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.

 

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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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Sows on the Move

I thought it was about time to write a post where I show you some of what we do day-to-day on the farm. Each day is different, which is part of the joy of farming. Of course there are the typical chores that must be done the same every day, but other events ebb and flow, and our workload fluctuates with the changes in season.

Some chores are done weekly or so, like moving animal paddocks. With the portable fencing system we use, most of the time moving animals is a breeze. After our last flood, we had to move the sows (female breeding pigs) back outside after they spent a week in a shipping container up on high ground.

First we set up the paddock. The ladies who farm vegetables here (One Leaf Farm) had given us a couple areas to use for the sows. The sows will do work rooting and digging, essentially acting as rototillers before the ground gets prepped for new crops.

Once the paddock space has been determined, we start by placing T posts at all four corners. This is done with a post pounder and muscles. Andrew’s muscles to be exact.

Once all four T posts are placed, we attach plastic insulators and run an electric wire around the pen. The electric wire is actually mostly poly, with a few thin metal wires woven in. The electricity is set to pulse, so it mildly zaps the sow when they come into contact but it doesn’t grab onto them and hold like it would if you stuck a fork in an outlet!

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Next we place simple rebar at intervals around the paddock to reinforce tension on the wire.

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Rebar is more user-friendly for shorties like myself. Having the wire pre-strung helps us line our rebar stakes. Then they get attached with plastic insulators as well.

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Once we’ve done the first lower strand, a second higher strand is placed. Two strands aren’t always necessary; pigs are highly trainable and usually respond well to a single strand.

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To train a pig to a hot wire, we set up a pen when they’re small using what are called hog panels. These are metal panels about 16′ x 3′ but any fencing material will work. Just inside the fencing install an electric wire at nose height. The pigs will learn very quickly that the wire jolts them, and the wire is now associated with the paddock boundary. After a week or so you can take the fencing away and they will stay inside the wire! It’s important that the wire stays hot though…as the pigs root they can bury the wire in dirt and cause it to ground out. If pigs learn their wire isn’t on, well then you have a problem!

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Once our paddock was set up, we had to get the sows out of the shipping container and out onto the field. They were desperate to get outside, but getting them in the right place without a bunch of detours is always the challenge. Thankfully the veggie farmers don’t have much going on right now, because our girls certainly would have trampled some crops! A bucket of whey-soaked bread was my bribe to get the sows to follow me in a mostly straight line.

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I dropped small piles of bread on the path to the new paddock. A few times the girls were so excited they actually ran ahead of me! It amazes me how fast a 400 lb creature can run when she’s excited! The piles of bread encouraged the girls to slow down a minute and let me get back in front of them.

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Look at that sow move!!

When we set up our paddock we kept one side open. Our sows are very well trained to the hot wire and will not cross-either to go in or out. So we have to make sure no wire is blocking their path into the paddock. Once the sows are in, we zip up the fence and plug in the battery.

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We recently purchased six poly calf huts from a farm that’s closing up shop. These portable huts are a wonderful addition to our space! They’re easy to move and we plan on using them for both pigs and goats. Sheep don’t mind the rain because of the lanolin in their wool, but goats get pretty moody when they’re damp. And if goats are moody, you can bet I am too.

Finally we haul out feed in a large trash can, water in a 300 gallon tote (since we have limited water lines at the farm), and our sow paddock is all set! Sows can root pretty deep, so when it looks like they’re close to China we move them to a new paddock. Easy as pie!

Recently Andrew and I attempted to artificially inseminate our sows. While we do have other pigs arriving soon from a breeder, we’re hoping to raise our first ever piglets on the farm this year. Stay tuned for more on that! If we were successful, we’ll have piglets 3 months, 3 weeks, and 3 days from conception. Squeeeee!

On a side note, in a couple days I will be announcing a fundraising campaign via Barnraiser, which is like Kickstarter but for farms and the food industry. You may recall reading about our turkeys, and how much fun we had chasing them all over the farm last year. It was definitely not a sustainable model, so we’re designing a portable turkey tunnel to help keep them contained while maintaining our ethical standards. I will post the campaign here on my blog, and I hope you will consider contributing to help us keep doing what we love! There will be plenty of farm-related rewards to choose from should you decide to support us. More on that soon!

