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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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.

 

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.