reserved for people from the most humble backgrounds—those who are paid the least, receive the least amount of education, and who are presumed to be the least intelligent. Management is for the privileged, the educated. Interestingly, our modern homes are run the same way. Many able-bodied, educated Americans leave the home for the workforce, relegating the labor required for the production of their basic necessities—food, childcare, and sometimes even their household upkeep—to those who don’t share their social standing. Physical work, in the case of industrial farming as well as what you might call “industrial housekeeping,” is often viewed as lowly, dirty, or unacceptable. From this view, it is understandable how a professor of agricultural business, skeptical of the small farm and local food movements, would despair at seeing a promising student take an interest in family farming and spurn the chance to have smooth, clean, un-calloused hands.

Happily, though, more and more people are seeing his ideas regarding the separation of work and management as embarrassingly outdated. As we discover the important role of local food in healing our ecosystems, nourishing our health, and building life-serving economies, small farmers are once again becoming valued members of our evolving Earth community. Likewise, we’re building esteem for others whose physical work helps heal our families, communities, and planet: the homemaker who makes prudent use of local bounty or tends his or her own garden or livestock; the commuter who pedals a bicycle; the entrepreneur who repairs material goods so that they needn’t be discarded.

But while no longer disdained, physical work still meets resistance. In recent interviews about my book Radical Homemakers and my life on a family farm, the response from several reporters has been: “Wow. You must work so hard. I could never do that.” I’ve heard from other radical homemakers and farmers who’ve heard similar remarks from the people they meet. In reality, we’re just ordinary people engaging in some healthy labor. By elevating physical labor to the level of superhuman achievement, these apparent admirers are making the same mistake as the professor who thinks it’s only worthy of “grunts.” They’re avoiding work.

Avoiding physical work, ironically, has taken its toll in America. We face an obesity epidemic—in part because we are physically inactive and in part because we no longer engage in the labor required to prepare foods from authentic ingredients. Our food is transported thousands of miles at a huge environmental cost because too many of us have been discouraged from the labor required to grow it. Toxic chemicals are dumped into our Earth’s soil and water as a result of the industrial, labor-saving technologies now used to produce it. (Meanwhile, many of us buy exercise machines to counteract the effects of our poor diets and stationary lifestyles, using still more of the Earth’s resources.) If we want life-serving, locally based economies, social justice, ecological sustainability, and shortened production chains, then more of us must get our hands dirty.

I believe that we are faced with the exciting challenge of stewarding our human race through a great evolution whereby we will become a beneficent species on the planet rather than a destructive one. I do not believe this transformation can happen if our bodies, minds, and spirits are divorced from one another. They must perform in a balanced union that enables us to live in ways that are both more joyous and more healthy. Physical work—be it farm labor, cooking, mending, repairing, gardening, or creating—is required by all of us, as we are able. It is neither beneath us nor above us.

Shannon Hayes wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Shannon is the author of Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture, The Grassfed Gourmet and The Farmer and the Grill. She is the host of grassfedcooking.com and radicalhomemakers.com. Hayes works with her family on Sap Bush Hollow Farm in Upstate New York.

The Case for Sustainable Meat

Thursday, May 13th, 2010
Can meat have a place in the life of a “radical homemaker” trying to live sustainably? Farmer Shannon Hayes believes it can.

posted May 12, 2010


Milking, photo courtesy of Shannon Hayes
I recently released a new book, Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture. The result of three years of obsessive research, the book is something of a manifesto for a movement of Americans who believe that they can live happily and equitably, influence social and ecological change, and minimize their reliance on a consumer culture by reviving their domestic skills and redefining what constitutes “having enough.” The people I met found that a household can survive—thrive, in fact—on a single income or less; they were single and married; with children and without; rural, urban and suburban; vegetarians and omnivores.

While the book has received a delightfully warm reception, that last description—omnivore—has raised the eyebrows of a few folks, particularly when they consider my personal and professional background. It involves a lot of meat. My family raises and processes our livestock. I have written two books about cooking sustainable meats. I maintain grassfedcooking.com to answer people’s questions about working with local livestock farms and purveyors of local meats. I’ve achieved some regional notoriety, if not for my writing, then for my artisanal sausages. Every Saturday from mid-May through mid-October, I can be found at a farmers’ market in the Catskill Mountains, standing beside my husband, selling my family’s meats.

Not surprising, then, that since the book’s release a common question I have been asked regarding sustainable living can be paraphrased this way: “I agree with your premise that Radical Homemaking is possible and important. But, really, do you honestly think animals and people can live together sustainably?”

Anyone who has ever leaned their cheek against the side of a dairy cow, breathing in her sweet scent while squeezing her milk into a pail; who has watched a crowd of spring lambs prance across pasture, punctuating their dance with spontaneous four-footed leaps; who has witnessed the amazing fertility of a manure-nourished garden; who has wiped grease off her chin after secretly feasting on cracklings before presenting a fresh roasted leg of pork to the family at Easter dinner; or who has reached under a hen and found a warm fresh egg after delivering a bowl of kitchen scraps to the flock might ask a different question: Is there any sustainable way that humans and animals could not live together?

Meat as a Community Affair

Historically, in my community, humans and livestock have been nearly inseparable. West Fulton, N.Y., is a series of frosty hollows surrounded by forested hills and rocky, steep pasture lands. When agricultural industrialization swept through the country, our small fields and pitched slopes made machine cultivation not only problematic, but treacherous. A previous owner of our own farm was killed by a tractor rollover decades ago, not an uncommon death for earlier generations around here. But even after local farms were deemed nonviable decades ago by agricultural officials who saw the ground couldn’t be adapted to big technology (our eleven months of frost didn’t help), many farms stayed in production. And although most incomes were well below the poverty line, people in West Fulton could feed themselves by maintaining hand-cultivated vegetable patches and small herds of livestock. Cattle, sheep, chickens, goats, and pigs are well adapted to our landscape and difficult climate. And they can produce food on fields that never saw a plow.

In an era of fossil fuel shortages, climate change concerns, swelling population, dwindling food security, and economic hardships, the symbiosis between animals and humans becomes even more important to understand.

Ruminants and the Environment

The consumption of meat has come under increasing scrutiny for a variety of ecological reasons, from resource efficiency to water pollution to climate change. Livestock, particularly ruminant animals, like cattle and sheep, play a critical role in all of these current global problems. Managed improperly, as we’ve seen, they are a big part of the problem; but stewarded properly, they can also be a part of the solution.

Because it’s inefficient to raise ruminants on grain, the consumption of these animals as a food source has been criticized by some as a ruinous misuse of cropland. The calculated ratio of the amount of grain an animal requires to gain a pound of weight is called the conversion factor. When grain is fed to fish, the conversion ratio is about 1.25 to 1; in other words, for every 1.25 pounds of grain product fed to a fish, there is a pound of weight gain. The conversion ratio for chicken is 2 pounds of feed per pound of gain on the bird. Pork requires 4 pounds per pound of gain. And when ruminants enter the equation, it skyrockets: estimates vary, but generally lambs require 8 pounds of feed for a pound of weight gain, and beef cattle consume some 9 pounds of feed per pound of gain.

When assessed by this factor alone, red meat does present a serious ecological problem. Grain production is extremely taxing on the environment, particularly when considering the impacts of industrial practices: soil degradation, nitrous oxide emissions, the introduction of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and the use of fossil fuel-intensive mechanized farming and transport. Not to mention, a lot more people could be nourished with that grain if it weren’t being dumped into livestock first.

But there is a problem with relying solely on this equation to evaluate the efficacy of meat production: Ruminants are not designed to eat grain. Their digestive systems are actually better suited for foraging. They can even convert crop waste inedible to humans, such as corn stalks, into food. Industrialized agriculture relies on grain-feeding, not because the animals require it (in fact, it is harmful to their health), but only because it makes cattle gain weight uniformly faster. When raised on properly managed pastures, ruminants don’t compete with humans for grain-producing acreage; in turn, they supply us with bountiful nutrients and leave the earth better for having walked upon it. On intensively-managed pasture, they have been shown to restore vegetative cover, increase biodiversity, and improve soil fertility, thereby making our fields more resistant to both drought and flood.

As awareness of climate change increases, methane emissions have become an important concern about ruminant livestock production. Enteric fermentation, the fermentation of forage in the rumen (the first stomach chamber), is a natural part of the digestion process for ruminant animals. Because their diet is naturally high in roughage, grassfed animals will belch more than their factory-farmed counterparts (the process is unnaturally suppressed in factory farming due to a coating of slime that grain-feeding causes in the rumen). But grassfed animals are still far more climate friendly: their food doesn’t require fossil-fuel based fertilizers, chemical pesticides, or miles of transport. Add in the carbon sequestered in the soils and plants of well-managed pasturelands, and some studies suggest that grassfed cattle ranching can be carbon neutral, if not carbon negative.

Pigs, photo by Shannon Hayes

Pigs and Chickens: Omnivores and the Sustainable Household

While they don’t forage the same way as ruminants, omnivorous animals, like pigs and chickens, can also play a part in regaining global sustainability. Raised in concentrated factory farm settings, these animals require large amounts of grain (which could more efficiently be fed directly to people) to be processed and trucked in. Kept in these horrific densities, their accumulated wastes are also a potent source of pollution. But dispersed on small farms and backyard or urban farm settings, these animals have a greater purpose. Their grain requirements are minimized because they forage and also recycle human food waste and turn it into more food.

The backyard pig is a common phenomenon in rural communities all over the world. Allowed controlled foraging, the pig will eat fallen nuts and acorns, dropped apples, insects, weeds, and household food scraps. In exchange, they yield meat, skin for cracklings, bones for stocks, and lard for cooking and making soap. Chickens perform similarly, if on a smaller scale. The backyard hen converts household food scraps into eggs. Later, when her egg-laying begins to fail, she adds sustenance to the soup pot. Both animals produce nutrient-rich manure, which then invigorates household gardens—and the surplus of those gardens then goes back into the livestock. These animals help us to round out our household and local ecosystems, enabling us to constantly regenerate nutrition on a local scale.

