Food Informants is a week-in-the-life series profiling fascinating people in the food world. We hope it will give you a first-hand look at the many different corners of the food industry. Know someone who would make a great Food Informant? Tell us why.
Jane and Terry Levan operate a 20-acre pastured poultry farm outside of Lexington, Texas called Dewberry Hills Farm, after the dewberry vines that grow wild on their land. They raise antibiotic- and hormone-free meat chickens for sale. Their chickens mostly live outdoors. The Devans call themselves "omnivores with a conscience;" Jane won't eat any meat unless she personally knowns who raised it and how it was processed.
Jane and Terry began farming in 2003, after reading Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore's Dilemma. The pair had always wanted to farm, but they didn't want to follow the industrial agricultural model. Jane and Terry built a processing building on-site and became state certified so they could sell their birds commercially in May 2008.
While Terry grew up on a farm in northern Illinois, this is Jane's first experience with farming. She says that there has been a huge learning curve. They've faced droughts, fires, feral dogs, marauding hogs, the worst winter in a decade and a huge increase in commodity grain prices. Right now, their region of Texas is in the grip of an extreme drought.
Read Jane Levan's diary below to learn how to kill a chicken and what to do when feral pigs invade.
Monday, September 26
6:30am: Terry and I start planning the day over coffee on the porch. Mondays and Tuesdays are the days we process chickens for our restaurant clientele. We decide which field pens we will be pulling birds from and what sizes we need for this week.
7:00am: Earl, our one full-time employee, arrives. Earl handles the feeding and watering of all the chickens as well as moving the field pens daily. As we do not feed the birds before they’re processed, Earl and I go over which pens to feed and move first.
7:30am: Terry starts setting up the processing building. Every surface that a chicken will come into contact with must be thoroughly sanitized. The rinse tub and chill tanks have to be scrubbed and filled with fresh water and ice and the drain refrigerator has to be thoroughly cleaned. I use the time to reconcile the business checkbook.
8:30am: We transport the chickens in crates from the pastures to the processing building. Most chickens are transported hundreds of miles to the processing plants and many die during en route. Our birds never travel more than 100 yards and are not overcrowded, minimizing their stress level.
8:45am: I ride out on top of the crates while Terry drives the tractor. We unload the crates and hang the scale in a pen. As restaurants require birds that are a very specific size, we weigh the birds in the field first. Any birds that do not meet the size requirements for that day are marked with spray paint so I don’t catch them again. I try to always minimize how many times a chicken is handled because that also just adds to their stress level.
9:45am: Earl walks over to help load the crates, now full of chicken, onto the trailer and move them into the processing building.
10:00am: We break for breakfast. I love the fact that I can eat when I’m hungry rather than trying to choke down food as quickly as possible before I have to commute for work.
10:30am: Time to get on the processing line. Terry kills the birds, dunks them in the scald pot and then plucks them using a magic fingers machine. I eviscerate all the birds. We always process the chickens ourselves because that we want absolute quality control over every bird we sell.
12:00pm: We break. The birds are looking great today.
12:15pm-2:00pm: 103 birds have been moved to the drain refrigerator to chill and the building has been cleaned. We’ll take the next hour and a half off for lunch and relaxation.
3:30pm: I help Terry back the truck up to the trailer as he is off to pick up chicken feed. We go through about 4,250 pounds of feed per week. It’s a special antibiotic- and hormone-free formula that is ground at a local feed store for us 17 miles from our farm in Dimebox. Most of our money goes right back into the local economy.
3:45pm: Back in the house. More down time because it’s still 103 degrees in Texas and it’s impossible to get outside projects done when it’s this hot. We will really have to push the schedule when it cools off to get all the farm improvements accomplished before winter sets in.
5:45pm: I walk the fields and do the last check on the chickens for the night. One of the things I love most about my work is that I get to spend a lot of my time in the pastures. There’s always seems to be something different happening if you pay attention. Today the red tail hawk is hunting gophers in the front pasture.
6:45pm: Terry’s back with the feed and I’ve got all the chickens tucked in for the night. Day done.
Tuesday September 27
6:30am: Moving slowly today, as we don’t have that many birds to do. Two restaurants are stacked up and cancelled their orders this week. Somehow, we always manage to sell all the birds we have available and I’ve learned not to go into a blind panic when I get a cancellation.
