What happens when a bunch of farmers want to learn something new? They make it happen together! In March, Wendy Johnson of Jóia Food Farm emailed the Northeast Iowa Food and Farm Network (NIFF); she wanted to learn how to do a pig pit roast. Other farmers did too! Pete Kerns and Natasha Hegmann of Turkey River Farm in Elkport wrote back and offered to show the group how they pit roast pork in the Cochinita Pibil style, a dish that hails from the Yucatan.
Soon, I was starting to plan. Wendy Johnson and Johnny Rafkin of Joia Food Farm had pork to provide, and the NIFF network was already scheduled to meet at Turkey River Farm on the afternoon of Sunday, August 20. Now farmers could arrive early on Saturday, when Pete Kerns would lead a pit roast workshop.
By August, farmers were ready to take a break from the intensity of the growing season, spend time together, and learn something new. In all, 26 people from all over NEIA and beyond (Monona, Burr Oak, Castalia, Garber, Ft. Atkinson, Charles City, and even Italy) took part in the weekend’s events. Over 20 arrived on Saturday evening and set up camp before sharing a potluck dinner on the grill. Then it was time to pit roast.
Pete led the group to the roughly 3’x3’ pit which he had dug and lined with red clay face brick. He had started a fire in the pit at 1:00 p.m., and fed it every half-hour for about 7 hours to create a deep bed of coals generating a high heat- around 600°F. The coals should not produce a flame, but glow white-hot, he said, and you shouldn’t be able to hold your hand at waist-height above the pit for more than a second. The fire would soon be at the right stage.
Pete and Natasha then took the group inside to show how the pork had been marinated and prepared. Their recipe called for sour orange, annatto seeds, and banana leaves. After rubbing the 7-9 lb shoulder and ham cuts in the annatto paste, Pete laid them in a roasting pan atop banana leaves and wrapped them completely with the leaves, allowing them to marinate in the fridge for 24 hours. Then, right before it would go in the pit, Pete poured water into the roasting pan and covered it with aluminum foil.
Back at the pit, Pete delegated roles to get the pork in the pit and close it up quickly. By the light of a flashlight, Pete and Hannah Breckbill donned welding gloves and set the roasting pan in the pit. Dustin Voss and Emily Fagan laid corrugated steel on top. Finally, Landon Corlett and Nick Nguyen spread buckets of soil around the edges of the steel, eventually covering the steel entirely. In about a minute, the pit was covered, and the group watched for any puffs of steam indicating an air leak, which were quickly covered with soil.
The pork was set to cook all night, so the group built a bonfire and reflected on the growing season, sharing successes and failures on their farms and getting advice from each other. 4-yr old Vivienne Rafkin made s’mores for the crowd. As the fire died down, folks headed to their tents for the night.
In the morning everyone enjoyed a hearty breakfast with fresh ingredients provided by the many farms, including eggs, bacon, homemade waffles, maple syrup, sautéed zucchini and fruit. At 9:00 a.m., the pork came out of the pit tender, moist, and falling off the bone. Pete shared samples with the group at this stage, and explained the next steps. The juice from the roasting pan would be simmered for hours until reduced to a tasty sauce. The pork would be pulled apart and then the sauce would be added back to it for the final product, delicious cochinita pibil.
Before others joined for the network gathering and pit-roast dinner, folks loaded kayaks and canoes into a 24-ft livestock trailer. All enjoyed a gorgeous float on the Turkey River from Elkader to Motor Mill.
At 4:00 on Sunday afternoon, more folks arrived to take part in the networking gathering, tour Turkey River Farm, and learn about the on-farm events that Pete and Natasha host. The meeting started with Pete and Natasha describing their operation, which includes a half-acre of vegetables marketed through Community Supported Agriculture shares and the Guttenberg farmers market, oyster and shiitake mushroom production, pastured, direct-marketed pork and a small maple syrup operation. Pete and Natasha described the different events they host on-farm, including Maple Retreats, Taco Tuesdays, and an annual Harvest Party (coming up this Saturday, September 16th!), and shared best practices and challenges for hosting the public. Natasha led the group on a farm tour to the mushroom logs, the gardens, and the pigs.
Then came the moment all had been waiting for: trying the cochinita pibil! Pete and Natasha served the meat in the traditional way, on a taco with pickled red onions, black beans, and salsa verde. Marinated, grilled zucchini was the perfect summer side to these flavorful, one-of-a-kind tacos.
In the end, the networking gathering turned pit-roast workshop also became a welcome retreat for farmers who needed a break after months of intense work. Building relationships has helped these farmers work together, support each other, promote each other’s products, and even take much-needed time away from the farm to relax and recharge. When this group started meeting in November of 2016, many of these farmers didn’t know each other. Now, real friendships have emerged, along with a genuine sense of community that helps newcomers connect and feel welcome.
If you’d like to try Turkey River Farm’s cochinita pibil, don’t miss their upcoming Harvest Party on Saturday, September 16 from 4:00- 8:00 p.m. In addition to the meal, there will be cider pressing, honey bee tours with Fassbinder Apiaries, hayrack rides, and plenty of activities for kids! To learn more about Turkey River Farm and their products, or get tickets for the party, find them on facebook at https://www.facebook.com/TurkeyRiverFarm/
If you’re a local food or niche farmer (whether aspiring, beginning, transitioning, or established) who wants to make connections, find common interests, collaborate, and learn with peers, NIFF’s next two gatherings will be 4:00 p.m. Sunday, September 17 at Hawkeye Buffalo Ranch near Fredricksburg and Sunday, October 15 at Humble Hands Harvest near Decorah. Contact Kayla Koether (firstname.lastname@example.org or 563-382-2949) for more information.