Sunday, January 19, 2014

New Year, New Life

The best days on the farm are "new baby days".  Warm, sunny days when you walk out to check the animals and find a cow licking her new calf, a wet lamb struggling to stand and nurse or a sow having pigs.  You feel blessed to be a part of such a rich life.
Most people do not think of January as warm and sunny, but we have had several nice January days with today being another one.  The new babies have a much easier go of it when they are lucky enough to be born on a warm day.
Rosie, a Gloucestershire Old Spot gilt, had her pigs in a sunbeam in the doorway of the barn.  She is a young, first time mom and just had four pigs.  The next time she farrows, she will probably have eight or more and the bigger she gets, the more pigs she will have in each litter.  She is being a good mom and all four pigs have survived and are thriving.
Pandora, an American Guinea Hog, had her pigs in another barn, out of the wind, in a big pile of straw.  While being a good mom is mostly instinct, the ability to care for offspring does not always come to every animal. 
Pandora had her first litter in a puddle after breaking out of her farrowing pen.  Needless to say, none survived.  Her second litter, she had out in the woods (after yet another breakout) and came back with only one surviving pig.  She immediately pawned her one offspring off on another mom and went about the business of getting bred again to a boar that was on the other side of the farm. At this point, my faith in her mothering abilities was pretty non existent.  Pandora was looking like a good candidate for sausage.  The time came for the trip to the processor and I could tell that she was starting to get milk.  A look at the calendar and spreadsheets told me that she had to have gotten bred immediately after dropping her second litter.  Bad little piggy.  So she was spared and locked in a pen that would hold a buffalo=or so I thought.  After a week or so in that enclosure, she started to tear things up.  In frustration, I let her out and back into the pasture, figuring that I would never see this litter either.
The next morning, on a rainy Saturday, complete with thunder and lightening, she had made a nest in the old barn.  She popped out seven black pigs and was the model pig mom, lying down carefully and grunting softly to them while they nursed.  She runs to the feed trough , eats, and runs back to her babies.  She takes them out to sun bathe when it is cold under the eves of the barn.  I swear she smiles and winks at me when I go down to check on her and the babies.  She knows that she is not going anywhere now.

Friday, January 6, 2012

A New Year,a Renewed Focus on Great Food

OK, I will admit it, 2011 was rough.  More then once, I came very close to selling off all of the livestock, letting the grass grow over the garden and calling it quits.  Really.  I was frustrated and depressed about the future of small farming and of my small farm in particular. 

 I was talking about quitting to my hay man, a dairy farmer around the corner from me, and he said, "But what would you do?"  I gave him a laundry list of all of the various positions that I had held over the years and he just looked at me and repeated his question.  Then I knew what he meant.  What would I do NOW, in this economy?  Would it be meaningful or just a job?  And would it make one iota of difference in a world that needs people who want to make a difference?

Luckily, I am stubborn and I do not give up easily and I REALLY believe in what I am doing.  I believe that our systems of farming have to change in order for us to have safe, nutritious, humanely raised food.  I believe that we need to leave the land better then we found it and not poison it and use up every bit of resources that it has to offer.  I believe that animals harvested for food should be treated with respect and reverence for what they provide us.  I also believe that we need to teach others how to farm this way so that good farming practices don't die again.  We need to bring our communities back together and start helping one another again as neighbors like we used to do before people started coming home and shutting out the world around them.

I love the animals and the land.  I love growing good food for people.  Yes, I need to sell the products from the farm in order to keep the farm going, but I also want the farm to give back more and more each year in other ways too.  I want to have more people out to the farm and to have more discussions about why this type of farming is important.  I want to spend more time teaching and sharing.  I also want to start a "grow a row" program where we find needy families with children in the community and supply them with fresh produce for a season and perhaps even with the seeds and knowledge to grow some of their own food.

I believe that our lives should be about more then trying to see who can make the most money and acquire the most stuff.  I believe that there are riches far greater then those that can be deposited in a bank account.  A new year and a renewed enthusiasm for the safe, delicious food that this little farm can produce is spread before us.  I look forward to sharing great food and my love of farming with all of you in 2012!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Transparency-First Annual Farm Day

Addison Reddick and Lance & Ellye Sawyer pet a pregnant Gertrude

 This past Saturday was our first annual Farm Day and we had a blast.  I really enjoyed seeing our farmer's market friends strolling down the drive and interacting with the animals.  I told everyone to make themselves at home and to feel free to wander around the farm. Some people took me up on the invitation and took strolls down through the pastures, and out to the back of the farm.  We had made-to-order gorgeous fall weather-a bright sunny day and warm temperatures.  I had corraled the animals up near the house so that the kids could get a better look at them.
Minerva Jane-one of the dairy goats

 We strolled out into the pastures to see the horses and got mobbed by Jasmine, my old, twenty something donkey and Gertrude-wide and waddling ,as she is close to foaling, and stealing as much of the attention as she could.

Gertrude the (very wide) guard donkey!

I watched as my 30 year old Morgan horse, Cody, walked up to a little girl who barely came to his chest, stopped a respectful distance away and gently lowered his nose to her hand to be touched. 


