Pa builds a claim shanty

For more on our transition to a bigger, better and less developed farm, check out "our kind of roller coaster" and "why we're doing 2015 the hard way".

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.

Travis carefully lowers the intern cabin onto the trailer for towing to the new farm.

Travis carefully lowers the intern cabin onto the trailer for towing to the new farm.

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.

Framing the addition begins

Framing the addition begins

Maggie supervises a window header being installed, while Honey practices with her very own, new-to-her hammer

Maggie supervises a window header being installed, while Honey practices with her very own, new-to-her hammer

Making sure the roof goes on right

Making sure the roof goes on right

The cabin today

The cabin today

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...

Challenges of the sustainably minded farmer: egg cartons

As much as we aim to eliminate off-farm inputs, there are a few resources that are hard to imagine ever doing without. Milk jugs are one and egg cartons are another. Luckily, we haven't had to actually purchase egg cartons in years because our wonderful customers bring us all that they can find. This saves us upwards of $0.25/dozen, which adds up quickly. If you are one of the people out there bringing us cartons, thank you! We happily accept all egg cartons: foam, cardboard, 18-packs, ours, grocery store, whatever. 

There is a little process to working with "rehomed" cartons, so if you're counting labor, they're not completely free. First they are sorted by kind with dirty and exhausted ones going straight to the waste basket. Since our wholesales customers eventually pass our eggs onto their customers, and we're like to make a favorable "brand" impression with those folk, the clear plastic cartons and the ones with easily removed labels are set to the side for labelling. Until recently, almost all the others went into a general collection that eventually end up with our farm share folk, who presumably know where their eggs come from so well that labels are unnecessary. But gosh darn it! I work hard for these eggs, I want everyone to know where they come from. When our beloved shareholders open their fridge to show their friend or neighbor or inlaw the incredible eggs they enjoy so much, why should Kroger or Vital Farms get to have their name on my hard work? Well not anymore!

With all the rain of the last week, I've spent time experimenting with rebranding various egg cartons. After a lucky find at our local hardware, I had a quart of flat, cardboard-color paint to work with and some foam brushes pinched from the kids' school supplies. So to start, I tried covering the printed cardboard cartons. With so many markings and the porosity of the cardboard, these ones required a lot of paint and didn't look or feel good after all the effort. Darn. Next I tried cardboard cartons with labels that aren't easily removed. It looked strange when I tried to mark out the entire label, but an area just big enough for my stamp actually looked decent. This idea worked even better on the cardstock cartons with the wrap-around printing. But what to do with the styrofoam ones? The regular paint just turns into little bubbles and refuses to dry, so no go. Then I tried spray paint made for plastic, but apparently spray paint melts styrofoam?! Point for you cheap grocery cartons. It looks like those cartons will get to keep their intended identity, for now.  

Why we're doing 2015 the hard way

This post, and many more to come over the next year will be about the crazy process of moving, and in some ways, rebuilding our farm. If you'd like to catch up on what you've missed thus far, start with "Our kind of Rollercoaster".

For my own cathartic reasons I will say it out loud: the process of dismantling, rebuilding, moving, choring, kid-rearing, living, maintaining, and remaking our farm all at the same time is perhaps the most insane thing we have ever undertaken. And we know, we have known from the very first thought of it how crazy and intense this project is. If I am going to dissect this process for you and my much less-sane future self, the very first thing to discuss is why. So for real, why?

After our own innate over-ambition and the restless fantasies of workaholics are set aside, there are three, very real, logical reasons.

1. Room to Grow

Our current farm is 30 acres. That used to sound like an entire world to me, but now that we aim to feed dozens of families off the land we tend, there is simply not enough space to raise our animals to the standards we hold for ourselves or at the scale to financially support our family on farming alone. The new property is four times (four times!) the size. We may never need that much space for our business, but with so much room to grow we have the unprecedented opportunity to design and implement farm systems that fully support our animals to a degree that we have only fantasized about thus far. And to feed all the people that want to eat what we produce. Here is a crudely photoshopped image to illustrate:

 

2. Grass.

My first love, before prosciutto, before Travis, was sheep. As ruminants, sheep are forage eaters, specifically grass-eaters. So to love sheep and to let them be the most sheepy that they can be means that I had to learn to love grass. I learned to love grass so well, that eventually I didn't care which ruminant ate it, just that our pastures represented the utmost of a grassland ecosystem, full of flora and fauna diversity. And oh! The way the sunrise shines through those green blades like a glorious stain glass window. I could spend all day watching the light change on the various shades of green and tan and the persistent, ambling creatures that eat it up. Though he refuses so much rhetoric, I'm pretty sure Travis loves grass too, at least his childlike smile says something similar when he's clomping through the pastures. 

