Friday, December 23, 2011

Ducks in the High-Occupancy Vehicle lane

Farmall tractor at Nash's Delta Farm.
Last Friday we got a call from Scott, who works for Nash Huber of Nash's Organic Produce in Sequim. Scott had been tending a flock of Khaki Campbell and Indian Runner ducks for over a year, and for various reasons decided to shelve the duck project. He offered to give us the ducks, which he said were about 1-1/2 years old. He thought there were about 35 ducks in all.

David and I had already been discussing the possibility of increasing the size of our laying duck flock (we currently have 10 layers and 2 drakes), as duck eggs are becoming more and more popular around here. So after Scott's call, we debated only briefly before calling him back and accepting his generous offer. Although Scott had said there were a number of drakes in the flock, still we figured we would be at least doubling the number of our laying ducks. Also, the thought of bypassing the 5-month process of brooding and raising baby ducks before starting to collect eggs had an obvious appeal for us.

So, this past Tuesday, we folded down the back seats in our Subaru wagon, lined the whole back area with a heavy tarp and a thick layer of straw, and headed down to Nash's Delta Farm to catch us some ducks.

We were so thankful for the dry weather that day (although it was cold and very windy there), because the yard the ducks were in was all down to mud. Ducks move quite quickly, and these were all smallish ducks and good flyers as well. We moved the fence around to create a small corner, on the theory that we would drive a few ducks at a time into the corner, close it off, and grab the ducks.

Khaki Campbell and Indian Runner ducks

It worked reasonably well. One thing about ducks, they like to do everything as a group. And these particular ducks were very nervous, understandable since we were obviously strangers to them. Ducks in general truly hate to be handled, so we were pleasantly surprised at how calm these ducks were once we had actually picked them up.

It took nearly an hour and a half to catch them all, but we got them one at a time and put them through one of the back-seat windows into the car. And although it turned out that there were 40 ducks in all, they seemed to have plenty of room back there.

Our new ducks in the back of our Subaru wagon.

When we finally got on the road for the 25-minute drive back home, the ducks were understandably a little bit anxious, and they were naturally all quacking at once. All things considered, though, they were fairly calm during the drive. We knew that ducks like to be talked to (and even sung to), and we wanted them to get used to the sound of our voices, so we kept talking. At one point, David said, "Hey, anybody want to stop for ice cream?" A few ducks quacked. David tried again. "How about tacos?" This suggestion also generated some unenthusiastic quacking. To my offer of fried chicken there was no response at all. Finally, David called out, "Who wants some SLUGS?" Suddenly a loud chorus of excited quacking erupted from the back of the car. We just about fell off our seats laughing.

Once we got home, it was nearly dark, and the process of getting the ducks out of the car and into their new coop was quick and easy. We simply set up a ramp at the back of the car, lifted the back door, and once they figured out that the door was open, they all piled out at once. After a bedtime snack and a sip of water, the ducks headed into their straw-lined coop for the night.

We've had our new ducks for 2-1/2 days now, and they are settling in well and noticeably less nervous around us. We expect that by sometime in January, we will be starting to collect eggs, which is good news for the Alder Wood Bistro, the Red Rooster Grocery, and Nash's Farm Store.The Bistro has been buying our duck eggs for over 3 years now, and whatever extra duck eggs we have will be sold at the Red Rooster and Nash's.

It was quite an experience getting 40 ducks into our car and taking them for a ride, but it was well worth the effort. It occurred to us that if we had been traveling on a different highway, we could have used the HOV lane. And not once did we have to say, "Don't make me stop this car!"

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Pot Pies and Egg Money turns 50!

Okay, okay, not really. But this is the 50th post on the Pot Pies and Egg Money blog, so who needs an excuse to celebrate? I thought about listing 50 ways to cook a heritage turkey (my related post of November 2010 is still getting lots of hits), or maybe 50 reasons why mechanical pluckers are preferable when slaughtering turkeys outside in late November when it's snowing and 20 degrees (although I think I just mentioned the only reason that really matters), or even 50 reasons why Tamworth pigs are nicer than bobcats (but that has a little of that apples-and-oranges thing going on).

Tell you what: Suppose I list 50 things I like about writing this blog? Okay, imagine that I came up with 50. Now I'm going to pretend I'm writing a killer query letter and pare it down to what you, the reader, really needs to know.

First, I love to write and am feeling quite cock-a-hoop with myself over the progress I've made on Pot Pies and Egg Money (the book, you know) recently. I know I'm dating myself by using phrases like "cock-a-hoop", but my husband doesn't like it when I date anyone other than him, so I'll stop now.

I lied. About stopping, I mean. The second thing I love about this blog is, frankly, YOU. I am so gratified to look at the statistics every week and see how many countries have at least one of you reading my blog. Last time I checked, that list had grown to over 30 countries! Amazing, this worldwide web thing, isn't it? I appreciate your comments and questions and wish you'd post more of them. And while you're at it, why not sign up as a follower or subscribe? That way you won't have to lose any more sleep wondering if you missed my latest post.

Thanks to all of you for faithfully following my blog over this past year. Keep in touch, and I'll keep you posted (no pun intended) about the progress of my book.

Right now, though, I think I'll start chilling the champagne. I feel like celebrating!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Tamworth pigs are growing fast

The three Tamworth pigs we brought home about a month ago are doing great and seem to be growing almost before our eyes. David insists that when he feeds them late in the day, they look bigger than they did in the morning. Not to sound like a sentimental parent or anything, but is there anything more adorable than baby pigs? OK, maybe baby ducks...

As usual with Tamworths, they are plowing up their current paddock quite happily and efficiently, so we will be moving them to an adjacent paddock in the next couple of days. We've finally started to get some summer weather (80s for daytime high predicted all week), so we're going to keep re-seeding the pastures until the first fall frosts discourage such behavior.

