A pastured egg, from a hen that is free to roam and wander, pecking in the grass, stretching its wings, feeling the sun on its face and the breeze on its back, is a thing of beauty. The deep, golden orange yolk of such an egg resembles the summer sun setting over the sea, and its luxuriously rich flavor blows away the conventional, caged competition.
If one were to brunch at Fort Reno BBQ in Park Slope on a brisk autumn morning, one might encounter such an egg, sunny side up and over easy, gilding the top of a pile of sinfully spiced pastured pork sausage, gravy made with smoked pork fat and Ronnybrook cream, and a piping hot scratch-made buttermilk biscuit. Upon mopping up the very last morsel on this plate of decadence, one might be inspired to take a little trip, to see the place, the chickens, and the people that bore that egg.
We were, anyway. And so, for this episode of Field to Fork, we travel upstate to visit Tello’s Green Farm, where Nestor Tello manages a flock of pastured chickens some four thousand strong, whose eggs are ferried endlessly south, to Greenmarkets citywide, and directly to discerning clients like Fort Reno and sister restaurant Palo Santo. After meeting with Nestor at his farm, we return to Fort Reno to talk eggs…and sausage, gravy and biscuits…with chef Terrie Mangrum.
From the field, at Tello’s Green Farm in Coxsackie, New York, with farmer Nestor Tello…
So Nestor how did you end up as a farmer, raising pastured chickens and selling tens of thousands of eggs a week to New Yorkers at city Greenmarkets?
I’m from Colombia. I moved here to the United States in 1992. For a long time, the political situation in Colombia, as you probably know, was not so good. I have always liked living and working in the countryside, but in Colombia, all of the people living in the countryside always lived in fear of violence. There was always violence. No one likes living and working surrounded by that kind of fear, so we decided that maybe we should come here, for a better future. My wife Alejandra had family here. She convinced me to come. She made me come. [laughter.]
In my country, I grew up farming. I always farmed. In Colombia I studied to become a veterinarian and eventually I had a veterinary hospital in the countryside to help livestock. I farmed still as well.
When I came here, I tried to find some kind of job related to farming. Some people offered me work on a pig farm. The problem was that when I was young my father worked all the time with pigs. I like pigs, but I don’t like to work with them. [laughter.] I like to work with cows and with chickens, but not pigs.
So I ended up finding a job in Brooklyn, working in a veterinary hospital. Not as a veterinarian – just helping out, you know? I was happy with that job because I got to work with animals, but I had always grown up having my own businesses, with my animal hospital and my farm. Everyone in my family has always had their own businesses. It’s in my blood.
I tried to find people who would rent some land to me to farm. I found some listings, and I would call but I would never get an answer back. But I kept trying.
Then one day about ten years ago, I saw an advertisement in one of the Spanish language newspapers that said, “If you would like to start a farm, call us and we will help.” I was very happy when I saw that. It was the people from the New York City Greenmarkets. They had a new program to help immigrants who had some experience farming, who would like to start farms here in the New York area.
I went to their office the next day – the very next day! [laughter.] They told me I should go to a meeting a few days later for everyone who wanted to learn more about the program. I went to the meeting and there were a lot of people there – maybe two hundred people. A lot of Hispanic people are interested in farming. Some people were there just for information. Some were ready to do it, like me.
So I entered their program. It was very good. Most of us in the program already knew how to farm, but they helped us to learn about all the permits you need and all the rules and regulations you need to understand in order to be able to farm here, and in order to be able to sell your products at the New York City Greenmarkets. They helped us to put together a business plan too, and to meet people interested in renting land to farmers who were just getting started here.
So they put me in contact with somebody renting land. The man called me and asked whether I’d be interested. Of course I was interested. This is what I have always wanted to do. I rented the land, and started with four hundred chickens. The only problem was that it was very far away from the city, in the mountains. For the chickens, it was very good. My chickens were happy there. They like the mountains! [laughter.] But for me it was too far. It was four hours away from the city, and we were coming into the Greenmarkets with eggs a few times a week.