The Union of Life and Death

While I hope the above points will reassure the human omnivore eager for a pasture-raised pork chop or some free-range eggs and hash, I suspect they might ring hollow to those who are averse to the killing of animals for meat, period.

Any vegetarian who has ever challenged the morality of a livestock farmer (especially one involved in the sustainability movement) face-to-face can probably report receiving a touchy and defensive retort. This is because—contradictory as it might seem—farmers choose this life because we like animals, and not because we enjoy killing them or see slaughter as a means to a profitable end.

Sadly, those of us who make our lives farming have become a national cultural anomaly. From my own view from my family’s land, it seems that mainstream American culture harbors incongruous ideas about life and death, adoring one while abhorring the other. When daily life is directly tied to the ebbs and flows of nature, as it is in agriculture, one cannot help but observe that life and death are forever in service to one another. We cannot have one without the other. We nurture the newborn livestock, and we process the ones that are ready for market. We harvest one crop, we plant seeds for another.

I believe that all beings, whether human or other-than-human, have an inherent right to a natural existence in the world, and each has a way to contribute to the welfare of the greater whole. Inevitably, a time will come when every life must give way to sustain balance on the Earth. On the farm, there is an understanding that nothing we eat to sustain ourselves comes without sacrifice from another living being, be it animal, plant, or microorganism. Thus, we take all food, whether it is a hamburger, a pork chop, a carrot, or a spoonful of yogurt in moderation and gratitude. Nothing is eaten without an understanding of the sacred life and spirit that created the nourishment, or of the ecosystem that was required to sustain it.

I understand that there are many vegetarians out there who will disagree with me. Our divergences are a necessary, important tension. Conscientious eaters long before the locavore movement, vegetarians can be thanked for helping draw attention to the ecological havoc and animal welfare abuses that have come to define our conventional livestock production system. Their criticisms and questions have also assisted small family farms, like my own, to devise ways to improve our practices and to reflect deeply upon the nature of our work. The lessons taught by vegetarians have entered my own kitchen. Meat will always be a part of my life, but I believe that it should not be used in the extreme and wasteful way our culture has defined as acceptable. We cannot produce such tremendous volumes of meat sustainably, and wasteful and nonchalant consumer habits fail to honor the sacrifice of the animals’ lives.

I understand that no amount of explanation of the hows and whys of grassfed livestock production will convince a person opposed to killing animals that eating meat is OK. Life on my family’s farm and in my own household is informed by and is reflective of the concerns of such folks; I remain thankful that those perspectives and questions continue to come forward. But back to the question: Can animals and humans sustainably live together? My personal vote is “yes.”

Shannon Hayes wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Shannon is the author of Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture, The Grassfed Gourmet and The Farmer and the Grill. She is the host of grassfedcooking.com and radicalhomemakers.com. Hayes works with her family on Sap Bush Hollow Farm in Upstate New York.

The Kid Question

Saturday, April 17th, 2010

How one woman decided whether reproduction had a place in her quest for a sustainable life.

By Shannon Hayes

When I first began sharing my newest research endeavor—to explore the role of homemaking in healing our current global crises—I spoke with a slight tremor in my voice. I was afraid of what people might think: that I’d stepped onto a slippery path that begins with being a small-scale farmer and ends with a silenced woman diligently serving husband and a vast brood of children in a cloistered household far removed from society. But when I talked about homemakers, I had an entirely different idea in mind. Both sexes were involved, and they were people who used the home as the foundational unit for profound social, ecological, and economic change. Homemakers could have children or be child-free; they could be male or female. My argument to reclaim the home was not a statement about reproductive choices.

Most people got it. But sometimes the message was lost in translation. Two weeks ago, for example, I received a letter from a reporter in Turkey who had not seen my own writing on the topic, but who was exposed to the idea of radical homemaking second- or third-hand, through a language barrier. It was like a game of telephone, made scary for the real world. Her initial interpretation of my argument was essentially this: In order to live more ecologically and socially responsible lives, women (not men) need to return to the home; there, they should bear many children so that they could help with household duties and grow food. This, she had surmised, was my definition of a new feminism. She being a young, career-oriented, ecologically aware woman, I don’t think it sat well with her. It certainly didn’t resonate with me (as was evidenced by the fingernail marks on my desk). But, working carefully with our language barriers, I think we came to an understanding about what I mean by radical homemaking (although I’ll never know for sure, since I can’t read Turkish.)

She wasn’t the first to misconstrue my message. Since I’ve begun communicating these concepts in lectures, I’ve been taken aside several times by zealous, rather domineering men who want to have what my husband Bob and I now dub “the talk.” To be blunt, “the talk” is an invasive discussion about my fertility. The lecture starts out with assertions that I think are genuinely meant to be complimentary. These men observe the health of my children—their good eating habits, their resulting “proper bone structure” and robust health, their “stability from being in a home where a loving mother is preparing home-cooked meals.” “It is a pity,” I am therefore informed, that I do not bear more of them, since Bob and I seem to be the “right kind of parents.” These men then typically toss in a few Biblical verses for good measure.

Always alone and unsure of how to respond to these conversations, my skin crawls and I inwardly seethe. They may be well-intentioned comments that are simply grounded in beliefs wildly variant from my own, but I cannot help but hear them as statements of cultural supremacy, as conniving suggestions that a woman’s highest purpose is a functioning uterus. Typically, I use my absent husband as a scapegoat and blithely remark to the offender that “if I had more kids, I’d probably be a single mom,” in hopes that he will conclude that perhaps we aren’t the “right kind of parents” after all.

Truthfully, until that Turkish reporter contacted me, I’d done soft shoe dances around the whole child-bearing issue. I never came forward and stated my opinions on this matter. I dodged discussions with people who think having children makes me an eco-sinner and bit my lip through the “go forth and multiply” lectures. This is, in part, because I don’t think prescriptive proclamations about childbearing are pragmatic. Our world is rich with too many differing cultural views on human reproduction, and our global problems too complex for a single solution to prevail. Also, my own views have been, admittedly, inconsistent.

When Bob and I started dating, we agreed it would be better for the Earth if we didn’t have kids. A few years later I wanted one kid, and so I argued that a new generation would be beneficial for our rural agricultural community, with its population in decline. But we decided that if we had just one, at least we would still be contributing to a net population decline. That worked for a while, and then this screaming, raging, passionate desire for a second child simply overwhelmed me. I argued that I couldn’t bear to see my first-born daughter without a companion; that we had so much to give in terms of time and family; that, with grandparents helping full-time, we had too high a parent-to-child ratio for Saoirse. And our rural community still had a serious lack of children. In my most conniving moments, I pointed out to Bob that our personal ecological footprints would actually be lower if we had a fourth family member (I know. That was a pretty cheap argument. But I was desperate.)

To his credit, Bob towed the line on ecological concerns. But seeing my strong desire, and Saoirse’s longing for a sibling (and probably liking the idea of some unfettered sex), he eventually gave in. So along came Ula, the kind of kid who likes to turn on farm equipment, hide keys, play with knives, and lick batteries. The child-rearing equivalent of four 3-year-olds, she balanced out our parent-to-child ratio … or did she? I remember vividly one day last year, sometime after she was out of diapers and into trouble, cleaning out her dresser and bagging up clothes to take to the local thrift store. It was a pair of fuzzy, purple-footed sleepers that did me in. I had loved zipping her into them, seeing those fat baby cheeks pop out the top, sniffing her neck and nuzzling her as my personal cuddle toy. Suddenly, that unbearable urge washed over me again.

I wanted a third baby. Knowing this was not going to be a popular idea with Bob, I sat down in the chair where I’d rocked and nursed both my daughters and attempted to sort through my emotions.

There was no doubt that I loved my babies, that they had pushed Bob and me to experience and evaluate our world and life choices in new ways. They helped us grow immeasurably in strength and confidence. Our children taught us about our imperfections, and they filled us with empathy, grace, and new understanding about our own childhood experiences. For us, having two kids had been a great move. But what was I hoping for with “just one more?”

I was surprised at the first answer that came to me: “To stay young.” I wanted to have another baby because I didn’t want to let go of this lovely phase of life, where my body was fulfilling a primal biological function. I didn’t want to surrender that youthful vibrancy that surrounds childbearing.

There were other reasons. When pregnant or nursing, I experience a place of honor as one entitled to rest, a reduced workload, good food, and emotional vicissitudes, all for the sake of creating another life. As I reflected on those ideas, they seemed unfair. How did I come to believe I wasn’t entitled to those things unless I had a fetus in my uterus or a baby at my breast? Rest, appetite, and the freedom to express one’s emotions should be an entitlement for everyone. They shouldn’t be regarded as socially aberrant conditions excusable only in those who are pregnant or nursing. And I saw another quirk in my compulsion: I seemed to be confusing biological fulfillment with creative fulfillment. As I pondered having a third, I began to see that I was at least partially seeking a distraction from my personal creative challenges. If I constantly had the work of seeing to my young infants and children, I could sidestep the personal creative challenges that loomed in front of me: taking a greater role on my family’s farm, researching and writing about issues that I felt were important.

Still, the sweet milk-scented sighs of little babies, their soulful gazes as they suckle at the breast, and the coos, giggles, and naked bummies that eventually dart across the kitchen floor are just fantastic. As I rocked in my chair, I wasn’t sure I was ready to let them go. But just then, I heard my eldest, Saoirse, burst inside and ask her dad about taking out the canoe. She had been learning about dragonflies, and wanted to see some of them in action as they guarded their territories on a nearby pond.

Ula was finally old enough to put in the boat as well, and I wanted to join them on the adventure. And while nursing babies are lovely, they really don’t belong in canoes. As I stood up from my rocking chair, I acknowledged that it was hard for me to let go of a period in my life that I have found joyous and fulfilling—but I knew that if I didn’t, I was going to miss some other marvelous part of my life’s journey.