Our average first frost is around mid-October, although we were surprised one year by a night in the 20s in September. Everyone says we're in for a hard winter, and I hear rumors of another La Nina season. Now that it's been over five years since we moved to the farm, maybe I should start learning something about the weather! I guess I assumed that El Nino and La Nina more or less alternated, but if predictions pan out, this would be two La Nina winters back to back.

What are you doing to prepare for winter? I've had a lot of questions lately about heating and/or insulating chicken coops. Do you do either of these before the cold weather sets in? I'd love to hear your comments and ideas.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Speaking of eggs, a Nankin hatched 10 (ten!) yesterday

New mama Nankin keeping her ten chicks warm. If you look closely, 
you can see the legs and feet of some of the chicks under the hen.

Well, it's happened again: A Nankin bantam hen came marching out of some bushes near the house this morning with ten tiny chicks. We're not really surprised. In the three years we've had Nankins here, usually two or three batches of chicks show up this way. The hens just like to lay their eggs outdoors sometimes, although most of them regularly lay their eggs in the nest boxes. 

As far as I can remember, this is the largest single brood I've seen a Nankin hatch. The Nankins are a very interesting breed, and according to the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, they are critically endangered. (We are actually part of a small group of U.S. Nankin breeders. In 2010, the Oregon Zoo in Portland, OR bought some Nankins from us for their wonderful Family Farm.)  Nankins are one of only a handful of chickens that are "true bantams;" unlike most bantams, the Nankin is not a miniature version of a large breed. 

One of the main reasons we were interested in Nankins is their reputation for being extremely broody. Historically, Nankins were used by gamekeepers on large estates to hatch the eggs of game birds such as quail and pheasant. Two years ago, one of our relatively tiny (and quite determined) Nankin hens even incubated and hatched four Midget White turkey eggs.

Nankins are small birds; adults are usually between 16 and 24 ounces. They're about the size of a smallish pigeon. Their eggs are naturally on the petite side, but quite delicious. One of my sisters actually prefers the banty eggs because she's not terribly fond of egg white, and the Nankin eggs have proportionately more yolk than regular chicken eggs. We don't normally sell our banty eggs, and sometimes we use them to make deviled eggs; they're yummy, bite-sized, and terribly cute.

Anyway, here we go again. I wouldn't be surprised if another Nankin hen shows up with chicks soon. We have quite a few of them, and we don't do head counts when we tuck them in for the night. You might wonder what we do with them, if we don't sell the eggs. Well, frankly we just love them. They're adorable, the roosters hardly ever fight with each other, and there's that broody thing. 

We got our first Nankins round about the time we started selling our eggs, so the big picture of our farm life was still evolving. Still is, for that matter. And now the big picture has ten more chicks in it.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Three more Tamworth piglets on the farm

Three 9-week-old Tamworth pigs, on their first day at our farm.

On August 12, I brought home our latest batch of Tamworth pigs, three this time. If you've been keeping track, this is our fourth batch of pigs, all of them Tamworths. While I was away on the 6-hour (RT) drive to Toledo, WA to get them, David was setting up the electric fence and moving the A-frame Piglet Palace. The yard he fenced off was quite large, with a good mix of shorter and taller grasses and clover. 

Right out of the gate, the piglets raced around, clearly thrilled by their grassy surroundings. In fact, although we had a trough with a lovely organic hog mash all ready for them, they ignored it for quite some time, being apparently more interested in the green stuff. They were probably around 30 pounds or so when we got them, and when they went into the taller grass they nearly disappeared from sight. Evidently they were having a good time, though. We got a couple of drinks and sat there for a while watching them; great fun, I'm telling you.

Two little Tamworths, ignoring the yummy organic hog mash in their 
trough. At least we don't have to bribe them to eat their vegetables.

 The piglets have grown noticeably in the five days we've had them. Just today, one of them decided to free-range, so we spent a while getting him back in the yard (OK, we did this several times) and troubleshooting the electric fence. Clearly the little dickens wasn't respecting the fence. When we were finished, though, we were rewarded with the telltale yelp when his snout touched the rope. Pigs are smart, and they learn pretty fast to stay away from that hot rope. They're also speedy runners, and I hope we don't have to do the piglet roundup again anytime soon.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Cracking the code of egg carton labels, Part 2

This time I just want to talk about one egg carton label and what it means: "Vegetarian Diet." According to the Humane Society, "vegetarian diet," in the egg industry, means "These birds' feed does not contain animal byproducts, but this label does not have significant relevance to the animals' living conditions."

OK, let's set aside for the moment the reference to living conditions (which is vague in the extreme). What strikes me about "vegetarian diet" is that the marketers are counting on the average consumer to be unaware that chickens are actually omnivorous. We see our birds foraging all day long, eating all manner of worms, bugs, and grubs; they go fairly nuts during the summer when, for about a week, the carpenter ants are flying. It's quite entertaining to watch the birds run around, leaping into the air to snatch the large and apparently delectable ants.

We've even seen the chickens catch small frogs, lizards, mice, and (believe it or not) snakes. The first time I saw a hen with a snake I wouldn't have believed it. From across the yard, the hen was racing around, with 10 or so hens in hot pursuit. I could see the lead hen had something hanging from her beak but I couldn't see what it was, so I went to see what was going on. She had a garter snake, and about 16" of the snake was visible. With an impressive finishing kick, the hen got far enough ahead of the other birds and stopped abruptly. Tilting her head back in a whiplash-like motion, she swallowed the snake in one go. I swear I'm not making this up. I remember thinking, I wonder if the snake was dead when the hen swallowed it?

Anyway, the point is, if a laying hen is eating a "vegetarian diet," by definition she is not foraging any of her food. True, I think it's great if the hens' feed doesn't contain any animal byproducts; I just happen to also believe that hens are happier, healthier, and lay better-tasting and healthier eggs when they have access to the naturally-balanced range of foods they thrive on.