 

 

Chicken Shit

*** Sensitive reader advisory! As you can probably sense from the title, I use the word “shit” a lot in this post! I know there are other words I could have used instead, but when you’re talking about mucking out chicken shit there really is no better word to accurately describe the horribleness that it entails. Consider yourselves warned. ***

 

Last week Andrew and I mucked out our hen house. You may remember the beautiful mobile house that Andrew built early last season. It’s a lovely red barn-like structure built on a trailer, with next boxes, roosting bars, and small chicken-sized doors that can be locked when necessary. The bottom of the hen house is comprised of metal grates with holes small enough to keep critters out, but large enough to let their poo pass through. Or so that was the idea. Chicken shit is actually pretty sticky. It globs together, forming a thick cement-like paste as it dries. It had been several months since we last cleaned out the hen house, and when we recently moved it to a new spot we noticed there wasn’t the normal accumulation of shit (also great fertilizer!) underneath it. That’s when I opened the door and took a look, and a whiff.

A layer of hardened chicken shit cement about four inches thick had accumulated below the roosts. The chickens walk around on this shit floor, and then go into their nest boxes to lay eggs. That creates dirty eggs, which creates lots of extra work for me, as it is my job alone to clean eggs (by hand, using sandpaper!). We decided it was time to do some mucking.

Another feature of our hen house is that it has one human-sized door. This is great until you realize that you can’t reach the far end of the hen house without climbing through and under (shit covered) chicken roosts. Our longest handled shovels couldn’t reach. We did our best, me awkwardly straddling and scooping and passing full snow shovel loads back to Andrew to dump outside. We also angled shovels through the little chicken doors, doing out best to scrape and scoop what we could at awkward angles. Eventually we couldn’t do any more with our shovels, and we brought out the hose with a spray nozzle to finish the job. The water pressure at the farm isn’t terribly high, so it was a long, wet, shit-flying-everywhere process.

Andrew and I took turns, as you can only handle so much. Chicken shit is relatively odorless once dried, but get that shit wet and boy howdy! The ammonia almost knocks you on your butt. As I was bent outside the hen house, gasping for fresh air I caught an amazing glimpse of the mountains that peek out when the weather is clear. This got me thinking about life. I think a lot of life feels like shoveling and or spraying shit off the walls, but sometimes (or often, if you’re lucky) you get a beautiful mountain vista that brings your Chi back to center. Then when you go back into the shitty hen house you can bring that image of the mountains with you, and focus on the beauty that abounds despite the drudgery of the task at hand.

Things at the farm are slowly starting to pick up speed. We’re still planning for our season ahead, and have orders placed for our chickens and turkeys. We’ve had one surprise lamb already, and more lambs and goat kids are due any day. Just last night we artificially inseminated our sow Tuesday, and are excited about hopefully welcoming little piglets in a few months. We also have six purchased feeder pigs on the farm in preparation for our upcoming summer Meat CSA program.

After the four floods we survived in November, Andrew and I made a promise to each other that we wouldn’t have animals here at the current farm next winter. In theory that means we somehow find and buy our own farmland in the area, either small acreage nearby so we can go back and forth seasonally, or large space where we can move our entire operation. In practice I have no idea what this will actually look like. We certainly don’t have the capital that many land-purchasers have, and we probably don’t have much opportunity for traditional loans. Our low paying livelihood, in combination with our outstanding student loan debts doesn’t make us look like the most promising candidates. We have begun exploring unique opportunities to land access, and our fingers are crossed that something will come our way. Please keep your eyes open for opportunities in the greater Puget Sound region, and if all of my readers send out positive land-acquiring vibes out to the universe, perhaps she will respond.

While we wait for the next exciting chapter we are busy as ever preparing for the upcoming season. Our popularity is growing in leaps and bounds, despite having no products for sale at the moment. New people are joining our mailing list every day, and I’m fielding lots of new queries about our meat and the CSA. We are hoping to add a Seattle farmer’s market this year, and also increase our restaurant chicken sales. Big things are coming! We just have to muck around in some shit before we get there.

 

 

 

When it rains…

Last week I wrote about perspective, and how it was too easy to focus on the mini-dramas of daily life while other people experienced true suffering. The mini-drama I was experiencing was a flood, the second of the season and one that peaked at about 16.5 feet on our nearest flood gauge. “Minor” flooding starts at 15 feet, according to the National Weather Service. The farm starts flooding at around 14 feet. At 16.5 feet, we were almost at “major” flood stage, and we thought it showed. As I mentioned in my last post, we had to do a lot of late-night scrambling to get animals to higher ground, but everyone made it safely and the waters quickly receded. It was easy to sit in my warm house and contemplate how lucky I am.

