Wrong Direction Farm

Follow-up: Frost Free Chicken Waterer

In January I wrote about our attempt at winter-proofing our chicken water.  I wanted to follow up after giving it a real-world test to report that it exceeded my expectations.  On mornings when the temperature dropped below -10 F we had to thaw the drinking nipples with a rag dipped in a bucket of warm water, but in mild winter weather like this week when the overnight temps are in the high single digits or low teens, it doesn’t need any help.  When we had the warm spell in February and early March with nights in the 20s I was able to leave the heater unplugged and just rely on the recirculation and the heat retention in the insulated tote.

Chickens with Winter Drinker

The chickens have managed to destroy the insulation and duct tape immediately adjacent to the nipples, so I’m sure this will require some new insulation and wrapping before next winter.  But knowing chickens and their propensity to peck, I’m actually surprised they were so gentle on it!

New Higher Prices!

Consider this the corollary to my recent article on independent farming, operating outside the vast commodity and investment driven markets.  In order to be better farmers and to better serve you, we’ve decided to raise our prices.  Permit me to do some farmsplaining.

I’ve just finished all the paperwork for the 2017 taxes, and this year we continued our unbroken losing streak by spending a lot more money than we made.  Since we started the farm in 2011, we’ve spent $389,000 more than we’ve received.  I include both capital and expense spending in this figure.  This does not include the purchase price for the farm itself.  All of this deficit has been funded through a number of loans and by working a second full time job.

To keep the farm going, we live a spare lifestyle to divert every spare dollar to the farm.  We try to grow as much of our food as we can.  We do all our own repairs (and we leave a lot of things unrepaired).  We sleep in unheated bedrooms.  We use an icy outhouse rather than fixing the septic system.  Just about everything we have is secondhand.  We don’t have college funds for the kids and we don’t put extra money into the 401k.  I have taken three vacation days off from the farm since 2011. We work long hours in all weather, in sickness and in health.  None of this is mentioned as groveling for pity.  Rachel and I knew what we were in for, and we are OK with the rigors that accompany our lifestyle.  Many other farmers live the same way, and billions of people around the world deal with circumstances far more difficult.  I only share this so our customers can understand our situation, because I believe the plain fact is that we sacrifice more to produce this food than most of our customers do to purchase it.  I don’t say that with any bitterness, but I’m pretty sure that’s the way it is.  (I’ve rewritten these sentences many times to try to avoid being exaggerated or abject or belittling, and I can add all kinds of qualifying statements here, but I’ll let these remarks stand as they are.)

Spending RevenueTrends

Sales are growing and spending is starting to flatten as some of our infrastructure investments pay off, but there is still a lot of room for improvement.

The good news for 2017 is that we were able to bring the ratio of total spending to revenue closer in line and we were able to dramatically increase our sales, but the bad news is that we’re probably two years from breaking even and about six years from the point where we’ll be making a minimum wage salary from the farm.

If we are going to farm, we can’t keep subsidizing our customers.  That isn’t sustainable agriculture.  If we raised our prices on all products by $2 per pound we’d break even and be on track to earn a bare bones living from the farm within a year or two, but of course that would place our prices outside the realm of what most customers would consider reasonable.  I think the better approach will be to target a few items with moderate increases, and then to keep working on growing our scale and capacity and using that efficiency to continue lowering our production costs.

Eggs are going to go up.  Even though they are already expensive relative to commodity organic eggs, we’ve always priced them as a loss-leader.  That needs to change.   I’m not aware of any mainstream product marketed in our region that comes close to their attributes:  truly pasture raised, certified Organic feed, and soy free.

I haven’t figured out all the price adjustments, but if you watch our website you’ll see a few things change during the next week or two.

For some people the increases may be hard to absorb, but I feel that if we are going to be honest about the food we produce, that same integrity needs to be reflected in the prices.  And if we want this farm to last to support another generation, we need to be able to give them reason to hope that they can make a living on it, that it isn’t just a sword of noble principals on which they can impale themselves.  A truly sustainable farm must outlast its founders and sustain those who follow.

The Other Food Additive

We get a lot of questions about what is in the food we provide.  “Is it antibiotic free?”  “What about hormones?”  “Do you add preservatives?”  These are all good questions that people should be asking.

There is another question that nobody has ever asked me, but I think people are missing  the most insidious and overlooked additive in the natural/organic/artisanal food market.  Someone should ask me:

“Do your products contain any venture capital dollars?”

