Dear Charles,

In Sunday’s Reading Journal I mentioned that Julie and I could only even attempt to farm because I have an established career off-farm. I am my own financial backing. I know next-to nothing about marketing, herd management, and grass management. Farming is so much harder than it looks in a book. But we are learning. We are living on-campus and paying for our education. My off-campus job requires me to sit at a desk in the air conditioning for hours on end, 5 days each week solving challenging tech puzzles with people I consider friends. I suppose there are things I could have done to accelerate our farm’s earnings but I’m OK with moving slowly…adapting my lifestyle as I learn.

But I almost missed it.

I got tired of tech. Long, late nights and listening to morning radio as I returned home for 2 hours of sleep then back to it again. On-call rotations working with remote technicians in remote places. No sunlight. Cubicle hell. Low pay.

But I enjoyed woodworking. I made bookshelves, a hutch for our kitchen, beds for my kids, crown molding…I wanted to work in a wood shop. Surely that would be better than working in a data center for another minute.

I met a man who owned a cabinetry shop nearby. He spent quite a bit of time with me on a Tuesday evening and was probably late for dinner. He said he could tell by the sound his equipment made whether or not the employee was running the machine at capacity. He explained to me that he would be happy to hire me but he hoped I would reconsider. I would be better off, he said, to stick it out and apply myself in my career. In time it would bear fruit.

That was 2003. I would like to thank Charles for his advice.

Dear Charles,

You were right. I will never know what could have been and I don’t care. I have no regrets (about that decision anyway). I continue to do a little woodworking as a hobby but stayed the course in my career. And, surprisingly, I’m not unhappy.

Some of this is because I have simply decided to be happy where I am. …to grow where I am planted. But some of it is maturity. I live in a dream world…on my family farm with my wife and children, next to my parents. I don’t think this could have happened if I had given up on my career.

At what I feel was a critical point in my life, you gave me the push I needed. I stuck it out. I studied. I worked. I did what you said I should.

And, at least to this point, I am winning.

Thanks for the help.

Chris Jordan

My job can’t make me happy. Neither can my farm. I have to make me happy. Most of that is a simple decision.

Will I ever farm full-time? I think so. But I can’t make that leap immediately. I have a lot of learning and growing to do. Biological processes take time.

But wait! There’s more.

It is true that Julie and I are only here because I have a job. But Julie and I are also only here because Julie doesn’t have an off-farm job. If you ever want to make me angry ask, “Chris, does your wife work or does she stay home?”

Julie does more before 9 am than most Army folks do all day. Julie makes everything work. Chris is just a worker. Just like his job, Chris has to wake up every morning and make a decision to continue in his relationship with Julie. Chris has to make decisions to keep strengthening bonds and support, encourage and enable her in her work. I choose how I feel about Julie. And I choose to love her. Every day.

I could continue listing factors that make living here possible but that has nothing to do with Charles. Today I was thinking about Charles.

Advertisements

Not So Good Hay

We had a wet summer. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth and certainly don’t complain about rain in the summer…but Geez! We were two months late getting first cutting hay out. The alfalfa was all stemmy and went to seed.

We didn’t cut until July. Even then it got rolled it up wet. It must have rained every three days…not a way to cure hay. You reach a point where the future hay is negatively impacted by not cutting the old stuff. We were there. We had to get that stuff out so we could grow better next time. So my cousin cut and took his share.

30 bales of stems that were fat and woody and had fallen over onto the ground with new growth coming out of them. Awful stuff. Not a single bale I can feed to a cow out of the first cutting. But at least it didn’t burn up. I saw these at a friend’s house recently. He’s lucky it didn’t catch fire. Some years ago my cousin had sudangrass where he later planted the alfalfa field. There are still three or four black bales at the south edge of my property entirely blackened. It happens.

BurnedHay

What in there would catch fire you ask? Well, you have a wet mass of organic material. Biology begins to work. Life creates warmth. Respiration. Reproduction. Growth. Waste. Cellular Mitosis. The bale in this case is little more than a big compost pile wrapped in plastic netting. That can burn. So can a compost pile. So can a pile of wood chips.

Half of my bales are only good for compost. So that’s what we’ll do with them. I’ll gather up the feedlot manure and make a lasagna with alfalfa hay and feedlot and bedding. Then we’ll spread that on the fields. The alfalfa all went to seed so that will be nice.

The other half of my bales? Well…not so good. But not so bad. I just have to play it by ear and let the cows make bedding out of the bad stuff. Or let the chickens scratch through it. Sometimes the center of the bale is moldy but usually it’s just the outer 6-8″. I stand the bale on end and peel off the outer layers. See this smoke?

MoldSpore

That’s not smoke. It’s mold spore. That first 30 bales I was talking about earlier all sprouted mushrooms last summer.

Compost is the only solution. I can’t even use it for pig bedding as it would make them sick.

It’s hard to put up a good round bale in wet weather. Most of our small square bales are excellent though…this year anyway. Squares are easier to evaluate. You know what they should weigh as you lift them by hand. You can dig into the pile and feel for warmth or moisture or you can tear a bale apart and inspect it easily and you can move it by hand. It’s hard to move a round bale by hand. Even just the center of one.

BaleCenter

 

At this point I’m tending to unroll a bale down the hill and just let the cows pick through it, making bedding of what they don’t want. Dad and I have some concerns about how long a thick mat of hay will persist on the ground but we’ll just have to play it by ear. Hopefully the chickens can scratch it out and the worms will decompose it.

I don’t have any advice here. More than half of my hay is worthless. It’s hard to put up good hay, especially early in the season. I would prefer to just buy it in but hay quality is a concern there too. Maybe dad will weigh in with some ideas for how to ensure hay quality. Hopefully dad and I will have a better hay year in 2015, but still moist.