Today, I am thankful that I have only two children. Once I left my rocking chair that morning, my longing for a third disappeared. But I intend to remain non-committal about reproductive policy prescriptions. I am as opposed to “only one child” arguments as I am to “go forth and multiply” arguments. Instead, I think we need to be asking ourselves the deeper questions—about our need to care for and honor our health and the Earth, to seek creative fulfillment, to experience relationships and contribute to our communities, to create a better future, to do what makes us happy. Each of us will have a different answer about how children figure into this picture, but hopefully the result will be a more sustainable future.

Shannon Hayes

Shannon Hayes wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Shannon is the author of Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture, The Grassfed Gourmet and The Farmer and the Grill. She is the host of grassfedcooking.com and radicalhomemakers.com. Hayes works with her family on Sap Bush Hollow Farm in Upstate New York.


The Birthday Balloon

Saturday, March 13th, 2010

Do children need a pile of wrapped toys in order to know that their family and friends are delighted and honored that they share this lifetime with us? Somewhere in our consumer culture, we have confused material items with expressions of love.

My youngest daughter, Ula, and I have birthdays one week apart. Thus, the cusp of February and March contain a lot of conversations about cakes and special birthday plans. As we cozied into bed a few nights ago, we marveled about how she was turning three. I asked her what she would like for her birthday. Apparently she had been waiting for this question, because her answer came very quickly:

“Eggnog and a candy cane.”

“Anything else?” She gave the question a little more consideration, and thought of her two best friends.

“Ania and Katherine.” Smiling, I told her I would make that all happen.

I was reminded of my other daughter, Saoirse, when she was about that age. Her request had been a pink balloon. I thought that was perfectly reasonable, but apparently it caused a stir. Saoirse has an August birthday, and around that time three years ago, I was being interviewed by a magazine for a story they were running on eco-parenting. The reporter had learned about my work on Radical Homemaking, and had called for an interview. She outlined the premise of the piece to me, explaining that she was examining the added financial burdens parents faced when they chose to raise their children in an ecologically responsible way—as examples, she mentioned chlorine-free diapers, bisphenol and phthalate-free baby bottles, organic baby foods and clothing, and all-natural, fair-trade, and zero-impact toys.

Ula was a mobile baby at the time, and as the reporter spoke, I watched her approach her favorite all-natural toy, the family laundry basket. She dumped over the folded clothes, then rifled through until she found a pair of underpants, pulled them over her head, and paused to watch me as I listened to the reporter. Taking a cue from my daughter, I interrupted the conversation. “I’m sorry, but that’s not what eco-parenting means to me. It isn’t about going out and buying ecologically-produced versions of products I think I may need. It’s about discovering what I don’t need.”

“What do you mean?”

I presented some  examples: We never bought a single jar of pre-made baby food, organic or otherwise. My babies ate ground-up versions of whatever Bob and I ate. Children don’t need a lot of toys in order to grow, develop and be happy. And they don’t need to be new, and they don’t even need to technically be toys. Illustrating the point, Ula demonstrated the versatility of her undie hat by converting it first to a facemask, and then to an undie necklace. Re-focusing on the phone conversation, I argued that ecologically sensitive parenting, at least from a Radical Homemaker perspective, was not about adding expenses to the family budget. It was about taking them away. The reporter concluded the conversation and hung up the phone. I assumed she was satisfied.

Apparently, her editors were not. I received another phone call. Under her editor’s direction, the reporter was to present a series of more “hard-hitting” questions about Radical Homemaking. To my surprise, one of the first questions on the list was about birthdays. I mentioned Saoirse’s wish for a pink balloon, and my intention to make her wish come true. We moved on and worked our way through the second interview. I assumed we had covered everything the reporter now needed for her story.

But apparently the pink balloon was still hanging in the air, because the editor sent the reporter back for a third interview. She explained the editorial concern with my comment. To paraphrase, her editor felt that because Saoirse was young and innocent, I was just getting away with a cheap birthday present. Things would inevitably change as Saoirse grew up in our culture and adopted more materialistic desires. 

I concur that Saoirse may not have an enduring interest in balloons (although three years later, she still thinks they’re fascinating), but I cannot concur that a birthday, properly celebrated, needs to be a cultivation of and pandering to materialistic desires. What is a birthday? It is an opportunity to celebrate the life and the development of a person. Do my children need to see a table covered with a pile of wrapped toys in order to know that their family and friends are delighted and honored that they share this lifetime with us? Somewhere in our consumer culture, we have confused “presents,” material items, with expressions of love and gratitude. 

For certain, Bob and I enjoy finding a new toy or two to add a fun dimension to the day. And yes, they are often of the all-natural and fair-trade ilk, and yes, they do cost more. They are easily affordable when only one or two are needed. But the present is a marginal part of the celebration. At ages of (nearly) three and six, I have yet to hear from my children “can I have ‘thus and such a toy’ for my birthday?” Instead, my children focus on what we will do, how we will feast, and who we will share the day with. Last year, Saoirse wanted to have a dress-up tea party with her friends and family (we enforce a strict no-presents policy, so there was no gift table). The year before, we made homemade pizzas and took them out to the farm pond for a picnic, where we swam and lounged for the afternoon. For Ula, the family canceled all labors for the day and sat around the kitchen table finger-painting from breakfast (with birthday crepes) until nap time. 

My own birthday was just a few days ago. It came and went in the middle of a snow emergency, where four feet of the white stuff was dumped on our house. My birthday celebration was canceled. Bob and I spent much of the day with shovels in hand, watching as the snow banks towered well above Bob’s six-foot height. While we worked, Saoirse fashioned little dolls for me out of toothpicks, wine corks, and clothespins. When we came in to rest, Ula would climb onto my lap and sing Happy Birthday. Throughout the day, my friends called to wish me a happy day, and my mother called, despairing that she wouldn’t be able to bake me a cake.  

Around sunset, Phil, our plow truck driver, stopped outside the house. Knowing he’d been on duty nearly 24 hours, I rushed out with a cup of coffee and some chocolate chip cookies. I found him making a repair under the truck. “Happy birthday, Shannon,” he called as he climbed out from underneath and took the coffee. “Your neighbors at the bottom of the hill were sorry they couldn’t get up to see you. They wanted to make sure you knew they were thinking of you.”

I was smiling as I came inside. Bob handed me a birthday cocktail, then apologized that he was unable to make me anything special to celebrate. I smiled as I thought of all the love I’d felt that day—from my husband, my kids, my friends, my parents and neighbors, even the plow truck driver. “I had a fantastic birthday,” I said, and we toasted. Three years after that pink balloon interview series, I repeatedly think about those phone conversations, warning me that my blissful, naive ideas about birthday wishes will all change someday. After thirty-six years, they still seem to hold true for me. And now it is time for me to go make some eggnog. We’ve got a party coming up.

Shannon Hayes wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Shannon is the author of Radical Homemakers, The Farmer and the Grill, and The Grassfed Gourmet Cookbook.  She works with her family on Sap Bush Hollow Farm in upstate New York and hosts two websites, grassfedcooking.com and radicalhomemakers.com.  Copies of her books are available through those websites.

Can Money Buy Education?

Thursday, March 4th, 2010
Radical homemaker Shannon Hayes taught her daughter that their family doesn’t buy things they can make or grow at home. She then had to wonder: Does that include higher education?
posted Mar 02, 2010
Shannon Hayes with her daughter, Ula

This past November, I began a home school unit with my six-year-old daughter, Saoirse, on money. We opened our investigation by reading stories on the history of money. To paraphrase, early people originally made the things they needed. Then they began trading for the things they needed or wanted that they couldn’t make. The barter system worked out fine, as long as each party in the exchange had something that the other wanted. When that was no longer the case, money entered the marketplace as a tool to facilitate exchange. Eventually, in an effort to devise something that was relatively portable and of somewhat universal value, the Sumerians came up with the first silver coins.

From Ancient Sumerians to Modern Sustainability

Saoirse and I traveled around our home and farm and explored the different things we do to earn money, and the different things we spend it on. When it came to the spending, I explained the basic process that my husband Bob and I adhere to. When we are in a store and see something we think we want or need, the first, most important question we must ask ourselves is, “Is this something we can make or grow ourselves?” To illustrate, we talked about the grocery store. “Would we buy meat in a grocery store?”

“No,” she answered.

“Why not?”

“Because we grow it ourselves.” I smiled at the aptitude of my brilliant scholar.

Confident she was understanding, I continued my lesson. “If we decide that this is something we can’t make ourselves, then we must next ask three questions. One: Is it good for the planet? Two: Is it good for my community? Three: Is it important to me?” In an effort to keep things as simple as possible, I told her that typically, if you can answer “yes” to at least two out of the three questions, then you proceed to the final question: Can I afford it?

Three Jars of Money: Charity, Spending and….College Debt?

The next step in our lesson was working for an allowance. Since she is six years old, we selected six jobs, for which she would be paid six dollars at the end of the week. On pay day, I proudly presented her with three jars.

“What are these for?”

“This is how we’re going to divide up your money. The first jar is for charity.” (Giving money to causes we cared about had been an earlier lesson.) I helped her spell out the word, and she carefully decorated the jar. Then we counted out ten percent of her allowance and tossed it in. “The second jar is your spending money. What you put in here can be used on anything you like.” Smiling, crayon in hand, she carefully wrote out “SAOIRSE’S SPENDING MONEY.” We counted out $2.70, and she plunked it into the jar. “And the last jar is the most important jar. It’s for your savings.” She wrote out the word, and as she was about to toss in the remaining money, I added, “that’s money you can use to go to college someday.”

Saoirse’s hand stopped. She didn’t drop a single coin in. Instead, she furrowed her brow and stared at me head-on. “But I don’t want to go to college.”

This? From my own child? Everyone in my family has gone to college. My father, brother, and I all have PhD.s. My father worked for over thirty years as a college professor. From the day we started our family, Bob and I have dutifully kept savings accounts for our children, where we’ve squirreled away ten to fifteen percent of our income. Each girl receives about $2800 per year.