I’ve had a front row seat over the recent years observing our pasture/grass fed industry, and it is astounding to see how inevitably the addition of outside investors leads to a weakening of standards.  (I’m not going to name names here.  For one thing I don’t have libel insurance, and for another my point isn’t to single anyone out but rather to look at the overall context.)  With clockwork regularity I’ve watched the cycle repeat.  I’ve seen niche providers, just a single family farm or a group of like-minded farmers start something excellent.  They struggle and persevere and grow to a scale that attracts attention.  There’s the chance to become niche-mainstream, and then there’s the promise that an infusion of capital will allow them to reach the regional and national distribution networks.  And money does the trick, but it works too well.  Within a few years the abstracted brand becomes all-important but the principled approach that built the brand erodes.  Local beef starts coming from Australia, but nobody notices.  Pasture raised hens still have outdoor access, but only on dirt lots.  Grass fed somehow allows for “seasonal grain feeding”.  When the California figs get too expensive, the Turkish ones replace them even if the organic certification is suspect.  Commitment to paying farmers fair prices degenerates, and contracts are abandoned without notice when global markets fluctuate.

I don’t believe that the capitalists are shifty-eyed villains.  Granted, a few are unmitigated jerks.  We have one guy making the rounds here in his luxury car, arriving at Amish farms and tightening the screws on cash-strapped farmers and telling them they can sue him if they don’t like the new terms, knowing full well that Amish can’t conscientiously take part in lawsuits.  But I’m confident that most investors aren’t miserly grouches out of central casting.  And their reasons for investing aren’t as crass or jaded as we’d expect from an episode of Shark Tank.  By and large they get involved because they like the products and they like the story.  They aren’t bad people, but their investment moves the brand into a system where perception is more important than authenticity.  Once one dives into the commodity pool, one either sinks or swims according to commodity rules.

Perhaps the saddest part is that for all the lowering of standards necessary to reach mass markets, many of these brands still fail and end up bankrupt.  Or worse, they are successful and fall prey to a more ironic fate whereby they are bought out by the largest industrial-scale conglomerates, the same ones against which the niche provider set out to differentiate themselves.

I don’t make any claim that our farm is the best farm or that we achieve all our ideals.  If you know us, you know we stumble often.  But as bona fide farmers, we can provide an authentic backstory for the products we sell.  We’re doing this because we love it, and we believe in it, and every day we live it.  That’s what makes real family farming special and utterly different from investor-owned farm brands.

So what’s next?  Maybe I should redesign our carton labels to read “Venture Capital-Free Eggs”.

Turkeys and Trashing a Trashy Trailer

Cue the drumroll…  Announcing that we’ll be raising turkeys this summer!  We hope to have turkeys available for Thanksgiving, and if all goes well, to also offer turkey breasts, legs, and ground turkey.  We’ll be getting a slow start, just 200 turkeys (100 for us, 100 for another farm).  The numbers are big enough to make it worth our time, but small enough that it should allow us to reuse a lot of our chicken equipment without requiring an entirely new set of brooders, intermediate field shelters, and feeders for the turkeys.

However one piece of equipment we’ll need is a big portable range coop suited to the turkeys after they are about eight weeks old.  I’ve been watching Craigslist for a while for the right deal to come along, and this week I think I found it.  We paid $100 for this nasty 35 foot camper trailer with a collapsed roof.

Wilderness Trailer

Classic 1991 color scheme, albeit a little worse for wear.

Thanks to an intrepid friend providing some roadside assistance and moral support (thanks Nate!), we were able to tug this trailer fifty miles back home.  About five miles from the house one of the dry-rotted tires blew up, but we were able to limp the rest of the way home on three wheels.  I’ll check with the tire shops in town for some bald used tires and a set of inner tubes to replace these.

Shredded Tire

This little tire went thumpa-thumpa-thump all the way home.

The scrapyard value of the aluminum skin should offset the cost of the disposal fees for all the wet furniture, wood, and insulation we remove, but the primary value for us is in the frame.  This will become a low-cost and relatively lightweight shelter for the turkeys.  We’ll attach roosting poles every two feet along the frame and install some shade tarps over it.  I’m thinking about welding a four foot extension to the rear so we can use a standard 40 foot recycled billboard tarp for shade.


The kitchenette.  Can you spot the black cat exploring?  This is a cat’s delight, full of mouse nests.

The first task is to tear it down, and then we’ll build it back up.   I’ll post more pictures of our progress when we actually start making some progress.

Tape Deck

But hey, it comes with a cassette deck.

