Can't you feel it? Everything is growing so quickly, even the air smells green and everyday a new living thing seems to burst out of hibernation. This week brought the first Hackberry and Sweet Gum leaves, last night the frogs and crickets were in full force, and birds of all kinds criss-cross the sky at all times. Of course, some of the birds are predatory and the rain comes with uncompromising wind and hail, but that's half the thrill of Spring! Its a rollercoaster cart hurtling in wild loops towards the long, languid stretches of summer. We throw ourselves into it, holding on to the high points and letting the lows zip into the past. So far we've seen a few Spring lows- a young sow and litter lost in birthing complications, piglets and possibly a calf lost to (predatory) Black Headed vultures. But already a thousand seedling trees of our forage forest are rooting in and sprouting leaves, the spring chickens are growing almost as fast as the grass that fattens the cattle, and 3 more litters of piglets are around the corner!
Knackwurst are one of our most favorite sausages with the gentle mix of traditional German spices and a natural casing that pops to perfectly when you bite into it. But sometimes links like these can come out crumbly, weep out all their fat, or have split casings. This is how we cook ours for that great brat experience every time.
Our cow herd has been steadily growing for 2 full years now, and while many of the calves are still a ways away from market weight, we are nearing our current carrying capacity for grazers. This means its time for the long discussed careful sorting and culling of underperforming and retirement age cows. 10 ladies have been identified (from a total herd of 45), and the first two headed to the butcher this week. Since they are of varying age, and not always fat enough for fantastic marbling, most of the take home will be ground beef.
Tilda, a young sow in our maternity ward, has still not had her babies! She is so round with future bacon bits that her belly nearly touches the ground and she prefers not to rouse from her nest for anything but dinner. Since she spent the fall living with our boar full time, we don't have a solid due date for her and continue to watch her closely.
The chickens are doing well and inching closer to their butcher date. This early spring batch of birds are alert and active; watching the skies for arial predators, roaming the pasture in little groups (friends?), and trying out any potential roost they find.
The 2017 Farm Share begins in April! Here is our delivery schedule for both pickup locations; midtown and Hillcrest.
If you'd like to signup, drop us a line and we'll get the process started:
Cow 38 is nearly all black, except for the ash dusting up her belly and her white horns tipped in black. Her beautiful belly shrank a little yesterday when she produced a perfect little heifer calf. It is the tiniest, cutest thing ever: red with white spots and making buddies already with the bigger kids.
Astrid popped! After untold hours building her nest at the top of a little hill from most of an enormous hay bale, last night she settled her fat, speckled self in the middle of it and delivered 11 little wigglies. Astrid is the daughter of our best sow, but this was her first time so we kept a close eye on her and it appears she has lived up to her vaulted lineage. For their part, her herdmates (the 3 other expectant sows and their brother) are keeping a respectful distance from the new family while keeping a keen eye out for danger. She has quite the guard crew, and has already gotten her little family off to a great start.
After some of the failings of the last batch of chicks we decided to finally make all of the brooder upgrades we've long discussed, but have not given top priority. Over a couple weeks, Travis built a new field pen that can brood chicks pretty much anywhere and then transition them gently to pasture rotation. We've been raising our chickens like this for about a year now, but with a lot of rough edges to the system and the new pen is a real step up. We couldn't have brooder without chicks, so this week we put 250 peepers in there to test it out, and y'all, it's awesome!
Let's be honest, the last few months have been a wringer no matter what group you identify with, which corner of the political arena you've staked out. I wish I could say our patch in the hinterlands of Perry Co was blissfully devoid of the heavy & disorienting bigger world, but we have internet, radio, and smart phones like everyone else. So it is that sad/scared/angry thoughts creep into the herding, feeding, chopping, digging, walking, and fence building that makes up our days.
But then there was a moment last week when I got home from market and Travis was digging a trench for the new (Kickstarter funded) waterline. He drove the old tractor slowly, twisted in his seat to watch the furrow opening in the pasture beneath him. The red dirt rose and unfolded in a neat line on the green, winter-grazed pasture like a zipper pulling open the earth. Something about seeing what our farm wears beneath her green clothes, the mantle that our trees cling to, the little bugs that build the soil, it brought me back to the work at hand- building the world we want to inhabit.
We are doing that already, all of us, by being good neighbors, friends, stewards of our spaces and communities. We just need to keep doing it, keeping our eyes on the earth under our feet, moving steadily in the right direction. If you would like to remember your direction and put one foot in front of the other through our woods and pastures and river banks, drop us a line and we'll find a time to get grounded again.
