Pasture Season Begins, 2021

The first batch of chickens went out to pasture yesterday.  We started with a small group. Greta, our livestock guardian dog, lived with the cattle all winter, so we wanted to give her a gradual reintroduction back to pastured poultry duty.  She did just fine with them.  I think she was quite happy to be done with the cattle.  She likes little critters more than big ones.

Settling the first group of pasture raised chickens into their field shelter with the livestock guardian dog.
AJ and Rachel settling Greta in with the chickens.

At WDF we take the “pasture” part of pasture raised chicken seriously.  Cattle grow shaggy coats and can thrive in temperatures far colder than we experience in our coldest winters.  Old laying hens can also handle some severe cold weather, but young chickens don’t have that level of resilience.  So for meat chickens, this limits us to a pasture season that begins in mid April and ends in early November. We’ve developed some improvements to our shelters to keep the chickens warm if we get an unseasonably cold snap or an out-of-season snowfall, but there are practical bounds as to how far we can stretch the season.

A three week old pasture raised chicken on our grass pastures at Wrong Direction Farm.
First day on grass. The chickens are always a little silly-looking at this age when they haven’t quite finished feathering out. It reminds me of the patchy beards we tried to grow in high school.

The rest of the chickens will go out to pasture today (that’s on the to-do list after I post this).  From now until early fall we’ll be focusing on everything it takes to raise chickens out on the pastures with batch after batch of birds.  It is something we like to do and I think we’ve gotten to the point where we do it well.  But there is nothing as enjoyable as taking this step away from winter as we place the first group of the season on the newly green grass.

Multidimensional Farming

I posted on the farm Instagram account a picture of the Honey Locust trees Zia and I have been planting in the pastures.  Someone sent in a comment asking if the trees were for shade, and I thought, “Hey, this would be a great topic for this week’s post.” I’ll get to that question by way of detouring through the philosophy of what we’re doing on the farm.

Consider this:  flying over cropland, the ground below appears like a two-dimensional checkerboard.  And, for shame, plenty of people in conventional agriculture have treated it as a simple 2D exercise.  X-Y coordinate marks the spot in the fields where you till, plant, fertilize, spray, spray, spray, harvest, and repeat.  The coordinate right next to it gets treated the same way.  By stirring up the soil the same way, planting the same seed, applying the same amount of standardized fertilizer, and spraying the same poison, one expects the same results at each point on the grid.  Land, in this view, is simply the space required for production.  Soil is dirt, relegated merely to the status of a growing medium.  And anything else is a weed, a pest, a predator, a nuisance.

But you know us at WDF; we abjure oversimplifications.  My goal is always to look for complexity, to understand the farm in a network of increasingly dynamic interactions.  Each X-Y coordinate isn’t the same.  There are innumerable differences as we look upward from the subsoil, the topsoil, the ground level plants, the upper canopy plants, and the trees above them.

One of the beauties of a pasture-based farm is the way we can incorporate so much vibrant life into that third dimension, from the bottom of the soil profile on up into the air above it.  The soil microbes, insects, worms, plants, cattle, chickens, and all the other wild things that share this farm participate in the life of every part of this farm, but never quite in the same way in every place.  Earlier this week the kids and I were outside enjoying the warm sun after supper, and we watched a red fox hunting field mice near the stream.  The foxes and the mice aren’t separate from the farm; they are integral to it, part of its complexity.

Honey Locust tree planted in our pastures where we raise our grass fed beef cattle and our pasture raised chickens and turkeys.
A bare root Honey Locust tree. It has a long way to go!

So back to the Honey Locust trees and the question from Instagram.  Here’s the quick list of all the reasons I want trees in my pastures:
1.  Shade.  As the reader guessed, on hot days cattle enjoy a shady spot.  We’re focusing on getting trees into the least shady pastures first.  Shade also creates micro-zones of cooler temperature, allowing different varieties of grasses to thrive in the shady places as opposed to other varieties that need full sun.
2.  Wildlife habitat.  The most ecologically active areas in any habitat are always at the edges, so placing trees in a meadow creates extra “edge” for plants, insects, and animals.
3.  Pollinators.  Many trees, including locust trees, provide food for crucial pollinators.
4.  Nutrient pumping.  Deep rooted trees draw minerals up from subsoil levels, increasing available minerals for the nearby plants.  As a bonus, locust trees are among a small group of trees capable of capturing atmospheric nitrogen.
5.  Forage.  Cattle and deer enjoy eating low-hanging leaves on trees.  Some trees drop fruit or nuts for additional feed for our livestock or for the wild things.  Honey locusts shed sweet pods that taste a little like bananas.
6.  Wood.  Of course we always need wood on the farm, both for construction and for heat.  Growing our own supply makes sense, even if it takes the patience of a generation for the trees to grow.  Here’s a picture from Monday when Dad helped me cut some lumber on a sawmill we borrowed from a friend.  We salvaged a large stack of boards from trees that blew down in last summer’s tornado.

