FARMING ON BAINBRIDGE ISLAND
By Liz Pleasant
Helmut Sassenfeld, scientist turned rare duck and goose breeder, has a passion for genetic diversity. The former pharmaceutical biochemist now runs Tani Creek Waterfowl Organic Farm and Hatchery, which boasts the largest collection of rare heritage breed ducks and geese in Washington.
Although Helmut dedicates most of his days to farming (raising his animals from "cradle to grave" as he says), his mission extends far beyond making a living as a farmer or just contributing to Bainbridge Island's local food movement.
"I don't need to keep this many birds to make money from meat. A lot of it is preserving genetic diversity," explains Helmut. "I have a whole history of being that way. I'm kind of a nerdy scientist at heart."
Helmut typically tends his farm by himself, except for when an occasional "burst of activity" calls for additional hands. Because of the size of his operation, Tani Creek produces only about 200 ducks and geese a year. The birds roam across Helmut's rolling grassy farmland overlooking Puget Sound guarded by electric fencing to ward off any coyotes or raccoons that might wonder up in the night.
After a look around it doesn't take an experienced farmer, or a nerdy scientist for that matter, to notice the diversity at Tani Creek Farm. Walking down the farm's dirt path you'll see many types of waterfowl, all different shapes, sizes, and colors.
"What our agriculture tends to do these days is hone in on the one breed that beats everybody else," says Helumt. "And then all of the sudden there's nothing left but that one breed, and then you loose all this genetic diversity."
By breeding and butchering rare ducks and geese Helmut hopes to show people the value in farming different breeds, from both an ecological and a culinary standpoint. Many of the birds that he raises have become almost nonexistent within the world of modern American farming. "I just like variety," he explains. "If people would just realize that if everything doesn't look the same it doesn't mean it's bad. It just means it's different."
It's easy to forget that the food we find normal isn't necessarily more natural to eat than anything else. Each boneless skinless chicken breast looks identical to the next because that's how our food system works. The meat at your local grocery store or favorite restaurant is often a direct result of large-scale farming taking an animal that can be raised cheaply and easily and multiplying it by the thousands. By raising breeds that have been forgotten by modern farming, Helmut hopes to reinstate the value in having a diverse diet and food system.
Helmut sells his eggs and meat to a few local restaurants, including Hitchcock on Bainbridge and Local 360 in downtown Seattle. Also, if you visit his website you can buy raw meat or eggs to prepare at home. Tani Creek also sells live birds for those with the appropriate amount of land and interest in raising waterfowl themselves.
A fair warning for out-of-towners: Helmut only ships his meat within Washington. And those interested in taking home live animals need to make the trip to his Bainbridge Island farm to pick them up. Ironically, what started out as a tactic to avoid different shipping regulations between states has evolved into one of Helmut's favorite things about his business.
"Shipping is very impersonal," says Helmut. "One really cool thing about selling the eggs and the birds on Bainbridge is that I meet people face- to-face. I love that. It's a big part of the job, and I'm realizing it's actually one of the most fun parts."
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