Lunchmeat Style Salami

We have been enjoying the latest addition to our salami lineup, a sliced lunchmeat style fennel salami.  The Italian name for this salami is finocchiona, but since its name just means that it is made with fennel, we opted for the less intimidating descriptive title.  For the flavor profile, think of generic Genoa salami, then amp up the taste of the meat and the fat (because we’re using legit pasture raised pork), then shift the experience ever so subtly with the bright, sweet taste of fennel seeds.

The salami is lacto-fermented, using a lactic acid bacteria culture and some turbinado sugar to feed the bacteria.  After consuming the sugar as fuel, the bacteria naturally sour the sausage with lactic acid, giving the salami its distinctive pungency.  After initial fermentation, this sausage takes about four months to dry to the correct moisture level before it is sliced and packaged.  The ingredients are (as with all our meats) straightforward:  pork, salt, celery extract, turbinado sugar, black pepper, fennel, oregano extract, minced garlic, and lactic acid starter culture.

Fennel Salami Package

I love those big pieces of black peppercorns scattered through the slices!

We’ve been eating it on sandwiches, rolled up with cheese, shredded on pasta, and in any other occasion for which we can invent a justification for opening a new package.  Enjoy!

Another Year, Another Truck

With today’s welcome swing into the 30s I was able to take advantage of the comfortable weather to start tearing into our new old delivery van.  This one is a 17 foot Uhaul truck, a 2006 Ford with 130k miles.  Mechanically it is OK, neither great nor terrible.  It obviously spent a some of its life in warmer climates, so the rust isn’t as advanced as I would have expected.  The truck is about two feet shorter than the bus it replaces, but I think the boxier layout will yield a small increase in usable space.  If I can arrange things so our delivery freezers are easily removed, it will also be a good general-purpose farm vehicle, with nearly 3 tons of payload capacity.

E450 Cargo

The cargo area is dry and well-proportioned. I’m glad there are no wheel wells protruding into the box.

I changed the oil and transmission fluid, replaced a windshield wiper arm and sprayer (with parts from the old van), repaired the cargo door, replaced the battery (again stealing from the old van), replaced the coolant, lubed the zerks, and sprayed down a bunch of vulnerable electrical and mechanical spots with Fluid Film.  The front brakes look surprisingly good despite sitting for a few years.  I haven’t yet looked at the rear brakes.

Things I need to watch or to complete:

  1. The oil cap has some coolant residue in it.  The previous truck had a similar gasket problem.  I added a bottle of the copper Barr’s Leak and I’ll monitor the coolant level and the oil cap to see if I’ve bought myself a reprieve.  I’d rather not pull the intake and/or the head to fix it.
  2. The starter wouldn’t engage the first morning after I drove it home.  A few hammer blows set it right, and it has behaved well subsequently.  I’m going to chalk that up to a starter that was out of the habit of starting, but I’m carrying a hammer with me just in case.
  3. One of the front tires has a severe bald patch on the outside.  When I take the truck to get inspected, I’ll hire the garage to adjust the toe alignment on this wheel.  Hopefully they’ll let me swap this tire with one of the duals on the back and they won’t make a big deal about it.  I have a set of nearly new tires on the old delivery van, but I’d like to get the last 20k miles out of is set before swapping them out for the new ones.
  4. While I’ve still got momentum on this project, I probably should replace the rear differential fluid too.  The rear diff is one of those out-of-sight, out-of-mind items.
  5. I think the fuel pump’s check valve is worn, because it takes longer to crank than it should.  My 1995 Ford has had the same problem for the last 100,000 miles so I might just leave it well enough alone.

Once all the known mechanical items are resolved, it will be time to kit out the truck box for all our freezers and delivery paraphernalia.  I’ve got to keep my nose to the grindstone, because spring is coming and March and April will be exceedingly busy times as we race to prepare for the arrival of a thousand new chickens.

When the kids saw me scrounging parts from one truck to install in the other, they said I was the “One Piece at a Time” guy about whom Johnny Cash sang.  I’ve always felt that song is a metaphor for a lot of what we do to run this farm, so I’ll leave you with that classic.

Toward a Better Logo

We’ve had the drawing of a sitting pig for a while. It wasn’t really intended to be the official farm logo. I drew it for an early advertisement we printed, and with one thing leading to another it “stuck”. The art was ripped off from this (public domain) postcard dated 1908. Germans sure love their good-luck pigs, but that’s a topic for another day…

Because the logo selection wasn’t intentional, I’ve never been happy with the way it pigeonholes us as a pig farm. Yes, pigs are my favorite animal. Yes, I like the look of the drawing. But we raise cattle and lots of chickens too. And the farm is more than just the animals; it is the land and the people and the water and the mosquitos and on and on. How do we convey the totality of the farm in one evocative image?

