Wrong Direction Farm

Composted Wealth

I have been building a compost pile for a few years now, waiting to have enough to justify a full day’s rental of a spreader for the tractor. I think the heap is just about right.

Wealth can be measured with many different standards.  But a mound of loose, sweet compost surely deserves recognition as a kind of wealth.  I find myself sifting it through my fingers the way a TV miser pours gold coins between his hands.  And of course, keeping it in a pile is a kind of miserly hoarding.  To make the wealth something truly valuable, I need to spread the compost and let it be incorporated into the soil.

“The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.”

― Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture

Meet AJ, your chicken farmer

AJ is our chicken guy here at Wrong Direction Farm.  As we finish up the pasture season for chickens this week, it is a good time to recognise his work.

In 2013 we gave AJ his first batch of 100 chickens to raise.  He was eight years old and the job challenged him but he enjoyed the project.  Each year since then we’ve approximately doubled the number of chickens on the farm.  This year AJ raised about 6,500 chickens in batches of 500 each.  This requires tremendous effort and responsibility, and his knowledge and competence have grown commensurately over the years.

The first chickens he raised on his own in 2013

Setting up newly hatched chicken in the brooder in 2017

With one of the chickens from the final batch of 2020

If you enjoy eating Wrong Direction Farm chicken, this is the guy who makes it happen.  He is out with the chickens several times each day, whether it is sunny, rainy, or snowy.  He cleans out the brooders, moves hoses and water lines, checks perimeter fences, diagnoses problems, and fixes innumerable details with an understanding of what it takes to raise a healthy chicken.  And let’s not forget all the feedings.  This year he poured over 40 tons of feed into feeders, all carried bucket by bucket!

Thank you AJ for all your work this year.  Enjoy your time off.  Next spring we’ve got more in store for you.

Thanksgiving Turkey Update, and Farm Stuff

The response to our announced availability for Thanksgiving turkeys has been stronger than in past years.  We have already sold 60% of our inventory, so thank you!

As a reminder, you may place your order for delivery this week or next week, but your turkey isn’t guaranteed until you confirm you order.  We are delivering orders the following dates:

  • Tuesday, November 10th
  • Tuesday, November 17th
  • Friday, November 20th

We are not doing deliveries on Tuesday November 24th because that doesn’t leave enough time for defrosting and brining a turkey if there happen to be delivery delays.

Chickens trying to figure out this white stuff.

Meanwhile back at the ranch…  We began this week dealing with cold, wind, and cold.  Nighttime temperatures dropped down to 15 degrees. We were glad we added heaters for the chicken shelters this spring.  The heaters were a welcome addition, bringing the temperature up enough that the chickens remained comfortable despite the cold.  As I write this, the forecast for today is 70 degrees, so the winter coats are back in the closet and we’re wearing short sleeves. Weather whiplash!

I find mental peace in the way farming forces me to work primarily with elemental forces of weather, animal physiology, and plant biology.  With all the sturm und drang this week as the entire country is strangely unified by a collective ulcerative uncertainty about election results, it is freeing to be able to put all that away as I work and to focus on the peace of wild things.

Thanksgiving Turkeys Are Ready

Our Thanksgiving turkeys are ready!

You may place your order for delivery right away or you may choose a date closer to Thanksgiving at checkout. To guarantee you get the size turkey you want, I’d recommend putting in your order soon.

Besides whole birds, we also have boneless turkey breasts and breast tenderloins.  We are restocked on turkey wings, drumsticks, and ground turkey.  New this year we’ve added smoked, precooked turkey drumsticks.

It has been a big year for raising turkeys on the farm and we are glad to have so much to offer for your Thanksgiving gatherings and for your regular meals. Enjoy!

Pasture Raised Shakeup

I’ve been thinking this week about Perdue’s recent acquisition of the largest pasture raised chicken farm in the country.  I had a feeling this was coming, but I only heard confirmation recently.

Pasturebird was the real deal, a large scale independent farm that took “pasture raised” as a serious and important aspect of everything they did. I don’t know what Perdue’s goals are, but they’ll certainly be working to grow the business further. Their prices are currently a bit higher per pound than ours, but I’m sure they’ll apply the vast vertically integrated Perdue network to sell pasture raised chicken for fractions of what it costs in my world. I am confident that the other big industry companies Tyson, JBS, and Sanderson are also eyeing the pasture raised market.

The industry news makes me ask, what will make our farm continue to be relevant even if Perdue, Tyson, and the others manage to replicate our methods? In comparing price and distribution they can crush us, so there’s no chance of making a stand on those fronts. Relevancy is going to have to be established on the set of principles each side represents. These large poultry companies have been busy the last year fighting antitrust investigations over wage suppression and rounds of indictments for price fixing schemes. Conspiring against customers, conspiring against employees, conspiring against farmers, this is what Big Meat stands for. We know where the industry is headed.

Instead of “conspiring against”, our farm will “aspire toward”. We will aspire toward improving, building, and strengthening the people we work with and the land we farm. We’ll set the roots down deep. The industry sees this as the wrong direction because it isn’t the most efficient way to generate capital, but when they say “wrong” we know we’re on to something they’ve overlooked. During the next few years with the big guys barging in things may become more difficult, but I’m confident if we stick to our principles our farm will continue to connect with people who aspire toward the same goals.