8:00am: After checking business emails, I head out for Giddings, a small town 17 miles down the road. I usually make the drive twice a week to stock the freezer with ice. We want to purchase our own ice-maker within the next year but like everything else, we have to work it in the budget and ice is cheap here. Spot 8 deer on the drive, 2 rabbits and another hawk.
8:25am: All the cashiers on the morning shift at the convenience store know me as the chicken lady. George helps me load 300 pounds of ice into coolers on the back of a truck. One of the nice things about small towns is once you become a regular anywhere, people are extremely helpful.
9:15am: Back on the farm. Terry and I unload all the ice.
9:30am: Now to start bagging chickens from yesterday. All the chickens we process are air-chilled. Terry weighs the birds and places them in poly-bags. I record the weights for each restaurant. Also, our chickens are processed within 48 hours of delivery. I twist tie the bags shut and slap our farm label on each one and the chickens are stacked in a refrigerator. It’s fairly mindless work and goes quickly.
10:30am: Load up the crates and head out to the fields. We’re looking specifically for game hens this morning. Terry suggests I call Jesse Griffith of Dai Due Charcuterie and ask him if he’d like any additional larger chickens. Jesse does amazing things with our little game hens. This week he’s stuffing them with roasted wild garlic and organic butter. He sells them at one of the local farmers' market. Jesse decides to add six big birds to his order for chicken sausage.
11:30am: Birds loaded and moved into the processing building. Late breakfast break.
12:00pm: Back on the processing line.
1:30pm: The birds finished and the building is clean. Time to take care of some personal stuff. Another thing that I love about my work is that I can do my laundry in the middle of the day or read a book or sweep the floor or just take a nap. The flexibility is great because I can spread chores out.
4:30pm: We bag the rest of the birds.
5:15pm: Terry does the field check tonight while I create invoices for the birds we’ve done.
6:15pm: Finished for the day.
Wednesday, September 28
5:30am: I am doing the deliveries this week. After a quick cup of coffee, we go up to the processing building to load coolers full of chicken into the truck.
6:30am: Jennifer, owner of Slow Food Farm, arrives with her birds. Early this spring, Jennifer and her husband Harry asked if they could visit the farm because they were interested in getting into the pastured poultry business. We helped at least six other families learn to process last year. Terry and I don’t want to sell more than about 350 birds per week, but the demand keeps growing, so I suggested that we form a loose cooperative with Slow Food to supply the restaurants. Normally Jennifer would do the driving on Wednesdays, but as I have errands in Austin and a friend I want to have lunch with, I’ve volunteered to make the run.
7:00am: Coolers are double-stacked and strapped on the truck and it’s time to head out on the road.
9:00am: Traffic wasn’t too bad on the way in to Austin, but it’s bumper to bumper going in the opposite direction. I really don’t miss commuting five days a week. My first stop is our restaurant distributor who purchases 70 percent of our flock, saving us both time and fossil fuel. We chat about business and it’s off to the next restaurant. I enjoy getting to talk the chefs personally when I do deliveries because they’re generally so appreciative of what we do.
11:00am: My last stop is The Highball in south Austin. Trish, the chef, is one of our biggest supporters. I was delighted when the Highball won best fried chicken in a local newspaper using our birds.
12:15pm: I’m done with deliveries and I’ve made the bank deposit. I arrange to meet Liz for lunch at a Greek restaurant.
4:15pm: Back at the farm in time to help with the field checks and unload and drain the coolers.
6:00pm: I pour myself a glass of wine and call it a day.
Thursday September 29
5:30am: Getting an early start. The day begins with a bang, literally. While sitting on the porch, Terry hears feral pigs in the back pasture. We have been invaded by wild hogs this year and they destroy our pens, trying to get at the feed. Terry shoots a larger male with one shot, by flashlight. If the pigs was smaller, we would process it ourselves and either eat it or give the meat away. This is a big boy, though, and would be too gamey.
6:30am: For the next two days, Terry and I will be processing for the restaurants and the farmers' market we sell at on Saturdays. We confer over coffee and decide to do mostly the market birds today.
7:30am: We set up the building together.
8:15am: Off to the fields to pull birds. It goes very quickly this time because we don’t have to have exact weights for market -- we sell our larger birds there.