I was planning two posts regarding egg carton labels, but I will be doing at least one more, as I have been getting a lot of questions about this lately. Please post your comments and questions too; the label definitions and parameters periodically change, and I'll do what I can to help clarify them.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Cracking the code of egg carton labels, Part 1

I don't know about you, but before we got our egg dealer's license several years ago, I was frankly baffled by the various terminology of egg carton labeling. Although some of these labels are periodically re-defined , some things remain consistent; for example, egg sizes. What's so confusing about Large and Extra Large? Well, nothing, once you know what it means.

Egg sizes are determined by weight. The standard Large egg is 2 ounces. However, the difference between one egg size and the next is 1/4 ounce; thus, a Large egg is actually anywhere from 2 to 2-1/4 ounces, an Extra Large egg is between 2-1/4 and 2-1/2 ounces, and so on. Sometimes, because of the varying shapes of eggs, one egg might appear to be larger than another, when they are both the same weight. So when we are sorting our eggs by size, we weigh each egg to determine the size.

By the way, you cooks and bakers out there probably already know that most recipes calling for eggs specify the Large size egg. Now that you know a Large egg is 2 ounces, you'll know what to do when you want to use different size eggs: Measure the eggs by weight until you have the equivalent weight of the eggs called for in the recipe.

OK, on to egg grades. I had not the slightest idea what this meant. Simply, it is an indication of freshness, Grade AA being the freshest. How is this measured? It is determined by the size of the air space at the wide end of the egg; this is easiest to see when candling (shining a bright light through the wide end of the egg). Why? Because the egg shell is porous, and over time the contents gradually evaporate. So, the smaller the air space, the fresher the egg.

With commercial eggs, the catch is that this standard of freshness is applied when the eggs leave the place of production, not when they arrive at your grocery store. You can't tell just by looking at the eggs, right?

Let's go over one more label term this time: Free range. This term is unfortunately not as clear, definition-wise, as it might appear. Technically, for eggs to be labeled "free range," the hens must be allowed "access to the outdoors." What does that mean? (My husband David suggested that the hens are watching the Nature Channel while pumping out eggs.) In reality, it means very little. A commercial operation can comply with this requirement by simply installing one or two very small doors somewhere on an outside wall of their 20,000-hen facility, and making sure the door is open at least part of the day. Honestly, now, how many of those hens, in a place that huge, ever have a chance of even seeing the door? And even if they do go outside, who's to say there is grass out there?

The main problem with the term "free range" is that you can't know for sure. Your eggs might have come from birds who spent part of their day outdoors, but you simply have no way of knowing. It seems to me that without tighter definitions and oversight, "free range" isn't much more than an effective marketing tool. You'd expect to pay more for "free range" eggs, right? But what are you paying for?

Once again, it comes down to this: If you don't raise your own chickens, the best way to know that you're getting truly fresh eggs, from birds that have been treated humanely, is to visit the farm where the eggs are produced. Observe the operation. Talk to the farmer. You'll not only return home with eggs you can believe in, you'll establish a relationship that benefits you, the farmer, and your whole community.

In Part 2, I will talk about a few more egg carton labels, including one of my personal favorites (in a dubious sort of way): Vegetarian diet. Stay tuned, and please post your comments and questions.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Egg production slowing down; could the hens be molting already?

Well, this is interesting. We've noticed a slow but steady decrease in our chicken egg production recently. True, we did lose four young hens to bobcats earlier in July, but we don't believe this alone accounts for the slowdown. We've also had several hens who seem fairly persistently broody, and as you may know, when a hen goes broody she temporarily stops laying. We keep taking the hens off the nests, and don't let eggs pile up under them, hoping to get them out of mother-hen mode. I always feel a little guilty when I take eggs away from a broody hen; the poor things just want to hatch some babies. Then there's that pathetic sort of whimpering noise they make, which doesn't help a bit.

Still, our guess at this point as to why the chickens aren't laying quite up to par (the ducks are still laying quite well -- we get 8-10 eggs per day from our 10 laying ducks) is they may be going through an early molt. Certainly a number of chickens, as well as the adult turkeys, look as if they're molting. Generally our experience has been that the birds molt in mid- to late fall, say October or early November. I wonder if it has anything to do with the unusually cold, wet spring and summer we've had this year?

Those of you with chickens, what is your hens' egg production like this summer? Generally the longer days of late spring and early summer mean the highest production rate, although unusually hot weather can cause hens to slow down or stop laying briefly. I remember the egg laying dropped significantly last fall, following a series of bobcat attacks; stress can certainly be a factor. Anyone else notice signs of early molting?

Frankly, I hope we're wrong about the molt. We don't want our egg supply to drop too low during the summer; this is the busy season for the Alder Wood Bistro, and they buy nearly all our eggs. Our teenagers (the 10-week-old New Hampshire pullets) won't start laying till probably early November, so we'll just hope for the best. Thank goodness the ducks are still going strong.

Speaking of eggs, I have been getting more questions lately about what all the labels on egg cartons actually mean. In my next post, I will try to define these terms for you and clarify some (to me) confusing points.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Breaking news: Writer surfaces after a month away from her blog

...and the blogosphere breathes a collective sigh of relief. Seriously, though, I feel like it's been more like a year. This was not a planned sabbatical or vacation or even garden-variety procrastination. Actually, I cut my hand badly several weeks ago, and it is more or less immobilized in a bulky, truly uncomfortable splint. I'm supposed to keep it on at all times except to shower, until the end of the month; then I re-visit the orthopedist to find out whether the darn thing will require surgery.

By the  way, this happened 8 days before David was scheduled to be out of town for a week. I had been looking forward to a week to myself on the farm, knocking out query letters and other writing tasks in between bobcat patrol and collecting eggs. Several generous and kind family members spent part of the week up here, helping me out with things best done with two hands.

The good news is that I cut my left hand and I am right-handed; on the other hand (sorry), for the moment I can only type one-handed. The embarrassing thing is that I seem to type almost as fast with one hand as I used to do with two hands. This is frustrating, as I have recently been working hard on improving my typing speed. Oh, well! At least I am already in the habit of writing my drafts longhand. And now that David is back and handling most of the chores, I am throwing myself into my writing with a burst of pent-up energy.

