Did you know that, among our state’s many notable agricultural distinctions, Michigan is home to one of the small handful of meat-exclusive community-supported agriculture (CSA) farms scattered across the United States?
It is called Old Pine Farm of Manchester. It is a wonderful resource for residents of Southeastern Michigan. With luck and a little more attention on our part, it will continue to be so for many years to come.
“Do you eat meat?”
I have been touring the farm with owner/driving force Kris Hirth and an amiable goat named Fifi for a good half hour when she asks this question. The question both surprises and impresses me. Having begun to get a sense of this notable woman, it confirms two impressions that were incubating: that this is a person who is genuinely caring of and interested in others, and that she makes no assumptions and takes nothing for granted in the way she does business.
A tall, robust woman, Hirth offers a wide, generous smile and is quick to laugh, yet she can be guarded. She is compassionate to all life around her, but willing at any moment to face it head on—whether it means going head to head with a sizable ram with attitude issues or conquering the struggles that threaten many small farms these days.
Now in its sixth year in Manchester, Old Pine Farm began its CSA program four years ago as a one-cow experiment, saw that it could work and offered a greater volume and variety in its second year. They were sufficiently encouraged by the results and kept going. Up to that point, they’d been selling their beef and pork in the more traditional “by the quarter” manner.
Hirth takes great care in raising her animals humanely and providing her members food that is safe, healthy and delicious. Her animals are grass fed. They are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. As Old Pine’s website states, “We make every attempt to provide you with a clean and natural product. When our animal management program requires grain, we attempt to use certified organic.” Given that the supply of certified organic grain is very limited in these parts, Old Pine will use local GMO-free grain in lieu of organic. They also use extruded soybeans along with Fertrell organic vitamin and mineral mix, as recommended by nationally renowned grass farmer Joel Salatin.
In every way, Old Pine does appear to keep a clean, well-maintained farm. Touring the place, one can see that much care goes into it. This is not, by any means, an industrialized environment. The animals live in notably humane conditions. In fact, Old Pine Farm is taking the somewhat rare but laudable step of applying for Certified Humane Raised and Handled® status. Guided by an impressive coterie of individuals and groups, the Humane Farm Animal Care® (HFAC) certification process is demanding and, Hirth believes, important.
According to HFAC, no Michigan farm has yet achieved this certification. The application requires a good amount of time and energy on the part of the farmer, and separate applications must be submitted for each species of animal.
“A lot of people think I’m nuts,” Hirth admits, “They’ll say, ‘You go all out to give humane treatment to these animals? We’re eating them!’”
“I’ve always loved animals. I’ve been around them all of my life,” she says. “I believe there is something inherently wrong with subjecting them to excess amounts of stress by crowded confinement, long-distance traveling in trucks and even tight-spaced slaughter holding areas. The meat that is bought in the typical grocery store comes from animals that have been put through most of these stressful conditions and sometimes worse. The industrialized meat system has become the mainstay of America’’ dinner table at the animals’ expense.”
Hirth smiles warmly recalling that, as a child, she dreamed of becoming a veterinarian. This is one of precious few conversational forays into her past. Hirth is a woman compelled by the future. Her focus is the farm, her family, her animals, her product and customers.
A single mother of two sons, she runs the place alone. The boys, of course, help in big ways. “There is absolutely no way I could do this business without their help,” Hirth says. “This is not a one-person job, although I attempt to make it one sometimes… and get nowhere!” Her older son took agriculture programs in high school. If it wasn’t for those programs, 4-H and her sons’ help, “I’m sure I would be employed somewhere else,” she admits.
One can only imagine the workload at Old Pine Farm. Not only is there the essential day-to-day farm labor, but also the business of the farm’s CSA, the time spent dealing with its partners (Old Pine CSA currently offers products including bison and a portion of their chicken that are sourced from likeminded farms), as well as all the paperwork, the networking and more.
Being so busy can and does distract some farmers from applying proper and regular scrutiny to their bottom line. The world of agriculture is full of stories about hard-working folks who looked up from their fields one day to realize they were on the brink of becoming unprofitable or had, in fact, already crossed that line.
Determined not to be one of them, Hirth sought the assistance of Mike Score, agricultural innovation counselor for MSU Extension, on how to ensure Old Pine Farm’s financial sustainability. Score concluded that she needs at least 10 more CSA subscribers beyond the 60 she typically has during the season.
He was impressed with Old Pine’s business practices. “Because Kris has made such a good-faith effort to deliver what she has promised, I’m really rooting for her success,” he offers. “I’m convinced that her subscribers can rest assured they are getting what they’ve paid for, and that they are paying a price that’s fair for both producer and consumer.”
In these financially challenging times, that assurance is critical to small farmers who don’t sell in large “factory farm” volumes at rockbottom prices. “If customers insist on lower prices,” Score warns, “the business may not survive.”
Old Pine Farm’s bacon is nothing short of incredible. Smokey, amazingly flavorful and, of course, nitrate/nitrite-free. Their pork chops are equally sensational. The chicken is among the best I’ve ever had, and I have eaten some of the absolute best. You don’t find meats like this just anywhere. This is the stuff that can—and has—turned vegetarians into carnivores again.
As one satisfied Old Pine Farm CSA member writes, “We’ve been members for three years now. Ideally, we’d be vegetarian, but we really like meat, and as long as we are buying form Old Pine Farm, I’m happy. Though I haven’t calculated the per-pound price, I often reflect that it seems like a lot of meat for the price. Plus, the meat is so flavorful and juicy we often don’t bother to season it. The taste is incredible, a direct result of how the animals are raised.”
That final sentence in the member’s statement nicely sums up the short time I spent with Hirth and Fifi, getting a taste of Old Pine Farm and their practices. Visit www.oldpinefarm.com and consider a tasting of your own.
Tom Bloomer is a writer, advertising/marketing specialist, cuisine enthusiast and fervent Michigan booster. This article was originally published in edible wow’s Fall 2009 Issue. Today, Old Pine Farm continues to remain true to its mission!