Ann Marie Bouthillette, the de facto matron saint of Blackbird Farm, in Smithfield, RI and her family run a tight ship. One wholly focused on the welfare of the animals and the quality of their product. The Chefs Collaborative staff found this out last Wednesday, August 1st, when we (Melissa, Leigh, Jen, and myself) took a break from our daily routine to go see what was going on down the farm.
While certainly not the biggest farm you’ll ever see, especially considering it turns out beef, pork, turkey, and eggs for a number of local restaurants and a small farm stand, it might well qualify as one of the most picturesque. Even if you can claim you’ve seen prettier farms, Jen here will probably think your eyes might as well fall out of your head if you don’t agree that the scurrying Berkshire piglets on the farm are some of the cutest darn piglets you ever did see.
Ann Marie comes from a farming family. Her pedigree shows, and her comfort on the land proved self-evident as she led us around the barn, with the scurrying piglets, into the grassy pastures, dotted with Angus cattle, out to the spacious hen houses with their movable runs, and my personal favorite, up to the half-acre plots of woodlands set aside for the rooting and wallowing pigs.
The whole family spends a good bit of time talking about the high quality of the farm’s products, not so much in a sales pitch way as an obsessive, fixated way—like the way Thomas Keller might talk about the importance of knife cuts—and area chefs agree that Blackbird produces really, really top tier products in taste and substance (something we got a small taste of thanks to a lunch prepared by David Dadekian). No doubt this superior product comes from the attention that the family pays to the quality of life of their animals, giving them ample room to do what they do best but also encouraging the animals to be the best that they can be.
Finding ways to maximize the taste and quality of the product is a definite focus of the farm; take, for example, their beef. Unlike many other small, sustainable New England farms, Blackbird farm is not 100% grass-fed, but their grain-fed system is far from what one might expect. For the last 120 days of their lives Blackbird Angus goes in a pasture, no more than six head at a time, where they have access to grass, to round bale, and twice a day, to grain, which they flock to as if on cue. Here too, the choice is calculated. According to Ann Marie, the feed is carefully mixed and measured to optimize the ruminants’ stomachs without harming them, a carful blend of corn meal, cracked corn, and whole kernel corn. This controlled feeding and mixed diet means that the animal finishes with what the Bouthillette’s consider superior taste and marbling but avoids the problems of overeating and antibiotic use found in the great majority of grain feeding operations, problems that the farmers have seen first hand when they used to travel on the livestock show circuit, and are extremely wary of. It also avoids the distinctly pungent flavor of commodity beef once described to me by an industry leader as “corn fart.”
Now can farms like Blackbird feed the world with such modes of production? Probably not, but they are providing real alternatives to centralized beef production. It’s becoming self evident, what with an increasing amount of food related illnesses and surging prices of grain, CAFO’s probably can’t feed the world either. Things aren’t so black and white, with one type of meat production being the only way. Blackbird Farm is just a piece of the puzzle, it’s a negotiation, and the best answers come much like the best dishes out of a kitchen, with careful and deliberate thought, a huge helping of passion, and execution approaching flawless. Every once in a while it’s important we get out of our kitchens, our offices, and our homes, to remind ourselves of this.