Wrong Direction Farm

Bed of Worms

red-worms

“Shall worms, inheritors of this excess,
Eat up thy charge?”  Shakespeare, Sonnet 146

(The fun thing about cherry picking quotes from the literary luminaries is that one can usually find appropriate quotes, so long as context is ignored.  As quoted, these worm lines are germane; in context, they take the reader in quite other directions.)

In literature, sleeping with the worms is a mournful topic, but allow me to introduce a bed of worms story that is good news for us.  Last year I mentioned how our compost piles were colonized by red worms.  These worms are related to earthworms, but instead of being at home in the soil, they prefer to burrow through rotting plant matter (leaf litter and fallen tree bark are their natural habitats, although they are popular among vermicomposters for home composting bins).

I didn’t remove last winter’s bedding pack from the grower pigs’ hoophouse until August.  During the summer some worms colonized the bedding pack.  I hadn’t seen worms active in the bedding before that.  They have been living in our composting area a few hundred feet away for two or three years.  However worms migrate between compost piles (probably transported in egg form along with tiny bits of dirt on our shoes or on the tractor tires, although I prefer to envision a few hard-bitten, intrepid worms embarking on an expedition of the Lewis and Clark, Ernest Shackleton, or John Wesley Powell variety) this time they managed to hit the mother lode of compost.  The grower hoophouse usually starts with 30-40 yards of wood chips, then we add a half ton of hay or straw each week from November until May along with another 20 or more yards of chips.  That’s a lot of worm food.

Back to last summer…  When I saw all the worm activity in the bedding, I decided not to completely remove the old material before adding fresh wood chips.  I left a skim of old bedding behind and then piled wood chips on top.  I hoped that this would jump-start the composting of this year’s bedding pack in the spring, but I didn’t count on the worms staying active all winter and thoroughly infiltrating the entire pack.  Surprise!  They are everywhere.  It is enjoyable to watch the pigs digging for worms.  During the summer of course they are always rooting through the dirt for worms and grubs, but this year they have been enjoying a little special something extra in their diets year-round.

I have not found any evidence of red worms in the hoophouse used by the laying hens as their winter shelter, just fifty feet downhill.  Some of this may be due to the shallower bedding not providing enough frost-free material for the worms.  That hoophouse for some reason never had worms even though we piled lots of bedding for the sows in there last year.  My plan for next year is to inoculate it with worm eggs (i.e., starting with scoops of compost known to have worms) before I add bedding.  I’d be pleased to see that hoophouse supporting a prolific worm colony in winter, and the hens would undoubtedly be pleased with that outcome too.

Besides the obvious benefits from the the worms feeding the pigs and chickens, I suspect that we’ll end up with richer compost if worms can be incorporated from the beginning.  The more biological activity in the compost and the more the pigs or chickens aerate the bedding pack searching for them, the more likely it is that we’ll incorporate and bind nitrogen to carbon early in the composting process, minimizing the volatilization of ammonia and ultimately increasing the fertilizer value of the finished product.  Better livestock feed and better compost quality, all 100% animal powered without requiring any extra diesel fuel or purchased inputs.  Sounds like a winner to me.  So yes, Shakespeare, I’ll gladly let “worms, inheritors of this excess, eat up” as much as they please.

Changes 2017: Meat Chickens

Sorry, no pictures since we don’t raise meat chickens over the winter.  The first batch arrives in early April.

After years of lackluster broiler chicken experiences, we finally felt like things were clicking in 2016.  Chicken health was great, mortality was lower than we imagined possible, and feed conversion rates were vastly improved.  Last year we thought we were going out on a limb to raise 300 chickens instead of our usual 150, but we are currently sold out on all our cuts except drumsticks and nearly sold out on our whole broilers.  Clearly we need to go bigger this year.

AJ, our chicken czar, is about to turn 12 and is becoming stronger and more capable.  He gets paid a commission on every chicken that he raises, so when we discussed our 2017 plans I could see the cash register cha-chinging in his mind as we planned to target 600-700 chickens this summer.  But it isn’t just the pay that motivates him, he really has a knack for chickens so it is fun to see the confluence of interest and opportunity.  He reads every issue of the American Pastured Poultry Producers Association newsletter and we get together afterwards for him to tell me what he’s learning.  I think this will be a great year for him.

