Wrong Direction Farm

Finger Food, Toe Food

I made chicken feet for supper yesterday. This is one of those meals that require far too much prep work to be a regular feature on the menu, but the results justify the effort.

Twenty years ago a coworker from Hong Kong introduced me to Dim Sum Phoenix Claws.   We don’t live near any place that serves them, and we never eat out anyway, so it has been a long, long time since I’ve last had braised chicken feet.  If I wanted chicken feet, it would be up to me to make them.

Chicken feet are a lot of work because chickens, especially pasture raised chickens, really work their feet.  They use their feet to scrape dirt and rocks out of the way to search for bugs and seeds.  All this scraping and shuffling takes its toll and their feet get get callouses.  These need to be carefully trimmed.  The yellow outer skin needs to be peeled off.  Most of the yellow foot skin usually comes off during the scalding and plucking, but there are always a few stubborn bits that need to be removed.  I sort through our chicken feet, setting aside the blemish-free ones for our customers.  The ones that require trimming usually end up in our homemade broth, but this time I wanted to do something different with our share of the feet.

I used the SeriousEats recipe as a framework for the process but changed almost all the ingredients.  I decided to make the meal more Southwestern (but not purist Southwestern either) since we had those ingredients at hand and in the garden.  Instead of anise, ginger, and cinnamon, I used coriander, cumin, parsley, and garlic.  Instead of fermented bean paste and long peppers, I used chipotles in adobo and dried ancho chilies.  Instead of Shaoxing wine I used our homemade tomato wine.  Et cetera.  The most important departure from the recipe was deep frying the feet in a 50/50 mix of bacon drippings and lard instead of vegetable oil.  I don’t use vegetable oil for deep frying.  Never ever.

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Setting up to do the deep frying on the lawn eliminates the need to worry about splatters.  First stage, fry the skin to golden.

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Second stage, soak the feet in a savory brine for a few hours.

The third stage (for which there are no pictures) is to braise the feet in a broth for about two hours.  I used a blend of chicken and pork stock, with more hot peppers, garlic, onions, and parsley.  After braising I reduced the stock to a thick sauce and poured it back over the feet.

After that, all that was left was the eating.  This is one of those meals that are perfectly enjoyable to me, perhaps only matched by sitting down to a cauldron of crabs or crawfish.  In common with the other two, the meal is all about disassembling little parts, sucking at this little joint or nibbling that bit of meat.  This isn’t a meal that can be rushed at the table, so it would be a great one to enjoy with friends, spending a couple hours nibbling around the pot, letting conversations unwind at their own pace.

Running of the Pigs

Saturday evening I was bringing the tractor in from the woods with a load of firewood when I saw this rodeo in progress.

Running the Pigs

The electric fence had shorted out and the pigs escaped into the adjacent pasture with the cattle.  Pigs are cool with cattle; cattle are not cool with pigs.  (Actually, cattle can become acclimated to pigs, but they are suspicious by nature.)  You’d think that it would be the cows that would want to protect their calves from pigs, but I’ve always seen the steers show the most defensiveness.  I’m not sure why they display such strong choirophobia, since they aren’t scared of grazing nose-to-nose across the fenceline from each other.

This black steer had those pigs running laps.  I tried herding the pigs back into their pasture, but this steer kept shadowing me and spooking the pigs.  So I had to change my objectives.  The first task was to move the cattle to a new pasture.  Apparently the promise of fresh grass is more pleasing to a bovine than the thrill of chasing pigs.  Once the cattle were distracted with new food, the pigs walked back to their pasture as docily as I’ve ever seen them.  Maybe they had had enough adventures for the day and were ready to go home.

 

Brooklyn and Queens Deliveries

We’ve had some patient and dedicated customers driving all the way from Brooklyn and Queens to pick up meat and eggs in New Jersey and Staten Island, but we’re glad to announce that we are starting four new neighborhood delivery points near our existing B-Q customers.

