Saturday, January 24, 2009

Minus 6 degrees

Well, it looks like we're in for another cold spell. The weather radio this morning said periodic wind chills in the 30 to 40 below zero range, but mostly just lingering around 15 to 20 degrees below zero. It makes working outside interesting, and not as fun as it can be when the flowers are blooming.

The chickens are missing the heat the pigs provided in the barn!

I may have found a great older, beat up gas grill that may work just perfect as a cold smoker! Found it on Craigslist for 5 bucks! That's what I'm talkin about! I think I can convert it fairly easily. Karen is going to swing past and look at it or pick it up on her way home from Chicago this afternoon. We'll see! Another little homesteading project that will bring us just a little more self-sufficiency.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

These Little Piggies Went To Market

Sunny and 15

Well, it's done. The pigs are gone. I (Red) confess that loading livestock in and out is always the most stressful aspect for me. I've had some bad experiences. In the learn-from-experience category, the first time I ever tried to load pigs onto a trailer ended in sheer disaster, with tears, bruises, frustration, and no pigs anywhere near the trailer. One time when loading up a heifer, I was nearly crushed. So I tend to think about proper loading bofore I even GET my livestock. Still, I get anxious.

Today went pretty well, all told, even though we've never loaded out of this barn before and it was basically a trial run. Curt was a real trooper and a great help. Karen did her part of luring them onto the trailer with her cakes and yes, marshmallows!

So now we all need to just call in our cutting orders, and await our fresh, home-grown chops and hams and sausages to be prepared.

The facilities at Lake Geneva are very nice. They have a scale for weighing the animals as they get off the trailer, and holy smokes! Our pigs went quite a bit higher than we thought! I engaged Curt in my favorite game of "How much do you think that one weighs?" and we were both off! Curt was closer than I was...he's been raising pigs for 30 years or so. Those pigs averaged 300 lbs, instead of the 250 I was thinking. Not that we could have brought them in at 250 if we'd wanted to - when we contacted the butcher in November, this was the first date we could get for them. In more alarming news, they are completely booked for beef for 2009 already! It's only January, and they are full for the rest of the year. Wow.

In fact, it's getting harder and harder for people like us to find butchers to process their hogs or steers for them. Don't even mention chicken processors, those are as scarce as hen's teeth, though we are fortunate to have one not too far away from us. As the regulations stiffen and require more and more expensive equipment or accomodations or materials, and the families running these small, local plants retire, they close up shop and producers who want to take a few hogs or beeves in for custom processing have to look further and further.

This is due to a combination that kills the small family-run butcher shop: more and more regulation and taxing by government (both local and federal), and Monsanto. Or Cargill. Or Purdue. These megaliths have rolled over and turned under thousands of family-run agriculture-related businesses over the last 30 years. They come through, buy up every packer and distributor, and then they incorporate the producers. In fact, in the pork and chicken end of things, they have all but wiped out any independant producers in the entire country. The only folks hanging on and not tied to a contract for one of the big AG Corporations are the littlest of guys, the guys like us. Grass-fed, Organic, Humanely raised, Natural.....Independent producers who don't ever want the security of a contract from a big company, because we know it's blood money. Or, simply, because we know what they produce is bad stuff. It's bad for people to eat, it's bad for the environement, it's bad for the economy.

As long as I'm here on this soapbox, let me point out that it's us wee little guys out here, on our own land, producing crops, vegetables, and raising animals the way we think it should be done, that may very well some day be called upon to save our country and society. If some catastrophic disease outbreak should hit on our soil, such as the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak of Europe in the mid-nineties, Our food supply could be greatly compromised. Just think about it. In the last several decades, American agricultuer had become more and more centralized, and vertically integrated so that fewer farms are procuding more of our food. Every scientist out there knows this is not so good as far as longevity of a system is concerned. Sooner or later, if you crowd enough things into one spce, a breakdown such as a disease will occur. It could wipe out everything connected to it. And in this day and age, these corporations are all connected by truckers and packers and buyers and even growers and seedsmen.

Little guys like us provide a safety net, a backup plan. If feedlot cattle are beset with devastating losses, our only hope for being able to supply our people with vitamins and protein again will be held in the small, relatively isolated gardens and herds of small farmers across the country. Those of us who dont have commercial traffic on our farms, those who raise heritage breeds or open pollinated vegetables. I deeply believe it's absolutely necessary to keep a diverse population of plants and animals thriving across the continent. Because I know that nature abhors mass-production as much as she abhors a vacuum.

