After years of using cobbled-together, disheveled shelters for the laying flock, I’ve decide it is time to build a substantial shelter. Three years ago a neighbor down the road gave us his old trailer. He custom built it for for raising pigs so it had a shelter at one end and slatted wood decking. The decking was rotted out, but we removed the shelter, bolted it to skids, and it has served us as a portable farrowing hut. The trailer meanwhile languished in the weeds, acquiring a fine lichen patina.
This week we dragged it out and the kids helped me remove the decking. They appreciate projects that allow them to beat and bash things without fear of provoking parental vexation.
I didn’t like how the axles were positioned in the middle of the trailer, making it too tippy. Since the axles are mounted on an angle iron carriage, I was able to cut the welds and then drag the entire subframe to the rear before welding it back in place.
The mobile home tires are mismatched and covered in dry rot cracks. But since this trailer will only see light loading and low speed travel, I’ll leave them alone for now.
The project is now on hold as we wait for for decking and other materials to arrive in a day or two.
Joshua Rockwood’s story has been making its rounds on social media. A pasture based farmer much like us, he faces several counts of animal cruelty for what appears to be normal farm conditions in the Northeast. The harsh winter has been hard on all of us, and it is both discouraging and alarming that rather than seeking to support Joshua, some in his community have chosen to attack him.
What disturbs me most about this situation is the lack of empathy. Can we get to know our farmers? Can we reconnect with our food sources in order to understand the realities of farm life? If we can view each other as part of a community of people who rely on each other, perhaps we could approach the tough winters as partners rather than enemies. Instead of ratting on a neighbor, we can offer to brave the cold and help with morning chores. We can support his efforts to improve his farm. We can encourage his rehabilitation of a rescued guard dog rather than assuming the worst and making an uninformed call to the cops.
The irony of the situation is that the good intentioned people who make these calls because of their concern for animal welfare actually push farmers to become less transparent.
I took the kids to Joshua’s hearing tonight in order to support my somewhat local neighbor and give the kids a lesson in civics. The line was long, the courtroom full, the hearing brief. The judge decided to adjourn until late April since the charges were amended and the defence attorney had not been given the opportunity to read the new wording. News reports estimated 100 supporters were there, and the word circulating was that the courtroom could hold 87 people. We were not the last ones in by far but we only found standing room at the far corner. I was encouraged to see the support Joshua was receiving, and I enjoyed meeting other farmers and farm advocates who had visited his farm and were incredulous at the accusations.
This has been a good opportunity to discuss with our kids the roles of community, law enforcement, and the functions of the court system. A phone call by a concerned person mushrooms into arrests, legal fees, division, anger, and defamation. The tools available to us are geared toward punishment. We lack the capability to make peace by taking restorative action. Somehow we need to make room for mediation and civil discourse. Is it possible to build this kind of trust into our communities? Will our kids be able to realize this renewal through relationship or will they end up as cynical as I sometimes feel?
I haven’t found solid information on the origins the phrase “three dog night”, but it purportedly describes a night so cold one needs to sleep with three dogs to stay warm. Pigs employ a similar strategy, only they don’t stop at three. They pile on (hence another common porcine idiom, the football phrase “pig pile”) as many pigs as are available.
Spring hasn’t been very effective this year. Night time temperatures are still around five degrees and the wind has been sharp. The pigs have the right strategy: find a buddy (or a dozen buddies) and conserve heat. The forecasters say we might go above freezing tomorrow. Sounds good to us…
Rachel has been making fermented vegetables for about five years now. But in past years, this has been hard or impossible to accomplish from November through the beginning of May because our house is too cold. We’ve tried placing sauerkraut crocks near the woodstove in the winter, but the ferments are unreliable. This may be because it gets too hot near the stove at times or too cold overnight, or the problems may be related to the temperature fluctuations. Whatever the reason, it wasn’t working for us.
When Rachel asked me about making a climate controlled box for fermenting over the winter, my inventory (read that as junk piles) came in handy since we already had most of the parts. We had an old freezer which had lost all its charge. I was procrastinating on scrapping it (standard operating procedure is for me to hang onto all kinds of broken stuff because I might be able to do something with it). The freezer makes a large, well-sealed insulated container. We had a temperature controller (part of an abandoned project for an automatic heater to warm milk for the calves), so all we needed was a cheapo 200 Watt space heater.
When I bought the STC-1000 temperature controller a few years ago they didn’t have versions that worked in degrees American, only degrees Celsius. But I see that now those controllers (or at least the myriad clones on Amazon and Ebay) work in Fahrenheit now too. That one inconsequential inconvenience aside, assembling and wiring everything was simple, and presto we had a working fermenting chamber.