Unlike our suburban deliveries where we can count on big driveways with lots of access, our Brooklyn drops are “floating” delivery points.  We’ll park as close to our listed address as possible, but we may end up a couple hundred feet up or down the street depending on parking (we’ll be taking advantage of the law in NYC that allows commercial delivery vehicles to double park in certain locations during deliveries).  We may need to refine these delivery points as time goes by.  Consider the Brooklyn locations as beta tests.  The Queens location is a little more of a sure thing.

Once each month we’ll be delivering preordered items to the following NYC locations:

Again, consider the Brooklyn locations as beta tests while we work out the logistics and gauge interest.  If you know a better spot or if you are connected to a network of people with a common interest in grassfed, organics, and environmentally sound food production, let us know and we might be able to adjust the delivery run.

Our next delivery will be on Saturday the 30th of September.  All orders for the next delivery need to be placed by the end of the day on Tuesday the 26th.

Have a friend in the area who wants to eat well while supporting a farmer?  Please pass the word along.  We appreciate it!

Compost Post

‘Tis the season to clean out the deep bedding packs from the hoophouses where the chickens and pigs spent the winter.  I’ve never been able to find time in the schedule to do this earlier in the summer, so most years it is a September or October task.

I built some extensions on the flatbed’s stake sides.  This increased my dump capacity, saving trips trucking loads of material out back to the composting spot.  This year I’m trying to get smarter with material placement, so my compost heap is right next to the field where I want to spread it.  I should have thought of this years ago.  Baby steps…

Compost Windrows

Even though the pile is pretty big, it is tiny compared to the original source material.  This much bedding came from 80 cubic yards of wood chips and shavings and 60 round bales of hay.  Plus the digested excreta of 50,000 gallons of whey and milk from the pigs and 8,000 pounds of chicken feed.  There’s a lot of C and NPK here, thus this compost is superfood for the pastures.

Our composting system works in two stages.  During the winter, the bedding packs are quite thick so they begin spontaneously composting.  Because we also have populations of red worms in our hoophouses, we have active vermicomposting throughout the winter.  In the spring when we turn the animals out to pasture, the bedding packs dry out and composting activity slows.  When I place it in windrows in the fall, the aeration of digging and dumping help restart activity.  The piles continue to compost until they freeze in the winter (the cores of the piles usually remain frost-free, but there isn’t enough heat or aeration to sustain much activity).

I’ve placed two windrows side by side.  In a few weeks, there will be a noticeable diminishment in the pile sizes, so I’ll combine the two into a single long windrow using the loader bucket.  There are expensive compost turning implements available to make spectacular compost in a period of weeks, but the tractor bucket does pretty well and it fits into our preference to avoid purchasing specialized machines.  The compost won’t be finished and ready for spreading until next year, but it will be an excellent soil amendment nevertheless.

I haven’t figured out the perfect time of year for spreading compost, but I think fall probably works best in our situation.  Early spring is almost always too wet for driving across the pastures.  During the summer it could work by immediately following the grazing with a spreading, but the timing is challenging, especially when trying to schedule to use someone else’s spreader.  Winter spreading is possible when the ground is frozen and when the snow pack isn’t too deep, but that creates a lot of runoff risk.  Fall spreading seems to be the best option for us.  We can spread compost on a field after its final grazing for the season.  As long as we don’t allow the cattle to graze down to the nubs, there will be plenty of plant matter to hold and stabilize the compost.  With our fall weather we can count on freeze-thaw cycles at least until mid-December, so there is plenty of opportunity for incorporation before the soil becomes ice-bound.

For as much as I truly value well-made compost, I’m glad when this job is finished.  So does the rest of the family.  By the time I come in for lunch after a few hours of scooping and dumping the smell has permeated my clothes and hair, so everyone shifts their chairs to the far end of the table, giving me as wide a berth as possible.  Of course, I exacerbate the situation by making sure to give bear hugs so everyone can share the love.  Next, aromatherapy for farmers, bottled parfum de merde.

Identify this Pea

I’d like to know if anyone can help identify what sort of plant we have.  This is a pea (or bean if you prefer) that has been reseeding itself continuously since we moved here.  It only occurs in one weedy corner of the front pasture near the winter yard we use for the pigs.  Because this area is bounded by a fence, a loading chute, a driveway, and a hay storage area, the plants are currently isolated to a 20 x 20 patch.