And this place, boy does it have grass. Our old place; not so much. So much not grass at our current location that there isn't much room for ruminants. This of course means not much beef in our farm share. All that beautiful pasture needs some serious grazing power for it's health, and we are happy to comply. One of the very first things that happens as we make the move is the expansion of our cattle herd and of our beef offerings. Plus hours of walking through, gazing over, and smelling grass again. Yippee!

3. The best pork ever in the history of the world and other farmy fantasies

For eons farmers and eaters alike have appreciated the multifaceted relationship between pigs and nuts. In Mediterranean Europe the best hams are grown on chestnut loving hogs, in the Black Oak forrests of Continental Europe and the old growth American South the pork is built of acorns. More heavy-handed rhetoric on this can be found in a past post (The Thing About the Trees) suffice it to say that we could not aspire to the ultimate in true-to-their-nature pigs and the penultimate pork without a substantial nut producing forrest of our own. Luckily, the new land has exactly the right kind of soil, slope, and climate to support Chestnut trees. Establishing this forrest will be a whole other project to tackle after the move, but having gone to sleep nearly every night for years fantasy-planning such a haven of pig sustenance and happiness, the very fact of this idea being on a very real project list has me giddy. Giddy enough to sustain the hundreds of very long days between now and project realization? I don't know, but this is a lot of giddy y'all.

One of the wonderful things about country life is also one of the major drawbacks. With the tremendous personal space and heart-lifting communion with nature, comes a tremendous amount of space between persons and impediments to heart-lifting community. Some farm families are generations into their rural lives and thus have various folk setting down roots just an apple's fall from the family tree. Not so for us. As immigrants to Arkansas, our people are far flung and our beloved community hodge-podged together from our years of drifting and growing. In days now long past, we used to lay around bodies of water and campfires with those people, imagining a beautiful future of neighborhood, community, and farmy dreams realized. Our kids would run across the pastures, crawl under fences, collect their friends and explore the creek or build the treehouse or harass the ponies together. But, realities of adulthood have many of us inching further away from each other. This new land already has so many of the things we fantasized about sharing in those sun soaked, golden days of yore plus the room to let some of those dreams come to life, and so many of us now have tangible children to do the pasture crossing and creek exploring, that these old dreams spring to new life. We have yet to convince many of those people to transplant themselves just yet, so this fantasy has to stay on the purely fantasy list for a while yet, but its way more real than ever before, so it counts for this list.

How about events? Y'all want to have a picnic in my chestnut orchard? Want to stay in our little cabin and fish in our new river? How about a hog roast and donkey rides? I'm super excited to have the space to host farm events for all of you lovely people in our greater community. I want to break bread with you and show you around the barely contained magic mix of wild things and careful cultivation that grows your food. 

 

SauHaus

Or, if you're not a fan of German Modernism you may prefer "Sal House" or if you're not a fan of classic children's books you may prefer the boring but direct "Sow House". Either way, those piggy mamas needed new birthing quarters and after employing all of our holiday visitors, Travis made short work of the job. Here's the backstory to the ski shanty gnome houses now populating our woodlands.

In construction

In construction

In prior farrowing times, we've allowed the ladies to do whatever comes most naturally to them. This usually meant a spectacular nest occupied by a fierce tank made of teeth and primordial noises. We bring her food and water to the selected home site, make straw available for nest-freshening, and erect lean-tos if inclement weather should bear down. I'm always impressed with the skills our ladies employ to keep their broods warm and safe in all kinds of weather and the tailored approach to the changing seasons. It has also been humbling and occasionally heartbreaking to see where their instincts and skills are unable to support the large families that domestication and careful breeding have brought them. Over a few years, this instinct-first approach has begun to feel less like a court-side view of nature at work and more like an unfair burden on our sows. We have ensured they bear much larger litters than their feral kin, and still expect their wild instincts to support the hoards. Last fall we decided it was time for a change, enter Farm Girl Farrowing 2.0 .