One approach for a new logo is simply to add more critters. There are many diversified farms that have taken a similar tack, drawing each farm animal in profile, either lined up, nested, or stacked up in an ascending tower. I like that, but it is a pretty common formula.

Rachel and I were brainstorming and it occurred to us that very few farms use chin-forward profile shots for the animals, and even fewer have the foreshortened effect that you often get when photographing an animal that is interested in sniffing, pecking, or eating the camera. Rachel sketched up line drawings based on the three beasties below, with the goal of having all three sharing the logo.

I like the whimsy in these pictures and I think they reflect well on the fact that Wrong Direction Farm is not a pretentious institution. They show the trust the animals have for us, and they are distorted enough to indicate that none of us takes ourselves too seriously. But the problem is, where does inclusion stop? We are working on plans to raise turkeys this year. Should we add turkeys now even if we don’t have them? What about ducks? What if we stop raising one group of livestock? What if we start selling our garlic and pumpkins? What needs to be in the logo and what should be left out?

Thus our thoughts turned to what the farm is really about. Above all else, this is a pasture farm. Perennial pastures are central to everything we do. Our work is all dependent on taking care of the plants that take care of the soil that takes care of everything else. So that led us to think about grass and dandelions and clovers and burdock and all the other wonderful plants and weeds that make our pastures great. But what about the unseen side of things? What about the roots? What if we show them too; what if they dominate the image?

New Roots for Agriculture

Our latest ideas are somewhere along the lines of the cover of this book by Wes Jackson. I am not enthusiastic with this illustration, but I like the idea that the unseen roots are much deeper than the aboveground growth. And that encapsulates much of our aspiration for the farm. We want to show that the behind-the-scenes world is complex and messy and essential.

We’d prefer to stick with a stark black and white drawing. A successful image will convey the diversity and connectedness of pasture plants, while avoiding getting literally down in the weeds and rendering the drawing pedantic.

We aren’t done sketching it out, and we’ll probably need some professional help to get a good vector drawing before we have anything to reveal to our customers. But until then, feel free to drop us a line to let us know any thoughts you have. If you are our customer, what image encapsulates your ideas about our farm when you are scrambling an egg or grilling a ribeye?

Building Better Chicken Feeders

I’ve received several requests for details on my chicken feeders, so since I’m getting ready to build a few more I took the time to make some measurements.

Please don’t consider anything I write here to be an absolute requirement.  These are just my observations.  There are a lot of ways to build a good chicken feeder.  And there are even more ways to build a terrible feeder.

Below I diagram the cross-section of the business end of my layer hen feeder.

Chicken Feeder Schematic

None of these dimensions are critical, but all of them work well together.  My experience after building (and buying) several frustrating feeders indicates that:

  1. Steep slopes are better.  If you are using pelleted feeds or shell corn you might be able to get away with 45 degree angles, but I think that 60 degrees is about the minimum slope.
  2. Keep a pretty big gap at the bottom of the slope.  Inevitably some feed will get clumpy, so I want to minimize bridging and plugging.
  3. Terminate the hopper at least 1 inch below the bottom of the tray’s lip.  If the hopper is close to bottoming out in the tray, it will clog.  If it is flush with the lip, it will probably spill feed too easily.
  4. Provide some sort of lip on the tray.  Chickens will pull feed out as they withdraw their heads.  I used to use plain wood or PVC trays and the feed waste was obscene until I arrived at this solution.  On my broiler feeders I use rain gutters as the bottom tray, since the K-gutter has a nice integral lip.  In this case I’m using the L-shaped bend on prefab wire shelving, which provides a dual purpose (see #5 below).
  5. Grille the chicken!  The wire shelving material has been cut to allow 2″ spaces in the feeder.  Because the chickens can stick their heads through the grille they can easily access the feed, but they can’t side-swipe it out or reach in with their claws to rake it out.
  6. Place the feeder above the ground on a platform, suspended by chains, or on a trailer.  Provide room for the chickens to scoot underneath to clean up any spilled feed.  All feeders are subject to the depredations of rats and mice, but ground level feeders are terrible.  I have found that even with frequent moves, my old skidded feeders would always show signs of rodent tunneling whenever I moved them.
Layer Feeder Grille

The hen feeder uses the wire shelving as both a feed lip and an access grille.  I’ve tried using 2×4 welded wire fencing, but the constant rubbing wears it out and breaks the welds.  Shelving seems to have the right combination of durability and affordability.