Support your local farmer, and support the future of our country.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Pig cake

It's the night before the pigs go off to the butcher. I just this morning read Micheal Pollen's description of helping Joel Salitin with the chicken slaughter at Polyface Farm. I've thought of ways to be more involved/connected with the slaughter of our animals and I imagine someday we'll butcher our own chickens. But as far as the pigs go, we've hired our friend and neighbor Curt to help us take them to our butcher. We needed to rent or borrow a trailer no matter what- and when Curt expressed concern that we were going to haul them perhaps with less than a heavy duty 4 wheel drive and mentioned swerving trailers on icy roads and 2 1/2 tons of pig behind- well, it seemed like maybe it was a good idea to take him up on the offer. And then I thought about coming along- to help them load off the trailer. But it seems like the processor wants to handle that part. So I suppose my job is to help them load from Prairie Fire with the least possible stress. So tomorrow I will lure my pigs, who follow me anywhere, with a rainbow chip betty crocker cake, into the trailer.

Why a cake, you ask? Birkleigh's brilliant idea. She is processing saying goodbye to her pigs and I have to say is amazing at this farming thing. "Yes, the pigs are going. But we'll have BACON instead as a gift from them. And then I get to get my chicks- my fluffy yellow chicks." She sings the bacon part with much joy.

She determined that baking them a cake seemed a proper sendoff. A way to say thank you and goodbye. She wanted me to make a concoction with vegetable scraps. Was pretty thrilled with the possibility of making a goopy gross layered mess. But I just gave them the last of the vegetables from the Yahara River coop- and I reconsidered our resources. While I was tempted to make them a molasses nutrient rich treat, I settled on the Betty crocker mix in the basement. I am happy to get rid of it. Why when I am such a whole foods bake from scratch pretty damn good baker/chef if I do say so myself, does my family want their birthday cakes from mixes? I went over in my mind that of all the scraps we've given to pigs for treats, I've made a conscious choice to make sure it was all organic, whole foods. I've been disgusted at the waste products fed to livestock. The whole point of our pork is to do practices that will create healthy animals in balance and they in turn will make healthier meat. But I have determined that the gunk in a Betty crocker mix will not have a chance to penetrate our pigs in the hours prior to their slaughter and knowing that research in humans shows that a dose of sugar helps with stress hormones.. maybe it will help them out a bit. Their all time favorite treat was caramel apples. I thought about that. And all the while, Red is laughing at me. She has a plan of her own. A much more reasonable one coming from her years of farm experience and thorough research into hog production. She made a special trip to the store (which she never does voluntarily) for MARSHMALLOWS. Now, which is more ridiculous, really. Pigs eating rainbow chip cake and milk or making piggy faces while trying to chew wads of marshmallow?

So here I am trying to balance Salatin ideals of conscious connection with the slaughter of animals in the cycle of the farm and our cosmic relationship to animals and plants in a system of perfect balance, and we're wielding cake and marshmallows. I think we would not qualify at this moment, as biodynamic. But our hearts are in the right place. Load out is always stressful, I hear. Maybe if we can't get them on the truck, WE can sit down for a sugary junky treat.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

14 degrees
Light snow falling

Just got the freezer taken care of. Feels good! Curt came by in his big F350, and had the stock trailer on it. We drove up to Sun Prairie (birthplace of Georgia O'Keefe, for your Trivial Pursuit points) and got it out of the basement. I'll tell you, you don't find many neighbors like this in a lifetime. Curt's got the tools, equipment, and the willingness to help out with just about anything. He was on the top of the dolly pulling the thing up the stairs while the guy and I were below lifting, and we had to take a bit of a break when we got it all the way up, but that was the hardest part. Then Curt and I secured it in the trailer standing up, which was the reason for the stock trailer. You don't want to lay a freezer down if you can help it, so the oils and freon don't get sloshed around into parts of the motor that aren't designed to have them. Put it in the garage and let her sit. I won't try to turn it on for a few days, in order to let the fluids settle back down where they should be. It's a nice 20 cu. ft. freezer, in good shape and I feel much better having a homestead with a freezer in place!

On the way home Curt and I talked about the economy and how hard things are for farmers right now. Curt pointed out how much harder it is to get a loan these days compared to a year or two ago. We both are a little ticked off at the big banks that took all the bailout money, and aren't making loans with it like they were supposed to. Things have really changed in this country for the worse in the last 30 years. And our elected representatives didn't do a very good job of scrutinizing the who and how and when of that gigantic payout, did they?