A few weeks ago, I was invited to contribute a "big idea" to the Arkansas Times' annual list of ways to improve our state in one way or another. As many of you know, I'm not short on (sometimes unreasonably) big ideas so I was happy to throw my brain waves in with so many quality Arkansas thinkers. With some help with interpretation and editing by Benji Hardy, here is the idea fit for print:
Check out the full list of Big Ideas for Arkansas here.
I would ask you one million questions. Do you prefer roosts made from a cedar limb or an oak? Would you rather have pine shavings or old hay for bedding? Should I turn your house so it fills with light at sunrise or do you prefer to go lay outside like you do? Are you sitting with your friends there? Do you have friends?
I would grill you (with questions) because, dear bird, you are so hard to read sometimes. I want to make you happy, to fill your life with all the riches you deserve. And yet, you walk around in your tottering way, head jerking this way and that, all feathered and everything. If you never furrow your brow, how can I tell when you are displeased?
Perhaps I overcompensate for your inscrutability. Perhaps you don't care whether that grain was sprouted or not, whether the surfaces of your coop are wood or metal, if there's a vinegar tang to your water. If you would just bend your little beak into a smile or frown one time, at one of the million little things I do for you!
Instead I will pass yet another coffee break striving to decipher your unblinking gaze, content to know that in the end my efforts may or may not make you happy, but they do make you delicious.
Before digging into this post, you may enjoy the one before it called "Finding Real Sustainability"
In late 2014/early 2015 we bought the new farm and suddenly had a canvas on which to paint our long-simmering farm fantasies. Fantasies which somehow managed to grow and blossom in a million directions despite the 10 years of unrelenting, challenging farm and family building we had already been doing on two other properties. Other than gently rolling pasture, large stands of mixed woodland, tons of wildlife, and a surprisingly decent perimeter fence, the new land came with no useful infrastructure. No water, no power, no structures for people or livestock until we brought it or built it. What an enticing and imposing hill to climb, and most importantly, a real opportunity to integrate our higher vision into our on-the-ground operation.
In many ways we are already a sustainable family farm. We raise heritage breed livestock with love on pasture and in the woods, we source our feeds locally, we don’t use any hormones or chemicals on our animals or our land. We sell our products locally at farmer’s markets, through community minded businesses, and through a thriving farm share. We work side by side with our children and find deep satisfaction in our labor. Our business is profitable, our products are highly acclaimed, and we have achieved the highest animal welfare designation available to owner-operated farms.
This sounds a lot like sustainability, but viewed from another angle, we are still hitting too wide from the mark. We still rely too heavily on outside inputs. We work too hard, over too many hours. We have a mountain of debt. We have not yet met our own standards of animal welfare or meat quality. So we are sustainable in those smaller, disparate ways but we can do more to create a fuller, deeper kind of sustainability for our farm and our lives as farmers.
Two years of studying and comprehensive planning have lead to our 20 year plan to creating and supporting a multilayer ecosystem that fully feeds our animals on the way to feeding us. The goal is to shift more of our labor onto the animals and the ecosystem of the farm, which will release us from the physical and financial burden of outside inputs. We will weave the outside community into the farm more and more, while steadily increasing diversity in the ecosystem. This plan is broken down into development phases and has five branches that weave throughout- the animals, the open spaces & woodlands, the business, the farmers, and the community. Each phase includes aspects for several branches at once and may last from 2-10 years.
Roughly speaking, here is the broad plan that we'll flesh out over the next few posts:
Phase 1: Foundation; underlying infrastructure development including soils, water catchment and retention systems, and major landscaping like significant brush clearing and large scale tree removal and planting, identify and begin correcting soil nutrient imbalances, developing marketing channels and improving community involvement
Phase 2: Improvement & Introduction; supporting landscape growth and development, improving livestock handling and grazing systems, introducing domestic waterfowl, bees, and small ruminants.
Phase 3: Maintenance; helping it all keep growing well by pruning and thinning trees for balanced growth, continuing selective breeding and culling in livestock herds, applying appropriate soil amendments to continue long term soil development
As we get developed the foundational phase of our plan we realized that the shear ambition of portions of the work ahead would take significant resources to complete. For us, that would mean accomplishing most of it in pieces and over the course of many years. With a relatively small financial boost, we could make big changes in a much more condensed period, and reap some wonderful benefits much more quickly. We want to be able to share the amazing, wonderful products from our permaculture developments with you all as soon as possible! So, we launched a Kickstarter campaign called "Forage Forest for Tasty, Happy Meats"!