Our new pasture chicken shelter can easily accommodate 350 birds, which is the number we’re targeting for our batches this year.  To accomplish that, we’ll need to build a bigger brooder.  Brooding chickens has always been a weak link, where we utilize whatever we can cobble together to keep the chicks warm and safe during the early days when they need extra protection.  For this season we will repurpose a chicken coop we outgrew and rebuild it into a brooder on wheels.  One appeal of the mobile brooder is that we can tow it out to the pasture and unload chickens directly from the brooder to the range shelter, skipping the intermediate steps of crating and uncrating.

The additional chickens are going to require a second bulk feeder and a bigger waterer in the shelter.  I’d also like to purchase a few hard-sided feed boxes so I can forklift a half ton of feed out to the shelter at a time rather than using our current method of toting the feed out in 55 gallon drums.

Overall I don’t expect any major alterations to our methods this year, the only changes will be a few upgrades to accommodate the growing flock size.

Apologies for running out of chicken so early this year.  We’ll do what we can to keep up with the demand, once spring rolls around and the chickens can get out on pasture.

Handmade

dscf4072bags

Winter makes its demands on the farm family as surely as the other seasons, yet it’s also an opportunity to regroup as a family, plan for the coming year, read aloud together around the wood stove in the evening, and work on projects we wouldn’t normally. Dave and AJ made a trebuchet a few days ago, Harry is cranking out drawings, the smell of fresh baked bread is wafting through the house (to be honest–mixed with the smell of a skunk at the moment), and Allie and I have our sewing machines out.

Which brings me to the point of this post: I’ve added three simple handmade lunch bags to our farm store. The fabric from Birch Fabric is organic. The bags stand 10″ tall by 12″ wide, so you can easily fit in a bottle of wine, a baguette, cheese, and some fuet as you head out for an afternoon with your favorite friend.

Because I so rarely take the opportunity to blog, and because in winter I get to steep in the work of authors that inspire me, I can’t resist leaving off with another poem by Wendell Berry:

 

February 2, 1968

In the dark of the moon, in flying snow, in the dead of winter,
war spreading, families dying, the world in danger,
I walk the rocky hillside, sowing clover.

Changes 2017: Pickup Points

We want to add several Staten Island and North Jersey neighborhood delivery points for our grassfed and pasture raised meat and eggs this year.  Do you have a recommendation?  Let us know on our simple pickup location suggestion form; this is a huge help to us!

The map below shows the general path we would like to follow for our monthly Saturday run, starting  in the morning near Edison, moving to Staten Island, then one to three delivery points between Bayonne and Fort Lee, then one point in central Bergen County somewhere between Paramus and Oradell (yes, this is a pretty big search area), and finishing up with a late afternoon stop between Saddle River and Mahwah on our way back home.

delivery-route

If you know of any places that would work for a group of people to meet us to pick up orders, again, please let us know.  Places that work well include church parking lots and gyms.  Business locations sometimes work, especially if the business is typically closed on Saturdays.  Private residences can work, provided that there is a driveway for us to park our van and that having ten to twenty people show up during a delivery doesn’t cause problems for neighbors.

Our next delivery run to NJ will be on Friday the 10th and I plan to stick around on Saturday to scout a few locations.  Let me know what you’ve got and I’ll swing by.  If your location isn’t along the path I’ve drawn, feel free to tell us about it anyway.  We’re always taking suggestions.

Changes 2017: Pigs

Here is the second installment in my series outlining the changes planned for Wrong Direction Farm in 2017.  I’ll use the Sergio Leone’s time tested rubric to review the plans for pigs this year.

The Good

There’s no doubt about it:  pigs are my favorite farm animal.  I like cattle as a group, but I like pigs individually and collectively.  I keep getting better at understanding both the animal management and the meat sales part of the business.  This isn’t a brag, just an acknowledgement that the years of hard knocks are starting to pay off with a much more practiced eye for pigs and pasture.

I’ve been able to keep the target price locked for five years running, so I’m glad to be able to maintain stability for our customers.  Pork sales have been improving.  I’ve been having some trouble marketing pork chops as premium products and customer demand seems to gravitate more toward traditionally low-end cuts (butt roasts and sausage) so our supply/demand ratio causes our “cheap cuts” to be overpriced and our “prime cuts” to be underpriced.

This year I plan on raising the average carcass weight.  The pigs have been averaging 175 lbs (skin off, head off, organs removed) hanging weight, but I’d like to push that into the 220s consistently.

The last “good” to mention has been the addition of salami.  We added Fuet last year and we have a batch of Soppressata in the works.  Coordinating with the salami shop has been challenging and meeting their new minimum batch size (1000 lbs) is a stretch, but the consistently positive customer feedback make this a great product category.  I’d like to work next on a formulation for a no-nitrate pepperoni, but that’s been a little more elusive compared to some of the other salami recipes they can produce.