But despite my outward endorsements of a college education, I believe my daughter was honing in on my own insecurities. According to a simple online college savings calculator, if Saoirse attends a four-year public school in-state, the cost will be $158,447. At my family’s current rate of savings, she might be able to purchase one-third of a college degree. To date, I’ve yet to identify a socially responsible, prudent investment vehicle that would enable our money to keep up with the annual increases in college education.

Still, we are better off than most families. Bob and I paid his college debt off before we were married. I lived at home for my first two years of college, and my parents were able to pay for the remaining two years at a state school while I held a job to cover my incidental expenses. I worked as a research assistant in exchange for my graduate education. The added bonus is that we attended school a number of years ago. College tuition for two kids attending at the same time was about 20 percent of my parents’ income. If Bob and I stay on our current trajectory, one year of college for our two children will be almost 200 percent of our family earnings. And we are faring better than many other families. With no college debt of our own, we are an unusual family. Many new parents are saddled with their own school loans while simultaneously facing the expenses of their children’s future degrees.

A New Way of Learning for a New Economy

The above debt figure may seem reasonable to some folks. For many people in this country, assuming debt for an education is an acceptable practice, as is working at jobs that may provide more income to meet these expenses. However, that doesn’t resonate well in our family. To the extent possible, we resist debt, because we feel it forces families into situations that compromise their values.

As Radical Homemakers, Bob and I choose to live our lives by the four tenets of ecological sustainability, social justice, and family and community well-being. Excessive debt or expenses can require parents to spend too many hours away from their children, friends and extended family; to work jobs that may condone the extraction and abuses of our earth’s resources and people; and it can tear families and communities apart as people become nomadic employees, traversing the nation and world seeking higher pay and overlooking the things in life that bring them the most joy.

We could tell our children that they are responsible for their future college expenses. However, while it seems natural to us that a young person may need to borrow some money in order to start her life, stepping out of college with over $100,000 in debt could potentially force our daughters to pursue work that would be an anathema to the values we have tried very hard to uphold as a family.  Parents like us must choose between living according to our values and dreams, and having adequate funds for our children to go away to college. Ultimately, Bob and I decided that allowing our kids to witness their parents and grandparents joyously living their beliefs was a far more powerful education for our daughters than any college tuition.

Yet compulsively, even though I know we won’t be able to afford it, I tuck money away for Saoirse’s schooling. I guess I keep thinking that there will be some kind of divine intervention that will enable us to come up with the funds. As she holds the money over that third jar, I realize that Saoirse is looking at it differently.

“You don’t want to go to college?” I ask her to explain her thinking.

“No. I learn at home.”

I consider her remark carefully, and try to put it in the context of what we’ve been studying together. I reflect on our historical lessons. Early people only engaged in exchanges for things that they could not produce for themselves. And then I remember the first, most important question I put before Saoirse when considering spending money: Is this something I can grow or make myself? Saoirse felt that education was something we could produce ourselves.

As a culture, we believe the opposite. In order to have a successful middle-class life, most Americans agree that a person must have at least a four year degree. To be deemed “educated,” a person must be in attendance at an institution, where they pay money, accept the teachings offered by their professors, repeat back the opinions and lessons of the classroom, participate in a collegiate culture, and in exchange, receive a diploma. A person who becomes skilled at seeking lessons directly from the elders in their community, who learns to tap into the resources of a public library, who embarks on their own life adventures, who sets about creating their own experiments and challenging and teaching themselves, is considered “uneducated,” unless a piece of embossed paper is handed to them while wearing a cardboard hat and oversize dress.

As Saoirse hesitates over that third jar, in her innocent questioning, she is identifying a great sickness in our culture. We don’t trust ourselves to be our own teachers. We hesitate to regard a person as intelligent or capable without confirmation of a degree. The upshot of this is that bricks and mortar institutions (which, incidentally, must increasingly seek corporate funding and appeal to corporate interests in order to meet their expenses) are regarded as the sole proprietors of new knowledge and new ideas. When advancements happen outside the institutions, they are looked at as extraordinary marvels, unique exceptions to the rule.

Is it really critical that my daughter goes to college? Maybe not. I am thankful for my own schooling, but in truth, I am a product of a culture that believes education comes from experts. As a result, it has also taken me thirty years to learn to trust myself to be my own teacher. That may not be the case for Saoirse. As the parent, my job is to help her develop her intellect and confidence such that she can pursue her education wherever she chooses—in the classroom, with personal mentors, on a farm, at the local library, or through myriad life experiences. Rather than worrying about paying for college, it is more important that I focus on helping my daughter to become her own teacher. And hopefully, by nurturing an ability to self-teach, our family will participate in a cultural shift, where Americans come to realize that we can take responsibility for our own learning. It need not be something that is spoon-fed to us. And maybe someday, as a nation, we will acknowledge that intelligent, capable people can walk many different paths, and there is not one single route to credentials and wisdom.

Saoirse’s hand is still poised over that jar. Finally I say, “Well, maybe you will want to go to college someday. Maybe you’ll want it for something different. Maybe you’ll use it to start a business, or to do something else that’s really important to you. I guess that’s not something we have to decide today.”

“So what am I saving for?”

“Your future.  Whatever you may choose.”

Satisfied, she plunks the money in the jar.

Shannon Hayes

Shannon Hayes wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Shannon is the author of Radical Homemakers:  Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture, The Grassfed Gourmet, and The Farmer and the Grill. She and her husband Bob Hooper home-school their children and work on Sap Bush Hollow Farm in Upstate New York.  She is the host of grassfedcooking.com and radicalhomemakers.com.  All of her books are available through these sites.

Prudent Carnivore: Meat Broth and Demi-Glace (Shannon-Style)

Sunday, February 14th, 2010

If asked to select the single most important ingredient in my kitchen, it would have to be the little glass tub of demi-glace that jiggles in the back corner of my refrigerator.  Admittedly, I use the term casually. A French chef would likely have me strung up by my toes for awarding this wondrous gelatinous blob such a name.  By definition, a true demi-glace is a brown sauce made by first concocting an espagnole sauce, then blending it with an estouffade, or clear soup, then making a reduction.  My version of a demi-glace (if you will allow me the privilege of the term), is simply done by making a huge vat of broth from whatever mixture of bones (yes, I mix species), odd vegetables, leftover wine or splashes of vinegar, simmering it on the stove for a few days, straining it, then reducing it down from 8 quarts of liquid to just a few cups. 


While a jury of French chefs may convict me of gastronomic heresy, I have every faith that an army of French housewives would scurry to my defense, brandishing their stock pots and wooden spoons with intimidating valor.  Most French chefs aren’t trying to get a two-year-old daughter to stop playing with the kitchen knives, another daughter to learn her addition and subtraction, fixing lunch, scheduling meat processing on the telephone, and turning out a serviceable demi-glace all at the same time. Faced with those daily challenges, most French chefs would probably choose the Shannon Hayes “semi-demi-glace” technique as well.


Demi-glace, made in my slovenly way, is an amazing ingredient.  It concentrates all the benefits of a rich, nourishing broth down to a small, easy-to-store volume that can then be re-constituted to add flavor and nutrients to nearly all my dishes.  When the kids are swapping winter flu germs, I add four tablespoons of my demi-glace to a quart of water to make them a lovely clear stock to sip.  I toss a few tablespoons into the water when preparing beans, rice and legumes.  I use it for making gravies and pan sauces even richer.  Reconstituted in water, the demi-glace turns a few caramelized onions into a delightful onion soup, especially if topped with a handful of grated cheese.  Mixed with any leftover ingredients I may have on hand, the demi-glace turns fridge fodder into feasts: delightful soups can be turned out by adding most any leftovers - perhaps some leftover salsa, fresh vegetables, scraps of meat or fish, or cooked beans – to the pot.  The combinations are endless, and the flavor is terrific, Larousse Gastronomique be damned.


While the authenticity of the ingredients certainly contributes to the magic of the demi-glace, perhaps one of the best flavors to come through is satisfaction, which arises from knowing that we made thorough use of the gifts our grassfed and pastured animals have offered. The world’s greatest cuisines are not founded on prime cuts of filet mignon or porterhouse steaks, but on the prudent use of the 20% of the animal that is frequently discarded in this country – the bones.  Incorporating bones into our diet through meat broth and demi-glace immeasurably improves the flavor of our soups, stews and braised dishes, and better still, offers countless health benefits.


According to Sally Fallon and Mary Enig, nutritionists and authors of the book Nourishing Traditions, broth ( the base of the demi-glace) contains the minerals of bone, cartilage, marrow and vegetables in the form of electrolytes, ionic solutions that are easy to assimilate into the body.  They also contain proteinacious gelatin, which supplies hydrophilic colloids to the diet, a property that attracts your stomach’s digestive juices to the surface of cooked food particles; this is especially beneficial for folks suffering from intestinal disorders such as hyperacidity, colitis and Crohn’s disease.  Moreover, in hard times, when meat seems too expensive to serve daily, the gelatin in bone broth and demi-glace helps the body fully utilize other proteins that are ingested.  And, of course, there are the time-tested remedies of good broth for relieving the symptoms of colds, flu, myriad forms of gastroenteritis, and even bone injuries. 


The Italians have an expression, “Tutto fa brodo” -  “Everything is broth.”  Nearly anything you can find in your kitchen can be added to a broth to enrich its flavor and nutritional value.  Once the broth is made, this simplified demi-glace is merely a matter of reducing it down. The five basic elements are bones, vegetables, herbs, acid and water.



Naturally, this is the most essential ingredient.  Many mistakenly believe that only the marrow bones make good stock; while marrow does add lots of flavor and minerals, in fact, a variety of different bones is ideal.  Knuckle bones and oxtails are a great source of gelatin;  neck, rib and other meaty bones add color and flavor, as does that left over bone from Friday night’s rib eye steak, or the remains from Sunday’s leg of lamb.  All the meat, bones and vegetables that have simmered in the pot for hours will be strained and discarded from the complete broth; virtually all of their nutritive value is in the liquid.