We have done our best to design a structure that respects our ladies instincts, but provides the extra support an extra large family might need. Some general observations informing the plan and how we incorporated them into our design: 

  • Sows choose private locations under cover of brush/low branches, often in deep shade, so our houses have a small door and very little natural light inside. The A-frame design also gives a feeling of a low ceiling and our houses are all sited so that only brush and woods are visible from the sow door, giving a feeling of privacy.
  • Natural nests are roughly circular and 8 to 10 feet across on the outside, with a "bed area" of 4-6 feet in diameter in the center. Our houses are 8 feet square, with bumper rails allowing a 6 foot circular "bed area" in the center of the house. With deep straw bedding, the actual nest shape inside the house is virtually identical to nests built outside the house.
  • Sows go crazy when you grab up their boy babies and perform minor surgery on them, also known as castration. In the unconfined conditions of a "natural" nest castration is a harrowing ordeal involving sneaking, kidnapping, and the aforementioned fierce tanks of teeth and primordial noises enhanced with murderous intentions. The new houses have a pig door on the front and a people door at the back, allowing us to feed mom outside the house, quietly sneak in the people door, then lock both doors from the inside creating a safe, contained environment to perform the procedure smoothly. This has already been a complete revelation for us with no trauma or upset for anyone involved. This alone makes the new houses a success in this farmer's humble opinion.

Almost all incidence of piglet loss occurs during birth or within 24 hours of farrowing. These are the most common problems leading to piglet loss on our farm and how our new houses (hopefully) compensate:

  • Newborns hurry from the wet area where they are "deposited" to the sow's side for warmth during drying off. Sometimes in their disoriented, shivering newborn state, they are accidentally pushed out of the nest or crushed as they try to make their way past mom's enormous hind legs. To address this, a heat lamp area at the back of the house provides a warm, safe place within the nest where the piglet has a chance to gain its bearings and dry off before making its way over, under, or between the sow's massive hind legs for nursing. The sow's instinct guides her to face the door during delivery, placing her birthing end at the back of the house, almost directly under the heat lamp.
  • Nervous, inexperienced mothers readjust their positions frequently during farrowing, sometimes pushing piglets out of the nest, leading to loss of piglets by exposure. With guard rails around the whole interior that allow bedding to extend all the way to the walls, piglets are never pushed "out of the nest" just to the side, preventing loss by exposure. 
  • In the "natural" nest, the only source of warmth is the mother, so when she stands up or begins to adjust her position, the heat-seeking newborns are drawn to the warm impression at the center of the nest- right where mom is about to lay again. Inexperienced sows don't always check before laying down, leading to crushing. The heat lamp area provides a warm area for piglets that have already nursed to congregate, protected from crushing by the rail. 

The height of the A-frame, paired with removable panels at the very top, will allow blistering summer heat to accumulate away from the pigs and dissipate through cross ventilation. The height also allows us to work inside it with infinite more comfort and safety than any other arrangement we have tried or considered- bonus!

Now that we've had a chance to test our design with the first of our winter farrowing groups, I can say positively, we're never going back. Our piglet losses this time have been negligible and unrelated to the weather or housing conditions and working with the families and cantankerous matriarchs has been simple if not easy. 

Sweet Summer Heat

By two o'clock today, the brutal, steam-heat will feel like a survival challenge and simply moving and maintaining hydration will be victory. But now, at 6 am, the impending heat, the cold dew on every surface, the shimmering glow of the rising sun through the trees are invigorating. We; the animals, the people, the birds, and the insects are all buzzing through a days' work in a few humming hours. Later, all but the cicadas will rest in the shade and the wet places, ruminating in our various ways until the heat recedes into evening like some kind of tide. Then we celebrate, singing our relief to the stars and the rising moon. The critters resume their frolicking and foraging, the people play music, eat & drink, and merrily finish their chores. This is not just a saturday, it is summer at it's best- vacillating decisively between productivity and languor.

Cheers to a tiny vacation to Arkansas summers past!

a young hog sneaking around in the early morning wood today

a young hog sneaking around in the early morning wood today



The Thing About the Trees

This is part two of our ongoing series, "Where We're Going" that looks into our crazy awesome plans and the nutty ideas behind them. For some context, read part one: "Big Plans".


There is magic in the pig: in the salted, smoked mosaic of the belly, in the slow cured, persistence art of prosciutto, in the silky delicacy of the roast loin. There is magic in his nature and flexibility; omnivorous, curious, he enjoys novelty and variety and yet performs even in the most banal of conditions. We so often abuse his innate magic, mistaking his potential delicacy and affable versatility for a blank, static meat mechanism. But he does not want corn and soybeans for every meal, no matter how fortified we have made them. He does not want to live in a pen; he never dreams of steel and concrete. He is a wild animal, thirsting for green things, for mud, for camaraderie and adventure. His love of these things inspires my love of them and him, in all his silly, curious, and delicious forms. 

