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Episode 1: Saving a Dairy Farm -- Mauer's Mountain Farms

Welcome to the first, the inaugural, the guinea pig of all episodes for Talk Farm to Me. I had an albino guinea pig, Smudge, when I was a girl and he was very special. So are my guinea pigs for this important episode: farmers Jennifer Grossman and Peter Mauer. And it's fitting that they are my guinea pigs, because their story is about a guinea pig-type experiment on their farm with guinea fowl and, their best efforts to save a 4th generation dairy farm. Have a listen! It's 20 minutes from snout to tail.

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Below I share some episode and show credits, as well as a full transcript of this episode (for your convenience and to provide access to all).


Talk farm to you soon!


XOXO Farm Girl


Music: Lobo Loco, All Night Long (ID 774) and Spencer Bluegrass (ID 1230) www.musikbrause.de Creative Commons License (by-nc-nd)

Sound Effects: Most of them come straight from my farm (goats, rooster, donkey, barn doors, footsteps) and a few (circus music, etc.) from free source outlets.

Tech Support: Alexis Haut provided editing advice, music sourcing and technical training.


Full Episode Transcript:


Peter Mauer: 00:00 Chickens, ducks, turkeys, Guinea fowl, pigs, sheep, goats, cows. I mean you name it I've raised it.


Farm Girl: 00:20 Welcome to Talk Farm to Me. I'm your host, Farm Girl. On Talk Farm to Me, the farmer takes center stage, and we find out what they do and how they do it. And no matter how you spend your time, I'm pretty sure you have more in common with farmers than you think. So sit back and relax, and I'll bring a farmer, and maybe a cow or two right into your living room for a chat.


Farm Girl: 01:01 Let's get started.


Farm Girl: 01:03 Not too long ago I had the opportunity to sit down with Jennifer Grossman to talk about her life, her many careers and her first personal foray into farming. I am an accidental farmer, so I have a pretty good idea what it means to become a farmer without thinking you were going to. Jennifer is a lawyer. She pursued a career in law in order to make changes in the world, to protect it. She's a skilled fly fisherwoman who honed her cast in the cool waters of the Catskills. Jen worked for the state of New York for many years, protecting land and advocating for clean water, and environmental protections. She established her own consultancy, FarmCo New York, to share her knowledge of the law, and land use, and conservation with those who need it.


Farm Girl: 01:50 In the process, Jen got to know a lot of farmers and one in particular, Peter Mauer, a fourth generation dairy farmer who reached out to her for help. It all started with a visit to his farm.


Jen Grossman: 02:04 Fascinating. When I went to visit the farm with him was not only his passion about wanting to be a farmer and work outside, was looking in the barn at a series of horseshoes that were on the wall, and the size of the horseshoes from the beginning of the farm when it was started, and then eventually getting smaller showed how these larger horses were brought in to take the trees down, clear the fields, get the pasture ready. Those were like the Clydesdale, the big working horses. Then, the next level of horses, still large, were there to plow the fields, was to clear it open to start growing some of the hay that they needed, and the corn to feed the cows that they were going to raise. And then, they had the mules that were going to be moving firewood on and off and carrying the milk down to the barns from the fields. And then, they had the Trotters, the horses that they would attach to their buggies and bring all the way down into downtown to get onto the train to get the milk into New York City.


Jen Grossman: 03:06 So the history of the farm could be just clearly enjoyed and understood by the series of horseshoes that were nailed onto the barn wall.


Farm Girl: 03:15 With the early history of the farm, decades in the past, a new story full of modern complications was unfolding.


Jen Grossman: 03:23 Peter Mauer came to me in a really distressed state. He had, basically, been in foreclosure for almost three years and he had recently gotten notice from the county, after not paying taxes for those three years, that they would auction his property off in July. Now, the problem was prior to his inability to pay taxes for these three years, the milk company decided to not come up his three mile road to pick up milk anymore.


Peter Mauer: 03:52 They wanted bigger dairies that were right on the main road that were easy access to pick the milk up.


Jen Grossman: 03:59 So they ceased purchasing from him. It was not a contract, which is a big legal issue with a lot of these dairy farmers, and he had to sell off the equipment. He had to auction off the cows.


Farm Girl: 04:12 After four generations managing the dairy farm had become complicated on a lot of levels.


Peter Mauer: 04:19 It's a difficult business. The biggest problem with the dairy business also and farming, in general, was they used to give a break to the farmers for agriculture.


Farm Girl: 04:34 In Peter's generation, taxes increased five fold pretty much overnight and farmers had to make changes to try to stay afloat.


Peter Mauer: 04:43 One person has to work off the farm to help keep it going.