Thoughts on Writing

I have tried – really tried – to publish every day. I just have too much going on (poor me). I often have nothing to write about but it just seems like I should. I do write almost every day but publishing is another thing entirely. You should see the backlog of unpublished drafts. Sometimes I don’t publish because forced writing comes across as bitter or venomous and I just keep those to myself.

Today I want to write about writing. I was speaking with someone recently and I said, “You know how you sit and write about 5,000 words then look back over it a couple of times and still miss mistakes? Drives me bananas.”

She looked at me like I was bananas. I guess writing 5,000 words is a big deal from her perspective. I try to break up lengthy essays into multiple posts on my blog because I think it’s impolite to ask you to spend all day reading my nonsense as you flip through the pretty pictures.

I have a couple of thoughts on this and since it’s my blog I’m going to write them down…even if you don’t read this. Our pastor often uses points that start with the same letter to make it seem catchy. I failed miserably at this but tried anyway. Especially since my points are Pot, Passion, Pants, Paint and Publish. Yikes. I don’t think I’ll be preaching any time soon.

A Watched Pot Never Boils
5,000 words is not a goal. It is not a destination. It’s just a part of the going there. No big whoop. I don’t know why professors and teachers in my past demanded X pages or X,000 word essays. I always found myself looking at the word count to see when I could finish typing.

You know that thing you can talk about for hours but you don’t because it’s rude? You know that thing you read every chance you get? That thing you love so much you feel like you’ll bust if you don’t let a little of it out from time to time? That thing you absolutely geek out about? If you were writing about that thing…well 5,000 would just get you started. Don’t look at the total number of words. That’s nothing. Get the ideas out of your head.

DoorGuard

Passion is Required
You ask me a simple question about any of several topics and I’ll give you both barrels. Don’t get me started. I could corner you for hours to talk about cow poop or any of a number of topics. BTW, I expect you to be just as passionate as I am if we disagree because if I’m wrong I don’t want to remain wrong. Don’t give up on me. Convince me. Sway me with your words. You can’t succeed if you don’t care. It’s just not worth it.

But if you do care…if you love what you are writing about…there is no limit. There is no end. You’ll be upset that you have to cut out whole paragraphs to get you back to that ridiculous and arbitrary 5,000 word limit.

Put on your grown-up Pants
You know you want to do it. But something is stopping you. Why are you making excuses? You want to write? Write. Get yourself a blog and throw it out there for the world to see. Will you be rejected by some? Yes. Will some people say you’re an idiot? Yup. Will your opinions be challenged and will your best arguments be exposed as somewhat shakey? Yes. And that’s good. You will also help some of your readers to evolve their own opinions. I don’t want to continue living in ignorance. Please, enlighten and persuade me. Almost every blog post results in a conversation with dad. Sometimes it’s clarification, sometimes it’s correction, sometimes it’s just an exploration. How cool is that?

Paint (maybe Picture)
Show me the world. Use words. Use pictures if you want. Publishing costs are effectively zero so…go to town. I keep my phone with me at all times. If I see something interesting that creates a spark I snap a picture of it. Julie does the same. In fact, lots of times the pictures are the story. I just put words between pictures to chain them along. But you don’t need a phone. You have words. Write it up. Call me Ishmael. Make it happen on the page. Show me the world you see…or the world you want to see. I can’t see it if you don’t show it to me. And if a picture is worth 1,000 words…well, it’s easy.

BarnKitty

Publish It
What aren’t you writing about? I know there is a lot of garbage out there that’s not worth reading. That should be encouragement enough to convince you that you need to start. The worst you can do is add to the pile like I do. But there is a chance, however small, that you will say something that will impact the world or even just one reader in a positive way…that you will infect someone with your passion. But if you sit and wring your hands and live in constant fear of rejection, refusing to publish what few scribbles you have made we will never hear your voice. And we may all continue to live on in ignorance because you are afraid…afraid of rejection. Afraid of the work. Afraid of 5,000 words.

My goodness! it has never been easier to get your words out there. Just start up a free blog (like this one), take some cat pictures (to build traffic from Facebook), write a few words and hit publish. That’s it. No big whoop. Just hit publish. Just do it. If it stinks (and I think most of my stuff does) try to do better tomorrow. And the next day. If you manage to publish every day or even every other day, before long you’ll have enough practice that you can sit down with a simple idea and build 5,000 words of passion and persuasion before you finish that first cup of coffee (or in this case, about 1000 words). It’s no big deal. You are writing about your favorite topic…even if it’s not cow poop.

What are you passionate about? I’ll never know if you don’t tell me.

Julie wrote a response already.

Only the Best For You

It may not be apparent on the blog. It may not really be obvious on the farm. Julie and I have scaled things back a bit this year. In the short term it hurts our bottom line (but not by much) but in the long-run I think it will pay dividends. It doesn’t matter if I butcher 500 broilers or 5,000 (the state-imposed limit). It matters that the food you buy from me is the best you have ever eaten. So good, in fact, that you take pictures of it cooking, post a picture of it on your plate on Instagram and, most importantly, tell all of your friends about the delicious chicken you bought from me. Then you will come back for more and word of mouth will grow our business. You are our marketing plan.

DinnerIsServed

…or in this case rabbit.

However, because we scaled back your friends may just have to wait until next year to buy a delicious bird from us. I have to make sure it is worth waiting for. If I just cranked out large numbers of mediocre birds…well…mediocre birds don’t start conversations. They are just something to eat. Average birds cost less than a dollar a pound so I can’t compete with that market. And I can’t market to the average consumer. I have to raise the very best and cater to those who appreciate it.

