Farmer’s Lament

I need to get something off my chest. This weekend our favorite sow, Tuesday, gave birth and I failed her. And I can’t figure out why. I keep replaying the day over and over in my head and I know I should have done better. I could have done better. Perhaps it was just a combination of being too hot, tired, and overworked. My mind wasn’t firing on all cylinders. I thought she was doing ok. But the signs were all there and I missed them.

Saturday was a hot, sunny day at the farm. We knew Tuesday was close to farrowing, and a quick check of her early that morning showed she was producing milk, which for a pig usually means labor within 24 hours. At this point we were already set up for some trouble as Tuesday had decided to build her nest outside, despite having access to a lovely little hut that would have provided shade and kept her piglets safe. Once a sow builds a nest, there’s really nothing you can do to change her mind about the location, so we figured we’d roll with it.

A few hours later I went over to Tuesday’s pen with a pop-up farmers market shelter. I figured I could at least create some shade for her if she insisted on being outside. When I climbed into her pen she was in her wallow, but as soon as the shelter was up she waddled over and plopped down in the shade. I was so relieved! Her breathing slowed down and she seemed content. Suddenly I heard a wet, flopping sound and looked back over at her wallow, where a brand new piglet was struggling. Labor had begun!

I settled down next to Tuesday and waited for the piglets. And waited. And waited some more. Usually if the time between piglets is longer than 40 minutes, something is wrong and she needs help. At this point I wasn’t too concerned. I thought perhaps the first piglet came out early because she was stressed by the heat, and that her labor had slowed now that she was calm. Which in hindsight doesn’t make any sense at all; labor is labor and those piglets needed to come out! The next two piglets that came out were undeveloped and had clearly died a long time ago. This is not uncommon in my experience, so I still wasn’t worried.

As time went on, another healthy piglet was born. The time between piglets was still long, but for some reason I stayed back. Our new sow Holly had farrowed just a few weeks ago, and I assisted with her entire litter. Because I did, she delivered twelve healthy babies (though she wound up crushing two later that night). Had I not intervened, things would have turned out much differently because she wasn’t pushing and clearly needed help. I can’t figure out why I didn’t notice that in Tuesday. Perhaps because she is our older, more experienced sow. We’ve never had issues with her farrowing before. So I just ignored the signs. And that’s when things got worse.

After that healthy pig was born, another full term stillborn piglet slid out. And another. A couple more live piglets, and then another dead one. Suddenly a live piglet popped out and Andrew, who had joined me at this point, looked at it and said “whoa, something’s wrong with that one!” The poor little guy had a crooked spine and seemed to be missing his abdominal walls. It was obvious he could not have survived, so unfortunately we had to put that one down. Finally I decided to go in. I felt some afterbirth, and once that was passed we assumed she was done. We made sure the piglets were nursing, washed up, and ran across the street for about half an hour.

Whoops. When I returned I saw that Tuesday had passed yet another stillborn piglet. I sat there on my heels reeling, not understanding how I could have been so careless. Since Tuesday is an older sow we knew this was going to be her last litter. Our hope was to get a replacement gilt out of her, so that we could continue her legacy on our farm. At this point she had five live piglets, and NONE of them were female. I sat there thinking maybe, just maybe she had one left in there. As I contemplated going back in to help, out popped a healthy little girl.

Six healthy piglets out of a possible 11 that had come to full term is not ideal. But six is still a decent litter, and we had our girl! The rollercoaster of emotions was incredible. Finally we realized we needed to give Tuesday some oxytocin to get her uterus contracting and push out the afterbirth. In retrospect we should have given her this medication much earlier on, as it likely would have prevented most of these losses.

Unfortunately that night Tuesday accidentally crushed two of her piglets. We still have the girl, but now we are down to four. Thankfully she finally let us move her nest into the house, so at least they are staying safer now. But I can’t shake this feeling that there should be a boisterous group of piglets out there vying for mom’s teats. Instead there are only four. I know everyone makes mistakes, and I know that’s how we learn. I will never question myself again when a sow is in labor. I’d much rather help too much than not enough.

I realize this is a rather bleak post. Livestock farming is hard, emotionally draining work. There are a lot of romantic notions about what this life is like, but those cute animal photos on social media don’t tell the full story. I want this blog to be a place where I can be real and honest, and I’m grateful to all of you for reading. Putting these words down on paper is the best way I know to mend my aching, weary heart.

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Andrew and the little gilt. What a bittersweet moment.
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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

 

 

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!

 

 

A Trip Around the Sun

Things on the farm are chugging along at a steady clip, and we are just a little over a week away from our first chicken harvest. Last time I wrote we were stressing a bit about the timeline crunch since our power wasn’t installed yet. The good news is the poles are now in place! The less-than-good news is that they aren’t live yet, but we are confident they will be shortly. We are definitely approaching the 11th hour, but I’m putting all of my energy into willing things to work out, so they will, right? I was on the phone with my sister the other day, and she has been dealing with the stress of working on a new house, hiring contractors, ripping up carpets, and taking care of her baby. She was getting pretty worked up, and then she had a revelation. She told me that instead of a “game face” she has adopted a “Maine face.” She said everyone in Maine is so doggone nice that things just always work out in the end because people help each other out. I like this philosophy a lot! I’m going to work on my “farm face.” Everything on the farm always works out one way or another, and we’ve become quite adept at flying by the seat of our pants. Especially when they’re Carhartts.