Reclaiming lumber from storm damaged trees.

One aspect I love about farming is that there is always a way to shake things up simply by asking, “What else can this farm be?” Adding trees to pastures and adding grass to forests has been one of those absorbing projects that allows the farm to expand within its own bounds.

A Look Around the Farm

Things are humming at WDF. This week instead of a topical post I thought I’d just show you what we’ve been up to. We’re looking forward to a future when we can open up the farm to tours again to show you this first hand, but in the meantime I’ll try to keep it as real as possible with a few photos of what we’ve been working on.

Concrete just out of the chute and into our forms. We’re building a foundation for a new bin to hold organic chicken feed.

Loading the van for a trip to the metal recycler. We had about 500 lbs of the aluminum siding and trim from the old trailers we repurposed for movable pasture shade shelters for turkeys.

Plumbing the propane lines to the newest chicken brooder to keep our little chicks warm during their first days out of their eggs.

Wired up all the controls for fans, heaters, lights, and feeders for the brooder. Finished repairing and reinforcing the roof and ceiling. This salvaged trailer came to us after someone crashed it into a low bridge, so the roof needed a lot of help to make it rain-tight again.

One more brooder remaining to be built. Once we get a few warmer days we’ll paint the one on the left.

Spending time with the chicks is an important part of my day. I try to reserve some time just sitting among the chickens or watching the cattle graze. It is best when I avoid having a goal while doing it. I let the animals set the agenda. Today the chicks were insistent on pecking my pants and boots and scrambling up my legs only to topple over again.

Note the first feathers beginning to grow out of the baby fuzz. Two more weeks and these guys will be feathered out enough to head to pasture!

Despite the chilly nights, the plants are just itching to take off.

Chicks Arrive

The first chicks of the season hatched this week.  They wriggled free of their egg shells on Monday morning. We picked them up a few hours later and brought them back to the farm the same day.  From now until Thanksgiving it is bird season at Wrong Direction Farm.

The chicks are kept in close quarters inside vented cardboard boxes while we bring them home from the hatchery.  It is a loud drive for Zia, as she sits in the car with a chorus of 500 chirping birds!  Chicks need to be kept at 90 degrees for their first few days, so crowding for warmth helps keep them comfortable.  Once home we place them in our brooder with the heater thermostat cranked all the way up.  Here they are as we unload them:

Snuggled up together, they keep each other warm during the ride home from the hatchery.

It was a sunny, warm afternoon so I carried a few outside to pose with them:

Even with all the excitement, they fell asleep within seconds.

I didn’t plan it this way, but when I reviewed the pictures Harry was taking, I guess I even wore my special Get Real Chicken shirt for the occasion:

My Get Real Chicken shirt. This was from a project to create a directory of farmers that go beyond fake labels like “free range” to actually raise birds in movable pasture environments.

I find it to be a delight to spend time with newly hatched chicks.  They alternate between lightning-fast running and passed-out napping.  Here’s one that charged up my sleeve and then just perched there, undecided where to go next:

New Delivery Boxes

We’re rolling out new boxes for our home delivery orders of grass fed and pasture raised meat.  I realize the idea of custom-printed boxes is nothing revolutionary, but it sure feels like a big accomplishment for us.

Here’s a look at the new boxes.  If you place an order starting this weekend, you’ll have one of these show up on your doorstep:

Wrong Direction Farm delivers these boxes of pasture raised chicken and turkey and grass fed beef to customers in the Northeast, including New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, Delaware, and Pennsylvania.
A turkey on one side of the box and a chicken on the other.

I worked with an artist to adapt photos into sketches.  We began with a whole folder of pictures our chickens and turkeys out on the pastures.  I’m sure I drove her a little nuts with my request.  I wanted to represent the birds and to tie their images to the way we integrate poultry within the larger ecosystem of our farm’s perennial grass pastures. For us, grass fed and pasture raised aren’t just marketing ploys; they are critical parts of an agricultural system that regenerates the soil and biological life of our farmland. Hence the drawing shows grass underfoot and the curved surface of earth to hint that there is much more going on below the ground.

