Lard in the Larder & Meat on the Mind

A couple of weeks ago the first over-wintering trumpeter swans began flying overhead in small groups of four or five. Their ethereal trumpeting, along with a few storms and the quickly dipping mercury, are a sure sign that Old Man Winter is slowly wrapping his gnarled hands around the farm. As I sit here typing the wind is gusting wildly, rocking the tiny house on its tractor-trailer foundation. While Andrew and our part time farm hand William run around taking apart now-empty animal enclosures and gathering loose items that are blowing about, I sit here in the warm house with the excuse of fire-tender; we have many pounds of hog lard to render and keeping the fire alight is a very important task!

Speaking of hogs, all eighteen of our wonderful pig friends have been slaughtered over the past few weeks. The hogs are a huge part of our farm and bring a lot of character, so when they are first gone I feel their absence acutely. Someday soon we would like to breed our own hogs, and at that point we would have permanent pig residents to amuse us. For now the cycle of pig life on the farm is relatively short, but ends in a year’s supply of healthy, delicious pork. Many of our customers do not claim the leaf fat from their pigs once at the butcher, and so Andrew and I are happily collecting the leftovers for our own use and for gifts. Hog lard is making a comeback people: mark my words!

Today also marks the first goat slaughter of the season. Andrew performed this task himself, and I am so proud of how efficiently and humanely he accomplished this. This man I married never ceases to amaze me. He continues to learn new skills every day, and is constantly pushing himself to be better. If I only had half the drive he has we could conquer the world! Fortunately we’re happy just plodding along on our fertile little patch of borrowed land in this gorgeous valley. Who needs the world when you have everything you need just steps away from your front door?

As winter approaches we are trying to get things ready, doing what we can to prepare for the cold. We need to cut more hardwood for heat, and insulate the pipes coming out of the new well. We need to dig up and store our carrots, beets, and dahlia tubers in sawdust to protect them from freezing. On the back burner are plans to filter our water system and get the hot water heater back up and running. In the meantime we’re still hauling in our drinking water and taking showers at the neighbor’s. I started washing dishes part time at a nearby winery (the chefs were CSA members this season and are so fun to work with!), and I’ve gotten into the habit of brining my own dirty dishes with me. Having copious amounts of hot running water right out of the tap is a luxury I am still struggling to get used to.

In my last post I mentioned I was going on vacation to visit my sister and her new baby, along with some other family members. We had a great time in beautiful Autumnal Maine, enjoying the newest addition to the family and eating our way around Portland. Little Juniper is adorable, a perfect mash-up between my twin and her husband. It was surreal and amazing to watch the girl I grew up with mothering her child. I wish we lived closer so that I could watch Juniper grow, but photos and video chats will have to do for now. Despite kind of living as if we’re still in the 19th century, Andrew and I suffer that great dilemma most modern American families face: dispersion. We’d love to have everyone all living together on one big bustling farm, but for now we’re thankful for the technology that allows us to stay connected.

Typically wintertime on the farm is spent planning and plotting our next moves. Things are going to be a little bit different for us next year, and we have a lot of work to do in order to get ready. Our passions lie in humane animal husbandry, and we’re looking forward to making that our main mission at Bright Ide Acres. While vegetables will always be a part of our own homestead, the availability of healthy, organically grown produce is widespread in this part of the world. Ethically raised meats are harder to find, and the demand for this niche product is increasing. With the rise in consumer awareness about the factory meat industry and how much more nutritious and environmentally friendly pastured meats are, we feel there is a good marketplace for us.

One big challenge for selling meat products is that the regulations required for selling cuts are proving prohibitive for us. I am adamant about having animals slaughtered on the farm rather than subjecting them to stressful transport and slaughterhouse conditions. Right now all of the large animals that are slaughtered for customers are done so under a custom arrangement, which is great for people who have the freezer space to take a half hog or quarter cow. Our mobile butchers are not USDA certified, which means we can’t take back the meat and resell it as bacon or pork chops at farmers markets or to restaurants. While some neighboring counties have USDA certified mobile slaughter units, our county currently does not.