After a number of years of raising broilers we have tried it all. One year we butchered 75-150 birds every other Saturday. Think about that. All summer long. And we sold them all! But Julie was tired. She started losing her fingernails from scraping lungs out and her back hurt from standing at an odd position to do the work. Don’t forget that I have a job in town. Julie had to go to the chicken tractors at least twice daily to fill water and feeders but Julie just isn’t strong enough to move the chicken tractors. And we found that the CX birds have a hard time with our summer heat. When it’s triple-digits in the shade they just didn’t do well in our Salatin-style chicken tractors. Switching to hoop-style tractors helped bird health but we also have to be concerned with farmer health. We just didn’t want to go water chickens when the heat index was 112. Just as important we found that customers stopped cooking dinner in the hot weather. Our sales pattern (and this may only apply to us) was to sell birds between Memorial Day and July 4, then again from October 1 until we ran out around Christmas or New Years. Our current schedule produces birds only for those windows. Now our freezers are not filled (or failing) when the weather is hot and customers don’t want to cook anyway.

Broilers

But it doesn’t stop there. If customers don’t want chicken in August, they certainly don’t want pork. Now we try to time our batches of pigs to be out the door by July 1 and little pigs arrive shortly after. Little pigs can manage in the heat well and will be ready to roast and serve with fresh apple cider in October or early November. And you should know that we don’t do large batches of pork. First, I don’t think I could market a dozen hogs all at once but second, and most important, I don’t think I could produce a quality product at my current ability level. So we usually run a batch of four pigs, three times/year. Does that seem like too few? It’s just the right number for our interest, ability, equipment and market. And, fortunately, that’s a lesson we didn’t have to learn the hard way, short of a half of a hog my folks bought for the processing cost after the customer evaporated.

But it’s not just a matter of working to meet customer time preference, it’s also about minimizing our distractions so we can serve you better. Let’s face the facts. If I didn’t have a job, we wouldn’t have a farm. That’s the awful truth. So we have to build the farm around Julie and the kids. What can they manage well? Right now we are focusing on dairy, eggs and pork, keeping each operation small. There are beef cattle on pasture but I manage them almost entirely. The rabbits are gone. The goats are gone. I miss the turkeys. We are focusing on just those three things: the best possible milk for our own table AND fat, healthy calves. The very best egg in the world from fat, healthy birds. Pork the likes of which you have never tasted from animals that are respected and live with purpose. Outside of those three we are educating our children, reclaiming our farm from overgrowth, heating our home with wood, putting up winter stores of food and hay, gardening and playing tag. And we can’t overlook the need for Julie and I to maintain our marriage. That’s more than just saying, “Hi” and kissing goodnight. There has to be time for us to rediscover each other as people. My marriage may seem unrelated to my chicken eggs but you have to know that there wouldn’t be any eggs to sell if my marriage failed.

Olive3

I miss having them but there are no turkeys or goats or rabbits this year. We just don’t have the time. As we learn to do a few things well we will become more efficient…streamlined and that will open up additional opportunities on our farm. How many pigs did Salatin raise last year? A lot. How many pigs did Salatin raise in 1995? Eight. (Read under the heading “Hogs for Free”). You want to grow up to be just like Joel Salatin? Start small. And he didn’t just have pigs for the sake of having pigs. He had a job for them to do then he built a market for his products over time. We are taking our time. Our skill is growing. Our market is growing. We are careful not to allow ambition to overrun marketing and husbandry. We want to provide the best for you, ensure the best for our family and do so by limiting growth while we continue to learn.

Does this apply even if you live in town? I hope it does. What are you doing with your time? Are you really working toward your goals or are you just trying to keep up? Or, worse, are you just keeping busy? We have scaled back to move forward. Together.

Burning the Candle at Both Ends

If you are burning the candle at both ends you aren’t as bright as you think you are.

Pastor shared that last week in church. It took me all week to write it in a post. Always in a hurry, putting things off as long as possible, finishing others just on time, never any time to spare. That needs to change.

I don’t even know what I would do if I had a week of real vacation. Given the option I would just work. Maybe the work is the vacation. If so, why do I put certain things off?

More on this topic soon…when I have the time.

Buying a Farm: Farmer’s Progress Chapter 9

I’m afraid I’m a terribly sexist person. Worse, I am sexist without remorse. When selecting candidates for the position of intimate lifetime companion I only interviewed women. But I did interview a lot of women and feel, ultimately, I made an excellent choice. The fact that I can’t imagine life with another woman is evidence that I didn’t marry Julie simply because she is female. Julie is my wife, not simply some lady who lives in the same house and acts as cook, cleaning lady and…um…exercise partner. I knew what I wanted when I was looking for her. When I found her I made a fool of myself trying to monopolize her attention (boy did I ever).

FarmersProgress

Henderson begins this chapter by saying there are a couple of four word phrases that will change your life. The first is “Will you marry me?” The second is, perhaps one day only, when you come to agreement on a farm and say, “I will take it.”

Henderson was making a little joke at the start of the chapter but his little joke is worthy of additional reflection. Buying a farm is a big deal and one should proceed with caution and move forward with purpose.

…if you have a definite long-term policy of progressive farming in mind, a farm is one of the cheapest things you can buy at the present time, either as a source of wealth, food, or future happiness. I once met the previous owner of our farm, and he said to me, ‘I would not have sold that farm for twice the money, had I known what could be done with it.’ I replied, ‘It would not be sold for twenty times the money we gave for it, in view of what has been done to it!’

There is little reason to buy land just for the sake of buying land. The work is too hard. The burden too great. It really is not for everybody. But if you have a vision, it is worth seeking out additional counsel. I don’t feel that Henderson says all there is to say about taking a farm so I’m calling in assistance from M. G. Kains. His book Five Acres and Independence is worth reading as well. Chapter 3 is titled Tried and True Ways to Fail.