Here’s the evolution from my first prototype to the finished artwork:

We wanted the art to reinforce the message that our chickens are pasture raised.  Pastured chickens and turkeys are more than a marketing ploy, they are a vital part of a regenerative farm ecosystem, working alongside our grass fed beef cattle to create grasslands and forests that contribute to environmental health.
Clearly I haven’t progressed much beyond stick figures, so it helps to find someone who knows what they are doing.

I’m pleased with the look of the boxes and consider them to be a tremendous improvement over plain cardboard boxes with stickers.

Boxes of grass fed and pasture raised meat stacked and ready to go out for home delivery.
Here are the older boxes stacked up in our van for the trip to the UPS shipping hub.

Thanks to our friends Karen and Brad for the use of their beautiful front porch for the photoshoot.  Do you have any pictures of the places our boxes end up?  If so, please share a photo of your box on Instagram and let us know @WrongDirectionFarm.

Mud Season Arrives

This is the time of year to bring out E.E. Cumming’s perfectly turned phrases “mud-luscious” and “puddle-wonderful”

This is mud season on the farm, and we are in the splash zone.  Everything and everyone is spattered with mud.  Receding snow is opening up patches of brown grass.  Within a day of exposure the vegetation begins greening as photosynthesis renews.  South-facing slopes already are bare and the rest of the fields are losing the snow pack rapidly.

The seasonal creek is lively with all the snow melt from the higher elevations.

Feeding the cattle gets tricky this time of year with sloppy ground.  The tractor wants to sink right down when we’re moving the hay bales.  I have to drive strategically to avoid creating an utter mess of ruts and mud pits.  It is an annoyance, but we’ve come to expect this part of the annual cycle, and we take it in stride.  Spring is coming, and we’ll put up with anything to experience spring again!

This may look prosaic, but I always feel a renewal of potentialities in a field shedding a winter’s blanket of snow.

This week we began the annual cycle of pre-season chicken projects.  With the snow gone and the roof accessible, I completed roofing the newest brooder.  I have been working with the nutritionist on fine tuning our chicken and turkey feed recipes.  It is time to inspect our chicken feeders, waterers, and other supplies to know which things must be repaired, replaced, or reordered.  The first chicks of the season hatch in less than two weeks, so I am feeling the fire of urgency under me.

Now to put our heads down, to lean into the long pull of the next season of the year when our lives seem to be all poultry, all the time.

Getting the farm Certified Organic

Before we even started farming we knew following organic principles would be foundational to our farm.  But somehow we never got around to filling out the paperwork and getting the inspections to certify the farm officially.  It always seemed like it was not quite the highest priority; it was something to put off until next year, or the next year, or the next year…

Enough procrastinating!  This week I took the momentous step of submitting all the paperwork to begin the formal certification process for Wrong Direction Farm.

For our grass fed beef, Organic Certification was never an urgent issue because our cattle have a simple diet, and we’re not dosing them with hormones and antibiotics, so there wasn’t a lot of differentiation between Organic and non-Organic grass fed beef.  But our pasture raised poultry can’t survive on a grass-only diet.  We need to provide additional feed for them.  The vast majority of poultry feed available (including most non-GMO feeds) contains grains treated with pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides. Only Certified Organic feed avoids all these chemicals while also avoiding GMOs.  We have only ever used Certified Organic feed on our farm, but now we’re taking the steps to document and recognize this.

Certified Organic, non GMO feed for our pasture raised chickens.
Organic feed pouring into the five gallon buckets we use to carry feed to the chickens.

Why are we certifying now? 

The decision to certify came down to a desire to take a firmer stand on an issue we believe is important: poisons shouldn’t be part of our food.  We wanted something categorical to convey, to reassure our customers that harmful chemicals are never part of WDF’s poultry food system.

There are certain words used in food marketing that are red flags for meaninglessness.  “Natural”, “free range”, and “heirloom” come to mind. Despite any possible virtues these words conveyed originally, whenever I see them now I know that a brand messaging specialist selected them intentionally to confuse and to distract me.  Who would suppose that “natural” is capacious enough to include dyes and preservatives?  That “free range” can apply to chickens that never leave a barn or see a blade of grass?  Or that “heirloom” can describe poultry that are actually crossbred hybrids?