Unfortunately many potential customers in Seattle and surrounding areas, (who have both the desire to support ethical meat and the means to do so), don’t have big freezers in their apartments and townhouses. Our goal is to find a way to create a meat CSA or cooperative whereby we can provide monthly (or so) boxes with various cuts of different animals, eggs, and honey. Another difficulty will lie in advanced funding, since most of the revenue made from animal products don’t come until after slaughter, which is later in the season. I have been mulling the idea of a Kickstarter campaign or something similar, since I know a lot of you might be interested in supporting us in our endeavors. Please let me know if a comment if you have any ideas or suggestions for farm fund-raising!

I hear some sizzling from the lard pot, so it’s time to go stoke the fire and add more fat. I hope all of you across the country stay warm during the brutal week that’s predicted ahead. If you’re feeling down about the weather I can recommend some homegrown beans simmered in a dollop of trotter gear, (gelatinous pork stock made from pig’s feet!), to keep those winter blues in check. There’s really nothing better than a steaming mug of homemade chili on a cold blustery day!

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Breathing Room

One nice thing about autumn is the waning daylight hours. While I may very well regret the lack of sunlight in the coming months, at present I am relishing it. The darkness of night forces us to quit working outdoors and settle in for the evening, allowing us to eat dinner at a reasonable time and get some much needed paperwork (and blogging!) done before bed.

Fortunately along with the reduction in daylight hours comes a reduction in duties, or at least that’s the idea. With as many animals as we have our work is never done, but the weeds have slowed down and we’re no longer planting new crops so we have a little more space to breathe. The farmer’s market season has ended and we’re in the home stretch of our CSA, with only three weeks left. At the end of October Sam will be leaving the farm, and Andrew and I will be back to the drawing board, coming up with new ideas for next year while we keep our little wood burning stove alight.

This season was quite a whirlwind. Some random highlights include:

* The switch in seasons as marked by the transition from horrible buzzing mosquitoes to horrible buzzing cluster flies (it turns out our home built house is NOT air tight. Surprise surprise.) I (along with the many spiders in the house) have become an insect serial killer
* Making homemade kombucha, water kefir, sauerkraut, mead, tomato sauce, jam, pickles, dilly beans, picked beets, chicken stock, salsa, preserved lemons, applesauce, apple cider vinegar, noccino, and shrub (to name a few!)
* An (unsuccessful but fun!) overnight trip into the mountains to try and see the Aurora Borealis
* Farm yoga sessions with our friends at a neighboring farm
* Three hours spent chasing our brand new ewe who escaped into the “wilds” of 100 or so farm acres
* One edible trout we finally caught in our “backyard” river
* ~600 broiler chickens successfully slaughtered at the farm by us and an army of volunteers
* Zero major injuries, despite Andrew’s repeated attempts to ride “piggy back”

With the craziness of another farm season under our belts comes some powerful lessons. We have learned that there is way too much going on for just the two of us, and even with Sam’s help we were often overwhelmed. We’re going to have to figure out how to make our vision sustainable for the long haul, especially if we plan on raising a family some day. Additionally, owning our own business has been a lesson in fiscal responsibility and management. Next year I will need to invest in some software to help me better track our accounts. Stashing crumpled receipts in our Carhartt pockets or the truck dashboard to be added to Excel spreadsheets later is probably typical behavior for farmers, but not so great for business owners!