Anybody can buy a farm; but that is not enough. The farm to buy is the one that fits the already formulated general plan – and no other! It must be positively favorable to the kind of crop or animal to be raised – berries, eggs, vegetables, or what not. To buy a place simply because it is “a farm” and then to attempt to find out what, if anything, it is good for, or to try to produce crops or animals experimentally until the right ones are discovered is a costly way to gain experience…

That one quote neatly summarizes the bulk of Henderson’s entire chapter. Begin with the end in mind. What is your vision? Lay it all out. What do you want to do? Because, really, any old scrap of land won’t do. Some places are a little more wet, a little more dry, a little more grass or a little more forest. What, in Salatin’s terms, is the unfair advantage you could leverage on this land. Rather than imposing your will on the landscape, how can you nestle in your little enterprise in such a way that you enhance the local ecology?

Just as I was picky about my wife (blonde, thin and tall were at the bottom of my list, btw) I was picky about my farm. My goodness Julie and I must have looked at every bit of land in Macoupin, Jersey, Greene and Madison counties that was for sale over a 3-year period. At one point we nearly purchased a 10-acre hill knowing we would have to tear the house down and start over. We moved to grandma’s house intending to keep our stuff here while we continued to look elsewhere. I remember grandma telling me that she was worried that none of her children or grandchildren even wanted the farm. Almost everyone else moved away. Before we knew it we transitioned from renting an acre with the house to owning 20 acres. Then to owning 60 acres, barns, buildings, bins…the works. Are we better off owning this mess than renting it?

Henderson has a lot to say on the notion of renting vs. buying.

If you rent you will pay away the value of the farm over the next twenty or thirty years and be no nearer owning it. If you buy, and the land is nationalized, you will be robbed of a greater part of your capital…and you will be reduced to the level of a tenant, but under an absentee landlord represented by officials, lacking the two inseparable virtues of the best type of private landowner – love of the land, and wisdom in dealing with it.

Later on he talks about looking at farms by talking to neighbors and finding out the history of the land. Was it recently owned or recently rented? How long were the tenants there? Tenants tend to strip resources thinking only of the short-term. They also tend to leave messes. Our pastures are filled with thorny trees, our barns are in disrepair and much of our infrastructure needs to be replaced because there hasn’t been a loving owner since grandpa died. Dad has enough to do on his farm, he can’t come over here to cut sprouts. Nobody was paying him to. No cousins showed up. The long line of tenants didn’t care. So here we are.

But we do know the history of the farm. I know who built which building and what the buildings were designed for. The loft in the horse barn used to be filled with timothy hay. I know when the barn was remodeled for milking. Grandpa always filled the barns with hay and the silo with corn silage. Every year. I know where the orchard used to be and its placement, in relation to the farm, makes a lot of sense. I garden where my grandma gardened. My great-grandfather successfully grew rocks. My grandfather successfully grew rocks. I need to break that pattern of soil loss…but I know the history of the farm.

Henderson is also concerned (rightly) about location suggesting you avoid buying land along a highway as anything portable is not safe.

We live in an age when there is no respect for property, and if you catch anyone the magistrates will probably weep over the poor fellow and put him on probation. It is hard having to sit up night after night in the weeks before Christmas to guard your turkeys because the local police tell you they cannot do anything about it. A farmer once told me he started to keep guard through fear that thieves might come, and ended by longing that they should, that he might at least have the satisfaction of shooting someone who had kept him out of bed so long.

But it’s not all about roads and rocks and dirt and buildings. It’s not all about location and rainfall patterns and utilities. Buying land is also about people. You will have neighbors. Henderson has a humorous quote on that topic.

One wise old farmer used to ask new neighbors where they came from, and what the people were like in that district. And if he was told they were very nice, or the opposite, he would say, ‘Ah, hes. You will find them just the same here.’

I am related to most of my neighbors in one way or another and somehow they are just like the neighbors I have had elsewhere. That’s neither good or bad, just a reflection of who I am…maybe, at times, a little too independent for my own good.

But Henderson wants you to talk to the neighbors even going as far as to give the example of a man who, when looking to buy a farm, walks the last four miles to the place and stops at every house along the way asking for directions and opinions of the place. Henderson suggests you look at the soil type and slope and includes some very insightful comments about each.

Not only am I terribly sexist, I am also, apparently, farmist. And that’s a very good thing. Just as Julie had to have more than a pulse to be my companion, not every scrap of land will meet your needs…your goals…your ideals. Look at a lot of land. Define your vision. Make sure the land you are committing to is not just suitable but also a good value.

Incidentally, if you intend to farm really well, and maintain a high output per acre and per person employed, the actual rent you pay is of little importance; it is certainly not worth arguing in terms of shillings per acre.

Going on the Attack

I use these couple-times-a-week missives to tell you what’s happening on the farm, how we do something specific or just how much I love my wife. I really love that woman. I can’t think of a post where I’ve simply gone off about something someone else has done. It may exist. I hope it doesn’t. We depend on our customers and consider most if not all of them to be friends. I don’t complain about my customers nor do I expect them to worship and adore me for doing what I do. I depend on our suppliers and most if not all of them bend over backwards to help us even when we forget to plan ahead. I am related to all of my neighbors. If I have a problem with them, this sure isn’t the place for me to say it.

I see a lot of folks using Facebook or other social media as a place to complain loudly. I hear co-workers constantly complaining about X, Y or Z. The radio constantly harps about those derned Demopublicans. Enough!

Instead, let’s look at the pretty cows. Let’s make some hay. Let’s discuss books to help us grow as people. Let’s treasure those we love!

