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.

Winter Farm Wood Chores

We heat our home with a wood stove in the living room. Wood heating is a kind of domestic commitment that doesn’t suit all lifestyles. One has to be there to keep the home fires burning. Wood needs to be cut, split, stacked, and often restacked. It is heavy and messy. But it is homemade heat, free for the taking, and it suits the pattern of our life.

One of the challenges in having wood heat is preparing it far enough in advance. I prefer for wood to season for one year before burning it. Wet logs are hard to kindle, and when they do burn, much of the heat is wasted on evaporating internal moisture. So midwinter finds us busy cutting the firewood we’ll be burning this time next year.

This year we are using primarily maple for firewood. We have a patch of maple trees growing on some wet ground, really too wet for them to thrive. Every tree in this group has a rotted core. The trees seem to all fall over when they hit the 40 year mark, wiping out the young oak trees nearby. Since the oaks aren’t prone to rot, I’m taking out all the frail maples and leaving the more robust oaks. This is forest succession at work, just with a little push from me to speed it up.

I’ve been quite pleased with a simple modification I made to the log splitter. Our splitter never had much room for logs, so it created extra work picking up and repositioning pieces of wood. I went through my pile of metal offcuts and welded up a small platform next to the cutter where I can stack a few chunks of wood, working on them all at one time. It works beautifully and my back appreciates the change.

State of Concentration

The Farm Family Action Alliance recently published a paper titled “The Food System:  Concentration and Its Impacts.”  I keep a close eye on the state of the grass fed beef and pasture raised chicken landscape, but this report has given me some hard statistics to back up my impressions about the larger food industry.

If you look back at some of the critical times in rethinking the American food system, for a large group of people that wakeup moment came when reading Michael Pollan books or watching influential documentaries such as Food, Inc and Supersize Me. The early 2000s started a cultural shift, creating an alternative path by bringing food attributes like Organic, Small Batch, Artisanal, and Local into the mainstream consciousness.

But in taking stock of the state of our food system, it is sad to note that very little has improved.  Or to be more precise by looking at the data, the problems in our food system have only intensified.

The growth of what the food industry calls the “natural food and beverage” category has been a sleight of hand that has helped the conventional industrial brands to create higher margin segments, funding further cost cutting on their conventional brands.  Competition in the marketplace is rapidly disappearing.  Significant segments of the food system can be demonstrated to have more than half the market share owned by four or fewer companies.  73% of beef processing and 54% of chicken processing are controlled by four companies.  48% of all pork processing in the United States is owned by two companies, one of which is Chinese and one Brazilian.  This same situation is found in beverages, snacks, bread, and everywhere up and down the grocery aisles.  Maybe the greatest example of fake consumer choice is the beer aisle, where Anheuser-Busch InBev owns over 40% of the market, despite the appearance of a plethora of microbrew choices.

Extra Credit:  Think Like a Robber Baron!

Fact: 80% of soybeans are processed by four companies. Think about which companies and which of their investors are leading the charge for meat substitutes. Consider that many of the investors are currently profiting from significant capital positions in the meat processing industry. Consider that the alt-meat industry depends on soybean and pea processing. Do you think those who stand to profit are actually motivated by the ecology of meat production as they claim or are they enticed by the opportunity for further capture of the entire soybean processing market? Give supporting information for your answers.

On the agricultural supply side, farm numbers continue to decline while the number of crop acres per farm and livestock per farm shoot upward.  Between 1987 and 2017, the median dairy farm went from 80 to 1,300 cows.  The median chicken farm raises 770,000 broilers and the median beef feedlot handles 43,000 head.  Wheat, corn, and soybean farms are now about three times bigger than they were in 1987.

These trends have continued unabated despite the emphasis on small farms and local foods during the last fifteen or twenty years.  So where is that small farm and locavore revolution?

The Food Revolution that Wasn’t

Upton Sinclair famously noted that his book The Jungle motivated consumers to clamor for food cleanliness standards, yet it never accomplished his goal of generating concern for the workers in the Chicago meatpacking plants.  “I aimed for the public’s heart, and by accident hit it in the stomach.”

I believe a similar situation has occurred during the last twenty years.  The public has grown to want and to expect healthier, cleaner food options, but as a whole very little has been done to look behind the attractive labels.

It seems that people think that they purchase premium food about 25% of the time, but national sales data suggests the actual “natural food and beverage” segment is about 8% of the market.  Regardless of the exact number, the natural segment continues to grow rapidly.

But all that growth isn’t accomplishing anything to improve the overall industry, the position of farmers, the position of workers, the problems of pollution and resource use, or the loss of local control.  Since the ownership of these natural-branded products is almost entirely connected to the same companies that own the conventional product lines, there are no market forces exerted on those companies to change any of their practices.  Buying Applegate Organic turkey puts money in Hormel’s pockets.  Buying Coleman Natural Organic chicken funnels cash back to Perdue.  Nothing changes, not even for the chickens or turkeys.

The actual food system alternatives, such as small farms, artisanal processors, and producer cooperatives continue as a tiny pixel on the map of the entire food system.