Next time on the blog, we'll begin fleshing out the many facets of each phase in 'A Plan for the Long Haul'
After 12 years in this business growing along side the local markets, watching other farms come and go, developing and then outgrowing 2 farms of our own, Travis and I think a lot about what it takes to keep our farm going for the long haul. At the first realization that we had outgrown the farm and house we had recently finished building, that the future of our operation would have to be on a third farm, we also realized the opportunity to re-envision our path. How could we ensure that ours would not be the next farm to fold for farmer exhaustion, unbalanced finances, or failure to secure our niche in the shifting marketplace? We need some baseline kind of sustainability that is as resilient as possible.
The word "sustainable" gets bandied about quite a lot in this kind of agriculture. Most of the time, we use it to draw a contrast between the smaller scale, ecologically and ethically minded methods and the "conventional" approach to food production. But "sustainable" is a problematic catchall for the wide variety of diversified small farms because it is so unspecific. Its such an easy and effective keyword for locally-minded small farms because we automatically ascribe a wide array of meanings to the term. And while most farms are sustainable in one sense or another, as consumers and even farmers considering our own operations or trying to learn from each other, we readily project all the other possible kinds of sustainability onto anyone under that big grand umbrella; "Sustainable". Perhaps we are so disgusted by conventional farming and eager for wholesome alternatives, I don't know, but I am as guilty of this as the next person and I think this projection is why so many people try to farm and eventually abandon the project- one kind of sustainability does not naturally bring about all the other necessary kinds of sustainability.
There are so many smaller ways that a farm can be sustainable without also having the long term, all encompassing kind of sustainability that makes businesses multigenerational, ecosystems self-sustaining, quality of life well-balanced. A farm can have excellent environmental sustainability by rotating the uses of their land and employing all of the value of their renewable resources, but if the business isn't profitable or the farmers are working themselves to exhaustion and family life is troubled, it would be hard to call that farm "sustainable". Likewise, there are plenty of profitable farms that neglect the ecological or community impacts of their operations and we wouldn't call those sustainable. Successful, long lasting farms will have all found their own routes to a fully balanced version of sustainability. What could ours be?
The many challenges of creating long-lasting economic, ecological, and community sustainability are what keep me up at night, make me crunch every number then look for more to crunch, pour over all kinds of books in the late hours of the night, and rise before the sun to tend the ever growing herd of animals in our charge. I want the work we do to be good. Not just satisfying, or delicious, or even inspiring. I want every day to be a meaningful part of creating a safe, beautiful space that is fully sustainable. I want the business to be strong and self-supporting so that my children or some other inspired young person can take the helm some day. I want the ecosystem to support a tremendous diversity of living things free of outside inputs. I want a broad, strong community to find communion in the space and products of the farm. How the heck do I accomplish this fantastic ambition?
We need a deep, wide-ranging plan so this 1,000 mile journey can be taken in little, daily steps. As you may have suspected, we have been working for the last two years on just such a plan.
Next up: Building the Road as We Walk It
The semi-feral chickens from the woods at our old farm have resumed wild living and are thriving in the woods on the north west corner of the new farm. These second and third generation chicken families, and the learned behaviors they utilize to provide for themselves inspire me to keep tinkering with our production system.
There are several phases to producing a lovely oven-ready chicken, which means there are plenty of areas to develop and progress towards a chickeny fantasy that combines the freedom of expression and quality of life of the feral birds with the practical and economical needs of the farmer. This last week it was the brooding that got a perennial fresh look. Since there's no road map to the fantasy system of the far off future, I can look at what other pioneers in the field are doing and think up my own varied versions.
I want to give the chicks what they seem to be looking for in the first days out of the shell. They want to be under something, they want to be very warm, they like the dark. Of course, a mother hen does this all pretty effectively by squatting just over the chicks, concealing them in the blanket of her feathers, nuzzled up to the warmth of her body. Most brooder designs have the warmth part covered, though very few allow the cover and darkness. I've tried to solve those other two a couple of times before but couldn't keep temperatures in the right range and ultimately had to resort to the same old bright, open brooding methods. Our latest model, in use right this minute, is a 60 year old idea originating from the University of Ohio called a hover brooder. The idea is a box with light fixtures inside that holds the heat in a concentrated area just above the chicks, allowing a low warm area for the chicks to hide under. The original plans have an incandescent light bulb or heat lamp bulb in the fixtures, both of which put out a considerable amount of light. Our plan is to use ceramic terrarium heat bulbs which only emit heat, no light- keeping it cozy and dark while saving in electricity ($) along the way. Unfortunately the bulbs I got for this go-round are the lowest wattage and don't put out enough heat on their own to keep our peeps toasty as the overnight lows start dipping into frost territory, so while the bigger ceramic bulbs are on order we have one ceramic bulb and one old fashioned, red-glowing heat bulb in the box.
