News and blog
Friday, June 14
Yesterday's atmospheric turbulance has settled the dust and transformed into a breezy, sunny day. A lot of activity at the farm today; all of it in preparation for the distant winter that will be here before we know it. Two young interns from the county NRCS (USDA's Natrual Resources Conservation Service) are walking our fields taking measurements and elevation for a buried water line that will be put in this summer. We applied for cost-share funding years ago and this year it came through. It will allow us a longer grazing season in the winter and by keeping the beef on pasture longer, the manure they usually deposit in the barn will be deposited by them right where it needs to go, saving us both time and fuel spreading it in the summer.
Our neighbor, Alan, is also delivering hay today. We bought some of his best hay from last year at a reduced price so that he has room for this year's hay and we are prepared to feed our steers when they do come to the barn next winter.
Much of the summer's intensity on our local crop and dairy farms is all about prepartion for the winter ahead. We've become so accustomed to the easy transport of animal and human food that it is hard to imagine the energy that our foreparents put into storing up food for the cold, short, winter days. I doubt summers' would have the same leisurly feel they take on these days if we all had to work to ensure our family's food needs were tucked away to last around six months or so. There is a lot of idiocy about our food system these days, but there is good bit of genius too!
May is one of those months when the natural world transforms itself at such a rate you feel you can literally see growth happen as the hours pass. The trees are fully leafed out, concealing the warblers and Baltimore orioles we were able to glimpse at the beginning of May. The grass that was barely growing then, is tall and stemmy and fat with seed heads and dusty pollen. Up and down the valley, farmers are busy making hay. Every drive down Route 35 is an encounter with a tractor pulling a mower, a tedder, or a baler; leave the windows open and the wonderful fragrance of cut grass and alfalfa wafts in. I love living in a farming community in May.
We too are sending out our grass harvesters to gather the energy-packed nutrients the soil and sun have created. The cows and sheep don't bother making hay for us; they pack in the nutrients they need for growth and deposit what they don't need right back on the soil. Get a little, give a little. They move slowly over the pasture, stepping around nesting birds and newborn fawns hidden in the tall grass. They operate quietly on the landscape, not competing with omnipresent birdsong and insect buzz of high spring. Sure, they give off some gas now and then, some would say enough to be a major contributor of climate change, but when allowed to live on that great green carbon collecting pasture, I'd guess they contribute more to the solution than the problem. I'll let Simon Fairlie argue for me there though (Meat: A Benign Extravagance); I'm too busy moving and feeding animals, packing orders, communicating with butchers and customers etc etc. these days.
We too need hay for winter feeding and likely some of the hay we buy will be early spring hay, harvested at a time when nesting birds and beneficial insects are destroyed by the machines doing the work. One of our goals is to extend our grazing season so that our need for hay is reduced. The hay made on land we rent is cut after mid-July, allowing time for newly hatched and birthed critters to get out of the way. It is not a perfect world we live in, we all know that, but it seems we should try to find a way to share this glorious blue sphere with every other living creature rather move at a frantic and destructive pace. Live like a ruminant on spring pasture; walk slowly, chew thoroughly, lie down often, get a little, give a little.
Thursday, May 30
Posie, our bottle calf, has been moved to the barn on these hot days. There she has befriended the other misfit juvenile, a runty little piglet who was left after his brothers and sisters were sold as weanlings. The girls call him Carlos. No small creature likes solitude and Carlos was clearly distressed when his siblings disappeared. We decided it was best if we arranged the gates in barn so that he could get back with his mother and big aunts for company but escape to safety and goat milk if the mature sows got nasty. Interestingly enough, they have been very tolerant. He certainly posed no threat to their arranged hierarachy and we frequently find him snuggled up against any one of the big mama sows. He has also become quite friendly with us, his milk providers. At the sound of the barn door sliding open, he pops up and begins a grunty dash towards us and the milk bucket. It you have the time to sit down on the ledge around the side of the pen he shares with Posie, Carlos will come and greet you, putting his dainty front feet on your leg and extending his snout towards your nose. Riley claims he tried to suckle her nose and ears. It is very cute and endearing...for now; could be a frightening when he is 250 lbs.