9:45am: On the processing line. We have a lot of birds to do. Although processing is physically laborious, I don’t mind it. I’ve processed thousands of chickens and my hands know what do to so I can let my mind drift while I work.
2:30pm: All the birds are done and the building is clean. We go in for lunch.
4:40pm: I send out emails advertising our market special for Saturday while Terry does the last field check.
9:30pm: We have been losing chickens to a predator and although I’ve set the Have-a-Heart trap, I’ve caught nothing yet. Raccoons will usually go into the trap. We got out to the area where we’ve been hit and discover not one but three skunks. Two are in the pens and have killed a chicken already. You can’t shoot a skunk that’s in a pen. Shining the flashlight at them will force the skunks out and they take off with Terry and Dixie after them crashing through the woods. Three dead skunks later, we’re back in the house.
Friday, September 30
6:30am: The post office calls to let me know that we’ve received another shipment of baby chicks. Earl will pick them up on his way to work.
7:30am: I take off for the Giddings ice run while Terry cuts up breast and leg packs for market. We really do need to buy an ice machine -- after we pour concrete floors for two brooders and trench water lines to the back pasture.
8:30am: Earl is checking in chicks when I arrive. He dips their beaks in the waterers because they are thirsty after being shipped but don’t know how to drink yet. Once they discover water, the chicks tend to play in it the first day.
8:45am: Terry and I load crates on the tractor. A weak cold front has pushed through and it’s a glorious morning. Selecting the chickens takes longer today because we are pulling for the restaurants.
10:30am: We set up the building and start the processing line.
2:45pm: Head into the house.
5:30pm: I do the field checks and then start dinner while Terry bags birds. It’s fresh roast chicken tonight.
9:30pm: Pen check. More skunks are back! Terry gets another one.
Saturday, October 1
6:00am: Early start. Terry heads up to load chicken while I collect up the supplies for the farmers' market.
6:30am: Harry drops off the birds from Slow Food.
7:00am: Driving to Austin for the market. Another great morning, which should mean a busy market.
8:15am: We meet our restaurant distributor first. Two chefs will pick up their chicken at the market.
8:30am: We set up our booth. I always put toy chickens on our table for our customers' kids to play with while their parents chat. I really enjoy selling at the market. You build great relationships with your customers and the other vendors. I’m proud of the fact that the three and four year old children of our customers started eating our chicken in utero.
9:00am: Market opens. Our first customers stop by -- a couple that’s been buying from us for at least three years now -- and he buys us tacos for breakfast.
11:30am: Foot traffic has slowed and it’s social hour. I catch up with John from Terre Madre farm and chat with Aspen and Elizabeth who work a fresh organic produce stall.
12:15pm: Earl works a half day on Saturdays. He calls to let me know the status of the birds. We’ve been hit by a predator again.
12:30pm: It’s been busy and we’ve sold all but four birds. I also have two birds that are not suitable for sale (torn skin or broken wings or legs) to trade with other vendors. I get fresh veggies and eggs and flowers.
1:00pm: Break down the booth. We’ve had a good day, so we’ll stop for lunch on our way out of town.
4:30pm: Field check. I’m always exhausted after market day. This is the one time I wished we lived in city so I could order Thai take out.
Sunday, October 2
7:30am: It’s Earl’s day off and we sleep in. We do all the watering and feeding on Sundays, but with both of us working together, it doesn’t take more than two hours in the morning. Sometimes we have projects that we work on later, but I’m still really tired and want to do only the bare minimum to make sure the chickens are comfortable.
8:30am: Out to the pastures. Looks like the pigs have come back but no pens are damaged.
10:30am: All the birds are fed, moved and watered. I’m not going to do any more than the basics on the farm today.
4:40pm: I wake up from a long nap to discover that Terry has done afternoon feed and water. The only thing left to do is skunk patrol.
See previous Food Informants here:
Geoff Bartakovics, 34, is the co-founder and CEO of Tasting Table, the free daily email publication all about food & drink culture. Before starting Tasting Table, Geoff was a business manager in asset-backed finance at UBS Investment Bank, where he coordinated business activities among the fixed income trading desk and the bank's middle- and back-office functions. Geoff was formerly a business analyst at Deloitte Consulting. He attended The University of Chicago, from which he graduated with honors in English. He was a Fulbright Scholar in comparative literature and philosophy in Berlin and Hamburg. He's an obsessive dinner party entertainer and a serious home cook. Read Geoff's diary here.