Here is what I think happened in most people’s minds when they watched some food documentary and decided to start eating responsibly produced, healthier food.  They imagined that although not everyone would do it, enough people would start buying better food and it would create a clear division in the food industry, like this:

Below is what actually happened.  Almost everyone kept on buying the same old stuff.  A few people thought they were taking a new path but ended up merging back into the conventional market.  And a fraction of a percent actually ended up on an alternative path.

Where do we go with this?  There’s not a great “we’re going to change the world” message here.  By all objective measures, our choice of a farm name is still as applicable as it was when we started.  Our farm is pointing out a path that is generally considered to be a Wrong Direction.

I can’t tell you that you are going to change the world if you buy my hamburger.  Indeed, the world will continue pretty much the same whether you buy it or not.  But you change my world, and for that I am grateful.  And you help the many people this farm touches.  Think about this web of connection:

I can’t tell you that you are going to change the world if you buy my hamburger.  Indeed, the world will continue pretty much the same whether you buy it or not.  But you change my world, and for that I am grateful.  And you help the many people this farm touches.  Think about this web of connection:

  • Clint and Jim, two incredibly patient and hardworking guys for whom our farm has become their biggest customer for chicken butchering work.
  • Our neighbor Mike who sells us his weaned calves each year for us to raise as grass fed beef cattle.
  • Our other neighbors Mike and Brian who cut hay for our farm.
  • Mary-Howell, who sends us a truckload of Organic feed for our pasture raised chickens and turkeys every week or two all spring, summer, and fall.
  • Alana, Garth, Normandy, and Edmund from Cairncrest Farm who raise all the pigs and lambs for us.
  • Zia, our farm employee who puts up with all manner of crazy situations.
  • And the list could keep going on

The changes don’t just happen here on the farm.  I believe you are changing yourself when you go down the alternative, regenerative agriculture path.  On the physical level, if you’ve tasted our grass fed beef, pasture raised chicken, or if you’ve eaten a cucumber or a strawberry from a great produce farmer, you know in your body that you are eating something dramatically better than what you could get elsewhere.  But this is more than just a different type of consumption-based activism.  The choice to look for alternatives that do better for more people is part of a mindset, a conscious decision.  That mode of thinking surely influences all aspects of life.

What I’ve Learned About Making Bone Broth

With the cold weather, I thought it would be a good time to go over the lessons I’ve learned in making bone broth. We use one quart per day on average in our kitchen, so I make a lot of broth. Here are a few things I’ve learned in all that simmering.

  1. Use the bones you have!  Usually our broths are a blend of leftover bones.  Last week’s batch included chicken bones from roasted drumsticks, turkey bones from jumbo hot wings, beef neck bones from stew, and one pig’s foot for extra gelatin.  I keep a tub in the freezer and collect all our bones after our meals, saving them for broth.
  2. Target about 1 quart of finished broth for every pound of bones.  I add more water to start and reduce down to my target volume.  This ratio gives me the thickness I like for a sipping broth.  If your broth feels sticky on the tongue, you probably reduced it a bit too much.  If you are using the broth as a foundation for a more complicated soup, you might want to thin it out to 1.5 or even 2 quarts.
  3. Salting at the beginning brings out more flavor than salting at the end.  I used to only add salt at the end, but moving this step to the beginning dramatically improved the taste.  Try it; you’ll be surprised at the effect.  I measure 1/2 tsp of salt per pound of bones and then adjust for taste a little more at the end.
  4. Cheat to amplify the flavor.  Scrape the browned bits and  gelatin puddles off the bottom of roasting pans, storing them frozen until needed.  I sometimes strain braising liquids (for instance, last week we did that when Rachel cooked a brisket in a crock pot) and add that to a batch of broth.  Just be aware that if these additives have salt in them you might want to back off on the salt I mentioned in #3 above.
  5. Be careful with the mirepoix.  Onions, carrots, etc. create a classical balanced profile, but these ingredients can also contribute to off-flavors if overcooked, especially when the pot boils too vigorously.  I’d recommend perfecting your bone-only broth first, then gradually adding vegetables to your repertoire.
  6. Most of the flavor is developed in a bone broth within 12 hours of simmering.  You can cook bones for days to extract more nutrition, but you’ll have a great broth within the first half day.  For us this means I can start a pot of broth when I’m cleaning up supper, and ladle out a bowl for breakfast the next morning.
  7. Love the fat.  Our family thrives on a diet rich in animal fat, but we prefer our broths to be skimmed.  I pour the hot broth into quart containers and then chill them in the fridge (or in the unheated mud room at this time of year).  Once the fat congeals, I skim it.  Consider using the fat for pan fried eggs, drizzled roasted potatoes, or my current cooked veggie favorite: roasted onion chunks, apple wedges, and sage basted with rendered fat.

If you aren’t in the habit of making bone broth, don’t be intimidated.  There’s nothing like a steaming bowl on these cold winter days!

Don’t have a stash of bones in your freezer?  We sell 5 lb bags of beef bones to get you started.

WDF Store Improvements

I’ve been busy updating the farm website.