Pea on Sidewalk

The whole plant, about 40 inches tall.  Picked this weekend.

The most unique aspect of this plant is the stalk.  All along its length it has a double-bladed structure that I think can be called a Phylloclade, but I could be wrong.   This is a fascinating adaptation to allow photosynthesis along the entire length of the stem.  It may explain why the cattle like eating this down to the dirt when given the chance.  Its stalk grows in a segmented fashion, with segments changing direction every four inches or so.

Pea Stalk Close Up

Both the main stalk and the leaf stems are bladed.  This gives a lot of photosynthetic capacity to a plant that doesn’t have a large amount of leaf area compared to other peas and beans.

Other physical aspects:  It grows about three or four feet tall, but it depends on adjacent stalks for support using tendrils.  It can successfully compete with aggressive stands of thistles, burdock, grape vines, and goldenrod.  It flowers continuously from late June until frost, with each new segment taking a shot at flowering and producing peas.  The pea pods fall off as they ripen, which probably helps reseeding if the conditions at one part of the season aren’t ideal. The seeds taste somewhere between garden peas and edamame.  Mature seeds are a bit smaller than most garden peas, and usually look a bit deflated.   The pods aren’t palatable (pigs and cows eat them, but they are just roughage).  The plant will quickly regrow after being grazed or driven over, but I’m not sure how many regrazes or tramplings it can handle.

Pea Stems

Early July with the pods just forming.

It seems to be some sort of winter pea.  I’ve looked through seed catalogs, but all the examples of winter peas I’ve been able to find have normal round pea stalks with a lot more tendrils.

Because of the taste, there is also the remote possibility the plant is some crazy outcross or throwback from hybrid soybeans.  The pods aren’t fuzzy like most soy I’ve seen, and none of the other characteristics seem similar.  I can’t really see this being a soybean, but I’ll leave that as a marginal possibility.

I’ve discussed before the challenges I’ve had with getting annual forages to grow with wet, heavy soils and late planting dates.  A pea like this one that could presumably be broadcast, perhaps frost seeded or graze-tramped, into an existing stand of perennial grasses without any tillage or expensive no-till equipment.  Obviously there would be a big challenge in seed saving at a large enough scale to make this practical, especially with a plant that drops its pods continuously making mechanical harvesting impractical. And from the plant breeding perspective, there are a lot of more productive options that could yield more tons of forage per acre.  But as a grazier the idea of a home-grown, locally-adapted, self-propagating annual legume is appealing.

Breathing Room

I opened up my chainsaw muffler ports today.  The MS290 has always been an OK saw, but it bogs down in full-bar cuts.  When doing heavy limbing and bucking work, speed is everything.  Long, slow cuts wear my arms out, especially on big undercuts.  Even with a brand new, nicely sharpened chain, I end up having to back off frequently as the saw bogs down.  I’m not ready to shell out $800-$1100 to buy a 70-75 CC class chainsaw that I’d like, so I have been looking around for an easy upgrade on my existing machine.

It seems that the only low cost and reasonably guaranteed upgrade is a muffler modification, so after reading a few writeups, I took advantage of an afternoon rain storm to spend some time in the garage today reworking the saw.

The factory muffler has 0.77 square inches of inlet area, but only 0.16 square inches of outlet area, about 15% of the inlet.  That’s a severe amount of restriction.

Original Muffler

Kinda pathetic, just those two itty bitty slots…

I used a drill and files to expand the two small oblong ports into one large port and I added a second exhaust at the top of the muffler.  The combined area of these two outlets is 85% of the inlet.  I left the internal baffle box in place since there were plenty of perforations for air flow.  The new vents are positioned to accommodate the factory spark arrestor screen.

Modified Muffler

Same muffler as above, but with the bigger ports and cleaned up with a wire brush.

