What does a New Mexican hill top farm strewn with goats and an Alaskan bay filled with buoys have in common? Not much, except if you’re in the business of high end organic food.
In Alaska, it was oysters. In New Mexico, it’s been cheese. Both are businesses that got started because of one singular passion. For Mike, it’s the ocean. For Nancy, it’s rugged mountains. Both are paving a new way in their states’ organic food industry.
Oysters are not native to Alaska. I learned this within my first few days with Mike Nakada’s Northern Lights Oyster Company back in July. A lucky break had landed me there after finding Mike’s oyster farm on the Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) website. I had emailed him on a whim, saying I could work for him sometime in the next week. He called me five minutes later. “Can you be here tomorrow?” and “Do you have boots?” were his only two questions. Sure, and no I didn’t have rubber boots. “That’s alright, we’ve got some somewhere around here.” We hung up and I kind of wondered what had just happened.
I arrived at his yurt in Homer the next day. His friend Bill had brought in close to 200 salmon from a recent run and the front yard was a dizzying mix of silvery bodies, knives, freezer bags, and the bright red of flesh and eggs. I dived right in and spent the afternoon learning to filet and smoke the salmon. (I was, for the record, horrible at it but the big German lab at my feet didn’t seem to mind the extra scraps.)
We set out for the farm a few days later in a small skiff that Mike kept docked on Homer’s spit. Leaving the harbor, we pass fishing boat after fishing boat coming in with their halibut catch, or what locals like to call “chickens,” the cornerstone of the Alaskan fishing industry. We pass a cruise ship (Alaska’s other cornerstone) and then hit the open water. The wind pushes the swells higher and doesn’t let up until forty minutes later when we turned into Jakolof Bay. Our bay. Our “farm.”
It’s there that I get the first view of my home for the next two weeks — The Susitna. This is your straight-out-of-The-Deadliest-Catch’s crab boat. Weighing in at well over a cool 100 tons, I can’t imagine steering it into the bay let alone the Bering Sea, which Mike did as a captain crab fishing for forty years before “retiring” and starting his oyster farm.
I’m not sure you can quite call it a retirement.
Since oysters are an introduced species, all the farming is done through a system of docks, buoys, and nets. It requires a meticulous record of your underwater acreage — what’s still too young, what’s growing right, what’s mature, what’s ready for harvest. Oysters take up to four years to mature and sometimes another year to harvest. During that time, they move from small net to a medium sized to the granddaddy 20 footer.
When it’s a week away from harvest time, you bring the big nets towards shore so the oysters can spend some time out of the water. Thanks to Alaska’s notorious wild tide swings (if you’re not careful, your kayak can end up tied to a tree 20 feet in the air), this is a pretty easy maneuver. And it does two things for the oyster: it works its muscles so it gets nice and plump and it trains it to be without water for half the day so it can survive the transport to your plate. So, by the time that oyster is sitting on your plate, it’s safe to say it’s been touched about 25 times. No wonder it costs so much, right?
Mike is one of the first to try it out in Alaska, and definitely the only on a large scale. He got his first seedlings from Hawaii ten years ago and, while the beginning years were a waiting, debt-piling game, the past five have been very good. He was part of a co-op in those starting years but grew a distaste for the rules and the politics, and so runs everything on his own now. New markets are emerging around the Kenai Peninsula and in Anchorage. There’s talk of trying to get some oysters up to Fairbanks and even down to Washington state. The word is out. Every other day we’d get a visitor at the dock, paddling up in a kayak or puttering up on a tiny outboard, and always they’d have the same question: “Got any oysters for sale?”
There is the danger in describing this work, in describing any farm work for that matter, of romanticizing it all. This is not to say it’s devoid of beauty. (There is something miraculous and deeply satisfying in nurturing a little thing to its full glory.) But, it is also a hell of a lot of sweaty, smelly work. And oysters, they are full of both.