Kids

So that’s what I try to do…all while keeping it real…but from a “glass is half full” perspective. I am not a victim. I am responsible for my own mistakes. And I make plenty of mistakes. When I go on the attack, I go on the attack to correct problems here at home. Problems I have created or enabled.

The original incarnation of this post was, according to Julie, “…very real. Very raw.” I want to tread carefully here. I am only so willing to expose my own failures publicly…but that’s kind of the point of the post. Some of our failures just hurt too badly to discuss. I am not interested in bleeding in front of you but I think I can help you by telling you about a few old wounds. There is no teacher like failure and there is plenty of failure to go around on this side of the fence. There is no need to be critical of others. I don’t even have time to time to be critical of others.

I make it a real point not to attack other farmers on my blog. I may use other farms to illustrate points but I work hard not to do so in a negative way. Confinement and monocrop agriculture are the current reality. That’s how it’s done right now. That’s how we attempt to “feed the world”. I could use this platform to preach against acres and acres of apple trees but…well, who does that help? In general, the kind of people who bother to read this are already in the choir and the people who put in 3,000 acres of corn don’t read this blog. And all of us like to eat rice and beans…which are grown in big, monoculture fields…the very kind I would be complaining about. Besides, nobody wants to grow commodities anymore, there’s too much competition (sorry Yogi).

I don’t worry about other people. Instead I tend to be introspective. What am I doing? Why am I doing it? Why did I bother to get out of bed this morning? How well am I really accomplishing my goals? What did I screw up today?

I need to ship several cows that didn’t breed last year and a heifer that’s just a poor do-er. I torture myself will all kinds of questions about those girls night and day. Are they too thin? Do I move them enough? Give them enough pasture? Will the meat be tough? Will those customers return or will they hate me? (Please don’t hate me Chera!) Am I contributing to the bad name grass-fed meat has gotten? Did they fail to breed because of my management? Is the white heifer a poor do-er because of something I did? Would she be healthy if Steve had raised her? Yes. Then again, Steve loses calves sometimes.

WhiteHeifer

Hot weather is more of a problem for us than cold weather. We had some real problems on triple-digit days with layers and heat stroke a few years ago. We have had trouble keeping cool water available to pigs on pasture. We have cattle like the white calf above that did not shed out and would die if left in the full sun of a summer day. These were hard lessons we had to learn…and the education, at times, came at a high cost. There has never been a how-to book written about my farm.

Pigs

We have had freezers fail. We have also failed our freezers. We lost I don’t know how many pounds of meat when we didn’t completely close an upright freezer last summer. Not only did the meat thaw, it defrosted and drained onto the floor. Yuk.

This past spring we moved 150 Silver Laced Wyandotte pullets to chicken tractors. Good looking birds. They were in tractors for two weeks before it cooled off considerably and rained 4 inches. I didn’t even check the birds in the morning. They were on top of a hill, hadn’t been eating all the food we had been setting out, the birds were big and healthy and I couldn’t imagine them having a problem with the rain. I was busy that whole day and didn’t get there till the afternoon when I found 50 dead birds just laying there, drowned by a rainstorm or smothered by their peers and unloved by their farmer.

What about the three SLW pullets that were given to me by a little girl? She found out she couldn’t keep them in town and asked us to take care of them. A raccoon got under our fence and ate two of them one night. Dad and I took turns camping out in the field to catch the masked bandit but we never even saw him.

I have mountains of junk I need to get rid of. Old, broken barbed wire wrapped around posts, weeds out of control and trees I would rather you not see. I cut more firewood last winter than I could stack and some of it is still laying out where I cut it. There are tree tops around and in the way waiting to be burned or chipped. A tree at the yellow house fell down several years ago and guess what? Big chunks of it are still in the yard. We just work around it.

I don’t have to look across the fence to see failure. It’s right here at home. I don’t have to alienate my neighbors or prove my superiority to my readership. I would be a fraud and a liar. I am the worst farmer I know. So that’s what I work to correct. Every day. I hope I can spare the reader from making some of my mistakes. How silly would it be for me to point my camera across the fence or down the road at that other guy?

I don’t have time to hunt down the injustices of the world. I have to do better here at home.

I can’t waste time preaching about my dream of utopia. I just have to create it…even though I will make mistakes along the way.

Day 6,208 (Not that I’m Counting)

A couple of years ago I included a Heinlein quote in a post and a reader joked that she would like to see me write a sonnet. OK. I’ll give it a whack. But first let me tell you why I would write a lame sonnet and actually publish it on my farm blog. Because farming is hard. And I would rather have Julie than land. Better or worse, till death…my real mortgage is to Julie. I can easily get out from under my farm debt without dying. I probably wouldn’t even have to put up a sign. The reader should know that this post was originally written some months ago. Julie asked me not to publish it at that time as the wounds were still fresh. Our Seventeenth anniversary is tomorrow so I thought I would sneak this in today.

Angry

Maybe this has taken me more than 6,200 days to learn. Maybe I am just relearning this lesson over and over. I don’t know. But I’m writing it down today. Julie is my team mate. There are times she will take me for granted or forget to be courteous to me. There may be days she just doesn’t have time for me. But we are a team. We are united by a common goal…a vision. Not division. One, not two.

We have had some long days. Long. Days. Early starts, bit of housework till the sun rises, pack eggs if time allows, get bug bites while opening nest boxes and doing morning chores, then run in for a quick shower and change and it’s off to the office. Sometimes the office really takes it out of me. But it doesn’t matter to the animals. There is work to do when I get home. So I change into farm clothes and go out to build fence or cut wood or whatever chore is seasonally appropriate, coming in only when the sunlight fails. Sometimes there is no supper left for me. Sometimes there is a stack of dishes in the sink and a stack of books on the couch and Legos on the floor. I don’t know why but sometimes…on certain days…in certain moods I take the mess in the house personally. As if Julie is saying, “I know you don’t like this. I don’t want you here” when she’s really saying, “Holy Crap! I’m busy too!”

