This past weekend I attended the 30th annual conference of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. The ALBC works to protect breeds of livestock that have become rare or uncommon in recent history. Through breeding programs, outreach, monitoring, partnerships, and other avenues, the ALBC has saved many breeds from the brink of extinction and has succeeded in implementing livestock associations, connecting young breeders with old stocks, and so forth. One of the new ventures of the ALBC has been to inculcate a niche market for rare breeds products, thus creating an economic incentive for both producers and consumers to maintain the genetic diversity of the United States’ livestock. And so it was only fitting that our conference began with a superb dinner put together as part of Slow Foods’ Renewing America’s Food Traditions project. So Friday evening I trekked out to Celebrity Dairy (a local goat dairy and cheese maker in Silk Hope/Siler City) for one of only five pilot RAFT picnics being held across the US. Dinner featured meat from a variety of rare breed livestock, Southern-style rice, greens and salad from heritage varieties, local cheeses and wine, sweet potatoes, and dessert of heritage breed apples and goat milk ice cream. All of this was of course accompanied by conversations with foodies and farmers. The dinner was prepared by a number of members of Chefs’ Collaborative, which featured some of the fine chefs around Chapel Hill, Durham, and Pittsboro. The meats were provided by members of ALBC and all had distinctive tastes, especially those included on Slow Food’s Ark of Taste list.
Saturday morning I was off to Sanford, where I spent the morning learning about the history and mission of the ALBC, taking workshops on particular breeds, and networking with various folks. As many of you know, I have been meaning to acquire some cows for some time and, at one time, had a Dexter bull, Pepé, reserved for me. It turns out, given the difficulty of getting Pepé here and the possible mis-match in the ideal environment for which Dexters are adapted (western Ireland) and here, that I had considered other breeds of cattle. I had read in recent ALBC newsletters about the Pineywoods Cattle. And, after listening to a presentation by Bonnie and Bill Fritz and meeting with several other breeders of Pineywoods, that this rare and critically endangered breed may be the most suited for our environment. Pineywoods cattle are descended from the Spanish herds brought to the so-called
Old Southwest (Louisiana, Mississippi, etc.) in the 16th century and were the backbone of the old logging and cattle culture that made up those states. Changes in production preferences and the advent of industrial agriculture pretty much wiped out what remained of post-Civil War beef production in the South such that today there are fewer than 300 individuals. I was able to network with a few folks and once we have our fences in place, we may be adding a couple head of Pineywoods to our place.
I also learned a great deal about Myotonic Meat Goats, also known as Tennessee Fainting Goats. Because of a single genetic mutation this breed, which has been around since the late nineteenth century, has both a 30% increase in muscle-bone weight compared to other meat goats and a tendency to
go stiff, giving rise to their appellation as fainting goats.
Although I cannot possibly relate all the other things I learned, including what I gained from an in-depth look at operating a microdairy and cheese-making, the skills needed to be a master breeder of conservation breeds, and the opportunities made available by Tillers International (who will host the next ALBC conference at their Michigan farm), I can say it was a conference well worth attending. Of course we finished off with another excellent meal consisting of another superb array of meats from rare breeds, locally grown greens, and other foods all prepared by Chatham Marketplace (Pittsboro). If you’ve read this far, I’d encourage you too to learn more about rare breeds and find ways you can support conservation and local, sustainable agriculture through your consumer choices.