Peter Mauer had no idea of the tie that would bind him to guinea hens when he caught one at the age of 8.
A farmer told him that if was able to catch one, he could keep it. “I don’t think he ever anticipated me catching one,” he said. “It tried to fly up and over a three-story dairy barn, and it almost made it—but it didn’t quite make it—and I caught it on the way down.”
Almost 40 years later, guinea hens saved his family farm—with the help of some humans along the way.
Mauer’s Mountain Farms is perched on top of a mountain in the western Catskills. About 40 cows would pasture at the very top, a medley group of Holsteins, Jerseys, Guernseys, and Ayrshires. His chore growing up was to bring them back down to the barn. “There were five or six that would not come on their own. You had to go find them. It didn’t matter if the sun was shining or it was pouring rain,” he said.
The farm is not an easy spot to get to, and certainly not for the milk company, which paid about $10 for 100 pounds of milk. The company pressured his father to produce more milk, which he did by boosting the herd. But eventually the company stopped coming. “They were not interested in coming on the back roads, especially not where it’s up on the mountain. It’s very nasty in the winter time,” Mauer said. “I said to my dad, ‘We’re losing money every day. We gotta do something different.'”
The cows were sold 13 years ago. Four generations of dairy farming were over. Mauer took a job at local pharmaceutical plant.
For more than a decade, the taxes on the farm kept accumulating, and he had no means of keeping up with them. The farm was slated to go on the auction block.
The Plight of Dairy Farms
Jennifer Grossman, who has 20 years’ experience in land conservation, has long been familiar with the plight of dairy farmers.
Small farms sell their milk to an aggregator, who pays them no more than the minimal price, which is set by the federal government. “It’s horrible. … It artificially keeps the price down. They were paying 10, 11, 12 dollars for a hundred pounds of milk when it cost farmers $18. They were not breaking even.”
Many farmers have lost their dairy farms; others adapt. “One sold his equipment and moved to Nebraska,” Grossman recalls. “One did dairy; now they do lamb.”
She had been mulling in her mind a business model that would create business ventures that would be economically and environmentally sustainable, while preserving family farms. She had spoken to enough farmers to get a consistent message: farmers wanted to farm. What if she created a company that took care of the business aspects—the financing, branding, distribution, and connecting to markets—and let farmers do what they did best?
Grossman also trusted farmers to be good stewards of the land. “When I look at family farms and family farmers, they live on their land. They are the last people who would want to harm their soil, their water. They’re the first people who will care about and give the highest level of welfare for their animals,” she said.
Mauer called her one day, at the suggestion of someone at the watershed council. Grossman visited the farm. As they walked together, the topic fell around the handful of birds squawking about.
Grossman did some work, speaking to chefs like Tom Valenti and Bill Telepan. She became convinced she could make it profitable.
She formed the company she had envisioned, FarmCo, and enlisted a small investor to pay off the taxes and navigated the slew of agencies to receive loans to build out a barn and get equipment.
Her business acumen, bolstered by her knowledge of law and real estate, has been considerable. Handling the business aspect, she said, “has been unfortunately the problem with the failure of farms. They can’t compete with this corporate “ag” industry. Unless you approach it with the same stealth, wealth, and wisdom you’re not going to make it. So I’m trying to do it at a scale that still preserves the integrity of farmers. Hopefully these models can be replicated.”
FarmCo bought Mauer’s farm, and hired him back with a guaranteed income, and gave him the right to live and work there till the end of his life. It takes care of business matters and Mauer is responsible for the farming.
It was a change that Mauer was more than ready for.
“After 11 years of where I was at, my heart wanted to be back home on the farm,” he said. “I’m an outdoors person. Even when the weather’s not the best, I’m out at 7 a.m. and I’ll come back in once or twice to warm up and grab something to eat. I’m out 8, 10 hours a day, with nasty weather and all that. I was not meant to work in a factory where you can’t even see the outside.”
