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Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Dharma Bumming

From the Fields Dept.: Much has changed for the Van Amburgh family since I wrote this piece. They moved to a larger farm in Schoharie County soon after, and became the subject of Rudd Simmons’s excellent documentary The First Season, chronicling the family’s sobering trip through a year as novice dairy farmers. They’ve come a long way since then, as a look at their website will tell you. But here’s where they were in 2006.


EXCEPT FOR THE OCCASIONAL BELLOW of an amorous boar, the farm seems oddly quiet. But we’ve driven through so much farmland, so much countryside to get here, the car windows down on this hot, muggy day, that we’ve grown accustomed to the rural clamor. In fact, blackbirds and robins are constantly shrilling, a flock of hens cackles in the distance, roosters crow and every now and then a 800-pound sow named Grumpy lets loose with a basso sigh.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
She’s a Gloucestershire Old Spot, a heritage breed so old it predates such record-keeping, and one that’s known for its particularly delicious ham and bacon. And that’s why she’s here, dining on organic grains and vegetables, sampling the best-quality hay, living in a style of comfort as different as can be imagined from the way your last ham-supplying pig was raised.

And that’s the purpose of this pig. She may weigh in as the most obvious occupant of the pastures of this farm called dharma lea, but she’s just one element in a harmony of husbandry that includes a way of human life as well.

French philosopher Rene Guenon defines “dharma” as “the essential nature of a being, comprising the sum of its particular qualities or characteristics, and determining, by virtue of the tendencies or dispositions it implies, the manner in which this being will conduct itself, either in a general way or in relation to each particular circumstance.” “Lea” is an Old English term for a meadow or garden.

“It wasn’t an epiphany or anything,” says Phyllis Van Amburgh, “but we did think carefully to find a name for our farm that best reflected our intentions.” The farm, which she owns and operates with her husband, Paul, covers 174 acres in the Montgomery County town of Sprakers. They lease another 140 acres nearby.

Grumpy is but one of eight sows, most of which are crosses of Old Spots and Tamworths, another heritage breed known for its leaner meat. While Grumpy snoozes by the nearest fence, the others are scattered throughout the muddy pasture. And there seem to be piglets galore, trotting about in groups of three or four, paying no heed to the hens strutting alongside, exploring the bug-rich ground.

Beef cattle graze in another pasture, a herd of 15 English Hereford, whose grain-free diet, completely different from industrially processed supermarket beef, produces meat with a markedly better flavor.

And, whether you’re enjoying beef, pork or chicken from this farm, you’re dining on meat free of the chemicals forced upon the creatures both to provoke quicker-than-normal growth (and passing those growth hormones along to you) and to compensate antibiotically for the filthy conditions in which the animals are raised.

Although Phyllis and Paul both grew up in rural towns in the Albany area, they were headed in different career directions when they met. Paul was sales manager for a glove importing company, while Phyllis was studying occupational therapy and working in a pediatrician’s office.

“I was seeing a tremendous number of food allergy cases among children,” says she, “which coincided with the rise of pervasive developmental delay, a condition that falls under the autism umbrella.”

At the same time, she and Paul were taking care of a farm in Rensselaer County, where Phyllis, always an equine enthusiast, was raising draft horses. “So we often went to draft horse events, which bring together traditional farmers who use horses, rotate crops and grow organically, and are very interested in health issues. It wasn’t long before the light went on and I realized that I was seeing evidence of the harmful effects of corporate farming upon children.”

Sustainable agriculture includes the processing of the meat, which led the Van Amburghs to work with a nearby company, Northeast Livestock Processing Service Co., to find the best slaughterhouses, which is a challenge for the small farmer who still wants to merit U.S.D.A. approval. Employing a quality-control middleman gives the small farms like dharma lea what is essentially collective-bargaining power, and thus better access to the processors.

You can see the result in the recently-expanded meat department at Albany’s Honest Weight Food Co-Op, where dharma lea’s kielbasa, chorizo, bacon and hot dogs are among the offerings. You can also see it right at the farm, where you’re encouraged to pick up your order.

Pork products include the usual chops and ribs, hams and roasts, as well as a sausage variety that includes sage-rich breakfast links and sweet or hot Italian-style blends. Turkeys are soon to be added to the poultry variety (don’t forget the fresh eggs), and the first round of beef processing is set to begin shortly.

“Farming needs to be neighborly,” says Sarah Johnston, executive director of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York, “and that’s a criteria for a good organic farm. You’d enjoy living next door to it because their animals are raised on pasture and you know that their kids are petting them up to the animals’ last days.” NOFA-NY is a consortium of farmers and gardeners – and consumers as well – intent on creating and maintaining a sustainable food system that’s not only ecologically sound but also economically viable. “Many people are still largely unaware of the nightmares that are part of raising cheap meat in this country. Paul and Phyllis understand the benefits to the consumer of grass fed meats.”

Farming is a tougher-than-ever career, thanks to a corporate-sponsored model that has compromised sound techniques in the pursuit of lowest-possible pricing. To eat well used to mean to eat until you’re fat, but we’ve done that as a culture and we’re suffering for it. To eat well should now mean to eat responsibly, and sustainable, chemical-free agriculture is the only model that makes any sense.

There’s also a less-tangible moral aspect to a model in which the animals you eat live in peace and comfort, as was clearly the case in the barns and pastures at dharma lea. Perhaps that’s why it seemed so quiet.

Metroland Magazine, 22 June 2006

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