I’m in love. His name is Sarge and he’s tall and gorgeous and has a full-time job running a company. Before my single friends ask if he has a brother, I should probably explain that Sarge is a Maremma sheepdog and he’s in charge of protecting the sheep at Kinderhook Farm in Ghent, New York. (And Sarge does have a stunning half-brother, Ollie, who also works at the farm but I’m hoping by this point, my friends have lost romantic interest.)
Kinderhook Farm is set on 1,200 rolling acres of meadows and pastures that are inhabited by cattle, sheep, pigs, chickens, three livestock guardian dogs, and a few people. The farm is known for its nutritious and delicious beef, lamb, and mutton, which come from animals that are raised on a 100% grass and legume diet without grain, antibiotics, hormones, or animal by-products. Kinderhook also has a mix of heritage breed pigs and chickens and has recently started an apiary working with a local beekeeper to produce its own honey.
The farm was run as a conventional dairy farm until it was purchased by businessman Steve Clearwater and his wife, artist Renee Iacone, who lured farmer-friends Lee and Georgia Ranney from West Virginia to go into partnership with them and run the farm. The Ranneys are experts in grazing techniques and quickly set out to transform Kinderhook into a grazing farm.
When they arrived, the Ranneys had their work cut out for them. Fortunately, the farm also came with Jules Rutschmann and Harry Lobdell who’ve worked at the farm for years and continue to work there today. They put up miles of fencing to contain the animals and installed pasture water systems to hydrate them. They also had to bring in my Maremma buddies Sarge and Ollie and more recently Luna, a Turkish Akbash dog, to protect the sheep from coyotes and sometimes other dogs.
Maremmas are an ancient Italian breed of sheepdog who are bred to regard anything they guard as “their” responsibility including animals, crops, and even people. They approach their flocks submissively, with their ears laid back. They avoid eye contact and bond with their charges by licking them. Georgia says some of the sheep like Sarge’s licking so much that they trot after him seeking his attention. Ollie is still a little too rambunctious to rule the roost so he paroles the circumference with young Luna. (Akbash is another ancient breed of livestock guardian dog.)
As I learned at Kinderhook, raising animals on pasture requires more skill, planning, and resources but aficionados insist it’s worth it. One of Kinderhook’s biggest fans is Andrew Tarlow who runs a well-regarded mini restaurant empire in Brooklyn and sources all of his meats from Kinderhook. If you’ve had the grass-fed steak at Marlow and Sons, Diner, Reynard, or Roman’s, you already know how good the beef is. One of the (many) benefits of grass-fed beef is that the meat is healthier than even grass-fed, grain-finished meat and much, much better for you than animals finished in a feedlot (an area where animals are fattened for “market”). Grass-fed meat has less total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol and fewer calories, as well as more Vitamin C, E, beta-carotene, omega-3 and CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) which is said to reduce the risks of heart disease and cancer.
According to Georgia, pasture-based farmers refer to themselves as “grass farmers” rather than “ranchers” or “farmers.” As they see it, they raise the grass and the animals do the rest. It’s actually a lot more complicated than that. Herdsman Laura Cline, who started as an intern and never left, explains the concept of baleage in which bales of hay are wrapped in plastic and allowed to ferment, a process she likens to sauerkraut.Wrapped bales require less drying time than baled hay making the farmer less dependent on dry weather. As I later learned on hayandforage.com, the hay is fermented to a PH level at which it can retain its feed value as long as it is not exposed to oxygen.
Anna Hodson, Kinderhook’s shepherd, minds the flock of 450 sheep. Like Cline, Hodson is a former vegetarian who was unwilling to eat meat that she felt wasn’t humanely raised. Her charges, however, are animals she says she feels happy eating as “they’re doing what they evolved to do.” Thanks to her, they spend their days eating grass and milk, and feeding their young on beautifully tended pastures.
Kinderhook Farm is one of fewer than a dozen farms in the Hudson Valley that’s Animal Welfare Approved (AWA). The AWA program has “the highest standards for animal welfare and is the only multi-species humane food certification program that requires that all animals be raised outdoors on pasture or range.” It’s no coincidence that five of the Hudson Valley’s AWA certified farms are in Ghent. (The Ranneys learned about the program from Dan Gibson at neighboring Grazin’ Angus Acres.)
To see what it’s like to live on a farm, try Kinderhook’s FarmStay, the brainchild of Iacone who was inspired by an old red barn on the property. Thanks to her, that barn has been renovated and transformed into a country chic sanctuary where guests can enjoy life on the bucolic farm. Floor-to-ceiling windows provide unimpeded views of the farm and its herds of grazing animals.
There’s also a vegetable garden right outside and a BBQ where one can grill up meat from the farm store. (The store is open year-round offering various cuts of meat, sausages, roasted chickens, honey, and different colored eggs from the farm’s several varieties of hens.) The long list of Farmstay activities ranges from “feed biscuits to Ginny the donkey” to “nap in the hammock.”
The farm is also surrounded by miles of hiking trails and has several “secret” swimming holes. There’s also a restored 18th century farmhouse on the property that can be rented out but it’s separate from the FarmStay property.
Should you hear a coyote, don’t worry. My pal Sarge is on the lookout. Georgia once heard a coyote in the middle of the night and ran out in her robe and slippers. She ended up causing a stir by waking the sheep who had been sleeping peacefully under Sarge’s watchful eye despite the close proximity of a wily predator. When I left the farm, the ever vigilant Ollie and Luna kept their eyes trained on me as I drove away.
Robin Cherry is a Red Hook-based food and travel writer and author of the book ‘Garlic: An Edible Biography’ is available from many local (and national) bookstores. She blogs (a bit too irregularly) at Garlicescapes where she shares garlic recipes from around the world.