Last spring a new farmer’s market sprang up in my very own town. I was thrilled, as it is only one block from my home, I could simply walk on over weekly and pick up amazing fresh local produce and meats. I quickly established a relationship with one of the farmer’s Melanie of
Red Haven Farm. I learned to get to the market early to ensure that I’d be able to pick up some pastured eggs as they would often run out.
Melanie, has not only been able to sell me amazing quality meats and eggs, but she has been a wealth of information to my ever curious mind. I appreciate knowing my farmer directly and being able to ask any question that comes to mind regarding the food I am purchasing. It is quite a comfort to purchase from Red Haven Farm thanks to establishing a relationship with Melanie.
Since I am so happy with Red Haven Farm I knew I’d have to spread the love and share more about their farm. So I asked Melanie if I could interview her and her husband and, she, of course, was more than willing to comply. Hopefully, this interview will comfort others too and you will have found yourself a new resource and place to purchase your pastured meats.
Me: When and why did you start Red Haven Farm?
Melanie: Almost a decade ago, my husband took a job at the Natural Lands Trust while in graduate school. Soon, he was
offered a position as a Nature Preserve Manager at the Stroud Preserve, a 600 acre nature preserve in West Chester, PA. It was there that a neighbor sold him his first two Jersey cows and he began to read the works of Allan Nations and Joel Salatin. Jerseys are sweet animals (perfect starter cows for a family!), and he was hooked immediately. Our original intention was to raise the animals to provide for our family ? and a few lucky friends ? with high quality, grass fed meat, and after talking to other pasture based farmers, we started selling quarters and halves by word of mouth to cover the costs of raising our own food. We quickly added more cows, then chickens, then East Friesan sheep. We were lucky, in that the Natural Lands Trust let us use the pasture at no cost, and lovely neighbor allowed us access to more pasture in return for mowing his fields. As much as we wanted our own farm, without those years at Stroud, I doubt we would have become farmers.
When a 60 acre farm owned by an Amish family went up for auction, Erich and his brother decided to take the plunge and purchase it. Red Haven Farm was born! We’ve since bought out Erich’s brother, but our farm began and continues to be a family endeavor. Pasture based farming allows Erich to combine the knowledge he received in his Natural Resources Management program with his love of animal husbandry. It also gives us the chance to increase the quantity and quality of time we spend together as a family. It’s a great lifestyle for our family.
Me: What type of farming practices do you adhere to?
Melanie: We consider ourselves grass farmers. We use a system of rotational grazing to manage our pasture and nourish our animals. Our cows and sheep are 100% grass fed, and our chickens and pigs are pasture raised, supplemented with healthy, GMO free grains. Although we label our eggs ‘free range’ because that’s the term most people recognize, we don’t simply allow our chickens access to the outdoors. They are outdoors. We like to think that we’re what Joel Salatin calls ‘beyond organic’. We make choices based on the individual needs of our animals, not on the standards set by the USDA.
Me: What are your animals actually fed in addition to grass and pasture? What exactly is in any feed you supplement with?
Melanie: Our cows and sheep are 100% grass fed. Our chickens and pigs are raised on pasture, where they can scratch and eat bugs or root and eat what they find. Our pigs are supplemented with milk and whey from our herd of milking Jerseys and fed GMO free grains. Our chickens are supplemented with whatever they steal from my garden and GMO free grains.
Me: Do your animals ever get sick and if so how do you care for them?
Melanie: Raising animals in the way they are meant to live leads to animals who are rarely sick. Still, just as humans who have healthy diets and plenty of exercise sometimes get sick, we are no stranger to sick animals. We make a commitment to our animals that they will never be denied appropriate medical care. Any animal that has been treated in a way that could compromise human health is not sold as meat. We aim to intervene only when necessary and in the best interest of our animals, and we consider appropriate treatment through consultation with our vets. Erich works at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center, a large animal teaching hospital, under another pasture based farmer and veterinarian whose counsel has been invaluable in helping us learn how and when to intervene.
Me: How often are your animals actually out side in the sun on pasture?
Melanie: Unless an animal is sick and needs special care or the weather is prohibitive, our animals are outside in the sun and pasture all the time. For example, our layers spend the warm seasons in a mobile, A frame chicken mobile that is moved once or twice daily, following our cows and sheep around our pasture, and this allows them to take shelter when they choose but still spend their days on fresh grass, scratching in the sun. In the winter, chickens need more shelter and a warmer environment. This year, we’re experimenting with using hoop houses as winter housing.
