A Year Without Nancy

It is hard for me to summarize this past year in a succinct way. I was intending on posting something on facebook commemorating the one year anniversary of Andrew’s mom, Nancy’s, passing, but I can’t do it in so few words. I can’t tease out the emotions from the rest of what this intense year has brought us. This has been a tremendous year of struggle and growth for us and our farm operation. There have been many days of stress, tears, and bitter words that have passed between Andrew and me. This is the truth about all marriages on occasion, but I’ll wager that those couples who own and run small businesses together experience more than our fair share of this kind of tension. The trouble for us is that Nancy was always our go-to, especially for Andrew when he’s feeling overwhelmed. She was just a phone call away, ready to offer soothing words and practical advice. Ready to remind us that we are loved and celebrated, that our hard work is worth it.

Of course we have many other champions in our lives, and are lucky to have a large support network. But there is nothing like the comfort of a mother, and especially a mother as loving and warm as Nancy. For me the grief of not being able to call her when Andrew is upset is palpable; I can only imagine what it feels like for him and her other children. The knowledge that my future children won’t know their grandmother is a pain I didn’t plan on, a pain that is compounded since my own maternal grandmother died when I was an infant. I often wonder what my grandmother was like, and while I know about her through my mother and her siblings, it’s not the same as forming a true relationship.

At this same time of renewed grief, my only living grandmother is struggling. She suffered a small health setback a few months ago, and while physically she is ok it’s like suddenly her mind realized, “oh…I’m 92!” and has started to slip. When I call her sometimes she is confused, her words are a little slurred, she repeats herself often. I am so very grateful it took 92 long years for her to get to this point; I am well-aware many people go through years of dementia, often times from a relatively young age. The hard part is that it didn’t feel gradual. One day I was having meaningful conversations with a woman who had a vibrant social life and excellent memory, and the next it was like talking to someone completely different. Someone who sleeps a lot and tallies the time of day by what meal has been recently eaten. Still, I would have given anything for Nancy to have been around as long as my grandmother. It’s hard to imagine what kind of justification there is for a 52 year old mother and grandmother to be taken from us.

My grandmother is a survivor. She fled Holland with her family at the onset of World War II and survived a harrowing journey at sea to arrive in Indonesia, only to be thrown into an internment camp run by the Japanese. She then lived in Ecuador, New York, and finally Tucson, raising her two boys and loving her four grandchildren. Nancy was a survivor too. She lived for years with chronic pain as her cancer spread. Before she was diagnosed with cancer she (and her whole family) survived a horrible car crash and her leg was badly damaged; pain and mobility issues plagued her ever after. Through all of her trials Nancy never wavered in her faith. While I know she sometimes questioned God’s reasoning for her illness and pain, she strongly felt there was a purpose and a plan for her struggles. My grandmother never talked to me about such things; her generation was much more focused on moving on; she and my grandfather did their best to forget about the emotional torment of their youths. But Nancy laid it all out. She was a woman of words, who wrote beautifully and shared her thoughts with those who asked. I knew I could ask her the hard questions about her faith and her disease, and her thoughts about death. She never avoided the subject and always answered honestly.

This evening we will gather as a family to celebrate Nancy and mourn her loss. I only had the privilege of knowing her for five years or so, but those years were crucial. I learned so much about my husband by knowing and loving his mother. He inherited more than his smile from her; he inherited her thirst for knowledge, her passion, her way with words. There are a million small ways in which I am reminded of Nancy when I look at my husband, and I am so glad I knew her long enough to notice and appreciate them. In some ways I think it was difficult for Nancy that I did not share her faith in God and Jesus. And yet when Andrew and I got engaged she told me that she had prayed for me since the day Andrew was born. This is not a line I take lightly, nor will I ever forget it. Nancy’s faith worked in powerful and mysterious ways, and while she may not have fully understood my views, she accepted them without judgment and opened her arms and heart to me. Nancy was a Christian in the truest sense of the word, and knowing her helped me unlearn some of my preconceived notions about devoutly religious people. I have learned so much from my relationship with Nancy, and as we remember her today I am humbled by the love I still feel emanating from her memory.