Anyway, let's see, what else is new around here? It has been an unusual July weather-wise. Generally here in the Rain Shadow, July and August can be relied upon to be warm (sometimes hot) and dry. For the past 3 years we've had a week or so of 90-degree-plus temperatures in July; this year, we've had 2 (yes, TWO) days where it panted and groaned its way to around 80. We have had a few other mostly sunny days, but more days like today: cool, foggy, with rain showers at times. While it's allowing me to spend less time watering in the garden, it's not doing much for my beans and tomatoes.

I identified a new (to me) bird a few days ago, a Northern Goshawk. (Unfortunately, I observed it in the act of killing one of our 8-week-old New Hampshire chicks.) This brings to 64 the number of wild bird species we've identified on our property. With all the second-growth woods around us, and our two large ponds that attract lots of migratory waterfowl and other birds, it's like living in our own private nature preserve.

Thanks for hanging in there these past few weeks while I've been offline. I'm back now, and if not better than ever, at least I'm a more careful typist. Hope you all are having a great weekend!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Following up on the Mother Earth News Fair

Ebony and ivory: Dark Cornish hen, surrogate mom to a White Midget turkey.

If you missed the Mother Earth News Fair in Puyallup last weekend, I sure hope you have a good excuse! Seriously, though, what an amazing event to enjoy and participate in. Thanks so much to all of you who came to hear my presentation on raising turkeys; this was a new experience for me, and you helped make it a surprisingly easy debut. I appreciate your kind feedback, as well as your questions. I had a lot of fun and learned some things myself.

I'd also like, once again, to thank Mother Earth News, the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, Storey Publishing and all the other sponsors of the Fair. You all put on a terrific event, and I truly feel privileged to have been part of it.

Speaking of questions, I realized after I left the Fair on Sunday that I had failed to answer a question from a gentleman who attended my talk that day. He asked two questions, and I'm pretty sure I only answered the first one (blush). The question was, do we have to round up the turkeys or herd them into their roost area at night? In general, we don't; like most of the other birds, once it's starting to get dark, they all head for their respective coops and roosts. The only real exceptions are  1) when we're trying to close them up early because we're going out that evening; and 2) when the birds are young or are being moved from one coop to another, it usually takes a few days for everyone to get used to the new location. However, although they will all put themselves to bed if we just wait long enough, our oldest White Midget tom always hangs back for a while; he really likes one of us to walk him down to the roost. The ducks also tend to wait around for us to walk them in. The chickens are all very good about going to roost; they're usually in a good hour before it gets dark, and all we have to do is close the coop doors.

Several of you asked me about buying hatching eggs or young Midget White turks from us. As three of our four breeding hens were killed this spring, for this season anyway, we won't have any eggs or turks to sell. If you'd like to be on the list for when eggs or young birds are available, feel free to contact me and let me know.

We managed to rescue some partially-incubated eggs from one of the turkey hens that was killed, and put them under a broody Dark Cornish hen. She hatched four turks, but unfortunately three of them didn't make it. Our one remaining baby is about four weeks old now and growing really well (see photo above); we're pretty sure it is a female, which is good news. 

If you're interested in raising turkeys, but need more information, a good resource is the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. They have very good materials available from their web site, and can also be contacted by telephone or e-mail with your questions.

For detailed information about the different turkey breeds, you can't do much better than get a copy of Carol Ekarius' book, "Storey's Illustrated Guide to Poultry Breeds." It is a beautiful book with amazing color photos, as well as excellent information on many kinds of poultry. In my opinion, this is a book that should be on every poultry enthusiast's bookshelf, and well worth reading. I was fortunate enough to meet Carol at the Fair, as well as several people from Storey Publishing, and I encourage you to check out Storey's complete booklist; they offer an impressive selection of titles covering just about any sustainable-living topic you can think of.

Again, if you couldn't make it to the Mother Earth News Fair last weekend, please do try to attend one of the two additional fairs later this year. Check the Mother Earth News web site for more information.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

There's still time (a little) to come to the Mother Earth News Fair today

OK, people, listen up: It's a beautiful day, and you need to spend at least part of it at the Mother Earth News Fair at the Puyallup Fairgrounds. (See the Mother Earth News Fair web site for more information, directions, etc.) It is amazing! Several hundred exhibits, including animals, solar panels, grain grinders, book publishers, food vendors, lots of different stages with speakers covering a range of sustainable-living topics, even a stage and activities for kids.

I had a great time yesterday, talking about raising turkeys. What a wonderful audience; if you were there, thank you so much for coming! It was actually a new experience for me, and I truly enjoyed sharing our experiences and answering your questions. I've already met quite a few terrific people, including authors Carol Ekarius and Ann Larkin Hansen, and watercolor artist Carolyn Guske and her husband. This weekend is going by much too quickly!

I will be doing a reprise of my presentation, "Turkeys aren't Chickens: The basics of raising turkeys," today at 4:00 PM, on the ALBC stage in the Centennial Building. I'd like to thank the folks at Mother Earth News, the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, and sponsors such as Storey Publishing for this incredible opportunity; I'm loving every minute of it.

We're all more interested these days in finding ways to live better while consuming fewer of our own resources, as well as those of the world at large. The Mother Earth News Fair is simply overflowing with exhibits, classes, fun activities, gifts and all kinds of educational materials designed to streamline our efforts to improve our lives and environment. Come on down, and bring the whole family; it's only about a 45-minute drive from Seattle. Trust me, you'll be glad you did.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Turkeys aren't chickens: Presentation on raising turkeys coming up

 Midget White hen with newly-hatched turks.

This weekend, I'm farm-sitting for my sister in Poulsbo, about an hour's drive from our place. While the change of scene (and routine) is oddly vacation-like, it's definitely a working weekend: I'm making final preparations for a 45-minute presentation on raising turkeys.