After weeks of wringing our hands, waiting for the grass to get growing, it has suddenly outpaced the ruminating ability of our sheep and cows. This happens every year. It shouldn't surprise me anymore. But it is the speed at which it transforms itself from struggling, shivering shoots of grass to bold, stemmy pasture that is near miraculous.
The sheep and cows are transformed too from placid, resigned ruminants eating dry hay to discontented beasts who bellow and baa to be moved as soon as the velvety clover and alfalfa have been nibbled out of a paddock. So move them we do. Add week-old lambs and calves into the mix and our farm too can quickly transform into a three-ring circus. With neighbor kids stopping traffic, Roy and I attempted to move the herd of cows across the road the other evening. All was going well down to the last four calves (as my grandfather would say scornfully in Pennsylvania Dutch, "da duma junga" - stupid youth) who hesitated crossing an unfamiliar surface then balked and ran back into their known pasture (never mind that all their mom's and aunts are safely across and bawling for them with mouths full of fresh grass). What followed was a lot of corralling and coaxing and finally a mama cow returning to help escort them across while a few cars patiently waited. One lesson we learn over and over again is good neighbors are invaluable and if you can try to understand the instinctual nature of animals and work with it, life is a lot easier. Thank goodness for good mama cows.
Monday, March 18, 2013
Last week we received an email from our friend Pete, a vegetable and sheep farmer who has sheared our flock every spring for the past 15 years; he had a small accident in the woods and broke his arm and unless we wanted to wait for another six weeks till he had recovered, we needed to find another shearer. Today was our scheduled day to have the sheep shorn, just in time for the arrival of lambs in about three weeks. We've known of other shearers in the area, but there is something very comforting about handing over your flock to a guy you know and trust so it was with a little fear and trepidation that we began making other arrangments. Thankfully we were able to hire Kirk in short order, another shepherd / school teacher who also has a lot of experience shearing sheep and of whom we had heard good things. The only problem was with Pete out of commition, Kirk was quite busy and the only time we could schedule him was 7 am, Sunday morning, St. Patrick's Day. We're not Irish but we usually try to limit our Sunday work to a minimum. However first and forefost we are pragmatic farmers who understand trying to apply strict rules to nature and life just doesn't work for the well being of our animals or selves. So yesterday morning we were up at the crack of dawn; Roy set up chutes and gates and I, nursing a slight back injury, made sure we had plenty of coffee and stood around giving unwanted suggestions. When Kirk arrived right on time at 7 am, we were almost ready to go. Averaging around 15 sheep an hour and with a few breaks to change clippers and stand up and stretch; Kirk had the job done easily before lunch.
Shearing is very hard work. It didn't help that our Cheviot's wool seemed especially tight and uncooperative. As the day went on it seemed to get easier and we learned from Kirk that some of his shepherds run their sheep around before shearing to heat them up and get their glands flowing - it seems to make shearing go more smoothly. Interestingly enough, as the day went on, the temperature rose and we packed the unshorn ewes a little tighter in the pen, the shearing did improve. We have some little ewe lambs who are easy to flip into a sitting position, but they are slippery and squrimy. The older ewes, all them beginning to bag up in preparation for the lambs, are difficult to manuever into position. One of our rams is jumper; after he was shorn he jumped out of the holding pen and went dashing about visiting Bob and Buddy (where he was not welcomed -- Bob gave a good horsey bite in the rump!), then lept into the sow pen, again he was not welcomed, so he jumped into the pen with the young feeder pigs who thought he arrived to initiate a game of tag. Meanwhile we were trying to coral him back into the proper ram holding pen beside the steers. It was quite a circus.
Sheep shorn, animals fed, lunch over, I got a shower and sat on an ice pack on the sofa and slept through college basketball while the girls and a friend from the neighborhood ran up and down the stairs chasing each other with nail polish and eye shadow. It was actually a very satisfying Sunday, topped off with celebrating St. Patrick's Day with a grilled Reuben sandwich at a local diner.
