Grumpy Bump

Pregnancy just really isn’t my jam. It’s hard to say that publicly! But I think I need to put it out there for all of the other mommas-to-be who are pretty much suffering in silence for 40+ weeks, putting on a happy face for all the well-wishers. Let me clarify to say I am grateful that I was able to get pregnant, and I know I will be overjoyed once this child is born. I realize many, many women struggle and often fail to ever conceive, and I commiserate with them. But man, pregnancy is HARD! Some women seem to have magical rainbow unicorn pregnancies where everything is beautiful and lovely, but I am not one of those women!

I can’t even complain about the usual pregnancy issues. My morning sickness at the start was fairly benign. Yeah, I was exhausted a lot in the first trimester, and have re-entered the exhaustion phase as I round the corner to the finish line. But mostly there are a million tiny uncomfortable inconveniences that pregnancy brings on. In my normally active life, these little things really add up!

My abs have completely stretched out and have stopped functioning in any capacity, other than keeping my uterus from exploding out of my body. I can no longer lift a 50lb sack of feed, a previously daily occurrence. Shoot, I can no longer easily pull myself to a seated position without either help or a lot of patience! Forget about tying my shoes. I’m used to being small and agile. Both of those convenient traits have flown out the window. I waddle and amble around, and get winded from carrying this extra 35 pound bowling ball on my belly. For someone who’s never waffled in weight more than ten pounds, this is quite an extreme adjustment for my aching bones.

Like many pregnant women, I don’t sleep much. I wake up constantly to either pee or adjust my body into some sort of barely comfortable position, until I wake again to chew some papaya enzymes to combat the acid reflux that attempts to strangle me. And when I finally wake in the morning and stretch my legs out, more often than not I am greeted with excruciating leg cramps! Ahhh…the joys of creating life are plentiful! Oh, and that pregnancy glow? Yeah. That’s called acne.

Of course I am looking forward to meeting this little “sprout” who has taken over my body. But I can already tell he or she is going to have a lot to say about life. My ribs are sore from the kicks and jabs I receive constantly. At our last birth class the instructor stopped talking to exclaim “wow! Your baby is so active, I can see it from here!” We’ve got a mover and shaker on our hands, that’s to be sure.

Yet all of the physical ailments aside, the strangest part of being pregnant is that somehow my body and life have become public domain. I don’t normally receive a lot of attention from strangers, (unless I’m walking around with my twin), but pregnancy changes that. Suddenly people not only notice me, they feel compelled to say something! Usually it’s women, and I know they are just often remembering their own pregnancies fondly. I don’t mind when someone says “congrats!” or asks my due date; my belly is really obvious and it’s normal for people to notice it. The other day Andrew and I were walking around downtown Snohomish and a guy outside a bar basically started jigging and told us he was so excited. That was a new one on us, but it was sweet and made us chuckle.

This weekend I was waddling down the street at the farmers market, minding my own business and eating a pickle, (like the walking cliché that I am), and I found it very odd when a woman literally jumped into my path. She forced me to stop so she could oooh and ahhh. She lightly touched my belly and told me I was “sooooo beautiful” and isn’t it amazing what my body can do?! I wanted to tell her, sure. It’s amazing. I have low blood pressure, anemia, am exhausted, sore, and need to get back to my booth because I have a job to do! But instead of course I smiled and faked some pregnant-lady joy. Because that’s what you do when you’re pregnant.

At that same market another lady gave me all kinds of unsolicited advice, and was rather aggressive about it. She had strong opinions about pain medication, and was trying to get me to essentially promise not to use them. Now, I certainly have opinions and desires about how my birth will go, but it seems to me that pushing a child out of my body is an extremely personal decision. While I might discuss the details with a close friend or family member, strangers definitely don’t get a say! Pregnancy really brings out the crazy, and not just in me (hormone joke, bah da cha)!

All that said, of course we are getting excited. I’m not the ooh and ahh type of lady, but there are a few items of clothing and gifts we have received that trigger a little bit of the cuddly feels in me. I know that once the sprout comes out, the hormones and nurturing instincts will kick in and all will be well. But for now…I’m mostly just looking forward to getting my body, and my personal space, back to myself.

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Baby Talk

It’s been a long while since I’ve updated this here blog! Every time I let so much time slip I become anxious about getting back into it. It’s hard to decide how much to include in each blog, what is worth writing about, or what you all will find interesting. This year is turning out to be especially hard to blog about, because lots of really big things are happening! So I sit here looking at a (mostly) blank “page” on the screen and don’t know where to begin.

I guess the biggest news (so far) for those of you who haven’t heard yet, is that we are expecting our first child this summer. Late July to be exact. Which is absolutely the WORST time for farmers to be having a baby, but sometimes these things can’t be helped. I have spent the last few months marveling at how different my body is becoming, and how much it affects my day to day. And the baby isn’t even here yet (although it’s currently kicking me, trying to tell me otherwise). Other than increased fatigue, little things like my abs stretching out and becoming weak are affecting my ability to lift buckets of chicken feed or haul water. Andrew is pulling far more than his share of the weight around here these days, and I’m more than a little nervous about what the looks like as the season progresses, our responsibilities on the farm grow, and then this baby appears!

Fortunately we are friends with a wonderful couple (who are also new parents), who have quit their corporate jobs and want to try their hand at farming. Sounds familiar! We are currently scheming up ways for them to help us out this season so we can have some relief and they can gain some skills. I’m sure having babies together at the farm will be a nice bonus as well! Oh, and for those of you who are wondering, we are not finding out the sex of the baby before it is born. I recently told that to a farmer acquaintance and she said, “Oh, not finding out is the new thing!” Of course my smartass response was, “Uh, actually, it’s the OLD thing” hah. We’ve only had the technology to learn the baby’s sex before birth for about 40 years. It seems to us there are so few surprises in life (although we’ve certainly had our fair share!), and we’re willing to wait to learn all about our little one after he or she enters this world. So stay tuned for that big reveal!

In other news, Andrew and I were lucky enough to escape to Costa Rica back in January. It seems like ages ago. The ten lovely days we spent in the tropics were rejuvenating, but this long, wet Pacific Northwest winter continues to drag on. We have lots of new projects coming up at the farm, including building new portable chicken pens that will improve quality of life for our meat chickens (as well as ourselves!). We were awarded a grant to build these new pens and are excited about the change. We have also had many new goat and lamb babes born this season, our first piglets of the year made an appearance, we will soon have meat chicks in the brooder, and they will be followed quickly by the turkey poults.

Finally I need to mention that my wonderful grandmother passed away last month. I have written about her many times in the blog; she and I were close and I miss her. Fortunately she lived to be 93, and passed away peacefully in her bed after a few months of slipping away. I mentioned in my last post that I got to visit her before her mind was completely taken from her. I was able to tell her I was pregnant, and suddenly she knew exactly who I was and what I was telling her. She was so happy for me, and it was all I could do to keep from bursting into tears on the spot. I’m sad that our child won’t get to meet my grandmother, or his/her own grandmother Nancy. Yet bringing new life into this world as other life departs is a powerful reminder of my own humanity and mortality, and brings to light the important role we each play in the continuity of this wonderful world.

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.

 

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.