I've been saying this for a while now, but this country isn't run by and for people anymore, it's become what I call a Corporacracy. Big business controls politics, banks, jobs, food, you name it. This is the result of Free Marketaphilia gone to it's extreme. Business and big profits have been so blindly worshipped we as a society have been willing to give up significant freedoms, choices, diversity, tolerance, principles, security, and yes, even most of our democracy.

Taxes have become an even more dirty word than they were 30 years ago. I wonder how many laid off GM workers would trade having a steady paycheck for a little higher taxes to offset a national health program? Probably not many if you had asked them 2years ago. Now? Maybe a different perspective.

There is no such thing as unlimited growth. It's not possible. Not in nature, not in markets or countries. We all know that unrestrained growth in nature is what we call a cancer, and it always eventually kills the thing it is growing in or on. It's just that during the high-flying times of super growth and fantastic returns, we become intoxicted by the effects. We live in the moment, and don't ever want to peer behind the curtain for fear it will bring the party to an end.

I think living in the country and actually participating in the seasonal aspects of so many facets of life helps to keep a perspective on wild speculation. We are always surrounded by and immersed in cycles. The garden is asleep now, we can only look through catalogs and make notes and dream. But in time, the garden will take up much of our time and energy, and then we will reap our harvest. The pigs have done their job of tilling up and fertilizing the garden plot. We have been tending to their needs daily, providing them with fresh water, food, shelter, bedding. Soon they will feed us.

Speaking of cycles, the pigs are almost finished. As I was trying to navigate through their pen today wiht a bale of straw, I was jostled about pretty good. I'm always careful not to let one take out a knee, which would be soo easy to have happen! They get so excited when we throw fresh straw around, they start running and spinning and rooting and they don't worry so much that I am a fragile biped compared to their rhino-like littermates. So I'm at the point where I'm telling myself It's Time. They have fulfilled their mission and purpose, and they have done it exceptionally well. Curt will be back with the trailer on Wednesday.

Monday, January 12, 2009


The previous post was written a few days ago and I've been screwing around with trying to get pictures added since then! Grr. This dang blogsite doesn't seem to make it very easy to add pics or videos, especially not in any random spot as I wish. I have a cute video of the piggies romping and playing in the straw which I couldn't figure out how to post here.

It's currently 21 degrees and snowing. Going to get 3-5 inches tonight, and then the deep freeze descends upon us, with lows around 15 below and wind chills near 30 below. It's nothing unusual around here. You just know it's going to happen, and you deal with it. I've hooked up a couple heat lamps in the pig barn, and added extra straw to their bedding. Bought a backup heat lamp just in case. Also bought a heat tape for pipes. Hoping we won't need it, and we probably shouldn't in these temps, but if it ever goes past 15 or 20 below, pipes can start freezing and these things are always sold out at the hardware stores so it's a good thing to have on hand. Being in a new (to us) house, you never know what surprises the house can have for you in these kinds of weather changes.

Getting ready to process some pork! Bought an upright freezer from a lady on Craigslist - now we just have to get it to our house! The weather hasn't been helping in that regard, when we have had the time and the help lined up, her driveway was coated in ice. Oh, well, it looks like next weekend is going to be good. Been calling around and getting quotes on shipping to the east coast :) Good thing it's January!

And I've been looking into what it would take to smoke some of my own meats and make my own sausages...mmm. Check out the link below to a clip on youtube on how to smoke a pork butt and turn it into pulled pork. I had been thinking that this batch of pigs would hold us over until next year for pork...but now I'm not so sure!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Welcome to 2009!

Here on the farm things are as they are supposed to be in January- cold, frozen. The overwhelming colors of our world are the soft pale hues of white, grays and blues, criss-crossed by the dark brown or black tree skeletons dotting or sometimes filling the view. It’s amazing how much the landscape out in the country changes with the seasons. Or rather, how much we are able to see changes. Karen and I remarked the other day how often we both still notice things that are new to us in our neighborhood, such that we remark “Hey, I didn’t know there was a house back there!” It is both a wonder and a privilege to have an unfettered view of our landscape. Though I will readily admit to a preference for the soft verdant greens of Spring and summer, I am soaking up the rolling hills, the creek beds, and the quiet hush this Winter has offered. Sure, I wish I were sitting on my front porch as I write this instead of on my living room sofa, but everything has it’s time. I reckon that porch wouldn’t feel so delicious if I could do it all the time, would it?