Mark your calendars: The Mother Earth News Fair is June 4-5, at the Puyallup Fairgrounds south of Seattle. I will be speaking at the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy's stage on both days of the Fair. If you live around here, or will be in the area that weekend, please try to come. The list of presenters, speakers and exhibitors is truly impressive; check the Mother Earth News web site for topics, schedules and maps.

My presentation will be an overview of raising turkeys, starting with basic questions. For example, I think it's important to ask yourself why you want to raise them. (You'd be surprised how few people think about this before they bring the cute little day-olds home.) If you think you're going to save money on your holiday bird by raising one yourself, frankly, you probably won't. Turkeys also have different nutritional needs than chickens; they are bigger birds, so housing can be an issue; should they be kept in pens or is it best to free-range? How much time and money, realistically, do you have to put into raising turkeys?

These are just a few of the questions that I will be addressing at the Fair. Some we thought of before we got our first turkeys, others we learned through experience that we should have asked questions sooner.

We love our turkeys, and truly enjoy their often quirky behavior and mannerisms. If you're even a little bit interested in raising turkeys, I'd love to see you at the Mother Earth News Fair. It promises to be a weekend of learning opportunities for anyone seeking ways to live more sustainably. Do plan to come if you can!

Monday, April 25, 2011

Pot Pies and Egg Money Premise #4: Have some fun!

In case you were wondering, these PPEM Premises are not being shared in any particular order. From our point of view, they are all of equal importance, since as a group, they summarize our perspective on both farming and life (not that you can separate the two). I'm generally just writing about whatever happens to come to my mind at blog update time.

So, back to Premise #4. It's quite simple, actually: Have fun! Yes, that's right, HAVE FUN. The underlying goal of all that we are doing here is to create a life, and a farm system, that are sustainable, after all. And frankly, if it's not fun at least some of the time, who would want to keep doing it? If your initial reaction to this is to ask why one should have to consciously plan to have fun, read back over some of my earlier posts. It's not just that we're busy; who isn't these days? Our experience has been that it is too easy to get in a rut of just getting through today and hoping for some rest before getting up again at first light tomorrow. So we make a point of finding ways to bring some fun to the party.

Having fun isn't confined to off-work hours.The first year we had chickens, for example, we started a tradition of Happy Hour with the Chickens. During that summer, we had a couple of lawn chairs in the chicken yard, and we would take drinks and some kind of treat for the birds and sit down there among them for awhile before we tucked them in for the night. It was lovely to relax for an hour or so and enjoy the Chicken Channel. Some of the bolder birds would jump up on our laps, depending on how yummy they judged that day's treats. They seem to be partial to things like organic ginger snaps.

It also makes a difference, to me at least, to vary details of the routine chores. Even reversing the order in which I make the rounds to pick up eggs seems to make it more fun. I have no idea why, but who cares? And it's not as if these chores ever feel particularly tedious anyway; between indoor and outdoor tasks, I find I get plenty of variety on any given day, provided I put some effort into planning my schedule.

Of course, there are plenty of ways to have fun outside the work day. It's good to have non-farm-related hobbies and interests, and getting involved in your community usually offers many choices for you social butterflies. We like to watch movies, and we eat out fairly often at the Alder Wood Bistro, among other diversions.

I could go on (and as you know, I usually do), but I will leave it there, in the hope that you will use your imagination and start thinking up your own ways to regularly add fun to your life. What could be more fun than going to bed each night actually looking forward to getting up the next day and doing it all again?

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Finally, turkey eggs are being incubated; hooray for surrogate moms!

Cochin banty hen with 1-day-old Midget White turk.

This year, for some reason our Midget White turkeys started laying eggs about a month later than usual, around mid-March. After losing two of our four breeding hens recently, we have been keeping close tabs on the surviving two and collecting their eggs. At this point, we have three broody chickens sitting on turkey eggs, and we just put one of the turkey hens on a clutch. We're still getting an egg almost every day from the remaining turkey hen, so we will save them up for a few days and then put her in a turkey brooder with her own clutch.

One of the many things we've learned in the course of breeding birds is that hatching eggs are dormant for about 6 days. This allows the hen to accumulate a clutch of eggs (since she doesn't lay more than one egg per day) before the actual incubation begins. Without this period of dormancy, the eggs would all hatch on different days. Our Midget White hens typically incubate between 12 and 18 eggs at a time, so obviously having them all hatch more or less on the same day is a good thing! There are sometimes late arrivals among the hatchlings, which may get left behind if the hen and other babies have already left the nest.

Cochin banty hen with Midget White turks.

One of our broody hens is a Cochin banty. The poor thing, all she wants to do in life is incubate eggs and raise babies. Because of her banty-esque size, she can only comfortably incubate 4 or 5 turkey eggs at a time, but I feel sorry for her when she's this broody, so I have her sitting on 4 of them. She successfully hatched and raised baby turks last year, too (see photo above).

Of course, in years when we've had more Midget White hens than we do right now, they have done a great job. They readily go broody, lay and incubate plenty of eggs, and are attentive and protective mothers.

 Midget White hen with some of her brood. 

Speaking of surrogate mothers, we have discovered that one of the hazards of letting all the birds free-range is that they sometimes lay eggs in some other bird's nest. Usually, when a hen is incubating a clutch of eggs, she hops off the nest for a few minutes every day, at least long enough to eat and drink something. (They also like to poop away from the nest.) Last year a Blue Swedish duck hatched 2 chicks; this was a little tricky because she was also incubating duck eggs, which incubate for 28 days (chicken eggs incubate for only 21). Fortunately, there was a broody hen available who happily adopted the orphans. Naturally, we called them Donald and Daisy.

Then there was the time when a Midget White turkey hatched and raised a chicken...
Midget White turkey with Barred Rock pullet she hatched and raised.

