Backyard Farming in Rhinebeck, A Pantry Portrait
My city friends always say, “‘It must be so quiet in the country,’” says Sarah Hutchings with a laugh. It’s actually a little hard for me to hear her over the din made by her flock of roughly 50 chickens, punctuated by the crowing of half a dozen roosters and one very vocal guinea hen. “I started out with 12 guinea hen eggs, but she’s the only one who survived, thank God!” says Hutchings. “She likes to climb onto the roof early in the morning and scream just outside our windows.”
A small woman in her early forties with long dark hair, hazel eyes and a wide smile, Hutchings is dressed in jeans, shirt, black down vest and well-worn Muck boots. When I arrive on a warm, sunny morning, she’s in the process of feeding the animals spread throughout her property. The rocky slope surrounding her home in Rhinebeck is covered with animal dwellings—I count at least three chicken coops of varying sizes, a pen with two Nubian Dwarf goats, beehives and a pair of hutches that hold her latest experiment—two Champagne d’Argent rabbits with silvery fur and black-rimmed ears. Across the road, a larger pen houses three black and white piglets that her children—a boy of 11 and a girl of 14—are raising for 4-H to show at the Dutchess County Fair this summer. “If I had more room, I would have a cow for milk,” says Hutchings.
As she walks around, making sure everyone has food and water, she checks for eggs, finding them in places both likely and unlikely, thanks to her Bantam hens’ tendency to lay in hidden spots. She tucks them into her vest pocket as she goes. “Usually, I remember to take them out, but every once in a while, I will be in the village at five o’clock in the afternoon having a drink with my husband and realize I have a pocketful of egg yolk,” she says.
A Family Fungi Affair
Hutchings was born in Cognac, France, a town celebrated for Brandy production, and was raised in a series of francophone African countries, including Algeria, before her parents returned to France when she was 12, settling in a small village near Nice. Her upbringing is apparent in her accent, her devotion to fresh, well-raised food and her no-nonsense approach to parenting. “We have always eaten dinner together and it’s just one dinner for all of us—I would never make a separate meal. If the children don’t like it, they will have a good breakfast tomorrow,” says Hutchings.
It’s clear that her family has been influential in her appreciation of food. In addition to spending summers on her grandparents’ farm near Bordeaux as a child, she credits her uncle with awakening her lifelong love of mushroom foraging, a topic that makes her face light up with pleasure. “Ever since I was a little girl, my family would go mushroom picking. In the fall, we’d go on vacation to places where we knew we could pick mushrooms. Even as a teenager, we would sneak out of class when it was the season,” says Hutchings.
She practically glows as she details the many types of mushrooms that can be found on her property. She mentions pheasant’s back—a shelf mushroom that is typically the earliest to appear in the spring, and morels, which tend to come out at the same time as wild ramps. “I like [morels] with shallots and bacon in a cream sauce over homemade pasta with a pork or veal chop. I also like to dry some so I can think about them in the middle of the winter.” There’s also milk caps, which appear in June and July, boletes and black trumpets, which she finds in abundance. “In France, when we don’t have truffles, we use black trumpets—they’re very flavorful. When you arrive in the forest, you can actually smell them.” She says giant puffballs appear in the fall. “They’re amazing—you peel and slice them and prepare like you would for chicken Parmesan—dipped in egg and bread crumbs and fried and baked with mozzarella. Those were a great discovery—we don’t have them in France,” says Hutchings.
A New Taste for Life
Hutchings met her husband, Jacob, an American photographer and film production manager, in France, where they lived together for a decade and had their two children. Then, out of the blue, Hutchings was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2007. When Hutchings finished treatment roughly one year later, she found that her priorities had shifted, “I was okay but I did not want to go back to work—I just wanted to spend time with my family,” she says. At the same time, her husband received a job offer back in the States and it was time for her daughter to change schools. It seemed like a good time to make a big move. They already knew Rhinebeck from visits to Jacob’s parents who had moved there after September 11. “We’d come here for vacations and loved it. So we thought, maybe we need to move here, it’s a really nice place. And there were tons of mushrooms!” says Hutchings.
After settling near Rhinebeck, Hutchings had her first experience with ticks. “They were going to come and spray the lawn but I’m a cancer survivor and my kids were very small and I felt like there should be another option—I did not want to be afraid to go outside because I was paranoid about the chemicals. Around the same time, I went to Agway to buy flowers and they had baby chicks. They told me that chicks eat ticks and the next thing you know, I had 12 of them.”
In the roughly six years that have passed since then, Hutchings has taken her family’s food production largely into her own hands, starting with those 12 chickens for fresh eggs—the gateway livestock—and expanding to include meat chickens, turkeys, pigs, bees, meat rabbits, and a small garden where she raises greens, herbs and tomatoes. “We have three large chest freezers,” says Hutchings, who trades some of her pork and chicken with friends who raise lamb and duck. Her large flock of egg-laying chickens includes Bantams, Marans and Easter Eggers (a breed recognized for their ability to lay eggs along the color spectrum from blue to pink) because she likes to have a variety of colors. The hens lay enough eggs to allow Hutchings to deliver eggs to seven families in the area on a weekly basis in the summer.
In addition to the superior taste and freshness, the desire to remain healthy is a primary driver of Hutchings’s devotion to raising her own food. “I already went through one bout of cancer, I’m going to try to avoid another one. And I want to give my children a chance to have a healthy life,” says Hutchings. “I try to eat things with very few ingredients. If there’s something on the package that I can’t read, I probably won’t eat it.”