So though we have mostly moved indoors, we still have lots going on around here! The pigs are getting very big and close to their finishing date. They have done just fine during the winter weather, though they sometimes prefer not to go outside, so we try to accommodate them. They are spoiled pork on the hoof. I am very grateful for my own stroke of genius this Fall when I collected the bagged leaves. They have really come in very handy, the pigs LOVE rooting through them, and they have been a key to stretching our supply of bedding straw. I am down to my last bag, and I will make sure to use that up before the pigs go to town. Note to self: next year, get as many bags of leaves as I can! That was an idea that worked out great and was a success.

Frances, our Americauna, or Easter Egger chicken is still the only one laying as far as I can tell. And I can tell, because the only eggs we have gotten are blue green. The other breeds we have all will lay brown eggs. But Frances is laying very well, up to 4 or 5 eggs a week. On top of her ovoid prolificacy, she has a very curious and friendly and confident personality. She enjoys being petted and picked up. And did I mention how beautiful she is? Frances is my favorite chicken ever.

In other chicken news (because this is a farm. You didn’t think there wouldn’t be more chicken news, did you?) I have been very happily engaged in dreaming and planning on ordering chicks for the Spring. This is one of my most favorite dead-of-winter things to do. Now, for those of you who are so unfortunate as to have been chickenless your whole citified lives, let me explain. There are a few ways one can acquire poultry in this world. One could find a neighbor or a friend who has birds you want, and if they will sell some to you, you’re good. That’s a little harder to find than you might think. Go ahead, check Craigslist. One can go to a poultry swap. I promise I will write at a future date more extensively on the wonder of a chicken swap, but for now I will say that a poultry swap or meet is like a flea market except it’s all birds and small animals and their accoutrements. They are a very fun way to spend the crack of a dawn, but one never knows what will be there. Just as you may decide you are definitely wanting to buy a flat screen tv and go to a flea market to look, there may or may not be what you are looking for, or it may or may not be in your price range or condition you want. So that’s a crapshoot. Ya never know.

Then, there are the hatcheries, the best and most reliable sources for many poultry fanciers and havers to find the cluckers they lust after. Anyone who thinks chickens is chickens is well…. Not very well informed. It would be like saying to an orchid fancier that all flowers look and smell the same. While I can’t say I’ve noticed great differences in the smell of chicken breeds, they certainly do have wildly and wonderfully varied looks and characteristics. There are big ones, miniature ones, all colors of the rainbow, flighty ones and statuesque, brown, blue, green, white, and even chocolate brown egg laying ones, ones for meat rather than eggs, some are better foragers and some are more productive egg layers. Some have fur-like feathers, some have bare naked patches of their bodies (on purpose!) why some even have black skin and bones. This is not an exaggeration! I don’t mean dark meat brown, I mean b.l.a.c.k. bleh.

Now, here’s the best part. You can order baby chicks to be delivered in the mail. You read that right. This is a delight! This is why the free world is my favorite place! Baby chicks in the mail, and libraries. Anyway, these mail-order hatcheries put out catalogs, people. You think seed catalogs are engrossing? Ha. Just pour over some pages of a Murray McMurray catalog and read the charming descriptions of a golden-laced Wyandotte or a Sicilian buttercup, and see if you don’t want to make space in your garage for a few adorable peeps scurrying and pecking and likeIsaid peeping their way into your heart and eventually, your refrigerator.

So for some reason I’m stuck on the idea of some buff brahmas, a few more Americaunas like Frances, and perhaps some rare marans. These birds will help feed my kid who is an egg eating machine! The extra eggs can be sold pretty easily I’m sure with a simple sign out on the road, or to co-workers and friends. That’s why I’m thinking easter egg and chocolate colored eggs will have extra appeal. That’s what the Americaunas and marans are for. The brahmas will lay some standard light brown eggs, and they are very large birds. But I love the looks of them, and I know they will be a very quiet and gentle bird to be around, as well as being very good moms to any eggs we decide to let them hatch. So they will be our broody hens when we want some chick-sa’s.

So now all I need to do is decide which hatchery, how many, maybe get together with one or two other folks to combine an order (you have to order a minimum of 25 so they stay warm enough in the box) and just place an order!

Gotta go!