Most of us know that fruits and vegetables are more abundant in some seasons than others, but not everyone realizes the same is true for meat and eggs. As a farmer, I think a lot about these seasonal cycles because getting supply to match demand is one of my biggest challenges. One of the best ways to even out the flow is to find customers who enjoy eating with the seasons—buying extra at some times and not demanding seasonal foods during hard-to-produce times. This often means preserving some for later use rather than eating an abundance of tomatoes or beef right now. When it happens, this synergism between season, farmer and patron is a dance that honors the natural ebb and flow of production. Cyclical menus stimulate an awe and respect for local food connections. And such conscious planning is good for pocketbooks—of both farmer and patron.
Seasonal Eating: Meat
Tremendous money and effort is expended maintaining production anti-seasonally, but meat is best in certain seasons, just as produce is. Forage-fattened beef is best in the fall. Once the frost has killed flies and sweetened the grass, cows are more comfortable than at any other time of the year. They naturally ramp up their forage intake in fall to get through the lean, hard winter. On the other hand, spring is when chickens lay lots of eggs, some of which become baby chicks. Seasonally speaking, it makes sense to eat chicken in the summer and beef in winter.
When buying meat from local farmers, you’ll find that eating the whole animal is a related issue. A chicken consists of much more than a boneless, skinless breast. The only way those can be offered in the supermarket is because the industry grinds and reconstitutes the rest into lunch meat and McNuggets, using low-wage labor and high volume to justify the sophisticated machinery. In the supermarket, boneless, skinless chicken breasts require an industrial approach to food preparation, but at home, it’s a different story. You can eat the breast, but also cook the rest of the chicken for casseroles, and freeze the broth for stock.
The same is true of beef. I once had a chef ask me for 200 beef loins a year to use for steaks in his restaurant. My jaw dropped, and I asked: “Do you know how much chuck roast that is?” Less than half of a cow can be used for top-end steaks. The rest is chuck roast and ground beef. Steakhouses have been possible in our culture only since the advent of the hamburger joint.
Seasonal Eating: Eggs
As an example of how deep seasonal cycles go, let me describe the egg production cycle. Chicks begin laying small “pullet eggs” at about their 20th week. Within about a month, more than half of their eggs are large. The birds lay for roughly a year before molting—when they lose feathers and go through a two- to four-week dormancy. Then, sporting a new suit of feathers, they begin another production cycle. As with most biological systems, the egg production cycle follows an escalating curve early on, plateaus for a couple months, then gradually drops.
In a natural setting, production is highest in spring and lowest in fall. But culturally, our demand for eggs peaks in fall and wanes in spring, exactly counter to the natural production cycle. So what’s a farmer to do? The industry uses lights to stimulate off-season production, but I shy away from this because it exacts a heavier toll on the birds I think may affect eggs’ nutritional quality. We’re always short of eggs in fall and have plenty in spring. Because fall is when beef and pork are best, we encourage folks to eat more meat in fall and more eggs in the spring.
When we first began selling eggs to gourmet chefs, I would apologize for the egg quality in winter because we couldn’t keep the yolk color up when fresh grass wasn’t available. During one of these conversations, the chef interrupted me and said, “It’s OK. In chef’s school in Switzerland we had special menus for April eggs, August eggs and December eggs as they changed through the seasons. Some have better yolks and some have better whites, so you concentrate on recipes that capitalize on the quality of that month’s eggs.”
I stood there flabbergasted. I’ve gained a new respect for cultures that honor their heritage cuisine.
Eat with the Seasons, Preserve the Rest
Of course, produce follows seasonal cycles, too. Every year, right before frost, tomatoes rev into high gear and pump out masses of sweet, gorgeous orbs. But instead of encouraging folks to jump on this last gift of summer and can all that excess for winter, the industry concentrates on how to make sure fresh tomatoes are on supermarket shelves in January, even when that requires shipping them in from 2,000 miles away. Meanwhile, the local tomato flood gets composted, fed to pigs or just thrown out in heaps. What a waste!
If all the effort expended to get fresh tomatoes on supermarket shelves in January in Portland, Maine, were invested into fully utilizing the late-August tomato flood, it would revolutionize our food system. Not only would it improve our nutrition, it would recycle dollars into our communities and free us individually and collectively from far-away food dependency. In many cases, it might be the difference between local farmers making just enough to get by versus making enough to romance the next generation into farming. When I suggest such a simple solution to nationwide problems, the conventional culture laughs me off as old-fashioned. But, in fact, preserving more of our fruits and vegetables would be remarkably easy to do.
The whole culture of eating with the seasons and laying by the surplus for later use is a huge part of my family life—and was routine for most people until a couple of decades ago. We have a couple of chest freezers, which are primarily for meat and poultry (and because I can’t live without ice cream). We also freeze quarts of blackberries and strawberries, which keeps them from getting mushy. When corn is in season, we cut it off the cob and freeze it on cookie sheets, then crumple it into plastic bags. When we need some, we just open the bag in the freezer and scoop out what we want.
We also have a pantry. We can 600 to 800 quarts of food per year. With modern pressure canners it doesn’t take that long and, once sealed, storing this food requires no energy. When tomatoes are rolling in from the garden, we make juice and can tomatoes. We also make salsa, ketchup and tomato paste. Each year, we buy bushels of apples from an orchard and make our own applesauce. When grapes ripen in late September, we can our own juice concentrate. We cut it with half water to drink. The elderberries along the river are great for making jelly, so we reserve grape juice for drinking.
When cabbages are ready, we have a couple of 10-gallon crocks for making sauerkraut. Later in the season, when cucumbers are pouring in, we reuse the crocks for making pickles. (My wife, Teresa, makes fantastic sweet pickles.) Our basement serves as a root cellar for fall vegetables and root crops. In November, the basement is full of butternut squash, sweet potatoes, white potatoes and cushaw squash. We lay mulch over late carrots in the garden and they become sweeter and sweeter as winter progresses. Whenever we want some, we get a handful fresh out of the ground.
Our laying hens are only really productive for two years. At the end of that time, we dress them and cook them in a huge roasting pan. We pick the meat off, cut it up into bite-size chunks, and either can it or freeze it. Then, when it’s 5 p.m. and supper panic sets in, Chicken a la King is only a few minutes away. That precooked, ready-to-go canned or frozen meat is about as handy as it gets. We all choose our routines. Laying food by and enjoying eating out of the larder all winter is my family’s.
To learn more about eating with the seasons, read "Tips for Local and Seasonal Eating." Find out what's in season now in "Spring Foods: Fruits, Vegetables and Herbs in Season Right Now."
Adapted from Holy Cows and Hog Heaven: The Food Buyer’s Guide to Farm Friendly Food. Joel Salatin is the author of numerous books about farming, including You Can Farm!, Everything I Want to Do is Illegal and Folks, This Ain’t Normal. He can be contacted through his Polyface Farms website.