But the enemy comes to steal, kill and destroy. He wants us to feel isolated and alone. To be separated from our emotional support. Away from the immediacy of emotion I realize it would be so easy to just change my perspective slightly…to realize that I do half of the housework and I’ve been too busy to do it…so my half hasn’t gotten done. She has been too busy to pick up my slack. It’s not’s that she has been goofing off on Facebook and eating M&Ms. She has been working on the computer, occasionally checking Facebook and eating M&Ms. That’s totally different. (lol)

But let’s say she takes a week off, refuses to water the cows and demands to sell the farm. Then what? Do I buy her a little place in town and split the sheets? Do I keep her in her little house in town and visit her on Sundays? Nope. If she says “sell” we sell. If she says “move” we move. I love her. I choose her. For better or for worse. In sickness and in health. In farm or in town. Till death do we part.

She married a boy hoping I would someday become a man. I married a girl seeing the woman she would become. For 6,208 days we have changed each other and changed together. Sometimes I resist resent the change…and she does too. Marriage in real life looks nothing like I remember reading in the brochure. (Our old pastor was pretty honest with us about marriage emphasizing our need for continuing and balanced spiritual, emotional and physical development. Physical ran way out in front for a long time. 4 kids…)

I have painted a pretty bleak picture here…but there are bleak seasons. Julie and I are emerging from one right now and that’s just part of the deal. Our pastor says we are always in one of three states: Entering a storm, enduring a storm or emerging from a storm. I think that lines up with the idea of a refiner’s fire or a pottery wheel. I am still being made. Still being refined. Still becoming. And sometimes it really hurts.

But look at what we have become. Just stop for a second and look Julie! Holy cow. We still have the whole rest of the mountain to climb but let’s just pause for a second. Wow. Look how far we have gone. There were ups and downs. The views are great from the high points but the fruit is grown in the valleys. I know we have a long way to go but in just 6,208 days we have gotten here! I love you! Thank you for growing with me. I would not be here without you and I can’t go on alone. I need you and I mean specifically YOU. I meant it when I said “Better or worse”. The worse has been pretty bad but the better is pretty awesome. The season is changing. Due season is arriving! I love you. All that other stuff…it is behind us. We are here now. No baggage. This is us. We are here. We choose to go there. Together.

So I wrote 12 lines outlining the problem and two lines of resolution in iambic pentameter choosing the Shakespearean style. I mean, that’s obviously what people do, right? This both summarizes the issue and knocks something off of my to-do list. When it doubt, speak like Yoda you must.

I stood before the Lord and said my vow.
Since childhood through ups and downs we share.
But Heaven open up and hear me now,
For worse has got the better of my care.

Where is the joy, the love or passion’s cure?
Naive was I to think we could succeed?
My younger self believed to be so sure.
Today I stand perplexed on what you need.

Misunderstanding. Time alone. Regret.
Days spent nursing a hurt or simple slight.
Neglected. Love from times we soon forget.
Why won’t the other person make it right?

Today I choose to love my wife once more
As also she my failures must ignore.

OK. Let’s see how we measure up to ol’ Heinlein’s list today.

  • change a diaper – No problem.
  • plan an invasion – an invasion? Of what? Of local markets with fresh farm products? Check.
  • butcher a hog – Give me a break.
  • conn a ship – Do what?
  • design a building – Let’s design and build a house.
  • write a sonnet – Maybe not a good one but…Check.
  • balance accounts – Check.
  • build a wall – Check.
  • set a bone – Check. (Did it. My own broken arm.)
  • comfort the dying – Check.
  • take orders – Check.
  • give orders – Check.
  • cooperate – Check.
  • act alone – Check.
  • solve equations – Check.
  • analyze a new problem – Check.
  • pitch manure – Check.
  • program a computer – Check.
  • cook a tasty meal – Check.
  • fight efficiently – I guess so. Not much of a fighter but I understand the mechanics and am in reasonable condition.
  • die gallantly – Not really interested in dying. Hope it goes well.

Farmers Progress Chapter 8: The Management of Livestock

This is the continuation of a series as I read through Farmers Progress. The goal here is to jot down my initial reflections of Mr. Henderson’s works, not to republish his work. I do include a few quotes but I try to keep them short. I highly encourage the reader to find a copy of this book. It has changed the way we are approaching things…and how we filter incoming data. Just keep in mind, the focus of these books is entirely on efficient production of the highest quality products, not on marketing. I fear what I could produce if I followed Mr. Henderson’s advice to the letter. Not only would I have to quit my job, I would have to hire a marketing team.

FarmersProgress

Mr. Henderson begins this chapter telling us that, of all the things he does, looking at livestock is his chief interest and pleasure. Then he starts in about his own animals.

Poultry is the most important stock on our farm, from the point of view both of finance and the maintenance of fertility, though it makes possible heavy stock with pigs, cattle and sheep, to such an extent that most farms carrying as many animals in one or other class might regard themselves as a pig, cattle, or sheep-breeding farm.

