Working the Land

By Judith Jones, "Working the Land,"March/April 2011

Judith Jones writes about the rewards of connecting with the land and animals.

My husband Evan and I headed up a dirt road on Stannard Mountain in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont in search of a house we had rented for the summer to escape New York City in 1980. We had with us a little Welsh terrier puppy that we had just acquired and en route we had settled on a name for her—Teg, which means beautiful in Welsh.

As we turned the corner onto the steep driveway we caught a first glimpse of the house built of weathered hemlock blending into the landscape with an upper and lower deck that provided 180-degree views of the Green Mountains. Inside we were greeted by a large, black chef’s stove set on a floor of Mexican tiles, and we knew immediately that this place had been created by someone who loved food and the land. As the late afternoon sun cast a Vermeer-like glow on the rough wooden interior, we also knew instinctively that it was to be ours. Fortunately, its owner wanted to sell.

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We named the place Bryn Teg (beautiful hill) in honor of our puppy and Evan’s Welsh heritage, and it proved to be a turning point in our lives. For the first time, we had a garden and we planted gooseberries and raspberries and a heritage Duchess apple tree out front. We even put in a pond and stocked it with trout (most of which the great blue heron gobbled up) and walked the land with Adele Dawson, the naturalist (and dowser) who introduced us to some of the many treasures at our doorstep, such as wild sorrel, fiddleheads, milkweed. Soon we felt intimately connected with the earth, and that enriched the way we cooked.

The first year we settled into Bryn Teg there was still a small farm close by. Almost all the farmland had been sold off over the years so the farmer needed to borrow some pasturage for his small herd of cows and a few horses. We were delighted to let him use our land because it helped to keep it farm-like and in return we were invited to help ourselves to the most delicious milk we had tasted in years from the big tub in his barn. We were also treated to some choice cuts of deer that were hunted each fall to keep the family in meat for the winter.

But it didn’t last. The next year the farmer and his family moved. We were lucky though. One day we discovered, driving his tractor down Skunk Hollow Road, a younger cousin of mine, who lived with his family in an old farmhouse on land adjacent to ours. His wife taught school and he made maple syrup, hayed, and raised heifers to the milking point, then sold them. But with dairy farms in northern Vermont rapidly disappearing, the market for his cows was diminishing. One night some years later when we had all become good friends, as we sat around the kitchen table, we had an idea. Why not pool our pasturage and try raising grass-fed beef, for which there was a growing market?

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So we started with six pregnant Black Angus cows, which John nurtured, carrying out bales of hay he had harvested to feed them through the winter. In the spring the first calf was born when the temperature was more than 30 below. John found it almost frozen on the ground and he and his wife brought the creature home to warm up by the kitchen wood stove.

That was just the beginning. John has added a few Belted Galloways to the herd, primarily because they are friendlier (and they do make exceptionally good meat) and he has learned a lot about pasturage and winning the animals’ trust so they follow willingly when moved from one field to another.

As for me I am trying to figure out ways to break even in this venture by selling more directly to appreciative food lovers. Meanwhile the reward is in the lovely intense taste and the texture of the meat. It is what beef used to taste like.

But there is an added reward in watching our land, which our ancestors worked so hard to clear, now returning to pastureland. The encroaching second growth, which we witnessed in our first years here, has vanished and I can look out at our contented animals busily grazing, their young gamboling happily around them.

I find I don’t feel guilty raising them for slaughter, knowing that it is done in a benign way. After all, they wouldn’t be here at all if it weren’t for us carnivores. So instead I feel grateful for what these animals give us. It makes you realize that loving care does make a difference.

Judith Jones, senior editor and vice president at Alfred A. Knopf, edited and published Julia Child’s cookbooks and was her editor.