For about four or five months, Mauer juggled two jobs. The schedule was relentless. From midnight to 8 a.m., he held down his job at the pharmaceutical plant. When he got home, he would take care of the birds till 4 p.m. He’d go to sleep at 5 p.m., and wake up at 10 or 11 p.m. to get ready for work. “I got to a point it was getting to be too much. I told Jennifer, ‘It’s time for me to come back to the farm. That’s where I want to be anyway.'”
Introducing Guinea Fowl
Grossman had identified her market—fine dining restaurants in New York City that specialized in French or Italian cooking.
“I went with my partner Kevin on his Vespa, door to door, in the rain, in the snow, in the heat of summer,” she said. Their window of time each day was absurdly short—small interludes before and after lunch (and before dinner prep) where one might catch a chef not in the heat of service.
“My approach wasn’t a hard sell,” Grossman said. “It was more like, ‘Tell me what you think. Do you like the texture? The weight? The packaging?’ … I was just looking for advice. We were growing our hens to suit the needs of these chefs.”
At Orsay, chef Antoine Camin told her he didn’t think he could sell it to his customers, with his Upper East Side clientele he believed to be unyieldingly loyal to chicken.
But the farm’s story resonated with Camin, who had himself raised guinea hens when growing up in France, and shared a love for the Catskills. Within a couple of hours of Grossman’s visit, he sent her an email and placed an order for a case for the following week. Another hour later he told her to contact two chef friends who were interested in placing orders.
“Chefs are truly our messengers,” Grossman said.
Guinea fowl don’t carry any gaminess, and so are versatile like chicken, but they are much more flavorful too. Their bones are fine, and they yield a higher proportion of meat to bones.
Over at Reynard, the Andrew Tarlow restaurant at the Wythe Hotel in Williamsburg, executive chef Sean Rembold said, “The breast meat to me is a little more tender and juicier than chicken. And the legs are a little bit tougher and leaner than most chickens you come across in a grocery store or market but they are definitely more flavorful, and they have an earthier undertone, flavor profile to them.”
He has prepared them in different ways, sometimes hanging the meat for up to a week to mature. He has made deviled English hen, an old English hunting recipe for one preparation, butchering the bird in a spatchcock style (butterflying it), using a spice rub of dry mustard, curry, and Worcestershire, then grilled over a wood fire. “Wood fire and game birds work quite well. These guinea fowl in particular are really nice because they have a nice fat content, aside form having really great flavor and the flesh being a really beautiful color.”
Another preparation is a stuffed cabbage with foie gras and poached guinea fowl breast served in a consommé made with the rest of the bird. “It’s just really clean, rich, beautiful flavors, specifically with the consommé. I’m a huge consommé fan. We don’t get excited about all the labor behind that dish but we get very excited about seeing it pulled off in the moment,” he said.
Grossman is continuing to grow Mauer’s Mountain Farms. At the same time she is taking FarmCo into a new venture, as co-founder with Bethel Creamery, of Catskill Mountain Dairy, which will produce organic kosher farmstead yogurt. She is working on establishing a partnership with the Big Barn Center for Discovery to create jobs for its autistic residents.
She’s also envisioning supporting local farmers with add-ons to the yogurt, like blueberries or maple syrup. The launch is set for next fall.
These days Mauer tends to the birds, to the farm’s nearly 500 acres, and has gotten to writing. He’s penned about 600 pages of life the way it was on the farm. “My dad used to say, ‘Farmers might be some of the poorest people but also some of the richest, being out in nature and seeing the beauty. When you’re working outside, you see the sunset every day. In the morning you see the sun rise. What other job can you be doing your job and be out in nature at the same time?'”
“I turned my back on a good-paying job,” he said. “But I see so many people in this world, they spend their whole lives going after money and things. It’s one of those things, happiness is within you. It’s not what you have. Being back here makes me happy … I might not be making as much money, but I’m doing what I was meant to do.”