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

 

 

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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.

 

The Ides of March (har har)

Whoa! It’s almost April and I haven’t written in since late February. Time sure does fly when you haven’t filed your taxes! This spring has been exceptionally mild. We’ve had several days in the 60s and 70s, with ample sunshine. It’s gotten to the point where if it rains for more than a day I catch myself thinking “What’s with this crazy weather?!” which of course, up here in Washington state is downright silly. I really feel for my family back east who are suffering from such a miserable, protracted winter. I also ache for my family and friends in California who are in the midst of a horrible drought. I’m sure we’ll be paying for this wonderful weather in one form or another, but at the moment all I can do is be grateful.

Obviously a lot has happened in the past couple months, including the official switch from growing vegetables alongside meat, to focusing solely on ethically raised meat and eggs. In order to help spread the word and grow our business, I spent a good chunk of time building a new website for our farm. Please check it out and let me know what you think (and consider supporting us by purchasing our meat if you’re local)! Link: www.brightide acres.com.

This switch has been challenging in several ways. First and foremost is the loss of early season capital. With our vegetable CSA, much of the money for the produce was collected before the season even began, which gave us a good amount of money we could then use to buy our baby chicks, pigs, feed, and other supplies. This year of course we don’t have that capital, and we’re also doubling and tripling our animal numbers so it’s a bit of a dilemma. We are working on some alternative loan options, so if anyone out there in the world reading this wants to help a small farm get a foothold, I’d love to hear from you!

In the meantime Andrew and I have both been busy both on the farm and off. In order to make ends meet we’ve found a few part-time jobs can really help. I’m still washing dishes and doing some catering assistance for some pals who work at a winery, and have added a day of vegetable packing for another farm-fresh operation nearby. Andrew has started pouring concrete two days a week, which is a skill he has honed since high school. We consider ourselves fortunate that we found work easily and that we can be choosy about how we spend our time working for others; most people don’t have that luxury and for that we are grateful.

One of our biggest areas of growth this year is in our pastured chicken husbandry. We are going from raising 600 broilers last year to 1,200 this year, and in order to do that we are hoping to utilize a new WSDA inspected mobile slaughter unit. This slaughter unit would come to the farm and slaughter, air-cool, and vacuum seal our birds. Since it is inspected by the state, we would then be free to freeze the birds and bring them to farmers’ markets, sell to restaurants, or any other way we see fit. This is only possible if electricity becomes a reality at the farm. Eric, the landowner, has been working on this for months, but of course government red tape is making progress slow. We have our fingers crossed, bound, and doubled over backwards for the approval, but only time well tell and we’re furiously working on a plan B just in case.

Since we aren’t growing veggies this year, a lot of acreage that we were using is now available, and a new group of farmers has come in to lease the land. Rand and Alice are two very nice, intelligent, and experienced women farmers, and we’ve enjoyed getting to know them as they start working the soil. It’s truly impressive to watch farmers who were originally trained on bigger, more professional farms. Comparing their efficiency to how we scrambled around these last couple seasons has cemented my confidence in our decision. We certainly loved growing vegetables and we did pretty well for ourselves, but now that we’re on the other side looking back I can see we made the right choice for us. In a few days Rand and Alice’s interns start arriving, and I’m looking forward to meeting some more like-minded people and making new friendships.

I guess I should mention the baby animals! We’ve had 28 baby goats born at the farm in the past month or so. We’ve also had 11 lambs born. Out of those 11 lambs, only two are female! That’s nice because the males will be raised for meat, although it makes growing our future flock more difficult. Either way at this point all I can say is baby animals are adorable, hilarious, and so much fun to be around. And really what more can you ask of life than to be nibbled on by such sweet little faces?

Remember Me?

A few weeks ago the first of the Canada Geese returned to our valley, heralding summer’s end. If that wasn’t enough to convince me of how short our seasons are here, a lone (and possibly lost) trumpeter swan flew overhead yesterday, and the reality of the approaching winter began to sink in.

This summer has been an absolute whirlwind, which I am sure comes as no surprise to my readers since I have been radio silent for quite a while. I’m sorry! At the end of the day I can barely keep my eyelids open long enough to shovel forkfuls of dinner into my mouth before collapsing into bed, and I haven’t had the time or energy to spend on my writing. I will do my best to catch you all up to speed!

Last week was our third chicken harvest of the season. While the work is hard and time-consuming, we have dialed in our procedures and have plenty of interested volunteers who help make things go smoothly. Selling birds has never been a problem, and we are always so encouraged by our amazing customers who are committed to supporting us and the way we raise our meat. Where we live there aren’t very many options for pastured, ethically raised meat, and so we have really tapped into a niche. We consider ourselves very fortunate that this is a niche we are extremely passionate about!