 Heritage turkeys and geese strolled through the fallen leaves and we talked about the importance of raising animals naturally and in a clean and healthy environment. 

Heritage Bourbon Red turkeys graze in the fall sunshine

One boy looked at the turkeys pecking through the grass and leaves and commented on how clean they were and how bright and shiny.  Rufus, the mini pig, was a big hit as always although he had to go into "time out" a few times for stealing sweet potatoes out of the farm store boxes!

Rufus finishing off the Gala apples

When the last person had trailed down the drive, and Rufus had drug himself happy and stuffed (full of sweet potatoes and apples) into his straw bed, I started to reflect on what had happened that day and how I felt about it.  I enjoyed sharing my farm with my friends/customers (one and the same!).  The questions and conversations were stimulating and thought provoking.  We talked about how raising healthy, happy animals equated to healthy, nutritous and clean food.  I enjoyed the fellowship and the conversation immensely, but most of all it was about transparency.  Opening up the farm let people see, in person, the things that I talk about at the markets week after week-turkeys raised on grass, the goats that produce the milk for the soaps and lotions, a laying hen coop on wheels, empty, because the hens were all outside, busily scratching for bugs in the woods and on the lawn. 

Heritage hens graze and scratch on the back lawn

Lack of transparancy is finally catching up with our conventional food system.  Pigs are hidden behind concrete walls, turkeys are housed 5,000 to a building with "bio-hazard" and "No tresspassing" signs at the road, beef cattle stand in stockyards up to their knees in manure, safe from the eyes of the public.  No people allowed, no cameras, NO TRESSPASSING-because you would not buy their products if you saw how these animals were really treated and raised.  Transparency is important as we try and change our food systems.

Heritage American Buff Goose

In the spring, perhaps around the end of May, I'll have another open Farm Day and I hope that you can make it.  See how your food is grown, connect with your community and join in on the conversation-it's important for all of us.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Connecting with our Food

CADE (Part 2): The Good Slaughter: A Proud Meat Cutter Shares His Processing Floor from SkeeterNYC on Vimeo.

The local food movement is growing in leaps and bounds.  Small family farms are springing up all over the country and these farmers are putting clean, safe food back on America's dinner plates.  Custom butchers are an integral part of a livestock producer's operation.

I can raise a perfect lamb on grass, but I then need a skilled artisan butcher to take that animal and fabricate it into the lamb chops that will be on your plate for Easter dinner.  A poor processor can ruin a whole animal in a very short amount of time and cost a farmer a lot of money. And , yes, I have had that happen. 

Butchery and charcuterie are (almost) lost arts.  As you will see in this video, processing animals for food takes compassion, skill and pure physical strength.  I was honored to meet, talk to  and watch inaction, several artisan butchers from the Butcher's Guild at the Carolina Meat Conference.  

So think about the work these guys do the next time you put a burger on the grill.  Believe me, I do!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

No More Fat, White Birds on this Farm!

Tonight I am driving to Asheville for the third class in a series on Heritage Poultry.  The classes are being taught by Jim Adkins, a poultry judge, breeder and owner of the International Center for Poultry.  Jim raises over 50 standard bred varieties of Heritage chickens, ducks, turkeys and geese.  Being in Jim's classes has pushed me over an edge that I had been teetering on for the past year.

 I have raised poultry for over 12 years now.  Most have been Heritage breeds such as Anconas, Speckeled Sussex, Barred Rocks, and Silver Laced Wyandottes, to name a few.  These were my layers and I have become more committed to these breeds the longer I have farmed.  Some of the spare roosters of these breeds were processed for meat but the 400-600 meat birds that I grew out every year were Cornish Rock crosses, those huge , white chickens that the modern poultry industry grows.  I grew mine slowly on pasture and had actually found a strain that had no leg probelms or problems with flip over.  They got right out there and foraged with the Heritage birds. I have some hens that are acturally laying and really, these birds are not "manufactured" to live that long!

The meat from Cornish x birds  raised on pasture is much better then that produced by industrial farming methods and the birds certainly seem happy running all over the farm, but I still did not feel good about raising such a genetically modified bird.  My customers loved the chicken and that also made the switch more difficult.

Then I worked with AWA to have the farm Animal Welfare Approved and I really started to think about the sustainability of buying these birds and having them shipped.  I really wanted to raise my own chicks and grow them out.  Cornish Rocks will not survive long enough to reproduce and they would not reproduce their own kind because they are an F13 cross (thirteen generation cross to achieve these fast growing birds).  I also found out that even the Freedom Ranger, red ranger and Poulet Rouge  birds sold to many small farmers are an F7 cross, they will not reproduce true either.

And lastly, there is taste and texture.  The taste of a properly prepared, Heritage chicken (or duck or goose or turkey) cannot be beat.  The taste is like chicken times ten.  Broth made from these birds is rich and silky and a meal all by itself.  The catch is, just like grass-fed beef (TRUE grass-fed, not the  fed- grain= while- on- pasture kind), these birds have to be cooked longer and at lower temperatures.  So there will be a learning curve for our customers, but I believe that it will be worth it.