But “Organic” is different because it has a very specific meaning governed by extensive, strict rules.  There are multiple aspects to Organic, but my primary goal in standing behind the Organic label is to shine a spotlight on our chickens and turkeys, to show that they are never exposed to poisons.  Not in the fields, not in the feed, and not in the processing.

I don’t want to eat chicken with residues of Atrazine, Glyphosate, 2,4-D, or Dicamba.  I don’t want my kids to eat that.  I don’t want my birds to suffer the tissue and organ damage associated with those chemicals.  I don’t want to be complicit, even indirectly, in the exposure of farm workers operating the sprayers.  I don’t want those substances disrupting my soil biology or soaking into my groundwater.  And I know that this farm’s customers don’t want any of that either.  So I think the best way to convey that message is with the Certified Organic stamp, to show that our poultry never even come near that stuff.

Downsides to Certification?

There are a few criticisms farmers have about the certification process.

The first is about the cost, both in terms of cash and time. Maintaining certification annually will cost us a few thousand dollars to certify the farm and require several days of work filling out papers and meeting with inspectors. At the beginning of the farm, when we were losing huge amounts of money each year trying to get this started, just having the money on hand to pay for certification was out of the question. These days the farm isn’t exactly a cash machine, but it is breaking even. Even though I feel some buyers remorse writing these checks, I believe it is an investment we ought to make.

The second is about trust. Do I need a third party certifier to back up what I am already telling my customers about our chicken feed? Do the customers need the certifier? I’m not sure that framing this as an issue of trust is the best approach. I prefer to think of the rigors of the certification process as a kind of accountability, something by which our farm can continually and more objectively assess our progress. I would appreciate the discipline of outside observation to help me stay on track and perhaps even to show me some things I’m not currently seeing.

The third objection is the most insidious. What about Organic cheaters, people and companies that are certified but aren’t being honest?  Such situations sadly do exist.  There are even plenty of producers claiming to be “Beyond Organic” even though they don’t meet the baseline Organic standards.  But abandoning Organic is not the right solution to these problems. Pessimism and cynicism have their place, but they can’t carry us all the way to a new food system. We’ll need to rely on the combination of hope and hard work to arrive there.

What’s Next?

So when will the Certified Organic label show up at Wrong Direction Farm?  The wheels of Organic turn slowly with lots of paperwork, inspections, and verifications, but if all goes well you should start seeing it pop up later this summer or early this fall.  I’ll be sure to let you know when we get there, and if we encounter any interesting things along the way I’ll let you know about that too.

Containerized Farm

I love and hate shipping containers as farm infrastructure.

We have four shipping containers and five tractor trailer boxes serving in some capacity on the farm.  They provide modular, low-entry cost flexibility our farm has found essential. I don’t think we could have afforded to build out our farm’s business selling pasture raised chicken and grass fed beef if we also were trying cash flow the construction of traditional barns. So I love them. But I also am always frustrated by containers.  They also are always just a little too inadequate.

This container is a walk-in freezer.  It is an insulated food grade container, previously used for overseas transport for bananas, now retrofitted with our refrigeration equipment. We put an extra door in the middle because shipping container doors are a pain to work with if they are being opened and closed on a daily basis.
This shipping container has storage for all the parts and repair items for managing our pasture raised chickens.  Looking at the picture, I’m reminded that it is time for a cleanup.
Here we store all our order packing supplies.  We need to build some shelving and dividers in there to help with the organization.

Containers don’t offer the visual appeal of a classic bank barn or the impressive storage capacity of a pole barn.  But they do give us valuable flexibility as we continue to adapt our farm.  Permanent buildings would tie us down and prevent us from being able to adjust our farm businesses.

My biggest gripe with containers is that they are too narrow.  The 8 foot width dictates that only one half of the container can be loaded with pallets, otherwise I lose my aisle.  If I fill the aisle then everything needs to be unpacked to remove something near the back.  A 12 foot wide container would be tremendously more efficient, even if it would be more of a hassle to move on the roads.

In the next year or two I’m going to need to step up our freezer space beyond what a single shipping container can provide.  And by then it probably will be time to commit to a “real” building.  But I’m confident that even with a purpose-built building I’ll still find uses for the containers we have now.

How Big is a Small Farm?

When people visit the farm I’ll frequently get a surprised comment, “Wow, that’s a lot of chickens!” And for the average person’s experience, I suppose a group of five hundred chickens is a lot, so I understand. But to my eye, this is just a small group of chickens. A conventional United States chicken farm usually raises in the range of a half million to three million chickens per year.