The other new idea is to brood the chicks in their pasture pen so that as they grow, there won't be any big, dramatic changes. To this end, I placed the hover brooder in the middle of one of our chicken tractors with bedding under and around the brooder and then plenty of grass around that. The chicks are free to explore around the pen and pop back under the hover whenever they need a cozy nap spot. To minimize draft we enclosed the open sides of the tractor with plastic on one side and metal on another. As their feathers grow in we can phase out the hover by turning off the heat, then removing the hover entirely, and finally begin moving the tractor more and more each day. By the time they're reach harvest weight in January, they'll be scooting around the pasture and fertilizing two full pen lengths per day. Here's a little timelapse video of some of our birds growing in 2013 in one of the pens we still employ:
Wouldn't you like to know how to get to our farm?
From Little Rock:
- Take Hwy 10/Cantrell Rd west out of town.
- Continue for 29.4 miles (from the Walmart super center at Cantrell/Chenal intersection) to Perryville.
- Turn Left onto AR-60 W/Aplin St.
- Continue for 18.7 miles, the driveway will be on your left. We have a street sign so look out for "Possum Song Trail" on your left. There is also a "Farm Girl Meats" sign pinned to a tree.
From Conway (starting at the river bridge):
- Cross the river on AR-60 W, continue for 17 miles to Perryville.
- Follow AR-60 W through Perryville. To do this, turn left at the Sonic onto Fourche Ave, then Right onto AR-60 W/Aplin St.
- Continue for 18.7 miles, the driveway will be on your left. We have a street sign so look out for "Possum Song Trail" on your left. There is also a "Farm Girl Meats" sign pinned to a tree.
- Take AR-7 S out of town.
- Follow AR-7 S through Dardanelle.
- Turn Left onto AR-60 E. Continue 2.2 miles.
- The driveway will be on your right. We have a street sign so look out for "Possum Song Trail" on your left. There is also a "Farm Girl Meats" sign pinned to a tree.
From Hot Springs/Hot Springs Village:
- Take AR-7 North. Continue approximately 37 miles (from the intersection of AR-5 and AR-7)
- Turn Right onto AR-60 E.
- Continue 2.2 miles. The driveway will be on your right. We have a street sign so look out for "Possum Song Trail" on your left. There is also a "Farm Girl Meats" sign pinned to a tree.
To get directions and for other questions, please RSVP with an estimate of your party size (so we know how much meat to cook) to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Before us, our pastures were first compacted by 15 years of continuous grazing, then lay fallow for seven months. This allowed any dormant seed, shoot, or root to seize the opportunity. We have a long term plan to support more grass-type forages and in the mean time, our animals are all rotating across the incredibly dense and fragrant, shoulder-high brush. It's a completely interwoven mat of various thorny brambles, saplings, grasses, broadleaf "weeds", and grasses. Each species picks their way through, sometimes digging their faces deep into the verdant thicket to extract their preferred nibbles. One of our favorite activities right now is to walk through each paddock and observe the grazing behaviors of each group.
This morning, I spent some time with our growing hogs to learn more about what whets their whistles at this late summer buffet. While I was there I made a short video of a gilt (young female pig) working for her breakfast. In it you will see some of the things she nibbles and a wider view of the pasture the pigs are enjoying right now. You will hear her gentle call grunts to the other pigs- this constant back and forth is how they stick together in dense brush, and you will hear the banging of the metal doors on their auto feeder. We provide free access to a corn and soybean based feed supplement to ensure a basic level of nutrition, but they clearly prefer the vegetation around them. When the grazing is good, like right now, as much as 60% of their feed comes from foraging.
That gilt (a young female pig) is chowing down on pretty much the same stuff as all her brethren today, so what are they eating?