Unfortunately this season I have been struggling with a general lack of energy, likely caused by a combination of stress, irregular eating habits, and an underlying blood sugar issue. It’s a difficult dilemma, because work on a farm is truly never done. When the sun sets I spend much of my evening writing emails and catching up on paperwork, when mostly I just want to crawl into bed and sleep for twelve hours. This is part of why I have been so bad about updating this blog! We knew going into this that this farm gig wasn’t just a job, but a lifestyle. We are so lucky to have found something we’re passionate about, and I would never complain about our (chosen!) circumstances. It is important to be honest though, and admit that there are times I feel a real apprehension about this life. I have met many farmers who feel chained to their land/animals/crops, and never seem to find time to take a break. This is not how we feel yet, although with our growing animal herds it may prove harder and harder to find a good “farm sitter.”

My solution to that problem is to take a vacation this month while Andrew and Sam hold down the fort! Next week I’ll be visiting my sister in Maine, and get to meet my baby niece Juniper for the first time! My dad, uncle, and spouses will also be there so it will be a wonderful mini reunion. I’m looking forward to some time away, where I can rejuvenate my body and soul (and take hot showers on the daily!).

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

 

Staycation on the Farm

You’re probably thinking this is going to be the fun Burning Man blog where I post a bunch of crazy pictures of semi-nude people having a blast in the desert. That is what I was hoping to blog about, but unfortunately we never made it to Burning Man. This one major thing really got in the way of our summer vacation plans. Namely: FARM. Yeah, that thing. Farmers really don’t get to go on vacations in the summer, and while we were “authorized” to take the time off, it just wasn’t possible to get everything in order so that we could leave in time. So, instead we stayed and worked on the farm, and enjoyed some quality time with friends and family who have been visiting us at the farm throughout the past month. Not exactly the wild, carefree, art-filled party I was looking forward to, but seriously who am I to complain? My whole life (other than all the back-breaking work), seems like one great vacation to most people!

Things on the farm are chugging along, but at a much less frenetic pace than before. The weeds, while still growing every day, are slowing down and we are having an easier time keeping ahead. While we have had to supplement our boxes with some produce from our neighbor (we learned the lesson of regular successional plantings the hard way!), our boxes have been full of healthy, high-quality, delicious organic veg and I am very proud of all we have accomplished. The pigs are growing bigger and bigger every day, and I get immense joy out of watching them frolic in the mud, grunting all the while in pure porcine delight.  The turkeys now have extra space to run about, and crack me up every time they gobble in unison at the sound of tractor engines and Andrew’s singing.

Of course as the animals grow, they come ever closer to serving their ultimate purpose: food. Last week I witnessed my first cow slaughter, and I was truly humbled by the process. The people who came out to do the slaughter were amazing: the cow was killed instantly and painlessly, and the carcass was broken down into halves within 30 minutes. At that time we had an 8-month old whether (little boy goat) with a broken leg that wouldn’t heal, despite our efforts to splint it. We asked the butchers to process our goat, and they were kind enough to oblige. On one hand it was difficult to observe the death of this creature that I had interacted with daily for months. On the other hand I felt really connected to the process of food production. The goat curry that Andrew cooked that week was phenomenal; even more so because we knew how healthy the meat was and how comfortable the life of the goat had been.

In other news, we now have a deck for the tiny house, and the electrical is now completely set up so I can actually charge my phone in an outlet (at least when the sun is out!).  Things are starting to get more and more home-like, although we still don’t have a shower or a flushing toilet. While the weather remains mostly warm and summery, we have had a few severe storms that serve as a nagging reminder of the impending winter. The long sunlight hours were short-lived and I miss them already. The sunflowers are starting to die, and I know the grey will move in permanently before I’m ready (will I ever be ready?). Thankfully we are planning an Australian get-away for a big chunk of winter, so we’ll get to have that summer vacation we missed in this hemisphere. In the meantime we continue to fill our CSA boxes every week, find some time to play, nourish the animals that will nourish us in kind, and thank our lucky stars for this crazy, wonderful life we have managed to cobble together.

