Wrong Direction Farm

New Years Day

The year officially begins at Wrong Direction Farm with the first hatching. And so this week we were excited to hear from our hatchery that they had an order cancellation, and they wanted to know if we were interested. Of course we were. We had to scramble to get the brooder running, schedule a last minute delivery of three tons of organic chicken feed, and call for a propane tank refill for the heaters, but everything came together just in time and we were ready when the chicks arrived. And so our farming new year begins.

Chicks settling into the brooder at a comfortable (to them) 90 degrees.

All six hundred chicks have been doing well. This batch appears to be in great health, with zero mortalities thus far. They are zippy and bright eyed, except of course during nap time.

The first day involves a lot of napping. Getting out of the egg shell is hard work.

Meanwhile, we’ve got plenty of activity going on setting up new brooders. This morning several neighbors came over and helped get the last trailer down the steep hill and into position on the terrace. Then we pulled the reefer units off and now I can begin refitting the trailers as new brooders.

It took a lot of eyeballs spotting and some seat-of-the-pants rigging to back the trailer down the obstacle course of the driveway and the across the slope to the terrace. The big telehandler was the right machine for such a touchy operation. Everyone did a great job.
Chirpy little cockerel. It is hard to believe how fast he’ll grow. See the tiny white feathers appearing on the tips of his wings? Eventually he’ll be all white.

Farm Sales Update

The last few weeks have been crazy ones on the farm, so I need to let you all know how things stand on inventory and ordering.

But before that, I want to thank you all for your orders. It is good to know that so many people turn to us to put food on their family table. In times of quarantine, food is probably the third most important priority for folks, at least according to my informal surveying. Apparently the new Maslovian hierarchy for people stuck in their houses looks something like:

  1. Toilet paper
  2. Netflix
  3. Food

If we can’t be number one, at least we’re in the top three.

Order volumes have been running about five times higher than they were this time last month. We’re doing everything we can to keep up with the pace of orders, and we’ve been putting plans together to ensure that we can keep you supplied.

The rush to get orders out the door has exposed some weaknesses in my setup. Some of the weaknesses are just due to the cramped packing space that prevents me from being efficient. But most of the weaknesses are the ones I bring. Too much of the system depends on me being sharp while focusing on too many details. If my customer service responses haven’t been spectacular, or if I’ve made stupid errors in packing orders, I apologize. The past days have given me some good ideas for ways to do things more efficiently and more effectively, and I expect that the lessons learned will continue to help improve the order packing and delivery system.

Here are a few notes on inventory:

  1. Beef inventory is the strongest. Pork is also in pretty good shape. Different cuts may go in and out of stock temporarily. We sometimes have more in our second freezer, but we don’t always have the time to pack orders while also ensuring that all the shelves in the packing freezer stay fully stocked.
  2. Chicken may run out this week. We have more in cold storage, but we haven’t yet been able to schedule a time to retrieve it. At the current sales pace, even after we restock, we will eventually run out of chicken before the 2020 batches are available. We raise chickens on pasture for their health, and in order for them to get the benefit of green grass, we can’t raise chickens year round in our climate. We are planning on ramping up the number of chickens this spring.
  3. Ground turkey supplies are strong. We hope to have some turkey breasts listed online within the next week (just as soon as we get them back here in our freezer), so even if we are out of chicken breasts there will be some turkey breasts as an alternative.

Thanks. Be well.

The Peace of Wild Things

I live on two different planets simultaneously. It is reassuring to look outside at the spring returning. The ice is all gone from the pond, and little bass are swimming in shallows. Buds are swelling. Yesterday, I watched a Cooper’s hawk circle the pasture, dive, and reascend with a vole in it talons. The complex biological system of our area is beginning to reinvigorate.

And of course I’m surrounded by many layers of panics. Order volumes are higher than ever so packing orders and restocking freezers is a nonstop project. We’re working on backup plans to ensure packaging materials and supplies stay in stock. Chickens begin hatching in a few weeks. We’re trying to keep the kids on track with school work from home. We aren’t getting enough sleep, and we sure aren’t getting enough done.

I’d like to be the sort of guy who could talk honestly about finding peace in hard times. But I don’t possess the level of equipoise to which I aspire. The following poem by Wendell Berry speaks from the perspective of a person I’d wish to be. But somehow I never manage to “go and lie down”. The closest I come is stopping for a minute to look.