Be creative with your broth.  A pure beef or chicken stock is lovely, but some of the most exciting dishes result from mixing varieties of bones, using anything that is on hand – a few lamb bones, perhaps a chicken carcass, mixed in with some pork chop leftovers, all create a dynamic broth flavor.  Long ago in France, cooks had la bouilloire éternelle - the “eternal kettle,” a large pot that never left the fire.  If a piece of chicken was taken out, then new chicken was added; the same with a piece of beef or a slab of pork.  Whenever broth was removed from the kettle, water was added, yielding in a steady supply of delicious stock, and a ready boiling stock for cooking meats for feasts. While the idea of a non-stop simmering pot crowding the stovetop is unlikely in a modern kitchen, the notion of incorporating all different kinds of meats when making stock reduces waste and creates dynamic flavor.



Leftover cooked vegetables can go into the pot, along with fresh veggies, and even those errant odds and ends that might be on the cusp of spoiling – open your produce drawer and be generous to your stock:  broccoli about to flower, carrots gone floppy; peppers, tomatoes and onions growing soft on the kitchen counter.  Don’t be fussy, as they will all be discarded (hopefully composted) once their flavors and minerals have been captured by the broth. 



If you have fresh herbs, make a bouquet garni by tying the sprigs together with a piece of kitchen string before adding them to the stock pot.  If using dried herbs, make a little sachet of cheese cloth so they are easily removed. 


Acid and Water:

Once the vegetables, herbs and bones have been added to the stock pot, fill it with water, then pour in an acid, such as vinegar or wine.  Use as little as a tablespoon of vinegar, or as much as a few cups of wine, depending on your taste.  Allow the stock to rest for 30 minutes to an hour prior to cooking, so the acid can draw minerals out of the bones and into the broth.  It will also enhance the flavor.



Bring the stock to a medium boil, then turn it down to a simmer.  The longer you can simmer your stock, the better. Twelve hours will be sufficient, but 72 hours will be even better.  If the pot gets too low on liquid, add more water.  Once it is complete, you have a wonderful base for cooking soups, for cooking rice, grains and legumes, for a hot drink when someone is under the weather, or for braising those other luscious (and inexpensive) bone-in cuts of meat so often overlooked: shanks, necks, oxtails, bone-in shoulders, or ribs.  But to magnify the intensity of the flavors and save storage space, I suggest taking the broth to the next level and reducing it down to the demi-glace (directions follow). 




Basic Meat Broth


Makes 8 quarts


4 -6 pounds bones (beef, lamb, pork or poultry bones will all work.  Ideally, some will be raw and some will be pre-cooked from previous meals, which will add a rich color and flavor dimension.)

2-3 large carrots, cut into large chunks

3 ribs celery, cut into large chunks

2 onions, halved (if onions are clean, feel free to leave the skins on)

8 quarts water

3-4 sprigs fresh thyme

3-4 sprigs oregano

3 cloves garlic, unpeeled and crushed (optional)

1 tomato, coarsely chopped (optional)

Any other leftover vegetables you might have lying around (except maybe for lettuce)

2 teaspoons salt

2 tablespoons vinegar, or 1-2 cups wine


Add all the above ingredients to a very large stockpot.  If herbs are fresh, tie them into a bouquet garni before adding them to the pot.  If they are dried, make a small sachet out of a piece of cheese cloth to contain them.  Allow all the ingredients to rest for 30 minutes to one hour before turning the flame on your stovetop to medium.  This step will enable the acids in the vinegar or wine to draw the minerals from the bones.


Bring the mixture to a boil slowly, skimming off any scum that rises to the surface.  Reduce the heat to low, and slowly simmer the broth for a minimum of 12 hours.  The longer you cook it, the richer it will be.  If your cook top will allow a slow, steady simmer and you will be nearby, consider allowing the mixture to slowly bubble, with the lid in place, for about three days straight, replacing water as necessary.  If you don’t feel secure leaving the pot untended overnight, simmer the stock all day, or while you are home, turn it off before going to bed or leaving, then resume simmering it when you are around once more.  Be vigilant about adding additional water if the fluid level gets too low.  (Personally, if the cooking is interrupted, I leave the stock unrefrigerated on the stove, as I know it will be returned to a high enough temperature to kill food-borne pathogens.  If this practice makes you uncomfortable, simply refrigerate your stock between simmer sessions.)  When the final simmering is complete, pour the broth through a sieve to strain out all the bones, vegetables and herbs. Return it to the stovetop and simmer once more, uncovered, until the volume is reduced by one-third.  Chill.  Ideally, once it is cold, it should be mildly gelatinous. Store the broth in pint or quart containers in the fridge or freezer.


For the “demi-glace,” when you return the strained broth to the stove, you will be cooking it down much further.   If you started with about 8 quarts of broth, reduce it until you have approximately 5 cups.  Once it has chilled, skim off any fat that has risen to the surface before using. You will then have a rich demi-glace that will be firm when cool, and will store beautifully in your refrigerator for about one month. (Confession: I’ve kept it much longer, and simply scraped off any moulds that grew on the surface…my family is still alive and healthy.)  Broth and demi-glace can be frozen indefinitely.


Shannon Hayes is the author of Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture, The Grassfed Gourmet Cookbook, and The Farmer and the Grill: A Guide to Grilling, Barbecuing and Spit-Roasting Grassfed Meats (and for saving the planet, one bite at a time).  She is the host of grassfedcooking.com and radicalhomemakers.com.  Hayes works with her family on Sap Bush Hollow Farm in Upstate New York, and is currently writing her fourth book, Long Way on a Little:  An Earth Lovers’ Companion for Enjoying Meat, Pinching Pennies and Living Deliciously. Copies of her books are available through her websites, grassfedcooking.com and radicalhomemakers.com. 


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Radical Homemakers: Ecological, Social and Economic Transformation…all under one roof

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2010

Portions of this story are excerpted from Shannon Hayes’ newest book, Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity From a Consumer Culture, Left to Write Press, 2010. To learn more, visit radicalhomemakers.com.


Long before we could pronounce Betty Friedan’s last name, Americans from my generation felt her impact. Many of us born in the mid-seventies learned from our parents and our teachers that women no longer needed to stay home; that there were professional opportunities awaiting us. In my own school experience, homemaking, like farming, gained a reputation as a vocation for the scholastically impaired. Those of us with academic promise learned that we could do whatever we put our minds to, whether it was conquering the world or saving the world. I was personally interested in saving the world. That path eventually led me to conclude that homemaking would play a major role toward achieving that goal.


My own farming background led me to pursue advanced degrees in the field of sustainable agriculture, with a powerful interest in the local food movement. By the time my Ph.D. was conferred, I was married, and I was in a state of confusion. The more I understood about the importance of small farms and the nutritional, ecological and social value of local food, the more I questioned the value of a 9 to 5 job. If my husband and I both worked and had children, it appeared that our family’s ecological impact would be considerable. We’d require two cars, professional wardrobes, convenience foods to make up for lost time in the kitchen…and we’d have to buy, rather than produce, harvest and store our own food. The economics didn’t work out, either. When we crunched the numbers, our gross incomes from two careers would have been high, but the cost of living was also considerable, especially when daycare was figured into the calculation. Abandoning the job market, we re-joined my parents on our small grassfed livestock farm, and became homemakers. For almost ten years now, we’ve been able to eat locally and organically, support local businesses, avoid big box stores, save money, and support a family of four on less than $45,000 per year.


Wondering if my family was a freaky aberration to the conventional American culture, I decided to post a notice on my webpage, looking to connect with other ecologically-minded homemakers. My fingers trembled on the keyboard as I typed the notice. What, exactly, would be the repercussions for taking a pro-homemaker stand and seeking out others? Was encouraging a Radical Homemaking movement going to unravel all the social advancements that have been made in the last forty-plus years? Women, after all, have been the homemakers since the beginning of time. Or so I thought.



The Origins of Homemaking: A vocation for both sexes

Upon further investigation, I learned that the household did not become the “woman’s sphere” until the Industrial Revolution. A search for the origin of the word housewife traces it back to the thirteenth century as the feudal period was coming to an end in Europe, and the first signs of a middle class were popping up. Historian Ruth Schwartz Cowan explains that Housewives were wedded to husbands, whose name came from hus, an old spelling of house, and bonded. Husbands were bonded to houses, rather than to lords. Housewives and husbands were free people, who owned their own homes and lived off their land. While there was a division of labor among the sexes in these early households, there was also an equal distribution of domestic work. Once the Industrial Revolution happened, however, things changed. Men left the household to work for wages, which were then used to purchase goods and services that they no longer were home to provide. Indeed, the men were the first to lose their domestic skills as their successive generations forgot how to butcher the family hog, how to sew leather, how to chop firewood.


From Units of Production to Units of Consumption


As the Industrial Revolution forged on and crossed the ocean to America, men and women eventually stopped working together to provide for their household sustenance. They developed their separate spheres – man in the factory, woman in the home. The more a man worked outside the home, the more the household would have to buy in order to have the needs met. Soon the factories were able to fabricate products to supplant the housewives’ duties as well. The housewife’s primary function ultimately became chauffeur and consumer. The household was no longer a unit of production. It was a unit of consumption.


Housewife’s Syndrome


The effect on the American housewife was devastating. In 1963, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, documenting for the first time “the problem that has no name,” Housewife’s Syndrome, where American girls grew up fantasizing about finding their husbands, buying their dream homes and appliances, popping out babies, and living happily ever after. In truth, pointed out Friedan, happily-ever-after never came. Countless women suffered from depression and nervous breakdowns as they faced the endless meaningless tasks of shopping and driving children hither and yon. They never had opportunities to fulfill their highest potential, to challenge themselves, to feel as though they were truly contributing to society beyond wielding the credit card to keep the consumer culture humming. Friedan’s book sent women to work in droves. And corporate America seized upon a golden opportunity to secure a cheaper workforce and offer countless products to use up their paychecks.


