Worth Their Salt

When I learned about the Syracuse Salt Company and their story, I knew I had to find a way to offer their products on our website. They are exactly the kind of family business we love to support, as they are committed to artisanal production right here in our area. And since their seasonings are a natural culinary pairing with our farm’s meats, the connection makes perfect sense.

David Iannicello and Libby Croom are a father and daughter team behind the Syracuse Salt Company.  Scattered throughout our part of Central New York one can find salt springs, places where brine surfaces from ancient underground salt deposits.  The Syracuse area is known for especially productive and pristine salt deposits.

After getting their start selling specialty sea salts, David and Libby discovered that they could get their own salt well drilled to tap into this salt deposit right under their feet.  Here’s how they describe their process:
“In order to produce this beautiful flake, we evaporate the water slowly, leaving behind a pure, snow white flake loaded with minerals. It is sifted to a uniform size and hand packed for your use. As an added benefit, because the salt comes from a well, there is no risk of micro-plastics as with some sea salts.” 

The result of their work is a fantastic finishing salt, versatile enough to rim your cocktail glass or to season your steak.  They also produce some excellent seasoned salts.  We’re offering their Black Garlic Flake Salt (made with fermented garlic grown by another farm in our area), Rosemary Flake Salt, and Chili Black Lime Flake Salt.  Everyone in our family likes the Rosemary salt; it is a real crowd-pleaser.  Rachel enjoys the Chili Black Lime salt on wedges of avocado.  I think the Black Garlic salt is perfect when I sprinkle it on my morning plate of fried eggs.

Try it and let me know what foods you’re using it on.

False Narratives

A popular and insistent narrative is that we need more herbicides for humanity to survive. The argument is framed in predictable ways. Typically we are presented first with grim statistics and the utilitarian moral argument that the world will run out of food for a growing population unless we radically increase our dependence on crops grown with toxic chemicals, synthetic fertilizers, and gene edited plants. The moral argument is followed with a technology perspective that these chemicals are safe, necessary, and fully understood based on rigorous science. Given the urgent need and the consequences of inaction, we’d be fools or monsters to stand in the way of feeding a hungry child.

The EPA has conducted a review of its own decision to permit the widespread use of the herbicide Dicamba in 2018. And what it found was not surprising to me. Instead of reviewing actual research findings, internal peer review was curtailed. Political appointees with industry connections pushed the scales over to acceptance without regard for the research work.

The companies that stood to gain from the use of Dicamba include Bayer (formerly Monsanto) and BASF. The same companies that created the need for more potent herbicides because of over-use of their previous wonder herbicide Roundup are now positioning themselves as the ones holding the next solution to the problem. At the same time that their products were being fast-tracked for approval by the EPA without regard for science, they were producing paternalistic, feel-good ads about how their genetically modified seeds and herbicides were bettering the lives of marginalized smallholder farmers throughout the world. Who knew the soundtrack to the era of corporate colonialism would be delicate, looping piano music?

Maybe the EPA will surprise me, but US Agricultural policy has remained pretty consistent during the Trump, Obama, W Bush, and Clinton administrations, really going back all the way back to Eisenhower. I expect that this particular regulatory issue will only be a temporary setback as there are still too many forces pressuring the agencies to approve use of Dicamba and other herbicides. Perhaps the institutions can be reformed, but clearly they aren’t protecting us at present.

The industrial food system isn’t feeding us the kind of food we want to eat and the regulatory system isn’t protecting us from danger. Outrage at the failure is understandable, but action is better. If we want something better, we’ll all have to build it on our own, together. This is a great time of year to plant that backyard garden you’ve always been thinking of, even if it is just three potted bell pepper plants on your porch steps. For whatever you can’t grow, find farmers who represent your values in their practices. Be involved in and support the production of good food.

This Week in Photos

In lieu of writing the normal weekly farm blog post, I’ll just allow some pictures to speak for the activities this week at WDF. There’s a lot going on right now between the cattle, chickens, gardening, construction, and repairs. And repairs. And repairs.

Pasture raised hen with a newly hatched chick.
This two-day-old chick is perched on its mother’s back, the better to survey the world.
Grass fed beef cattle grazing behind the farmhouse.  This patch of grass is mostly orchard grass.  The cattle especially love eating the wide burdock leaves in the spring.
The grass just exploded this week. With the change of season most of the cattle have shed their winter coats, although this steer in the foreground still has some winter fuzz to get rid of.
The cat brought her kittens out of her hiding spot and introduced them to the world. One girl and one boy, both mostly black.
WDF crew setting the cover for a pastured chicken shelter.
Zia snapped this picture of the kids pitching in to help pull the cover onto the newest chicken shelter. With the cover in place, most of the job is complete, and then it will be time to start building another one!
Pasture raised organic chickens grazing on grass at Wrong Direction Farm.
Meanwhile the oldest group of chickens on pasture are sizing up quickly.

