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!
The hot air was so full of water, so fat with the blanket of summer, that it could take no more and the sky itself began to sweat. The next day, the same, and on for two weeks of afternoons. Sometimes the clouds piled on top of each other in pillowy concoctions and dropped lightning, sometimes the rain fell from blisteringly clear, baby blue skies, always the humidity hung impossibly thick in the air until breaking into warm fat drops. Between these afternoon showers, the pooling dew and dense fog of the early morning, or the dripping sweat of every moment in between, we are all resigned to being some kind of wet at all times these days. Otherwise there is something luxurious about the version of summer we've enjoyed this year. The many hours for work and revelry have come with milder temperatures and regular rains so the work is pleasant to do and there is oh so much grass. The next few weeks look to be a pinch less humid with very little chance of rain, but quite a bit hotter so we are bracing ourselves for the beginning of a more typical July/August transition.
Piglets! A pair of sows that had farrowed just in late April are back at it with fresh litters this week. Both ladies lost some of their spring babies to vultures and let their remaining brood move on to another lactating sow. With no work load, the mamas came back into season quickly and now Brenda Lee has produced 9 healthy wigglers while Becky Lynn is waiting for the perfect moment to drop hers.
The turkeys are growing very fast and are extremely active- catching flies out of the air and curiously approaching everything new. We expect to harvest (and freeze) the turkeys when they reach ideal table weight in mid September. The hardest feat of turkey raising is hitting the ideal weight range (12-18 lbs) in the very narrow window of days prior to Thanksgiving. By planning to harvest in early fall and store the birds, we will gain some flexibility in hitting the right size and avoid the mad rush to process during an otherwise busy time of year.
The cattle are doing well, though we are still carrying more animals than we'd prefer. A few more underperforming cows will head to the processor in the coming weeks and the fat steers that yield the very best cuts will come off in late August. With several daughters soon to join the breeding herd, our current bull has reached the end of his tenure and we have begun shopping for a Wagyu fellow to replace him. I hope to update you on this project very soon.
8 hours old and already so much strife to work out...
The gentle slide into summer has continued smoothly right into stereotypical Arkansas June. The combo of temperature and pudding-thick humidity has everyone moving more slowly, seeking shade, steeping in whatever water is available, and ruing the great variety of biting bugs. When not grazing, the cows can be found up to their necks in the pond or lounging on the bank under the huge oaks there. The pigs are hard to even find fully camouflaged in their mud coats and dug into the mossy soil in the deepest woods, only coming to life once the sun is down, the clanging doors of their feeder punctuating the nightly symphony of Whippoorwills, frogs, and cicadas. In their short lives the chickens have not inherited such effective coping skills and 4 birds succumbed to heat stroke after taking refuge from the sun under small clumps of brush in open pasture and failing to visit the water trough often enough. The rest head to the butcher shortly and will be promptly replaced by a fresh batch of chicks and .... turkeys!
As the hours of daylight, the blades of grass, the steer's waistlines all stretch out, we are slipping gently from spring into languid summer. The transition has been so gentle this year that we hardly notice the changes. The air is a little thicker with moisture than a week ago, the thunderstorms have less of an unsettled edge and drift through fat and heavy, the summer forages are starting to peak through the still verdant clovers and soft grasses of the cool season. The pigs, the chickens, the cows, and the farmers all continue on without the painful lurching into summer of years past. It is about as perfect a growing season as one could hope for, and we hope it continues so gently.
One of our most favorite cows and least favorite sows each brought new babies this week. The cow was stately #5, a red and white part long horn, and after a short easy labor surrounded by the herd and attended by the guard donkeys she produced the most adorable little heifer. They are very nearly twins in coloration and we are eager to see how the little lady grows. About four months ago, a gilt (young female pig) evaded her scheduled trip to the butcher by hiding in the woods then had a tryst with the boar. She has continued living a barely not-feral life in and around the rest of the growing pigs until Wednesday last week when she found a quiet corner, built a nest of blackberry canes, poison ivy, and greenbiar vines and produced 5 incredible vigorous piglets. She is tending them with all the skill we could hope to see, so after months of nurturing a grudge against her, we may have to admit that her chosen life path may have been the better one.
The chickens continue being chickens in their literal field of clover. There are bugs and tender vegetation and they are happy.
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 email@example.com.
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.