Wednesday, March 31, 2010

More fence progress pictures

Sunny, windy, 69 degrees

Here is a portion of the materials used for the fence.

The curvy line on the west side of the fence, next to the garden, partially done.

This is a far-off shot of the first half, or third, of the brush pile we made from the trees that had been growing on the fence line. Still quite a lot more to add to this! This is going to be burned when conditions are right.

Another sunny but windy day here, the guys are due back any minute. The posts are all in, now the work of putting in the brace posts and tensioning the corner posts. Then stretch the wire fencing and staple it on, then hang the gates.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The glory of hocks

I like to keep smoked bits of pork (bacon trim, smoked shoulder leftovers, knuckle bones from hams) in the freezer. When I’m making a pot of beans, I’ll pull these out and toss em in to flavor the beans.

After today I have a new favorite strategy- I roasted hocks, and then used one in the large soup I was making to share with our neighbors who are building fences for us, and put the remaining ones in my freezer to make the next round of soupmaking even more convenient. It was my first time opening the packages that have accumulated labeled “hocks.” When we started putting our cutting orders together- for our own family use and for retail, we always ask for the hocks, neck bones, and lard back. We render the lard ourselves and I’ve never had pie crusts turn out as fabulously as they have since I’ve been using the lard. But while I’ve been using parts of a pig that I’ve not had the opportunity to see before let alone cook with, the hocks were both the most exciting and where I experienced the most resistance. I thought enthusiastically about the collagen and nutrients and minerals that Sally Fallon got me excited about but I worried about seeing the feet. Funny thing- I was afraid of pigs’ feet. Maybe the hooves would feel ‘dirty’- how do they get them clean? Or maybe it was the stigma of seeing and cooking with something that was somehow a more intimate reminder of a hog I cared for and whose belly I scratched. But I can’t tell you my relief when I opened up the package and did not see the cloven hooves, but neat rounds of the foreleg, with considerable meat, circling mineral laden bones, and ensconced with the fat and rind that I knew would pop and crackle and carmelize in high heat. So please, get the hocks back- face your fears…. The meaty chunks were mouthwateringly tender and flavorful. The stock was rich and creamy and all we needed for our meal after a long day working in the field cutting and stacking wood, unloading lumber, and digging in the garden was a small bowl of beans with a neat round of this pork topping it off. We have run out of garlic and used store bought but for this late March meal, we had our own onions, lemon thyme, and of course, the pork hocks. For cold and tired farmers getting re-acclimated to all this physical work that comes with springtime, it was perfect.

White bean soup with lemon thyme and kale
1 lb great northern or other bean, soaked overnight after having been brought to a boil briefly. Change the water before cooking.
4 cups water or stock ( the soup gets rich enough with if you just have water but is even better with stock).
2 Tb. Olive oil
One medium onion
One leek
6 medium carrots, diced
One bunch kale, chopped
1-2 T. lemon thyme (dried in this case)
One – two roasted hock sections (I trimmed the fat on one of them)
4 cloves garlic
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Saute the onions, leeks, until fragrant and translucent. Add the carrots, and pour in the beans with 4 cups fresh water or stock. Add the roasted hocks, thyme, pepper and later, the garlic and kale. Cook on a simmer (don’t do a boil) for about 2.5 hours or until beans are tender, adding more stock or water. To serve, remove the hocks and discard the fat and bones, leaving the medallions of meat. Put one medallion in each bowl, grind more fresh pepper over, fresh herb sprigs, and a dollop of thick or sour cream.

*To roast the hocks
Rub hocks with salt and pepper and rosemary or herbs as desired.
Roast at 425 until deeply browned, about 30- 45 minutes.

I smell like creosote and gasoline

Cloudy, windy, 50

The fence project is coming right along. The above is a "before" picture. Posts are now sprouting up in a neat line along the edges of our pasture, giving definition and a surprising sense of security. Karen and I both remarked how just walking around out in our "back four" last night felt different now that the posts were up. It felt good and promising.

I have to say, even though this fence is not at all cheap, I am so glad we hired this out. First of all, the guys we hired are doing an excellent job. They have been working without breaks in a wicked cold wind for the last two days. And they know what they are doing. This fence will be tight and strong, the kind that will let us sleep soundly at night.

Second, it would have easily taken us a month or more to accomplish all this work. And it would not have come out looking half as nice, I'm sure. Plus, there's the physical wear and tear on us old girls that is not as easily rubbed out and forgotten a day or two later. So even if it costs me a month's wages, it's a month that I am mostly spending doing other productive things and not tearing out my hair. Or my rotater cuff.

