This month’s Member Spotlight features Stef Culberson, the founder of The Goose Chaser Farm in Blanchardville, Wisconsin. Stef’s practical belief in sustainability comes through in her words about her animals, the products she offers, and her commitment to the welfare of both animals and humans alike.
Chefs Collaborative: How did you become involved in farming?
Stef Culberson: We basically started out as a hobby farm, like a lot of people do when they move from the city to the country. The main reason we started was because of the quality expectations we had for the food we wanted to eat. I couldn’t find the quality that I wanted. Where I was raised, in Germany, there are less hormones and chemicals in the food. When I searched for this in the U.S., I had a hard time finding it. I felt like the consumers in the U.S. are given too few choices by corporations. When you do your homework, you find that most meat in grocery stores comes from 4-5 mega-production facilities. There isn’t a lot of choice. We wanted to make sure we knew where our stuff comes from. We had acreage to produce more than we needed, so we started giving it to other people. At some point, we started experimenting with heritage breeds and cross-breeding. Along the way, we established a clientele who understands the process and cost involved, who were willing to pay the price for it.
Chefs Collaborative: How do you and your husband’s diverse backgrounds influence your feelings towards food/sustainable food production?
Stef Culberson: My husband was born in Chicago and raised in Milwaukee as an inner city child. He had no country experience, nor exposure to different foods. The first animal we brought to the farm was a blind, 2000 pound Percheron horse, so for him to readily accept the animals I brought on the farm shows the support I have from him and his love for me. I’m grateful for it. Killing our own chickens, doing things in a sustainable way, was all a new experience for him. The first animals we butchered together were geese. It was a traumatic experience. It was serious culture shock for him!
I was born and raised with eating goose for Christmas, but I didn’t have much experience with farm animals either. We had a neighbor with a big farm, where we visited every summer to see the animals. I’ve always had a thing for animals. But sustainability has its practical reasons. I know I’ve accomplished something if I’ve raised animals in a humane way and if I’ve taught my children respect for nature and food.
Chefs Collaborative: What makes your product unique? How do people normally react when trying it?
Stef Culberson: Unlike many brat producers who use lesser quality pieces of meat in their mixes, we use loin meat for flavor and to keep the fat content low. Also, we don’t use any fillers or preservatives. We always use very flavorful, very fresh ingredients. Many other producers use the same spice blend for all of their sausages. We custom build our spice blends from Penzey’s. I cannot glorify Penzey’s enough. The spices are so fresh. I order them one day, Penzey’s mixes them the next, and I receive them the day after that. We have two signature brats – Black Boar (horseradish and Tellycherry black pepper), which are very pungent, and Red Pig (with Herbes de Province), both completely salt-free. Our brats are unique because when people try them, they cannot believe that they’re low sodium, and some are entirely salt free. We just received state approval on 11 of our low-sodium, salt-free brat recipes. We are very excited!
Chefs Collaborative: Conventional pork’s slogan is “the other white meat”. Pork from The Goose Chaser Farm is totally different. Why?
Stef Culberson: We established our own breeding line of heritage pastured hogs, which are a cross between our Mulefoot boar “Diesel”, and female European wild boar. The meat is very lean and dark due to the breed. We definitely don’t produce white meat. Our animals are what Kobe is to beef. They’re hand-raised. Piglets run around the house. We train them with marshmallows. They’re petted and rubbed like Kobe beef is massaged. Because of this, the flavor is very distinctive and the texture is too. Our pigs are raised for up to 12 months, while conventional pork is only raised for six months. They develop flavor that a conventional hog can’t at the 10-12 month mark. Conventional hogs are raised on soy and corn, and are given no exercise. As a result, some of their muscle mass never develops. Our pigs are given a lot of exercise and are allowed to follow their rooting instincts. They even swim! All of this exercise produces longer, leaner muscles. Pork, by tradition, is not white meat; it’s dark. For chefs, I think it’s important to know that, because of the difference in texture, fat content and muscle fiber, when you choose pastured pork, you need to cook it differently. Well-done pork is a no-no; it should be left a little pink.
Chefs Collaborative: Are you currently working with any chefs in your community? How are they using your product?
Stef Culberson: Right now, not really. I don’t think that local chefs have realized that I’m here or maybe they find the prices too expensive. I don’t know. I’m hoping to get into the Madison and Chicago areas where sustainable food in restaurants is understood a bit better. My dream client would be a restaurant that would purchase whole hogs. If they could fabricate the hogs themselves, they would receive a better price point, plus they could get creative, experimenting with the different cuts. Reaching chefs is important, and I would love to be more in touch with chefs in my area.
Chefs Collaborative: What do you see as the challenges in producing and marketing your product?
Stef Culberson: The quantity that I can raise and the price point are a challenge because it’s expensive to raise the pigs the way I raise them (compare six months for conventional pork to 12 months for my pork). It’s expensive to have all of my 24 acres fenced in. The pigs need to be given space to run and feed. Woodier portions of land need to be maintained, so the pigs can follow their own rooting instinct. In the summer, they graze. It’s a lot of work to keep the grass at a certain height. This is something that’s very expensive to upkeep. Besides the physical labor, I can only raise a certain amount of pigs to make sure they all get enough food. Only a certain amount of pork can be produced every year. I know my limitations and my market, so I would never jeopardize the quality of life or the quality of meat. A bigger commercial production wouldn’t be able to do that. I think people understand when they’ve tried the meat.
Chefs Collaborative: When is your product available for purchase? Is it a seasonal product?
Stef Culberson: Individual orders for brats and the brat of the month club are things we have year-round. People get a different brat flavor every month. Each package contains 4-5 brats, 4 demi-baguettes (frozen and half-baked, so that they can be finished in the oven) and a small jar of gourmet mustard. I encourage people to precook our brats in water and then grill them. Resist the urge to drench the brats in ketchup and other condiments to really try the true flavor.
We offer turkeys and geese seasonally, only for Thanksgiving and Christmas. These should be pre-ordered by July. We butcher as close to the holiday as possible, so we ship to Wisconsin and the bordering states only second day.
Chefs Collaborative: What are some of your goals for the future, and exciting things you have in store?
Stef Culberson: I’m hoping to find more land to rent at some point, so I can do more business and maybe open a retail store. I want this to succeed so that society becomes aware that good quality meat should be available not just for people who can afford it. The average consumer should have access to good meat too. I need to be able to compete with the higher-end stores. I believe that we all can eat healthfully. There’s no reason why healthy food should be so expensive and junk food so cheap. We can change the way we look at food – we have to, for our children and the coming generations. This is what I can do to help further that cause.
As far as exciting things are concerned, there is a series of events from starting now, in June, going through October. We do a lot of public work with organizations like the Outreach Ministry Program and cooking demos with the UW extension. I’ll be cooking with my 5 year-old, creating recipes that kids can do with Mom or Dad’s assistance. We quiz kids about vegetables and fruits to teach them that there’s more than peas and carrots out there to eat. To conclude the series, we’ve been chosen to do a sit-down harvest dinner in October. We’ll have pork roast, roasted squash fries, mashed cauliflower and potatoes – all grown by local farmers. Go online and look for “Stirring the Pot events” or Google my name “Stef Culberson”, for more information. We’ve been quite involved in promoting healthy eating to the public, which fits in well with our mission statement: welfare over profit, not just for animals, but for humans alike.