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Monday, July 4,2011

Local farms play integral role in 30-Mile Meal deal

By David DeWitt
Photo Credits: David DeWitt
Photo Caption: Matt Starline shows off a greenhouse at Starline Organics.
Legendary House Speaker Tip O'Neill once famously said that all politics is local. But if a number of citizens in Athens County had their way, all food would be local, too. In fact, if one is so inclined, all food really can be local. And the people who make that possible are area farmers.

The 30-Mile Meal project in Athens County has pushed the envelope on the 100-mile meal movement in the United States, and aims to help residents and visitors find local foods and flavors within a 30-mile radius of Athens. The project is a partnership of the Athens County Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Appalachian Center for Economic Networks (ACEnet) and more than 125 farmers, local food markets and businesses.

Over the weekend, The Athens NEWS visited two of the farms that participate in the project: the Albany-based goat cheese, milk and pawpaw farm. Integration Acres, and the 50-acre certified organic, fully diversified farm of Starline Organics.

JUST PAST 7 on a Sunday morning, and Chris and Michelle Chmiel were hard at work at their Integration Acres farm near Albany. Michelle was prepping her work station for a day of cheese-making as a herd of 42 goats made their way down from grazing on the hillside toward the milking site.

Chris Chmiel said his family started with a dozen goats five years ago, which have since been bred to the 42 the family has now. Because the goats are pasture-based, Chmiel said, fencing has been put up to keep them in rotation. The reason he got into goats, he said, is because they don't eat the pawpaw trees, which account for another major source of revenue for the farm.

"They eat everything else, but they don't eat the pawpaw trees," he said. "We're like, the world's largest pawpaw processors, so that's one of our claims to fame."

Frozen pulp is one of the farm's major exports, he said, as well as pawpaw jam, a chutney salad dressing and some other products. The frozen pulp can be used by restaurants, he said, or brew pubs such as Jackie O's in Athens uses it as well. Last year was a record harvest, Chmiel noted, with the farm producing about 6,000 lbs of pulp.

Once the goats have been herded into the waiting area, Chmiel lets six in at a time on each side to munch on a grain mix while he uses a pit-milking system to attach automated pumps to the goats' udders.

The 42 goats get milked twice a day, Chmiel said, which is about an hour-long process each milking. The herd produces about 9 gallons per milking, he said.

"Depending on which kind of cheese you make, you have different yields," he said with regard to what's done with the milk after it's collected.

Michelle Chmiel does most of the cheese-making work.

She explained that the farm has various different cultures to make a variety of cheeses. After the milk is put into a bulk tank, it's pumped through into a vat for it to be pasteurized. On Sunday, Michelle was making a chvre (French for "goat") and the Integration Acres' Griffin's Dream, which is made in the style of a Sainte Maure cheese, but a little creamier.

"This (vat) gets heated up to 145 degrees, and then you have to pasteurize for 30 minutes," she said. "And then you have to cool down, and the cooling down can take well over an hour."

Once the desired temperature is reached, she said, the cultures are added depending on what type of cheese is desired. One of Integration Acres' most popular is Feta, which is also one of the most popular of all goat cheeses. Every cheese gets a different culture, she said, which activates everything. The next step is to add rennet, which helps separate the cheese into solid curds and liquid whey. At Integration Acres, this whey is then fed to the hogs on the farm. After that, once the cheese solidifies, it's aged.

"It's a long process," she said. But it's worth it and the end product can be found at the Athens Farmers Market as well as a variety of other businesses and restaurants around Athens.

OVER AT STARLINE ORGANICS, Angie and Matt Starline have developed 50 acres of highly diversified, certified organic crops. Starline specializes in growing a variety of certified organic vegetables, herbs, mushrooms and grains.

The family also naturally raises Blackbelly lamb, pork and occasionally beef. During the warmer seasons, the Starlines practice rotational grazing on organic pastures, while in the cold season, they supplement with a non-GMO feedstock and certified organic hay. All of their animals, they said, are raised without the use of hormones or antibiotics.

The Starlines started what was supposed to be a three-year farming project six years ago. Because they do not yet have cold-storage, when they go to the Athens Farmers Market, they are able to boast of some of the freshest crops available because they're typically out with head-lamps picking produce that very morning.

The Starlines grow a wide variety of produce, including beets, watermelons, zucchini, winter-squash, broccoli, carrots, cucumber, lettuce, mushrooms, pumpkins, potatoes, radishes, garlic, tomatoes, summer squash, winter squash, radishes, peas, onions, okra, leeks, hot peppers and cauliflower. As for grains, they grow spelt, which they use to make a honey-flavored cereal, as well as for other things.

"We're doing buckwheat," Angie Starline said. "We're making a pancake mix. Also, we're doing a buckwheat honey to put on our cereal. And then we do sorghum."

Sorghum is a type of sugar cane, she explained, where they press the cane, get the juice and boil it down, similar to maple syrup.

"That is one of our specialties," she said.

The Village Bakery and the Athens Farmers Market are two of Starline Organics' biggest accounts, Angie explained. Other places where their products are sold include Fluff Bakery, and due to a bigger plot this year other restaurants may come on board.

"We sell our produce to about six different restaurants," she said. "And then at the Athens Farmers Market, we sell our meat, produce, grains, cereal."

Angie and Matt said that Starline Organics is all about balance.

"For example, any produce waste we have, if it doesn't look beautiful, we either donate it to the donation station, with Community Food Initiatives, or we let our pigs have it, or we put it in our compost bin," she said.

Because the farm is all-organic, the compost pile is important in getting the soil as optimal as possible, they explained.

"Composting is very important to help put nutrients back in the ground," Angie said. "As a certified organic farm, our soil is the most important base for us for all of our products. So we're always trying to put nutrients back in."

Another strategy, she said, is to consistently rotating the crops and what's grown where.

Both Starline Organics and Integration Acres products, as well as many other farm products from throughout the Athens County area, can be found at the Athens Farmers Market. The market is located at the Market on State parking lot at 1000 E. State St. in Athens, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Wednesdays from April to December, and Saturdays year-round.


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