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Almost Famous

Farmers are having a moment. A story about us was recently published in a local free monthly newspaper called the Herald Business Journal, and after being online for a couple of days the reporter emailed to tell me that the article had been picked up by the national wire, which means it could get published by other news outlets. We have also appeared in several other magazines and newspapers, and were interviewed on the local NPR radio station last winter. And we are not alone. Our “land-mates” who grow vegetables here at the farm have also been published in magazines including Modern Farmer (a very hip national magazine for farmy folk), and one of the farmers was even recently featured in Glamour Magazine!

What does this mean? Why is this happening? One of the more obvious reasons is the increasing public awareness of our damaged food system, and how it’s affecting the health of our nation and our land. Authors like Michael Pollan are making these topics mainstream. With the publication of the excellent (and highly recommended!) book The Omnivores Dilemma, Pollan created a celebrity farmer out of Joel Salatin. Reading Pollan and Salatin books helped Andrew and I develop our rotational model for farming and allowed us to fine tune our ethical philosophy. We are certainly not unique. The nation is currently booming with young(ish), small-scale farmers. Many of us have no farming background, and did not decide to start farming until after graduating college. There’s even a name for this movement: we’re called The Greenhorns.

A local Seattle-based photographer recently started a series called the Female Farmer Project, and her work has blown up. She is now traveling the world taking photos of female farmers, and people are incredibly interested in this side of farming. The photos are wonderful, which obviously increases the appeal, but I think there’s something deeper going on. I don’t think this is just an interest in female farmers, although we are certainly getting some extra attention these days.

I think there is a strong longing somewhere deep in our genetic code to be outdoors. To experience the seasons, to feel the sun on our faces, to stick our hands into the soil and create life. Our ever-increasing dependency on technology has our society moving farther and farther away from these simple pleasures. Many people are able to compensate for this by going on weekend camping trips, creating a flower garden at home, or even jogging in a city park. But as I watch thousands of people descend on our neighbor’s pumpkin patch each October it becomes more obvious that there is a real desire to feel some kind of connection to farming, even if it is now merely a form of entertainment.

To look at photos of farmers, female or otherwise, invokes a sense of nostalgia, of longing, and sometimes even a little envy. I have had many, many people tell me that they wish they had my life. That they have dreams of owning a small farm one day, if only they didn’t have so many bills to pay! There is a side of farming that somehow now seems glamorous (I mean c’mon…Glamour Magazine!!!), poetic, and romantic. Of course no one is publishing photos of me crying hysterically while holding a disemboweled lamb that was attacked by a coyote. No one sees the days Andrew and I have a screaming match about something as silly as who should do the dishes because we’re both exhausted and stressed out. We rarely talk about the financial burdens of farming, although everyone I know seems to be aware of how little farmers make. And yet there’s still the appeal. Why?

Most farmers are passionate about what we do. We do it in spite of the challenges, we do it for the love of the work, the animals we tend, the crops we grow from seed to harvest. We do it because we want to feed our neighbors and friends, we want to provide healthy options, we want to undo some of the damage our industrialized food system has caused. So many of our peers are unfulfilled in their work lives, and so they see the contrast vividly. Unfortunately there are other sacrifices farmers make besides good incomes. Weekends during the growing seasons don’t often mean anything to a farmer except another day of work, or possibly a farmers market to attend. Days off the farm are rare, and for us that means spending hours getting everything on the farm ready for us to leave, and then arranging one or two different people to come take care of chores while we are gone.

Just like many other small business owners, I use my cell phone for work. I am constantly checking my emails, even when we are not on the farm. I’ll answer emails at 10pm at night if I think they need answering. This is what we call the hustle. We are not guaranteed success in farming, just because it’s currently a cool profession. We have to work and work and work our asses off to make this viable, and we’re still figuring out what viable even looks like!

