In their field: Climbing Tree Farm lets animals roam

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NEW LEBANON, N.Y. -- You can tell the pigs are happy at Climbing Tree Farm, because they play. They have lots of room to roam, lots of good things to eat and two children who love them as animals, then love them as food.

The Gail family has been at their home, on 20 acres in New Lebanon, for a year and a half now. Husband and wife Colby and Schuyler, 33 and 31, and their children, Huck, 6, and Tillie, 1, have tried to keep their sheep, chicken and pigs raised as naturally as possible.

"We feed really differently than most farms," Schuyler said. "I think there's a trend for pork producers to sort of feed whatever they can find -- every decision we make on our farm is calculated. We're focused on making the very best product we can possibly make."

These animals are pasture-raised -- there's no barn at Climbing Tree. No permanent fencing, no silo. "Everybody is on grass, outside, year-round, and continually moving," Colby said. There's just one exception -- baby chicks stay in for two weeks or so, and the chickens do have housing to keep them safe from predators.

There's no tractor -- when they got to the property the grass and weeds grew tall, but the animals, as they are moved around, have largely taken care of that. There are about 50 pigs (a sow who was pregnant when I visited has certainly had her babies by now), 45 to 50 sheep, and many, many chickens and turkeys.

Colby said the Gails have never lost a sheep or a pig to a predator. Since they got a flock of African and Embden geese to use as guardians, they haven't lost a chicken, either.

Schuyler is from William stown, and she and Colby, who is from Utah, started farming when they lived next door to her grandmother as caretakers.

"We always wanted to grow food for our eventual family," she said. "Someone gave us some sheep to keep the grass around the barns down. We realized we really liked growing food for other people."

Their land borders hundreds of acres they lease through the Columbia Land Conservancy's Farmer Landowner Match program, which helps those with acreage find those seeking to farm it. A lot of it is a shale field, and the family farm philosophy is to be gentle, to help rehabilitate what secures their livelihood.

"We're not just doing this to have a product to sell," Schuyler said. "We want to heal this land."

Schuyler and Colby said they love working with the animals, and no two days are ever the same -- "every day there's a puzzle to be solved. There's a creative aspect to it," Schuyler said. "There's a lot of drudgery also. In a way, having no infrastructure to speak of is actually a blessing. It makes us come up with ways of doing things that are more sustainable."

When I asked about the worst part, it didn't take long for Schuyler to answer, "I really don't like castrating pigs." But also, "it's hard for us to sort of distinguish ourselves."

"I think there are blanket statements flying around -- pasture-raised, pasture-fed, that can mean a lot of different things," Colby said. "We feel like we're grouped into one sort of ball, and it doesn't necessarily explain what we're doing here and what our goals are."

It's also hard to do farm work and take care of two young children simultaneously, Schuyler said. The kids love the animals -- Huck, upon finding out turkeys were coming, said, "I didn't know that -- can I hold one immediately?" -- and Schuyler chronicles farm life at climbingtreefarm.blogspot.com, which has plenty of pictures of happy kids holding goslings, piglets and so on.

The kids are also completely casual about the fact these creatures are food. Schuyler, who was once a vegetarian, said people are often emotional about eating animals they have known and interacted with -- but "I don't know how you can eat an animal that you don't know where it comes from," she said.

Though they have been at it for years, and have been educating themselves since they realized farming was what they wanted to do, "we're never fully educated. We never will be," Schuyler said.

Huck, playing with a turtle named Ninja as I spoke to the family in their living room, disagreed.

Recipe

Climbing Tree Farm grilled pork chops with chive butter
(Serves two) Chive butter
(Huck gave me some chives):

1 stick butter

A handful of chives, diced

Melt butter; put in small mason jar or other container. Drop in chives; let rest, stirring when butter begins to separate. Refrigerate when butter becomes solid.

Chops

Two pork chops

Chive butter

Salt, pepper

Rub chops with salt and pepper. Heat grill to medium-high heat.

Rub chops with chive butter; refrigerate while grill gets hot.

Use hottest part of grill and keep chops there one minute each side to get a nice sear, then move them away from flame, grilling three minutes each side or until juice runs clear.

Enjoy! You can also grill some corn, too, and rub the chive butter on it, which I really think you should do.

What: Climbing Tree meat

Where: New Lebanon Farmers Market

When: Sundays, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Where: Downtown Pittsfield Farmers Market

When: Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

You can also call and pick up meat, including bacon, pork chops, lamb and pork sausage.

Where: 436 West Hill Road, New Lebanon, N.Y.

Information: (413), 884-3446, bigbug9@juno.com, or climbingtreefarm.blogspot.com

"Yes, we will," he said.


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