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.

 

Sows on the Move

I thought it was about time to write a post where I show you some of what we do day-to-day on the farm. Each day is different, which is part of the joy of farming. Of course there are the typical chores that must be done the same every day, but other events ebb and flow, and our workload fluctuates with the changes in season.

Some chores are done weekly or so, like moving animal paddocks. With the portable fencing system we use, most of the time moving animals is a breeze. After our last flood, we had to move the sows (female breeding pigs) back outside after they spent a week in a shipping container up on high ground.

First we set up the paddock. The ladies who farm vegetables here (One Leaf Farm) had given us a couple areas to use for the sows. The sows will do work rooting and digging, essentially acting as rototillers before the ground gets prepped for new crops.

Once the paddock space has been determined, we start by placing T posts at all four corners. This is done with a post pounder and muscles. Andrew’s muscles to be exact.

Once all four T posts are placed, we attach plastic insulators and run an electric wire around the pen. The electric wire is actually mostly poly, with a few thin metal wires woven in. The electricity is set to pulse, so it mildly zaps the sow when they come into contact but it doesn’t grab onto them and hold like it would if you stuck a fork in an outlet!

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Next we place simple rebar at intervals around the paddock to reinforce tension on the wire.

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Rebar is more user-friendly for shorties like myself. Having the wire pre-strung helps us line our rebar stakes. Then they get attached with plastic insulators as well.

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Once we’ve done the first lower strand, a second higher strand is placed. Two strands aren’t always necessary; pigs are highly trainable and usually respond well to a single strand.

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To train a pig to a hot wire, we set up a pen when they’re small using what are called hog panels. These are metal panels about 16′ x 3′ but any fencing material will work. Just inside the fencing install an electric wire at nose height. The pigs will learn very quickly that the wire jolts them, and the wire is now associated with the paddock boundary. After a week or so you can take the fencing away and they will stay inside the wire! It’s important that the wire stays hot though…as the pigs root they can bury the wire in dirt and cause it to ground out. If pigs learn their wire isn’t on, well then you have a problem!

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Once our paddock was set up, we had to get the sows out of the shipping container and out onto the field. They were desperate to get outside, but getting them in the right place without a bunch of detours is always the challenge. Thankfully the veggie farmers don’t have much going on right now, because our girls certainly would have trampled some crops! A bucket of whey-soaked bread was my bribe to get the sows to follow me in a mostly straight line.

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I dropped small piles of bread on the path to the new paddock. A few times the girls were so excited they actually ran ahead of me! It amazes me how fast a 400 lb creature can run when she’s excited! The piles of bread encouraged the girls to slow down a minute and let me get back in front of them.

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Look at that sow move!!

When we set up our paddock we kept one side open. Our sows are very well trained to the hot wire and will not cross-either to go in or out. So we have to make sure no wire is blocking their path into the paddock. Once the sows are in, we zip up the fence and plug in the battery.

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We recently purchased six poly calf huts from a farm that’s closing up shop. These portable huts are a wonderful addition to our space! They’re easy to move and we plan on using them for both pigs and goats. Sheep don’t mind the rain because of the lanolin in their wool, but goats get pretty moody when they’re damp. And if goats are moody, you can bet I am too.

Finally we haul out feed in a large trash can, water in a 300 gallon tote (since we have limited water lines at the farm), and our sow paddock is all set! Sows can root pretty deep, so when it looks like they’re close to China we move them to a new paddock. Easy as pie!

Recently Andrew and I attempted to artificially inseminate our sows. While we do have other pigs arriving soon from a breeder, we’re hoping to raise our first ever piglets on the farm this year. Stay tuned for more on that! If we were successful, we’ll have piglets 3 months, 3 weeks, and 3 days from conception. Squeeeee!

On a side note, in a couple days I will be announcing a fundraising campaign via Barnraiser, which is like Kickstarter but for farms and the food industry. You may recall reading about our turkeys, and how much fun we had chasing them all over the farm last year. It was definitely not a sustainable model, so we’re designing a portable turkey tunnel to help keep them contained while maintaining our ethical standards. I will post the campaign here on my blog, and I hope you will consider contributing to help us keep doing what we love! There will be plenty of farm-related rewards to choose from should you decide to support us. More on that soon!