This is a long lived bunch grass that grows well all over the South East. It does much of it's growing in the cooler times of the year and becomes unpalatable to almost all species, even mildly poisonous to ruminants during the hot dry periods of the year. Since we are enjoying a few milder weeks of early fall and there has been gentle rain over the last few nights, the fescue is springing out of it's summer doldrums with lots of tender new growth. All the pigs were ferreting out the bunches of fescue coming back to life in the understory of the brambly thicket around them. At about 1:36 in the video, the pig pulls out a whole clump of this grass by its roots, which she eats in all.
Around the 35 second mark we see the gilt begin picking the leaves off of an upright stalk. This is Smilax Rotifundula aka Common Greenbriar. It is a vining shrub that grows from a starchy, knobby root up to a height of 12' where it has some support. In the open pasture it is a 5' spiny stem with heart shaped leaves. I can tell you from personal experience that the young shoots taste somewhat like asparagus and pretty much all the animals agree that it is quite palatable. The internet even claims a root beer type beverage can be made by grinding and fermenting the root. Until today, Common Greenbriar has been the pigs' favorite forb. Like you see in the video, they carefully strip the leaves leaving the thorny stalks bare.
Sericea Lespedeza is an herby, medicinal legume that grows best in compacted, acidic soils so we have a lot of it. No one seems to eat it in huge quantities but from the donkeys to the chickens to the cattle and pigs, everyone does eat some. Since it is generally unpalatable, they might instinctively understand that that unpleasing bitterness comes from the concentrated tannins which have been shown to inhibit the fertility of intestinal worms, decrease inflammation, and improve the processing of some micronutrients and complex proteins. The Sericea variety of Lespedeza is unique among these legumes in that it grows happily all summer long in the hot, humid South. We wouldn't even have this tonic weed in Arkansas if enterprising road engineers hadn't imported it from eastern Asia in the 1930's for erosion control.
These are the top three forages that the pigs are chowing on today but we've observed them at least tasting the full smorgasbord which includes persimmon saplings, blackberry shoots, sweet gum saplings, 3 different clover varieties, wild hemp, sedges, spurges, mustard, bindweed, and so many others. I'm looking forward to checking in again in as fall progresses for another snapshot of the pigs' salad bar.
We have always had at least a cow, sometimes quite a few. But now we have cows. The ladies and babies that came home to our farm on Friday are the foundation of our carefully planned beef expansion.
Whenever we make moves toward the future we start from three firm guideposts. First, of course, would the proposed idea add value to our operation? We work too hard to waste time on projects that won't reward our efforts in profit or improve the quality of our lives or products. Second, quality quality quality. We want the product to be the best it can possibly be. And third, is the "project" suited for our particular farm?
On adding value, all I have to say is "beef" right? We've been sorely lacking in this product area for a number of years despite our combined 30 years of grazing experience. We are eager to harness the powers of our new pastures into delicious, nutrient dense red meat and share it with you.
How about quality? Searching out the very best beef in the history of history was a surprisingly muddy job. There is no one authority to offer judgement. Instead there is a whole rabbit hole of various meat comparison regional, national, and international competitions. What I found at the bottom of that hole is that the quality of the meat is equally a product of breed, raising techniques, and handling of the carcass. Among the 22 steak competitions I investigated, the breeds were all over the map. None of the listed breeds won more than a handful of American competitions but Corriente (the oldest American cattle breed) won more than any of the others. Internationally, a French breed I had never heard of won several followed closely by....Jerseys! What the winners all had in common was that they were grass finished, the actual animals were older (34-44 months), and the meat had been dry aged for a substantial period of time. Luckily, we already have some killer Jersey genetics, so with some new Corriente we should be winning the beef thing right?
What about suited-ness for our farm? Separate from research on quality, we made up a criteria list of our ideal cattle, with details about our new herd in italics. These ideas pointed us toward a handful of landrace and heritage breeds. Among those adapted well to the humid South we kept coming up with Pineywoods, Florida Cracker, Criollo, and Corriente which all descend from the same Spanish herd originally set loose in Florida in the 1490's. Yes, the 1490's. Those original cattle spread across the south, into Mexico and up the California coast adapting to the environments they encountered along the way. Corriente, Criollo, and "Scrub" can all be used interchangeably to refer to any of true descendants of the original Spanish stock, with "Corriente" being the most common name.
- Good mothers that calve easily and regularly. Our new cows have an almost unreal 100% calving record for the last 6 years and have never needed assistance calving.
