Wrong Direction Farm

Two Doors in One

When I used to remodel houses, I allowed myself the time to be a perfectionist. These days I’m dealing with too many projects to obsess with detail. The hectic schedule requires that many things be slapped together just to move on to the next task. But I am most pleased when I can take the time to think through and execute a design that includes details that matter to me.

The chicken brooder trailer needed a door. It has a full overhead door on the back, but it also needed an easily opened door for the daily feeding chores. I needed a door that is easy to open, even for the kids, and easy to shut securely to keep out all the creeping, crawling, and flying animals that love to eat chicken. But I also wanted a door that was big enough to easily clean out the brooder at the end of each batch.

I cut the door panels using an aluminum-rated blade, spraying lubricant
liberally all the while because the insulation in the panels prevented the blade from dissipating heat. I bent some flashing around each of the panel edges to reduce the risk of snagging clothes on the way through the door. On the hinge side I used a piano hinge salvaged from the turkey trailer project. The door latch is standard and I added top and bottom barrel latches to secure the door when it is used in overhead mode. The bottom panel remained in place because I need to prevent the chicks from escaping when the door opens.

With the door closed and latched it still works as it was originally designed as an overhead door. For wider door panels, cutting this section would have reduced the strength, but I don’t think I’ll need to add any reinforcement for such a short span.

The test of everything is in the use, but I’m optimistic that this door will be one of the features that make this our best brooder yet. It was a good challenge to step through the design and then to find that it worked as well as it did.

It all needs is a good scrubbing before putting it into service, but I’ll wait until I’m finished making construction messes first.

Duck Snow Bathing

While I was working on the new chicken brooder trailer the flock of ducks marched up the hill, enjoying the bright, warm day and especially enjoying the snowmelt puddles. They primarily focused on splashing and bathing in the puddles, but when they grew tired of that they would switch over to snow bathing as well. They quickly wriggle through the snow to work it into their feathers, and then the ducks would shake it back off. Here’s a clip:

Farmers in Conferences Getting Coffee

Ever since the year before we started our farm, I’ve made it a point to attend one farming conference annually. This year I went all out and attended two, both this week.

At the pastured poultry conference in Dallas.

Farming conferences involve all the usual things you’d expect from any other conference: squeally microphones, polite but forced applause after each presentation, people standing around a projector trying to connect it to a laptop, and of course lots of coffee. Blah coffee in the morning, and burnt coffee for afternoon break.

At the grazing conference in Albany

On Monday and Tuesday I attended the American Pastured Poultry Producers Association meeting and on Saturday I was at the Cornell Winter Green-Up Grazing conference. At the beginning of my farming career I went to these sorts of meetings to learn basic farming fundamentals. Now I’m there principally to talk to people. I’ve got my list of people to see for specific questions, but beyond that I try to meet at least a few strangers. I’m often amazed by the variety of situations and backgrounds at these events. The general feeling of these meetings includes a refreshing openness to share plans and ideas. Farmers don’t have trade secrets, rather they trade their secrets.

Now I’m back to the farm and I’m all done with conferences for another year. The next objective is to buckle down to finishing the chicken, turkey, cattle, and pig planning for 2019 and early 2020. Although we’re in the depths of winter, spring is coming, and we have a lot of new projects to have ready by then. As always, I’m intimidated by the scale of the plans we have for this year, but I’m also feeling enthusiastic to meet the challenges.

Reefer Madness

We just received an old reefer trailer for our next chicken brooder. We’ve been using shipping containers for the last two years, and while we’ve been happy with most aspects of their performance, we found that their lack of insulation causes problems with moisture condensing on the inside surfaces and raining down, especially for the early spring batches of chickens when the ambient temperatures are coldest. This reefer box has three inches of insulation in the walls and ceiling and two inches in the floor rather than the bare steel of the shipping containers. (There are insulated shipping containers available, but the costs are about three or four times the price of these salvage trailers, and the shipping containers are eight feet shorter.)

This is a storage grade trailer so the interior walls are shabby, the FRP is sagging, the reefer unit is gone, and there is hole in the floor where a forklift wheel punched through. But despite its rough condition, it should make a great brooder. I’m hopeful that the thick insulation will provide enough of a thermal break to prevent the moisture problems that plagued our shipping container brooders. Our summers don’t get especially hot, but I expect that the insulation will also help to prevent overheating on the warmest days.

If the trailer proves to be useful, I’d consider cutting off the landing gear and axles and placing the trailer at ground level. But for now I’d like to keep the unit mobile since I need to move the trailer later this year after I can get a bulldozer to prepare a more level spot. For now I’ll just cobble together a portable set of stairs.

We’ll continue using our forty foot shipping container as a brooder, but the twenty foot container is going to be repurposed as a storage shed.

Breakfast Sandwich

We’ve added sage breakfast sausage patties to our lineup. Allie and I made “breakfast” sandwiches for lunch (why limit good food to the hegemony of prescribed mealtime orthodoxy?) and of course we went overboard with the layering. We barely could squeeze them tight enough to get a bite. But overdoing it is part of the joy of sandwiches.