We are wrestling with what to do about feeding our hogs GM vs. Non-GM feed. A survey sent to our customers shows that you are split about 50/50, with those preferring non-GM feed having a slight edge. Those willing to pay more for pork that is GMO-free lead at 50.9%, those who would not total 49.1%. Only in politics is that considered a clear mandate and we feel the need to do more investigating before we make a decision. The introduction of GMO's into our food system is a complex issue facing all us who are concerned about the impact they have on our health, our ecosystem, and our world as we know it.
Wikipedia succinctly describes Genetically Modified Organisms as an organism whose genetic material has been altered using genetic engineering techniques. It is different than simply selective breeding for healthier plants and animals because it allows us to introduce genes into an organism that would not be found there if allowed to breed naturally. What we have yet to know for certain is what the long term impacts will be on the environment, but not knowing has not stopped us from from going ahead with the process. GMO's are abundant and they are likely here to stay.
Certainly one of the major concerns is how GMOs affect the health of our loved ones and ourselves but the science on this particular issue seems inconclusive. GMO Golden Rice has added vitamin D into rice claiming that it is more nutritious than regular rice. For many of the world's poor this is considered vital for their overall health. The intention seems benevolent but perhaps if we weren't so focused on mono-cropping farmland, farmers around the world would have the space and land to diversify their crops. Is rice dependance the best we can do? I don't know. Big problems require creative thinking and perhaps GMO's have a place in that. I think we need to know more and that takes time and research.
But there are other issues that raise serious concerns about the effects of GM crops on the ecological health of the earth. A recent study by Dave Mortensen, a weed ecologist at Penn State Univserity, shows a dramatic rise in weeds resistant to glyphosate, the main ingredient in Monsonto's Roundup herbicide. As weeds become resistant, the company is looking at using far more damaging herbicides to get the desired result of soybean and corn crops that can grow free of weed competition. But to what impact on the overall health of the environment? We've been down that road before; it was those far more toxic herbicides such as 2,4D and Dicamba that led Rachel Carson to write her classic Silent Spring. Trying to conquer nature rather than work with it by increasing biodiversity and building up soil health seems s foolish, myopic route to take. Hubris has never served us well.
There are other red flags when it comes to the proliferation of GMOs. Certainly the resistance of the food industry to labeling their GMO products raises a few. Consumers have a right to know what they are eating and what the animals they are eating are eating too! Our pigs are eating grain that is most likely genetically modified, in part because most of the feed crops grown today are GM crops. The folks at the local feed mill tell us there is no way they can verify whether or not the grain they buy from local farmers is GM or not. They blend it all together into the same grain bins. The only way we can know for certain that we are getting GMO-free grain is to buy organically certified grain and so far the price on that is about three times as high. Our hog feed currently costs $445 / ton. Organically certified hog feed from MgGeary is $1406/ton.
We are still seeking the best answer for our customers, our hogs, and our farm. In an ideal world we would make the switch to GMO free grain because based on what we do and do not know about GMOs it seems like the most responsible choice given our commitment to farming, to the best of our limited knowledge, in a way that promotes wellness to the diversity of life around us. But, and it is a considerable but, we also know that cost is a factor as well, both our costs and yours, as is the local economy of which we are a part. We have to take numbers into consideration as well and that is the part we like the least. I am hopeful we can find a way forward that satisfies the needs and concerns of all of us. We'll keep you posted.
Tuesday, February 26
Roy spent the morning moving ram lambs and Berkshire sows into so that we could send the cows and last years calves through our handling chute to be pregancy checked and vaccinated. It is quite a process. Our new pigpens are so close to being done -- just a few gates to make and hang and latches to put on – that we moved the sows out of the beef end of the barn for good! In the future we hope that working the beef will not take so much shuffling around of animals and gates. While Roy took care of setting up, I did the morning chores and spent some time frost-seeding our pastures so that in the spring we will have rye grass and clover growing in any bare spots where we've overwintered animals. When both of us are able to work on the farm, it is amazing how much faster the work gets done! We were ready for Dr. Gingerich about an hour before he arrived; of course halfway through our bolice broke and the bent old gates we used for separating cows and yearlings kept us humble inspite of our early success.