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

– Wendell Berry, The Peace of Wild Things: And Other Poems

I think the core of the challenge is in finding what to do with my admiration for “wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.” I wonder if it is possible to truly live as a human in this chaotic world without forethought of grief. Forethought of grief is probably the most quintessentially human cognitive process. Maybe a little forethought of grief would have saved the vole from being eaten by the hawk. We do well to contemplate wild things and to find instruction in the instantaneity of their lives, but as with any moral axiom, this is only one piece of the balancing act of conflicting ideas and ideals we must simultaneously hold in our heads.

Somehow we need to consider the lilies of the field while also considering the chickens in the pasture, the orders on the farm website, and the broken starter solenoid on the tractor.

All the best to each of you as you keep walking the impossible path between prudence and panic.

Optimally Dilapidated

Our old milkhouse stands close to the road in a state of decay. Of course current zoning rules make it impossible for anyone to build a structure a mere six feet from the edge of our road like this shed. But this was erected a long, long time ago. Back when it was built farmers would carry their milk cans from the barn up to a milkhouse, usually built with a well or spring-fed water circulation to keep the milk cool. The farmer or a neighborhood delivery wagon driver would collect the cans and bring them to the local creamery. The road was a dirt road (actually, our road remained a dirt road long after the era of milk cans and wagons had past), so things like maintaining clear highway shoulders didn’t matter much.

The shed is decaying back into the ground, the roof rotting and the sills decomposing. In one way of looking at it, the shed is just an obsolete, zoning non-compliant eyesore. From another vantage, it’s a gracefully decaying antique, all the more precious because we know it has degraded to the point where it can’t remain standing much longer, so we appreciate it for its ephemerality.

Cheeky Plowman

The “Cheeky Plowman” sounds like a character from Chaucer, maybe the ribald opposite number of Canterbury’s pious plowman. Here’s how I became the cheeky plowman.

This fall I spent some time under the welding helmet improvising improvements for the snow plow. I bought our farm truck from a school district auction and one of the perks is that it came with a snow plow. I’m glad to have it, but straight plows aren’t nearly as efficient as newer designs due to all the spillover wingdrowing.

I originally was going to build containment wings similar to the factory models, but after starting down that path I realized that the plow, which is already nine feet wide, would become obnoxiously stretched with wings. They would push the tips out all the way to about 10′-4″. Even with detachable wings, I know that in a snowstorm I’m not going to spend time messing with iced over hitch pins and frozen attachments, so I had to plan for something else.

Almost a perfect starting point.

Looking around for inspiration in my scrap pile, I happened upon a 24″ circular 1/4″ steel plate that was buried under angle iron cutoffs. It didn’t quite match the radius of the back of the plow, but it came close. I saw that I had the solution for a set of plow cheeks to contain the snow.

Front view

I built the cheeks with about 6″ extension from the front of the plow. I wasn’t sure how aggressive I should be. After using them all season, I think I could add another few inches. I might weld a 3/8″ extension to the leading edge to give it another 4″ or so. The wear edge is made from scraps of an old quarry loader tire from another project. There are other rubber blends that are more durable than tire scraps, but these were free.

Three pin attachment points

Each cheek is fastened in place with two pins in the outside rib and one pin through the moldboard. I used a stack of washers on each attachment to take up the slack. This seems to work well, since I can’t hear any rattling from the plow with these installed.

I’ve been pleased with the ability to contain snow in front of the truck. In early December we had a two foot snowfall and I needed to remove the cheeks for that one. The loads were just too great and I needed to be able to dump the excess snow off the edges. But other than that one big snow we’ve been dealing with light snows all less than six inches, and the plow cheeks are working well to reduce the number of cleanup passes I make.

Strapping on the gravel guard

I also fabricated a guard to use when the ground is soft while plowing gravel driveways. This was made from a 2″ schedule 40 pipe slotted out and strapped onto the bottom of the blade. It prevents the plow from being able to scrape off as much gravel and grass as it otherwise would. This comes at the cost of leaving a compacted skim across the surface. The factory solution is to use plow shoes but I’ve found that shoes tend to break or to create their own gouges when they aren’t perfectly aligned.

