Wrong Direction Farm

Right Place, Right Time

I found one persistent dandelion blooming this morning.  The farm was covered in a heavy freezing fog, the rocks and plants were white with wispy frost, and the soil was crunchy underfoot.  But in one clump of trees the frost was light.  And this dandelion was almost entirely frost free, probably owing to the shelter of the piece of limestone above it.

Microclimates are curious things.  Creating microclimates is a staple of permaculture discussions, but I’ve never found them to behave consistently.  The means are varied:  creating wind breaks, building solar sinks, or controlling water flow.  Any of these can influence the temperature in a small protected area.  The problem is that if the wind were to shift directions or the afternoon became cloudy, these methods wouldn’t help.

Sometimes success is all about being in the right place at the right time.  Whatever combinations of factors led to this bloom surviving, it was fun to see this tough little flower growing against all odds.

Get Along Piggies

This fall we stretched the pigs’ grazing season longer than usual. Some years we’ve had to curtail it by late October, though normally we bring them in just before deer hunting begins in mid-November. This year their rotation pattern brought them farther from the woods so they weren’t interfering with hunters.  But with the fields turning mushy as the season progressed, it was time.

Even large groups of cattle can be herded effectively by one person driving the rear, but pigs don’t move as cohesively as cattle.  The groups are more prone to break ups, with more internal churning and frequent losses of momentum. Moving pigs is easier with the carrot and stick approach. In this case the carrots were treats (flakes of apple pomace from Pavlus Orchards’ cider making) Rachel and Harry placed ahead and I was the stick, bringing up the rear by pacing back and forth to keep the slow pokes moving.

With the portable catch pen and the stock trailer in place, the job went well for us.  And for the pigs too.  They seem to like their new place. When I went out this morning’s chores they were snoring in the pile of wood chips in their hoophouse.

Squeaking By

Last night we moved the chickens into their winter hoophouse, just as the snow started falling.  We seem to have a knack for squeaking by when we have deadlines to face.  Each year the autumn weather patterns are a bit different, so we don’t have hard calendar deadlines.  Rather there is a complex coefficient of management hassle that tells us when to bring the chickens in.  This is hard science folks:

coefhassle = rain + 2(snow + mud) + cold

Chickens don’t need protection from a little bit of snow, but with the nights in the teens and twenties and the days above freezing, the soil becomes gooey and the chickens turn the area around their pasture coop into a muddy slurry.  Added to that is is the problem of moving their coop.  We move their coop periodically to keep them on fresh grass, but in this weather the coop begins to sink into the mud.  Last night I was barely able to get the coop towed out of the pasture, leaving big ruts as the tractor clawed its way along in four wheel drive.  So we knew the time was right to move them to their winter home.

Hens in Winter Housing

Picture from early this morning, so the lighting is a bit dim.

The chickens have a fenced yard out behind the hoophouse, but for the first two days we’ll keep them enclosed to latch their brains onto the idea that this is their home.  After their homing instinct connects with this shelter, we’ll be able to let them out during the day without having to herd them back at night.

Boar Tusks

Last December our big boar died and I buried him in a pile of hay bales to compost.  Over the summer the pile broke down, so with a little sifting I was able to unearth the cleaned skeleton.  I removed the tusks since they are so anatomically interesting.

Tusks (or tushes in some parts of the country) are the canine teeth of pigs.  They are found on both the upper and lower jaw, with lower set tending to be larger and sharper along the outside edges.  The upper tusks angle against the lower set to continuously sharpen them.  All pigs have them, but males exhibit faster growth.  The tusks of sows stop growing after a few years, but boars’ tusks continue to lengthen throughout their lives.  The tooth on the right was broken off, probably 6-12 months before the boar died.  In the wild, pigs periodically break off their teeth fighting with competitors and upstarts, so the ability to regrow tusks is important.  This boar didn’t get into any fights (to my knowledge), but he could have broken the end off while digging up rocks and stumps.

Boar Tusks

The cleaner half of the tusks are embedded in the jaw, so the root is as long or longer than the exposed portion.  Impressive dentition!

Boar Tusk Stains

There is some nice patterning, almost like woodgrain, visible in the stained side of the tooth.  The inside edge gets less wear, hence it is more stained than the outer cutting edge.

Boar Tusk Underside

The underside of the tusk is flat.  Note the hollow root end.  The staining near my index finger indicates the point where the tooth emerged from the jaw.