Brooder Time with Harry

We’re bringing Harry into the chicken raising operation as it was getting to be too much for AJ to handle on his own.  The division of labor will be for Harry to take the newly hatched chicks through their brooder phase while AJ manages the chickens once they are old enough to go out to pasture. Earlier this spring Harry shadowed AJ to make sure he knew what to do and now he’s caring for three batches of chicks. The first few weeks in the brooder are critical to the health and wellbeing of a chicken for the rest of its life, so this is a significant undertaking for a newly-turned twelve year old.

Harry with his chicks on their first day after hatching from eggs.

Harry has been doing an outstanding job with them. We’re glad to see him taking on this responsibility so conscientiously. The job involves doing three daily checkups on each brooder, testing the waterers, filling the feeders, adjusting the heaters and fans, freshening the bedding, and diagnosing any problems that might come up. After he hands off the chicks to AJ when they go out to pasture, there’s a big job of shoveling out the old bedding, sweeping the brooder, and prepping it for the next batch.

Harry inspecting the turkey poults. The turkeys are Allie’s project, but Harry helped get these guys settled in. They are all swarming around him, trying to peck his finger as he dangles it over them.

I like the idea of our kids taking on these tasks. I don’t require that they aspire to be chicken farmers and I certainly don’t want to exploit their labor, but I would like to give them the privilege of meaningful work. Whatever life they choose, they’ll be well served by developing patterns of — with a nod to Rooster Cogburn — true grit. I find great satisfaction in hearing their updates, particularly when they discover a problem and work their way into a solution. Today AJ found a leak in a water line and repaired the fittings. Yesterday Harry showed me how he cleaned the air filters on the heaters to help them run better. When I went over the list of turkey tasks with Allie this afternoon, she was glad to tell me that she was already a step ahead of me having finished everything early.

I’ve probably nearly worn out these concluding lines from Wendell Berry’s poem A Vision, but I can’t leave them alone.

This is no paradisal dream.
Its hardship is its possibility.

Wendell Berry, A Vision

Of course our farm is no paradise. Things break. Confusion persists. We know how best to annoy each other. Intentions and actions don’t always align. But somewhere in there I hope there are opportunities for each of the kids to thrive as they take an aspect of farming, work hard at it, and find joy in the accomplishment.

Officially Organic

Remember I mentioned a few months ago that we were working on Organic Certification?  Well…

It is official.

We’ve made it over the finish line and have the Organic Certificate in hand.  The inspection went smoothly and this week we received our certificate.  Because we’ve always been using Certified Organic feed and we’ve paid attention to Organic regulations, there really wasn’t anything that needed changing on our end and the review period moved swiftly.

It might take a little while to get the labels refreshed, but starting in June you should see the “Certified Organic” text showing up on packages.

Now I wonder how I should talk about things. Is the preferred word order choice “Certified Organic, Pasture Raised Chicken Thigh” or “Pasture Raised, Certified Organic Chicken Thigh”? Either way, it gets verbose. Maybe, “the best chicken thigh”.

In Praise of Chicken Fat and Skin

Sometimes I go into “test kitchen” mode and crank out batch after batch of the same recipe, trying to get things just right.  I’ve been focusing recently on chicken fat and chicken skin.

The subject of eating fat cleaves my audience apart.  I get specific inquiries from people looking for lean meat and from others who are looking for fatty meat. But if I have to take a side, my loyalties are to fat.  I eat fat, a lot of fat.  Beef fat, pork fat, chicken fat, butter, and eggs.  I don’t pretend to understand anyone else’s metabolism or daily food needs, but I know that a fat-centric diet suits my body well.

My quest for good fat has taken me to rendering chicken fat.  I’ve been trying to find a way to efficiently render chicken fat in large-enough batches that we could sell it in the future.  WDF Pasture Raised Schmaltz anyone?  Let me know what you think.

Unlike tallow and lard, chicken fat is soft at room temperature.  It is firm in the fridge but softens quickly as it warms.  In cooking it has a smoke point comparable to lard or tallow, and a higher smoke point than butter and olive oil.