When he came, each beef cow, steer, heifer, and calf was sent through the squeeze chute. The cows were pregancy checked, and if bred, vaccinated. Most of them are due to calf in about two months.The yearling steers and heifers we given a large magnet to ingest. No, they don't enjoy being fed a magnet, but as soon as they are left out of the chute, they calmly go back to eating. They were weaned from their moms, whose bodies need to start preparing for the new calves that is about arrive. The yearlings have had nearly ten months with their moms; it's time they get off momma's milk. One early bull calf was castrated. And that was our day. With the Roy, Dr. Gingerich, his assistant, and me all working together, it took about two hours to complete the job. Like shearing, it is one of those annual farm “events” that feels cathartic when completed. It is the sort of work that makes us really feel like farmers – albeit rather delinquent ones as we usually try get this process done in November! Always room for improvement – next fall, we'll be on time.
“There is no mission without margin”
Sally Jewell – REI exectutive and nominee for Secretary of the Interior,
As farmers we are committed to producing a high qualitity product using practices that honor the life of the animals we raise, the landscapes and ecosystems in which we raise them, and the community of fellow humans with whom we interact : those we pay, those who pay us, and those we simply rub shoulders with in the various circles of our lives. Our choice to be farmers and our mission as farmers is rooted in a deeply held moral and ethical belief that the life that pulses in us is connected to the life that pulses in all organisms and we should approach it with curiosity and mindfulness.
That said, on a more pragmatic note, our choice to be farmers inevitably makes us small business owners. And for small business owners to stay in business, there is at some point a rather sobering reckoning about what exactly the operating margins are for your business. Because neither of us have very sophisticated bookkeeping skills and we have always managed the farm around the margins of at least one full-time, off-farm job, this reckoning has been a long time in coming. But recognizing that our “little girls” are only a few years shy of high school and with our personal net worth almost entirely invested in “non-liquid” assets such as land, farm infrastructure, and animals (and still considerably leveraged with debt!), and our own 40+ year-old bodies beginning to begrudge some of the work we found “fun” as early thirty somethings; we found ourselves asking increasingly difficult questions about what exactly (beyond profound satisfaction) the marginal return on our farming efforts were.
So beginning in 2013, we've been working hard to refine our bookkeeping skills in order to better assess what our operating margins have been over the past several years. And the results are indeed, sobering. Suffice it to say, it's good that farming gives us a sense of profound satisfaction, because at this point, that's about the only thing we've made from farming.
We're still pretty early in what we expect to be at least a sixth month process of working closely with a consultant to improve our business management practices, but it's clear we need to make some changes if we want to continue farming; and we do. In the short term, this means a rather significant price increase of our products. Here's some of what we've learned through our first few months of the sober reckoning. (If it doesn't ease your pain at the sticker shock of our new price lists, we hope you'll at least recognize it's not been a pleasant process for us either.)
We have to base our prices on our costs rather than allowing grocery store prices to inform us. That's not to say we tried to compete with our local Weis store prices...we knew we couldn't. But we kind of started there and then built in a small premium for being “niche.” But we're not niche. We're a different species. A different dimension altogether from grocery store meats. You already know this and likely that's why you are our customer.
As a small farm that operates on a set of principles beyond just profitability, our costs are going to be higher. We are small by choice and design. We do not have the benefit of economies of scale that the big feedlots and huge ranches out west have. We buy our hay and grain locally and in large enough quantities for our scale, but still, it is nowhere near what Tyson and Hatfield can buy their feed for. On the other hand, our purchases support our neighbor farmers and feed mills and they too deserve fair price for their labor.