The Busy Season

When we first started working on the farm we kept hearing about how the “busy season” was coming up. Having never worked on a farm before, we could only nod and imagine what that might mean. We both had done ample research on the type of farming we wanted to do, and of course the popular farmer image is that of a harried, sleepless, underpaid, overworked, beleaguered, and weathered soul, so we weren’t completely unprepared for the work ahead. But nothing can really prepare you for the types of days we’ve been having this week. They’re the type of days that involve us driving back up to our apartment at 8 PM, killing the engine, and just sitting in the truck too tired and numb to open our doors or unclick our seat belts. They’re the type of days that have us slaughtering chickens, harvesting vegetables, sanding and staining hardwood floors, and organizing volunteer days at the farm.  They’re the type of days that have us wrangling goats, collecting eggs, slopping out goat’s milk to the pigs, and then working on irrigation. This is indeed the busy season, and though we are surviving, it is exhausting work!

Thankfully these past few weeks we have had some help in the form of Kyle, a recent ag school graduate who is nomading across the country in search of practical hands-on farm experience. Kyle hails from Houston, Texas and is following the “good weather” while he can. He has oodles of book knowledge and lots of great ideas about what plants to use as cover crops, how to use mulch to prevent weeds, and has been a great asset to us on these busy busy days.

The weather has indeed been “good” up here. It’s been sunny, warm, and breezy: wonderful weather for going to the zoo, working in your hobby garden, or taking a nice bike ride. For us farmers who are outside every second of the waking day, the sun is getting to be a pain. I never thought I would say this, but I’m desperate for some rain, or at least some grey skies. The irrigation system at the farm is not up to snuff, and I am stressing about our plants not getting enough water to thrive. A little rain would go a long way! Our 300 gallon rain barrel is also nearing empty, and so finding water sources to replenish turkeys and even to wash our hands involves extra walking or turning on gas-powered pumps.

There is a constant anxiety involved in farming, or at least involved in Greenhorn farming. The biggest concern (other than water of course), is what the heck is going in our boxes this week? We’re still learning how to plant at the right times to ensure we have ample produce when we need it. Fortunately we’ve been lucky (or successful?) enough that we’ve had pretty good-sized yields. On our most recent pickup day someone did mention that our boxes looked a little “light” this time around, and I agree. We had such a wonderful spring that our earliest boxes were lush and overflowing with a huge variety. We still have quite the selection, but it doesn’t exactly match our previous hauls. This is all part of the CSA. Sometimes crops fail, or weather turns, or elk trample your seedlings. As members of the farm, our customers know that we are doing all we can, and sometimes there is less, while other times there is more! If everyone loved cucumbers we’d have nothing but smiles…that is one bumper crop we can’t seem to stay ahead of! I can’t complain though; nothing beats a cool cucumber with sea salt on a hot summer’s day!

In other news, my family had quite the shock a couple days ago when my father had a massive heart attack. I say “massive” because that’s what I’m told, although I spoke to him and he sounds pretty good, no, especially good for a guy who required CPR by heart surgeons the day before. My father is in general a healthy guy who walks around a lot for work, so this was not something any of us expected. My siblings and I are all headed to Sacramento to visit with him this weekend. I am not happy about the circumstances, but I am looking forward to some quality family time, and to be honest a little break from the farm is probably not a bad thing either. Poor Andrew will be on his own for a few days, but I think the time apart will also be good for our relationship. Working and living with your spouse requires a true partnership, and like any partnership sometimes a little distance here and there can make all the difference.

While I spend my time inside air-conditioned buildings avoiding the 100+ degree Sacramento heat, I’ll be doing a mental rain dance with visions of Mt. Rainier and Mt. Baker as my goalposts. I’m not confident the rain will come, but I do believe that we will endure this “busy season.” While it might not be the most graceful of farming ventures, it will be just enough to whet our appetites for the season ahead. There’s a common refrain among farmers that goes something like: “next year we’ll do it this way.” Andrew is full of these ideas, and while I often roll my eyes and snip at him to focus on the year at hand, I am excited for the growing possibilities that await.