But luckily the people in the city liked our eggs and the business grew. Eventually I was able to find something closer, in Red Hook, New York. In 2010, I purchased this land here in Coxsackie. Now I’m two hours from the city, which makes everything a little bit easier.
And how many chickens do you have now?
I started with four hundred. Now I have four thousand. Four thousand is a good number. If you have more than that, it’s too many eggs. I can’t sell many more eggs at the markets. In spring and early summer, the hens lay the most eggs of any time of the year, and sometimes I have too many – I can’t sell them all! [laughter.]
Later in the summer and fall, they lay fewer eggs. Then I can sell them all. In winter, in nature, they would not lay any eggs. But we use lights to trick them a little bit, so they keep laying eggs through the winter, but not so many.
But it’s funny, you know? It all works. Because the people seem to want a lot of eggs in the springtime when the chickens are laying a lot of eggs. They don’t want as many eggs in the fall, when there aren’t as many eggs, and they want even less eggs in winter, when the chickens are laying are even less. I don’t know why this is, but the chickens seem to always lay just the right number of eggs that the people want at the markets. [laughter.] It’s like they know! I don’t know why, but it all works out.
In the fall and winter, when the people don’t want so many eggs, they want to make chicken soup. Since we don’t need as many eggs, and since the people want chicken soup, we take some of the chickens to sell as meat.
It’s hard. I like my chickens. I don’t like to have them killed for meat. But managing a farm is hard. For every chicken, you have to pay money to take care of them, to feed them. If there are too many chickens, there are too many eggs, and we can’t sell enough to keep the farm going. So chicken meat for chicken soup has to be a part of what we do.
How many eggs do the chickens produce on an average day?
The way we raise chickens, on average we are getting eggs from seventy five percent of the hens every day. We have four thousand chickens, so we get about three thousand eggs every day. But it varies depending on the time of year.
In general, each chicken lays an egg every thirty six hours. In spring, they always lay more – almost one every day. In spring, if you have a hundred chickens you might get ninety five eggs in a day. In summer less, and it goes down from there. In winter, you maybe get one egg from each chicken every two days.
What’s the life cycle of a chicken like here on the farm? How does it all work?
Well, we get the chickens when they are one day old. At seventeen weeks – about five months – they begin to lay eggs. They grow very fast. They lay very well for about one year, and then they stop. They take a vacation for three or four weeks, and then they start to lay eggs again, but not as much as in the first year. They can lay eggs for three years. They second year they lay less, and the third year, even less.
If I want to use chicken for my soup, the meat is best after one year. If the chickens are older, the meat gets very tough. So here, we get the chicks at one day old. They lay for one year, and then they go for meat and we replace them with more chicks.
Here, we have four open-air coops on the farm, each with about a thousand chickens. All the chickens in each coop are the same age. They all lay eggs very well at the same time, and they all turn one year old at the same time, so all the chickens in each coop are ready to go for meat at the same time. We organize things by rotating through the coops so we always have a good supply of both eggs and meat. So depending on the time of year, we will start a new coop one month, and another a few months after that so we always have eggs and meat going to the market.
For me, the eggs are best and the meat is best when the chickens are happy. So they live outside. They go into their coops at night. They like being in their coops. They come out and roam around wherever they like on the grass every day. They eat what they find in the grass, and we give them some corn and grain too, to keep them healthy. They like to come out in the afternoon. They all come back to their coops at the end of the afternoon on their own. They like to be together in the coop at night. They are happy there, together.
Why do you take the approach of raising the chickens outside on pasture? What are the challenges and benefits of doing it that way?
When the chickens are outside like this, you lose a lot of eggs. They break or fall or can be stolen by other animals. If they’re in cages, you don’t lose many at all. But for me, cages are no good. I don’t like to see chickens in cages.
I have always loved the natural way. Chickens should be outside. They like to eat grass and grains, and to sometimes be alone and sometimes be together. They like to look around and stretch their wings. Sometimes they eat bugs and worms. Some people think it’s bad for the chickens to eat bugs and worms. They think the chickens should be vegetarian. But I tell them, “No. It’s not bad. This is what they naturally eat.”