This is a fully locally-sourced meal and it pretty much checks every box in my definition of comfort food. Wrong Direction Farm eggs and sausage patties, North Country Creamery Havarti cheese, Kriemhild butter on toasted Psychedelicatessen plain bagels.

Strange Egg

We have an itty-bitty egg operation, with just a few hundred hens on the farm. Still, over the course of the last year we gathered about 110,000 eggs by hand, so we get to see our fair share of eggs.

Most of the eggs just look like eggs. There are natural variations in size and shell color. Sometimes we’ll get one with a wrinkled shell or an egg with an especially round or pointy shape. Some hens are a little overzealous with the shell and add extra knobs of calcium. Maybe once or twice a week we find one with an unformed shell due to failure to coat the egg with sufficient calcium. Those are all the normal abnormals.

But every now and then we find an egg that makes us scratch our heads. Here’s an oddity I found recently. I’ve waited a few days to see if I’d have any other strange eggs like it, but it hasn’t repeated. This flock of hens is well behaved and they normally lay their eggs in the nest boxes, but I found this one on the ground in the wood chips.

Chicken eggs are formed on an assembly line as they pass from the ovary through the oviduct, starting with a yolk, then adding an albumen (the white) and a membrane, then they are covered with a shell, and finally they get a bloom (a thin waxy seal coating).

This egg apparently was partially in the oviduct and partially in the shell gland, as the shapes of both organs are still apparent. Perhaps there was a problem detaching from the ovary causing it to elongate. The fact that the egg was laid on the ground instead of in a nest box may indicate that the egg was in a normal transitional stage when an abnormally strong contraction pushed the egg out. I can only surmise this sequence; none of the hens are willing to fess up to claim it.

Vegans, and Solidarity, and Hope

Rachel and I have both been called animal murderers. I understand what people mean when they fling that word at us. Believe me, I carry a lot of killing with me, so I know it deeply. I don’t like the insult, but I understand why in a polarized world someone might feel that we’re too “other” to be reasoned with.

Last time I promised I’d give my opinion on veganism. Without being ironic or patronizing, I am glad that people become vegans. I sincerely believe the world is a better place because of vegans. As much as my life choices show that I do not agree with veganic conclusions, I am delighted that people take the time to study our contemporary food systems and I respect that people come to the conclusion that they don’t want any animals involved in food in any way. Veganism has a structure of internal logic and consistency. I think it is weak on understanding of the ecology of nutrient cycling, human physiology, and human psychology. I believe it places an unwarranted emphasis on the arbitrary concept of animal sentience, especially in a time when we are learning more about plant, fungal, and bacterial intercommunication and awareness. But for all my criticisms, veganism isn’t something that can be dismissed offhandedly. Its emphasis on dismantling systems of domination and oppression is a tremendous moral high ground.

While my vision for agriculture is different than a veganic vision and there can and should be discussion or debate, my greatest concern is with the overall tone of the discourse between vegans and omnivores at the broader cultural level. The interactions I’ve witnessed usually involve moral outrage and blanket condemnation from vegans and dismissive mockery and taunting from omnivores. Neither of these approaches does anything to bring people toward understanding.

Importantly, the wedge between food factions is being exploited by the food industry to create profitable food niches that appear to meet the objectives of the various groups without actually changing any of the status quo behind the scenes. I don’t need to rehash the list of desolations caused by cheap food. But it is worth pointing out that choosing grassfed or organic or vegan labels at the grocery isn’t necessarily doing anything to fix the brokenness. When meat eaters clamor for grassfed beef, voilà it shows up in stores, but nobody sees that the cattle are from “grassfed feedlots” with thousands of cattle standing in manure, entirely dependent on heavy irrigation, herbicide-suppressed alfalfa crops, beet pulp, and other annuals, with not a single perennial grass blade to be found. This isn’t the grassfed ideal, but it is what supermarket grassfed really is. The same sorts of fakery applies with dairy, poultry, and really everything else in the organic and grassfed mass market.

Similarly with vegan food choices, buying mainstream means participating in the dismantling of communities and ecosystems. When people go looking for vegan food from the many restaurants, stores, and home delivery services that surround us, none of these services lifts the curtain to show that the food production depends on destroying tropical forests and evicting small farmers to satisfy America’s craving for organic coconuts, avocados, mangoes, and bananas plantations somewhere in some other country. Closer to home, much of the domestically-grown produce and crops are coming from regions of the country where water resources are being withdrawn far faster than they can replenish and where ever-growing farms are destroying plant and animal habitats. It isn’t what any vegan would want, but it is what is happening as we go about our lives as issue-based consumers.

My preferred way out of this mess is to call for a ceasefire to the fighting along food faction lines. Rather, I wish everyone would focus on creating the food system they support. PETA billboards and rude carnivore bumper stickers don’t make anything better. Fight the man, but not the vegan or the omnivore next door. The system is relentless, and it continues to grow and consolidate as eaters splinter into smaller groups, profiting from each niche as a marketing target, and yet not taking any of these customers seriously. The perfectly portioned packages are produced on a downward slope of cost cutting measures to achieve the best chance to snag a piece of the market while keeping customers as uninformed as possible about the social and environmental consequences of their buying choices.