The Bad

The glaring bad thing is that I’ve spread myself too thin (that will be a repeated theme in this series) and I don’t have time to do everything well.  Pig breeding and farrowing didn’t get the attention it deserved.  I was too slow to notice that my boar had become infertile and too distracted to switch gears once I discovered it.  Likewise I’ve been bringing along a few sows with poor maternal instincts and not making the right culling decisions, consequently I’ve accepted small litter sizes for too long.

My plan for 2017 is to stop breeding pigs.  I sent most of the older sows to the butcher in December (see previous reference to the big batch of soppressata) and the remaining two will go next week.  This has been a tough decision.  I really like sows and I like piglets.  I like the idea of the farm being self sufficient for its breeding stock.  I don’t like the idea of having to come up with big wads of cash every time I need to buy a batch of piglets, especially since I was able to maintain the sows quite economically with whey supplementing their pasture diets.

On the other hand, I must reset my focus on doing the things I know I can do well to put the farm on a more stable foundation.  I am hopeful that in the future I’ll be able to get back into the pig breeding work.  In the meantime, I am glad to have several family farmers I know I can work with confidently to buy their weaned piglets.  Although this is a loss of independence, it is a gain of interdependence.   It helps my outlook to realize that I can support other farmers to achieve their goals as I work to achieve mine.

piglets-drinking-cream

A group of young pigs that came to us from our friends at Cairncrest Farm.  A younger litter arrives this weekend from Stubborn Girl Farm.

The Ugly

This year I haven’t been happy with my bedding management for the winter hoophouses, so they were getting pretty mucky when we had our big January thaw.  Last weekend I loaded 20 cubic yards of wood chips into the hoophouse and that fixed the situation immediately.  I want to be more on punctual with this in the future.  One thing that makes it easy to procrastinate on adding wood chips has been the cost.  Each 20 yard load is $320, delivered.  I have not had much success getting landscapers to consistently dump wood chips, but another resolution for this year is to track down some more landscapers and get on their list.

nap-time

Pigs are high and dry again and they all seem pretty pleased with the situation.  This is the group 200+ pounders.

Changes 2017

This is the first in a series of posts on changes we are making to the farm this year.  Please stay tuned for more over the next two weeks.  We would love to hear from our customers as we describe our plans for 2017.  Please comment or email or call us.  Or stop by for a cup of coffee (or something stronger).

The good news is that Wrong Direction Farm earned 70% more in 2016 than 2015.  The bad news is that expenditures still outstrip earnings.  I work a second full time job to cover the farm’s losses.  Six years running, this takes a toll financially and also psychologically.  I’ve over-written about this in the past, but sustainable farming must include a sustainable living for farmers.  If Wrong Direction Farm is to persist, something’s gotta give.

I can’t see my way clear to projecting a profit in 2017, but I am hopeful that I can restructure things to a break even.  Although that’s still a long way from making even a minimum wage from the farm, it would be a tremendous boost for morale and outlook.  Over the years I’ve been working to refine my methods and to better understand what works and what doesn’t.  Trial and error are my two constant companions.  I am taking this opportunity to post updates on each of the farm’s enterprises and to describe how I plan to pursue them this year.  During the coming days I’ll cover the following:

  • Cattle
  • Pigs
  • Broiler Chickens
  • Laying Hens
  • Direct to Consumer Sales
  • Major Infrastructure Projects
  • New Endeavors

(Switching to first person plural since the changes are part of an ongoing discussion between Rachel and me.  Even the kids have been involved.)  In many respects, we’ve been forced to shed cherished idealistic aspirations for the farm.  Rachel refers to each of these losses as dying dreams.  And it is hard to watch a dream die.  But we’ve come to realize that not all of our dreams for the farm match the economic and social realities of our times.  So we need to adapt.  It is hard.  Stick around for more…

Ice Storm

ice-on-crabapple-tree

With the ice accumulations overnight I was wondering if the polywire fences would still be standing when I went out to move the cattle this morning.  I was glad to see that all the fences fared well.

ice-on-polywire

The new electric fence post design is holding up well.

ice-on-bales

The individual strands of grass are magnified by the encircling ice, so this looks more like a bale of noodles than a bale of hay.  The cattle didn’t have any doubts about it.

Half Hogs

We have one available half hog in the February batch, then a few more in March.  If you are interested, please let us know.  See our Bulk Pricing page for more information on the costs.