I’m curious to see if I can cross-cut these tusks on my dad’s bandsaw or better yet on the tabletop scrollsaw for a fine kerf cut.  With a little cleaning and polishing, these could make nice ivory disks for jewelry.  Think of the marketing slogan “Boartooth ivory, the sustainable choice”.  OK, so this is probably not ready for mass markets yet, but I’ve got to try it and see what happens.  I am always drawn to objects crafted from materials native to a place and time.  Stay tuned.

Pastured Poultry Video

I’ve been a member of a pastured poultry association for a few years.  It is a small group comprised of farmers like us who are committed to raising birds on pasture.  It mostly exists as a forum for farmers to discuss techniques and practices among ourselves via an online discussion group and a bimonthly newsletter.

They just put together a video showing what pastured poultry looks like.  Honestly, the video isn’t quite as great as it could be, probably too discursive for most YouTube viewers.  But it does provide good examples of honest pastured poultry (as opposed to the disingenuous marketing claims so common on egg cartons and chicken labels today: free range, cage free, or even some of the pasture-raised claims on grocery store eggs).  I’ve never been able to shoot good videos of our chickens, but this video captures in many details a system similar to ours.  The farmer in the blue shirt has pasture coops quite close to ours.  These setups give the chickens plenty of room to roam, allow them to be in the sun or shade depending on their preference, ensure that they are on fresh grass each day, and provide protection from aerial and ground predators.  They work well for us, and the chickens thrive in this environment.

Let me know what you think of the video.

The Real Housewives Who Ruined Pork?

Yesterday I decried the persistently crazy public perceptions about lean pork.  Today I want to share a video that does a good job showing just when American eating and farming both started going off the rails.  I’ve gone back to this video many times over the years since I first watched it because it touches on each aspect that contributed to today’s woes.

It was produced in 1956, so it has everything you’d expect:  stuffy narration and scratchy footage, but the present day viewer will especially notice the unselfconsciously patronizing remarks about the American housewife.  Yes, everything that is wrong with pork and the pig farming industry today is the fault of Eisenhower-era housewives.

The full video is linked below.  Here are highlights that catch my attention:

0:50 Look at the the trucks the farmers are driving.  Everyone is using 12-16 foot stake bed trucks with dumps.  These are good all purpose trucks, not specialized livestock haulers.  Since these farmers run diversified operations, the flatbed would be used for hauling every conceivable thing on the farm.  Based on the size of the truck bed, they are only bringing 10-20 pigs at a time.  Contrast that with today when the average 53 foot double decker trailer hauls 180+ pigs, and hog farms are too specialized to do their own trucking.

2:21 The American housewife.  “She’s the person everyone in the meat industry, the producer, packer, retailer, is trying to please.”  But of course this was never about pleasing the ladies.  It was all about creating a demand in the American market for leaner pork because animal fats no longer were as valuable to the meat packing industry with the rise of abundant, cheap petrochemicals.  Consumer demand is manufactured.  Let’s not kid ourselves otherwise.

3:28, 9:49, and 10:29 Notice how farmers are still feeding pigs on pasture, mainly on alfalfa and what looks like young oats in the last clip.  Within the next two decades none of these small time farmers will be delivering pigs to that stockyard; they either got big or got out.  Pasture feeding doesn’t scale up well compared to building huge livestock barns, so pastures became necessary only as convenient dumping grounds for the increasing amounts of concentrated manure.

3:38 Lard is replaced with vegetable shortening, soap is replaced with detergent.  At the time nobody knew the health problems that would come from eating all those vegetable oils.  And nobody knew (or at least nobody talked about) the environmental damages that would result from abundant detergents being flushed from homes and industries into the waterways.  Of course the concurrent destruction of pasture and hayfields to make way for the corn/soy boom (to support the concentrated hog feeding operations and the new vegetable oil markets) further added to waterway pollution.  And then the high density hog feeding operations created their own problems by leaching manure into the water.  This new system compounded damages upon damages, but gee whiz it sure pleased the American housewife…

3:57 The comparison of the meat type hog versus the lard type hog is nicely done.  I don’t see the meat type hogs they are promoting as particularly egregious.  I’d be happy with pigs of that conformation.  By 1956 they hadn’t bred all the fat out of pigs yet, so they hadn’t reached their present nadir of leanness.  But the trend was starting, and just like in the horror movies where you mutter to the screen to stop the protagonist from opening the closet, watching this video makes you want to shout, “Stop right where you are, if you keep going you’ll ruin food for generations!”

