An Interview with Shannon Hayes – Radical!

August 9, 2012 in Author Series, Sustainability Schools, Uncategorized

Author Shannon Hayes writes and farms with her family on Sap Bush Hollow Farm in upstate New York. The family raises grassfed lamb, beef, pork, and poultry. She blogs for Yes! Magazine and is the author of Radical Homemakers, Grassfed Gourmet, Farmer and the Grill, and (upcoming) Long Way on a Little.

Earlier this year, Shannon delivered the PASAbilities plenary address at the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture’s (PASA’s) Farming for the Future Conference. She wowed us with her thought-provoking message on the concept of radical homemaking. There was such an overwhelmingly positive response to her address, I thought it essential to follow up with Shannon who graciously agreed to be interviewed and offers this additional insight into her life’s work:

Shannon, my first introduction to your work was through friends Jonas and Judy Stoltzfus, farmers who pasture beef cattle in Pennsylvania (JuJo Acres). I remember how excited they were to offer your Grassfed Gourmet cookbook to their customers. With your cookbook as a reference, I learned a great deal about how to prepare grassfed meat in order to end up with something very tender and delicious. One of my favorite things about that book doesn’t actually have to do with the recipes. It’s the “View from the Farm” snippets that appear throughout. It’s unusual for a cookbook to include such treasures. What went into the thinking about including them?
I’m so pleased you thought to ask this question!  I think that now, with the local food movement in full force, such a perspective in a cookbook is not all that unusual.  But back then, it was actually controversial, because there was a clear interest in the publishing world to make sure that Americans didn’t have to draw any connections between the food on their plates and the big brown eyes of the gentle creature that provided it, or the farmer that led that animal to slaughter.  Glossy magazines could snap romantic images of veggie growers and artisan cheesemakers, but livestock folks were just too close for comfort for mainstream press.  Back then, mainstream culture preferred to think of burgers without the beef – or the chicken breasts without the bird.  But I felt that telling the stories of the farmers was essential for people to gain an understanding of what went into good food.  Flavor, nutrition, and healing our land all begins with the farm.  I didn’t feel I could get that message across without first telling the farmers’ stories, and the stories of their animals.

Do you have a favorite recipe or two from your cookbooks that you like to prepare?
My weekly menus all come from my cookbooks.  All the recipes I’ve written were done in the context of a moderately chaotic, home-centered, farm-centered lifestyle.  My family has had to make some dietary adjustments over the years to accommodate for grain/gluten free living, and I’ve had to get more savvy about being less wasteful with my food.  Thus, a lot of what I cook lately comes from “Long Way on a Little” (due out October 12 and available for pre-order) as it contains accommodations for these needs, but there are still fundamental techniques from “Grassfed Gourmet” and “Farmer and the Grill” that will never die.

In Grassfed Gourmet, you also talk about the social benefits of the grassfed meat movement. For our readers who not familiar with your cookbook, what are some of those benefits? Why should we care about these benefits?
There are so many benefits; it is hard to list them …without writing an entire book on the subject!  Grassfed meats, raised by local farmers, help to protect our landscapes and watershed, they increase the organic matter in our soils, keeping our regions more resilient in times of drought and flood.  The working conditions are better for farmers (and the livestock) because they are out in the open air (rather than in confined settings, as in factory farming).  In these hard economic times, the local grassfed meat movement becomes even more crucial.  We are creating a sustainable economy that is able to function locally outside the whims of the larger global economy.  We are able to be more responsive to people’s needs.  I know a lot of grass farmers who ask for a fair wage for their efforts, but also find ways to share their abundance with those in need – by donating meat to homeless shelters, quietly slipping extra food into the bags of customers who are facing hard times, raising animals and giving them away to good causes.  Local grass farms are fully invested in their communities, making them better environmentally and socially.

One last question on cooking: is there a “cardinal rule” for cooking grassfed meats? If so, what is it?
Don’t over-cook it.  The temperature guidelines I recommend for reliably-sourced grassfed meat are significantly different from the USDA recommended temperatures.  It makes all the difference to have meat cooked to the correct internal temperature!

In your last book, Radical Homemakers, you present a well-argued point that men traditionally played as much of a role in “homemaking” as women. Do you see many young families embracing this approach these days?
Absolutely.  In nearly all the households I visited, if a man was part of the family dynamic, he was doing as much to keep up the home as the woman was.  I don’t think it is even so much a matter of “embracing” it any longer.  I think many young families simply understand this as a given.  If there wasn’t a balance of labor in the household, the marriage wouldn’t still be going on!

Is there a story you’ve heard of homemakers since your book came out that is particularly inspiring or heartening?
That book came out 2 years ago, and I still receive more and more stories every week.  If there is a heartening tale to tell, it is in their growing numbers.  It thrills me to flip on my computer and receive messages from new people every week who are finding ways to make their lives more meaningful, joyful and ecologically sound.