Broiler Feeder Grille

Picture from last summer.  Here is a similar arrangement we use for the broilers.  In this case the bottom tray is a K-style gutter, so it has a built-in feed lip.

Chickens Grooming Pigs

I noticed a strange behavior in the pigs’ hoophouse today. I was adding bales of bedding hay when I became aware that pigs were coming in from their yard after taking a drink from the milk trough, and then just standing in the doorway. They’d wait there patiently despite all the other milling, snuffling pigs, as if they were expecting something. And moments later a hen would run over and start pecking all the drops of milk from the pig’s chin. Once cleaned, the pig would continue on its way to do pig things, and the chicken would attend to the next customer.

I’ve never seen pigs and chickens adapt to each other this way. I am accustomed to starlings and cowbirds using the cows as fly magnets during the summer. And of course there are all sorts of animal partnerships in the wild, such as shrimp cleaning teeth for fish and birds performing dental hygiene on crocodiles. But a chicken-pig alliance is a new one.

Pig Grooming 3

For all the years we’ve mixed hens and pigs, this is the first I’ve seen anything like it. If we were keeping young pullets with the pigs, I’d bet any chicken putting its head up to a pig’s mouth would find itself inside the pig. But these are all old, wily hens. We keep a small flock of retired laying hens in with the pigs during the winter, and we let them wander where they will during the summer to suppress the deer tick population around the house. We don’t feed these wild chickens; they do just fine foraging. And at least one hen has gone beyond foraging to create her own services economy. Maybe I should take a page from Adam Smith and be the first to posit the existence of an Invisible Wing in Chickenomics. I’m going to keep watching to see if the idea catches on with the other hens in the group.

Pig Grooming 4

The picture quality isn’t great, but notice the chicken working on the pig in the yellow circle, while the pig in the red circle stands waiting.

Bedding Management

This winter I’ve changed up my bedding management for the laying hens.  They are free to walk out of their hoophouse, but with everything consistently snowbound this winter there hasn’t been much for them to find out in the fields and so they prefer to stay closer to home.  All those hens dropping turds all day and night makes for messy bedding.

Chickens Inspecting Bedding

Making the first pass

Instead of adding new bedding, I’ve been running the rototiller through the building once every week or two.  Chicken manure tends to form a cap on the bedding, and this is especially the case in below-freezing weather.  The rototiller quickly turns and blends in the manure, so I get a lot more use out of the wood chip bedding.  I estimate I’m saving about $200 per month in bedding compared to our costs last year.  The time to run the tiller is about the same as the time required to add new bedding material, so that’s a wash.  There’s fuel use for the tiller, but at $2 per month we don’t need to fret too much about that.  I don’t know if I could justify owning a tiller solely for bedding one chicken hoophouse, but this old workhorse is also our gardening tiller and it has already paid its way long ago.

Spreading Hay

We periodically spread a few armloads of chopped hay, trying to avoid piles so the chickens aren’t tempted to start laying eggs on the ground.  We like to give them some good quality hay since last year’s grass is buried under snow and a thick layer of ice.

I can’t predict if this method will work indefinitely.  Sometimes this hoophouse takes on wetness on the uphill side during the spring thaw, so I might need to add more bedding to keep things from getting soupy (and stinky) once the weather climbs above freezing.  Even if the bedding remains dry, there may be a point where the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio is too imbalanced and the bedding can’t handle the manure load.  Judging by the clean tracks and fluffy texture I’m getting, this isn’t close to that point yet.  I’ll monitor and adjust as I go.

Snug Pigs

The pigs are snug in their hay.  This is just about right, with plenty of loft in the bedding so they can tuck themselves under if desired.  The pigs are sleeping together for warmth, but there’s no piling.  If I see pigs stacked up, then they are probably too cold and smaller pigs will be in danger of being smothered.

I’ve tried using the tiller several times for the pigs, but their bedding is covered in a thick layer of long-fibered hay, so the machine has trouble getting through the hay.  The L-shaped tiller blades are ideal for friable dirt and wood chips, but wet hay either tangles up or compacts down.  Perhaps a PTO-attached tiller would be able to muscle through despite the design inadequacies, but getting one of those hitched and unhitched would be a hassle and trying to maneuver it in our small hoophouses would be frustrating.  For now, our pig bedding is just a deep base layer of wood chips followed by deep hay, occasionally touched up with new wood chips as the season progresses.  If we had a larger operation, a purpose-made bedding conditioner (and a skidsteer to run it!) would be useful, but that’s a whole lot more iron than is appropriate at our scale.