where the sows live now

where the sows live now

It has always been my instinct, confirmed again and again, that without full expression of the nature of the beast, he can not be maximally delicious. And in the perpetual pursuit of perfect pork, we must also indefinitely pursue porcine utopia. What is ideal for a pig? He is a natural scavenger and omnivore, designed to work for his food. His rooting and curiosity aren't just cute piggy antics but foraging behavior that yield every kind of seed, tuber, invertebrate, small mammal, vine, shoot, sapling and root for his digestion and pleasure. When he has the opportunity to hunt his food, he eschews his bought feed until the other things are exhausted, and thus he and his meat are enriched. With some planning (and muscle power) perhaps we could give him a fruiting ecosystem where he can have hardwood nuts, deep soil full of insects, fallen tree fruit, and young plant growth all around him all the time. Around his wallow? check. Under his shade tree? check. In the flavor of his meat? Double check. Now fence it minimally so social groups can flourish and presto, happy pigs. 

To start, we must survey the resources available to us; primarily our land and it's current vegetation. I have been slowly walking and examining each foot of our land, discovering it's surprising geological and vegetable diversity. We have no less than 6 distinct "regions" including a little delta and slopes of every angle and compass direction. Within our 30 acres one can go from Dewitt to Eureka Springs, from El Dorado to Jonesboro. We also have a much larger diversity of native hardwoods than I can thoroughly keep straight. Daily my children find me back in the woods staring dumbly at fistfuls of hickory leaves. So similar! But so different! As I work at distinguishing the productive keepers from the future firewood, Travis wields his chainsaw and tenacious focus to do much of the messy work. Since we have a wide variety of micro-geological regions, we consider which species are more or less appropriate for each area of the farm as we are clearing and planting. Some varieties are listed below by the quality of their seed for forage purposes, irrespective of their suitability for each "zone" of the farm.

Top Choice:

  • Mockernut Hickory- relatively even annual nut production, sweetest meat among hickories, open easily
  • Red Hickory- large, easy to open nuts, lower annual yields than Mockernut
  • Eastern White Oak- potentially enormous yields of giant sweet acorns, unpredictable cycles of boom and bust
  • Post Oak- smaller acorns in large numbers, not very even year-to-year

 

Acceptable:

  • Shingle Laurel Oak- smaller acorn size and crop volume, nearly annual
  • Willow Oak- smaller tree, somewhat drought sensitive with medium sized sweet acorns
  • Southern Shagbark Hickory- nuts can be bitter, nearly impossible to open, but hey its food.
  • Cedar- pigs chew and rub the bark to release sap which works as a natural insect repellent, make excellent fence posts.

Unacceptable:

  • Plain ol' pines- no fruit, not good for firewood or fenceposts
  • Privett- I hate you. Stop clogging up my everything all the time, get out of the way so I can plant delicious things already.
Our woods at sunrise today

Our woods at sunrise today

Once the whole of our land is roughly inventoried and cleared of unhealthy and unwanted trees, phase two will include planting more traditional fruiting trees including pecans, chestnuts, white oaks, persimmons, pears, and mulberries and setting up bee hives for improved pollination and yield. Any trees we plant will be babies and take not only coddling, but quite a few years to produce fodder, so planning this part of the plan requires more than shopping and digging. Little trees must be planted in appropriate locations, protected from resident livestock, and potentially watered in the driest times of their first few years. Another group of living things to tend; a job which we do not take lightly around these parts. A few little ones might be added this winter, but the majority of this part of the work will take many years to come.

Down the road I imagine walking through a dynamic and verdant hardwood forrest bustling with the chirping and buzzing of flying things, fragrant with a concoction of honeysuckle, fermenting persimmons, leaves, and damp earth, and populated by radiant red hogs who's gentle grunts and casual rooting suggest a satisfied life wanting for nothing. He knows not what complex, exquisite meats will come of him, just that he has the finest life a pig could know. 


Join us next time for part three of this series where we examine the barely managed chaos of the chicken plan...

BIG PLANS: a series on where we're going, part 1

About 4 years ago, as Travis and I drove our Sunday afternoon, napping tots around on the best kind of date we could muster, we daydreamed and fantasized about the farm. We were just casually shopping for land, mostly sightseeing in our backwoods county. We were already well into this adventure we call 'Farm Girl' and knew that business and personal growth would require land of our own. This change would bring the opportunity to create a whole new system for our farm, the possibilities would only be limited by our energy and determination. I did much of the talking then, as always. I rambled on about near-wild herds of hogs helmed by fertile and fierce matriarchs. They would roam a forest of mast-producing trees, hanging acorn and persimmon enriched meat on sound frames built by superior genes. We would observe and support, not manage and confine. Our flock of chickens would also live by their instincts, scratching and pecking in fig groves and prairie grasses. In our flock, capable mother hens would raise thick, vigorous cockerels and understated layers of outlandishly beautiful eggs. We would live in a house made by our own hands, so small we would spend all our time outside, and our children would grow with the animals in the woods, their bare feet in the dirt, their hands full of sticks and grass and wild fruit. 