Jen Grossman: 04:49 In those three years after he sold the cows and the equipment, he worked at a pharmaceutical company, from 10 PM to 6 AM in a windowless room, filling bottles of pills.


Peter Mauer: 05:01 It's like working in Willy Wonka's chocolate factory where, basically, all of a sudden you're working in a place where there's not even windows to the outside.


Jen Grossman: 05:12 Here's a farm boy who lived outside his entire life and I think that was crushing his soul, his heart. I saw it in his face, I heard it in his voice. And I was worried, frankly, when I first met him. I didn't know ... He said he could not be the generation that lost the family farm.


Farm Girl: 05:29 Even though Peter had worked nights off the farm for 11 years. The idea of parting with the farm entirely was completely heartbreaking.


Peter Mauer: 05:39 I went to one of the local real estate places and they were going to list it. And I said to the girl, I said, "Well, is there any way I could stay on with whoever buys it?" And she just laughed at me.


Farm Girl: 06:08 Jennifer paid her dues as a state employee and working for a nonprofit land conservation organization. She learned a lot along the way, especially from the people she met.


Jen Grossman: 06:21 One of the first things is just trust and that takes time. And the relationships I created really took 25 years. And over the years, sitting at their coffee tables with them, knowing their parents, and their children, and their grandchildren because it's not just land. Farmers and farms, unlike anything else, always involved human beings. Protecting farms means you're preserving a family legacy, intergenerational connections, wonderful traditions, and a business.


Farm Girl: 06:50 Jen took what she learned over the years to heart.


Jen Grossman: 06:54 It really struck me. This person's plight, this wonderful family history. And I came up with the one solution I thought would work.


Farm Girl: 07:04 And what was that?


Jen Grossman: 07:05 That was buying the farm.


Farm Girl: 07:07 Jennifer cashed in her pension and was awarded top dollar from a prestigious new grant program to get her new farm off the ground. But it takes a lot more than that.


Jen Grossman: 07:18 The sort of success of any farm has to be a multifaceted approach of borrowing and seeking grant capital, leveraging resources. There's no silver bullet. It has to be a sort of toolbox of resources that can keep you strong.


Farm Girl: 07:35 In addition to financial resources, every firm needs human resources, and Jennifer had a soft spot for Peter.


Jen Grossman: 07:44 Peter would be hired back as a full-time farmer. He would live the life he had always wanted.


Peter Mauer: 07:50 Then I came back to the farm full-time.


Farm Girl: 07:52 And how did that feel?


Peter Mauer: 07:57 It [feel-ed 00:07:56] like I was going home.


Farm Girl: 07:59 And in the ever changing landscape of small family farms, Peter's home his entire life received one more lasting tribute.


Jen Grossman: 08:08 I named the farm after his family, Mauer's Mountain Farms, and that was a dream come true for him.


Peter Mauer: 08:15 It meant a lot to me. It meant the legacy continues, everybody still knows that we're still here, and we're still a part of the community.


Farm Girl: 08:38 I have to imagine that there are 100 different ways to approach righting a failing dairy farm. Jen came up with a very surprising solution.


Jen Grossman: 08:48 On my first visit, when after seeing those wonderful horseshoes, I saw these crazy birds and I couldn't not them because they were so loud. And there was, I don't know, six or seven, and they were beautiful. I'd never seen them before. They were black feathers with white polka dots and like almost vulture like head of red and blue. And I said, "What are these crazy birds?" He goes, "Oh those are Guinea fowl." I said, "Guinea fowl, what's a Guinea fowl?" He's like, "Well, they're really loud and we have them on the farm as sort of sententials, guard dogs 'cause this farm is at the end of a dead end road and you don't know if someone's coming down the road, but these birds do."


Jen Grossman: 09:25 I went home and talked to my brother who is a classically trained French chef. I said, "What is a Guinea fowl?" And he says, "Oh it's pintade. Pintade is a delicacy. It's one of the most delicious poultry out there." So I started to do some research and what do you know? The finest restaurants had Guinea fowl on their menu.


Farm Girl: 09:45 From dairy cows to Guinea fowl, really?


Peter Mauer: 09:49 Yeah. I've had Guinea fowl since I was like eight years old. There's always been some guineas on the farm running around because, basically, growing up I had every critter imaginable. I had chickens, ducks, turkeys, Guinea fowl, pigs, sheep, goats, cows. I mean, you name it I've raised it.


Farm Girl: 10:25 Discovering Guinea fowl, giving Peter his life back, securing grants and support to rescue the farm that all seems like a lot. But for Jennifer, a conservationist and a land use lawyer, a bigger, more complex mission called.


