The Amish farmer stepped into the backseat of the car and placed an old, slightly dusty black briefcase on his lap. "Nice briefcase," I told him.
"Everyone notices it," he laughed.
The farmer sells three things: raw milk from 100 percent grass-fed cows, free-range organic eggs, and pasture-raised organic turkeys. Many things had surprised me that day, not least of which being that I was seated in the backseat of a car with an Amish man carrying a briefcase.
The rules of the Amish are simple. Leading the way is their community's strong sense of faith, purity, and social separation, which have been translated to everyday concepts like no electricity, plain clothing, and a lack of ownership of anything that might lend status. But there are ways around their rules, which I will learn over the course of my day on the farm.
The farm is located in Canajoharie, NY, three hours north of Manhattan, and comprised of three buildings sheathed in matching pale blue corrugated aluminum. Two black buggies were parked in the barn; next to them, the draft horses that would pull them or plow the field. Hanging from a lengthy piece of cord were black coveralls, pink bonnets, and other unadorned clothing––enough to outfit two adults and five children. The two eldest were no longer attending their one-room schoolhouse, because, for the Amish, school ends at the age of 14.
There were oil lanterns dotting the property instead of electric lights, but to power the farm equipment—milking machines and an egg sorter—there was a diesel generator. The generator had one solar panel, but not enough to be powered completely by the sun. A wood-burning stove, powered by a battery that was powered by the diesel generator, heated the house through a pathway of pipes laid underground. Generators and batteries are both OK according to Amish laws; they just can't connect to the power lines.
I had agreed ahead of time not to take any photos of Farmer John, but I can easily call up his image: thin strawberry-blond hair spiking out from a familiar black hat and a beard, also strawberry blond, that sprang out several inches from his chin. His sunglasses, which hid his light blue eyes and any wrinkles he might have, even looked Amish. I guessed his age to be about 40.
Farmer John (who previously was Welder John) and his wife left their Amish community in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, because they couldn't afford any land. The couple wanted some elbow room. They also wanted to give their kids the upbringing they had known—life on a working farm. In 2009, when they bought Hidden Camp Farm, it was 140 acres of pristine rolling hills. The only structures to be found were a built-up stone fireplace and chimney covered in weeds that the family found tucked away in the woods. It was the first place their kids played, and it provided the farm with its name.
They started with what they knew: eggs and dairy. Farmer John bought a few dozen Jersey cows, because he liked their higher fat content, and began building out his chicken coop. That was when he connected with FreshDirect. Although FreshDirect didn't want his eggs, he hung onto that business card.
A few years later he rang up FreshDirect's corporate offices in Long Island City. "I've got turkeys," he told Stefan Oellinger, FreshDirect's meat buyer. "Are you interested?" He was, but Oellinger wanted pasture-raised, organic heritage turkeys, a product he wasn't getting from Niman Ranch, his West Coast provider. But raising heritage turkeys isn't cheap (they eat a lot), and they're actually not the kind of turkey that most American palates crave. They have far greater dark meat content and a gamier flavor. Farmer John ran the numbers and found he couldn't make the bird work, so he turned to the standard white turkey most of us know. Then, because the Amish prefer face-to-face relationships and oral communications, he invited Oellinger up to the farm.
Oellinger recalled that meeting: "I had a sample and I could really taste the difference. They tasted like a heritage turkey, but with a meatier flavor rather than bland white meat. I think people who buy heritage turkeys are disappointed. They think the name means it's better."
With a promise from FreshDirect that they would sell upwards of 500 turkeys, Farmer John stepped up his operation. He ordered 2,500 chicks and prepared his pastures for thousands of little feet.
Farmer John described those early weeks: "The eggs are hatched at a local hatchery, and brought over the same day. The chicks have to be kept at 95 degrees for one week." He told me how hard it was early on, how conditions have to be just right and that it seemed like they just wanted to die. "They are the oddest things to raise." As the temperature is slowly lowered––from 95 to 90 and so on––the chicks become more manageable, until, at about six weeks old, they go outside. "If you get everything perfect," he told me, "Then it's OK."
How did Farmer John learn to raise turkeys? He asked lots of questions and called other farmers. He explained later that he had a phone in the house and a fax machine in his office. He also has an assistant, Kevin, who handles the website and as much of the technology as possible. In this manner, the farmer gets around the rules. If he needs to travel somewhere far, he'll hire a driver—something the Amish approve of. Trains are OK, but planes are not (too much status).
We walked up a small hill, not far from their front door, to meet the turkeys. The grass in the pasture had been pressed down, and most of the clover was eaten. If there were bugs—another mainstay of the turkey diet—they too were long gone. Several large trees had been cut down and dragged out to the pasture for the turkeys to roost upon. A few low, black tent-like structures dotted the hillside to shelter the birds, which they use infrequently because their feathers are naturally water-repellant.
The turkeys were clustered together, their fur fluffy white. Atop their heads was a pink helmet of skin called the "snood" and, below their beaks, the "wattle." I walked up close to take a photo. One of the turkeys puffed out his back feathers. He was uncomfortable.
Depending on the size the farmer is going for, most turkeys are processed at 12-15 weeks of age, which means that towards the end of a turkey's life the farmer is either feeding them too much to increase their weight, or holding back on food to maintain a weight. When turkeys are hungry, you'll know it. "That's the nerve-wracking part of the process," Farmer John said.
We walked down the hill to another pasture with a few hundred turkeys all loudly issuing a high-pitched, squawky sound. "I don't like hungry birds. If they get hungry, they get loud." The farmer added, "They're very active. At the first peep of daylight in the morning, they're off and running."
I asked him how he protected the birds when they were sleeping. He pointed to some closely spaced red flashing lights on the perimeters that were supposed to mimic the eyes of predators. "They guaranteed it would work, but they said I needed one every 12 feet." Someone joked that the pasture would look like an airport runway.
Many farmers don't handle the business of actually killing their animals. Depending on the size of the operation, they typically truck their animals to a processing facility, which is what Farmer John will do for FreshDirect because they've asked for a licensed organic death. But there are also mobile processing plants, which bring the business of killing to the farm. When Farmer John joined me in the car with his briefcase, we were delivering him to this temporary butchering location.
Like the briefcase in Pulp Fiction that we never see into, I didn't get to see into Farmer John's, but I think I figured out what it contained. His assistant recently pressed a cellphone into the farmer's hands, telling him he needed to be able to track him down. According to Amish rules, it can't be in his pocket or in his hand, or frankly anywhere at all. This was a smart businessman who could work fluidly in alternate worlds, one steeped in tradition and one moving ahead at the speed of light.