Lisa was my Head Butcher for a year. She proved herself worthy of this role after working hard for us at the little shop, being awesome with customers, learning a ton, and hustling her butt off. Originally from the Guelph area, she left to go work on a farm for a season in between jobs with me, and it was during that time where she really went to school, learning what it takes to raise hogs and keep a sustainable farm working. She also learned a great new word, one that she applied to me (in good fun) one day when I was teasing her about being from the country.
This portmanteau of city and idiot had me laughing then, but recently I realized that city-folk actually live up to that name from time to time. I have many friends and family who live outside of Toronto in small communities, but I am through and through a Torontonian. I wear corduroy jackets with leather patches on my shoulders. I will spend $15 on a cocktail. I like brunch (although to be fair I don’t go out for it that much anymore). I am a stereotypical cidiot, but I support farmers with my shop and my food, so I like to think they accept me. I really felt this last week when I was at the Royal.
The Royal Agricultural Winter Fair is an annual event held on the Exhibition grounds since 1922. It was started as a way to help improve all domestic animal breeds and establish national judging standards for breeders throughout Ontario. The Royal is a huge event that combines horse shows, specialty foods from all over the province, and of course the agricultural competitions. One of my suppliers and friend Greg Nolan of Artisan Farms invited me to the Queen’s Guineas, which is a exhibition geared towards young competitors from their local 4-H. Young farmers from all over Ontario show off the steers they’ve been raising with care since birth, hoping to win the title of Grand Champion. Along with the prestige of the title and a cash reward, the exhibitors then get to auction off their animals to the highest bidder. The champions sell for quite a bit over market value, but it is an opportunity for the buyers to directly support the local industry as well as the next generation of farmers. The buyers are usually the larger meat packers, the guys who have been involved with the community for decades. And then this cidiot stepped in the ring.
I didn’t know what I was doing at all, so I started to do what I always do in that situation – keep to myself and act like I’ve done this a million times. Then Greg bought me a beer and introduced me to a couple of people. I asked him what the average price is per pound for the live animals. He said it depends, but that usually he tries to keep the bidding going by placing false bids. He does this to ignite the buyers, but it sometimes doesn’t work. He usually buys a lot of beef every year. One woman he introduced me to thanked him for supporting the show, because (in her words) “god knows no one else effing supports us”. She didn’t actually say “effing”, but the much stronger word, which made me ask her what she meant. She feels, like many others, that the agricultural community is talked about in Toronto by chefs, restaurateurs, foodies, and whatnot as being “vital” to the community but at the end of the day people are still not putting their money where their mouths are. Beef from PEI, Alberta, and the States still dominate our markets and fruit and vegetables from Central and South America sell way more than local produce. “It’s a joke”, she finished.
That fired me up. That and half a beer (I’m a bit of a light-weight these days). So I was determined to buy an animal. I stood at the back of the live auction. The first animal they brought out was the Grand Champion. “Last Chance”, raised by Sylvia Megens, was a beautiful animal; all fluffed hide aided by a sprinkling of glitter, and was swiftly purchased after a flurry of bids. I knew I couldn’t afford Last Chance, but I was willing to try for the Reserve Champion. Here is what I learned about bidding in a live auction.
1. Know your limit before you start. I didn’t.
2. Don’t start nodding your head as a way to accept a higher bid. I did and realized that shaking my head “no” looked the same, as in “no way, Meghan’s going to kill me when she sees what I’ve done with the company credit card.” The bid went up.
3. When they ask you whom you’re buying for, don’t say your first name. It doesn’t mean anything to them. They’re just asking for a company name.
4. When everyone is looking at who thinking “who the cuss is this guy?”, just look straight ahead and shake the farmer’s hand. Avoid stepping in cow shit.
5. When you tell your wife/business partner how much you spent, maybe wait until she’s asleep. It would have gone over better.
So what ended up happening is I purchased the Queen’s Guineas Reserve Champion at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair from (16 year old) Jarrett Hargraves of Proton Station. Murray is a gorgeous animal, and I can’t wait to get him into the shop. We will be dry ageing the loins in time for Christmas, and everything else will be sold at slightly –more-than-market value. He is a Reserve Champion after all.
The moral of the story is to support your farmers. Go to the Fair. Ask questions. Meet people who have been working since they were eight years old (while you were playing Super Mario). But most importantly spend money. You don’t want to be known as a cidiot forever.