As it is, I am dog tired tonight. Yesterday was spent doing chores, and go-fering. I noticed an ad on Craigslist as I drank my morning coffee for a one ton bulk feed bin, just what we need here. For perspective, this is a small grain bin, a hard to find size. So I emailed right away and they said I was the first one, and that they would take callers in order. So after cleaning the barn, I drove down to Janesville and picked up a BUNCH of fence posts. The truck and trailer's tires were looking a little flat and I rode pretty low all the way home, but I made it. As soon as I unloaded all that stuff, I headed for the town where the grain bin waited, about 65 miles away. We loaded it up on the trailer, and I towed that baby home. Karen and I unloaded it from the trailer. I laid it on our side hill next to the barn, so I can get inside it and hit it with a wire brush and get to a little hole in the bottom. That reminds me, I need to pick up some JB Weld. That stuff works.

Today I did chores first thing again and met with the fencing guys to discuss layout, etc. Then I jumped back in the truck and went back to town for the rest of the 6" x 9' posts, another roll of fence wire, and some moer 4x4x10 brace posts. Unloaded all that and then Karen had lunch waiting for all of us, including the fencing guys. They are nice guys, we like them.

After lunch I grabbed my chainsaw and headed out to the pasture to cut up the three trees that the guys had to bring down. I was joined by our neighbor Larry with his chainsaw, and our new farm helper Jason. The three of us slashed and cut and hauled wood for a couple of hours. Jason and I made a huge brush pile in the middle of the pasture which I will burn when the conditions are right. I was even able to cut some nice pretty little log rounds for my dad to turn into wooden bowls on his lathe. That man lives to turn wood!

We still have a few tree-lengths to buck up out there, and at least one more tree has to come down. I stacked the logs into a makeshift pile waiting to be split some day. Karen and Jason spent a little more time in her perennial garden digging out pathways.

After putting truck, trailer, and tools away and heading to the barn for evening chores, I began to realize how tired I was. Long day, but lots sure did get done.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Sunny, windy, 45 degrees
It's been nice but chilly outside. It's strange to think 45 degrees would feel so cold just after winter, maybe it's because we got spoiled by that week of 50's and 6o's.

Things are getting busier here on the farm. We are finally moving forward with our big fencing project, hooray! We've been gathering materials and waiting for a neighbor to have the time to get to it. Finally, after several months of waiting, we felt we had put in the due neighborly patience and gave up and we placed an ad on Craigslist for fencing help. We got a couple of local ex-farmers with the type of equipment and know-how, plus the ability to show up and get started right away - exactly what we were looking for. We are getting started tomorrow morning. I'll try to take plenty of pictures to document progress. After all, a good fence is something one only hopes to do once in a lifetime!

We will be putting up woven wire, or field fence as it's called around here, around the outside perimeter of most of our owned land, at least that which is currently hay and crop ground. It totals about 4 acres. This is where the pigs will be pastured this summer!

The last of the snow melted last Sunday. The grass is slowly greening up, and the songbirds are returning in droves. The cranes have been back for a while now, and they add their strange rising, guttural trumpeting to the geese honking and the pheasants squawking across the fields. It can sure get loud out here at times, especially at dawn.

I pulled the hog hut out of it's winter resting spot in the garden, so we can be ready to till the garden soon. The ground is just about dry enough now. If it weren't for fencing, I'd say we would get to it this weekend.

The garlic is coming up now, and I've pulled the layer of straw mulch away from the green tips poking up out of the ground. I had to put up a quick little wire fence around it though, because the chickens were always going in there and scratching up the straw and picking at the tops of the garlic! Hopefully they were getting bugs and weed seeds, too!

The new pigs have settled in nicely to their digs. It's still too cold to put the babies outside and they still even have a heat lamp on in the barn. I think as they grow and the weather warms a bit it won't be long before they are ready to go outside. They are very fun to watch frolic and play like puppies. One night I was checking on them, and one of them threw up. Now I have never actually seen a pig throw up and didn't know if this was serious or not. I took the little guy's temp (normal)and watched him for a good while. He ate, pushed his brothers around, drank, and acted totally normal. So I guess baby pigs can be like puppies and human babies - just ralph for no apparent reason, then go right on like nothing happened! I think, for that reason, I will name that guy Ralph.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Partly Sunny, 41
Woke up to a blanket of fresh, wet snow to herald in the first day of Spring. Not only did we not really need it, but we personally really didn't need it on this particular day. Today Karen and I split up and we both got to bring home the bacon. While she headed to Lake Geneva to pick up the fresh pork ordered by our charcuterie guy (more on that later), I headed to our Berkshire breeder for more piggies!

