Artisan Profiles

Rappahannock River Oysters

Rebuilding the Chesapeake with Oysters

The long history of the Chesapeake Bay oyster was too strong a pull to keep cousins Ryan and Travis Croxton out of the business their great-great grandfather had started in 1899, when oyster "farming" was basically hunting and gathering the bivalves that were a natural part of the Bay. Oysters were a supplement to farming and were "free," as land leases were yet to be implemented. The cousin's fathers tried to discourage them from oyster farming as they watched their fleets of boats destroyed by multiple hurricanes and the Bay become "polluted" from over farming and lack of planning from local oystermen.

The pollution of the Bay is different then we would think. "It's not a point source pollution like a factory, but the runoff of nitrogen and phosphorous that would normally be processed by oysters," says Ryan. And with the oyster population dwindling, this is "allowing other life to take over the Bay." While the oyster population of Chesapeake Bay is about 4 percent of what it was in 1900, Ryan and Travis believe that through their style of aquaculture the Bay will not only become cleaner but also a better place to grow their oysters.

"The Chesapeake Bay is like the Napa Valley of oysters. The brackish waters vary from location to location and help create a wide variety of taste profiles from low-salinity Rappahannock River Oysters to brinier Olde Salts oysters from Chincoteague."

To keep the bay safe for boats, good looking for local residents, and most importantly, a constant food supply for their oysters, the Croxtons moved their business into "off bottom" farming. The oysters are grown in cages in the bay with only buoys to mark their location. The harvest consists of pulling the cages rather than dredging the bottom of the bay and killing much needed grasses that provide nutrients to the oysters.

The Croxton's model of sustainable aquaculture and great-tasting oysters has led them to be a favorite of chefs like Tom Collichio of Craft and Eric Ripert of La Bernardin. "At first we couldn't have been more ignorant about how to sell, price, and ship our product to these great chefs, but their help got us on track." It also won the cousins a Food and Wine magazine award as one of its Best Young Taste Makers. Not bad for two guys told to stay out of the family business.

Hardwick Beef

Changing Myths

"Grass-fed cows make the best burgers, period." This is Ridgeway Shinn's mantra. Ridge is on a mission to change the beliefs of American beefeaters to prove that grass-fed cattle produce a more flavorful meat than their grain-finished relatives and in the process are a boon to the environment. In his arsenal is the herd of Devon cattle that he shipped from New Zealand on two 747's in 2008 and the pure science that he uses to make his point. The Devon cattle are the gentle giants of the farm that Ridge runs and they are also the machine used to reinvigorate leased land that has been ruined by over-farming, herbicides, and other chemicals. The Devons eat grass whose roots have pulled carbon from the air, they then fertilize the land that they have been living on and within 2 to 3 years the land has been revived. This is the kind of perfect balance that sustainable farmers are always looking for.

Ridge's goal is to increase the quantity of half Devon cattle being raised by farmers and ranchers. His Bakewell Reproduction Services is the seed that he hopes will drive this goal. By developing herds of half Devon cattle all over the United States, the quality of grass-fed beef will increase rapidly. He says "My bull's genes will push through, no matter the cow that it is bred with." The other upside of his breeding plan is that these grass-fed beauties will be ready in 18 months rather than the usual 24 to 30 months for other grass-fed breeds,saving from a extra winter's worth of expensive alfalfa.

Working with everyone from David Shea of Applewood Restaurant in Brooklyn, New York, to scientists at Clemson University and the Hardwick Beef Company, Ridge is getting the word out about his cattle and the advantages of raising an animal that helps the land and tastes great. Ridge loves to go to farmers' dinners to tell consumers about the advantages of his grass-fed beef, including studies from Clemson University that showed his steaks rated as"choice" by USDA standards. He is also proud to explain how his filets won a Food Arts contest when put up against grain-finished beef from around the country. Ridge says "once consumers understand all the advantages of grass-fed beef, the only problem we'll have is getting enough supply to them." A good problem to have for any farmer.

Tuthilltown Spirits

Adventurous Spirits

After owning a successful rock-climbing gym in New York City for 10 years, Ralph Erenzo decided to climb a new kind of mountain. He bought a big piece of land in upstate New York with the hope to turn it into a climbers ranch, complete with bunk houses, camping facilities, and a small cafe for hungry climbers. His neighbors did not share his vision. They shut him down.

Luckily and his pal, Brian Lee, had a plan B. They would get a license to make wine and then quietly add a distillery to the premises. They dropped the wine license with not a peep from the powers that be.

