Last year, our Meet Yer Eats route was planned around getting maximum bang for our buck: we picked three farms that were close to each other and a short drive from Charlottesville, and had a variety of animals and plants on display. We visited Ted’s Last Stand, Brightwood Vineyard and Farm, and Forrest Green Farm, an easy and fun trio I would recommend to Meet Yer Eats first-timers. This year, however, we had a more specific goal: to target farms that raise animals for meat, and learn a bit about humane care and respectful killing practices used by small-time producers. We chose a couple places we’d purchased from at the City Market and seen on local menus at places like Brookville and The Local: Babes in the Wood and The Rock Barn. We couldn’t drive through Caromont‘s neighborhood without stopping there, so we added it to the itinerary, and set off on a rainy Labor Day adventure.
First stop: Babes in the Wood
Driving into the farm, past the Pig Xing sign, we started spotting small groups of pigs napping, mudbathing, and rooting around. What a life! I already posted some happy pig photos here, but here are a couple more:
The very friendly, very knowledgeable proprietor led a group walking tour around a loop through the forest. The pigs have 75 acres to roam, at a density of no more than 2 or 3 pigs per acre. The herd is made up of several breeding sows (BIG girls), youngsters who will grow to 10 or 12 months before becoming pork chops, and boss hog Kevin Bacon (!):
Kevin lives in his own private enclosure, with visitor Monster (not sure if that’s a name or epithet) who cannot be contained by fences and goes where he pleases. The breeding sows consort with Kevin twice a year, and often have their litters in nests in the woods, showing up for mealtime a week later followed by a trail of piglets.
The pigs forage for acorns, berries, roots, mushrooms, bugs, and anything and everything edible in the woods. Their forest diets are supplemented with grain made from local corn. They naturally form cliques and don’t normally fight–so no need for cutting their tails or teeth as often done on industrial farms to limit injury. The low-stress environment, natural diet, and exercise contribute to happy pigs and healthy, tasty meat.
Read more about Babes in the Wood on their webpage. We very much enjoyed our visit to the farm.
Second stop: Caromont Farm
Our adventure took us from pigs to goats, and from quiet walk in the woods to chaotic kiddie land (ha, pun not intended). We stayed at Caromont briefly, only long enough to sample a couple cubes of delicious cheeses, pop our heads into the milking area and listen to a few minutes of the tour of the facilities, and take a couple goat pictures. There was soon to be a special cheese tasting with the cheesemaker, but we were worried about having enough time at stop 3, so pressed on. The goats seemed happy and safe, grazing in movable paddocks by day and coming into the safety of a barn at night. They’re milked twice a day–how do goat-keepers go on vacation?
Stop 3: The Rock Barn
Our last stop was, fittingly, an education on what happens to the pigs after they leave a farm like Babes in the Wood and reach the end of their porcine journeys. Will, the general manager, gave us an overview of the history and mission of The Rock Barn, which was started by Ben Thompson as a high-end catering company with special focus on local foods. They have since added whole-hog custom butchering to their offerings, which is of particular interest to this blogger, for their respectful, humane practices as described on their website:
Whole-hog processing, or butchering “snout-to-tail,” is a practice that pays deserved respect to slaughtered animals by finding meaningful uses for all of each pig. By working in conjunction with environmentally-sound farms and humanely-operated slaughterhouses, Will oversees the processes that bring Rock Barn meat products from field to fork without sacrificing either craft or ethics.
We got an up-close and personal explanation of pig butchering, which was fascinating even for the squeamish pescatarian in the group.
As he carved, Ben hit on many butchering topics: various cuts of meat (Rock Barn offers different cuts than you find at the grocery store), the two types of pig fat (illustrating the difference between soft fat and hard fat by handing us fresh-from-the-carcass pieces to play with), how the pigs are killed (knocked unconscious by carbon dioxide or electric shock, then shot in the head with a .22 or a bolt gun), and the importance of bleeding out the pig within seconds of killing it (to prevent stress hormones from fouling the meat).
The scene in the meat room was very clinical: the carcass being operated upon was clean and dry, and the carving, weighing, and packaging process was smooth and efficient. Those guys are good at what they do.
Adding to the experience was the setting of the facilities: it’s housed in a cottage on the expansive grounds of Oak Ridge Estate. The stone dairy barn next door looked eerily pretty in the misty rain.
For more information about The Rock Barn, see:
And here are some great tips from Whole9 on how to get the most out of a farm visit.
Thanks to Market Central for the opportunity to see where our food comes from!