I wear ear muffs, so the saw doesn’t seem much louder, but it does feel far more lively in my hands.  That makes sense, since it is no longer trying to exhale through a sippy straw.  I had to retune the high side of the carburetor to richen the fuel/air mixture because the engine is now pumping more air.  I really should pick up an inductive tachometer.  That would help me do a better tuning job by looking at RPMs rather than guessing by ear, but it feels (and smells) like I have a reasonably good tune on the high side.

The saw still bogs down with a bar buried in hickory, but it wears me out a little less than it used to.  There are anecdotes online of dyno testing yielding 20% horsepower gains.  I’m not sure what kind of power increase I’m getting, but if I feel like my saw isn’t letting me down, it won’t be as much of a discouragement to use it. The challenges from wrestling with inadequate tools often transform straightforward jobs into toil and trouble.  If I feel confident in a task, I usually do a better at it.  Even if my saw wouldn’t show any power gain on a dyno, if it sounds like it is doing a better job, I’ll do a better job.  Let me enjoy my fiction.

It’s Here: Pepperoni

We received our batch of pepperoni from the charcuterie shop this afternoon.  This is a custom recipe featuring 100% Wrong Direction Farm pork.  If I were to describe the eating experience, I’d say it starts with the salty/sour pork base, then layers on the aromatics, and finishes off with a flash of red and black pepper.

Sure, you can buy Applegate pepperoni (owned by Hormel, the folks who are so committed to healthy foods that they also produce Spam) and maybe find it a little cheaper pound per pound, but this product is something different.  And something better.  This is from pigs raised on our farm with care and attention, processed in a butcher shop where the employees are known and valued, so they take good care of our animals even through the one brief bad moment in their lives, and then cured into pepperoni by an extraordinarily meticulous group of salami craftspeople.

I’m not sure how to best emphasize this, but what separates this pepperoni from any mass-market natural pepperoni is at the heart of what we hope to achieve at Wrong Direction Farm.  Through each step of the process, the animals that become the pepperoni and the people who make it happen are all treated with respect, individuality, and dignity.  We could discuss the impacts on animals and land, but the aspect that stands out most to me presently is the impact on the people.  Once a product is produced in the volume required to appear on the shelf at Shop Rite or Whole Foods, or in the box from Amazon or Blue Apron, there is no way that it can be produced with the same level of care.  The food itself may remain objectively wholesome, but these systems depend on interchangeable and easily replaceable people doing the farming and meat processing.  Industrial food must have people specialized into tasks that can be done by rote for the least cost.  Once the process can be automated, the people performing those jobs will be dispensed with.  Until then, they are paid the least possible amount.  On our farm and in our family, we want to find ways to appreciate people, to show them respect, and to reward them for a job well done.  We want to increase human involvement, to create opportunities for people to take an interest in their daily activities, and to find satisfaction in their lives.

Can you taste integrity?  I hope so…

Pepperoni Pizza

The kids celebrated the occasion by making pepperoni pizza (of course!).

Next: Pasture Raised Lobsters

We keep adding new livestock to the farm, but this time underwater varieties.  After we dug the pond two summers ago, we added some bottom habitat for fish.  But the fresh scraped clay surface was rather barren, so we needed to give it a little time to develop some life.  We now have frogs and tadpoles, water bugs of all sorts, dragonflies, turtles, snakes, herons, ducks, geese, (and, of course, leeches courtesy of the ducks and geese) all in or around the pond, so it seems like the next phase of stocking should begin.

We set a minnow trap in the lower stream to catch minnows and crayfish.  Trapping hasn’t been spectacular, just four minnows and eight crayfish, but we only need a few to get things going.  Minnows seem to be picky eaters; they aren’t interested in the bread crusts or bits of sausage that the crayfish go after.  I’ve watched a school of about fifty minnows circle the trap, but it is rare for one to enter it.  I suppose if we fail to catch enough minnows we could always buy some, but I’d prefer to start with locally-adapted minnows.

Crayfish in trap

Crayfish in the trap.