We use chicken fat for cooking a vegetable fry-up of greens (like collards or kale), peppers, onions, and mushrooms, a dish that is on frequent rotation in our household.  We also use it for frying eggs.  And of course there are certain recipes that just aren’t right without chicken fat, like chicken liver pâté or matzo balls.

I grind the chicken skin to speed up the rendering.  To render chicken fat I fill a crock pot with chopped chicken skin and simmer it on medium heat for four or five hours, ladling and straining the fat as it appears.  When the fat is removed, I’m left with an uninspiring mush that looks like porridge but smells like roasted chicken.  But don’t stop here…

While the fat is first rendering, the skin doesn’t look appealing.

This is where the magic happens, as the next phase is taking all those flaccid skins and transforming them into cracklings. I place the skin pieces in a thin layer on a lightly greased cast iron skillet and cook over medium heat, scraping the pan and stirring frequently as the skins brown. Individual pieces start jumping and popping, so I add a cover to the skillet. Once I see a nice brown color I pat the skin pieces dry on a paper towel, and then generously season them.  Sometimes I add garlic and paprika, but salt and pepper do quite well on their own. Chicken cracklings are incomparable.

Using ground chicken skin we end up with small crispy bits.  Alternatively you can cut the skin into larger squares with scissors or kitchen shears if you want bigger pieces, more like the traditional Ashkenazi gribenes or Filipino chicharones (probably plenty of other food traditions have equivalents, but I haven’t had the chance to eat my way around the world to discover them all).

Cracklings are great as a snack or as a savory topping.

Interested in making chicken cracklings at home?  You can use one of the lowest-cost products we sell:  chicken necks.  Our necks are packaged with the skin on, but it is quite easy to pull the skin off with one tug.  You can prepare the skins as crackings and have another full meal if you set all the skinless necks aside for a batch of broth.

Propagating Willows On Pasture

Growing up with a suburban backyard full of large willow trees, I had strong, uncharitable feelings about willows.  They were forever dropping limbs and making a mess of the lawn I was charged with maintaining.  So it is with a sense of irony that I find myself this week planting willows.  But the management goals for a backyard aren’t the same as the goals for a pasture, so my tree prejudices have shifted.

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago our work planting Honey Locust trees to complement our pastures.  But we’ve been at it with other trees as well.  Harry and I have been planting sprouted red oak acorns in pots.  And this week we took cuttings of a nice willow tree to propagate and plant near in a low-lying pasture near a stream.

During high school some of our backyard willow trees blew down in storms.  One thing that amazed me was that two-foot diameter rounds of tree trunks, if left on the ground, would sometimes grow roots and sprout.  Willow’s indomitable eagerness to regrow makes it a great plant for propagation.

We selected some straight-ish pieces (willow rarely is pole-straight) for our propagation stock, about one or two inches diameter and three to six feet long.

Willow cuttings can be rooted in a pot of water.  We have a few of them soaking on the kitchen windowsill this week as a learning project.  But recently cut willow stakes can also take root directly in the soil, so that is the approach we are using.  We drove the propagation stocks into the ground using a fence post driver.  Since the ground near the stream is waterlogged, driving them was pretty easy.  We just pounded them in until we had two feet of the stake below the surface.

Harry helped drive the willow into the ground.  Yes, that is snow in late April.  We got a good coating the night before and it took a day to melt away.

Harry has been increasingly interested in plants, so it was fun to have him along as a companion on this project.  He’s been learning to ask the important ecosystem-level questions about how grasses, trees, and animals, both wild and domesticated, can all fit together.  Our goals are: increasing the complexity of the farm ecosystem, encouraging more water- and carbon-cycling, creating more variety of areas of sun and shade, and providing more habitat. Willow leaves and branch tips provide high quality forage for cattle, deer, and rabbits.

It is fitting that we planted the trees on Earth Day, but I didn’t realize the coincidence until a day later. Maybe that’s appropriate. Earth Day can be a stunt, or it can be part of a way of life.

Willow driven all the way in.  Note the puddles on the ground.  This field is prone to puddling some times, so it is ideal for willow trees.

We’ll check back on this project later.  Willows are fast-growing trees so there’s relatively short-term satisfaction in watching them grow.  Unlike our red oak seedlings, in just ten years these little twigs should turn into substantial trees.  That is, if we can prevent the cattle from eating them down the first year…

Since I had help from Harry, I’ll quote his favorite author JRR Tolkien in what I suppose could be a benediction on the willow trees, or at least a handy magic spell to use on them in case they decide to turn malicious:
“Old Man Willow… Eat earth! Dig deep! Drink water!”

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.