Using the guard on a warm snow day.

I’m not thoroughly pleased with the gravel guard. It is a hassle to attach and it needs to come off when transitioning to paved surfaces. The pipe is already showing wear. I might be able to fix the wear issues by having a welder hardface the bottom of the pipe. I’ve noticed that while the guard achieves it purpose in preventing the plow from knifing into gravel and peeling it up, it doesn’t prevent the plow from shearing off high spots (probably no plow design can avoid this, but it would be nice). So for this attachment I’m not as thoroughly pleased as I am with the cheeks. It has its place. Ideally that place would be on someone else’s truck…

Adapting Buffalo Wing Sauce

Since the kids are learning to appreciate spicier food, I’ve been working on a recipe for a Buffalo wing sauce that that avoids dairy for the two people in our family who can’t eat it.

I’d never claim that a recipe is complete or balanced or ideal, but I’ve found something interesting. Butter blends better with Buffalo wing sauces, but since we can’t use it, I’ve found that bacon grease makes a good sauce even if the results take the meal in a slightly different direction compared for “normal” buffalo wing sauce. But recipe orthodoxy is not for me. I prefer the simplicity of a meal that makes good use of the sorts of ingredients we already have on hand.

This is not a recipe blog, so no drawn out chatter and no endless scrolling through pictures of each grain of salt photographed as it falls… Here’s how I’ve been preparing it:

  1. Bake chicken wings on a rack above a catch pan after rubbing with olive oil, salt, and pepper. 400 degrees for 40 minutes or so. A little longer may not hurt, just as long as you aren’t burning the skin. Some meats are best rare, but chicken wings and drumsticks are ideal if the internal temperatures get up into the 180’s or 190’s.
  2. While wings are baking, fry up 3 minced garlic cloves in 2 heaping tablespoons of bacon grease. About 3 minutes is enough; stop when the garlic bits are getting darker, but don’t let them blacken. I prefer not to chop the garlic too small since I enjoy munching into garlic bits in the sauce.
  3. After the garlic is finished frying, add 1/2 teaspoon of salt, 1 teaspoon of dry sage, and 1/3 to 1/2 cup of hot sauce (I’m using the original Frank’s Red Hot sauce, but there are many different option here). Keep the mixture warm until ready to serve.
  4. Before serving, pour the sauce over the chicken wings in a bowl and toss. Because we’re using bacon grease instead of butter, it congeals more noticeably than a butter-based sauce, so it helps to keep the sauce warm while during the meal. I place extra wings and sauce in the still-warm oven while we’re eating our first serving, so when we go back for seconds (and thirds) everything remains hot.

Giving Up On Moral High-Groundsmanship

[I wrote this post about four months ago, but I had a hard time pushing the “Publish” button so I wanted to give myself some time for reflection. On re-reading it, I still agree with what I wrote then, even though writing about my rejection of sanctimony hints at its own underlying form of sanctimony.]

On Friday I was doing one of my market deliveries and had the surreal experience of arriving at my afternoon stop to find the parking lot bustling with employees of the world’s most famous (or infamous) purveyor of herbicides and genetically modified crops, all busily working to beautify and renovate a community garden. An organic garden at that! Everywhere I looked I was surrounded by a corporate logo that stands for a set of agricultural ideas I reject as irresponsible and immoral.

I’ll credit Nathan Hill for a quote that took all the steam out of my impulse for outrage. I re-listened to his book The Nix this summer while working on the corral project. Hill has a gift for unsettlingly memorable lines, but this one’s a gem:

“Everyone gets to be offended in their own special way . . . It’s no secret that the great American pastime is no longer baseball. Now it’s sanctimony.”

Nathan Hill, The Nix

I wanted to be indignant and offended and righteous. But I am glad to have had this line rattling around in my head, to realize that people are complex and that each person’s reasons for being in that situation at that moment were beyond my comprehension and well beyond my criticism.

So we talked. And it went well. We had a chance to discuss food, and what we do on our farm, and how we do it. The discussions were good and cordial and just what I’d want them to be.

I’d like to be a person who doesn’t prejudge others by the corporate logos on their T-shirts in the first place. I doubt that I’ll ever be that mature. The impulse to judge is too deep, too instinctive for me to overcome. But I hope I can train myself to quickly substitute kindness in place of sanctimony.