It is important to note these aren’t simply egg flocks. These are parent flocks for hatching eggs and for raising cockerels for meat and pullets for replacements and for other producers. He next reflects that he can pick birds from their own lines out of other farmer’s flocks because of the familiarity they have with their own chickens. Not only has he bred a closed flock successfully for decades, he has reared them successfully as well. Then he offers a few tips for raising birds:

…we never saw any virtue in running chickens out in a biting wind and a few inches of mud early in the year. They will survive but it confers no lasting benefit when compared with the conditions of those reared in the more genial climate of a large brooder house, with plenty of fresh air and controlled humidity, and of course in equally small units.

and later

With laying stock, large, well-littered houses seem to provide the best conditions for winter production, especially if the eggs are required for incubation. The so-called deep-litter system works well in a dry winter, but when the weather is mild and damp there seems little virtue in leaving the litter in…

I enjoy our chickens. I really do. Most of the time. But I can’t begin to imagine the kind of work Mr. Henderson describes…a 1,700 bird breeding flock, raising pullets, raising cockerels for meat, culling breeding stock and maintaining separate breeding lines, collecting eggs, feeding, watering, moving portable houses and hatching 1,000 chicks each week on top of everything else. I just can’t imagine it. How did he market all of that? How did he sell cull hens, day-old chicks and 650 dozen eggs each week?!?!? But I agree that poultry are a solid foundation on which to build fertility.

IMG_20140626_104045

Stop watching! I can’t do this when you’re watching me!

I totally agree with him that the birds are more healthy when sheltered from the wind, rain and cold and Oxfordshire doesn’t get nearly as windy and cold as it gets here. We move our birds to a deep-littered greenhouse for the winter, collecting the litter for later fertility. This year the birds were indoors from January through March. Next year we will probably move them in a little sooner. I have a lot to learn about providing for the needs of our birds. We went through a short spell where our whites were very runny. Apparently this is caused by a build-up of ammonia. Maybe, as Henderson suggests, I would be better off removing and replacing bedding instead of just adding more and more. We used sawdust this year because that’s what we had. Next year I would like something a little more course…something that will not clump and mat easily.

Beyond fertility and bedding, Henderson gives insight into how to feed the flocks and lists how to modify the ration to use substitutions. The man fed a lot of potatoes during war rationing.

Up to 50 per cent can be fed in the rations, although it will take 4 oz. of potatoes, 1 of meal and 2 of grain as a minimum to keep a bird in full production and the meal will need to be up to 20 per cent protein, unless the birds have access to short grass and insect life on free range.

See? I told you. Buy the book.

From here Henderson offers a few notable quotes on British dairy practices of the time. We have two Jerseys of our own, Flora and May. Flora is beautiful, light colored and fattens easily. She gives a lesser quantity of creamy milk than does May and she can be a real pain in the rear. But she’ll mostly tolerate handling well. May, on the other hand, is dark, tends to be thin and gives a large quantity of thin milk. She has stated clearly that she is not a pet and she only comes in to milk because we offer her a snack. And she can be a pain in the rear. But they are our cows and they calve every year. The calves are much more important to us than is the milk…the milk is close to worthless actually when you account for labor and facility usage.

You can force a cow to give a high yield for a few lactations, or you can be content with a moderate yield over a period of years and of course many more calves.

And that’s the goal. We share milk with the calves, feed some to the pigs and cats and bring home around 2 gallons each day. They bred easily as heifers and calf without difficulty each time. Hopefully we’ll get 8 or 10 more years with them.

jerseys

That’s really all there is to say. But then Henderson calls the whole thing into question with this beauty:

The greater part of British dairy farming requires 5 acres to a cow, and even [then] a lot of concentrates, to produce an average of something under 500 gallons. If half that land were devoted to growing corn for pigs and poultry we should be self-supporting not only in potatoes and milk, as at present, but in bacon and eggs.

IMG_20140625_214440

And so the chapter goes. Pigs and sheep are next on his list. Pigs are a source of valuable manure, sheep are essentially without monetary value but do a good job adding manure and cleaning up behind other stock. Both sections offer the reader numerous tips and feed suggestions and are worth reading…if for no other reason to encourage the reader to grow fodder beets. He closes the chapter with this:

…it does sadden me a lot to see all the wonderful opportunities which are being lost to make our country once more the stockyard of the world. It could be done by each individual farmer making just one little effort to do a little better…

And there it is. We, in the US, could easily be the stockyard of the world. Also the forest of the world. Also the fishery of the world. This is the day I will make an effort to do better…even if just a little. I hope you will pledge to do the same and will encourage me with your success stories.

Updated: Changed my phrasing about sheep near the end. In the original post I reported Henderson saying “sheep are essentially without value”. That’s not what I meant to say. Mr. Henderson clearly cherished being a shepherd, treasured the contribution the stock made to the farm but acknowledged that the whole crop of lambs brought less money than one heifer.

Start Small. Go Slowly.

I was listening to a Permaculture Voices podcast with Darren Doherty. Darren said he was speaking with Teresa Salatin (with me so far?) about her advice for folks just getting started. In short, start small. Go slowly.

Once upon a time an ambitious, hard working young man moved with his lovely bride and children to his family farm (which he bought with real money the bank created from thin air and loaned to him (and he is repaying this real loan of fictional money even to this day)). When the family arrived they already had a small flock of pullets…cause that’s what you do. You get some birdies and then you are a real farmer. Well, some birdies and a gun to protect them with.

FirstPullets

Pullets are fine. Pullets are fun. We had a few roosters too. The flock was small so we knew the birds’ names. Red roosters are always named Roger. Barred Rock roosters are always named Rocky. There was a small pullet who ran to me each day and liked to ride on my shoulder. We called her Polly. Polly was killed one night along with around 30 other birds by a mink.

And that’s how it goes. Everything likes chicken. We had everything to learn. We still have everything to learn. Everything still likes chicken.

But we started. And we started small. We should have started smaller and that’s why I’m writing this.

FirstCornish

Then we got 100 CX chicks so we could call ourselves real farmers (we had, after all, read Pastured Poultry Profits). CX are merely an 8-week prison sentence. No big whoop. But we hadn’t pre-sold any of the birds and really didn’t have any extra freezer space. No plan. Just birds. “We’re really doing it!”

