THE ROAD up to Webster Ridge Farm winds up from Webster through broad swaths of cornfields, rocky pastures, crisply manicured riding paddocks, thick copses of trees and around elbows that straighten to review bucolic valley views. Just 20 minutes north of Concord, this land is a ripe, fecund creature that seems far removed from the sterile, fluorescent-lighted, air-conditioned aisles of the Fort Eddy Road supermarkets.
What’s most startling about this trip, though, is not the fact that Webster Ridge Farm exists to be visited, but that it is just one of many small family farms in New Hampshire. It is feasible, even living so close to so many of these places, passing by the farm stands and farmer’s markets, to forget it’s still possible to observe firsthand the entire cycle of birth and growth, life and death that brings one’s food to the table. Meat has become fashionable again.
Webster Ridge Farm
From the explosive popularity of the Atkins and other low-carbohydrate diets to general “nutrient dense” and traditional food theories, the demand for meat, cheese and eggs, along with fresh vitamin-rich vegetables, rustic breads and unrefined grains has risen, and with it an awareness of where all that food comes from.
In our household, my experiments with the Atkins Diet (and my wife’s generous open-mindedness) provided me a leaping-off point for making a study of these theories. Beyond nutritive concerns, and ethical and health worries about certain types of factory farming, another element began to influence my thinking on locally grown food.
Farm Fresh is Best
It was the romantic notion of home. This place, New England, New Hampshire, Concord, being my home, I grew more and more enamored with the idea of being connected with this land not just physically but also biologically. That the building blocks of my own body might be a part of the natural cycle of New Hampshire’s earth and people seemed almost mystical.
Besides that, everyone I had spoken to insisted that locally raised and pastured meat, dairy and vegetable simply tasted better — with a magnitude of difference that might be akin to freshly squeezed orange juice versus powdered orange drink.
We began one Saturday in August at the farmer’s market in downtown Concord. For the summer at least, this gathering could be an alpha and omega for finding local produce, including vegetables, pork sausages, chops, loins, all cuts of venison, cheeses, milk, baked goods, fresh herbs and flowers and homemade soaps. We sampled, collected price lists and brochures, and planned to return the following week before any of the grocery budget had been spent elsewhere.
In the meantime, I’d been corresponding with several farmers by e-mail, and one, Brandon Sussman at Webster Ridge, had offered to take us on a tour. We drove up Sunday afternoon, met Brandon in the driveway and, after loading the excited baby into the backpack and settling him on my shoulders, set off.
Our first stop was a paddock within which Brandon and his wife Mary kept their guard donkey, Sparkle. The donkey, a three-year-old, was going through one of her hormonal cycles, Brandon told us, and so wasn’t quite as friendly as normal. Still, it was the baby’s first donkey, and he was fascinated. A few hundred feet away, in a separate pen, several male goats stared at us. These were some of the few animals we would not get up close and personal with. Brandon pointed out one of these, bigger than the others, with one huge curling horn (the other had been broken off while butting) and a malevolent gleam in its pupil.
“I don’t usually go in there without some sort of shield,” he said. “A big piece of plywood or something. A couple of times Mary’s had to rescue me.”
Brandon has been in the farm business for a relatively short time — three years. The farm’s not self-supporting yet, and he and Mary supplement it with other work and their savings.
His reasons for taking a risk like buying a farm to raise chickens, goats, sheep and vegetables are varied and strongly felt. One of them is taste. He and Mary both consider themselves serious cooks, and don’t believe that factoryraised meat or eggs are viable alternatives to the flavor of local farm-raised meat. The way the animals are raised, the distance food has to be shipped, the time that process takes, he argues, all take a toll on the flavor.
Brandon also feels that locally grown food is a matter of national security in uncertain times. The idea that all sorts of food from beef to radishes are shipped all the way across the country before they hit New Hampshire shelves unsettles him.
“All it takes is one terrorist attack in the right place and no more lettuce,” he told us. He said it in a kidding sort of way, but he wasn’t joking. He’s written an essay on the matter of locally grown food and homeland security. You can read it on the farm’s Web site (www.websterridge.com).
The herd of goats and the flock of sheep graze a hilly, rocky pasture woven among the remains of an old apple orchard. The trees have been let go wild, and years unpruned have grown thick vertical trunks and branches, the mark of an orchard past its day. In the August heat, with the sun high and bright and the stony ground scarred by hooves, I thought of Greece, and Lebanon and Provence.
The goats were curious and I knelt to let the baby on my back get a better look at their beautiful eyes, the pupils of which are odd horizontal rectangles. Later, when we approached the sheep, they fled en masse, in a sort of trotting wobble that carried them picturesquely through the gap in one of the old granite stonewalls and up toward the barn. Later we found them there, all pressed into one large pen in the cool shade.
“If they decide to bolt,” Brandon told us, “just get up against a wall. They won’t stop for anything.” We took a moment to note convenient walls.
The tour concluded with chickens — layers and roasters — a look at the chicken butchering area (the lamb, per regulation, must be sent away for butchering) and then a visit to the freezers, where we bought a whole chicken and some pork chops. Although Brandon and Mary don’t raise pigs or cows, they work cooperatively with several other local farms to sell locally grown beef and pork.
Before we left, Brandon balefully threatened never to sell us another cut of meat if he ever finds out we’ve defrosted one of his cuts in the microwave.
We let it thaw in the refrigerator, and ate the pork the next night. It was delicious.
This article appears in the April 2004 issue of New Hampshire Magazine