Mother Nature sure has a way of laughing at over confidence, doesn’t she? The next flood (our third in as many weeks) was predicted to crest at 18.5 feet, two feet higher than the last, and there was still standing water on the farm. The soil was completely water-logged, so there was no room for absorption. The next flood came fast, and it came big. Now this isn’t what you might imagine from a newsreel, where water is rushing by and people are being saved by daring rescuers. Here the flood doesn’t really rush in; instead it seeps in from all directions until gradually the new lakes meet in the middle.

We knew this next flood was coming for a few days, so we were a little better prepared for it. We were able to get most of our animals up to high ground early in the day. We built some temporary pens in a hay barn next to our house, and herded all of the goats, sheep, and our landlord’s two fat, little American Guinea hogs up the hill into safety. Our sows (breeding pigs) were dozing in a stock trailer parked on a concrete pad that, in our previous experiences, stays dry. The hens were locked into their house for the night next to the sows. Our market hogs had previously been moved to a new paddock in a relatively high spot, and were blissfully piled onto one another amid a deep bed of hay in a covered pen.

For the previous flood the turkeys had been moved into a dry hoop house to wait it out. The water started seeping into their house early in the morning, so I ushered them out and let them wander around the dry spaces on the farm. After the water receded we spread a large round bale of oat straw into the hoop house, set up nice roosting spaces for them, and turned them back in to happily (and dryly!) spend the last week of their lives. We knew this next flood would also get into the hoop house, but we had a hard time coming up with a good solution. Andrew thought maybe just having roosting bars would be enough to keep them out of the water. I agreed in theory, but in the last flood I learned that turkeys are drawn to the water at night. Birds have terrible night vision, and they are prey animals. They do whatever they can to be safe, and at night the water reflects light. The turkeys go towards the light, thinking, I imagine, it will be safer there. It is not. We decided to go in for dinner and revisit the issue afterwards. The floodwaters were not threatening just yet.

Our friend Ross was at the farm helping us prepare for the flood when he got stranded here. Our roads in and out of the farm are the first to go under water, so we put him up on the couch. We were grateful for this turn of events, as he was a big help getting animals safe. I should mention that in addition to the flood warnings, Western Washington was hammered with a massive windstorm that night. Our little house is up high on wheels, on top of a hill, and it was rocking in the wind. Trees behind us were smashing to the ground, which is actually pretty common; they’re old rotted plantation poplars. The wind was coming from the north, opposite from the normal pattern, and that small change gave the storm a more sinister feel. Spurts of intense rain pounded our metal roof and added to the feeling of being under fire. Ross and Andrew went out to move cows up to higher ground while I sat on the floor in the only spot I thought would be safe from shattering windows. I’m not sure that was a real possibility, but it sure felt like one! Something like 300,000 people in our area lost power that night. Remarkably ours never flickered.

Once the guys came back in we had a nice hot dinner, and thankfully the intense wind pushed the rain clouds away. We decided we had better take advantage of the clear skies and move the turkeys up to even higher ground. We moved a small tunnel that was previously the sheep house up onto the hill that was quickly resembling an ark. We herded the turkeys into it, which was a slow tedious business since it was dark. We tied the door shut and blocked off any possible escape routes, since heritage turkeys are not fond of being penned up. After that we went in for the night to try and get some sleep.

Sleep didn’t come to me, so I spent time on facebook, chatting with family across the country, which helped keep me calm. I also obsessively checked the flood prediction gauge. At 1:30 am I decided to go on a round to check on the water’s progress. It became obvious that the water was coming much more quickly now, and that the high ground where our sows and hens were parked was not going to stay “high” for long. Our ten snuggling pigs were also going to need to be moved higher. Andrew had set his alarm for 2:30 am to check on things, but I could see that we didn’t have that much time. I ran in and roused him, and we moved all of the rest of the animals up to the highest possible ground. Andrew easily passed back out (a trait of his that makes me insanely jealous), and I continued to quietly fret. A couple hours later the flood prediction jumped from 18.5 feet to over 20 feet. I panicked about this news, but there was nothing more we could do but wait.

Once morning hit we were amazed by what surrounded us. Water was everywhere. This was the first time since we’d been here that all of the farmable space was under water. We did our morning animal chores, which was relatively easy with all the animals in close confinement. We boarded our canoe to shuttle Ross across the street so he could go back home, and then we went up to our neighbors for a cup a coffee and a chat. Darryl, the patriarch of the family across the street has a million stories about this valley. His family has been living and farming here for generations, and as far as he was concerned this flood was minor. He regaled us of stories about previous floods, including one in 1990 where the peak hit 25 feet. At that level everything on the farm except possibly our house would be under water. After departing we took the canoe around the fields to investigate and take photos.