We’ve run it for several months now, and it has been giving us consistent ferments. We still get the occasional jar that doesn’t ferment properly, and we’re not really sure what’s up with that, but the results are at least as good as our warm-weather ferments.
When I put the chamber together I thought I was being an innovator but afterwards I discovered that there are a zillion web posts about similar projects, albeit mainly for homebrewers. If you want details on how to make this work, a web search will get you all the information you’ll need. This is not a how-to post, only a “Hey, it really works” post.
A few years ago everyone in tech began pretending they were onto something new and creative: “Big Data Analytics”. Big Data is one of those hoaxy terms that never meant much to start with, but after being dragged through the marketing mud for a few years it has become yet another completely worthless term. But since everyone is doing their Big Data Analytics these days, maybe it’s time for Wrong Direction Farm to get into the game. Big data for us isn’t all that big. In fact, we were able to do all the analytics on a scrap of paper without writing a single database query.
We went through our 2014 meat sales register and did a quick gender tally for all our customers. We counted females and male customers. In some cases, we sell to couples, but usually there is one person who takes the lead in ordering. The result? 64% of our orders come from females. This is an interesting statistic because it is a bit different from recent national news stories on grocery shopping where the split is much closer to 50-50.
Why are we skewed female? Our little Big Data experiment can only get us so far, and we’ve already run out of data. From here out, we’ll do what most folks do when statistics are exhausted: make it up. We can tell the rest of the story based on observations. Needless to say, this isn’t based on carefully managed focus groups; everything is related to our conversations with customers, filtered through the matrices of our biases, assumptions, and interests.
To begin with the grossest generalization, we’ve noticed that men find us because of bacon, women find us because of health. We could qualify that statement to death, but suffice it to say that we’ve seen a very strong gender split in customer objectives. A shockingly disproportionate number of the female customers are coming to us with a story about an autoimmune or chronic disease. Allergies and autism spectrum are also big issues. And others express a more general concern about food additives, hormones, GMOs, etc. Although we can’t make any FDA-approved claims about the nutritional superiority of our food, we have observed that health is the primary concern for our female customers. Our male customers are a bit harder to categorize (maybe the uncommunicative male stereotype has more to do with this), but flavor and the sheer Neanderthal joy of having a freezer full of meat seem to be the primary mannish concerns (or maybe I’m just speaking for myself and projecting this on other men).
So if the breakdown is 64% of our customers are females and primarily buying because of health concerns, does that mean that our food is perceived to be healthier than it is tasty? Is our meat like beets — good for you but not very appetizing? Or are health concerns more urgent than flavor concerns, motivating women to seek us out? Maybe we need to do some more analytics to find out.
Last week I read Old Yeller to the kids. As our family is attuned to the agricultural details of books, it engendered some discussion of the livestock husbandry practices of the story’s Texas frontier settlers. I can’t vouch for the historical accuracy of the account, but there was strong internal consistency and attention to detail, so I got the impression that the author, Fred Gipson, did thorough research. Another factor lending credence is the agreement between Old Yeller and what I learned from reading Virginia DeJong Anderson’s scholarly work Creatures of Empire: How Domestic Animals Transformed Early America.
The book’s settlers raised pigs extensively; that is, they had minimal management over the pigs. Mature boars wandered solitary. Herds of pigs were constituted of maternal groups: typically several generations of sows with piglets, plus a few old castrated males (barrows) for protection from predators. The herds moved freely over many miles of open range. Only an average of two pigs per sow survived to weaning age in the larger herds, and the rate was lower in one smaller herd described in a later chapter. Catching the piglets for marking and castration was done at great risk to life and limb, since the animals were really not domesticated in any sense. Several chapters describe the challenges of catching piglets while the older pigs slashed away with tusks sharp enough to disembowel the eponymous dog.
Because the piglet survival rate was so low, the females were all needed for replacement sows, and many of the males needed to be retained for predator control. This would leave only one butchering hog, or at most two, per sow per year. Contrast that to our herd, where we can easily raise 20 butchering hogs per sow per year (8 pigs per farrowing, 2-1/2 litters per year). Since the pigs see us every day, they grow accustomed to our visits. Instead of attacking us, they flop down at our feet for belly rubs and ear scratches.
We often have a nostalgic sense of an idyllic agricultural past; that it was marred by recent industrialization; that we need to restore it to its roots. My observation is that an honest reading of American agricultural history from colonial times onward shows that it has never been as nicely sustainable as we’d like to imagine. And farm life was often a daily fight to the death against “livestock” that were practically indistinguishable from wild animals.