As is common with children who grow up surrounded by something, Hutchings’s kids appear to have absorbed her philosophy on an elemental level. “My daughter really understands the whole thought process that goes into the way we run the house. For example, she does not eat meat at her friends’ houses. She’s a teenager and doesn’t want to be the weirdo who asks where the meat comes from so she just skips it. And my son wants to be a chef, and he really enjoys helping. He also loves mushroom picking and is an excellent spotter.”
Mushrooms are not the only things Hutchings forages; she also picks medicinal plants like mullein, coltsfoot, St. John’s wort (“good for stress, I give it to my kids when they can’t sleep”), rose hips and elderberry. (“In Europe, it’s one of the only things they’re using nowadays against the flu.”) Some plants she dries, while she turns others into tinctures and syrups. And some, like broadleaf plantain (a common weed rich in calcium and iron), she just eats raw. “When you eat wild greens, it changes your gut bacteria—it’s really good for your immune system,” says Hutchings. Although many of the plants she seeks out were already familiar to her, others were delightfully new. “There are plants around here I did not have in France. Like yarrow, it’s amazing what you can do with it. I make a tincture that is very good for colds and for women’s troubles like cramps,” says Hutchings.
Trial and Error
Hutchings’s animal husbandry efforts are an ever-evolving experiment, aided by like-minded friends and the expertise of the Dutchess County 4-H community in which her kids are involved. Through trial and error, she’s learned which breeds to raise and which to avoid. “The first meat birds I tried were Cornish Cross broilers—they’re the most common breed. But they’re just so weird. They’ve all been genetically modified to grow freakishly fast and their feathers don’t grow and they break legs because their bones don’t grow fast enough to keep up with their weight. And they taste bland—like the chicken at the store. Never again.” Now Hutchings raises a breed called Freedom Rangers—a French hybrid breed that can be raised for meat or to lay eggs—they are slower growing, more flavorful, healthier and more resilient than the Cornish Cross breed. This year, she’s also trying out a few White Plymouth Rock chickens—a cold-hardy hybrid breed that’s been around since the early 1800s and can be raised for either meat or as egg layers.
She had a similar experience when she first tried her hand at meat turkeys. “I tried the White Broad Breasted turkeys that are the traditional choice but did not like them—the poor things were so stupid they would look up at the sky and literally drown in the rain.” This year, Hutchings is trying out Midget Whites—a rare, heritage breed that is smaller, smarter and heartier than the ones bred for quick growth and maximum breast size. “They grow slower but they actually have a brain and they enjoy life,” says Hutchings.
About three years ago, Hutchings made her first foray into beekeeping, purchasing two “nucs” (nucleus colonies consisting of a queen and a small hive of bees) from a well-known beekeeper named Lloyd Spear up in Schenectady. The honeybees have required Hutchings to take a more philosophical, perhaps even spiritual, approach than she does with her other animals. “You are not the master of your bees—they clearly do whatever they want. All you can do is try to make life easier for them,” says Hutchings, who adds, “I felt very responsible at first but now I am more Zen about it.” She has weathered some downs including too many stings to count and the death of an entire hive at the tail end of a particularly brutal winter—the other hive was fine, oddly enough. But there have also been bright spots like starting a new hive after an intrepid beekeeper friend climbed a tree to catch a swarm for her. And the payoff is undeniably sweet, “Even taking a few jars of honey is incredible—it’s very rewarding,” says Hutchings.
Down the Rabbit Hole
Some people might be content to stop at chickens, or chickens and turkeys, or chickens and turkeys and goats, or chickens and turkeys and goats and pigs, or chickens and turkeys and goats and pigs and bees. But Hutchings is not one of them. In the spring she was awaiting the first litter of baby rabbits from the pair of large, fluffy Champagne d’Argent rabbits that occupy separate hutches in a covered area outside one of her many chicken coops. “Right now the rabbits are my new thing,” says Hutchings, adding, “We’re working on the permanent setup for them so we can separate the boys from the girls right away because they start to reproduce rather quickly.”
When it came to choosing a breed of meat rabbit (a rabbit intended for harvest and consumption, not as a pet), Hutchings knew she did not want one of the ones with white fur and red eyes, “Those freak me out,” she says. Instead, she chose Champagne d’Argents, a French breed with a long history of good health and flavor. “This breed has been around since the 1600s. Families have been raising them in their backyards. They’re good mothers, very resilient and disease-resistant,” Hutchings notes.
Although she plans to fill one of her freezers with rabbit meat, Hutchings is not expecting to sell or trade many of them, chalking it up to cultural differences. “In France, we eat rabbit probably once a week—it’s right there in the butcher’s case next to chicken and lamb. But it’s a difficult concept for most Americans—when you talk about eating rabbit, the Bugs Bunny syndrome just kicks in,” she says.
More of What Matters
Hutchings has her priorities straight. “After I had cancer, I decided that my happiness was more important than my bank account. I could be back at work in a big corporation in the city but I would not see my kids. I would be stressed out and I would be surrounded by people who were unhappy,” says Hutchings. “We don’t have as much money as we could but we eat good food every day and I go outside and drink my coffee and watch the animals and the trees and feel the breeze and I am happy.”
She lifts a large watering can to reveal three eggs just laid by one of her Bantam hens, “Would you like these for your breakfast tomorrow?” she asks me. I thank her and take them, enjoying their warm, smooth shells and varied colors. Then I drive away, leaving Hutchings in the bright sunshine amidst her thriving flock.
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