- Resilient, especially heat tolerant. One millisecond outside will remind us that we need cattle that handle heat well. Generally speaking smaller animals handle heat better than large ones. There is also a conclusive body of research that says horns equal heat tolerance in ruminants. Like elephants' ears, the horns of a cow are full of blood vessels providing a whole lot more surface area for circulating blood to release body heat. This is why we leave the horns on all of our cows, even the ones we milk. So we want smaller cows with horns. Our new cows are all 700-1000 lbs which is 50-75% the size of common beef cows. They also have long, curving horns.
- Thrifty with feed. This means more animals can perform on the same forages and less hay will have to be cut and put up to help them through the winter, helping to keep costs down. Our new girls are FAT even while supporting big fat babies nursing heavily. This shows that even with their petite mouths they can easily support themselves and super calves from the brush and weeds they've had access to.
So for meat quality? Corriente or Jersey (which we already have). For farm suitability? Corriente.
Now all we had to do was actually find some Corrientes to bring home! We (by which I mean Travis) did a lot of talking to neighbors and working the phone, text, and email circuit via Craigslist over the last 6 months. Eventually we found a grass-fat herd of proven but still young mamas in Western Mississippi and after an afternoon visiting them and their attendant cattleman, we were sold.
Then on Friday, this happened:
Its easy to wax poetic about the satisfaction of watching your stock inhabit your ground, using their innate skills to meld verdant earth and fresh water into food for your own plate, for the plates of people you love. More than a chicken scratching or a hog rooting, cattle watching yields further, special joy. They thrive in open vistas, where sweet grass lays open under bright skies. With cattle we get the pleasure of the heart lifting scenery to further buoy the deep sense of fulfillment. Now we spend every spare second looking out over the horns bobbing around in the grass as the cows graze and we feel rich.
Despite blocking out an entire month for the most dramatic part of the move- ourselves and the animals- this has only barely begun. And despite our deep toolbox of skills, we can't diy road building or power-grid harnessing, leaving the steps to electricity (and the electric fences that make our farm run) so far outside of our control. Some mountain of money would probably move the backhoe a little faster or bring the electric coop guys buzzing around at our smallest beckoning but since we are lowly farmer folk, we are stuck with the standard procedure.
BUT THINGS ARE HAPPENING!
- There has been dirt work and it has produced our new driveway! With the cabin habitable (see Pa builds a claim shanty) and many of our accessories (like the lounging grain bin in the picture) and animal infrastructure coming into place, animal movement and house construction will take off at blazing speed probably, likely very soon.
- The cows and donkeys got to move! Saying they enjoy the new grass is a laughable understatement. Here is Blondie, our butterfat queen surveying the scene:
- A 1980 4wd toyota pickup in rust and blue joined our vehicle pool! She will make the long, sometimes soggy route through chores possible. My boots alone won't cut it hauling feed and farm girls over those distances day in and day out and Travis the truck scout came through for his demanding bride:
- COW SHOPPING! We've been planning our return to beef cattle for a couple of years but haven't had the space to even think about searching our our perfect herd...until now! As soon as we signed the papers, we started looking and talking to people and craigslisting and talking to people. Eventually Trav and I took the best kind of date- a no-nonsense road trip to Mississippi to give the hard eye to some fine ladies. And boy are they fine ladies. After warning us not to touch the shotgun in his truck, their attendant curmudgeon beamed (or grimaced?) with pride describing their unreal fertility, thriftiness, demeanor, and top shelf mothering. We were impressed by their beautiful condition and their rolly polly calves. They looked at us just as hard as we looked at them while the cattleman looked on and eventually judged us to be worthy of his special little herd. Since 26 cattle wouldn't fit in our car, we had to leave them in Mississippi for a little while longer. There are some calls to make and leads to follow but we expect a specially outfitted semi to bring them our way by the end of the month. Eventually I'll get around to a post about why these particular cows, the unconventional breeding plan we have for them, and the unparalleled beef we expect to share with you in a few years time (cows grow slow). In the mean time, lets celebrate being cowgirls and daydream about watching the herd graze in our beautiful valley.
- What's Next?
While we wait 1 or 1 million weeks for electricity, we are putting up the to-be-electrified fences that will define various pastures and the solid fences of the working chutes and sorting paddocks. On the home front we have been presorting the hogs and moving them to readily accessible paddocks for easy loading. As soon as those electrons are flowing in our direction, we'll begin several days of dawn-to-dusk herding, sorting, loading, and hauling pigs and chickens. There will be one million trips back and forth between the properties so we are working diligently now to make everything at both ends ready and smooth.