 

 

Chicken Shit

*** Sensitive reader advisory! As you can probably sense from the title, I use the word “shit” a lot in this post! I know there are other words I could have used instead, but when you’re talking about mucking out chicken shit there really is no better word to accurately describe the horribleness that it entails. Consider yourselves warned. ***

 

Last week Andrew and I mucked out our hen house. You may remember the beautiful mobile house that Andrew built early last season. It’s a lovely red barn-like structure built on a trailer, with next boxes, roosting bars, and small chicken-sized doors that can be locked when necessary. The bottom of the hen house is comprised of metal grates with holes small enough to keep critters out, but large enough to let their poo pass through. Or so that was the idea. Chicken shit is actually pretty sticky. It globs together, forming a thick cement-like paste as it dries. It had been several months since we last cleaned out the hen house, and when we recently moved it to a new spot we noticed there wasn’t the normal accumulation of shit (also great fertilizer!) underneath it. That’s when I opened the door and took a look, and a whiff.

A layer of hardened chicken shit cement about four inches thick had accumulated below the roosts. The chickens walk around on this shit floor, and then go into their nest boxes to lay eggs. That creates dirty eggs, which creates lots of extra work for me, as it is my job alone to clean eggs (by hand, using sandpaper!). We decided it was time to do some mucking.

Another feature of our hen house is that it has one human-sized door. This is great until you realize that you can’t reach the far end of the hen house without climbing through and under (shit covered) chicken roosts. Our longest handled shovels couldn’t reach. We did our best, me awkwardly straddling and scooping and passing full snow shovel loads back to Andrew to dump outside. We also angled shovels through the little chicken doors, doing out best to scrape and scoop what we could at awkward angles. Eventually we couldn’t do any more with our shovels, and we brought out the hose with a spray nozzle to finish the job. The water pressure at the farm isn’t terribly high, so it was a long, wet, shit-flying-everywhere process.

Andrew and I took turns, as you can only handle so much. Chicken shit is relatively odorless once dried, but get that shit wet and boy howdy! The ammonia almost knocks you on your butt. As I was bent outside the hen house, gasping for fresh air I caught an amazing glimpse of the mountains that peek out when the weather is clear. This got me thinking about life. I think a lot of life feels like shoveling and or spraying shit off the walls, but sometimes (or often, if you’re lucky) you get a beautiful mountain vista that brings your Chi back to center. Then when you go back into the shitty hen house you can bring that image of the mountains with you, and focus on the beauty that abounds despite the drudgery of the task at hand.

Things at the farm are slowly starting to pick up speed. We’re still planning for our season ahead, and have orders placed for our chickens and turkeys. We’ve had one surprise lamb already, and more lambs and goat kids are due any day. Just last night we artificially inseminated our sow Tuesday, and are excited about hopefully welcoming little piglets in a few months. We also have six purchased feeder pigs on the farm in preparation for our upcoming summer Meat CSA program.

After the four floods we survived in November, Andrew and I made a promise to each other that we wouldn’t have animals here at the current farm next winter. In theory that means we somehow find and buy our own farmland in the area, either small acreage nearby so we can go back and forth seasonally, or large space where we can move our entire operation. In practice I have no idea what this will actually look like. We certainly don’t have the capital that many land-purchasers have, and we probably don’t have much opportunity for traditional loans. Our low paying livelihood, in combination with our outstanding student loan debts doesn’t make us look like the most promising candidates. We have begun exploring unique opportunities to land access, and our fingers are crossed that something will come our way. Please keep your eyes open for opportunities in the greater Puget Sound region, and if all of my readers send out positive land-acquiring vibes out to the universe, perhaps she will respond.

While we wait for the next exciting chapter we are busy as ever preparing for the upcoming season. Our popularity is growing in leaps and bounds, despite having no products for sale at the moment. New people are joining our mailing list every day, and I’m fielding lots of new queries about our meat and the CSA. We are hoping to add a Seattle farmer’s market this year, and also increase our restaurant chicken sales. Big things are coming! We just have to muck around in some shit before we get there.

 

 

 

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