June 2015. Once again the Trailing of the Sheep Festival racks up another honor!
June 2015: Sun Valley is best known for its ski resort, celebrity sightings, and a lifestyle centered on the art of being outside. Residents boast a perennial tan, an effortless sense of eternal youth, and own enough seasonal sports gear to fill a commercial airplane hangar. It makes sense to spend most of your time outdoors in an area nestled between five mountain ranges and home to more than 40 miles of trails.
The town’s quirky, iconic sense of self is evident in the little things: it’s home to the world’s first chairlift, designed by Union Pacific engineer Jim Curran in 1939 to grace the slopes of Sun Valley’s Bald Mountain in order to lure luxury travelers away from the warmth of tropical beaches during the winter months to the cold, snowy mountains of Sun Valley; celebrities made it their “see-and-be-seen” hotspot in the heyday of the early years, hosting the likes of Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, Clint Eastwood, and Ernest Hemingway, to name a few.
But the real stars of Sun Valley are sheep. Yes, sheep. The wooly creatures take center stage each fall at the Trailing of the Sheep Festival, an event celebrating the Valley’s rich history of sheep farming and ranching in a four-day, family-friendly fest that’s made the list of Top 10 Fall Festivals in the World by USA Today and The Huffington Post.
The “farm to plate” movement is gaining a lot of popularity nationwide. Restaurants and markets that focus on the entire cycle of food, from its growth to its handling, preparation and final presentation upon the plate, are booming.
So it’s only natural that the idea would catch on in Hailey, especially since we’re neighbors with one of the country’s true breadbaskets, the farming rich Snake River Plain.
“If something is grown, processed and produced within 250 miles, that’s local to me. It means I can still drive down there and check out their operation, meet the farmers or ranchers and see what they’re all about,” Al McCord said.
Al owns the Wood River Sustainability Center (WRSC), housed in an old 1920s Forest Service auto shop on River Street.
At its core the WRSC is a grocery store that essentially serves as year-round farmers’ market. Throughout the year, the shelves are stocked with all kinds of locally grown or produced items like grass fed lamb and beef, sausages, pastured chicken, eggs, raw cow’s milk, and a wide variety of seasonal produce. All of which comes from farms and facilities Al has toured to make sure they’re up to WRSC’s “Beyond Organic” standard—meaning they use pesticide-free, happy and healthy methods.
“What we do is really about connection. It’s about bringing people together,” Al explained from the WRSC’s busy kitchen. “We connect people with their food, where it came from and who produced it.”
One of the most popular ways the WRSC does this is through their monthly Farm to Table Dinners. A guest chef prepares a four-course, wine-paired meal that’s shared with some of the very farmers who produced the featured fare.
“There are a lot of great meals in this valley, but where can you go and have something like that? It’s a really a unique and connecting dining experience,” Al said. The WRSC also offers monthly cooking classes, covering everything from fermenting to pickling, canning to gluten-free dishes, and is now serving lunch weekdays.
Freshly baked sourdough loaves sell out quickly, as do weekly smoked specialties like baby back ribs, wild Alaskan sockeye and whole chickens. But AL, who has a young son named Braxton, seems to take the most delighted in the youngest fans of the WRSC.
Each week, the Sustainability Center provides “super-local healthy lunches” for 250 school kids. Kids like Lennox, a 1st grader at the Syringa Mountain School who happened to walk in during the interview. When asked what he thought of the WRSC’s work he happily responded, “I love the food!”
By Mike McKenna
This story originally appeared in the Chamber Corner section of The Weekly Sun.