It's not always easy managing all these birds during breeding season, but we're learning every year and getting better at it. It's nice to know that so many of the hens don't mind sharing the mothering duties; it makes our lives easier, and sure makes for some interesting photos!

Monday, April 11, 2011

Pot Pies and Egg Money Premise #3: Challenge the "get big or get out" myth

I was asked recently if it's possible to actually make any money raising poultry. My somewhat facetious response was that we'd find out after my book about heritage poultry is published.

Seriously, though, the query did get me thinking at a deeper level about what it is that we're doing here. Are we trying to make a living or make a life? Be more self-sufficient or more involved in our community? Indulge a hobby or create a lifestyle that reflects our values, our spirituality, our world view, even our politics? I am quickly coming to the intriguing conclusion that to one degree or another, it's all of these things.

Those of you who know me are aware of my love for the "what if" questions. Here's one to consider: What if the "get big or get out" idea of farming is simply wrong?

"Small" farmers, you know what I'm talking about. Supposedly wiser minds than ours want us to believe that short of buying up more and more acreage to raise the same crop (read "commodity") year after year, it's just not possible to make a living in today's farming world; hence, "get big or get out". Never mind the costs: the depletion of soil elements critical to its long-term health; the need for more and more chemicals over time; the financial stress of increasing debt and uncertainty. Funny thing, the marketing gurus behind such ideas don't mention the costs; perhaps they aren't aware of them, or maybe they just don't care. After all, they're in marketing, not farming.

Here's another question: Should we believe that "get big or get out" are really the only choices? To me, this mantra implies that at the end of the day, what's important is the profit margin. In other words, the bottom line is business. I think it's time to consider the possibility that growing or producing something to sell is actually not the only way to define sustainable farming. Granted, by definition, farming can't be "sustainable" if the farm habitually loses money. But there's more than one way to "make" money. For example, suppose that instead of earning more money by selling more crops, we save more money by growing more of our own food?

My mother once said to me that there is a unique sense of empowerment in providing even a small proportion of your own food. It seems to me that the trend of "eating local", coinciding as it has with our national economic downturn, is a perfect opportunity (and should be the motivation) for us all to do just that. It doesn't get much more local than growing your own. Also, considering that most of our food is transported quite some distance to get to us (see "Pot Pies and Egg Money Premise #2"), it's clear that saving significantly on our food costs is a real possibility. And of course, we benefit from the freshness, great taste and nutrition of food grown seasonally in our gardens.

I guess what I'm suggesting is that we all take a thoughtful look at our lifestyles, the things that we value, our true priorities. Suppose we pass on to our children the joy and deep satisfaction of planting a seed, then nurturing and harvesting a crop? Suppose we re-define our financial lives by choosing to live debt-free? Suppose we start thinking in terms of the legacy of our choices, instead of just today's bottom line? Small farmers, backyard gardeners and city dwellers, take heart: Saving money and providing for yourself and your family are not just possible, they're great choices.

Think small; simplify. Buy local, sell local, grow your own. How's that for a legacy?

Friday, April 1, 2011

Two turkey hens lost to a cougar this week

Just a brief digression from my summary of the Premises of Pot Pies and Egg Money: This week we lost two of our four Midget White turkey hens to a cougar. The turkeys like to go a little ways out of the yard and lay their eggs in the thick stand of salal near the edge of the woods. For the past two years, they've always laid their eggs in one of two spots; this, along with their bright white coloring, made it easy to find them, and their eggs.

This year, things have changed. First, the hens have found three entirely new places to make their nests. We've finally located all of them, after literally hours of looking, but unfortunately in two cases, a cougar found the nests before we did. The pile of white feathers in the nest and the trail of more feathers leading to the edge of the canyon and down the steep slope make it clear what happened. (Although this is a smaller-sized turkey, even the hens are too large to be bothered by bobcats; even young cougars are much larger than bobcats.)

As distressing as it is to lose the hens, what added insult to injury was finding the remains of broken turkey eggs in the nests. We were hoping to find intact eggs that could be hatched under a broody hen . We've been keeping a close eye on the remaining hens, and collecting their eggs as quickly as possible. We've got only 7 so far. I'm going to set up one of the broody coops this afternoon and relocate a very broody chicken there to incubate the turkey eggs. The Midget White hens are very good broodies and mothers; however, since we only have two left, we want them to keep laying eggs for as long as possible (they quit laying once they go broody), so we'll use chickens to hatch the turkey eggs for now.

It's a bit disconcerting to think that an animal the size of a cougar (males can weigh up to 275 lbs) is coming so close during the day; the nests are all within less than 100 feet of the house. We've put up some temporary fencing in the area where the turkeys are nesting, and all has been quiet for the past couple of days. At this point, we're not even thinking about Thanksgiving; we're concerned about replenishing our breeding flock.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Pot Pies and Egg Money Premise #2: Shorten the food chain

We've all heard a lot in recent years about "eating locally"; that is, trying to be more aware of exactly where our food is coming from and choosing to buy locally-produced ingredients for our meals whenever possible. More and more restaurants, such as the Alder Wood Bistro here in Sequim, are getting behind this idea as well. More consumers are also realizing the benefits of buying locally-grown produce and meat, even visiting farms and buying directly from the producer.

What are these benefits? Well, obviously when you can buy directly from a farmer, the food is sure to be fresh. Also, locally-grown food, especially produce, is usually bought in season, which translates not only into better quality and flavor, but also lower prices: Produce bought out-of-season usually comes from another state or even another country, and you can be sure the cost of all that transportation is being passed on to you. In addition, if you've ever visited a local farm and bought directly from a farmer, you will have realized the difference it makes in the way you relate to what you eat. So much of our culture of eating involves relationships, and buying locally-produced food promotes beneficial relationships, not just with an individual producer, but with the community at large. Which brings up yet another benefit: keeping our money in the local economy.

