YOUNG FARMER Q&A: Abra Morawiec of Feisty Acres

The game farmer’s biggest a ha moment came when she realized there is a retail market for her crop.

“Go big or go home” is advice that’s often impossible for young farmers to act on, because the capital required to start a large farm is out of reach. So when Abra Morawiec got a taste for growing food while living in Africa, she did the next best thing: she went home and went small. Morawiec owns and operates Feisty Acres, a game bird farm in Jamesport currently specializing in organic, pasture raised quail, a tiny bird that demands a relatively tiny amount of space and feed.

We chatted with Morawiec about why she became a farmer, her biggest challenges and how to eat quail eggs.

How long have you been farming, and why did you decide to become a farmer?
In 2009 I began my service as a Peace Corps volunteer in Mali, West Africa. At that time, I had no idea that long days in farm fields was in my immediate future. I was set on pursuing journalism and diplomacy as my life’s work.

I was posted in a small, agricultural community in the Mopti region of Mali called Mougui. There are about 250-300 people who live there. Each family had acreage outside the community to grow millet, sorghum and pigeon peas that would sustain them for the year; some people grew okra, hibiscus and peanuts as well. Herds of cattle, goats and flocks of sheep, usually tended by young boys, grazed on the outskirts of the village. I worked in my host family’s fields during the growing and harvest seasons, and they gladly taught me everything from how to seed the ground properly to how to cultivate and how to harvest and save crops.

In 2011 I returned to the states, but I had a difficult time landing an NGO position that was willing to give me a paycheck. But at the Just Food conference I met Eve Kaplan-Walbrecht of Garden of Eve, and my life took an unpredictable turn, this time to the North Fork of Long Island.

I apprenticed at Garden of Eve for two seasons then continued on to work for Phil Barbato of Biophilia Organic Farm and Chris and Holly Browder of Browder’s Birds for an additional two seasons. The long hours in the field are a small price to pay for the satisfaction of doing meaningful work—we’re feeding folks.

Is farming your full-time gig? If not, what’s your other line of work?
I still work three days a week at Biophilia Organic Farm with Phil. We grow over 300 different varieties of vegetables, fruits, berries, flowers and herbs that we provide to our 50 CSA members and our farmers market patrons in Port Jefferson. My boyfriend also farms and roofs to bring in extra income for Feisty Acres.

So of all the animals you could raise, why quail?
Quail are extremely thrifty. For a coturnix (Japanese quail) to produce one pound of protein, whether meat or eggs, they consume just two pounds of feed. I have estimated that my coturnix consume a great deal less than that since they have constant access to grass, seeds and bugs. Having feed shipped to the North Fork is quite an expense, as other livestock farmers out here will tell you, so the less feed I have to buy, the better.

What’s your favorite way to eat quail meat and quail eggs?
Quail eggs are great simply hard boiled and eaten whole or made into an egg salad. We’ve been on a pickling kick as of late and brine hard boiled quail eggs for a couple weeks for a quick snack. They’re also great poached on top of a salad or fried over easy as a topper for sliders. I have friends who drop them raw into soups and homemade ramen.

As for quail meat, I like it spatchcocked and sautéed in butter, red wine and thyme.

What are your plans and dreams for expanding your farm in the future?
Feisty Acres is branching out this year and raising game birds other than quail. Small batches of Chukar partridge and French guinea hen will be added to the roster in the coming months, which will be raised exclusively for meat.

I’m also in the process of beginning a bobwhite quail release program this year. The goal is to release 300 – 500 bobwhites each year to help rebuild the local population. There will also be workshop opportunities for interested community members, such as learning how to build moveable coops and native plant identification walks.

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced as a young farmer starting a new farm business?
Acquiring the capital to start up a farm is daunting, and I know that I am far from the only young farmer with this grievance. Unless your family already operates a farm or you decide to join the realm of agriculture as a second career, its difficult to gain access to land or equipment right off the bat.

While we do dream of owning our own land someday, for now I rent from Phil Barbato. It’s a nice arrangement—I rent the fallow fields that he uses in production the following season. The Browders allow me to process in their mobile processing unit for a fee and have introduced me to other farmers, chefs and business owners on the North and South forks. The Harts, who own Deep Roots Farm in Southold, let me borrow power tools for big projects and sometimes even their truck. Without so many fellow farmers to lend me a hand, I’m not sure that Feisty Acres would exist as it does today.

What was your biggest “Aha!” moment on the farm so far—a moment or situation when something finally clicked or when you learned a lesson from something that didn’t go as planned?
“Aha!” moments happen every day; that’s a fact. The biggest moment for me, however, happened last year, when my entire Thanksgiving harvest sold out in two days. Both my Thanksgiving and Christmas harvest, totaling over 200 birds, were purchased entirely by individual people and families. I had guessed that the biggest market for Feisty Acres would be the restaurants out here, but I’ve changed my tune. People have a growing taste for game birds and are excited to try them from someone raising them locally. It’s very encouraging to me that more and more people want to buy direct from the farm.

Where can people buy your products? And is it possible to visit your farm?
I don’t have any set hours, but Feisty Acres is open to the public year round so people can see how I work with my game birds day-to-day.

Quail eggs are available all year at the farm in Jamesport, but you can also find them at:
•    Riverhead Farmers Market
•    East Hampton Farmers Market
•    North Fork Table and Inn Farmers Market in Southold
•    Lombardi’s Love Lane Market in Mattituck
•    Goodfood in Mattituck

Meat is subject to seasonal availability, and when its in season (May through November) it can be purchased directly from the farm, through our CSA program, the East Hampton Farmers Market and the North Fork Table and Inn Market in Southold.

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Chelsey Simpson is a farmer's daughter from Oklahoma who is now a writer in New York. She serves as communications director for the National Young Farmers Coalition.