This week in Jewish farming: The deer threat and an electric solution


Countless anxieties attended the planning for my first season farming. Losing my entire crop to deer was not among them.

Neither of the Northeastern farms where I had worked previously worried much about these herbivores. One farm was large and could keep losses from deer to a minimum with a shotgun. The other was on a main street in a semi-suburban environment where the deer pressure was fairly low. In both cases, a sort of Cold War stalemate prevailed. There were occasional border skirmishes and the requisite resort to arms. Losses were incurred on both sides, but never at catastrophic levels. The balance of power always prevailed.

But from the moment I began working our fields, I’ve gotten hints that we shouldn’t be nearly so casual. Connecticut is deer country. One of our towns gave its name to a disease borne by deer ticks. Neighbors would shoot me dubious looks when I shrugged in response to questions about my deer control strategy. Nonspecific references were made to a lost pumpkin crop a few years back.

One farmer a few towns over advised me in May to stop my planting and focus all my energies on protecting what I already had. If I had to do it all over again, he told me, I would invest in some serious fencing. I ignored him.

Even the deer tracks I’d notice each morning in our freshly plowed beds weren’t enough to light a fire. The tracks would pass by beautiful, tender green leaves that were left entirely unmolested. They were toying with me, I would say, waiting for the moment of perfect delectability before they decimated the whole crop. I didn’t really believe it was so, but somewhere in back of my mind I feared it might be.

The turning point came when my Hare Krishna farmhand, Fred, went to pick up some composted manure at a nearby supply house. After making a few trips, the woman at the store asked what we were up to. When Fred explained we were growing vegetables, the woman leaned in conspiratorially. “Did they tell you about the deer?” she asked.

That was enough to scare me straight. A few weeks later, a truck pulled up to the farm and unloaded $2,000 worth of electrified fencing. Held aloft on fiberglass rods, three strands of tape now circle the field. At night, after closing the gate and arming the solar battery, 9,000 volts of electricity pulse through them every two seconds or so.

But here’s the crazy thing — deer can easily jump six feet or more. Our top strand of electrified tape is only five feet high. The system works by baiting the deer to approach the fence and then shocking them so badly they think better of getting too close. It sounded a little crazy when the salesman explained it to me, but so far it’s working. And I’m sleeping a lot easier just knowing it’s there.

As a small farm with barely an acre currently under cultivation, a serious deer infestation could be devastating. And having committed to supplying vegetables to CSA members for another 21 weeks (two down!), I can ill afford the kind of losses even a small herd of deer could inflict. The rabbits and worms and beetles are taking enough as it is.

Growing organically means achieving a sustainable detente with the various forms of life on the farm. It’s tempting to aim for total victory. What could be more desirable than a farm entirely free of predacious animals and weeds? A lot, actually. The fact that all this wildlife wants a piece of the action is clear evidence that the food we’re growing is worth eating.

As I tell my shareholders, if those kale leaves were entirely devoid of little holes from flea beetles, that would be worrisome. Our farm teems with manifold forms of life and it would be incredibly short-sighted to try to change that. Coexistence is key — both sides give a little and get to live a lot.

 

Eating Bambi (recipe included)


Most of the anti-Semitic mail I get these days doesn’t concern Israel, Hollywood or even the threat of a nuclear war in the Middle East it’s about meat.

The largest supplier of kosher meat in America, Agriprocessors Inc., has been the subject of ongoing public investigation and criticism for two years now.

An undercover investigation in the Forward newspaper first revealed inhumane treatment of cows at the company, located in Postville, Iowa.

A further investigation brought charges of exploitative labor practices.

Then, on the morning of May 12, 2008, in what officials called, “the largest single-site operation of its kind in American history,” 900 agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement executed a raid of Agriprocessors.

They rounded up hundreds of illegal immigrants, who comprised some 75 percent of the company’s workforce.

A subsequent story by New York Times reporter Julia Preston found that 20 of the employees were underage, some as young as 13.

The article reported on several sickening incidences, including one, documented by an company report, in which a worker holding a knife was kicked by a rabbi, cut himself, was sent for stitches, then ordered back on the line.

Agriprocessors has refuted, fought or attempted to make right on these charges. The company brought in animal expert Dr. Temple Grandin to advise on raising the company’s animal treatment standards.

Agriprocessors owner Aaron Rubashkin denied he has engaged in unethical labor practices and blamed the failure of U.S. immigration policy.

“Everything is a lie,” Rubashkin told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

The company has taken out full-page ads in the Jewish press, including this paper, offering a point-by-point rebuttal of the charges.

Last week, it hosted a group of 25 Orthodox rabbis from the United States and Canada on a one-day visit to the plant.