Jen Grossman: 10:41 It was very important to me, when I launched this, to really understand the nuances of poultry farming because it was disheartening and heartbreaking to know what we have done with poultry in this country. That 99.9% of our poultry is raised in factory farms.


Farm Girl: 11:00 The accelerated one and a half to two month lives of conventionally raised chickens really bothers Jen.


Jen Grossman: 11:07 These birds are fed growth hormones to make them grow bigger and faster. Many of them can't walk after four or five weeks because they've grown so quick and they're so heavy their legs can't support their weight. These are animals that never see the light of day that are in cramped cages their entire life.


Farm Girl: 11:26 And she wants what she and Peter are doing with Guinea fowl to be radically different.


Jen Grossman: 11:32 So the Guinea fowl is a poultry that is really wild. It is not really domesticated from the moment they're born to, again, the day we bring them to the processor they live as wild, wild animals. We raise them in these wonderful large barns that are free range because there's no cages and they live a beautiful, wonderful life. They are treated with respect. They live with their family members, they are fed really good high quality foods. And then they go to an animal welfare approved USDA slaughterhouse.


Farm Girl: 12:05 Jen and Peter's Guinea hens live a wild and vibrant life more than three times longer than their conventionally raised chicken counterparts. Jen quips about how her birds have only one bad day. A day she takes very seriously.


Jen Grossman: 12:22 I had to make sure this was done right. And so I walked through three kill floors, as they call them, and watched how these animals were slaughtered. And the place that I went to really showed the highest level of animal welfare, and that was really important. And while I criticize conventional animal agriculture and, particularly, factory farms I can't just be a critic. I need to find solutions.


Farm Girl: 12:46 All of the care the Guinea hens receive, open air barns, high quality food, fresh water, and the way they are harvested pays off in the flavor department.


Jen Grossman: 12:58 Frankly, many of the chefs that we talk to, they absolutely wanted to know what these words were eating, and how these birds were killed.


Peter Mauer: 13:06 Once you have Guinea, chicken tastes very bland, very, very ordinary.


Jen Grossman: 13:12 It's like what chicken used to taste like. You've got just as much white meat as dark meat. These are full-sized, four pound birds.


Peter Mauer: 13:19 Guineas just have a very unique flavor. Once you have guineas, it's hard going back to chicken.


Farm Girl: 13:37 For the first few years of Mauer's new life as a Guinea hen farm, Jen marketed and sold their meat year-round, but chefs and their patrons have a different mindset that has been difficult to influence.


Jen Grossman: 13:50 That is our biggest challenge and, again, I am the first one to promote seasonality. And it was a learning process. We heard from a lot of chefs initially that they wanted birds year-round. Yet, we were finding June, July and August were quiet as a mouse and we were still dealing with chefs, that to keep and maintain their customer interest, had to shift menus. So we have just decided this year to shift our prime season to October to March, really the fall into winter.


Farm Girl: 14:31 One thing's for certain, as Jen and Peter know all too well, this job, this life, the choice to be a farmer is a deep, all-encompassing, constant challenge.


Jen Grossman: 14:43 Yeah. It's not romantic, it's dirty. It's very dirty in the sense that you've got to be prepared to do whatever it takes.


Peter Mauer: 14:52 Farming it's a 24 hour, 7 day a week, 365 day job. There are no sick days. I mean it requires a lot of commitment and dedication.


Farm Girl: 15:10 It's easy to think of farming as a simple life. One dictated by the beauty of nature and the predictability of sunrise and sunset, but farmers, more than any other profession, have to wear a ton of hats.


Jen Grossman: 15:25 You muck the barns, you do the back office, bookkeeping and accounting. You load the birds on the truck. You go door-to-door to New York City chefs. You are always on call.


Farm Girl: 15:35 Despite the demands, the challenges, the failures, the restarts and the, as of yet, unwritten future of the farm. What do you think Peter would say if we asked him if he'd roll the dice and do it all again?


Peter Mauer: 15:51 Yes. Yeah. Without a doubt.


Farm Girl: 16:05 It's been great to have you along for this episode of Talk Farm to Me. Special thanks always to our farmers for talking farm and doing what they do best. For more information about this episode, including a look behind the scenes head on over to talkfarmtome.com. This season's music is by Lobo Loco and the animal sounds come mainly from My Funny Little Farm.


Farm Girl: 16:35 You can find more episodes as they come out on talkfarmtome.com or subscribe to the whole season wherever you get your podcasts. Either way, please share your feedback right on the website, or give us some love on iTunes. I'm your host Farm Girl. Stay tuned for a new episode every two weeks when I bring a new farmer, and maybe a cow or two right into your living room for a chat.

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