Elizabeth Laseter, an aspiring food journalist, is a recent graduate of Johns Hopkins University and lives in Washington, D.C. She received her diploma in Writing and Art History and is now pursuing a Culinary Arts Degree at L'Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, Md. The one-year program includes six months of learning techniques in the classroom and six months at an externship in a D.C. fine dining restaurant. Elizabeth documents her food adventures through two blogs, The Baltimore Food Rag and The D.C. Food Rag. She decided to attend culinary school after interning at Baltimore magazine and working with the food editor. Read Elizabeth's full diary here.
Jane and Terry Levan operate a 20-acre pastured poultry farm outside of Lexington, Texas called Dewberry Hills Farm, after the dewberry vines that grow wild on their land. They raise antibiotic- and hormone-free meat chickens for sale. Their chickens mostly live outdoors. The Devans call themselves "omnivores with a conscience;" Jane won't eat any meat unless she personally knowns who raised it and how it was processed. Jane and Terry began farming in 2003, after reading Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore's Dilemma. The pair had always wanted to farm, but they didn't want to follow the industrial agricultural model. Jane and Terry built a processing building on-site and became state certified so they could sell their birds commercially in May 2008. Read Jane's diary here.
"James" is an Apple employee. He works at Caffe Macs, the on-site cafeteria of Apple's campus in Cupertino, Ca. Reminiscent of Google's epic food offerings, Caffe Macs is pretty much a corporate food court dream-come-true. Read James' diary here.
Brooklyn-based Aaron Lefkove used to work in book publishing and as a freelance writer. After his office re-located to New Jersey, Lefkove decided he didn't want to do the commute. Lefkove and his business partner, Andy Curtin, had the idea for a Cape Cod-style seafood joint for awhile. One day at a barbecue, they decided to commit to opening a restaurant, Littleneck, Brooklyn's first and only classic New England-style beach side seafood shack. Besides working in restaurants growing up, Lefkove had no experience as a restaurateur. He acknowledges that the process has been a major learning curve, but so far, there haven't been any obstacles they couldn't get around. At first, he thought opening up a clam shack would be easier than finding a new job but it turns it that it is actually "WAY WAY WAY harder." Despite this being the "hardest, most stressful, most frustrating, most time consuming, most ambitious thing" he has ever done, it isn't nearly as hard as he thought it would be. Plus, he says he loves working for himself, working toward something he has "always dreamed about," and building something really exciting. Read Aaron Lefkove's diary here.
Jonathan Stich, 29, is a third generation farmer from Burlington, Wisconsin. He grew weary of the corporate world, went traveling and decided to become a farmer. After reading about how heirloom tomato grower Tim Stark in Pennsylvania sells his products to New York restaurants, Stich made the decision to spend a night in restaurants in Milwaukee and Chicago asking if they'd be interesting in buying local produce. Read more about Jonathan Stich's week here.
Erika Nakamura and Amelia Posada are the owners, managers and butchers in chief of LA's artisanal butcher shop Lindy and Grundy. (Erika is Grundy and Amelia is Lindy.) The two, who also live together and are a couple, opened their store on Fairfax last spring (profiled on HuffPost Food). Lindy and Grundy has already been feted as one of the most best butchers in Southern California -- and quite possibly its most sustainable. Read about a week in the life of Erika Nakamura and Amelia Posada's here.
Recently, inspired by a meeting at the San Francisco Food Bank, chef Karl Wilder started the food stamp challenge: living and eating on a food stamp budget. What began as a one week project has turned into a two-month long commitment. Wilder calculated that a family has $1.33 to spend per meal, and decided that when using oil and seasonings, the cost would be $1.22. In total, he has less than $4 to spend on food per day. He monitors his nutrition and caloric intake on FitDay. You can read more about his daily experiences at on his blog, Fusion On The Fly. Read about a week in the life of Karl Wilder here.
Chris Cosentino is the executive chef of San Francisco's Incanto, an offal-heavy (not sure what offal is? Check out our Whole Animal Guide here) rustic Italian restaurant located in San Francisco. While encouraging patrons to try different cuts of meat, Cosentino also champions eating locally. He's previously cooked at such renowned restaurants as Kinkead's and Chez Panisse, and cites Jean-Louis Palladin as a big influence on his cooking style. He also co-owns Boccalone, which sells various cured meats and house-made salami. To learn more about Cosentino, check out his website, Offal Good. Read about a week in the life of Chris Cosentino here.