Saplings can thrive even in the understory of the giants. There’s hope for the little guys still.

Dig This

Five years ago I wrote about digging 1500 feet of trench for buried water lines.  It turns out that on the same exact day this year I was at it again, only this time we placed 1800 feet of pipe, five hydrants, and roughed in the plumbing for one water trough.  I’d gladly take credit for getting better in my old age, but the truth is that the kids are becoming more useful so they contributed to the efficiency of the work.

This project is long overdue, but getting weather and time and money to align has been challenging.  We now have a frost free water line running the entire length of the farm.  This will simplify our grazing rotation.  We’ve been making due with hundreds of feet of garden hose, but above ground hose is prone to breaking, kinking, and freezing, so we’re thrilled to have water available in or near all our pastures.

Allie screened crushed stone to make some drainage material for the frost free hydrants and for the tank drain valves.  The hydrants have small drain holes to allow the water to run out of the end of the standpipe after closing to prevent freeze damage.  Placing a load of stone around the base of each pipe creates an adequate drainage field.

AJ and Harry helped with backfilling the hydrants.  I needed one person to steady the hydrant and another person to steady the wooden bollards while I began the backfilling.  After the first foot or so was buried we were able to shovel together.  The bollards are essential because cattle love to scratch their necks on things, and a 1200 lb beast with an itch to scratch can work four feet of buried pipe out of the ground, breaking the connection and causing a gusher.  That’s a situation we’d prefer to avoid.

A Tornado Hit the Farm

This week we weathered a tornado.  What a way to get all hands on deck!  Everyone pulled together and we’ve managed to begin patching things up.

On Wednesday afternoon without much warning the skies went dark, hail pounded down, and the house began to quiver.  AJ and Harry were outside and I could see them pelting down the road to get into the house just ahead of the precipitation.

The storm ended after a few minutes, and I was puzzled as I looked out the rain-smeared windows because nothing seemed right.  The visual reference points were changed.  First I noticed the missing trees, then I realized one of the chicken coops wasn’t where I left it, and looking farther out back I was shocked that the turkey shelter and dog house were nowhere to be seen.

The turkey shelter is a 40 foot trailer, but the wind easily cartwheeled it over the fence and into the hedgerow.  The dog house is smashed up a few yards down the line.

Everyone scrambled out, changing into rain gear about as expeditiously as firefighters suiting up.  We found one of the chicken coops had been scooted across the ground, turned in a right angle from where it had been.  This is impressive, because a pickup truck strains to move this coop.  As with many tornados, there are often strange variations across short distances, with the chicken coop being pushed across the field while an empty cardboard box nearby remained unmoved.  We quickly worked to stabilize the chicken coop, and then moved on.

The hoops are crushed and the tarp is trashed, but the turkeys aren’t aesthetes, so they seemed equally happy with a ruined trailer so long as they had a place to roost.

We found the turkey shelter flattened and the dog house next to it, smashed to bits.  Both were thrown clear of their pasture and into the hedgerow.  Despite the deep gouges in the field indicating where the wreckage had cartwheeled past them, none of the turkeys were killed.  We brought the tractor and dragged the turkey shelter out, flipped it over, picked up the loose parts, and towed it back in with the birds to give them at least some shelter.  It looks frightful, but it does provide some protection from the rain.

Ash and cherry trees down along the edge of a field.

As we rushed to sort out the mess, I was pleased to see in one of the trees that had split in half a woodpecker busily eating ants from a newly-exposed rotten part of the trunk.  I suppose if I were writing this as a short story, this would be the place to use the woodpecker as a symbolic counterpoint against all of us busy humans working so hard to control damage, while the woodpecker just saw new opportunities to eat ants.  But I’m not writing a work of fiction, so I’ll refrain…

I cranked up the zoom to the maximum, so the woodpecker shows up fuzzier than I’d like.  Note that the sky had already transitioned to clear blue within a few minutes of the storm’s passage.

October on the Farm

We have been enjoying the beautiful early fall days. While installing new tin siding on the back of the shed I have been listening to a book by one of my favorite authors, Wallace Stegner.  He must have understood my joy at being outdoors these days when he wrote this appropriate line:

“It is such a morning as all the old remember and only the young belong in.”

Turkeys are reaching peak turkeyness, inflated and quivering and proud of their pendulous snoods and wattles.  The steers are beginning to grow out their thicker winter coats.  Shaggy mane mushrooms are emerging in the wood chips.  Everywhere there are wonderful displays of ash, basswood, cherry, sumac, and some of the maple trees changing colors while the hickory and oak leaves remain green.  A glorious October.

A tom turkey strutting, with extra blood going to his head to make his face and intense red and blue.  If he were not trying so hard to be impressive, he’d look just like the others in the background in their normal resting state with paler coloration.
A rainbow popped up on my way home from the hardware store yesterday.
Less glorious but still necessary, it was time (or past time) to put tin over the worn out siding on the back of the shed.