What's happening here is we are shortening the food chain, the often lengthy and convoluted path food travels to become part of our next meal. Between the lines of the benefits outlined above are the less obvious costs, to us as consumers, and to our environment (and even our society) as well. A few statistics: On average, 7-10 calories of fossil fuel energy are used in the process of delivering 1 calorie of food energy to your plate. 20% of the total energy used in food production is consumed on the farm; the rest is spent processing the food and moving it around. (Growing organically uses about 1/3 less fossil fuel than growing conventionally, but that savings quickly disappears if compost is not produced either on-site or nearby.)

By contrast, buying even part of the food we eat can make a big difference in the true cost of feeding ourselves. For example, if you buy a holiday turkey from us, the food chain is very short: We grow the turkey and slaughter it, and you pick it up within a day or so of slaughter. It isn't even frozen. Some customers have come up to help on slaughtering days, adding another level to their participation in their personal food chain.

Restaurants like the Alder Wood Bistro, whose owners Gabriel and Jessica Schuenemann are also helping to set a new standard in our community. They are committed to sourcing locally as much as possible of the food they serve, which is great for small farms like ours. They buy organic eggs from us, which are delivered several times a week, so the chain, once again, is short: From farm to restaurant to consumer's plate, the eggs have traveled less than 8 miles. (By way of contrast, any given ingredient in a typical American meal has traveled an average of 1,500 miles by the time it shows up on your plate.)

Our farm is small. We don't have the room to sustainably produce more pork or poultry than we do now, since we are unwilling to compromise our standards of allowing the birds to range freely during the day. It has occurred to us lately that for a production level like ours, our relationship with the Alder Wood Bistro actually is a model for how small farms can be successful. So much of our national food production (and yes, even organic food production) is done on a huge scale, at a huge cost on a number of levels, many of which are kept out of sight. What if more small producers sought out relationships with local restaurants, or even small community grocery stores to help supply the growing number of consumers enthusiastically seeking to connect with these producers?

After all, for consumers to buy locally-produced food, someone has to sell it. Bypassing a number of links in the traditional American food chain by selling either directly to the consumer from the farm, or through a forward-thinking restaurant just down the hill, has become a crucial piece of the big picture for us. It's also an important part of the concept of Pot Pies and Egg Money.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Pot Pies and Egg Money Premise #1: Purebred animals are more sustainable

As the first draft of my book "Pot Pies and Egg Money: The rewards of living sustainably with heritage-breed poultry" is nearing completion, I thought it would be a good time to summarize the concept of it. I have realized, in the process of researching and writing, that Pot Pies and Egg Money is a genuine reflection of our values and the kind of lifestyle we choose and strive to achieve. In fact, unlike most current books about poultry, it is less a "how-to" than a "why-to" kind of book. Throughout the book I have endeavored to share the steps we have taken (and the reasons for our choices) in our progress toward a more sustainable way of life.

What does "sustainable" mean? I have lately been reading Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma" (Penguin Books, 2006), and I agree with his view that the term has in recent years been overused to the point where, for many people, it has little meaning. He also suggests that anything unsustainable "sooner or later must collapse". For us, so far at least, "sustainable" has the most relevance in regard to our animals.

As most of you know, we grow heritage-breed chickens, turkeys and ducks, along with a couple of pigs for part of the year. The chickens and ducks are mainly kept for eggs; we keep a small breeding group of turkeys and raise about 20 every year to slaughter. The pigs, while grown for meat, also provide a valuable service by plowing up previously unused fields and eating the roots, allowing us to re-seed with grasses and clovers to create better pasture. Choosing the breeds we raise involved a lot of research and a conscious decision to keep only purebreds, also known as "heritage" breeds. From all we've read and heard, as well as learned from our own experience, it is clear to us that purebred livestock is the choice when the aim is sustainability.

For example, you may remember from a previous post that the Broad-Breasted turkey (a commercial hybrid) cannot mate naturally; it must be artificially inseminated. (Incidentally, you wouldn't be able to buy turkeys year-round if this weren't the case; purebred turkeys normally lay eggs only 4 or 5 months of the year.) Cornish Cross chickens, the ubiquitous grocery-store bird, has been bred to reach an impressive broiler size in 7 weeks or less. Obviously, these chickens are being slaughtered long before the normal breeding age of around 18-22 weeks (depending on variety). However, their warp-speed growth comes at a high cost: leg problems and sudden death from cardiac arrest are not uncommon.

I have no problem with those who are trying to make money in the poultry business and have found that they must raise these fast-growing hybrids in order to stay afloat financially. After all, in a sense, no business is sustainable in the long run if it loses money. Also, we don't raise chickens for meat (although we do occasionally slaughter a few roosters when we have too many of them), so perhaps my view doesn't seem to carry much weight. What I've said in the previous paragraph, however, are known facts, not just my opinion. That said, I hope you don't hear any judgment there; I assure you I feel none.

Aside from reproductive issues, another reason we prefer purebreds is the variety of instinctive behaviors that contribute to the long-term health of the farm. For example, one of my criteria for choosing a chicken or turkey breed is foraging ability. All our birds free-range during the day, and we expect them to do some of the work of feeding themselves. (Statistics suggest that foraging can account for up to 30% of a chicken's daily feed, but the numbers give no data as to which breeds were sampled.) Our observation has been that the birds spend a few minutes eating grain first thing in the morning, then head off to happily scratch and peck until it's time to head back in at night. In the wintertime especially, we make sure they get a little extra grain before bedtime, as a little boost in carbohydrates helps keep them warm through the long, cold nights.

Our Midget White turkeys also are excellent foragers. I noticed the first year we had them that they did a great job of cleaning up the windfall apples near the house, which kept the deer from coming into the yard. The ducks love to dabble in the freshly-plowed fields after we move the pigs to another paddock; they break up the manure piles and eat the larvae of intestinal worms, thereby interrupting the cycle of  parasites and disease. The pigs have thankfully retained their instinctive rooting behavior; they not only find a good portion of their own food, the rooting is also a super-efficient way to rid the land of the roots of weeds and other unwanted plants. The chickens and turkeys then follow the ducks, picking out leftover weed seeds and worms. This progression, by the way, also closely imitates nature; for example, woodland birds break up bear manure, in the process spreading around seeds from the berries the bears eat in large quantities in the summer.