Also note that we now can get our hams smoked without sodium nitrite.  This has been an option for bacon for a while, but we’re glad to offer it for ham as well.

Another Farm Movie

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A couple months ago I mentioned having seen Peter and the Farm.  This isn’t a movie blog, but I’m compelled to put in a recommendation for  The Auction.  It was produced in Quebec and subtitled in English.  I would have preferred the more literal translation of its French name:  The Dismantling (Le Démantèlement).

The story follows Gaby the farmer as he decides to sell his farm to help his daughter.  The farm itself forms the central, hulking silent character, a beautiful black hole sucking in all the love a family can give and requiting nothing.  Unlike Peter and the Farm, The Auction is fiction rather than documentary and the farmer is a more sympathetic person who communicates more through meaningful smirks and frowns than raving outbursts.  The presence of neighbors (the eager and complicated kid who helps out after school, the baffled widowed farmer next door, the dairyman unable to keep milking cows, and all the locals who show up for farm sales) form as true-to-life a portrayal of the social network in farming as one could ask for.

Certain aspects of the movie rang so true for me that I had some weirdly immersive moments watching it.  From the auction side conversations to the specific pitch of the whining fuel pump on the early-90’s Ford pickup truck, much of the movie seemed to be built from a collage of my own day-to-day experience.  And how’s this for coincidences:  I had been listening to Ripple while doing the feeding chores and then came in to watch the movie only to find that the opening scene is the farmer doing his chores while listening to Ripple.  I suppose a trippy Deadhead wouldn’t find anything strange about that…

If you are our customer or a regular supporter of another farm, I’d like to recommend that you watch this movie.  It won’t tell you how to choose organic over conventional or pastured over confinement or anything like that.  It won’t tell you how love for the soil conquered all.  But it will convey something important about the visceral aspects of the codependent relationship between the farmer and the farm.  Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food.

Right now it is on Amazon Prime so you can watch it for free if you are signed up.   I’m not familiar with all the other streaming services but I’m sure it can be found elsewhere.

Taking the Long View

“Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.”

Wendell Berry, Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

So I’ll start by honestly saying I can’t manage to take meaningful motivation for the thousand year view.  There are too many intervening potentialities.  But I want to manage my soil to be healthier six years from now than it was six years ago when I first came here.  And I think we are seeing some changes.  Here’s a little case study.

Last spring we were wrapping up our bale grazing and things looked awful.  We had an unusually mild winter with the cattle bale grazing in the wettest field.  So mud was everywhere.  Here’s how the field looked on 31 March 2016 as we were about to turn the cattle into the last few bales.  Our boots would get sucked off our feet as we walked out every other day to move the fences.  This was some mean mud.

bale-grazing-march-2016

Yes, this is not pretty.  Mud and mud and more mud.

I broadcast seeded some rape over the mud and let the cattle stomp it in, then I moved them off that field by early April.  Here’s what that field looked like in August, after one grazing in July and just before another grazing in September.

after-bale-grazing-aug-2016

This photo was taken standing in the muddy area in the previous shot, but looking in the opposite direction (sorry, I didn’t have the forethought to do an exact camera repositioning).

By August, the field shows no harm from bale grazing.  Understand that this field has been mowed once about ten years ago, but since then it as been left wild until four years ago when we first moved pigs through it.  Sure, there are woody bushes and all kinds of weeds, but there is also a rich diversity of high value forage here.  I’ve taken note that the rape germinated right on the patches where the hay bales were placed, so next time I only need to broadcast seed on the hay bales, not on the rest of the field.

Google updated their aerial photography for our farm on 6 October 2016.  Looking at that same location, I can see the checkerboard where all the bales were placed.  I can see the spots where some bales left a heavy thatch of hay that is still mulching the soil.  But I’m especially interested to see the change in grass color around each bale.  The deeper green color indicates improved fertility (especially being October when many of our grasses have gone dormant and the field are transitioning into senescence).

bale-grazing-aerial

I’m pleased to see that the soil is becoming more productive.  This is something we’ll have to continue to manage.  Letting the cattle really hit one field hard for a winter is a tool to build fertility.  If we put them in the same spot continuously we’d just destroy the soil, so the management aspect is important.  For now it is encouraging to see evidence that we are making progress in increasing soil fertility.

bale-reside

Bale grazing reside when I went out to move the cattle on Sunday morning.  Just building next year’s topsoil, one turd at a time.

People like to quote the inanity about insanity:  “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”  I’ve got a cowpie ready for the next person who smugly says that…  Each year we keep doing the same thing knowing that slowly we’re changing the entire ecosystem of this farm.