Before long, the second family income was no longer an option. In the minds of many, it was a necessity. Homemaking, like eating organic foods, seemed a luxury to be enjoyed only by those wives whose husbands garnered substantial earnings, enabling them to drive their children to school rather than put them on a bus, enroll them in endless enrichment activities, oversee their educational careers, and prepare them for entry into elite colleges in order to win a leg-up in a competitive workforce. At the other extreme, homemaking was seen as the realm of the ultra-religious, where women accepted the role of Biblical “Help Meets” to their husbands. They cooked, cleaned, toiled, served and remained silent and powerless. My husband and I fell into neither category, and I suspected there were more like us.


Meet the Radical Homemakers


I was right. I received hundreds of letters from rural, suburban and city folks alike. Some ascribed to specific religious faiths, others did not. As long as the home showed no signs of domination or oppression, I was interested in learning more about them. I selected twenty households from my pile, plotted them on a map across the United States, and set about visiting each of them to see what homemaking could look like when men and women shared both power and responsibility. Curious to see if Radical Homemaking was a venture suited to more than just women in married couples, I visited with single parents, stay-at-home dads, widows and divorcées. I spent time in families with and without children.


A glance into America’s past suggests that homemaking could play a big part in addressing the ecological, economic and social crises of our present time. Homemakers have played a powerful role during several critical periods in our nation’s history. By making use of locally available resources, they made the boycotts leading up to the American Revolution possible. They played a critical role in the foundational civic education required to launch a young democratic nation. They were driving forces behind both the abolition and suffrage movements.


Homemakers today could have a similar influence. The Radical Homemakers I interviewed had chosen to make family, community, social justice and the health of the planet the governing principles of their lives. They rejected any form of labor or the expenditure of any resource that did not honor these tenets. For about five thousand years, our culture has been hostage to a form of organization by domination that fails to honor our living systems, where “he who holds the gold makes the rules.” By contrast, the Radical Homemakers are using life skills and relationships as replacements for gold, on the premise that he or she who doesn’t need the gold can change the rules. The greater one’s domestic skills, be they to plant a garden, grow tomatoes on an apartment balcony, mend a shirt, repair an appliance, provide one’s own entertainment, cook and preserve a local harvest, or care for children and loved ones, the less dependent one is on the gold.


By virtue of these skills, the Radical Homemakers I interviewed were building a great bridge from our existing extractive economy, where corporate wealth has been regarded as the foundation of economic health, where mining our earth’s resources and exploiting our international neighbors has been an acceptable cost of doing business; to a life serving economy, where the goal is, in the word’s of David Korten, to generate a living for all, rather than a killing for a few; where our resources are sustained, our waters are kept clean, our air pure, and families and can lead meaningful lives. In situations where one person was still required to work out of the home in the conventional extractive economy, homemakers were able to redirect the family’s financial, social and temporal resources toward building the life serving economy. In most cases, however, the homemakers’ skills were so considerable that, while members of the household might hold jobs (more often than not they ran their own businesses), the financial needs of the family were so small that no one in the family was forced to accept any employment that did not honor the four tenets of family, community, social justice and ecological sustainability.


While all the families had some form of income that entered their lives, they were not the privileged set by any means. Most of the families I interviewed were living with a sense of abundance at about 200% of the Federal Poverty Level. That’s a little over $40,000 for a family of four, about 37% below the national median family income, and 45% below the median income for married couple families. Some lived on considerably less, few had appreciably more. Not surprisingly, those with the lowest incomes had mastered the most domestic skills, and had developed the most innovative approaches to living.


Rethinking the Impossible


The Radical Homemakers were fluent at the mental exercise of rethinking the “givens” of our society and coming to the following conclusions: nobody (who matters) cares what (or if) you drive; housing does not have to cost more than a single moderate income can afford (and can even cost less); it is okay to accept help from family and friends, to let go of the perceived ideal of independence and strive instead for interdependence; health can be achieved without making monthly payments to an insurance company; child care is not a fixed cost; education can be acquired for free — it does not have to be bought; and retirement is possible, regardless of income.


As for domestic skills, the range of talents held by these house­holds was as varied as the day is long. Many kept gardens, but not all. Some gardened on city rooftops, some on country acres, some in suburban yards. Some were wizards at car and appliance repairs. Others could sew. Some could build and fix houses; some kept live­stock. Others crafted furniture, played music or wrote. All could cook. (Really well, as my waistline will attest.) None of them could do everything. No one was completely self-sufficient, an independent island separate from the rest of the world. Thus the universal skills that they all possessed were far more complex than simply knowing how to can green beans or build a root cellar. In order to make it as homemakers, these people had to be wizards at nurturing relation­ships and working with family and community. They needed an inti­mate understanding of the life-serving economy, where a paycheck is not always exchanged for all services rendered. They needed to be their own teachers — to pursue their educations throughout life, for­ever learning new ways to do more, create more, give more.

In addition, the happiest among them were successful at setting realistic expectations for themselves. They did not live in impeccably clean houses on manicured estates. They saw their homes as living systems and accepted the flux, flow, dirt and chaos that are a natural part of that. They were masters at redefining pleasure not as some­thing that should be bought in the consumer marketplace, but as something that could be created, no matter how much or how little money they had in their pockets. And above all, they were fearless. They did not let themselves be bullied by the conventional ideals regarding money, status, or material possessions. These families did not see their homes as a refuge from the world. Rather, each home was the center for social change, the starting point from which a better life would ripple out for everyone.


Home is where the great change will begin. It is not where it ends. Once we feel sufficiently proficient with our domestic skills, few of us will be content to simply practice them to the end of our days. Many of us will strive for more, to bring more beauty to the world, to bring about greater social change, to make life better for our neighbors, to contribute our creative powers to the building of a new, brighter, sustainable and happier future. That is precisely the great work we should all be tackling. If we start by focusing our energies on our domestic lives, we will do more than reduce our ecological impact and help create a living for all. We will craft a safe, nurturing place from which this great creative work can happen.



Shannon Hayes is the author of Radical Homemakers, The Farmer and the Grill, and The Grassfed Gourmet Cookbook. She works with her family on Sap Bush Hollow Farm in Upstate New York and hosts two websites, grassfedcooking.com and radicalhomemakers.com. Copies of her books are available through those websites and through Chelsea Green.


Shannon Hayes wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions: http://www.yesmagazine.org/happiness/meet-the-radical-homemakers.


The Grassfarmer Meets the Radical Homemaker

Tuesday, January 12th, 2010

Who is sustaining the local food movement?  The wealthy?  The foodies?  Not necessarily.  Check out the homemakers.

January snows build up outside our kitchen windows as Bob and I scurry about at 3am this morning.  The kids are asleep, and we’ve taken to using these dark hours to make the last minute frantic preparations to launch my newest book, Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity From a Consumer Culture.  Our kitchen table is scattered with promotional post cards, my desk is a mess of sticky notes regarding our new website,
radicalhomemakers.com; my inbox contains a folder specifically designated for the press review copies, and we are frantically clearing floor space in our mudroom and shed to accommodate the thousands of books that will arrive outside our door tomorrow morning (or is that today?).  For the first time since 2001, it has been over two months since I have tested a single grassfed meat recipe.  The work of writing and releasing a non-fiction non cookbook is quite different from my comfortable grassfed niche.  And while the departure from my normal kitchen work feels strange, the path by which I came to write a social science book examining the social, economic and ecological importance of domestic work was actually a natural progression from my work on the farm and in the kitchen.

I was prompted to explore the topic of homemaking in response to frequent remarks I’ve heard while participating in the grassfed movement.  Any of us who garner our living by directly marketing our pasture-raised meats can attest to the familiarity of this statement:  “Sure, grassfed is better.  But only the wealthy can afford it.”  While this belief prevailed throughout our industry, my personal observations were different.  For certain, Sap Bush Hollow Farm has had some high-earning epicurean customers seek us out as a result of learning about grassfed products through books, news stories and glossy magazines.  But more often than not, these folks would make one or two trips out to the farm to satisfy their conscience and curiosity, and then we would never see them again.

The bedrock of our business is not people who follow food trends.  They are people who have made decisions to lead socially responsible lives.  Most of the families who support us have very moderate incomes. (That’s not surprising, since quite often, a person who is willing to do whatever it takes to garner an extremely high salary typically does so because he or she is not exercising much of a social conscience.)  With somewhat limited means, our customers have figured out that in order to afford ecologically responsible foods, they must know their way around a kitchen. Grassfed meats are not expensive if a person knows how to cook them, how to make prudent use of them by working with all the parts of the animal (rather than with just a few select cuts), and if a person is adept at using leftovers.  A family does not need to earn a lot of money to eat local, sustainable, grassfed foods.  But someone in the family does need to have the domestic skills to be able to procure, process and prepare them affordably.  And someone in the family needs to be at home to get this work done.
That’s what led me to do the research for Radical Homemakers.
I traveled the country visiting homes to see what domesticity can look like in an era that has benefitted from feminism and ecological awareness.  The resulting lifestyles were beautiful to witness.  As many of you can probably imagine, some of the Radical Homemakers I met were also farmers.  (Indeed, most of the farmers who I have come to know through the grassfed movement are also Radical Homemakers.)  But while many grassfed farmers are homemakers, not all Radical Homemakers are farmers.  I found Radical Homemakers creating beautiful lives in Los Angeles, Chicago, Midwestern suburbs, rural villages and on back-country roads. I met single moms, stay-at-home dads, multi-generational families, widows and divorcees.  All of them were ardent supporters of the local food movement, had deep connections with their surrounding agricultural community, and yet not one of them was rich.  Most of them lived at about 200% of the Federal Poverty Level.  They are living proof that Americans can eat well, pay a fair price for their food, heal the planet, and lead a meaningful, rich and enjoyable life.
I hope that you will find some time over the next year to pick up a copy of the book and give it a read.  I also ask that you check out the new website, radicalhomemakers.com.  I know that many of you who read my posts have ascribed to the radical homemaking lifestyle for quite some time, and I am hoping that, after visiting the website and/or reading the book, you will  take a few minutes to share your Radical Homemaking story by posting it on the site (you can use a pseudonym if you’d like).  Over the course of my research I wound up receiving hundreds of letters from people who were pursuing this life path.  Simultaneously, I received letters from people who desperately wanted to step on board, but who were afraid to make changes in their lives.  Those people need our support.  They need to see stories about how this life can be possible, about how the obstacles can be overcome, about the truths and struggles that they can expect.  Please, if you are a radical homemaker, please take some time to contribute your experience to the site, and check back now and then to participate in the ongoing dialogues or answer questions.  If more people can switch over to this way of life, our communities and economy will be more stable, our farms will be more secure, and our future more sustainable.  And I can get back to testing recipes.

