Wrong Direction Farm

It Must Be Spring

… because the first spring calf arrived this afternoon.  I thought we only had one cow bred early, but this cute little heifer came from another cow I wasn’t expecting to calve for another month.  Guess I wasn’t paying careful enough attention to the hanky panky in the pasture last summer.

E28 with Luna

The calf got her mother’s whiteface genes and her father’s red coat.  That’s a unique look in our herd since we don’t have any other whiteface cows.

The weather is a bit chillier than I’d prefer for calving, but I don’t foresee any problems.  This calf’s mother is the best cow in the herd, so the calf will be well fed.  With a belly full of milk and some dry hay to keep out of the spring mud and the remaining snow patches, she’ll be fine.  Calves usually spend their first days napping, but a week or two from now she’ll be skipping and running wind sprints while the rest of the herd stands around watching her askance, probably thinking, “Calves these days…”

Doorstep Delivery Now Available

It feels like it has taken ages to get to this point, but we’re now ready to announce the beginning of our Doorstep Delivery service.  We’ll be doing weekly shipments of our meat via next day delivery to customers within our Fedex delivery zone.  Orders should arrive on Wednesdays.

We’ve done a lot of work on the pricing to pare things down and we’re happy that we can offer this service with a minimum of overhead.  We’ve looked at the big national natural/grassfed meat companies, and we’re glad to note that our prices are still competitive (better in most cases) even when the shipping and handling are all included.

We don’t have any aspirations to become a nationwide meat distributor.  Lots of folks are working hard to do that with venture capital funding going into box services, home delivery, and extensive grassfed vertical integration efforts.  Following that path would cause us to stray far from our identity as a family farm to become a brand that represents farmishness without being viscerally connected to a farm.   (Note that I’m not knocking farming cooperatives or partnerships, I’d actually like to be part of more partnerships, but I am dubious of the ability of a nationwide brand to stay true to the roots that gave it initial success and legitimacy.)

Our goal is to be one farm in our area that distributes food to people in our part of the country.  We realize that our Neighborhood Deliveries¹ don’t work for everyone who wants our products, so we’re doing what we can to make ourselves accessible to the people who are looking for better alternative food suppliers.  We would rather be part of a system that encourages many farms to produce food for consumption within their own regions.  Such a robust, regionally distributed food system is counter-cultural in our age of consolidation, standardization, and homogenization.

So I’ll say in this post which is by its nature also an advertisement to buy our stuff, “Yes, go buy our stuff.”  Or buy stuff from another farm in your area.  But send a message with your food dollars that you won’t be an interchangeable part in the industrial organic/natural food machine.

¹ Regarding neighborhood deliveries, we’re always looking to find good dropoff points.  We’d like to extend deliveries between southeastern Albany county up through Saratoga.  Likewise we’re looking for neighborhood delivery points for a Saturday late morning delivery in NJ between Bayonne and Fort Lee.  If you have a suggestion for a location, please let us know.

Goldilocks and the Three Egg Cartons

It seems like I’m never ready for the way stupid stuff trips me up.  I wanted to upgrade the presentation of our egg cartons, so I ordered a batch of stickers to cover the entire top of the egg cartons.  I thought it would be easy to use a date stamp to imprint the “Best By” dates on each carton.  Wrong wrong wrong.

I bought a stamp and ink pad, but I found that unless each stamp was applied exactly perpendicular to the page, there would be skid marks.  And even when we hit the angle of approach perfectly, the ink tended to bleed.  I replaced it with a self-inking stamp that has a stand built in and a non-bleeding type ink.  That solved the skidding and bleeding problems, but created a new problem because the ink was very slow drying, so most cartons smeared as we stacked them.  I bought a supermarket-grade pricing gun and a big roll of stickers, and at last I’m satisfied that I’ve got a solution that works quickly and produces legible results.

I only wasted about $40 on stamps and ink, so this isn’t anywhere near the top of the list of expensive mistakes in my history.   But it is illustrative of the absurd amounts of time I spend on silly stuff researching and messing around with different options, just for something as trivial as dating egg cartons.