The plan is to add bass once we get a good representation of medium sized critters in the pond, but that is probably another year or two away.  The minnows and crayfish need a thriving insect and tadpole population; the bass need a thriving minnow and crayfish population.  Of course, when we add the bass we’ll have to buy them from a fish hatchery, so maybe the quest for locally adapted minnows is made moot by the imported bass.  I don’t have time to fish all the local ponds to catch enough breeding bass, so I suppose there are limits to my localism.

I like what the pond offers the farm, especially when compared to drilling a well.  Obviously we get clean water for the livestock with a much simpler extraction method (gravity siphon versus running a deep well pump).  But the benefits go beyond that.  All sorts of wild birds, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals use the pond too.  The pond gives a boost of biodiversity through mixing habitats, so we support a broader spectrum of living things.  Even the two legged creatures enjoy flopping into the water on humid summer days and skating around on the ice in the winter.  If in the future we can get a few fish dinners out of it, that’s another bonus.

Last Batch of Chicks Out to Pasture

This year’s last batch of chicks is out to pasture.  They spent their first three weeks in a brooder where we can control the environment.  We keep them hot for a few days, then gradually decrease the temperature while they grow their feathers.  After three weeks they are ready for any above-freezing weather, so long as they can keep dry.  We had a close call with frost this weekend, but all the chicks came through just fine.

While on pasture they eat out of bulk feeders, but I noticed earlier this year that some chicks took a day or two to figure out the new feed arrangements.  Disrupting the eating patterns for young chicks seems to have a long tailed effect (particularly compared to a larger animal like a pig or cow going off feed for a day), so it behooves us to get these transitional details correct.  This time I placed a few of their small turbo feeders from the brooder out in the pasture coop.  It seems that helped keep everyone eating without any interruptions.  Just another little detail that makes a big difference for the chicks; I’m learning all the time…

Chicks with Turbo Feeder

Breast Obsessed

Clearly our customers have a breast obsession.  We are selling far more chicken breasts than any other cut.  Having a product that sells is great, but there’s a “however”.

Here, however, is the dilemma:  breasts are selling too quickly, while drumsticks and the soup parts (necks and backs) are piling up.  We aren’t part of the commodity market, so we can’t dump certain cuts on third world countries.  I don’t want to be scoldy here, but it is true that sustainable eating involves the responsibility to eat all the edible parts of a plant or animal.  We base our prices on the yield of each cut and the cost of producing it. We have to cover our bills.  Organic chicken feed is expensive, and so is local butchering.

Chicken Ratios

There are three ways we could resolve this problem.

First would be to breed chickens that have proportions corresponding to purchasing patterns.  Breasts 50 percent bigger, thighs 30 percent bigger, drumsticks 50 percent smaller, wings about the same, and just a tiny amount of skeleton to hold the thing together.  This option is the least desirable on a few levels…

Chicken Proportions

From the talented folks at the Wrong Direction Farm Art Department.

The second option is for us to change our prices.  You may have noticed that last month I rejiggered breasts, drumsticks, and thighs a few cents to try to reach some equilibrium, but breast sales actually increased without changing leg sales.  So after running everything through a far-too-complicated Excel sheet to rebalance sales (once an engineer, always an engineer), I arrived at the following price revisions.  This is a radical change, but it would scale price to match demand.

Chicken Price Ratio

The third option would be for everyone to change their buying habits.  For every four packages of breasts, we’d sell two packages each of thighs and drumsticks, one package of wings, and one of backs or necks.  Perhaps some normalization will occur with backs and necks once cold weather arrives and people shift towards more soups, but I’m not sure we can continue to sell chicken cuts if we don’t get more drumsticks on more plates.  There are only so many drumsticks that our family can eat.

So, my chicken-eating customers, what do you think?  I don’t want to saddle anyone with drumstick guilt.  We all have enough situations in our lives where people are telling us “you should feel guilty because you aren’t doing this!”  If you like big breasts, that’s great.  Not everyone needs to eat the legs, and certainly not every time.  But I am interested in hearing how you weigh price versus preference.  Somehow we’ve achieved a better balance in our pork and beef sales, so we need to figure out this chicken thing.