Shannon Hayes is the host of grassfedcooking.com and radicalhomemakers.com. She is the author of Radical Homemakers, Farmer and the Grill and The Grassfed Gourmet. Hayes works with her family on Sap Bush Hollow Farm in Upstate New York.

Tender Grassfed Steak, Inside and Out

Tuesday, December 1st, 2009

Last month brought two splendid, nearly 30-month old steers through the cutting room for the fall harvest. Our freezers were filled with glorious, full-flavored, prime beef. And I mean prime. Incredibly, there are still folks who assume beef cannot marble without the aid of grain fattening. Balderdash, I say! The steaks coming out of the cutting room throughout the late fall have been deeply marbled and rich in flavor. Typically, early December in the Northeast has many customers leaving the steaks off their shopping lists in favor of the stew meat and roasts. But those who pause over our beef display just long enough to notice the marbling seize upon the rib eyes and porterhouses…Beef that approaches 30 months in age results in grassfed steak that is truly magnificent. The trick is to know how to handle it properly, whether you are cooking it indoors, or outside.

The simplest, most commonly heard distinction made between grassfed and factory-farmed meat is that grassfed is leaner. As we’ve just seen, that is not always the case. The real difference lies in the fact that, by virtue of a beef animal’s active and healthy life, there is true muscle integrity in the meat. This is wildly different from the feedlot animals, which get little or no exercise, resulting in more flaccid (and, hence less flavorful) cuts. This does not mean that grassfed steaks are less tender - on the contrary. Cooked more gently, grassfed meat is wonderfully tender. The healthy muscle texture does, however, mean that grassfed steaks will be more variable than grainfed meats. Taste and texture of steaks will vary based on breed, farming practices, pastures, and individual animal characteristics. Thus, the trick to cooking a delicious steak is to work with the variability and take advantage of that beautiful muscle quality.

We should be treating this meat as “tenderly” in the kitchen or on the grill as the farmers treated the animals in the fields. When cooking a grassfed steak, we want to achieve a delicious sear that creates a pleasant light crust on the exterior of the meat, then allow it to finish cooking at a much lower temperature; this allows the naturally-occurring sugars to caramelize on the surface, while protecting those muscle fibers from contracting too quickly. Tough grassfed steaks result from over-exposure to high heat, which causes the muscle fibers to contract tightly and become chewy and overly dry.

Keeping these principles in mind, below are two techniques for cooking a fantastic steak, using the same seasonings. The first technique, taken from The Farmer and the Grill, is for working outdoors with open flames, my preferred method, YEAR ROUND. If you plan on winter grilling, be sure to check out the list of tips for safe winter grilling that appear at the end of this article. (And now for a shameless plug: The Farmer and the Grill thoroughly covers how to cook all the different cuts of grassfed and pastured meats out on the grill; plus it thoroughly explores ecologically responsible grilling practices…which actually result in better tasting and healthier meats. And hey! It’s even printed on recycled paper…Anyone in need of an ecologically-sound, socially responsible and inexpensive holiday gift???)

The second technique is taken from my forthcoming cookbook, Long Way on a Little: An Earth Lovers’ Companion for Enjoying Meat, Pinching Pennies and Living Deliciously. Much to my surprise, not every family on the North American continent has access to an outdoor grill – hard to believe! Thus, in an effort to include you in the thrill that comes from eating the best-tasting steak available, I’ve included an indoor steak recipe that guarantees your grassfed meat will remain tender and juicy. Enjoy!


Recipe adapted from Farmer and the Grill: A Guide to Grilling, Barbecuing and Spit-Roasting Grassfed Meat…and for saving the planet, one bite at a time, by Shannon Hayes, Left To Write Press, 2007

(The amount of seasoning you will use will vary based on the size of your steak. If it is close to one pound, use less. If it is closer to 2 pounds, use more.)

1-2 tablespoons coarse salt

1-2 teaspoons ground black pepper

1-2 cloves garlic, minced

Either 1 sirloin, sirloin tip, tri-tip, top round or London Broil, rib eye, porterhouse, t-bone, top loin (NY Strip) or tenderloin (filet mignon) steak. Steaks should be at least 1 ¼ - 1 ½ inches thick.

Combine the salt, pepper and garlic in a small bowl. Rub the mixture into both sides of the steak, then allow the meat to come to room temperature while you prepare the grill.

Start the grill and warm it until it is hot. If you are using a gas grill, turn off all but one of the burners once it has come up to temperature. If you are using charcoal, be sure all the coals have been raked to one side. Use the hand test: the grate will be hot enough when you can hold your palm 3-4 inches above the metal for no more than three seconds.

Sear the steaks for 2-3 minutes on each side directly over the flame, with the lid down. Then, move the steaks to the part of grill that is not lit. Set the lid in place and allow the steaks to cook, without flipping them, until they reach 120-135 degrees**, about 10-20 minutes, depending on the size of the steak. Remove the steaks to a platter and allow them to rest a few minutes before serving.


Recipe taken from Long Way on a Little: An Earth Lovers’ Companion for Enjoying Meat, Pinching Pennies and Living Deliciously, forthcoming from Shannon Hayes, Left to Write Press, 2011. To be notified of the book’s release, email [email protected] with “Long Way on a Little” in the subject heading.

(The amount of seasoning you will use will vary based on the size of your steak. If it is close to one pound, use less. If it is closer to 2 pounds, use more.)

1-2 tablespoons coarse salt

1-2 teaspoons ground black pepper

1-2 cloves garlic, minced

2 tablespoons butter, tallow or rendered lamb fat

Either 1 sirloin, sirloin tip, tri-tip, top round or London Broil, rib eye, porterhouse, t-bone, top loin (NY Strip) or tenderloin (filet mignon) steak. Steaks should be at least 1 ¼ - 1 ½ inches thick.

Combine the salt, pepper and garlic in a small bowl. Rub the mixture into both sides of the steak then allow the meat to come to room temperature. Preheat the oven to 200 degrees, then heat a large cast iron skillet or other oven-proof skillet over a high flame. Once the skillet is so hot that you can see a little smoke rising off of it, add the butter or fat. Sear the steak for two minutes on each side. Turn off the flame, and insert an instant-read meat thermometer into the boneless edge of the steak - do not insert it into the top, as there is not enough thickness for the thermometer to take an accurate reading. Leaving the steak in the skillet, place it in the oven and allow it to finish cooking, about 10-20 minutes depending on the size of the cut, until the internal temperature reads 120-135 degrees.** Allow the meat to rest five minutes before carving and serving.

**Weren’t aware that grassfed meats have different internal doneness temps than grainfed? Get a handy magnetic grassfed temperature guide, the Don’t Overdo It Magnet, from grassfedcooking.com. They’re inexpensive, and you can feel good about them, because they are made by a small, locally owned factory in my community.


Yes, the indoor method described above is terrific. The meat is super-tender and juicy. But I prefer to season with a little smoke and flame. Thus, I’ve become one of those hard-core advocates of year-round grilling. If you are new to the idea, here are a few tips to get you started.

1. Choose a safe place for grilling outdoors. The garage may not be your best bet, since it probably contains a few explosives, such as cans of gas, or lawn mowers, chainsaws or other vehicles that contain gasoline. I actually have a screened-in porch with a brick floor that shelters me for winter grilling. That’s a little more deluxe than most folks have – just try to choose a sheltered spot that isn’t too close to your house.

2. Keep the path to your grill site, and the area around it, free of snow and ice. It would be deeply annoying to ruin a perfectly good dinner because of a last-minute trip to the emergency room.

3. Dress wisely. I find that my charcoal throws up a lot more sparks in the winter…or perhaps I’ve just noticed them more, because I’ve made the stupid mistake on occasion of wearing drapey and flammable garments, such as winter scarves, out to the coals. Learn from my experience, and don’t make the same stupid mistake.

4. Limit your grilling repertoire. It’s cold out. Barbecuing is a culinary tradition from the warm south. Unless you have some pretty sophisticated equipment, and are some kind of BBQ Macho-Man (you know who you are), smoking and barbecuing are best relegated to summertime pleasures. Stick to the steaks, burgers and chops. They minimize the trips out to the grill, keeping the cold out of your house and out of your bones.

5. Allow extra heat-up and cook times. Extreme outdoor temperatures will affect the warm-up and cooking time of your grill. To accommodate for this, always grill with the lid down, and monitor the internal temperature of your meat with an instant-read meat thermometer. If you are considering buying a gas grill and you plan to use it through the winter, buy the highest BTU rating you can afford. The cold truly slows the heat-up process. Also, high BTUs often accompany higher quality grills, which will do a better job holding in the heat during the winter months. If you are on a budget (like me) or just prefer the flavor (like me), a simple little Weber charcoal kettle will work beautifully for outdoor winter grilling (no, I do not work for them).
Winter grilling is much easier if you are working with the ecologically responsible charwood (available in many hardware or natural food stores) because it is much easier to light, and it quickly gets a lot hotter than composite briquettes. I find that, with the exception of the most extreme weather conditions, I can keep to my normal cook times by simply using a few more coals in the fire. The bonus is that charwood is better for the planet. For more tips on ecologically responsible grilling, check out my book, The Farmer and the Grill: A Guide to Grilling, Barbecuing and Spit-Roasting Grassfed Meat…And for saving the planet, one bite at a time. (HOW COULD I NOT CONCLUDE A DECEMBER GRILLING STORY WITHOUT ONE FINAL PLUG FOR THE GRILL BOOK??)