One of the things that frustrates me the most is customers who walk by at the farmers market and say “oh! I am SO glad to see you. You’re doing such amazing things! Please keep up the good work!” and then walk away. Obviously accolades like this feel good, and there is certainly satisfaction in knowing that your work is appreciated. I’m sure this is obvious, but the best way to show appreciation to a farmer is to buy something she has grown. I realize not everyone is in the market for frozen meat when they happen to come across my booth, and that’s ok. Maybe you can sign up for my mailing list! Or stop in and ask me a question or two. Engage. Show me you care. And it’s even better if you can put your money where your mouth is. Lip service doesn’t go very far if we can’t afford to keep farming. Gorgeous magazine spreads are exciting but they don’t pay the feed bills.

Being a farmer is definitely a cool profession and I’m very honored (and still a little bewildered!) that I get to call myself one. If there isn’t a reality television show out there about young farmers living in a tiny house trying to learn the ropes, I’m sure there will be soon. Farming as entertainment is great; but supporting your local farmers is even better. Every single one of you reading this blog has a (relatively) local farm you can support. Join a CSA. Shop at the farmers market. Don’t haggle on prices. Sign up for a newsletter. Send an email thanking us for our hard work. Smile at us. Be kind. Be generous. And remember all the hard times we have been through when you see us beaming at you from the glossy pages on the newsstand.

Our Press (so far!)

Monroe Monitor 2013
KUOW interview 2015
Mill Creek Living 2016
The Guardian 2016
The Herald Business Journal 2016

 

 

The Endgame

It’s hard to imagine someone as busy as me feeling restless, but I do. In between animal chores, chicken harvests, farmers markets, and washing dishes (I feel like all I EVER do is wash dishes! Someday I will have a sink with running water and a dishwasher!), I’ve been looking at flights to Costa Rica. I have this mindset that I need to travel and see more of the world to really stretch myself and grow. To experience. To live. Which is kinda hilarious, right? My life right now is foreign to many people, and is a completely different from what it was a few short years ago. Sometimes when you are living your own life there is a kind of tunnel vision that develops. It’s hard to see the forest for the trees.

We are an outcome-based society. What is the endgame? When will we be successful? When can we relax? When can we feel more comfortable? When can we afford a new car? A new house? These are thoughts that creep into my mind. Well, maybe not the new car part…I vow to never own a brand new car again! But we do struggle to predict our story in the long-term. Where will we be in five years? Will we have land of our own? And how important is that, really?

I am constantly reminding myself that virtually no small company is confident and settled after only three years of business. We have taken huge gambles, big leaps, and sometimes we stumble. We are so fortunate to have a strong safety net; a community and family that want us to succeed. We have educations and job experience to fall back on if the farm goes bust. We are privileged enough to turn our lives upside down for a grand experiment. We have the freedom to pursue our passions because we know that we won’t starve. We have a roof over our heads. We are relatively secure, and for that I am grateful. That isn’t to say we don’t worry. We stare at the calendar as the days steamroll by, wondering if/when the first flood will come and if we’ll have animals in the “danger zone.” Wondering if we can afford to rent high ground, and how many extra hours we can squeeze into our side jobs while trying to keep the farm together.

In many ways this season has been one of our easiest. Or rather it is at least less hectic than years past. We have dialed in our systems better, and are no longer chasing goats and turkeys all over the farm (thank you so much, Barnraiser supporters!). Our customer base grows exponentially. I have over 900 people on my email mailing list, and we sold out of turkeys in early August. I am at something like 12 farmers markets a month, teaching people about our mission and how to cook a mean chicken dinner. We’re approaching the end of our “growing” season. The last batch of broiler chicks is almost ready to leave the brooder for the pasture, and the piglets are beyond ready to be weaned and moved into their own pen. The changing of the seasons means we have to start thinking not only about the winter and the flood risks, but what next season will look like. We need to decide if we’re ordering more chicks for our egg laying flock. Our ladies are getting old and laying less and less, but if I want eggs in the spring we need chicks on the ground soon. And that brings us back to the flood insecurity question. Plan. Mull. Fret. Repeat.