7:49 and 10:58 Marbled meat gets dismissed.  The examples they show compare a poorly formed pork loin with a nicely formed one.  So of course the bigger eye muscle is more appealing on the leaner pig.  If they had done a better trimming job they wouldn’t have as much to criticize.  But then the narrator complains about marbling, as the “internal fat, extra fat” is “carrying too much fat to be suitable to the American housewife”.  Once again, it is those housewives who are to blame…

Sorry to have to call out you housewives.  But it is all your fault, apparently.

The Other White Meat, It’s Back!

Today I heard a story making its round on the news and it made me wonder:  does anyone in the newsroom know anything about pigs?  About pork?  About flavor?

The story goes that pigs lack thermoregulation genes that most other mammals have, so somebody used CRISPR to stick mouse DNA into pigs and gave them that gene.  Now they can thermoregulate better, and as a consequence, they burn more fat and run about 25% leaner than normal pigs.

Along with all the usual dumb puns and blathering about genetic modification, the story is underpinned by three big ideas that happen to be all wrong:

  1.  “Fat is bad.  Low fat pork is healthier.”  Come on, we know better than that…  Do we have to keep on tangling with this misinformation?  Sugar is wrecking our health, not animal fats.  We never had an obesity epidemic when sugar was scarce and the average pigs were much fatter than they are today.
  2.  “Lean pork is tastier.”  No, no, no.  For some meals you may want a leaner cut than others, but on balance if you want a tasty piece of meat, choose something with fat in it.  Animals eating a variety of plants have a variety of flavor compounds deposited in their fat.  If the pork fat you are eating doesn’t taste good, it is because the pigs aren’t being fed well.
  3.  “This improves pig welfare.”  Just because pigs lack a gene for thermoregulation doesn’t mean that they are suffering in the cold.  They have a perfectly functioning adaptation that has been serving  them for a long time in some very cold climates, much colder than ours.  We have pigs that grow vigorously in open air shelters all winter long.  The older pigs often choose to sleep out of doors in the winter; sometimes I find them covered in snow in the morning, even though they have dry bedding and a snug shelter available a short distance away.  We may be able to measure differences in heat loss for genetically modified pigs, but that doesn’t tell us anything about whether the pigs mind the cold or not.

I suspect that what really happened is that the researchers were just messing around with a list of genes lacking in pigs and chose this one because it was a simple one to transfer with CRISPR and it would be easy to measure the results.  Once they completed their study, they looked at the results and tried to shoehorn things into ideas that might result in future funding.  “Look, this is great for animal welfare!”  “Look, this does great things for meat!”

Who knows, maybe at some point we’ll find a genetic modification that is an excellent idea.  But this fat burner gene isn’t one of those excellent ideas.  Don’t accept boring, dry pork.  Eat tasty pork with tasty fat.  I lived through the terrible years of “Pork: The Other White Meat”.  I don’t want to go back to those leather chops.

Trading Virtue for Equipment

I’ve given up on another ideal lately and bought myself a used wood splitter.  I’ve split wood by hand since high school and felt some measure of pride at being pretty good at it.  And felt a measure of disdain for all those wimps using wood splitters if truth be told.  Not only do I enjoy the rhythm and physical challenge, but I also value anything that is hand-crafted rather than machine-made.  But as with so many things, ideals and reals aren’t lining up.  Between time demands, rotator cuff injuries, and some really stringy elms and hickories, I wasn’t keeping up with wood splitting.  Every year I end up buying a few cords to make up the difference.  I decided to swallow my virtue and purchased a machine.

I bought a twenty ton splitter on Craigslist a few weeks ago.  It runs off the tractor’s hydraulics.  This was an important consideration because I didn’t want the bother of maintaining another engine.  The tractor can power it at a slow idle, so it runs for four hours using less than a gallon of diesel.  I’ve used it on the three point, but I think I’d prefer to mount it on a light axle to make hitching and unhitching easier.

Here Harry is running the controls, helping my dad some break up rounds from a hickory that tree that rotted at its base.

Log Splitting

Overall I’m pleased with the machine.  I can’t feel special or superior anymore, but maybe I can feel warm during the winter.  Is that a fair tradeoff?

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.


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


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.