While the flood was dramatic, we were mostly prepared and everyone stayed dry and safe. We spent most of the day inside recovering, and while the animals were restless they put up with their confinement well. Thankfully the flood never reached the predicted 20 feet, and even the van our vegetable farming partners accidentally left on the farm seemed to have avoided getting water in its engine.

As I type all of this it’s hard to remember that this all happened yesterday. It seems like so long ago. I suppose lack of sleep and boosted adrenaline will do that to you. Needless to say were more than ready for bed last night. Andrew has been battling bronchitis for a week now, and I had been having sneezing fits and a plugged nose since the morning. Sleep was in order. And then, just as we started dozing off, we heard a strange sound. Actually it wasn’t that strange, it sounded exactly like gusts of wind rattling the plastic that covers the hay barn. Only there was no wind, it was an eerily still night. After this happened three or four times we ran outside to see what was up. The door on the turkey house had broken free and swung open, and the noise was the whoosh of turkey wings as they flapped out of confinement straight into the lake that now flanked our house.

Wearing only underwear, I grabbed my long down parka, which wasn’t the greatest choice considering it was now raining heavily, but I didn’t have time to think. I jammed my bare feet into my boots and ran out the door, yelling at Andrew to grab the canoe. I began wading into the frigid water to retrieve those turkeys that were within reach. The cold water rushed over my boots and filled them. I sloshed around, urging turkeys to walk up the hill. Those that were too cold to move merely stood there shuddering, so I picked them up and carried them one by one back to their pen. Some of the turkeys were in too deep, so we had to canoe over to them. We took multiple canoe trips, flinging scared, wet birds into the center of the boat while trying to maintain our balance. One bird was roosting on top of the hoop house, impossible to reach. Once we retrieved all the birds we could find we quickly realized that only about half were there. It was dark, raining, our teeth were chattering and my feet and legs were numb. We could not see or hear any other turkeys.

Defeated, we went back inside to deal with our oncoming hypothermia. The fire was out, so we put on dry clothes and crawled under the covers. I was inconsolable. The thought of helpless turkeys, birds I had raised since they were two days old, shivering and drowning in the cold was too much to bear. There really was nothing else we could do at that point but wait and hope for the best. I certainly expected the worst.

After a fitful night filled with horrible dreams of drowned turkeys and restlessness, I awoke this morning to an amazing sight. The water had receded substantially in the night, and I saw turkeys walking inland from various parts of the farm. Although they sounded hoarse from spending the night in cold water, there were no other obvious signs of distress. I don’t know how they made it through the night, but apparently they are stronger than I thought. Last night in the midst of my meltdown I proclaimed that I would never raise turkeys again. Now I’m not so sure. These guys are badass. They are survivors. It’s a strange irony knowing that I will willfully end their lives this weekend, but I am proud that they will be consumed at feasts designed for reflection and thankfulness. Everyone who has ordered a turkey will be sent the link for this post. As you sit down to your Thanksgiving meal, I hope you will feel deep gratitude for these creatures that have given so much of themselves for us.

Now that the waters are once again receding, I have released the rest of the turkeys and the hens. They are wandering happily around acting as a kind of clean up crew, enjoying the worms and other delicious tidbits the flood dredged up. Their sounds of joy and discovery delight me, and while the logistics of this weekend are looming and our roads are still under water, somehow I know it will all be ok. And it’s all thanks to those pesky turkeys.

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Canoeing during Flood #1. Thinking, “this is fun!”
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Flood #1…
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Flood #2 was a little worse
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Flood #2…
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Trumpeter swans enjoying Flood #2. Notice all the crops that survived this one?
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Preparing for Flood #3
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Flood #3…no crops escaped this one
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Flood #3…the hoop house on the right is where the turkeys were originally hanging out.
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The view of our new houseboat!
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Silage bales (fermenting hay) were floating everywhere. The owner’s teenage son had given some of them faces.
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The turkeys in their pen on “the ark.” Pre-escape of course.
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Hens locked inside on the left, sows on the right. Water got close but stayed out of their enclosures.
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Pig Mountain. On the left is the blue covered pen where they had previously been snoozing.
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View from Pig Mountain.
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The lucky van!
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The workstation. A lot of equipment was left out under here since this is normally a high point. Thankfully the barbed wire fences around the farm caught most of the stuff that floated off.
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Water water everywhere
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The inner Ark. Goats and sheep and two little pigs.
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Thank you. Thank you.