Last Friday I celebrated my 31st birthday. For some reason 31 feels a lot older to me than 30 did. I guess because it seems like I’m not more solidly in my thirties, rather than just teetering on the edge, waiting to be pushed back into my twenties by a strong breeze. I’m not actually worried about aging, I think I become more of myself the older I become. The essential “me-ness” has always been there, but it becomes more bold and complex with age. Just like wine, or cheese! And really what’s better than that? My dad recently suggested I write down what a “day in the life” is like for me, and that people might be interested in knowing what I do on the day-to-day level. I think my birthday is probably a great place to start, since it was such an awesome day. Here’s how it all went down.

Andrew was scheduled to work at his concrete job that day, but didn’t have to be in until 10, so we spent the morning together drinking coffee and enjoying local smoked salmon with farm-fresh poached eggs and chives. Then we took a stroll out to the goats so I could visit with my favorite kids. There is a small baby who is a slow developer and he’s very sweet and cuddly. I can pick him up and cradle him and he just nibbles on my shirt contentedly. Then we walked around the rest of the farm and visited the chicks, and pigs and carried out our various chores (feeding chicks, cleaning waterers out, checking the brooder temperature, chucking bread to the pigs, giving them milk, collecting eggs, feeding hens).

Then I took a very special shower. I usually only shower once a week or so (don’t judge!), and this time I had a brand new bar of homemade poppy seed soap from one of my customers, and a brand new razor I ordered from Harry’s. Nothing like getting razor blades in your mailbox to keep things exciting, hah. I also made a new leave-in conditioner, which helped tame my “no-poo” hair. If you’re not familiar, do a google search and you’ll see lots of people have jumped on the “no-poo” bandwagon. Instead of shampoo I use baking soda, and then rinse it out with apple cider vinegar. It gives me great volume and I love how cheap and natural it is, but tangles are an issue. This is where my new leave-in conditioner came in! Two parts water, one part jojoba oil, and a few drops of peppermint essential oil and I was a shiny new birthday girl! When you live a “simple life” like we do, it’s very easy to get excited about the little things!

After my shower I went to Costco with my friend and her three-year-old son. Costco is like a once-every-four-years event for me, but I needed a plastic folding table for the farmer’s market (starting June 20!!!), so Bri took me with her. Costco on the Friday before Memorial Day weekend is not a good idea. Cart maneuvering felt like being on the 5 freeway outside of Los Angeles, But we had fun with each other and little Elliott says the most hilarious things. He even asked his mom if his dumdum sucker was gluten and dairy free before offering me a lick. What a sweetheart!

Back at the farm we had our second visit from an aerial drone. The first visit upset me a lot, but this second one was great because I got the binoculars out and saw it go back home. Now at least I know where it lives, so if I feel so inclined I can stop by and very politely ask that they respect our privacy! I don’t mind when people come over and ask to walk around, take pictures, and enjoy the farm. But just having this thing flying in overhead and hovering above us and our animals made me feel leery. We have contemplated shooting it down, but after checking the laws it seems like this is not really an acceptable option. Although I certainly can’t help it if it happens to come over during target practice…

Later that afternoon I had the door to the house open while I was washing dishes, and a couple barn swallows flew in to check it out. They do this a lot this time of year, but this time one got confused and went for the window. I was able to catch him and release him, and it was pretty cool to have one of these lightning fast little creatures be still in my hand. Birthday power!

When Andrew came home we went to the winery (Covington Cellars: GO THERE!!!!) where I wash dishes for dinner. The chefs and I have become good friends, and they prepared an entire six-course, off-menu dinner full of Micha-friendly items. My favorites were bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with Marcona almonds, spicy prawns, artichoke and smoked salmon deviled eggs, and homemade hummus with amazing gluten free bread. They even gave me gifts including homemade sugar scrub. Now when I shower the combination of baking soda shampoo, poppy seed soap, coconut oil for shaving, and this sugar scrub (all while standing in what is essentially a metal pan), makes me feel like I’m baking a cake!

Next up Andrew and I went bowling, where we nursed bad cocktails while I trounced him pretty handily. Can you name a better way of making yourself feel exceptionally special on your birthday than by beating your husband at competitive sports? I sure can’t!

Unfortunately there is some less happy news to report. My grandmother, with whom (faithful readers will remember) I am very close, recently suffered a stroke event. While she is physically still capable, and certainly still astoundingly lucid for a 91 year old, she has lost some small part of herself. She tires much more easily, loses occasional words, and is struggling with the sensation of mental fogginess. At her age this is nothing unique, but for her (and us) it feels so. The real clincher for me in recognizing that things have changed was that she didn’t call me on my birthday. I was able to get ahold of her the next day, and she wished me a happy birthday, so I know her memory is still mostly intact. But that small little blip was enough to make me worry. At least I know she is in a wonderful home with lots of friends and caretakers nearby, which is a relief. And I’m so grateful I got to go visit her a couple months ago when she was still in top-form. She even took me to the opera!

