A parade of storms

Working outside, especially in a field where so much depends on the living thing around us, the weather is everything. We have been grateful to enjoy a milder than usual summer with plenty of regular rain. As the heat has begun to reach triple digits these last few weeks, there has been a merciful parade of afternoon showers to help the critters, the forages, and the farmers refresh. Friday's storm spent a lot of time warning of its approach with booming, rolling thunder and blustery, cool wind, giving me a chance to finally catch a time-lapse of these lovely and dramatic summer showers. Enjoy!

Basics: How to Cook Link Sausages

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.

Start with completely defrosted sausages and an oven-safe skillet on medium high heat. Also preheat your oven to 375 degrees

Start with completely defrosted sausages and an oven-safe skillet on medium high heat. Also preheat your oven to 375 degrees

Sear your sausages on all sides

Sear your sausages on all sides

Pop the whole pan in the hot oven for exactly 7 minutes and Ta Da! Perfect links!

Pop the whole pan in the hot oven for exactly 7 minutes and Ta Da! Perfect links!

A little idea makes a big list

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:

Arkansas needs an alternative to U.S. Department of Agriculture-inspected processing for direct-market livestock products. Regulations on meat processing have not caught up to the new, thriving market for locally sourced, humanely produced meat from smaller-scale farms. The USDA has relatively effective meat processing regulations designed to be minimally invasive for large-scale producers. But, in the same way that we don't have the physical and service infrastructure to meet the demands of the local food economy, we also lack the regulatory infrastructure. It is almost impossible for would-be meat processors to enter the abattoir business because of the high costs of opening and operating a large industrial operation. For example, USDA regulations require an on-site inspector paid for by the facility. Despite real interest from chefs, butchers and restaurateurs in Central Arkansas, the cost of running a fully licensed USDA abattoir is so prohibitive as to even daydream about the potential of such a venture. For farmers, this means abattoirs are a bottleneck. We have to work with the limitations of the two or three USDA-approved processors in the state or else drive our animals and products hundreds of miles to reach facilities in neighboring states. The logistics and expense of travel keep us on the highway instead of the farm and cause us to spend huge portions of our operating budgets on services outside the state, further adding to the long hours, stress and heavy operating costs that sink so many small farms before their third year of operation. And still, we can't meet the demands of the growing local foodie culture in the Little Rock area. Meanwhile, almost every county in Arkansas has a "custom processor" — a mom-and-pop shop where local hunters have their deer cut up and where everything is tagged with a "not for sale" label. Custom plants are only for end users, unfortunately. If our farm could use a local custom processing plant to produce cuts that would be sold to consumers, we would be able to lower our prices, offer a wider variety of products and spend more time perfecting our farming as opposed to our driving. Congress has proposed federal legislation to allow a means of regulating smaller-scale processors, but it has stalled. However, some states have created their own rules that meet federal standards for safety and cleanliness. Texas, for example, has set up a parallel system to USDA inspection that creates a license somewhere between a USDA facility and a custom-type plant. The state assigns an agent to supervise the handling of meat and ensure facilities meet basic requirements regarding contamination avoidance, basic humane care standards and so on. Regulation is a good thing, in general. We need parameters to help us define the niche that we work within. But in this case, the regulation needs an update. Our meat production system has swung so far toward large-scale farming in the last 70 years that now we are left only with the tiny remnants of a bygone production system, and not a lot of resources to meet the demand generated by contemporary food culture. For consumers, such reform would mean more choice. Not only would more farmers be able to more easily bring their products directly to market, there would be a huge opportunity for aspiring craft meat processors. Imagine if, like the blossoming of the gourmet food truck scene, we had a thriving community of creative artisan butchers suddenly able to manage the start-up costs of building or taking over a local custom processing plant. Today's foodies are embracing high-minded, highly crafted animal products, and Arkansas's livestock producers are eager to "meat" the need, but we have a dearth of specialists to convey our raw products into artisan food.

Arkansas needs an alternative to U.S. Department of Agriculture-inspected processing for direct-market livestock products. Regulations on meat processing have not caught up to the new, thriving market for locally sourced, humanely produced meat from smaller-scale farms. The USDA has relatively effective meat processing regulations designed to be minimally invasive for large-scale producers. But, in the same way that we don't have the physical and service infrastructure to meet the demands of the local food economy, we also lack the regulatory infrastructure.

It is almost impossible for would-be meat processors to enter the abattoir business because of the high costs of opening and operating a large industrial operation. For example, USDA regulations require an on-site inspector paid for by the facility. Despite real interest from chefs, butchers and restaurateurs in Central Arkansas, the cost of running a fully licensed USDA abattoir is so prohibitive as to even daydream about the potential of such a venture.

For farmers, this means abattoirs are a bottleneck. We have to work with the limitations of the two or three USDA-approved processors in the state or else drive our animals and products hundreds of miles to reach facilities in neighboring states. The logistics and expense of travel keep us on the highway instead of the farm and cause us to spend huge portions of our operating budgets on services outside the state, further adding to the long hours, stress and heavy operating costs that sink so many small farms before their third year of operation. And still, we can't meet the demands of the growing local foodie culture in the Little Rock area.

Meanwhile, almost every county in Arkansas has a "custom processor" — a mom-and-pop shop where local hunters have their deer cut up and where everything is tagged with a "not for sale" label. Custom plants are only for end users, unfortunately. If our farm could use a local custom processing plant to produce cuts that would be sold to consumers, we would be able to lower our prices, offer a wider variety of products and spend more time perfecting our farming as opposed to our driving.

Congress has proposed federal legislation to allow a means of regulating smaller-scale processors, but it has stalled. However, some states have created their own rules that meet federal standards for safety and cleanliness. Texas, for example, has set up a parallel system to USDA inspection that creates a license somewhere between a USDA facility and a custom-type plant. The state assigns an agent to supervise the handling of meat and ensure facilities meet basic requirements regarding contamination avoidance, basic humane care standards and so on.

Regulation is a good thing, in general. We need parameters to help us define the niche that we work within. But in this case, the regulation needs an update. Our meat production system has swung so far toward large-scale farming in the last 70 years that now we are left only with the tiny remnants of a bygone production system, and not a lot of resources to meet the demand generated by contemporary food culture.

For consumers, such reform would mean more choice. Not only would more farmers be able to more easily bring their products directly to market, there would be a huge opportunity for aspiring craft meat processors. Imagine if, like the blossoming of the gourmet food truck scene, we had a thriving community of creative artisan butchers suddenly able to manage the start-up costs of building or taking over a local custom processing plant. Today's foodies are embracing high-minded, highly crafted animal products, and Arkansas's livestock producers are eager to "meat" the need, but we have a dearth of specialists to convey our raw products into artisan food.

Check out the full list of Big Ideas for Arkansas here.

If you were a chicken

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.

Building the Road as We Walk It

Before digging into this post, you may enjoy the one before it called "Finding Real Sustainability"

The front valley, April 2015

The front valley, April 2015

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.

The fifth generation of our own hog breed meets the world

The fifth generation of our own hog breed meets the world

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:

One of our Corriente-Angus heifers at the foundation of our breeding program. She'll be bred to a Wagyu bull.

One of our Corriente-Angus heifers at the foundation of our breeding program. She'll be bred to a Wagyu bull.

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'

Finding Real Sustainability

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

Chicken

Feral mama hen raising her chicks without any assistance amidst the woodland sow pasture.

Feral mama hen raising her chicks without any assistance amidst the woodland sow pasture.

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:

In 2013 we used a timelapse camera to capture meat chickens growing to market weight in mobile pens. This is still the way we raise our meat birds.