Radical Homemakers also played a prominent role in your talks at the PASA Farming for the Future Conference this year. So many people, particularly male farmers, who weren’t sure what you had to deliver would resonate with them have commented on what an inspiring talk it was. What do you hope farming families take away from your message? What do you hope the non-farming community takes away?
We are facing times of incredible change.  Each of us has come to the earth at this point in time to play a part in this transition; to help the human race become a beneficent species on the planet.  That means we have to adapt to a redefined resource base, to climate change, to limited fossil fuels.  All these things are possible.  And I truly believe that life as human beings can be better than it ever was as a result.  But we will have to endure some pain and make full use of our minds, bodies and spirits to enable this adaptation.  Sometimes we can get swallowed by that pain, and our cynicism and fear can override our hope, paralyzing us from making the progress that is necessary.  We have to keep our attention on the good life that can result from going through this great turning.  That is what will give us the strength to move forward.  If there is something I hope people take away from my talks, whether they are farming or not, it is this.

Something you mentioned in a workshop you led at the Conference had to do with the radical act of hanging a clothesline. Can you talk more about that?
Ah!  For some it is more radical than others!  Out here in the country, you’re thought a fool if you toss your skivvies in the dryer.  But in many parts of this country, clotheslines are considered unsightly and hanging out laundry is against local codes.  Thoreau wrote, “Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?”  Obliging citizens to engage in the act of putting their clothes into an electric dryer requires that we harm the earth in order to adhere to the law.  In my estimation, transgression is imperative (as well as endeavoring to make change) – for the folks who face these laws directly, that’s pretty radical and scary.

David Korten, author of Agenda for a New Economy and The Great Turning, reviewed Radical Homemakers as “Brilliant, visionary, and practical. This is a mind-bending book that will forever change your view of human possibility and compel you to rethink your life…” At the end of the day, a day that probably involves any number of responsibilities on your farm that surely stretch you, yourself, in innumerable ways, what are your reflections on the impact you have had on other people’s lives?
Golly.  I guess I don’t think about the impact I’ve had on other people’s lives that much.  I tend to ask myself if I’ve lived each day in accordance with my heart and conscience.  I feel that part of my “life’s calling,” if you will, is to be a storyteller and a communicator, but in that sense, I am merely a conduit for allowing others to think through their own lives.  My raspberry patch, my lamb chops, my life with my parents, my husband and my kids are just a daily life that is uniquely mine.  No one needs to do what I do in the exact way that I do it.  I just hope that my willingness to reflect on it in my writing and my talks inspires people to think about their own daily world, and to make the changes they feel in their hearts are most important.

In 2010, you published an online article titled, “The Work Ahead.” My favorite line from that article is, “It is the physical work that puts us in tune with the rhythms of nature and sharpens our powers of observation to detect problems.” In many ways, for me, this observation speaks to exactly what is necessary to keep us from going awry as humans. Do you feel hopeful or fearful about the direction we are taking as a planet?
I have to feel hopeful.  Hope is a renewable resource, and if we don’t spend it, we will be frozen in place by despair.  And that will only guarantee failure as the human race adapts to these changing times.

 Reaching an online audience clearly has it benefits and limitations. What are your thoughts on the role your blog at shannonhayes.info plays in your ability to connect with the broader community with regard to moving forward and deepening understanding? What are the differences from connecting through other avenues?
I was extremely reluctant to become a blogger.  I didn’t feel I had something to say each week, and I felt that it was better to connect personally with folks.  But I cannot connect personally with folks on any kind of predictable basis and take care of the home/farm/family life I advocate for so strongly.  I’ve learned that if I make the time to blog, my readers fuel my writing, giving me ideas on subjects to tackle and ways that I can expand my thinking.  It also becomes a weekly connection for people, who then use the posts as a platform for engaging in dialog with people who may not have considered some of these ideas yet.  That’s pretty powerful.  At the same time, I am able to keep my attention focused on my roots here.  I guess the blog enables me to team up with readers, and gives us a tool to work together for bringing about greater change and touching more people.

That said, there is nothing that can compare with going out in public and meeting people, getting hugs, hearing their beautiful stories and seeing the light in their eyes as they go after the life they want.  It reminds me that I’m not alone in this work.  Better still, I tend to get a lot of good information from the folks I meet – suggestions on books to read, techniques to try with my kids, in my garden, or on the farm, ideas for doing this differently.  That’s all terrific stuff.  But if I do too much of that, then I am not keeping my own home fires alive.  Thus, the blog has been tremendously helpful to me in maintaining a healthy balance.

 In addition to writing and speaking publicly, farming with your family clearly plays a major role in your life. What does it mean to you to be part of a three-generation farm? What stage is being set for your daughters’ futures with sustaining this commitment?
If we didn’t have multiple generations on this farm, I wouldn’t be sitting here answering interview questions or writing books.  From the time I was very young, my parents recognized that I was a rather communicative artsy-creative type.  I married a communicative artsy-creative type.  Most folks like that don’t find their way to a farm.  But by being part of multiple generations, Bob and I were able to bring our creativity to the enterprise.  We are able to help with the chicken processing, sell the pork chops, and still do creative work like writing and publishing books, weaving baskets, and playing music.  At the same time, if Bob and I weren’t with the farm, my parents wouldn’t be selling meat at the local farmers’ market, they wouldn’t have their vacations, and they’d probably have collapsed from the exhaustion by now.

