(The following story is from Savvy, a Twin Cities women’s magazine that is a sister publication to Edible Twin Cities.)
By Amy Rea
Many people enjoy cooking, like animals, love the outdoors, and care about where their food comes from. But not many people gather up those passions and manage to convince a non-farming spouse that it might be nice to move from a suburb to a farm and strike out on their own.
Rebecca Pelfrey is one of those rare people. Back in 2000, she found a 50-acre site outside of Stillwater that she thought would be a perfect place to revisit her childhood love of animals, especially horses. But it was also perfect in that instead of being a run-down old farmstead, the land had been nicely cultivated into something akin to a pristine country estate — a much easier sell to her non-farming husband. “We started with a couple of chickens and a couple of horses,” Pelfrey says. “Then we added a lamb, added a pig, and pretty soon I’d become an advanced hobby farmer.” The “advanced hobby farm” now comprises a 30-ewe breeding flock and 20 Berkshire hogs, along with the chickens and some cows.
But it was closer to what she truly wanted to do. She wasn’t raised on a farm, but grew up in Nebraska, living close to a river and vast undeveloped land. Days were spent exploring on horseback, and early ambitions focused on a cabin in the mountains with a horse, cow and chickens, living the self-sufficient life off the land. By the time she went to college and met her husband, other interests led her to a career in graphic design and art direction, although she also spent some time working as a horse trainer.
It was the fateful trip to the farm for sale that brought back the idea of raising and training horses. Her husband was amenable to that idea and willing to commute to his work in Golden Valley. “But he didn’t know he was marrying a farmer,” Pelfrey says, laughing. “Here we had this beautiful land, and it seemed wasteful not to use it.”
Her husband is still mostly hands-off. “I’m the farmer and the farmer’s wife,” she says. “If only I could have a wife!”
Putting that beautiful land to work also allowed Pelfrey to pursue another passion: cooking and good food. “I like to eat something somewhere and then try to reproduce it,” she says. The farm gave her a unique angle to pursue; when she discovered that Berkshire pork tasted far better to her than standard grocery-store pork, she brought a couple of pigs to the farm and began raising them. Why is Berkshire better, in her opinion? “It’s a heritage breed that grows slower than commercial breeds,” she says. “Plus it’s darker meat, naturally marbled, with a very unique flavor.” It’s so unique and delicious that her children will no longer allow her to serve anything else.
As it turns out, pigs can be for more than just eating. Pelfrey’s pigs are not just free-range, but allowed to root, because their predilection for rooting means they act as porcine rototillers, turning over the ground that becomes the annual vegetable garden. “Some farms prevent the pigs from rooting,” Pelfrey says. “But it’s their nature. They have to be monitored so they don’t dig too deep, but they enjoy it.” Bonus — the fields are tilled without machinery.
Pelfrey’s farm is organic, and her animals are fed with organic feed, in addition to being humanely raised. She likes knowing where her food comes from and how it’s raised, and she envisions a future in which many others learn via her farm. Her goal is “50 Families on 50 Acres”— in other words, she wants her farm to feed 50 families. Right now she feeds about 30 families and plans to increase the vegetable production to raise those numbers.
Feeding is only part of the goal, though. Pelfrey wants to help people learn about the intricacies of farming and food. Currently she hosts two annual events for her customers, a Cinco de Mayo festival and a fall Pork Fest/Oktoberfest. For both occasions, she provides meat from her farm which she cooks herself. Near future plans include adding an outdoor pizza farm. One of her customers is a builder who works with her on a barter system, and he took a course at the North House Folk School in Grand Marais on building outdoor ovens. Pelfrey envisions such an oven at her farm, not only to provide events (with pizzas made with sausage and cheese made on the farm as well as vegetables grown there) but also to develop workshops where she could teach people how to cook and bake in an outdoor oven.
She’d also like to teach people about the “nose to tail” approach to buying half or whole animals for consumption. “So many people are used to buying meat at the grocery store,” she says. “They like pork tenderloin. Then they buy half a hog and say, ‘Where’s the tenderloin?’” As it turns out, the tenderloin is the meat that’s normally attached to the bone in a pork chop—which is how Pelfrey’s customers receive it. Adding workshops to teach people about the different cuts they’re getting, and what to do with them, would reduce the hesitance some new customers experience, she says.
Cooking in general would be another focus for Pelfrey. “I want to do farmer-chef events, teach people to cook real food,” she says. These could be anything from making lard to making cheese to the myriad ways cooks can use the tender pork shoulder cut.
Pelfrey invites the local elementary school for a field trip each year, relishing the opportunity to teach kids at a young age about where their food comes from and life on a farm. It’s not an easy life, but it can be so rewarding. “The thing you love and hate is that you’re out there every day,” she says. “That physical work, being outdoors—it can be wonderful, and other times, not.”
But the end results make it worth it, and make Pelfrey happy to be herding her lambs, no matter the weather.