Whenever I encounter a farm (or really any operation) that is running smoothly and efficiently, it is easy to assume that they always were that way.  I’ve come to realize that efficiency is something that only exists after a period of inefficient trial and error.  Maybe over time I’ll get better at sussing out dead ends without having to explore each one.  Somehow I don’t think so.

Snow? No Problem.

One of the things I enjoy about cows is how they take everything as it comes.  Two or three feet of snow?  No problem.  Just give them hay, water, and some trees to block the wind while they are napping, and they are fine.

The picture above was taken few hours into Tuesday’s snow.  By the end of the day it was up past their bellies.  They made a few paths between their hay bales and their water, and with enough cattle moving back and forth between the two points they maintained an open lane so that even the yearlings had no difficulty moving across the field.

Reluctant Piglets

The piglets on the other hand needed a lot more persuading to sally forth from their snug hut and out into the snow.  Eventually, after listening to them stand in the doorway and whine at me, I relented and trampled a path for them, which they immediately followed out to their trough.  As a special snow day surprise, I filled their trough with milk.  (Normally they drink whey, but because many milk trucks were unable to move during the highway travel ban most of the dairy farms near me were dumping their milk.  I was able to pick up 1600 gallons of fresh milk from a farm just around the corner.  The pigs were quite pleased with the situation.)

Uncomfortable Neighbors

One of the cats discovered that the chicken nest boxes are actually pretty cozy places to nap.  The cat figured out how to avoid the electric perimeter fence by scaling a wood wall about ten feet high and dropping down into the chicken’s shelter.  The chickens are none too pleased to be sharing their space.

Power to the Pasture

With last week’s balmy un-February-like weather, I was watching the grass carefully.  Despite the warm air, ground temperatures remained cold and most of the pastures remained dormant.  But not uniformly dormant.

Note the contrast in the left and right side of the image.  The left is where the cattle ate a hay bale last March.  The right side is the normal grass in the field.  This field has been grazed three times; before that the field had been hayed for many years in a net-export environment that didn’t do much to return fertility to the field.  The contrast in the photo tells me a few things:

  1. The combination of cattle and bale grazing definitely adds fertility to a field.
  2. Last fall when the cattle came through this field, that spot was already more fertile (hence tastier grass), as evidenced by long residuals they left behind on the right versus the short cropping on the left.
  3. Increased fertility leads to a much earlier startup of photosynthesis as the green versus brown contrast shows.

Like I mentioned in a previous post, this is an encouraging indication that the farm soil biology is improving.  As the soil comes into better balance, the bacterial and mycorrhizal life are functioning at a higher level, expanding the operating window for our soils.  I’ve heard before that good grazing management can effectively extend the growing season by allowing plants to be more active more days of the year, but this is the first year I’ve seen such strong evidence for it in spots over the farm.

Do I hear the skeptical grumble that I’m just looking for evidence to support my presuppositions?  Alright, I’ll agree that I’m a non-objective observer.  Aren’t we all?

It’s Here: Soppressata

It has been a long time coming, but we are glad to feature a mild Soppressata salami among our list of products.  Each batch of salami takes a couple of months to make; during that time it is hard to wait patiently!

Interestingly, the Soppressata has the same list of ingredients as our Spanish Fuet, but the taste is very different.  Both salamis are lacto-fermented, but by playing with the fermenting and drying conditions, the whole character changes significantly.  Whereas the Fuet is hard and pungent, the Soppressata is soft and mild.

The folks at Espuña who have been making our salamis bring a European sensibility to their recipes, so this salami is a bit different from the American mass market Soppressatas I’ve tasted.  Rather than clobbering you over the head with spices, this one lets the pork take center stage.  (Note, if you like a salami with lots of spices, we hope to have a great pepperoni this summer, so stay tuned.  We just got to taste the first sample batch this weekend.)

Need to get your salami fix?  You can find it in our online store here.

antipasto

An antipasto salad I made for our first meal with the new Soppressata.

Bed of 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

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.