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A 60-acre pantry

By Staff | Oct 15, 2010

Rebecca Menke sits in the cow/calf pasture south of her home near Algona. Menke and her husband, Steven Menke, raise a herd of 12 Belted Galloway cattle, a breed praised by grass-fed producers for its smaller frame. The herd and associated Silver Maple Farms beef business, are part of Menke's locally grown and sustainable philosophy of farming.

ALGONA – Rebecca Menke’s kitchen isn’t a place for the narrow of palate.

A lifetime of travels and culinary curiosity has armed her with recipes for beef, pork, chicken, baked goods and vegetarian dishes for all times and tastes.

Whatever the cuisine and ingredients de jour Menke’s greatest pride is that each meal is a taste of home.

“Two things we’re very much into are sustainability and breed conservation,” Menke said. “Being one of the small-scale operations that is helping preserve a cattle bread that when we started was considered endangered.”

Menke is best known among her neighbors for the herd of rare Belted Galloway cattle she and her husband Steven raise and sell directly from their 60-acre farm south of Algona.

Rebecca Menke copies a recipe in the kitchen of her original farmhouse built on the farm she and her husband, Steven Menke, purchased in 1996. Since that time the Menkes have built up an extensive farming operation on their 60 acres south of Algona. More than 50 percent of the meals at their home contain some or all ingredients produced by the family's livestock, gardens and orchards.

She is only slightly less well known for her zeal for local and organically produced foods and tireless devotion to an agricultural philosophy that is equal parts farming history and food future.

All around the couple’s century old farmhouse is a living history lesson of gardens, orchards and livestock pens, each with their own needs and with their own niche in the family diet.

More than 50 percent of the meals that come from Menke’s kitchen draw at least part of their ingredients from the small, but lovingly managed farm. Some come off the farm entirely.

Eggs for spiced pumpkin breads and other baked goods come from the family’s own laying hens, which also produce litter for fertilizing gardens, which inb turn are full of beans, potatoes, tomatoes, spices and other crops almost too numerous to count.

Stands of apple and maple trees provide homemade cider and syrup, respectively, while creating shade and color to the property. Even the family’s prized Belted Galloway cattle are expected to produce more than steak and hamburger.

Rebecca and Steven Menke, of Silver Maple Farms, explain the details of their intensively managed grazing system. The Menkes move their cow/calf and breeding herds twice daily to prevent over grazing and give their cattle access to forage with the correct nutritional values. The operation requires only a small amount of hay as it's only input from outside the farm.

After a few years feeding different breeds with a light ration of corn, the Menke’s began building a sustainable cow-calf herd of Galloways, allowing them to finish about a dozen head each year with similar-sized cow, calf and yearling herds to maintain the population.

Now each new calf is individually named and placed onto a two-year grazing program where they keep pastures trimmed and fertilized while their bedding is composted into yet more fertilizer for the gardens.

The end result is a system that requires only small amounts of hay, salt and minerals as its only major off-farm inputs.

“We move the cattle twice a day around the pasture and it’s an art form really,” Menke said. “You have to be observant every single day depending on the weather and the temperature. But, when we moved here, the pasture was a third weeds, a third grass and a third dirt. Now you can’t see the ground and the soil is as healthy as ever.”

The self contained system soon produced more than enough beef for the Menke’s and their three children, so they began by selling quarters and halves to friends and family.

In 2008 the couple worked through legal requirements with Lewrights Meats in Eagle Grove, a U.S. department of agriculture inspected meat locker, and now sell their own finished cuts of beef.

“It really gives us pride to offer this product to people and at basically the same price they’re used to paying at the grocery store,” Menke said. “As a lover of farmers and of agriculture I think all farmers should be recognized and paid for selling food, the way we get to, not for selling commodities the way they usually do.”

Initially the Menke’s had to be motivated sellers, organizing blind taste tests and even giving away beef simply to overcome negative connotations associated with grass-fed beef. But it didn’t take long for demand to exceed the supply the family’s small herd could create.

“I had always used steak sauce and things like that, but I learned very quickly, and people that buy our beef have told me the same, that it doesn’t need any doctoring up,” Steven said. “It took awhile to learn how to cook it on the grill, because it needs to be cooked medium to medium rare, but it really has a great flavor.”

With a pantry already stocked with her own beef, poultry, fruits and vegetables Menke is always interested in exploring new ways of making her “60 acres of heaven” more diversified.

She has experimented with raising wheat for her own flour and planted several more varieties of fruit trees to begin producing as early as next summer.

While she has great respect for the work of more traditional farmers she said she takes great pride in showing a possible way forward that also harkens back to disappearing traditions of farm life.

“The opportunities for what we can produce in this part of the country are immense,” Menke said. “Why would we limit ourselves and stake our livelihood on one or two things?”

Shepherd’s pie

1.5 pounds hamburger

7 large potatoes

Chopped onion

Chopped garlic

.5 teaspoon basil

Salt and pepper

1-2 cans corn, peas or green beans

Boil potatoes in large pot of salted water.

Saute onions while potatoes are boiling. Brown hamburger until well done and add basil, salt and pepper to taste.

Drain potatoes and mash with butter and milk. Layer ingredients – hamburger first then vegetables then potatoes into a large casserole dish.

Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.

Contact Kevin Stillman at stillmankw@gmail.com.

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