Arriving at the century-old Wahl farm, just outside of Callicoon, NY, is to encounter a bucolic scene unchanged by time. A dog bounds over in welcome while a cluster of tiny piglets beat a retreat to the barn. In the distance grey clouds hover over woodland alternating with fields recently mown for hay. It is a charming and delightful scene, appealing in its rusticity, intimate in its scale, reassuring in its tangible sense of tradition and heritage.
A vista comfortingly familiar to Americans a century ago has become, in this age of industrialized agriculture, an anomaly. As has the appeal of farming. The fallout of large-scale operations absorbing mom-and-pop farms is the disappearance of inheritances and job opportunities. With rare exceptions, young Americans do not hear the call to farming, so how can they possibly heed it? It’s a question Ross Wahl wishes he didn’t have to ponder. And unless things substantially change for farmers like Wahl, the practice of raising heritage breeds on organic feed in free-range environments is doomed.
“My great-great-grandparents came here in the 1850s,” he says. The land the current farm occupies was bought in 1921 and has been passed down from father to son. Wahl, slender and rangy with sandy, greying hair worn pragmatically short, would appear to be in his mid-fifties, though it’s hard to tell. He works his roughly 220 acres of land largely single-handedly. Literally so—he recently lost most of the use of his left hand due to nerve damage and a surgery-related infection has curtailed the use of his right thumb.
“Farms are traditionally what have kept rural towns going. Losing one jeopardizes the other. It’s a loss across the board, of economic viability, of community, even aesthetics.”
All of which present extra challenges in wrangling the farm animals, especially the five sows who weigh in at more than 500 pounds each and the boar who serves as their stud. Smaller pigs are kept inside the barn, along with piglets piled on top of each other like puppies. In six months’ time, a piglet will be heavier than the average man; at 200-300 pounds, they’re ready for slaughter.
“And there are the guinea hens!” A flock of vivid grey and white birds, tall with strong legs, are patrolling the pasture. “They eat up the ticks and bugs,” says Wahl, “and are as sharp as watchdogs,” sounding the alarm with a squawk instead of a bark. With free-range animals, especially small, vulnerable ones like ducks and chickens, predation is a constant worry. Losing nearly half a flock is typical between egg and market.
Such losses, unavoidable for those who farm this way, drive up the price of free-range meat. As do USDA slaughterhouse regulations. To ensure that health and hygiene standards are met, farmers cannot slaughter on their own premises.For Wahl, bringing animals to be butchered requires up to 600 miles of round trips. With the added cost of storing the meat in freezers and transporting it to several different farmers’ markets each week, it’s a small wonder that the meat must be priced at a “boutique” level.
But high prices don’t just buy wonderful meat from heritage breeds humanely treated. They support farms that in turn sustain the picturesque villages. “Farms are traditionally what have kept rural towns going,” says Wahl. “Losing one jeopardizes the other. It’s a loss across the board, of economic viability, of community, even aesthetics.” Without support of small farms, the bucolic agricultural landscape that has long characterized the Upper Delaware Valley may be reduced quite literally to postcards.
Farmers like Wahl, working twelve-hour days, seven days a week, to produce high quality meat and dairy products, are a rarity, but the tide may be turning. A resurgence of interest in the source, quality, humaneness and sustainability of food has led to a flourishing of farm-to-table businesses upstate and to increasing attendance at farmers’ markets. Slowly, finally, we are recognizing not only that we are what we eat but that this land, and its future, is what we eat, too. Slowly, finally, Ross Wahl and like-minded fellow farmers have reason to be hopeful.