Nick the charcuterie guy wanted more finished hogs in a month, so in addition to the 8 little weaner pigs, I picked up 3 more heavy gilts. These are actually littermates to the three boys we just had. Those were just awesome pigs, I have to say. A perfect combination of wonderful type, and a very docile disposition. Very tractable and cute as anything to top it off. So I didn't hesitate to say yes to these gilts.

But the little piggies are of course even more adorable and fun to play with. They are just weaned, about 35 lbs., and they are used to a faily warm barn. I was concerned about putting them into a cold trailer for the ride home, and naturally as I mentioned, it had to snow last night and be cold and wet today. But they seemed to make th ride home just fine, tough they were shivering a bit when we got home. Poor babies, I went right inside and rigged up a heat lamp for them. They are currently snuggled in a deep pile of straw beneath the heat lamp. I think they have already forgotten the chilly ride home.

Actually, during planning for their arrival this past week, I had been planning on putting them into the outside pen in the Piggie Palace. It wasn't until a day or two ago that I decided to put them in the barn because of the weather forecast. I'm sure glad I went that route, it would have been a disaster if I'd tried to put them out there. They're just too little to handle that kind of weather at this point.
As soon as their size and the weather converge into a perfect porcine symmetry, they will go outdoors, where they will live the rest of their lives nosing through roots and shoots and eating grass and alfalfa.

Karen had an equally productive day. She delivered two whole fresh hogs to Nick, who will be turning them into tasso hams, proscuitto, mortadella, and sausages and the like for his store on the north side of Madison. They spoke about furthering our business partnership, and all the ways we could work together. We may explore the possibility of him crafting some hams and sausage for our label. Karen said he would also love to buy fresh herbs from us, which he would use in the sausages. He told her he would also be interested in getting duck and chicken from us, which really has Karen thinking! Uh oh! There's a lot of opportunity knocking there, for sure.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Luck o' the Irish

Sunny and 65

Today I feel I accomplished a bit of a milestone of success on the farm. I managed to get three 300 lb. pigs loaded onto a trailer by myself, then take them to the butcher and get them unloaded also alone, without even breaking a sweat. I think I may have worked out a system that works pretty well.

Essentially, I backed the trailer up to the barn three days ago, and then I covered the ground/floor/alleyway leading up to the trailer with a thick layer of straw and hay. That way, the pigs only saw a smooth, soft incline toward the trailer which is about a foot off the ground. Pigs dont like changes in their footing. After I secured the alley way with gates, and the boys were very curiously standing at their pen gate wondering what was going on, I opened up their pen and let them in the alley. How long did it take for them to try getting on the trailer? Less than 2 minutes! Of course, this was a practice run, and part of my overall plan. I wanted them to get used to coming and going off the trailer with no stress. I just didn't think it would be THAT easy! I guess the time it takes a pig to get on a trailer is directly inverse to how badly you need it to get on! After letting them frolic onto and off the trailer a few times, and root and discover the nest of fresh chicken eggs some enterprising hen had left in there, I put them back in the barn. They were gonna WANT to get back on the trailer the next time!

So last evening, as the sun was setting, I once again opened up their gate to the trailer. I stood quietly and gazed at them as they sauntered past me, and right back up onto the trailer, after only a few sniffs and nudges at various points along the way. I closed the door behind them, and they were on the trailer! Woo Hoo.
I fed and watered them in there, and they spent the night snuggled in the thick layer of hay. Normally Karen helps out with loading and unloading, but she was called away at the last minute for a family emergency, so it was all up to me to take them to town alone. At first I was pretty anxious about unloading alone, but my anxiety waned as things progressed.

At the butcher shop, I opened up the back of the trailer and called to them. Because they had been on the trailer now for about 16 hours, I think they were anxious to get out. Another element of my plan. I also brought along a bucket of their favorite treat, large crabapples from one of our trees. I simply stood outside and called them off, and off they came, and quietly munched their way onto the scale. Wow! Success!! I think I have found a method that can really work to eliminate any need for extra hands, gates, bruised knees, being flipped into the air, etc! Of course, these three barrows were also the easiest handling, most laid back pigs I've ever had, so it could simply have been them. We will see, as I am going back on Saturday to pick up more Berks from the same breeder. He also raises other breeds and crosses, but I did notice that the Berks were the first ones to come up to the gate to check me out and say hi, and they all did so in a very calm, sweet sort of way, not an aggressive, gate rattling, challenging kind of way. Have I mentioned lately how much I like these pigs?