**Weren’t aware that grassfed meats have different internal doneness temps than grainfed? Get a handy magnetic grassfed temperature guide, the Don’t Overdo It Magnet, from grassfedcooking.com. They’re inexpensive, and you can feel good about them, because they are made by a small, locally owned factory in my community.

Shannon Hayes is the host of grassfedcooking.com and radicalhomemakers.com. She is the author of Radical Homemakers (due out in the next few weeks), Farmer and the Grill, and The Grassfed Gourmet. Hayes works with her family producing grassfed and pastured meats on Sap Bush Hollow Farm in Upstate New York.

Pastured Turkey Cooking Tips

Saturday, November 21st, 2009

For the past week, farm families across the country (including my own) have been rising each morning to engage in what has become our own unique, albeit macabre, Thanksgiving Tradition.  We are processing our turkeys.  Unlike the factory-farmed birds found in most grocery stores, these birds are usually processed just a few feet from the lush grasses where they were raised, quite often by the same hands that first gently set their newly hatched toes into a brooder, and then carefully moved them, once they were old enough, out to the fields for a few months of free-ranging turkey living.  Now that the processing complete, our birds sit in our coolers and await our customers, who will venture out to the farm for a tradition of their own, retrieving their annual Thanksgiving feast.  For those of you who are new to this process, here is a list of tips to guide you through and make sure that you have a delicious holiday feast.  

  1. Please be flexible. If you are buying your pasture-raised turkey from a small, local, sustainable farmer, thank you VERY much for supporting us. That said, please remember that pasture-raised turkeys are not like factory-farmed birds. Outside of conscientious animal husbandry, we are unable to control the size of our Thanksgiving turkeys. Please be forgiving if the bird we have for you is a little larger or a little smaller than you anticipated. Cook a sizeable quantity of sausage stuffing if it is too small (a recipe appears below), or enjoy the leftovers if it is too large.  If the bird is so large that it cannot fit in your oven, simply remove the legs before roasting it.
  2. Know what you are buying. If you don’t personally know the farmer who is growing your turkey, take the time to know what you are buying! “Pastured” is not necessarily the same as “free-range.” Some grass-based farmers use the word “free-range” to describe their pasture-raised birds, but any conventional factory farm can also label their birds “free-range” if they are not in individual cages, and if they have “access” to the outdoors – even if the “outdoors” happens to be feces-laden penned-in concrete pads outside the barn door, with no access to grass. “Pastured” implies that the bird was out on grass for most of its life, where it ate grass and foraged for bugs, in addition to receiving some grain.
  3. Brining optional. If tradition dictates that you season your meat by brining your bird, by all means, do so. However, many people brine in order to keep the bird from drying out. This is not at all necessary. Pastured birds are significantly juicier and more flavorful than factory farmed birds. You can spare yourself this extra step as a reward for making the sustainable holiday choice!
  4. Monitor the internal temperature. Somewhere, a lot of folks came to believe that turkeys needed to be roasted until they had an internal temperature of 180 degrees Fahrenheit. Yuck. You don’t need to do that. Your turkey need only be cooked to 165 degrees. If the breast is done and the thighs are not, take the bird out of the oven, carve off the legs and thighs, and put them back in to cook while you carve the breast and make your gravy. That entire holiday myth about coming to the table with a perfect whole bird and then engaging in exposition carving is about as realistic as expecting our daughters will grow up to look like Barbie (and who’d want that, anyhow?). Just have fun and enjoy the good food.
  5. Cook the stuffing separately. I know a lot of folks like to put the stuffing inside their holiday birds, and if Thanksgiving will be positively ruined if you break tradition, then stuff away. However, for a couple reasons, I recommend cooking your stuffing separately. First, everyone’s stuffing recipe is different. Therefore, the density will not be consistent, which means that cooking times will vary dramatically. I am unable to recommend a cooking time, since I cannot control what stuffing each person uses. Also, due to food safety concerns, I happen to think it is safer to cook the stuffing outside the bird. Plus, it is much easier to lift and move both the bird and the stuffing when prepared separately, and to monitor the doneness of each. Rather than putting stuffing in my bird’s cavity, I put in aromatics, like an onion, carrot, garlic and some fresh herbs. When the bird is cooked, I add these aromatics to my compost heap. The aromatics perfume the meat beautifully, and the only seasoning I wind up using on the surface is butter, salt and pepper.
  6. No need to flip. I used to ascribe to that crazy method of first roasting the bird upside down, then flipping it over to brown the breast. The idea was that the bird would cook more evenly, and the breast wouldn’t dry out. When I did this, the turkey came out fine. But I suffered 2nd degree burns, threw out my back, ruined two sets of potholders and nearly dropped the thing on the floor. Pasture-raised turkeys are naturally juicy. Don’t make yourself crazy with this stunt. Just put it in the oven breast-side up, like you would a whole chicken, and don’t over-cook it. Take it out when the breast is 165 degrees (see #2, above).   If, despite the disparaging comments in item 2, above, you still want to show off the whole bird, then bring it into the dining room, allow everyone to ooh and aah, then scuttle back to the kitchen, and proceed as explained above.
  7. Be ready for faster cook times. Pasture-raised turkeys will cook faster than factory-farmed birds. Figure on 12-15 minutes per pound, uncovered, at 325 degrees as you plan your dinner. That said, oven temperatures and individual birds will always vary. Use an internal meat thermometer to know for sure when the bird is cooked. For more help with cooking your turkey, don’t forget to refer to The Grassfed Gourmet Cookbook by Shannon Hayes. What?!? You don’t own a copy yet? Click here to buy one immediately! 
  8. Use a good-quality roasting pan. If this is your first Thanksgiving and you do not yet own a turkey roasting pan and cannot find one to borrow, treat yourself to a really top-quality roaster, especially if you have a sizeable bird. (I don’t like to endorse products, but I must say that my favorite is the large stainless All-Clad roaster. Last I knew they were still made in the U.S.A. – but then, I bought mine ten years ago, so that may have changed. My mom has other name-brand roasting pans, and they are shabby in comparison to mine. Please don’t tell her I said that….) Cheap aluminum pans from the grocery store can easily buckle when you remove the bird from the oven, potentially causing the cook serious burns or myriad other injuries in efforts to catch the falling fowl.  Plus, they often end up in the recycling bin, or worse, landfills. If you buy a good quality large roasting pan, and you happen to have a copy of The Grassfed Gourmet Cookbook (another shameless hint), I guarantee you will have multiple uses for the pan!
  9. Pick the meat off the bird before making stock. If you plan to make soup from your turkey leftovers, be sure to remove all the meat from the bones before you boil the carcass for stock. Add the chunks of turkey back to the broth just before serving the soup. This prevents the meat from getting rubbery and stringy. For an extra-nutritious stock, follow the advice offered in Nourishing Traditions, by Sally Fallon, and add a tablespoon of vinegar to the water 30 minutes before you begin boiling the carcass or, better still, use the recipe for chicken stock in The Grassfed Gourmet Cookbook (again, you still have time to order a copy!!). The process of adding acid to the stock draws more minerals from the bones and releases them into the liquid.
  10. Help is available. In recent years, our home seems to have become the unofficial Sustainable Thanksgiving Hotline. Please do not hesitate to write to me with your questions at [email protected]. I make a point of checking email often right up through Thanksgiving Day (I stop around noon), so that I can promptly respond to your questions or concerns. If you are in dire straights, you can call me at 518 827 7595 before 8pm most evenings, but I do prefer email. Enjoy your holiday!

And finally, here’s my favorite recipe for walnut sausage stuffing:  

Walnut Sausage Stuffing (serves 8 )

  • 1 whole baguette, chopped into ½ inch cubes and allowed to sit out overnight
  • 2 Tablespoons fennel seeds
  • 1 cup walnuts, mildly crushed
  • 2 Tablespoons olive oil
  • 1# Sweet Italian, Hot Italian, or Breakfast sausage
  • 4 Tablespoons butter
  • 4 onions, chopped
  • 2 carrots, peeled and diced
  • 1/2 cup dried cranberries (or use one cup fresh)
  • ½ cup raisins
  • 2 T rubbed sage
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tablespoons brandy
  • 6 eggs
  • 3 cups chicken broth
  • 1 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper  

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. 

Bring a mid-sized skillet up to a medium-hot temperature.  

Add the fennel seeds and allow them to toast until fragrant. 
Remove the seeds to a small dish, then add the walnuts to the same hot, dry skillet and allow them to toast 3-5 minutes, taking care to stir them constantly to prevent burning.  

Pour the walnuts off into a large bowl.  

Add olive oil to the same skillet, then fry the sausage until it is cooked through (about 8-10 minutes).  

Remove the sausage to the same large bowl containing the walnuts. 

Add the butter to the skillet, allowing it to melt and blend with the sausage drippings.  

Add the onions and carrots, sauté 2 minutes, then add the cranberries and raisins and sauté two minutes longer. 

Sprinkle the sage over the vegetables, sauté 1 minute, then add the garlic and toasted fennel seeds.  

Sauté two minutes longer, then add the entire mixture into the large bowl with the walnuts and sausage.  

To the same big bowl, add the bread, chicken broth, eggs, salt, pepper and brandy, and prepare to get messy.  

Using your hands (or salad servers), thoroughly mix all the ingredients.

Butter a 13 x 9 inch baking pan, add the stuffing, then cover tightly with a piece of buttered aluminum foil.  

Allow the stuffing to cook 35 minutes, the remove the foil and allow it to bake 30 minutes longer, until the top is nicely crisped and lightly browned.  

I’m sure I left a few questions unanswered. Please feel free to write to me at [email protected].  When you send your email, write “turkey question” in the heading so that I’ll know to respond as quickly as possible (otherwise, we’re so busy on the farm right now, I tend to fall behind with e-correspondence).    

Happy Thanksgiving!!!

  Shannon Hayes is the host of grassfedcooking.com and the author of The Farmer and the Grill and The Grassfed Gourmet. She works with her family on Sap Bush Hollow Farm in Upstate New York. Her newest book, Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture, is due out really really really soon….She can be reached at [email protected].