I give my chickens corn and grain too. Other people think that’s bad. I tell them, “No, it’s not bad. They love to eat corn, and grain. It makes them happy and healthy.” And it’s true. [laughter.]
Other people are looking for organic eggs. They think organic eggs come from chickens that live like our chickens. I tell them, “No, it’s not true.” Many organic eggs come from chickens that live inside in very small cages. It’s complicated. We’re not certified organic. I do everything as naturally as I can. I never use any chemical or vitamins or antibiotics or those things. I don’t need to, because my chickens live like they are supposed to live, so they don’t get sick. They are happy chickens, and so the eggs they produce are very good quality eggs.
How are things going, ten years in?
It’s very hard work. A lot of work. Not much money. But it’s the life that I want. I am happy to be farming, to have chickens who live they way they are meant to live, and who produce such nice eggs. And I’m happy to be able to bring them to the people in the city who enjoy them.
…To the fork, at Park Slope’s Fort Reno BBQ, with chef Terrie Mangrum
OK Terrie, let’s talk eggs. You guys use Nestor Tello’s eggs here at Fort Reno and at Palo Santo. Why?
The quality of Nestor’s eggs, or any eggs from pastured chickens, is really superior to the kind you’ll find elsewhere. And it starts right on the outside. I find that the shells on these kinds of eggs are much harder. When you crack an egg from a pastured hen, you tend to get a nice clean break. I’ve cracked a lot of eggs in my life, so I appreciate that. When you crack a conventional egg, the shells tend to be flimsier, and they want to crush more than crack.
Then there’s the color. The yolks of these eggs are deeply orange, and that’s something I love. I’ve made good eggs for friends who had never had them before, who were startled by the color. They thought there was something wrong with them because they were so bright and colorful. [laughter.]
And the flavor! The flavor is tremendous. It’s so rich compared to the flavor you get from the pale yellow yolk of a conventional egg. The pastured eggs taste better, and they’re richer and more satisfying. Another thing you notice is the firmness of the yolk. The yolks of pastured eggs really stand up much more noticeably than other eggs.
Once you’ve worked with this kind of egg, it becomes really hard to go back to the conventional kind.
I’m curious – as a cook, is it all about the quality for you, or does the way the hens are raised matter for any reason?
Absolutely. The quality of the eggs is what it is because of how the hens are raised, but the way in which they’re raised matters for a lot of reasons beyond just the quality of the eggs. I grew up on a farm, and I’ve raised animals myself. When you’ve been around animals, I think you tend to care more about how they’re cared for. In my experience, when the animals you work with are treated well, they produce more. When they’re happy, you really get the sense that they have some understanding that you care about them, and that they sort of want to work with you – that they want to give you something good back. When you care for animals well, I think they know it and they’re kind of in it with you. I know it may sound crazy, but I’ll tell you, it’s true! [laughter.]
Chickens are meant to peck in grass and eat bugs and worms and stretch out and run and feel the sun. They’re social. They really communicate with each other and they gather together and are happy being together. They’re living things, and it’s a beautiful thing to see animals living they way they’re meant to live, or as close as we can manage to that, while still producing food for us.
So here at Fort Reno, what dish do you think best captures the glory of these eggs?
I’d have to say that for me, it’d probably be the biscuits with sausage gravy, sausage patties, and two sunny-side up eggs.
I’m from Tennessee, and this is the kind of food I grew up with – the kind of food that’s always been closest to my heart. When I was growing up on the farm, we always had a big breakfast on the table for everybody at five o’clock every morning. We’d all eat this sort of thing together and then the kids would go off to chores and school, and the grown-ups would go out to work the farm. To this day, even as a professional cook, I don’t know how my mom did it. We had our own cure house and made our own sausage. This is the food I grew up with. I love cooking this food.
Tell us about the dish.