It's been beautiful Spring weather here for the last week or so. A gentle warm up from the low 40's last week to the 60's the last two days! These are the days that make Cheeseheads wear shorts and sandals. I saw two women sunbathing today while enjoying a beer in front of a tavern. Happy St. Patrick's Day! I do believe global climate change is very real, and I'm very concerned about the overall consequences, but every cloud has it's silver lining, and if it means balmy days in March, I'm not going to complain about that. However, this is just a tease, as we will be reminded that we do live in a northern state after all. The forecast is for a cold front to come rolling back in, and dump several inches of snow on us this weekend. Ugh. And just when I'll be unloading new pigs, too!

Last week I was laid low, very low, by a nauseating stomach virus all week. It's been going around my office, and it's a bad one. Too bad they didn't take any precautions with this virus like they did H1N1. This one really makes you suffer. But today I am finally all better, and got a lot done. I took about 5 wheel barrow loads out to the compost pile, pruned all the 'eye pokers' in the piggie palace, worked on the tarp for the hut, and brought a few more wheel barrow loads of fresh clean straw out from the hay mow and threw it in the hut. I'm getting it ready for new little piggies this weekend. I wish we were going to have better weather for their first few days, I like to have mild weather, especially for little ones to minimize any stress on them due to the move, but I can't do much about the weather. I guess that's another reason why farrowing our own pigs would be a plus. We are getting to the point in the number of pigs we are finishing per year that it may make sense for us to keep sows and have our own litters. Stay tuned!

Monday, March 1, 2010

More conferences!

Sunny, 36 degrees

The first day of March, can't believe it's finally here! March is a good month, in no small part because it is not February, which has to rank as the worst in my mind. Instead of seemingly endless dreary cold days, the snow on the sides of the roads blackened with soot and pollution, March brings us the first good look at the bare ground again. And that is itself a welcome sight. Many birds return, and we know for sure even though we may still get the occassional snow storm, Spring is truly on it's way.

This past weekend we attended the 21st annual Organic Farming Conference in LaCrosse, WI. This particular conference focuses on organic and sustainable farming practices of all types, from small grains to vegetables to livestock, grazing, etc. So this was a much bigger gathering than the grazing conference I went to last week, probably 6X as many attendees. People from all walks of rural life came from all over the country to hear the latest on research and practice, see the vendors and speak with pioneers in the field and newbies just dreaming of an agrarian lifestyle. Presenters were both university researchers and farmers themselves, and everyone had something interesting to say.

Karen and Birk and I all had a great time. There is a wonderful childcare center there, and during meals and other times when we did have Birk with us, she couldn't wait to get back to the other kids.

I attended workshops such as Three Years of Raising Hogs In An Organic Apple Orchard, USDA Conservation Programs for Organic and Transitioning Farmers, Multi Species Pasture Stacking, Alternative Hog Production, Parasite control in Organic Livestock, and Dairy Young Stock Disease Prevention. I learned something in all of them. There was also a great book store there, with a selection to make a small sustainable farmer want to break the piggy bank! I know we bought at least two books. One big book I got was on soil science. I have known for a long time that I need to learn more about soils and what's going on down there. It's not that I haven't been interested, it's just that I know it's a very big topic and it won't be easy to stop once I scratch the surface so I've been purposely focusing on the critters and relationships I can see above ground. But the time is right, now. Soil science is one of those things I wish I could learn in a classroom, at least parts of it. It's so vast, and complex, and important I just think it would be great to be able to focus several weeks on it at a time, as well as interact with an instructor who has lots of answers. Maybe some day I will be able to take just such a class at a local community college. Maybe after I take that course on welding I've always wanted to take... so many topics, so little time.

I've always enjoyed training conferences, whatever the topic, if they were put on even half decently. These last two weeks have got me really excited again about our future plans for Prairie Fire Farm. I'm so glad that Karen came to this last one, too (actually, she'll tell you that I kind of balked at going to this one, and thought I'd only go to the grazing conference, but that is another story). It was a great way for us to share the excitement, and it really has helped us talk through some planning roadblocks we've been experiencing. (Mostly due to my overly cautious nature) So Karen and I are making headway together and that feels great. I'm sure the other families we saw there also enjoyed a similar boost in morale and energy. Now we have to wade through, READ, and put away all the information packets, flyers, brochures and newsletters we picked up!