Whatever Works: Eating to Feed the Hungry; Dominion Farms Going Au Naturel

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This year has been one of charity and fund-raising in the North Texas food world. So much so, it's surprising chefs haven't been hospitalized for Hollywood's favorite "medical" condition, fatigue. One of this year's most notable events (for its locavore emphasis) are Chefs for Farmers long-table dinners. Founded by Matt McCallister, outgoing executive chef at Stephan Pyles, and organized with the help of his wife, Iris Midler McCallister, this, its second dinner will be held at Ten Times Cellars in Fort Worth on Sunday, December 5. This one will bring together farms and chefs for a six-course meal to benefit Meals on Wheels, Inc. of Tarrant County.

One farm involved is the Cooper Family's Denton-based Dominion Farms, which is providing bacon for the dinner. Steve Cooper, his daughter, Nora Bynum, and his son-in-law, Drue Bynum, farm livestock (range-fed chicken, grass-fed beef, grass-fed pork as well as eggs) handle the daily operations. However, they are not a clan of facility. What they produce is all-natural meat. It makes for more difficult work. But it's worth it, says Cooper, who after retiring as a public-school superintendent in 2000, established the farm on land his wife inherited from her rancher father.

"Conventional livestock production is much easier because there is little concern for 'clean' meat from the standpoint of hormones, antibiotics, and other chemicals," Cooper says. "All-natural production of livestock places the animal in its natural environment relieving stressful conditions of animals being confined and in small places. Their exposure to fresh air, water and sunshine plus uncrowded conditions creates a meat product that is much healthier and even tastier than a conventionally raised animal."

Chef Jon Bonnell of Bonnell's in Fort Worth has been sourcing meat from Cooper's operation for about 10 years. It was he, among a few of the other participating chefs, who nominated Dominion Farms for inclusion in Chefs for Farmers. Cooper is thankful for the nod and is appreciative of the publicity that Chefs for Farmers provides. He noted the added exposure has little if nothing to do with farming. "We farm because of the many customers who appreciate and understand the sacrifice made to produce quality, chemically free meat. We farm because we appreciate the need to take care of the land and leave it in much better shape than it was found. The humane aspect of producing is also very important to our family from the standpoint of maximizing the animals' natural environment that produces a quality product."

Of the animals farmed, chicken is the biggest seller, followed by the Longhorn beef. Nevertheless, the pastured pork has a large fan base. It's the animal for which Cooper reserves the most excitement. "The pork chops are unbelievable."

Folks seem to agree. Dominion sells to numerous family food cooperatives. There is also interest in expanding co-op participation. Cooper sounds humble about the future, saying first "We are trying to maintain our established clientele." However, he would also like to expand his farm store.

Dominion Farms offers year-round tours but those interested would be better off doing so during early spring and early fall. "We are usually in full production mode then." A tour for 15 people costs $20. Each additional person is an extra 50 cents. There is usually no charge for a small family tour.

A decade of dedication to farming untainted by chemicals and byproducts is what has brought Dominion Farms its recent attention, which in turn increases access not just to restaurant kitchens and fund-raisers but to family dinner tables across North Texas.

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