This week, the backhoe will finish sculpting our homesite, installing the septic, and laying some water lines. Then there will be some setup before cement pouring, likely next week, which will mark the beginning of earnest home construction.
This is a continuation of our ongoing series on the process of moving and growing our farm . To catch up to speed on everything so far, start with Our Kind of Rollercoaster, Why we're doing 2015 the Hard Way, and Pa Builds a Claim Shanty.
There is a terrifying beast looming over me. No, not the crazy line of storms spread from Austin to Indiana, advancing as I write. I'm talking new, unimagined chaos emanating from many shifting arms. A thing with length and breadth unknown that closes in on us with silent, crushing speed. THE FARM MOVE.
Despite the comforting and beautifully organized plan we naively constructed back in February, nothing about the real process has developed in a timely manner. At first, the many incomprehensible layers of paperwork and banking procedures dragged on so painfully. Work on the cabin could begin in earnest and has since finished quietly while we waited, and still wait for driveway, septic, and footing dirt work to occur. As locals will guess, rain has been the factor. They can move mountains, but backhoes and bulldozers can't stand the rain, and so the carefully mapped out stages of infrastructure, livestock, and people moving have been day-by-day pushed into a very difficult no-mans land of poor timing and mounting challenges. This landscape includes some significant hills: a fresh farrowing cycle begins in 10 days with up to 45 piglets expected, a long planned and now terribly timed weeklong trip away from the farm, and everything is wet, so wet. Just in typing these words I can feel the shifting, stretching to do list whipping at my ankles. Gah!
After a gin and tonic, what to do? First, remap the plan. Instead of the farrowing village of our dreams, we'll be running another batch through our currently functional but tired setup. So now, instead of laying out new fences and trailering sow houses, we'll employ our pitchfork skills to re-bed and mulch. Heat lamps need resetting as do the perimeter fences and piglet feeding area. The biggest concern with the farrowing is actually after the fact when we will have to move fragile young families instead of resilient old sows. This will be very slow and require many more trips than originally envisioned. I have trouble wrapping my head around the logistics of this process so it will get filed in the "clarity over time" category.
And the trip away. When a beloved and far flung cousin announced his New York wedding many moons ago we had yet to even hear about the new land and we thought, "Hey! Life is pretty stable these days and we've never taken a family vacation, why not?" So tickets were bought, and then so was a farm. Now the trip is cemented squarely in the gut of the move and making plans to leave the farm with a caretaker in this disheveled state is mind numbing. Of course, it's also thrilling to imagine my barely shod farm girls on the alien planet that is NYC, but does that justify the massive work organizing and simplifying our operation to be left in someone else's hands? There has never been a good time before, so why should it be any different now?
And the wet. A few years ago, I promised the powers that be that if we could have an inch of rain I would never again complain about too much, a pledge I have dutifully kept. So in the face of flash flooding and fields too slick for wheeled implements, our mantra is "Rain rain, here to stay, thanks for all the grass you make". While I say this to myself again and again, we consider farrowing one of the sows in our driveway since the surrounding hillside is too slick to place the sow house properly. The bedding and mulch will be laboriously brought in by trusty ol' wheelbarrow and muscle power. The chickens roam more and more widely while their trailer waits for a tractor to move it. The recently weaned pigs get extra treats and fresh bedding almost daily to make up for the mud of their training pen. The list goes on, but at least everything is SO GREEN.
There is some consolation in knowing the looming beast can't catch a solid hold of us until we return from our trip in early June. By the time we catch our planes in just under three weeks, farrowing will be behind us, surely we'll have electricity and rudimentary fencing at the new farm, and the quick sand under our feet will have settled just a little. When we come home it will be with fresh eyes and clear minds. I hope.
Sometimes I spend 2 precious hours on a Sunday morning writing a clever, witty blog post only to have our web host boot me offline, losing all my work to the ether. As I've practiced so many times in the face of other baffling, heart-wrenching turns of farmy fate, I take a deep breath and shake things back into focus. So here, with a lingering air of bitterness at those infernal internet fairies I will try to tell you just how I made these fantastic pork rinds that I'm currently shoving into my face at an unsustainable pace.