A few days later, we stumbled across a 30 acre mess of black berry brambles, scrubby oaks, and innumerable rocks that spoke to us. It has lowland, hills, creek, old wood, new wood, and proximity to town. We spent a year building our house, imbuing it with our quirks, filling it with our few precious things, and have since begun the lifetime effort of sculpting a little utopia around it. After the unwieldy beast that was 2013, some of the earliest dreams are finally on the work table. I couldn't be more excited. In fleshing out our plans, I realized some of you might be interested in our crazy ideas, ahem, my crazy ideas and over the next few posts I look forward to sharing them with you. Then, when you see instagram pictures of hens and their chicks, or pigs in a thicket, you'll know the secret- those critters aren't just cute, they're part of a master plan unfolding. 

Next up, part 2: "the whole thing about trees" that makes people fall asleep when I talk at them, also known as "no one cares except me but I'm so excited I'm going to tell you anyway".

Spring Update

Spring greetings dear friends and shareholders! After an immense and intense 2013 season, we have been enjoying a slightly slower pace over the winter; planning, catching up on desk work, feeding the wood stove, and getting in some good ice walking practice. With all that time for reflection, we've come to few practical, yet difficult decisions going into this growing season. 
For starters, we will not be regularly attending any farmers markets this year. Sure, there's a chance we might pop in for a day or two, but please don't hold your breath. We have small children that miss us, great food we like to cook, a farm to-do list long enough to reach the sun, and just too few hours in the day to find balance during the lovely, exciting grind of market season. Please forgive us for bowing out and come find our food in one of the many other places we have them on offer. Like, 

  1. The Meat Share. This season's share is 8 months long, delivers to LR, feeds two, offers add-on eggs, and costs $806. Shares are still available- check the web for more info.
  2. Restaurants. We keep Hillcrest Artisan Meats and South on Main well stocked in pork and expect more regular appearances at Boulevard Bread, The Fold, and The Root Cafe this spring.
  3. Online Farmer's Markets. A year-round farmer's market on the internet! Conway and Little Rock options, click the links to the left for more.

The other 2014 game change? This year we will only grow meat chickens we hatch here on our farm. Most often these birds are hatched hundreds of miles away on breeder farms, sent through the mail at a day old, and then raised out. We're planning a more holistic approach in the long run and for this season it means our chicken supply will be limited to our current frozen inventory and a few smaller batches later in the season. The meat share will get first dibs, followed by orders through us for delivery at the meat share drop point, followed by the online markets if there are any left. 

Outside himming and hawing our way to big decisions, this winter also saw the creation of our shiny new website and tons of behind-the-scenes, techy streamlining of our marketing and record-keeping. These are mostly extremely boring, even to us, however the new newsletter format should help us keep in touch more easily, even during the busy season.

That's it for now folks, we look forward to hearing from you and sharing another great season in local food!

-Katie

A New Season of Meatshare!

We're enrolling right now for the 2014 meat/egg share!

What is it? 8 months of meat (pork, beef, & chicken) and/or eggs from our farm, delivered biweekly throughout the season to our Little Rock drop point. Some shareholder perks: a regular newsletter with in-depth updates from the farm, plenty of opportunity to customize their bundles, plus a hefty discount on any additional items ordered. 

Sounds great, but it all comes down to the dollaz, right? Here it is:

  • Meat Share - 20 lbs per month - $806 ($150 deposit, $82/mo)
  • Full Egg - 4 dozen per month - $136 ($20 deposit, $14.50/mo)
  • Half Egg - 2 dozen per month - $72 ($20 deposit, $6.50/mo)

Convinced? We hope so, since this is possibly the very best deal you can get from us. You get somewhere around 160 lbs of meat by the end of the season, your choice from our inventory, at about $5/lb. The mix includes bacon, chops, steaks, link sausages, all kinds of things that often run twice that amount. Friends grilling out and you need more brats? Anything additional you purchase is 15% off retail! 

To Sign Up: 

  1. Email Katie@farmgirlfood.com and let her know you want to join the team
  2. Read the contract thoroughly
  3. Fill out the last page and mail or bring it to us with your deposit. 

That's it! Now you're a shareholder and you can start picking up meat Tuesday, April 1