The other bad news is that my mother-in-law’s cancer is progressing more rapidly than we expected. The new chemo drugs her doctors were excited about don’t seem to be doing a good job at slowing her tumor growth. Nancy doesn’t let news like this slow her down much; in fact she is currently on vacation in Cabo with her husband and friends! But it is hard for all of us to see her in so much pain and discomfort. She has to wear a back brace for some broken vertebrae (her bones are very weak due to the cancer, and then her car was hit by a drunk driver in an accident a few months ago).

As my birthdays come and go I witness the people I love also get older, have babies, mature, age, and head towards death. It’s easy to recognize the changes that occur in others, and sometimes it feels like I’m idling standing in place while the world whirls around me. Yet I must acknowledge the changes that are happening within myself physically, emotionally, and spiritually. My wine and cheese analogy really isn’t that far off; the changes that occur are subtle if you take a nibble or sip every couple of weeks. But if you take 21-year-old Micha and compare her to 31-year-old Micha, boy what a difference a decade makes!

The Golden Hour

There is a time of day I like to call the “Golden Hour.” I started noticing it a month or so ago, when the weather shifted towards winter and the trumpeter swans began flying low overhead.  Just before sunset, (at 4:15!), on days when the sun is shining and the frost lingers in the shadowy areas, the light hits the trees across the river and a brilliant golden glow radiates. Golden Hour is actually a misnomer, because the moment is brief; maybe five minutes lapse before the sun’s rays weaken and twilight sets in, turning everything to muted shades of grey. But in that short time I look around, take a deep breath, and absorb the last gasp of energy from the sun while I can. This is a moment that I believe only happens in climates where the seasons are distinct and change rapidly. I have seen it before, while going to school in Ohio or when I lived in the Eastern Sierras of California, but here on the farm it is different. Maybe it’s because I’m outside most of the time it occurs, but I think it is because I am in tune with my environment like never before. I can feel the seasons switching over, and the Golden Hour is like a beautiful warning. Take heed: winter is coming.

I suppose, (since everyone keeps telling me), that we have been lucky with weather this year. Having never lived in the Pacific Northwest I have to take their word for it. Though the mercury has dropped dramatically, with night temperatures in the twenties this week, the sun has made frequent appearances. Don’t get me wrong; there have been some blustery, grey, misty, and torrential days. But they are mixed in with marvelously clear, cold, brilliant days where the snow-capped peaks in the distance pull my gaze, reminding me of their quiet splendor.

Tuesday was one of those days, and it also happened to be the day we slaughtered our five pigs. I was worried most about this day, despite having witnessed the slaughter of cows, and having taken part in the slaughter of chickens and turkeys. We raised the pigs from little weaners, and they were an integral part of our life on the farm. Daily they frolicked, squealed, played, ate, scratched, escaped, ate, grew, nuzzled, snorted, ate, ate, and ate some more. I was worried that I had become too emotionally invested in the pigs, (I did name them after all), but throughout the process I understood that the pigs had gone from friend to food in the most humane way, and I now feel a sense of peace about the totality of the process. It doesn’t hurt that as pigs get older and bigger they get a lot less cute and cuddly! It also doesn’t hurt that I watched the birthing of a calf after all the pigs were slaughtered. In death there is life and in life there is death, and to me this is the essence of farming.

Last week we spent Thanksgiving with my father and stepmother in Sacramento. We took a road trip down there, and brought with us the dog, fresh eggs, a sack full of potatoes, and one half of a 30lb turkey. We have been eating our own chickens and beef since the spring and so I am used to the tangible difference between fresh, naturally raised meat and the kind you buy shrink-wrapped at Safeway.  Even with elevated expectations, this turkey blew my mind. The juice, flavor, texture…it was absurdly divine. If you have access to a nearby farm that produces Thanksgiving turkeys, I urge you to take advantage. Sure, you pay a lot more than you would for a Butterball, but you really are buying a different product. That’s true for all sustainably-raised meat, but if you consider it a splurge, do yourself a favor and splurge on the turkey!

In addition to our Thanksgiving getaway, I have recently traveled away from the farm quite a bit. My mom came in from Australia and I spent time with her and my brother and sister-in-law in Seattle. Then I flew to Portland, Maine with my mom and spent time with my sister, her husband and some more of my extended family. I had a great time visiting with everyone, and relished the easy access to a hot shower. I found myself getting “comfortable” living the city life to which I was formerly accustomed. I worried that it would be a hard transition back to farm living, that the cold would get to me and I would regret our lack of running water and dependable electricity. Fortunately coming back to Andrew’s warm arms made all of my doubts fall away, and I am happy to be back in my little house, sitting in the glow of the lantern as the fire rumbles nearby. As long as the Golden Hour keeps the “Big Wet” at bay, you won’t find me complaining!