Me: What breeds do you raise and why?
Melanie: We raise Jersey and Angus cows, East Friesan sheep, Yorkshire pigs, and a variety of breeds for our layers. Our first cow was a Jersey, and we adore the personalities of them. We also prefer the taste of their meat to that of other breeds, and they produce arguably the most delicious raw milk. As we increase our herd of milking Jerseys in preparation to begin raw milk sales, the Jerseys have started to outnumber our Angus.The fact that we have East Friesans was simply a coincidence. We purchased our first East Friesans from a friend whose flock had outgrown her pasture. We really knew nothing about raising sheep, other than what we had read in a Storey book, but we quickly learned that we had taken on a wonderful dual purpose breed that provides wonderful milk and meat. Given their propensity to have twins, our flock has increased exponentially, as has our husbandry.
The breed of pig we raised was chosen solely because Yorkshires, the most common breed of pig raised commercially in the US, are the breed raised by a project of the University of Pennsylvania that is studying and promoting humane farrowing practices. We hope to add heritage breeds as we are able, but given the state of farrowing practices in the US, our first commitment was to find and support animals born and raised under human conditions.
Me: When you process and butcher your meats how do you proceed, what are your standards for your finished product?
Melanie: We use Smucker’s Meats (http://www.smuckersmeats.com/) in Lancaster County, PA. Because we sell individual cuts at market, we must use a USDA inspected facility to process our animals. Finding suitable USDA inspected facilities that will work with small farmers, use low stress practices, adequately age meat, and have good abattoir skills is one of the biggest problems facing grass based farmers in the US. We’re fortunate to have access to Smucker’s, which serves as a national model. Smucker’s uses low stress practices that ensure our animals are treated humanely, and they provide a completely transparent operation, allowing individuals to see every inch of their operation, including their kill floor. They’re willing to speak directly with our customers if I can’t answer a question. Even more impressive, Smucker’s will dry age all of our meat for 21 days, which is a treatment that is usually reserved only for high end steaks. I’m able to work with their staff to ensure that our products are cut to our specifications, and though we have occasional issues, I can’t say enough about the quality of product we’re able to offer through them.
Me: Do you have a favorite recipe that is tried and true that you’d like to share with folks?
Melanie: I’ll be the first to admit that it can be challenging to cook grass fed and pasture raised food on a budget, and I’ve always been impressed by my customers’ excitement about learning how to cook with thriftier cuts. Still, sometimes a family really wants a traditional Sunday roast, tender and cooked rare, without needing to take out a second mortgage to finance a rib roast or whole filet. One of the challenges of cooking with lean, grass fed meat is that the recipes for roast beef that you find in most cookbooks lead to a dry, well done roast and an unhappy family. In her book Grass Fed Gourmet, Shannon Hayes gives us a method for cooking the less expensive and lean round, sirloin tip or sirloin roasts that produces a rare, tender and flavorful roast. You have to plan ahead, as it takes all day, and because the finished product isn’t browned, it doesn’t look like a traditional roast when it comes out of the oven. But when you slice into the roast, I think you’ll be happy with the results. It helps to have a good thermometer, especially the kind you can leave in the roast while it cooks.
- 1 beef roast, preferably from the round, sirloin tip, or sirloin
- 1 recipe herb rub or your own rub:
- 1 tablespoon dried thyme
- 1 tablespoon dried rosemary
- 2 tablespoons dried oregano
- 1 teaspoon ground fennel
- 2 teaspoons garlic powder or one minced clove garlic
- 1 tablespoon coarse salt
- 2 teaspoons black pepper
- Preheat oven to 250°F.
- Rub the roast with the herb rub of your choice, wrap loosely in plastic, and allow to sit at room temperature for 2 hours.
- Place the meat in a small roasting pan, insert a meat thermometer, and cook for 30 minutes. Turn the oven heat as low as you can (most modern ovens do not go below 170°F, but if yours will accurately go as low as 150°F or 160°F, so much the better). Continue cooking the meat until the thermometer registers 120°F to 125°F. Because these tend to be lean cuts, I recommend that you do not cook them any further than medium-rare. As a guide, figure on 1 hour and 10 minutes per pound of meat at 170°F.
- Remove the roast from the oven, tent loosely with foil, and let rest for 5 to 10 minutes care into very thin slices to serve.
See, isn’t Melanie a wealth of knowledge! I hope you learned something valuable through this interview. I simply can’t recommend their meats and eggs enough. Be sure to check out their website too, if you live in the lower Pa area.
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