The hardest day of work in my life so far was bailing hay. The second was harvesting oysters. Picture this: you’re tittering on a flat-topped skiff nicknamed “The Mambo Juice” for the ripening kelp mush that pools in the stern. You’ve got a pulley above your head attached to a crank that’s going to launch your hand up into the jaws of finger death if you’re not careful. Now you’ve got to hook said pulley onto a bobbing buoy, making sure to keep the main ropes and the birds nest of the side ropes clear, and raise that hundred pound grandaddy net up out of the water. This net most likely won’t swing toward you so now you’ve got to bear hug it onto the deck. It is covered in heavy kelp which is covered in sea lice which is getting eaten by all the sea eels that you are now hugging. You pray and curse that somewhere in that stinking watery mess is an oyster.
I didn’t realize until just now that life on the oyster farm makes up not one but two Discovery Channel hits: Deadliest Catch and…Dirty Jobs. And those shows are hits (if you can stomach Mike Rowe’s corny jokes and ego) for the same reason I’m at these farms, too. They de-mystify a whole different world from the one you live in. They give you insight into the full story of how what-you-know came to be. I will never touch an oyster now without feeling the motions of the hands around it — pulling, sorting, dunking, and cleaning it onto my plate. How can you not savor more what took such care and sweat to create?
If there is one thing the oyster work lacks, however, it is definitely a cuteness factor. Goats, on the other hand, are way up there. I said it’s the mountains that drew Nancy to goats but really its the goats that drew Nancy there (more on her story from truck driving to goat herding some other time). Goats just thrive in the mountains. New Mexico’s mountains are particularly goat friendly as the high, dry climate makes for lots of open pasture, rocky ledges, plenty of trees, and pinon pine nuts when the season’s good (though they have to race the Navajos who, I’m told, are avid gatherers of this tasty high-protein nut).
Over the past thirty years, Nancy has put organic goat cheese “from the wild’s of New Mexico!” on the map. (Recently, the state recognized this feat and named her Organic Farmer of the Year.) She is just a limitless encyclopedia on all things animal. I’ve been on her farm, The Coonridge Dairy, for the past three weeks and feel like I’ve only absorbed a small minutia of her knowledge. From goat breeding, kidding, drying and milking schedules to how to take that milk and make a feta, romano, ricotta and pure soft goat cheese (it’s all about the temperature you use to heat and cool, and of course, like wine, the aging), it’s a very satisfying race to keep up.
I think what impresses me most about Nancy though is her commitment to her ideals. She talks about being in “equal partnership” with her goats and that means they deserve the good life and so every morning after milking we open the gate and the herd of 40 shuttle out for the day with three gorgeous white Maremmas (Zen, Atticus, and Utah) acting as shepherds. With over 300 acres to roam, no fences, and no neighbors, it’s truly free range. She talks about “sustainable living” and so the dairy runs on water from rain, heat from wood, energy from solar (propane, gas, and oil are used sparingly), and cheesemaking rooms are built north-facing to keep things cold. She talks about “being organic” and so goes to great lengths to find the good quality organic oils, herbs, fruits, and wine she mixes with the soft cheeses. The goats are grain free and the high desert climate means she can raise them without the use of hormones, de-wormers, or antibiotics.
These are not new words or concepts, you can find them easily buzzing around this country, but it feels new when you get to see it in practice. It makes me think, hey, this can actually be done. You can have a goat dairy up at 8000 ft near the Continental Divide with no running water and it can be organic, good for the goats, good for the earth, and create high quality food.
Of course, this is not to say the cheese business is without its challenges. I’d say the biggest hurdle Nancy faces right now is how to continue to sell in an economy that, while better than four years ago, is still not racing towards luxury items. A lot of her cheese is sold at shows and festivals throughout the Southwest and attendance is down. The hope is that as long as there are retirees in Tucson with time on their hands to come shop, there will continue to be a market. (My wish, I might add, would be that natural, healthy, and humane cheeses like hers could be the industry standard, not the outliner.) “But what-ever,” I hear Nancy say, her favorite phrase when things get too serious or complicated, “it’ll work, one way or another.”
She loves what she does and loves where she lives. And the rest? Well, it just doesn’t matter as much as that.