"Jane," 24, has been working for Trader Joe's since 2007, though in 2009 she left for over a year to go work for Whole Foods. She did not like it there and returned to TJ's. At Trader Joe's, every employee does a range of tasks, but Jane's speciality is dairy. Below is her explanation of the pros and cons of the job: I like working for Trader Joe's because they pay me well and offer great benefits. They also respect me as an employee and make me feel like I'm useful and needed and not just another part-time employee that can be replaced (which has been the case at other retail jobs I've had). Trader Joe's is really good at hiring great people and I'm lucky to have so many wonderful co-workers. I don't like working at Trader Joe's because the work can be strenuous on my back and wrists. Being on a register for several hours at a time is tiring and somewhat soul crushing due to ignorant people who feel the need to be condescending to me because I work at a grocery store. I also feel that the company is becoming more and more corporate as it grows and it is beginning to have an impact on the enjoyability of being a part-time "crew member." I also work in a very busy store which causes the managers to stress out a lot and I don't enjoy being surrounded by it. Read about a week in the life of a Trader Joe's employee here.
Chef Nate Appleman is the Culinary Manager at Chipotle. This involves a range of tasks including developing new menu items, opening ShopHouse (Chipotle's upcoming Asian fast-casual chain) and furthering Chipotle's commitment to sustainable sourcing. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Appleman was previously executive chef and co-owner of San Francisco's super popular Italian restaurants A16 and SPQR. Appleman moved to New York in 2010 to open Pulino's. After leaving, Appleman took his current position at Chipotle. He has received a James Beard award for Rising Star Chef, been anointed Best New Chef by Food & Wine and is the champion of Food Network's Chopped All-Stars. Read about a week in the life of Nate Appleman here.
Freeganism is a lifestyle in which one employs "alternative strategies for living based on limited participation in the conventional economy and minimal consumption of resources." Gio Andollo is a writer, artist, musician and freegan. Andollo became a freegan when he realized that artists don't get paid much, but he didn't like the idea of working a "crappy, part-time job" to pay the bills. So he found another way. Andollo performs on the subway for about 20 hours a week, typically in two-hour intervals. He makes $10 to $50 per shift and has a love/hate relationship with busking. Andollo will buy food, but very rarely. The majority of his food comes from trash touring, or dumpster diving. He's become increasingly concerned with the abuses inherent in current economic systems: waste of resources, exploitation of people, degradation of the environment, calloused treatment of animals, commodification of time, labor, even war (thus human life in wholesale). In addition to busking part-time, he writes songs, blogs and books about these issues. Read about a week in the life of Gio Andollo here.
Captain Jason Joyce is an eighth-generation resident of Swan's Island, Maine. He is a Coast Guard Licensed Captain and a registered Maine Tidewater Guide. He has done lobster and fish research with the University of Maine, the University of Massachusetts, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute and the Lobster Institute. Joyce is currently doing a lot of work with the Penobscot East Resource Center, which works to secure a viable future for the fishing communities of eastern Maine. Each week, he records HD video of lobstering that he gives to restaurants to educate customers about sustainable lobster fisheries in Maine. Captain Joyce is married to his high school sweetheart and they have four children. Learn more about Captain Jason Joyce here. Read about a week in the life of Jason Joyce here.
Martin Kastner is a serviceware designer extraordinaire/jack-of-all-design-trades for Grant Achatz's Alinea, Next and The Aviary. Kastner creates custom pieces that work with Achatz's elaborate and intricate food. Born in the Czech Republic, Kastner trained as a blacksmith and received an MFA in sculpture. (His thesis was about air). He met his American wife in Prague and moved to the US in 1998. In 2003, Kastner received an unexpected email from Grant Achatz, who had emailed a host of designers. Kastner was the only one to respond. They've partnered not only on serviceware, but also on web design, video and the Alinea cookbook. Kastner's other clients include L20 (an upscale, seafood-focused Chicago restaurant), Le Bernardin (Eric Ripert's homage to seafood) and Empellon (Alex Stupak's new Mexican restaurant in New York). Read about a week in the life of Martin Kastner here.