Well, yes. We really were raising animals. We were producing and…well…I guess that’s good. Except…um…you know…where are the customers? Aren’t they supposed to show up? We’re producing what the world wants…shouldn’t the world be here by now?

When the bird thing was under control (barely) we got a milk goat complete with kids. That was a mistake. It was too soon. Too early. Too much we didn’t know. Too much going on at once. (For those of you playing along at home, please consider Dairy to be an advanced topic and not to be entered into lightly.)

FirstGoat

We sold chicken. We sold eggs. We froze whatever goat milk we couldn’t immediately drink. Things were going so well we thought we should add pigs the following year.

Pigs. Again, we’re just in the yard. My (distant) cousin was renting the pasture. He said he wouldn’t mind if I ran my chickens through his pastures near the house. Thank God. But I had to find a place for three ruptured pigs. I made a little shelter with T-posts and pallets (and ripped my hand open driving the t-post…cool zig-zag scar!) and put the pigs back under some trees contained by electric fence. That went really well. I mean…really, really well. The pigs rooted up the yard and later the pasture. Again, few animals tend to have names. We let names happen spontaneously. We sold Susan to a couple of co-workers through the local packer. Buddy and Girly went to our own freezer along with Popeye the goat. (We ground a portion of the goat and pig together and made Popeye/Buddy burgers…totally awesome.)

FirstPigs

These were all ruptures (pigs with hernias) from a production hog floor. Each had a big balloon of skin hanging down from their bellies or scrotum. Because of the flaw we bought them cheap and it all worked out well. In fact, the ruptures closed up. The vet says they didn’t heal, they just were not currently expressed. I suspect it was because we fed our pigs at the ends of the day and let them go hungry for a little while day and night in addition to the clean air, fresh pasture and lack of stress from animal density. Anyway, we learned how to care for pigs on the cheap and how to kill and butcher pigs and goats. I don’t know how many batches of pigs we have raised to date. Several times along the way we have had a nice gilt in the group and we have considered keeping her or just raising a couple to farrow our own pigs. But I think there is a lot to be said for running a complete batch through and being able to take a breather for a little while. We just have pigs when we want them.

FirstCows

For some reason we chose a different strategy with cattle. We bought cows. Cows eat. Cows eat every day. Every. Day. There are no days off. It would be so much nicer to buy stockers in September and sell them in June. Then I could take the summer off. Sweet! But, no. I bought cows. Worse, I bought a couple of milk cows. Remember me saying that dairy is an advanced topic, not for the beginner. I meant it. I really, really meant it. You are better off buying your milk…at least when you first move to the farm of your dreams. Every morning I wake up early (earlier than ever before) to wash milk jars, sterilize equipment and get things started. Every morning. Every morning. Today? 3 gallons. Yesterday? 3 gallons. Day before that? Yup. What do you do with all that milk? I try to drink a gallon each day (helps me keep my girlish figure). Right now there are 7 gallons in the fridge. What do we do with it all? Skim the cream and give the rest to pigs, chickens or cats or dilute the milk and put it in a compost tea.

Read that last sentence again. We need our entire farm working to utilize the surplus milk we receive from two cows…cows with calves we are sharing the milk with. True dat. You need to start small. Dairy isn’t starting small. Dairy is something you add when you’re up and running already.

“But”, you say, “I wasn’t wanting to start with livestock. I just wanted to put in a garden. Only an acre or two.”

Well.

Two years ago I planted a matted row 15′ long of strawberry plants. Last year I thinned that down to a double row and extended it another 15′. So far we have picked 30 gallons of strawberries that I know of, not counting the bug eaten berries we just toss and the handfuls of berries we have eaten right out of the garden.

StrawberryPatch

Cat photobomb

The little girl in the picture above is tired of picking strawberries. Any idea what you are going to do with that bumper crop of tomatoes? We once filled a freezer with jalapenos. What is the plan when you pick 3 bushels of cucumbers every day for two weeks? (hint: it helps to have a pig!)

No matter what you are producing you can easily out-produce your ability to handle the bounty. You may even begin to curse your blessings. It’s pretty cool to collect 10 dozen eggs/day but can you really sell 70 dozen eggs every week? 280 dozen every month? Maybe you shouldn’t raise 150 layers then.

But if you start small you’ll give yourself a chance to work out the marketing kinks. Really, for every hour that goes into production and harvest, you need to dedicate 7 hours to marketing…to expanding your market…to finding new customers. The goal is to start small but to increase your production each year until you just can’t handle all the money coming in. Your family of four could easily utilize 4 bushels of apples each year but you planted 10 apple trees. Each tree will produce that many. What are you going to do with all the apples? Heck, what are you going to do with all the wild abundance that magically grows on your land? All the raspberries? All the mulberries? All the bluegill?

FirstFish

So. Start small. No, smaller than that. If I was advising someone who was starting out fresh I would suggest 4 pullets and a pig. That’s it. Maybe a worm box if you’re adventurous. With those animals around you can up-cycle all the garden and yard waste you can find into bacon, eggs and manure and still have enough eggs to pass some to a neighbor over a fence from time to time. Later, raise 10 broilers for yourself in the fall. Start out with a 10’x10′ garden following recommendations in Jeavons’ book, planting things you know you will eat and working to keep every square foot working year-round. I would plant fruit trees…not a lot of trees but some. Maybe on the north edge of your garden space. Throw in some bushes too..both for fruit and to attract beneficial insects. I would include comfrey and a few other perennial herbs. But keep it all small. Small. Think small.

Let your customers force you to expand. If you start small and work hard, customers will appreciate your quality. Word of mouth is the best marketing tool available. Never let your customers down. You can’t produce quality until you have learned to crawl. Learn to crawl. Start small. Believe me. My knees have been skinned more than once.