So to start, we make the biscuits from scratch right here, of course. Buttermilk biscuits. The pork is from Heritage Foods – all pastured animals, pastured meat. I grind the pork every day before brunch, and I make the sausage. I start with whole spices and grind them fresh. I get the flavors right with things like sage and marjoram and coriander – those spices with sausage are tremendous. I mix them up with the pork to make the sausage patties.
Then I make the sausage gravy. I crumble some of that sausage and cook it in smoked pork fat from the same pig. I mix that sausage and smoked fat with heavy cream from Ronnybrook and lots of fresh black pepper for the gravy.
You get all that going together, and you brown your sausage patties. Then you take that fresh biscuit and split it open, pour the gravy over that, and put those sausage patties on top of the gravy.
Then come the eggs. I use the smoked pork fat to cook the eggs as well. I fry them until they just glisten. I like to do them sunny side up and over easy, because I think they’re just beautiful with the white gravy and brown sausage and those bright orange yolks. I’ll make the eggs any way you want but it breaks my heart a little to do them any way other than sunny side up and over easy. [laughter.]
I’m not sure there’s anything better you can eat for breakfast. The sausage patties bring some really wonderful flavor into it. They not spicy hot, but they’re loaded with nice warm spice flavor – with fresh herbs and marjoram and coriander and fennel seeds and caraway and black peppercorns…You put all of that with that creamy, hot, buttermilk biscuit and that creamy, smoky, peppery gravy and top it with that silky egg with that brilliant orange yolk that just runs down into all of it? I don’t know…I’m not sure I can think of anything better than that. That’s a dish people should eat, whether they want to or not! [laughter.]
You are not messing around here, are you?
You know I’m not. I love that dish so much it gives me goosebumps. [laughter.]
So how did you end up here in Brooklyn, cooking this kind of food?
I swear to you I grew up thinking, “Once I get off this farm, I’ll never set foot on another ever again.” Sure enough, years later all I ever wanted to do was get back onto a farm. [laughter.]
I came to New York from someplace else just like a lot of people do. I cooked for a good while, and eleven years ago I opened my own place, called Sweet Mamas, in both Williamsburg and here in Park Slope. We were doing food very similar to what we’re doing now here at Fort Reno.
After a while I kept feeling that urge to get back on a farm, and I moved upstate to become the chef at a really wonderful restaurant off the beaten path – a destination place up near the Catskills. I got a house and started a huge garden. I had over a hundred chickens, and ducks, goats, sheep…I was in it to win it, I tell you. [laughter.]
And I loved it. I had some understanding of what food is from growing up on a farm, but when you’re a kid you don’t pay as much attention to it as you do when you’ve gotten away from it and come back to it later in life. As a kid, I just thought everyone grew their own food and raised their own animals. I thought that was the way everything worked. When I left home I realized that actually wasn’t the way a lot of it worked for a lot of people. Raising those animals and growing that garden myself gave me a much firmer connection with and understanding of what was around me, and how the world actually works.
But it was hard to keep the restaurant upstate open in winter. It’s so seasonal. We tried for three years, but it just wasn’t working. One fall day the owner said, “I don’t want to lose you, but I just can’t stay open this winter.” In this business, that kind of thing happens all the time. And in some way, I was ready to come back to Brooklyn.
So I came back. I knew Jacques [Gautier, owner and executive chef at Palo Santo and Fort Reno], and I knew he was opening a barbeque place. I thought, “Well hey, I know that food!” It just happened. It’s karma. I can’t get away from it. If I died and went to heaven God would have me making biscuits and sausage and gravy with good eggs, I tell you. And I couldn’t ask for anything more! [laughter.]
Fort Reno BBQ is located at 669 Union Street, between 4th and 5th Avenues, in Park Slope.
Nestor Tello’s eggs can be found at the Grand Army Plaza, Fort Greene and Carroll Gardens Greenmarkets in Brooklyn, the Union Square Greenmarket in Manhattan, and the Jackson Heights Greenmarket in Queens.
Photography by Morgan Ione Yeager. All rights reserved.