Just one more quote I read this week, not apropos of anything, but an irresistible line to share.  It comes from Ivan Turgenev, but I got it by way of Stegner:  “A system is like the tail of truth, but truth is like a lizard; it leaves its tail in your fingers and runs away knowing full well that it will grow a new one in a twinkling.”

Let Them Eat Rocks

Visitors to the farm are sometimes surprised to learn that we feed our chickens and turkeys rocks. In the case of turkeys, a lot of rocks.

Many birds use rocks as a digestive aid. This arrangement makes sense because birds lack teeth for chewing, so anything that can’t be broken down by pecking or clawing goes down the hatch whole. Rocks collect in a bird’s gizzard and they are used to mill food into smaller pieces for more thorough extraction of nutrients. Over time the rocks (technical term is gastroliths for any stone used in digestive tracts) wear down and pass out of the gizzard requiring replacement.

Grit for the older birds on left, starter size on right.

We start our chicks on tiny bits of crushed granite the size of coarse sand. As they grow, we graduate them to larger dimensions. I’m not certain what would be the maximum size stone a turkey could swallow, but I have watched them eating down pieces larger than a half inch square. For the smaller grit varieties we purchase a specially screened stone chip, but for the older birds we just use bulk crushed stone (DOT size 1 or 1A) we buy by the dump truck load from a quarry. At the end of the season, any leftover material gets spread out on the lane for road top dressing, so it is useful one way or the other.

At this point in the early fall when the turkeys are reaching maturity, it seems like I’m always filling up their grit tub. We serve up nearly a half pound of grit per turkey each week. They are more excited for a fresh delivery of crushed stone than they are for a refill of feed, all crowding round to get a bellyful of rock.

WDF Beef and Water

Once when selling at a farmers’ market, a customer told me she felt particularly conflicted about purchasing beef because of the water it wastes. Indeed, depending on the source of your facts, you can find shocking statistics stating that beef wastes between 500 and 2500 gallons per pound of meat, so it isn’t surprising that she was so troubled. This horrific waste is a favorite argument cited by those who’d wish to convince others to stop eating beef.

I’d like to present my reasons for positing that Wrong Direction Farm beef doesn’t waste water. I’ll only address my specific context. I can’t speak for other farms, or for the circumstances in other climates. I’m no expert in water usage for growing grain, nuts, fruit, or vegetables, so I can’t authoritatively point to other agricultural practices for comparison. I’ll just stick with what I know well, my farm.

As an establishing point: what is wasted water and why does it matter? Water waste results from disruption of the water cycle. Water can be wasted by removing it from a location and not replacing it (such as drawing water from a well and then flushing it into a waterway rather than letting it infiltrate back through the soil into the well). Water can also be wasted by polluting it, rendering future uses of it harmful. Waste has turned critical in places where municipal water supplies and privates wells are running dry as subterranean water levels drop. In some locations this results in dry wells as the cost to dig deeper becomes prohibitive. Elsewhere, saltwater is intruding into depleted aquifers and ruining the fresh water supply. Declining water tables even cause subsidence at the surface as underground pore spaces collapse. (Side note: for a particularly perverse twist, follow the story of how cheap solar power is helping irrigate bumper crops of opium in Afghanistan, while rapidly destroying their water supply.) Undeniably, water waste is a serious issue for communities throughout the world.

Every drop of water used by our farm is directly harvested as rainwater. Under the house we have an old cistern to collect runoff from the roof of the house and the shed behind it. In the back of the farm we have a pond to collect rainwater at the bottom of a long sloping field. All of our fields, both the pastures and the fields cut for hay are watered by rainfall, with no irrigation from wells or aquifers. So at the source, our water use is not depleting any groundwater reserves.

Naturally, soon after the cattle drink they urinate it back out. Because the herd is never concentrated in numbers that exceed the carrying capacity of the land, urine is distributed in volumes the soil can easily absorb. Soil bacteria are able to synthesize it into nitrogen-rich fertilizer. We constantly move the cattle throughout the farm, preventing any one one area from becoming supersaturated, thus preventing wastage from water becoming polluted.

And about the water in the pond… As it sits there, it isn’t a passive rainwater storage tank. It is active. The pond is full of fish, snails, frogs, and turtles. Bees fly over from the hives next door to drink. Swallows and killdeer visit each day. Herons hunt in the reeds. A pair of geese visits each spring to lay eggs. Migrating flocks of ducks stop for a rest. Deer and coyotes drop by for a drink. And we swim in it on hot summer evenings. By digging this pond, we’ve been able to create new wildlife habitat and to diversify the local ecosystem.

Baby turtle out by the pond

Are there beef products that squander thousands of gallons per pound of meat? That absolute worst case scenario probably exists somewhere. But that certainly isn’t the situation here. The most you can say is that we temporarily divert the water through our cattle.

You can take a bite out of a Wrong Direction Farm steak or burger or brisket and enjoy it for the taste and satisfaction you find in eating it.  But if you also need some ecological reassurance about the wider effects of the meal, then I can provide that too.

Just be sure not to waste water when you are washing the dishes afterwards.