In that regard we have started to expand our menagerie, and have added a couple of sheep to our farm. They are Katahdin hair sheep, which means we don’t have to worry about shearing them because they shed their hair like dogs. We have two ewes (Rosemary and Blossom), and a ram (Rambo, aka Beau, aka Cephus…we’re still working on that one!). We hope to buy a few more before the season is over so we can have lambs in time for Easter. The goats continue to alternately entertain and frustrate us with their hilarious antics. The hilarity rapidly turns to irritation when they escape and won’t go back in their pen, or when they completely destroy the nice tarp they had for a roof on their house. With the amount of time Andrew spends wrangling goats, they have yet to be proven as an economically sound investment. They definitely keep us on our toes, and that’s got to be worth something!

The pigs have grown immense in a short amount a time, a function of having free access to high-quality feed. They are such wonderful creatures, and delight in the small pleasures: a fresh bucket of bendy cucumbers, a wheelbarrow of ginormous zucchinis. They come running when I call them while snorting in excitement, much to the delight of visiting customers and friends. Our turkeys are also growing quickly, and while rearing them to this stage has been a difficult and often painful process, I am so incredibly enamored with them. We had many losses when they were just little babies, since they have a habit of smothering each other at night. Now they are out in pens on sawdust, and are eager to get onto pasture where they can eat their fill of greens and grubs. This week we plan on building them a safe brooding house for nighttime, and will set up a netted fence for them to roam within during the day. In the meantime I can often be found clipping clover and dandelion greens for my chirpy little “goobers.”

This season we have added a farmer’s market to the mix, and it’s definitely a unique experience. I had prior “booth” type experience at my last job, but it’s a very different thing to sell produce I grew with my own two hands. Farmer’s markets also attract a wide array of people, and I find myself having really interesting conversations. One thing I’ve noticed is that some people really just love to unload, vent, or otherwise air their dirty laundry onto poor unsuspecting farmers, and I’m starting to feel like a bartender! I know all about certain people’s ailments, car accidents, divorce battles, and the like…it makes me feel grateful for my own joyful life and good health. The best part of the market is getting to know my “regulars,” including a sweet gentleman who calls himself “Orca Man,” pushes his mother’s wheelchair everywhere, and always pays in $100 bills. There’s a guy who always wears a kilt, countless old ladies in elaborate hats and scarves, curious children, and health-conscious gym rats. There’s bicyclists, motorcyclists, home-gardeners, and housewives. In other words, the market is full of diversity and I always come home richer for the experience, even if the cash box doesn’t feel much heavier!

As the season marches on, Andrew and I continue to plot our next move. It’s hard to make plans when so much of what we are doing is tenuous. We’d like to expand our meat operation, but without reliable running water or electricity we are in a tough place. (Side note: Our shallow well ran dry this summer…again! Eric, the landowner, recently had a real well put in, but the water coming out of it is pretty unpleasant). Also since we’re in a flood plain, having breeding stock of certain animals (like pigs) becomes a big challenge. We can’t imagine ever having the funds to buy our own place with adequate acreage, and we have fallen in love with the valley we now call home. Fortunately for us we are adaptable and creative, so I’m confident things will fall into place.

Change is definitely afoot down here at the farm, and you may have noticed some blog changes too. In addition to some layout updates, at the bottom of the page (keep scrolling!) you’ll find links to both our farm website and Agrilicious!, a free service that connects you with local farmers. I anticipate some small financial benefit to adding this link (perhaps an upgraded membership on their website), but I am truly passionate about helping each and every one of you find amazing, local produce. If everyone endeavors to support local agriculture in some small way, we may be able to heal our broken food economy and nurture the land back to health while we’re at it.

Back on the farm the turning seasons are bringing afternoon winds that carry a weight larger than that of Old Man Winter. There’s a stirring in my bones, and a sense that big things are on the horizon for us. I am not sure what these big things are (no Mom, I’m NOT pregnant!!!), but I’ll be sure to keep you appraised as our story unfolds before us.

** Click the link below for a random video of Andrew being interviewed for the news!**

No cock-a-doodle-doo here? County weighs expanding animal nuisance zone

 

A Season of Growth

Two years ago Andrew and I were wed in a campground in Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California. We did not know what our future looked like, but it involved togetherness: on that front we were certain. A few months after we married I lost my job and we decided to travel across the US, exploring the great outdoors as we went. That trip was what started this blog, so I could share our experiences with friends and family (and for posterity, since I have a horrible memory). After our trip ended we decided to find fulfilling work outdoors, away from office cubicles and fluorescent lights. We landed on a farm in Snohomish, Washington, and after a (mostly!) successful season of farming I am happy to announce we have started our own business!