Winter is a good time for website projects. I look outside the window and think, “maybe I’ll keep sitting at the computer today”.

The most visible change is the addition of dozens of new product pictures. Many of our old pictures only showed the packaged items, and they didn’t do justice to the texture and shape of the meat we’re selling. My goal is to update all items in our store to share images for both raw and cooked meat. I don’t have a complete set for all the items, but I’ve made substantial progress.

Other changes are related to layout and presentation. After five years of requesting it, our software provider gave us an option for consolidating all our bulk discounts on the website. So now you can see, for instance, all the different discount levels (single package, 10 pack, 40 pack) for ground beef on one page, rather than looking at many different items. Here’s how it appears on the site now:

Let me know what you think of the updates. If there is anything we can do to improve the product descriptions or listings, please tell me.

Farm Dog Retraining

Winter on the farm is altogether different from the other seven months of the year because we don’t have flocks of chickens and turkeys. And what is a livestock guardian dog to do without chickens and turkeys?

We have been trying to re-train Greta the guard dog to bond with the cattle to keep her active and occupied during the winter. Neither Greta nor the cattle want anything to do with each other. Despite our efforts, we don’t see much improvement. I suspect the problem is that the cattle are pretty self sufficient. They regularly encounter coyotes and run them off, so it seems that they feel confident in their place in the world and that they really don’t need a dog to complicate their social order. It makes me wonder if next winter I’ll need to keep a token flock of hens or rams just to give Greta more meaningful work.

Greta came to us from another farm, and somewhere in her young history she made some unpleasant associations with Amish men. Since then, she has always been wary of anyone with a big beard. Unfortunately that prejudice carries over to my beard. From her arrival she loved Rachel, the kids, and most (non hirsute) visitors, but she’s been slow to warm up to me.

So the other dog related project this winter has been a concerted effort to win Greta over. Unlike the cattle-dog bonding attempt, I’ve been more successful at dog-human bonding. Slowly, she has begun to trust me. Lately she is responding to my verbal commands and now I can walk her off leash in her pasture.

It is funny that these days I can get some of the cattle to lick my left hand while Greta is on the other side licking my right hand, but I can’t get the cattle and the dog to meet in the middle. Somehow they both depend on me being the middleman. It seems they are slowly moving away from outright hostility toward each other, but I’m not seeing enough progress to hope that they’ll reach detente before I reassign Greta to chicken duty in the spring. Oh well. Dogs are like people; certain ones have knacks for certain things, and it seems Greta isn’t a cow guardian dog.

Apparently neither of us knows how to pose for selfies.

Pre-Christmas Ordering, And Florida

We are sending packages out Monday this week but we aren’t sending anything out the week of Christmas due to shipping congestion.  So if you want your Holiday feast to feature a prime rib roast or a leg of lamb, today and tomorrow are the days to get your order in.

We’ll be back to our normal shipping schedule the week after Christmas and for the rest of winter our deliveries should continue at their regular pace.

Rachel with the cattle

Or I should say that deliveries will continue through the winter except when we need to reschedule for snow.  We’ve had a few snowfalls that have quickly melted, but it looks like we’ll start to settle into real winter this week.

And for those of you who can’t tolerate snow at all…

We are now doing deliveries to Florida

Over the past few years we’ve had requests from our customers who migrate to Florida for the winter to send packages down there to provide them some food continuity year-round.  At first we couldn’t get shipping rates to make it work, but we’ve been able to improve our UPS rates specifically for Florida, so we can get next day delivery throughout the state.  If you would like us to send your orders there, let me know and I can adjust your account before you finish checkout and change your delivery zone if you have trouble updating it on your own.

It isn’t our plan or desire to become a national distributor, but we felt it made sense to keep up with the chunk of our customers who migrate back and forth between the Northeast and Florida. So if this is a fit for you, let me know.

The Calves Come Marching In

Our calves arrived this morning.  It is always a pleasure to see the young ones here on the farm.

We have a great arrangement with our neighbors.  They manage their herd of Angus cows and bulls, and we buy the calves from them each spring and fall as the weaned calves are ready.  We raise the calves for the next year and a half until they are fully grown and ready for butchering.  It helps each farm to focus on one aspect of cattle rearing.  And the situation suits the calves because they don’t need to undergo any stressful travel to distant farms.

Buying from neighbors and supporting a local farm economy is important to us.  To the extent that we are successful we feel the need to make sure that success is shared around.  There are many places where only one sprawling farm is left standing, but that isn’t the goal of the agricultural model we’re pursuing.

These calves will spend the rest of the day in the corral to allow them a chance to acclimate into the new location, and then tomorrow morning we’ll walk them out to join the older cattle in our herd.  Right now they are little 600 pound guys, but soon enough they’ll be 1200 to 1400 pounds.  All from eating grass.  I never cease to find that transformation remarkable.

“Sustainable farms are to today’s headlong rush toward global destruction what the monasteries were to the Dark Ages: places to preserve human skills and crafts until some semblance of common sense and common purpose returns to the public mind.”

Living at Nature’s Pace: Farming and the American Dream by Gene Logsdon