Eating with the Seasons

Move beyond produce and consider the seasonality of meat and eggs for a diet that honors Mother Nature’s cycles. Learn how to make eating with the seasons easy!

| March/April 2012

  • Eggs, like produce, can be "in season."

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.

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