Obviously this has been quite a remarkable two years. What started out as an exciting adventure has become more than a job, it is a way of life. I have developed into someone I might not have recognized just a few years back. Or rather I have nurtured those parts of myself that were submerged, struggling under the overwhelming influence of commercialism. I shopped too much, I bought expensive makeup, I flittered my money away on things in an attempt to fulfill myself. I know it’s a cheesy troupe, but indeed it seems true that you can’t buy happiness. If I extrapolate my experience onto our society at large, I sense a great emptiness that we are trying to fill with junk. I suspect the lack of interpersonal connections that comes from cubicle culture and digital communication share some of the blame.

In this day, electronic gadgets are more highly valued than healthy foods, which of course I notice much more now that I am growing said food. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 1950 a whopping 29.7% of total expenditures was on food. In 2012 this number landed at 12.8%. Of course there are many complicated factors which go into a statistic like this, but I have no doubt that the availability of cheaply made, mass-manufactured “food” products and the prevalence of cheap, unethically raised meats, eggs, and dairy are a huge part of the equation. People now balk at spending considerable money on food, although to my mind what could be more important than that which nourishes you and keeps you healthy? If we spent more money on nutritious vegetables, I bet we’d spend less on those ubiquitous pills!

In any case, where I once felt a need to acquire, I now put off going to the store and spending time and money when I could be/should be out weeding my beets. And maybe that’s really the crux of it after all: maybe when you’re farming (or otherwise working with your hands), you’re so busy and you get so tired from working hard that you just don’t have the time or energy for consumerism. It also doesn’t hurt that I have very little occasion to wear nice things. Either way, it’s a good thing because at this point I wouldn’t have the funds to support my old habits anyway! At the end of the day I feel more fulfilled than ever before, and I think a big part of it comes from living more in the moment, being outside in nature every day, and (honestly!) not having a television.

Okay I realize most people check in here to read about life on the farm, not about my personal hippie revelations, so let’s get back to it! This spring we had NINE new baby goats come into this world. We had two sets of twins and a set of triplets all born within a few days of one another in early March. And then a month later…my little darling Gretchen kidded a set of twins too! Her twins are special: not only are they like my grandkids (heh!) they’re genetically unique. They are 75% Kiko and 25% Boer, and because of this they look different too. The little girl is all white with one brown spot near her ear, and her bigger brother is all brown with a little white patch on his forehead. They are extremely adorable and love to be scratched, just like their momma. Gretchen is a great mom too, which is a relief since this was her first time kidding.

With spring came the rains, or rather, the rains stayed, and we had the wettest March on record with 6.65” of precipitation. This was about double the average, and boy did we feel it. The farm developed a few new “lakes” in some of the pastures, and our road was impassable for a couple of days. We were anxious to work the ground, but when nature has other plans, on the farm you must be patient. Now we’re well into April and the weather is doing the fun Washington spring thing, where one day it’s so sunny and warm you’re in a tank top and the next day there is a hailstorm. Thankfully we have had plenty of time to get things growing, and we’ve got quite a variety of plants in the ground and in the greenhouse.

Which brings me to our new business! This year we have decided (with the help of Eric, the owner of Chinook Farms) to develop our own company: Bright Ide Acres! We are doing basically the same things as last season, but in a larger capacity and with more independence. Our CSA membership will be capped at around 40 boxes, and we will be attending a Sunday farmer’s market in Snohomish. We also expanded our animal operation significantly. Our animal counts for the season (not including goats) will be: 20 pigs, 600 broilers, and 100 turkeys! We still have a relatively small egg laying flock, which is unfortunate because demand is outpacing supply. In other words, things are going great for us and we’re actually expecting to make minimum wage this season. Hooray! You can visit our farm website here: www.brightideacres.com. I have a mini farm blog there too, but if you want a good fix of farm photos you should like our page on facebook: www.facebook.com/brightideacres. I’m obsessive about taking and posting farm photos, especially this time of year when all the animals are young and adorable.

That’s been our spring, in a nutshell. We are chugging away, getting things ready for the crazy, busy year ahead. Farming can be fairly stressful at times, and I often have anxiety about the upcoming season. But in those moments I take a deep breath, sniff a calming blend of essential oils I keep handy, and stick my nose back in those beets. When things get overwhelming, there is no better way to come back to the moment at hand than by sticking your fingers (and toes!) in the dirt for a while.