“It’s a different picture than what’s been portrayed,” Rabbi Dovid Eliezrie of Chabad of Yorba Linda told me. “We roamed the plant for hours, talked to anybody we wanted to. The working conditions, the safety benefits, I found them above par. It’s not the reality the unions are telling.”

The trip may have served to calm concerns among some kosher consumers, but judging by my mail, the damage is far more widespread.




Bambi trailer (1942)


What will The JEWS Think of Next?!?!?” read a letter I received this week. Inside, the author had considerately attached a folded copy of Preston’s New York Times article.

Of course, the image of bearded, black-hatted rabbis abusing farm animals and poor Guatemalan workers is red meat to the scattered anti-Semites out there, but this isn’t a problem of anti-Semitism.

Kashrut is a legal system rooted in morality, and the problems at Agriprocessors occurred because we chose to look away from the messy business of killing animals for food.

Now, like the rest of America, we are looking. There is great unease with our food supply and our factory farm system, a system created by market forces that places profit and efficiency above sustainability, kindness and flavor. The Jews, to our discredit, have simply followed the market’s lead it’s called Agriprocessors, after all, not Moishe’s Kindly Kosher Cow Farm.

But just as Americans in general are taking control of their food supply “locavore” was the Oxford American Dictionary’s 2007 Word of the Year there is a broad consensus that the kosher “brand” should stand for something more than the most narrow and utilitarian interpretation of kosher practice. We can’t blame the system without changing our personal behavior.

That’s why another common e-mail I get these days is also about meat about whether there is a source in Los Angeles for kosher, organic, humanely raised and slaughtered meat.

My search led me to Musicon Farms, a mail-order source for venison.

That’s right, deer. Kosher Bambi.

Norman Schlaff runs Musicon Farms, the only kosher venison farm in the United States.

Situated on 100 acres in Goshen, in upstate New York, the farm slaughters about 25 deer every six weeks. Customers include high-end restaurants in New York, such as Le Marais and Levana; mail-order customers nationwide, and Tierra Sur, the exceptional Oxnard restaurant headed by chef Todd Aarons.

If you Google Musicon, you’ll find some nasty comments from the folks at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. They sent undercover investigators there who took footage of the slaughter, and I gasped watching Bambi’s throat cut but I didn’t look away.

Schlaff, in a phone interview with me, maintained that his animals are treated with care they roam freely, and there is music playing to reduce noise level and stress in the loafing barns. They’re raised without steroids and chemical additives and are fed an organic diet of hay, grains and fruit.

Schlaff, a New York native, made his money in sound engineering his technology is installed in Shea Stadium, at the U.S. Open and on either side of movie house ticket booths around the country. He’s not getting rich selling a few dozen deer for between $5.50 and $30 per pound, plus pricey, specialized shipping.

And he understands slaughtering kosher or not isn’t pleasant.

“It takes a day to get it out of your system,” he said.

And so, putting my money where my mouth is, I ordered.

The package arrived overnight from UPS. Inside, beneath several high-tech layers of insulation and packing ice, were 10 pounds of individually wrapped and freshly butchered venison steaks, chops and stew meat.

The next day, I turned the cute deer I’d seen on Musicon’s Web site into cholent.

It was delicious, and morally challenging, and discomfiting but I didn’t look away.



Summer Venison Cholent

This makes a lighter, more broth-y cholent that is perfect for warm summer days. If you don’t have any dead deer handy, you can substitute beef, or for a vegetarian version add 1 cup pearl barley.

2 medium onions, peeled and cut in quarters
6 cloves garlic, peeled
2 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
2 bay leaves
1 cup dried  white beans, rinsed very well
8 sundried tomatoes
1 large carrot, peeled and cut in 1 inch chunks
1 stalk celery and leaves, cut in1 inch slices
1 sweet potato, peeled and cut in1 inch chunks
2 Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut in1 inch chunks
1/4 cup olive oil
6 eggs, washed very well
1 1/2 pounds venison stew meat
1/4 cup brandy or cognac (optional)
1 t. sweet paprika
venison bones
salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 200 degrees F.

Choose a large  dutch oven or casserole pan with a tight fitting lid, the kind you can use on the stove and in the oven.

Heat the olive oil until hot, add the stew meat and bones and quickly brown on all sides.

Remove the meat and bones. Add the onion,  garlic and paprika and brown for 5 minutes.  Deglaze the pot with brandy or cognac (or, if you prefer, skip this step).

Add all the other ingredients, including the meat and bones, placing the eggs on top carefully.

Add water  3/4 of the way to the top.  Increase heat to high and bring to boil. Cover the pot with the lid and place in the oven for 6 hours or overnight.

To serve, carefully remove the lid, give each person a whole egg, some meat and vegetables and plenty of broth.  And say a little blessing for the deer.

— Rob Eshman