We work with a small processors that only kill a dozen or so animals in a day and only one or two days a week and they dry-age their meat. Their shops are clean and inspected and the rate at which animals move through allows them be mindful of how animals are treated and how each carcass is handled. They too are small, family-owned operations with slim profit margins and they cannot compete in price with the huge processing plants, but we don't want them to. We don't want to send our animals to those vast plants nor do we want to eat the products that come out of them.
Raising lambs and beef on grass takes more time and management. Raising pigs with space to root and run around takes planning and pig-proof fencing. We have to pay labor to do the work, even if that labor is us. Like many farmers, we've gotten into the habit of not paying ourselves beyond covering immediate expenses and we cannot afford to continue this pattern.
This is already getting long...all this to say, now that we have better tools to see where our money is coming from and going too, we are becoming empowered to make decisions that will help sustain our business for the long term. We know that for many of you, choosing to purchase food from us and farmers like us, is no small investment and we appreciate that. We believe agree with the advice of Michael Pollan and Robert Lustig, “Eat real food. Not too much. Mostly Plants.” And when you do eat meat – consider what the animals you are eating have eaten and how they have been raised. Yes, it costs more, but we think you and your body will find it is worth it.
Monday, January 27
We went to bed with a gorgeous full moon casting shadows on our snow-covered pastures but this morning we woke to cloudy skies and more snow and ice. School is canceled so the girls' helped with barn chores. They most enjoy feeding our fast-growing feeder pigs old sweet potatoes from their grandparents' organic vegetable farm. The pigs are about 80 pounds and they are very entertaining. They take the sweet potatoes right out of our hands then carry on and run around with such high-spirited exuberance. The whole herd will dash to a corner of the pen, turn and stare at us with the expectation of an unfolding game. All it takes is a quick lunge at them and they are off again, barking, snorting, and spinning their plump, muscular bodies into another corner. When we stop playing the game, they are at our knees, rooting with their pink, wet snouts for spoiled potatoes or butternut squash or any treats we might have to offer. When feeding is over, a few bury themselves into the corn fodder then everyone else piles on in big mound of warm pig bodies for their morning nap. Not a bad life for an adolescent pig.
Sometimes this this place is a zoo, sometimes it's a circus. Yesterday it was a circus and animals kept disappearing on me. First it was Mac. He's quite a Houdini and I've gotten use to him vanishing. One minute he's lying contentedly in yard gnawing on a bone, the next he's gone on his neighborhood run-about always ending up at the Geedy farmstead about a mile from home by way of the stream. They and their goats, horses, and dogs are friendly to him. I've tried to make him feel guilty and ashamed for his behavior. "Mac, it hurts that you feel you need love and affection from others..." or "Mac, I get frustrated that I am pulled from my work to come pick you up." He doesn't get it. Yesterday he disappeared in his usual manner but I was busy and didn't want disrupt my rhythm. When my task was completed, Pip and I got in the car to go get him. As I was about to pull out of the drive I glanced up at the sheep paddock to check on them, see how much hay they had gone through, and they were not there. I turned the car to get a closer look. No sheep. Last week I noticed Charlie's hay field was "greening up" and I knew it would be a temptation soon, but now it was covered in several inches of snow. Spotting white sheep in a snowy field can be tricky. I scanned the field from all angles, no sheep. I drove about a half a mile south searching both sides of the road. Perhaps Mac had something to do with this. That would be unusal. Pip might try to work sheep without a command, but not Mac. I turned my car around and headed back to the farm, squinting hard at the mix white and brown in every field and paddock for a flock of sheep to suddenly pop out at me. It appeared the snow covered pasture just below the barn was gently undulating. As I got closer, sheep shapes separated themselves from the snow. The flock stopped moving when they saw they had been spotted. They were gathering outside the barnyard, looking around at the cows and horses feeding nearby. I opened the barnyard gate and Pip pushed them in. So they too are temporarily living in the barn alongside the horses and pigs. As for Mac, as expected he came bounding to me when I pulled in the Geedy's long, steep lane.Lights dim, curtain closes; the show is over for the day.