I spoke with a farmer who had three thousand laying hens on pasture. When people at the farmers market would ask him how many birds he raised, he’d always lie and keep the number in the hundreds. That made people happy. If he quoted a number in the thousands, their faces would fall and they would leave the stand. “Three thousand” sounded evil, like a factory farm. People wanted to hear a number less than one hundred, but they’d accept anything less than a thousand. At the place where people shopped with the goal of knowing their farmer, the two sides couldn’t communicate openly.

Everyone likes small farms. But how big can a small farm be before it is no longer a charming small farm?

When feeding the cattle their hay this morning I took a picture of only a portion of the herd.  That kept it from looking like “too many” cattle.

This is where we face the Old MacDonald problem. Most of us grew up with farm coloring books showing one horse, two cows, three ducks, four geese, five chickens, six ears of corn, etc. These childhood storybook views of agriculture stick with us and influence our conception of farming. The picture books present the straw-hatted farmer working from sunup to sundown, so it is pretty clear he doesn’t have time for a side gig. How does Old MacDonald generate enough cash to pay the mortgage? Or the property taxes, general liability insurance, utility bills, internet, tractor repairs, and worker’s comp for his trusty farmhand? Where does he get the money to keep his barn so well coated in red paint?

Old MacDonald’s barnyard is a great model for a homesteader. But he wouldn’t survive as a full time farmer here in Upstate New York.  Unless maybe, all this time he’s been running that farm as a front for something else…

I’ve gone over numbers with other farmers who are producing and selling products similar to ours, and it seems that for a family to earn a $50,000 salary from direct marketed livestock farming, they need to be selling between $250,000 and $500,000 annually (lower numbers for established farms with land and infrastructure paid for and higher numbers for new farms building everything from scratch). This level of production is difficult for most small farms to achieve. In our economy, is $50k even enough to compensate motivated, educated, entrepreneurial farmers? We often bemoan the low pay for teachers, but for reference a teacher in New York City with a bachelor’s degree and no teaching experience earns $57,845 starting pay plus retirement and healthcare.

In every respect, Wrong Direction Farm is a small farm. I don’t have any plans for gobbling up the market. I’d prefer a world where this farm remained one tiny piece in a grid of successful farms. But I wonder at the focus on small over successful. For farmers to be successful they need to be productive. Based on the average selling prices I see in the marketplace and the average production costs, a farmer with a direct-to-consumer market will need to sell about 10,000 pasture raised chickens or 80 grass fed beef cattle in order achieve that $50,000 pay target (again with some variability based on the amount of fixed costs in the operation).

Those numbers may not seem small, but in this case small isn’t the right goal. If we as a society wish to support a thriving agricultural system, we must think bigger about small farms. We need to have successful, productive farms. This isn’t about productivity über alles. None of this requires an expansionist race for each farm to become the next Tyson Chicken. And we never should compromise on critical issues like land stewardship, water quality, soil health, humane treatment, farmworker pay, or nutrition. But we absolutely need to make sure there are opportunities for farmers to reach productivity levels that meet their income needs.

Who is going to draw the coloring books so the next generation of kids are not carry the same misconceptions forward?

Keeping the Cattle Hydrated

The last few weeks have been running on the colder side. Every morning and afternoon either Rachel or I chop the ice from the water trough that is fed by underground pipeline from the pond.

For all our effort, most of our cattle never use the water trough whenever there is soft snow on the ground. A few hang around waiting for us to finish chopping the ice so they can get in for a drink but the others just come to watch us work, and after their companions have had a drink they all walk back to the hay bales for more feeding. It is hard to do a precise survey, but it seems that only a small minority of the cattle actually prefer liquid water. When the snow is crusty they’ll go back to the trough. Like skiers, cows love fresh powder, and we’ve had plenty this season.

I don’t know this as a fact, but I wonder if the preference for snow is that slurping down a gallon of ice water is chilling, but eating a gallon’s worth of water as snow takes a lot longer as the the snow is chewed and swallowed, so the body isn’t hit with such a shock of cold. It is just a theory…

Steer number 234, one of the grass fed Angus beef steers at WDF, chewing a mouthful of snow as he eats grass hay.
Steer chewing a mouthful of snow

I used to wonder if the cattle would get dehydrated, but over the years I’ve learned to let them figure out what they wanted to do about their thirst. On the paleontological scale, grass fed cattle have been managing this on their own for long enough. The water trough is there if they want it.