So the last of the Cornish will be processed and I am looking forward to a pasture full of old , Heritage breeds that have been hatched  on the farm and grown on the farm.  I will be working with the International Center for Poultry and with AWA to set up a Heritage breeding and hatching operation.  On Saturday, I will head back to Asheville for a Heriatage poultry cooking workshop with Chef Steve Pope from Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch.  Chef Pope cooks only with Heriateg poultry and I am excited to see, and TASTE, his creations with these wonderful birds!

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Rain, Sweet Rain!

I just drug myself in from outside, sopping wet, tired and happy.  I spent the last light of day over seeding the front pasture-by hand.  No tractor, no seeder, no drill-just walking and seeding and filling in the occassional rooted up pig spot.  I had to wait until nearly dusk when the chickens had gone in to roost so they would not follow behind me picking up seed! 

 Fred, my donkey jack, walked with me the whole way.  He knew that I had a sack (treats come in those some times) and that I was scattering something on the ground but he just could not quite figure out what.  He trailed along behind me with his nose on the ground like a bloodhound, trying to find the "treats" that he was sure I was throwing out!

I don't like to put out seed, but these pastures have been so mismanaged and they need help and fast. I overseeded with annual rye, birdsfoot trefoil ( a non-bloat causing legume), red clover and white clover.  The pastures are all fescue now with just a little orchard grass in the one that used to be harvested for hay.

The pastures are overgrazed and have not been limed in years. The previous owner used chemical fertilizers on the hay field (only) and no nitrogen source at all on the rest of the pastures.  The soil is red clay with very little organic matter.

 Last summer, I was able to have the pastures sit empty to rest for a couple of months while I moved the farm.  Once I got the animals moved, I rotated them through the three large pastures, giving each one a few weeks to recover before being grazed again.  The pastures came back quickly and actually started to look fairly decent.

I also was able to move the mobile layer house around the pastures and the chickens added their own, all natural fertilizer to the soil.  Maybe this year, we'll have some earthworms move in!

This year I am dividing the pastures into smaller sections so that I can rotate the animals through quicker and give each section a longer rest period (and break up the parasite life cycles).

For now, I am listening to the rain on the roof, happy that my little seeds are out there getting a good soaking!

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Let's Throw Some Pots-in the Garden

My friend, Barabara, and I make pottery together every now and then.  She is the pottress (the clay kind) and I sculpt and paint and decorate.  She said that if I ever learned how to "throw" clay, then I would no longer need her-so I never learned!  North Carolina is home to Seagrove, a community of potters, and pottresses, and clay dug right out of the ground.

North Carolina is also home to another sort of clay that many of us curse.  Red clay.  Yes, I believe that you could sculpt with it, but I don't like it in my gardens, which is, of course, right where it is.  I have lived in NC all of my life and been lucky to have never encountered this boot sucking, ankle wrenching stuff on any of the properties where I lived.  Well, now I have plenty of it.  In the garden, in the pastures and in the flower beds.

I moved to this particular farm in July 2010.  For the last several years, chemical fertilizers and herbicides have been used on the farm.  The pastures were over grazed and no lime has been spread.  The results?  Lots of broom sedge in the pastures, sparse grass (dirt showing), hard clay with no organic matter, and not an earthworm in sight.

A pretty picture except for the broom sedge
The first mistake-I decided to let some new baby pigs root around the garden.  They were small and I was afraid that they would scoot under my electric fence (and into the neighbor's perfectly manicured lawn=disaster).   So I fenced them onto the garden and moved them once a week. 

These little piggies happily tilled up the garden, eating grubs, grass and roots and fertilizing along the way.  So far so good. 

Second Mistake-The damage came when I moved the pigs to a new area.  I used to throw corn on the turned over the dug up pig piles and the chickens would scratch and smooth it all out again.  Works great with fine, friable mountain soil.  The baby ducks and fat Cornish Rock chickens trampled over the newly turned clay with their big, flat feet and soon made a impenetrable hard pack out of every area the pigs had turned over.   Lesson learned, keep foot traffic, mine and theirs, off of the red clay as much as possible.

The Solution (I hope)- The pigs are coming off and the chickens are coming out.  The chickens are fenced on some grassy areas ( no soil showing) that I will plant later in corn, pumpkins, beans and tomatoes.  I plan to till these areas as little as possible and to plant a "smother crop" of Dutch White Clover.  A smother crop is achieved by heavily over seeding  an area with a crop, in this case , the clover.

The clover will accomplish several objectives.  First, it will protect the soil where I walk through the rows of vegetables from becoming too compacted.  Second,  it should smother out most of the grasses and weeds and the area should not have to be mown very often (Dutch White Clover is not very tall).  Third, and best, clover is a legume and legumes add large amounts of all natural nitrogen and organic matter to the soil-which is what this soil desperately needs.

Turning abused land back into productive land takes time and patience.  It takes a lot less time to deplete a piece of land then it does to repair it.  I will keep adding updates and photos of the pastures and gardens as they progress.  Now to get those pigs moved....