The Wilbur Collective

The day started poorly. I figured the ham had been out of the freezer for a good 36 hours, but it remained pretty frozen that morning at 10 am. After some emergency internet searching I got a large tub of water and started thawing.

Nine and a half hours later, after a lengthy boil and slow roast in the oven, I carved into the ham. This would have been a special night simply because we had a large crowd of friends over and some great food to eat.

However, this food had a story, which made it even more enjoyable. This was the first Wilbur Collective Ham Roast and most of the friends around are table contributed to the purchase of a local and sustainably raised pig. To get to this point it took a lot of community and a little bit of organization. We bought the pig from the Kawartha Ecological Growers Coop. [KEG], a collection of small farmers who manage a C.S.A. [Community Supported Agriculture] and sell at a number of farmers markets here in Toronto. Their community of farmers and a very supportive local chief made it possible to buy and process a pig and my group of friends made it possible to find the money to pay for it.
I have wanted to figure out a source of ethically raised and organic local meat for a few years now. The problem is that Katie, my lovely wife, is a vegetarian and she shows little interest in pork, ethical or not. So I have been restricted to buying small amounts of meat from farmers markets or organic butchers, which is not cheap. Months ago, we had a group of friends enjoying the spring weather on our back deck, eating some “Naked” sausages [meaning they were flavoured only with a bit of onion, salt and pepper] I’d bought

from KEG at the farmers market. I soon found that a lot of my friends shared my interest in sourcing their meat locally.

My connection with the farming community starts with Shannon. During the last weeks of winter Katie and I managed to wake up early enough on a Saturday morning to visit the year round farmers market at the new community barns (the potential topic of another post). Shannon was managing one of the best tables of local winter vegetables. After picking out a few bags worth of food we noticed they were advertising a CSA (community supported agriculture). More importantly they were delivering their CSA at a new farmers market in our local park, meaning we could walk to get our share. We quickly decided to sign up for a share and have loved it ever since. It is a really amazing thing to be on a first name basis with the people who not only sells us our food, but also grow much of it themselves.

The folks at KEG developed an interesting network of farmers, butchers and chefs to raise, kill and process pigs. An older, mostly retired farmer, who has been organic longer than label, keeps a couple of sows and one boar from a collection of heritage breeds Berkshire, Tamworth, Hampshire, Yorkshire, and Landrace. He does the farrowing, or pig birthing, for KEG. The young pigs are then passed on to one of two farms who finish the pigs, feeding them locally grown grains and legumes and allowing them to forage around outside. Once the pigs are ready for slaughter, they are sent to a multigenerational butcher in Lindsey for custom small scale killing. The final leg the journey and the one that is really interesting in my mind, is the kitchen of a high-end restaurant in Toronto. The chef and KEG came to an arrangement to process pigs. He then converts the lesser meat into excellent sausages and sells them back to KEG. These are the very same sausages that my friends and I were eating when we decided to found the Wilbur Collective back in May. On Thanksgiving Sunday the chef allowed me to join him in his kitchen and we spent the day making sausages, pork chops, smoked hawks, head cheese, bacon, pancetta and a huge ‘city ham’. After a few dozen emails we found a night that we could all come together and despite my poor defrosting plans, the ham tasted amazing.

Developing real relationships with the people involved with producing our food is important in creating sustainable communities. Doing this while deepening your connections with your existing communities of friends and family makes the experience even better.

7 thoughts on “The Wilbur Collective

  1. Wow! Amazing story! It shows how far away food production is from most of us nowadays. My dad (born in ’34) grew up in Pomerania (former German provice, part of Poland since ’45). He knew how to kill and gut small animals like chicken or rabbits as a kid on his parents’ farm, they had nothing BUT sustainable food. Today, he wouldn’t be able to do it. All gone now. How things have changed in two generations time. Great achievement with the pig, worth imitating! Meet the meat! (c;

  2. Hi Peter,

    I asked my grandmother about chickens from her childhood in a suburb of St. John New Brunswick. She remembered that most families kept birds in their back yard for eggs or meat. Now this once common practice is illegal in most Canadian cities (except Victoria), which I think is a shame. So many things that were normal for our parents/grandparents could really help create a sustainable future for our children/grandchildren. I think we should learn as much as possible from the depression generation as we can while they are still with us.

    Cheers, Jim

  3. Hi Jim,

    exactly! The same is true of our neighboorhood. In the fact, the bicycle-shed in our backyard accomodated chicken, still in the 1950ies. Now, if you wanna do some chicken-farming on your own (if just for breakfast-eggs) you need a municipal permit and you’ll have town-officials nosing around your garden and what not… Even if you have the space! Sustainability greatly depends on being able to improvise. But improvisation is kinda averse to over-regulation. I’ll drink to the point that we can learn more from the “making ends meet”-generations of our parents and grand-parents than from all those management-buffs who managed (no pun intended) to almost ruin the world in the last five decades.

    All those people who are now around sixty or seventy, who grew up when Germany was still just a big pile of rubble after the area bombings – they really knew how to do things on their own, from scratch. I’m not saying that is the “good old days” (I’m glad I live in a modern city with good infrastructure) – but maybe we’ve all grown a bit stale. Because we never have to do anything REALLY in order to get something we want. It’s good to be able to talk to people on the web who really develop some initiative.

    Catch you later, *(fake) Pete

  4. Urban chickens might soon be a part of Vancouver’s community – pending the creation of appropriate legislation, of course. Jim, as you know, I come from a home where collecting eggs from the family chickens was one of my chores growing up. Every few years we raised meat birds, too. One such year I named one of the roosters in the group “Freckles” – on account of his spotted feathers – and that same year I learned a valuable lesson. My dad took me to see the birds slaughtered and, well, Freckles got it first. The lesson, of course, is never to make friends with your food. This being said, Jim, I love the way you outlined the importance to have a meaningful connection with food and where it comes from. Saying that people in urban communities are “detached” from their food might be the understatement of the century.

    Needless to say, I hope that your story (not to mention the ones like it that I hope follow) will inspire my dad to explore the world of pig-raising in the rural landscape of Merville.

    Well done, sir. We’re lucky to have you!

    - JCH

  5. I should add that the first inspiration for the Pig project came from watching Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage series from the UK:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/River_Cottage
    http://www.rivercottage.net/
    http://books.google.ca/books?id=lbscLPGd188C&dq=river+cottage&ei=EikpS–ANJzKyQTq1-iCDg&client=firefox-a&cd=4

    If you are interested in raising, butchering or curing your own meat, his shows and books are a great resource. The Wilbur collective hopes to process the pig ourselves next time, as Hugh provides step by step instructions in his “Pig in a day” DVD: http://www.rivercottage.net/ShopProduct68/PiginaDayDVD.aspx

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