Back to my thoughts about the endgame. I know this isn’t a novel idea, but it’s something I keep landing on. Sure, we struggle and have our bad days, but damn if we aren’t happy. I feel so fulfilled, and though I don’t always feel fairly compensated for my hard work I enjoy what I do. I have to remind myself how few people can really and truly say that. What if we never do own land? Well, so what? If we have stability and a strong lease, a roof over our head, and food in the freezer, does ownership matter? We may not have much to leave any future kids, but the legacy of working hard, feeling contented, striving for what’s important has to count for something, right? Should we quit the farm and get high-paying jobs to save up for a future we aren’t guaranteed? That might be right for some people, and maybe years from now when I’m broken and bent and unable to lift 50lb feed sacks I’ll have some regrets. But for now, I’m ok. And I think I might just go to Costa Rica anyway.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Harvest on my Mind

I’m currently reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver (I know, I know…I’m way late to the party), and a passage popped out that I’d like to share:

“There was probably a time when I thought it euphemistic to speak of “harvesting” animals. Now I don’t. We calculate “months to harvest” when planning for the right time to start poultry. We invite friends to “harvest parties,” whether we’ll be gleaning vegetable or animal. A harvest implies planning, respect, and effort. With animals, both the planning and physical effort are often greater, and respect for the enterprise is substantially more complex.”

In all of our marketing I use the term “harvest” as opposed to “slaughter” as much as possible. On the one hand, part of my reasoning is to avoid the kneejerk emotional response words like slaughter so often carry. Of course, the reason slaughter causes an emotional reaction is because many of us are so far removed from where our food comes from that we are no longer accustomed to the reality that animals must die for us to eat meat. On the other hand, as Kingsolver says, we really do plan for, nurture, feed, grow, and tend to our animals for an entire season with the end game being the inevitable harvest of their meat.

This season has been a significant one in terms of learning lessons in animal husbandry, and often we have learned the hard way. Animal farming is an endeavor with steep emotional highs and lows. Our sows delivered amazing, adorable, healthy little piglets– a first for us. While we lost a couple that were not thriving (very common in piglet litters), we have been amazed at our success this first go-around. On the other hand, the weaner pigs that we purchased in from a breeder have had a harder time. We have already learned so much about how to raise our own piglets from birth that we can see all of the errors that took place before we ever got these other pigs to our farm. They were undersized and sickly, and after loosing four of them we have discovered with the help of our vet that they are suffering from worms and pneumonia.

Granted, both worms and pneumonia are common ailments in pigs, and we don’t put all the blame on the breeder. The weather patterns this season have been extreme, and when hot weather suddenly yields to cold, wet nights little pigs have a hard time adjusting. We raise our pigs outdoors on dirt, and worm eggs are practically inevitable. The difference we see is that the pigs we brought in had weak immunity, whether from being undernourished, or weaned too young, we’re not sure. One of them was also incorrectly castrated, a mistake we had to correct ourselves. It’s amazing what you can learn how to do with a good book and some YouTube videos!

Speaking of YouTube videos, check out our Turkey Tunnel in action! For those of you who aren’t in the loop, we raised enough money within 48 hours of launching our Barnraiser campaign to build our Turkey Tunnel! We are so grateful and overwhelmed by everyone’s support!

