The chickens ranging freely at Julie Bolton’s farm in Rocky Ridge, MD will soon will be driven to Scranton, PA, killed by a kosher slaughterer, dry-plucked by hand and refrigerated before KOL Foods, an organic and kosher meat retailer in Takoma Park, MD will sell them locally and nationwide.
Seems like a lot of distance to cover before the bird ends up in your chicken soup for Friday night dinner.
The dearth of kosher poultry and livestock farmers in our region means that locally-grown, kosher and organic meat is really difficult to obtain. Bolton, who operates Groff’s Content Farm, is not Jewish. A search for Jewish livestock farmers in Maryland by Caroline Taylor, executive director of the Montgomery Countryside Alliance, turned up only one Jew, Joseph Orlow, who hopes to raise and sell kosher goats.
The life of a livestock or dairy farmer doesn’t allow much free time. “Most people have their jobs, their weekends, their vacations,” said Naomi Franklin who, along with her husband, operates Bethel Creamery, a kosher dairy in Swan Lake, NY. This is the closest Jewish-owned dairy to the Washington, DC region. “If you’re a [dairy] farmer, it doesn’t happen. It’s like running an obstetrics and maternity ward.”
It’s easy to see why a new crop of Jews taking up organic farming nowadays eschews livestock and gravitates towards planting and sowing vegetables. Farming that involves caring for newborn calves and lactating big animals requires a degree of attentiveness an entire acre of cucumbers never demands.
Many of the Jewish farmers interviewed for this series love farming, but also value their time to pursue other interests in the off-season, a sample of which include teaching, traveling, lobbying, playing in a band and working as a librarian.
Historically, Jews did run poultry, cattle and dairy farms in America—and especially the poultry and egg farms of New Jersey. Eastern European Jewish immigrants, denied land ownership in their home countries, often started the farms with loans from the Jewish Agricultural Society. According to an article earlier this year in the New Jersey Jewish News, estimates suggested that Jewish farmers accounted for about 75 percent of New Jersey’s total egg production during the peak years in the 1950s.
These farms thrived for one or two generations, but nearly all had died out by the 1960s and 1970s. Big factory farms had taken hold, pushing out the smaller farmers. And by then, growing numbers of younger Jews had found easier and more lucrative ways to earn livelihoods in cities.
When it comes to cattle, small farms still have trouble competing with the big ranches, said Mike Klein, who operates Good Fortune Farm in Brandywine, MD. Klein raises free-range turkeys and chickens and grows a diverse array of vegetables.
It’s difficult to make economic sense of raising organic cattle on a small scale because when a cow is fully grown, the farmer has to take the animal to a federally inspected slaughterhouse, of which there are only two in Maryland and two in Virginia, Klein said. The trip and processing can take up to three days.
Raising dairy cows is even more challenging and time-consuming. “You have to be there twice a day, every day,” Klein said. “There’s no day off for the lactating cycle.”
On the other hand, growing vegetables, while also hard work, gives farmers more bang for their buck and their time. Klein, who lives on his farm with his wife, a community college anatomy and physiology teacher and two children, sells his produce via Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) orders.
He also provides fresh-picked vegetables to an impressive list of high-end restaurants in DC and the Maryland suburbs, including Komi, Addie’s, Black Salt, Zaytinya, Oyamel and Palena. The send-off for vegetables is easier than for cows and chickens.