You will need (in order of appearance):
- 1 package of bacon skin
- a cereal spoon
- an oven set to 170 degrees
- Rolling pin, beer bottle, or small hammer-type instrument
- hot, hot lard, 2-3 inches deep in a heavy pan
Step 1: Remove excess fat
Using the cereal spoon facing down, scrape the fat side of the bacon skin. The goal here is to get as much off as possible, leaving a fairly even skin side. See the third picture in the series below for a before and after of the scraping process. This fat is fantastic for rendering into lard, so don't throw it away!
Step 2: Dry it out
Now spread out your skins, skin-side up on a cookie sheet and put it in the oven on it's lowest setting overnight. On my oven that's 170 degrees on the "warming" setting. Now leave it for more than a few hours. In the morning your skins should be practically rock hard with no squishy spots. If not, let em' go until they are.
Step 3: Time to break up
At first I used my bare hands, which I do not recommend. A more effective tool is a rolling pin or other smashing instrument. Carefully but with some suppressed rage, smash the rinds into pieces around 1-2" long. Smaller pieces are fine but even moderately sized chunks will puff up to ridiculous proportions in the next step so ere on the little side.
Step 4: Fry Time!
Get your oil nice and hot. I used shmaltz (rendered chicken fat) and coconut oil because I had them around but neither is great for high heat. Since the resulting billows of smoke and excited smoke alarms were not appreciated by my (previously) sleeping children, I would highly recommend lard (or other high heat oil) for this project.
Now that your oil is plenty hot, drop a few pieces in at a time. Here's a video of mine cooking:
As you can see from the video, it takes less than 30 seconds for the pieces to go from shards of rock to inflated beauty. Remove them from the oil as soon as they have stopped expanding or you risk an unpleasant burnt flavor. After just a few pieces, you'll have the hang of it.
Step 5: Spice it up!
By themselves, these pork rinds are light and crispy with a faint porkiness, but everything is better with garlic and chili powder right? If you would like to have the same compulsive snack spasm that I have enjoyed this morning, mix together 3 parts salt, 1 part garlic powder, and 1 part chili powder and spring lightly over the rinds as they cool, then don't tell your family what you've done so you can have them all to yourself.
Perhaps foolishly at times, the Little House on the Prairie books have provided the bellweather logic behind much of my adult life. First it was, "If Laura can..." and now in my thirties it's more like, "If Ma can..." And lately; "if the Ingalls can move west, plunk down a little shack and make a proper farmstead of a wide open prairie, surely we can do it too." So when we found out that the power company wouldn't bring us the electrons to excite our electron-dependent fences until we had a footing and septic system, thus displaying our level of commitment to the place, we said, "If Pa can, we can." And by "we" I mean Travis, because lets be real, he's the one with the constructing-things-properly skills instead of the pretend-it's-a-right-angle-and-no-that's-not-my-thumb-nailed-to-it kind of skills.
Many of the interwoven steps to accomplishing a footing and a septic system are almost wholly dependent on the dirt work guys, the water company guys, the power guys: the not-us people. So there's only so much sweat we can pour into the project before we have to wait for the appropriate folk to take the next steps. One of the sweaty things we can do is get prepared to live on the new farm as soon as the new farm is ready for our animals, even before we have a real house to call home. I've commuted to chores before and I never ever ever want to do it again. Introducing the cabin in-between, the tiny house, our claim shanty.
As luck would have it, we already had a little bitty abode for intern/guest housing that can serve as the starting point. All we had to do (and again I use the word "we" loosely), was to cut off the covered porch, lift it up, put it on a trailer, tow it across the county, site it, lift it again, untrailer it, set it on blocks, and finally, make sure its level. No biggie.
At a scant 8 by 12 feet, the original cabin contained a bed area, a kitchenette, and a micro bathroom with shower and composting toilet. To make it habitable for our family of four, the original cabin will house a kitchen with full sized appliances, the toilet will upgrade to the flushable kind, and we are adding a 12 by 12 foot addition. The new space will have a loft for adult privacy, the girls' bunk bed below, a closet area, and a table for all our tabling needs.
As I write this, the windows and siding of the addition have been installed but all of the inside work is still ahead. Eventually there will be insulation and sheetrock, a ceiling fan and lights, plywood floors, and maybe even a porch that wraps around if money and time allow. Most of the materials both in the original cabin and in the addition are either reclaimed or leftover scraps from Travis' day job as a contractor, which means we get to paint the inside the most "lovely" (aka "free") shade of dusty tan. The debate about what color to paint it is still very hot with some little but loud voices arguing vehemently for "the color of pine trees" with larger, more restrained folk quietly sticking to white or brown. Often the loudest voice wins...