KEENE VALLEY - "We follow a philosophy that we're going to do local, fresh, unprocessed (food) to the highest degree we can," said Keene Central School Superintendent Cynthia Ford-Johnston, speaking of the school cafeteria.
During a KCS home game, two students from another school entered the cafeteria looking for soft drink and snack dispensing machines. The girls looked at each other, incredulous, when told that KCS no longer has any.
During the past two school years, KCS has refused the government issue burger, dubbed "pink slime," opting instead to serve local, grass-fed beef from the Ben Wever Farm in Reber. Poultry, eggs and vegetables are also bought from local farms when possible, and some vegetables are raised in the school garden with student participation. The school also has a Community Supported Agriculture contract (CSA) with Essex Farm to purchase all eggs and vegetables from them each month.
Martha Allen/Lake Placid News
Linda Gilliland holds a lamb,a twin that she has been bottle feeding to supplement its mother's milk.
"People ask, 'How do you do that? Is it because your school is small?" Ford-Johnston said. "Actually, our size works against us."
Customers who buy in volume are generally able to get the best rates, she explained.
"I tell them, no, it's not because we're small, it's because I have Julie."
She is referring to Julie Holbrook, KCS cafeteria director and overseer of the school garden.
"Julie is a "true believer," Ford-Johnston said.
Essex Farm vegetable pickups are on Fridays; Julie goes over on Saturday and gleans produce in order to get an affordable price for the school.
When told that Ford-Johnston credited her hard work and dedication for making the KCS local food philosophy a reality, Holbrook countered, "No, it's because of Cynthia. There is no way I could do this without her support."
Ford-Johnston and her husband David Johnston own Dacy Meadow, a beef farm in Westport. Like Essex Farm and the Ben Wever Farm, Dacy Meadow is a member of the Adirondack Harvest program of Essex County's Cornell University Cooperative Extension. After her retirement at the end of the current school year, she plans to devote more time to farming. Supplying the school with beef from her own farm, however, would be a conflict of interest, Johnston said.
Linda and Shaun Gilliland are the owners of the historic Ben Wever Farm where KCS gets its burger.
According to Shaun, Julie showed up one day and asked if they could give her an affordable price on beef for the school. They worked out a plan.
"One thing we like to emphasize is we are a grass and pasture based farm. Our real crop is grass and the animals are the primary customers," Shaun explains. On the farm, hay and alfalfa fields stretch away into the distance.
How does grass-fed beef differ from the so-called pink slime now prevalent in some meat markets and government-issue burger?
Shaun explained that the standard cuts of beef account for less than 40 percent of the meat used. The rest is in smaller pieces. Small scraps of meat may be commercially extracted chemically, resulting in what is known as either "finely textured beef" or, less positively, as "pink slime." This product is treated with ammonium hydroxide as a preservative.
The ammonia is used in order to kill E-coli and salmonella bacteria. Representatives of the beef industry maintain that it has been approved by the Federal Department of Agriculture since 1974, and is not harmful to humans in small amounts. Recent mainstream media reports state several fast food chains, including MacDonald's, now refuse to use beef processed in this way. Some schools, including KCS, also reject the finely textured beef issued by the government.
A farm tour
Touring the Ben Wever Farm on a bright April day is educational. Three dogs, Reuben, a type of Australian sheep herding dog, Pippa, a yellow English labrador retriever, and Corky, a diminutive but vociferous Welsh corgi, rush out to greet visitors and accompany them on the tour.
All of the animals - sheep, pigs, horses, even chickens - are friendly, and come up to inspect newcomers. On this day, the cattle were out grazing on a pasture some distance from the farm house. Pastures are alternated in order to prevent overgrazing. Sheep and chickens roamed freely in and out of the big barn. As she walked and talked about the farm, Linda plucked up a egg or lifted a new lamb. Reuben occasionally rushed at a chicken to keep it in line or herded a lamb back into its enclosure, keeping order.
Reuben and Corky are both short in stature, since they were bred for herding cattle. They are too low to the ground to be easily kicked, Linda pointed out. Both dogs are useful as well as companiable.
The farm has been in operation for almost 200 years. Harry Wever, Ben's father, was the first person in the area to install electricity, the Gillilands said, but not to his home. Wever ran electricity instead to his chicken house, a four-story structure that at one time housed 10,000 layers.
The barn was built on top of a spring so that water was readily available, and it was kept heated. It boasted elevators to supply food to all the floors. The barn was lit up until midnight every night. It was so bright it provided a beacon to anyone who happened to be out on Lake Champlain.
During World War II, Wever shipped eggs to New York City via rail. They were loaded on a midnight train stop at Willsboro once a week.
Visitors who would like to partake of the farm's wares, including frozen meats, honey and eggs, can stop by 444 Mountain View Drive 24/7 and buy what they want on the honor system. Linda and Shaun will probably be working.