Then came the hard part making great distilled products. Brian's engineering and scientific background and Ralph's travel to France and Italy to learn about making grappa and cognac were a start, but they quickly found out that there is no manual for making small batches of rye, vodka, or bourbon. So they simply dug in and taught themselves, emailed other small-batch makers, worked the Web, and made trips to other distilleries to hone their skills.

Then they started testing their ideas. They got apple scraps from a local slicing plant and made some vodka. It wasn't easy: Starting with cider was a much better route to take and smarter in the long run. Then they started working with grains. Their first aged spirits were a success, and so with that their rye, whiskey, and exceptional Baby Bourbon were born.

Today, Ralph, Brian, and their small crew are the only whiskey distillery making bourbon, rye, vodka, and other distilled products from in New York since the prohibition age.

Freddy Guys Hazelnuts

Nuts and Bolts

Meeting the woman behind Freddy Guy’s Hazelnuts is like walking into the eye of a storm and being swept up in high winds of excitement, passion, and down right shrewd business thinking. Barb Foulke was a nurse running an Indian health clinic in Eastern Washington state before she and her husband decided to buy an orchard of hazelnut trees in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. They knew nothing about nut farming, but luckily they had Uncle Ray.

Uncle Ray had been farming all his life and was a natural consultant as Barb and her family moved onto the farm and began production. Barb quickly realized that hazelnuts are a commodity crop that suffers from low prices due to flooding of the market from inferior producers in Turkey. Barb decided to take the whole process o fgrowing, shelling, roasting, and selling into her own hands. In the process she learned that this control gave her a superior product that local chefs and farmer’s market shoppers love.

Hazelnuts are harvested once a year and the process takes about three weeks to complete as special tractors pick the nuts off the ground like a giant Hoover. Barb has employed her college aged kids and their friends for the harvest for a number of years as she trusts them implicitly. The nuts are then stored at the farm in their shells until they are needed for roasting. They can be stored all year as the shell is a perfect environment for the meat of the nut. Freddy Guys sells hazelnuts to buyers in Vietnam, Hong Kong, and Europe in 44,000-pound quantities. Freddy Guys also produces flavored nuts, hazelnut butter, and hazelnut pancake mix.

Barb is already on to her next great idea. While making a trip to the Piedmont area of Italy to buy a roaster, Barb noticed that olives were very happily growing right next to hazelnuts. While she doesn’t expect to see Freddy Guys growing olives anytime soon, she knows it could be a good investment forher family and will keep her busy. Just how she likes it.

John Boy's Farm

Wall Street Bull Farms Pigs

Twelve years as a national brokerage salesman on Wall Street was fun, but it was only a stop along the way, for John Ubaldo to the real goal of starting Johnny Boy Farm. John's brother is a chef that took him on a tour to find the best ham in the United States and along the way John fell in love with the Berkshire Pig, "The nicest pigs ever", and the smoked products of legendary Allan Benton.

Berkshires are the pig of choice for small artisan farmers as they produce beautiful, flavorful meat that chefs love and the have a gentle personality that farmers appreciate. John consults agricultural manuals from the 1920's that recommend raising a pig 11-12 months to approximately 400lbs. (Modern pigs usually go to slaughter at 240 lbs after about 7-8 months) By lengthening the growing time of his pigs, John is able to produce pork of beautiful red color that looks more like a steak than pork as we know it, he says "it's like aging the meat, that extra time adds flavor and character." The extra time also gives the prime cuts of the pig time to get a size that looks great on the plate.

The farm started on a piece of land in Westchester County New York, but soon the neighbors were less than happy to have a few pigs as well as chickens and ducks in their own backyard. So John moved and expanded his operation in Washington County New York. The farm is now 185 acres with towering oaks, fields of non GMO alfalfa and corn as well as 130 pigs, fryer chickens and ducks laying high protein eggs. The animals eat a healthy diet of John&'s and his neighbors grains as well as the occasional melon at the end of summer and pumpkins the day after Halloween. This tightly controlled diet and the fact that the meat is only sold fresh leads to raves from chef Brian Lewis of The Bedford Post "This product is so above and beyond the usual." Just as John wants it!

The businessman in John is looking to the future for his pigs. He intends to double the amount of Berkshires on his farm in the Spring of 2010 as well as becoming USDA certified to sell the bacon he is double smoking. And in the ultimate compliment, his brother said to him "finally a bacon as good as Benton."