I realize that this multinational company is an enormous organization and that in all probability none of these folks were the ones working in the lab to design the next big agrichemical to destroy plants and soil biology. At the same time I believe the company they work for is guilty of criminal behavior and has participated in and profited from social, political, and environmental corruption. But which of us are guiltless in all our associations, in all the byproducts and consequences and externalities of our lives? And more importantly, why should I be the one keeping score?

Herb bed weeded by the employees

Pig Partners

This is something that has been in the works for years, so we’re glad to have finally put the pieces together to announce it.

Two winters ago we realized that we were at the point where we needed to increase the size of our beef herd, our pig herd, and our chicken flock. And we wanted to add turkeys. But we didn’t have the capital to spend in so many areas, nor were we seeing enough profits to be able to hire helpers to assist with the inevitable increase in workload. We have friends at Cairncrest Farm in West Winfield who were also facing the same decision point.

We decided, based on our land resources, our interests, and our family situations to work cooperatively. We each still have our own cattle herds, but we have been providing Cairncrest with poultry for them to sell, and Cairncrest has been providing us with lamb. As of this month, we are beginning to transition our pork to Cairncrest pasture raised pork.

This arrangement has been helpful to both farms as it has allowed us to pursue our goals while finding a way to focus on fewer things. Diversified farming is great, until it isn’t. In the new arrangement we each have several enterprises, but we’ve been able to back away from the stress of trying to maintain too many different enterprises. It has been apparent on both ends that we’ve been able to make improvements in the care and attention we can give to our farms because of this increased focus.

Loading the last group of pigs off the farm

We miss having the pigs around, and who knows, maybe we’ll have some back here eventually. As you look at our store listing for pork, you’ll see that a few items are marked as coming from Cairncrest Farm. During this winter and spring we’ll exhaust most of our Wrong Direction Farm items and as we do, we’ll transition to Cairncrest Farm.

On the production side, we are very much of a kindred spirit with Cairncrest. If you liked our pork for how it tasted and for how it was produced, we’re confident you’ll be pleased with Cairncrest pork. The pigs are truly pasture raised, getting a significant portion of their nutrition from foraged feed. More info on Cairncrest’s pigs is available here.

We appreciate all of our customers who’ve come along with us over the past nine years as we’ve worked our way through various manifestations of Wrong Direction Farm. We love to farm, but finding the business model that works is difficult. We’re grateful for all our supporters who keep ordering month after month.

April in January

I slipped out the door yesterday with only a light wool jacket over my work clothes. Even then, I wondered if I had over dressed; with temperatures kissing 60, it felt like a late April morning: saturated ground, swollen streams, thawed earth smells, and gamboling cattle.

By the time I had opened the next row of hay bales, rain had begun to fall and a vivid  rainbow had developed.  By the time I made it back to the house through the shower, I was thankful to have the protection of my wool jacket.

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What You Wish For, And Being Careful Thereof

A few days ago I was feeling that restless itch to start working on a new project. I get that way when things are quiet for a few consecutive days. Then within quick succession, fourteen new cattle arrived from the neighbor’s farm, the farm truck lost all its lights due to wiring problems, the tractor’s loader control valve had to be replaced, the family car needed the engine pulled, the oven stopped working, I had to go out plowing snow, the big Christmas rush of orders came in, the aforementioned new cattle broke down their fences, et cetera.

I’m wondering why I ever dared to think I needed to go looking for more things to do. It reminds me of asking Rachel’s grandfather why he started his farm. His deadpan reply, “Well, running my store only kept me busy twelve hours a day, so I needed something else to occupy the rest of my time.”

Engine out. The little Subaru engine was actually pretty easy. It’s the first time for me working on this new-to-us car. I was able to improvise a hoist with a come-along chained to the garage roof trusses. Head gaskets are leaking one one side, valve covers are leaking into the spark plug tubes on the other. I’ll replace all the seals, timing belts, water pump, and the clutch while I’ve got it apart.
Appliance repair is probably easier than car repair, but it is always more disappointing. It seems that cars break because they are used, but appliances seem to break only because they are built as poorly as possible. Can you spot the bad solder connection? After resoldering, the oven’s bake and broil functions work again.
Orders packed and stacked at the FedEx shipping center.