Hand Hewn Farm is teaching hands-on agriculture

Hand Hewn Farm is teaching hands-on agriculture
Scott Daniels

Andy Lane and Doug Wharton are a part of the team who operate Hand Hewn Farm near Fresno.


Farming, at the level required to feed the world population, is a business of scale with animals processed efficiently and quickly, something of which most omnivorous diners may prefer to give little thought.

But on a small Fresno-area farm operated jointly by five friends dedicated to returning to hands-on, humane, traditional and sustainable farming methods, it is a completely different story.

Hand Hewn Farm is marked by a large red bank barn at the sharp bend of a road winding past open country hillsides. Surrounded by fields and woodland, chickens peck freely in search of extra nourishment, and hogs root at will, naturally supplementing their own diet.

The farm is operated by Katie and Andy Lane, Molly and Doug Wharton, and Kathy Neal and has become a top culinary destination for those who take their food — and food education — seriously.

To get the full immersion experience, there are three-day, whole-hog processing workshops, in which students are led through the entire process, from slaughter to cured meats.

At times, other shorter events are matched to those who want to know how to successfully provide themselves with several years worth of prosciutto ham or sopressata but who do not raise animals themselves.

Charcuterie, the art of curing and drying meats for preservation and maximum flavor, is a largely lost art in the United States. Neal, the Lanes and the Whartons have retrieved secrets and methods handed down through hundreds of generations of European families, making trips themselves to learn firsthand from masters in the craft.

On Saturday, Feb. 2 the families gathered with visiting friends, not for a workshop, but to share the work of laying in a supply of preserved meats for their own families, using a newly learned method.

They began early in the day with a ponderous four-year-old sow that had lived an easy, free and favored life, quite unlike most of her kind, roaming freely in the forest in search of treats to supplement a rich and natural diet.

None of the resulting meat from the sow would be offered for sale, and the entire slaughter and processing would be handled by the men gathered that morning, each taking up tasks lasting through the day.

With light music for background noise, the half-dozen men who gathered around a large, thick wooden block worked at a careful pace, in practiced unison.

Hand Hewn Farm’s “nose to tail” philosophy means nothing is wasted. All of the discarded scraps from the day would not fill a soup can. Though the room is scrupulously clean, everything is kept so in such a way as to avoid killing beneficial bacteria along with the undesirable. Every step is given careful preparation and thought.

Doug Wharton opened a door in the back corner of the open room, revealing a temperature-controlled space in which dozens of drying sausages and whole hams had been slowly curing for months or even years.

Wharton spoke of the importance of proper bacteria throughout the process. “These,” he said, pointing out 9-inch-long salami hanging by strings, “were the first to go in, and they were inoculated with the right kinds of bacteria. The rest of the meats hanging in here have since developed it naturally.”

One of the visiting members of the gathered team, Jim Chleboswki of Pennsylvania, had just returned from Spain, where he’d learned the processing and curing methods unique to that country, and the group gathered that day to learn from him.

Previously they had focused on familiar Italian techniques. What was different about Spanish preparation? Wharton smiled with a broad gesture. “Everything, absolutely everything from start to finish.”

Working men must be fed, and a round, crusty loaf of artisanal bread that Andy Lane had begun the day before lay alongside an unwrapped bleu cheese from the Spanish trip.

Nearby, a years-old prosciutto ham showed the marks of slow consumption, one tiny, slow-shaved slice at a time. It hung from a blacksmith-forged iron hook, and the slicing was effected via a handmade, long, thin knife created for the purpose. Both were the gifts of skilled friends.

The prosciutto was incomprehensibly flavorful, without a hint of gaminess or bitterness. It melted away on the tongue.

“You can’t get results like this from a standard feedlot young hog,” Wharton said. “This only comes from an older animal, an animal that has been free to roam as its heart desires.”

Learn more about Hand Hewn Farm at www.handhewnfarm.com.

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