So I feel fortunate to not be living in the good old days. I think we live in a time of unbelievable opportunity for responsible agriculture. We don’t need to join the mad rush of industrial agriculture’s race to the bottom. But we can use new tools and technologies to raise healthier livestock, better manage our farmlands, and do it all at far less personal risk. Contemporary innovations (lightweight electric fencing, portable water lines, plastic greenhouses, and tractors with loader buckets, as for-instances) allow us to create what I view as a revolution in agriculture.
Featured in the picture is Dumbledore, our Brown Swiss steer. He is one of two heavier framed dairy breed steers that we kept over the winter. In bovine eating etiquette, it isn’t considered impolite to step over a resting cow to get at a particularly tasty morsel. We prefer to see assertive eaters. Timid cattle get butted and battered away from the good feed by the more dominant cattle. Less aggressive cattle just don’t do well in our winter feeding system, so those ones need to be culled before spending the winter bale grazing. They do fine in a more pampered environment, but in our hard love system, we need cattle that will do what it takes to thrive. Survival of the bossiest bos.
I thought I’d put together a few blog posts on some of our favorite sausages and include the recipes we’re currently using. Note the temporal adverb “currently”; these recipes are always under development.
Probably the best place to start is Sweet Italian Sausage. This is the workhorse sausage around here.
Sausage really only needs a few things to be great: ground meat, salt, and lots of fresh minced garlic. The first two make sausage, the third makes SAUSAGE.
Here’s the recipe we used for the last batch. We tried many recipes but we found we liked Michael Ruhlman’s from Charcuterie. Although we’ve departed from his recipe, he still deserves credit for the original. We usually make ten pound batches, so scale accordingly.
8 pounds ground pork shoulder
2 pounds ground pork back fat (you can get good results from straight ground pork without the extra fat, but Italian sausage is better with more fat)
10 large garlic cloves, minced
6 Tbsp mesquite smoked salt (Kosher salt works too, but we like the smokey taste)
4 Tbsp smoked paprika (regular paprika works, but again, we like the smoke)
4 Tbsp sucanat
4 Tbsp fennel seeds, toasted
4 tsp ground black pepper
1 cup dry red wine, chilled (or 1/2 cup red wine vinegar and 1/2 cup ice water if you aren’t a wino)
Keeping the ingredients cold, mix the meat and dry items together by hand, then add the wine and give everything a final mix. The sausage can be formed as patties, bagged as bulk sausage, or stuffed into casings.
Feel free to add any of the other usual suspects from the Italian spice rack (basil, parsley, oregano, thyme, or rosemary), but we prefer to incorporate those into the sauce we serve with this sausage. As with the garlic, you’ll notice a more vibrant taste if the herbs are chopped fresh.
The farm dog has an important role so we try to give an adequate compensation for the services rendered.
Lando eats a local, organic, raw-foodist diet. This isn’t any sort of carefully sequenced, portion controlled diet. It is more of whatever comes to hand, and on a farm with livestock, there’s really no shortage of food for him. One day it might be a stillborn piglet. Or liver and bones left over from a pork order, since a lot of our customers don’t want the offal. Or roadkill rabbit. Or stomach caul fat, intestines, and skin on slaughter days. When he’s “helping” us feed the pigs he scarfs down spilled grain, so apparently he isn’t a BARF or Prey Model diet purist. He doesn’t have much interest in vegetables, other than apples and carrots he steals from the pigs. When he’s in the pastures he likes to hunt mice and voles. But what does he really enjoy?
Perhaps not exactly the diet to please a human gourmand, but it seems to agree with him. He’s got clean teeth, a good heavy coat, and unlimited energy. Good for him.
Just don’t let him kiss you.
Ducks love water when it is liquid but they seem to feel betrayed when it freezes. When moving through deep powder they use a swimming stroke to propel themselves, floating their breast out over the snow in front of them and half walking, half paddling with their feet. They usually get disgusted with the whole thing and turn back to the calf shed where they spend their winter days.
Chickens are more adventurous, spending many hours out in the snow. They have a special weather adaptive technique we haven’t noticed the ducks employing: they stand on one foot when they are in snow. Presumably this conserves body heat. The chickens also learn to use plowed and trampled pathways, but the ducks will spend their strength, quacking and heaving themselves across deep snow drifts when they are just a few inches away from a perfectly clear path. It is quite an anti-accomplishment to be dumber than chickens, but the ducks manage to take the prize for least adaptable animal on the farm.