 

Circling back to the harvest theme, the weaner pigs (so named because they are purchased once they are weaned), are slated for harvest this fall. Their illness has set some of them back, and we are keeping a close eye on them to make sure they are gaining weight and acting healthy. Our vet came out and gave them some medications to help combat the pneumonia and worms, along with some vitamins. One of the medications was an antibiotic, a word that sends many a customer into a tailspin. A huge part of what we do as meat farmers is education, and the Farmer’s Market booth is our podium, soapbox, and pulpit. Today that will extend to my blog!

It’s true that antibiotic resistance is a huge problem, and agriculture plays a big role in this. Antibiotics are grossly overused in many feedlot and confined animal farm operations (CAFOs), for a couple of reasons. In some species small doses of antibiotics have been shown to increase feed efficiency, meaning animals will grow faster while consuming the same amount of feed. Same feed (input) + more meat (output) = more profit (duh). Regular doses of antibiotics also prevent illness which are very common in animals that are kept in close confinement without access to nature’s greatest sterilizer: the sun. Overuse of antibiotics can certainly pose a risk and we never give antibiotics on a regular basis for convenience or profit.

That said, our tagline is “Ethically Raised Meat.” In my experience that means doing what is right to keep our animals healthy. Of course as farmers this is always a tough call. We also have to balance reasonable expectations and costs with our ideals. If an animal is greatly injured with little chance of recovery, we sometimes decide that a quick death is most humane and practical. This happened recently with one of our turkeys that somehow managed to get his leg stuck between roosting bars in the turkey tunnel. By the time we found him he had been hanging upside from one leg for a while, and the other turkeys had treated him rather like a living piñata. The damage was great and so was his pain, so we made the decision to end his life. So too with three of the four pigs we lost.

However, when a group of animals is diagnosed with pneumonia but are not yet knocking on death’s door, we call in the vet and listen to her wise counsel. Giving our pigs a shot of antibiotics to keep them alive is an easy call for us. Not only for our ethics, but for our business. I find it hard to write about these things because most people want to see the good, fun, lovely bits of farm life, but there is real hardship in this work. As far as economics go, we are basically living hand to mouth (well, except for the fact that we raise amazing meat and have a great network of food-growing friends!)- so losing four pigs means more than the sadness of losing those lives. It means losing almost 800lbs of pork at the end of the season, and the money that we would earn from that meat.

No farm raising animals on any real scale can avoid loss – it’s an inevitable part of growing livestock. Our goal is to minimize this loss while maintaining our standards. CAFO managers may actually be able to claim greater success in terms of survival rates because their operations are so carefully maintained. Their buildings are climate controlled, they have an arsenal of antibiotics and other medications handy, and the feed is carefully tested in a lab to ensure optimal nutrition. I happen to think that despite all of this, our animals are better off. They sometimes get sick thanks to wacky weather, and sometimes there are freak accidents. But they are outside, engaging in natural behaviors, acting socially with one another, and enjoying a varied daily life. They are – in my best estimate- happy.

So here’s to the upcoming fall harvests, when pigs, turkeys and lambs will be sacrificed to feed our families. Here’s to the ongoing summer chicken harvests, which are long tiring days that end with freezers full of meat. Here’s to the goat harvests, where we always learn something new about other cultures (did you know that Nepalese people like to deep fry goat intestinal casings and eat it while drinking whiskey!?), and here’s to our momma sows – Tuesday and Emily, whose natural mothering abilities and wonderful piglets remind us of that never ending cycle we are fortunate enough to witness every season at the farm.

 

Help us build a turkey tunnel!

As I mentioned in my last blog post, we have unveiled our new Barnraiser campaign! We’re raising $4,000 to help pay for a portable turkey tunnel we can use to keep our heritage turkeys out of the veggies and safe from predators.

Please take a moment and check out the campaign by clicking here.

Our campaign features a cute hand-drawn video made by yours truly. There are also fun farm-related rewards to show our gratitude for your support.

Please also consider sharing our campaign with your friends and family. Word of mouth is the best way to ensure we are successful. Thanks so much! We are so grateful for your continued interest and support in our farming venture!

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