Three generations on the land gives everyone time to rest and play, and gives everyone an opportunity to take nourishment from the deeply pleasurable work that is involved.  It enables us to have our own creative and intellectual outlets without being swallowed up by a family business.

As for my girls, of course I cannot control their future choices.  But I see a wonderful future for them here.  My oldest is an artist to her core.  I see the farm as a way to support that lifestyle, and we’ve come to see how valuable it is to the land and business to have an artist involved.  She does our wool displays, works with her dad in setting up the retail space so that it is visually appealing, helps with signs, and readily takes any young children who come with customers out to play safely so that their parents can enjoy their visit.  My youngest (who is 5) is already a hard-core salesperson.  She moves so many of my candles, soaps, salves and books that I pay her a commission.  I think she’d sell the meat, too, but she is too short to reach the product display.  It thrills her to engage with people, talk to them about their needs and interests, and to help them find what they are looking for.  She’s also amazingly strong and can carry water buckets like nobody’s business.

That’s a long way of saying that they are already incredibly valuable to us.  So while I cannot control what they will choose to do in the future, I can make sure that they understand the importance of their contributions, and I can take advantage of the three generations we have on this land to take them away on fantastic adventures (we went to Europe for 7 weeks this past winter), so that they fully see and enjoy this world.  My theory on that is that if they see it and know it, and understand that the rest of the world is not denied to them, then the farm becomes the path toward greater enjoyment of their lives…not a prison.

What inspires you?
Ahhh…so much.  Where would I start?  My morning walk with my dog, picking berries, stacking firewood, a phone call from a friend, lunch on the back porch with my parents,  laying my head in my husband’s lap at the end of the day, watching my daughters teach themselves something new…I find inspiration in every little mundane thing. Except traffic.  I don’t find traffic congestion particularly inspiring.  So I try to avoid traffic congestion.

Perhaps mundane, perhaps profound, what is something that would surprise us about your day-to-day life?
If it would be a surprise, then it means I didn’t want you to know about it, right? (she smiles)

Point taken! So, what’s on the horizon for you?
I’m very excited to be bringing out “Long Way on a Little” this fall.  The book has taken me four years to write, and has been the most transformative cookbook in my career.   I’ve had to learn how to eliminate my own kitchen waste by challenging myself to figure out how to use my leftovers. I’ve had to figure out how to make prudent use of the bones and fat on the animals and how to do it all with the myriad dietary restrictions so many Americans are confronting (my family included).  I’ve fallen in love with this book!

How can people find your work and keep an eye out for what you are up to?
People can read my articles and buy books at grassfedcooking.com and shannonhayes.info.  They are also available through Chelsea Green Publishing and they can buy electronic copies of my works through any of the major online venues.

Thanks, Shannon, for giving us some insight into your life and your work.
Thank you so much for taking the time to explore these questions with me.

 

A few notes from Shannon’s website…

Shannon’s essays and articles have appeared in myriad regional and national publications, including The New York Times, The Boston Review, and Northeast Public Radio. Hayes’ quirky lifestyle, her attempts to live a life of personal accountability and sustainability, and her current research and writings about homemaking as an ecological movement have landed her and her family on the pages of the New York Times, Brain Child Magazine, Lancaster Farming, Small Farm Quarterly, Hobby Farm Home Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, National Public Radio, Grit, Yes! Magazine, Elle Magazine, the national newspapers of Germany, Turkey and Canada, Arab News and the Pakistan Observer.

Shannon’s newest book, Long Way on a Little: An Earth Lover’s Companion for Enjoying Meat, Pinching Pennies and Living Deliciously, is due out from Left to Write Press on October 12. Left to Write Press, a company that Shannon and her husband Bob started as a way to enable them to live in Schoharie County without having to sell-out to corporate media, is distributed by Chelsea Green.

 

Books

Long Way on a Little: An Earth Lover’s Companion for Enjoying Meats, Pinching Pennies and Living Deliciously
Whole animal cooking for grassfed lamb, beef, pork and poultry….plus the leftovers.  Includes carbohydrate profiles, guides to grain-, legume-, and dairy-free recipes, color photography and  great information for stretching your food dollars.

Radical Homemakers
Shannon’s controversial best-seller that explores how social revolution and ecological reform begin at home.

The Farmer and the Grill
A guide to grilling, barbecuing and spit-roasting grassfed meat…and for saving the planet, one bite at a time. 

The Grassfed Gourmet Cookbook
Finding, selecting, preparing and enjoying the most delicious and healthful meats for your body and the planet.

Essays

Homespun Mom Comes Unraveled
A little reality check about the glories of the good life…

The Smell of Mud Season
Featured on Northeast Public Radio

The West Fulton Turkey Supper
Featured on Northeast Public Radio

Emboucher
Featured on Northeast Public Radio

Peaches
Featured on Northeast Public Radio