The first step always starts with ourselves and the people closest to us, so I want people to grow and to prepare more of their own food together. And for whatever can’t be done at home and in community gardens, then the next step would be finding a farmer who can do the rest. Find a farmer who is real with you. It is a relationship, so find someone who clicks with you. I’d like to be the ideal farmer, but I know I am not the right person for everyone. Once you have a farmer, realize that you have a connection to your food. If you have a question about something, ask. If you have a suggestion for improvement, offer it. If you want to pick a cucumber or to toss apple peels to a chicken, visit the farm to do it.

There’s always the thrill of the cheap shot, putting the burn on someone for choosing differently and being vegan, vegetarian, paleo, keto, carnivore, or whateverian. But those thrills are shallow and ephemeral and only serve to bully and belittle others. We can do better than slogans and hashtags. Building a food system based on shared work and relationships, bringing people together around the table to enjoy a well-made meal, now that is something that lasts a lot longer. That is what I am striving for in the New Year. I’ve been encouraged that over the past year our family has been able to put down some deeper roots in friendships and collaborations with various folks on the vegan-vegetarian side of the food spectrum, and I am hopeful that this is just the beginning of good things to come.

Happy New Year to all, whether you put beans or beef or both in your burritos.

So long 2018

Peak Vegan?

I’ve recently met or spoken with a number of vegans and vegetarians who’ve gone back to adding some eggs, meat, or dairy into their diets. As a purveyor of animal products, I don’t write any of this in a spirit of gloating, but of course I’m glad to have the trust of these folks who are looking for animals raised the way we do it on our farm. (Please note, there aren’t official standards on farmer-customer confidentiality, but I won’t publicize any specifics of these conversations. I realize that these choices are very personal. Your food secrets are safe with me.)

I was curious if what I was picking up on was a trend or if I was just drawing crazy conclusions. The idea has been sloshing around in my head for a while, until it occurred to me this afternoon that I could ask Google.

According to Google search terms, “vegan” exploded in popularity in 2016 and peaked in August 2017. It still is far more heavily searched than it was pre-2016, but there has been a year-long downward trend. I’ll be the first to disclaim that a trend is not the same as a forecast, so the “peak vegan” headline is really just clickbait. But it is at the very least an interesting correlation between internet searches and my anecdotal observations.

What do I think about veganism? I’m glad you asked… That’s a topic for the next post.

Urban Transplants

At my Queens/Flushing Meadows Lake delivery today I was surprised when I found these farm-breed ducks in among a large group of mallards.

Being New York, the Mallards were resentful of the way the entitled Pekin and Swedish ducks were rapidly contributing to the gentrification of their lake and changing the character of their neighborhood.


Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose
Nothin’ ain’t worth nothin’ but it’s free

Roger Miller via Kris Kristofferson

This “freedom” line from Me and Bobby McGee is brilliant because it is challenging to parse, and as the song progresses it becomes clear that the freedom is at least partially ironic.

All our freedoms come with their own asterisks and footnotes.

I am embracing a new freedom of sorts.  As of the end of this December I’ll be leaving the job that has supported our family and funded our farm as we’ve built the farm over the last eight years.  I’ve watched annual layoffs over the past years sweep closer and closer to me, and I decided that this would be a good time to make my exit.  I could have avoided this outcome by applying for a new job within the company, but I realized I’m at the point where I couldn’t do both jobs anymore.  And honestly, I love the farm and it would do better with more attention.  The other job was just a job.

I couldn’t have started the farm without having another job to bankroll it.  I am amazed at how expensive it is to start a farm, even a relatively low-tech one like ours.  But I’m relieved to be able to focus on something I really care about.  It is freedom, and I have everything to lose.

The farm breaks even on its current sales, but it isn’t able to pay us for our labor.  It also isn’t paying for all the infrastructure we keep adding to support our growth.  At the same time, the farm has become so busy and complicated that Rachel and I need to be able to focus on it full time (OK, more than full time) if we are going to push it to the next level where it can fund its own growth and pay us.  I expect that things will be frighteningly tight for the next few years, but we’re at the point where we either need to force the farm to carry its weight or to pack it up and just be “lifestyle farmers” with a small herd of cattle to eat the grass and a few pigs and chickens for the homestead.

To make the farm successful, we’ll need to continue to develop and change our conception of what Wrong Direction Farm is.  We need to make our daily work more efficient so we can accomplish our tasks while still creating enough time to enjoy each other as a family.  We need to study our costs and our sales to understand what is working and what isn’t.  We need to strengthen our partnerships with other farmers.  We need to listen to our customers to find out what they value in our farm, at a time where quasi-pasture raised eggs and kinda-grassfed beef are becoming ubiquitously available in supermarkets and delivery boxes.

The cattle don’t have any comment.  Just looking at how far we’ve come gives me some ground for hope.  There are fifty five cattle out there this winter.  Our first winter we had four dairy steers.

I’ll admit to being scared.  We have a few months of severance to carry us for a bit, but then everything depends on our being able to accomplish this tremendous task.  I’m glad to have had the opportunity to carry the dream this far, and I’m going to give the next challenge my best shot.