We are still learning a lot about how to fully utilize purebred livestock on our farm, but we have already seen a little of the value of diversifying, step by slow step. In the next few posts, I will go into more detail about the other facets of sustainable agriculture and how we are working toward our goals. This is all just a teaser, of course; Pot Pies and Egg Money will give you the rest of the story.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Ducks have started laying again, and a drake goes missing

Our wonderful Khaki Campbell and Blue Swedish ducks have started laying eggs again, after their usual mid-winter break. We've just been getting one egg a day, though, which makes me suspect that one or more of them are laying somewhere other than in their coops. (I guess we'll find out in a month or so, when a duck comes walking into the yard followed by a troop of ducklings.) Maybe this coming weekend's shift to Daylight Savings Time will make a difference? (Ha. As if you aren't all perfectly aware of my opinion about DST!)

As you probably remember, the Alder Wood Bistro loves our duck eggs, so they are happy to see them coming in. The higher viscosity of the egg white, compared with chicken eggs, makes duck eggs a good choice for recipes that call for separating and beating the whites, such as the Bistro's flourless brownie (Chocolate Bliss).

The other day, the ducks headed down the hill to the bog, one of our two large ponds. The ice that covers the bog for most of the winter (it's in a low area that gets little sun during the short winter days) had finally started melting, and a small part of the bog was clear. The ducks spent much of the afternoon happily splashing, dabbling, and fraternizing with the seasonal population of wild Mallards and Mergansers.

During their frolic on the bog, I heard a lot of noise coming from that direction, and it seemed to me that it was some kind of alarm or alert call. As we had seen bobcats twice just the day before, I grabbed a gun and headed down toward the bog. The ducks were indeed on high alert, but although I walked around for quite a while, I didn't see any trails of feathers  that would indicate a cat attack. I decided not to worry about it at the time.

That night, though, I noticed a duck was missing. (They had come up the hill again about an hour before dark.) They were just going into their coops when I saw this, and I didn't get a close enough look to see if it was a duck or a drake. Since the ducks had started laying, I thought it was slightly possible that they had a nest out in the bushes somewhere and had accumulated a clutch. This usually happens at least once a year, but generally more in the late spring and summer months. Anyway, keeping in mind the alarm calls of that afternoon, I thought it more likely that a duck had gotten snatched by a bobcat, or possibly an eagle.

The next morning I took a closer look at the ducks (who had stayed up in the yard rather than go to the bog), and saw that one of the Blue Swedish drakes was the missing one.The fact that the other ducks weren't inclined to go swim in the pond seems to confirm that it was a predator attack. Usually bobcats and cougars leave a trail of feathers behind as they retreat with a bird, but so far I haven't found the trail.

We love our ducks, and their eggs, and it's always upsetting to lose a bird. Fortunately we have lost very few ducks to predators, and it seems that the ducks are smart enough to stay away from the dangerous area now. We're thankful that they do come back to their coops at night, where we know they are safe from the nocturnal predators.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Pigs have food issues

We've all heard that feeding corn to beef cattle isn't good for them; large amounts of grain like corn causes acidosis. And although pretty much everyone agrees that corn-fed beef has superior taste, we've been conditioned to have a knee-jerk reaction that corn-fed meat in general is bad, grass-fed is good. However, this is not true of pork. Please bear with me as I step briefly onto my soap box to explain.

OK here it is, the big difference between pigs and cows: Cattle are ruminants, pigs are not. A cow's elaborate system of four stomachs (the word "ruminant" is derived from "rumen," the cow's first stomach) is designed to efficiently convert grasses and legumes into muscle. Pigs, on the other hand, not only love corn, they positively thrive on it. Our Tamworth pigs, being the champion rooters of the pig world, definitely love being on pasture or even in the woods, but we do also feed them organic, non-GMO grain, including corn. Usually they will eat a wet grain mash first thing in the morning, but after a few minutes of that they head off for a busy morning of rooting.

Like all our animals, we try to give the pigs as natural a life as possible, while balancing their needs and preferences with our desire to keep them safe and healthy. Pigs (especially Tamworths) love to root, so we provide them with plenty of pasture to plow up. Right now, their paddock extends into the edge of a wooded area as well, so they have quite a variety of interesting roots to divide their attention among.

From all we have learned, we believe that a balanced diet is the right thing for our pigs, and that includes a variety of grains, including corn. Actually, at this stage of their development, we have bumped up the proportion of corn so as to slightly lower their protein intake; the extra carbohydrate also helps keep them warm at night, as well as enhancing the quality of the finishing fat.

So, there you have it: Corn-fed pork is a good thing. They love it, and they are happy and healthy. If you're still skeptical, come see our pigs for yourself. Better yet, visit the Alder Wood Bistro in Sequim and ask for Tamworth pork!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Method #1 for roasted heritage Tamworth pork belly

First, I will get back to poultry-related subjects shortly; the past couple of weeks have been all about Tamworth pork. I've got a large cooler full of various cuts (shoulder, loin, leg, belly) curing here, and I'm helping Gabriel (chef at the Alder Wood Bistro) with the curing of prosciutto, pancetta, bacon, guanciale and Canadian bacon. I'm quite excited about this amazing pork, and now we are planning for a mid-winter barbecue here at the farm.

The other night, for the first time, I roasted a nice thick piece of skin-on pork belly. It was close to three inches thick, with a nice balance of fat to lean; the lean was a rich dark red. (The belly is the cut from which bacon is made.) As we do with all premium cuts of meat, I simply sprinkled it with a little Kosher salt and freshly-ground pepper. I let it sit at room temperature for about 30 minutes. Then into the oven at 400F, and I set the timer for 30 minutes. (Not having done this before I wasn't sure how long it would take, but I was aiming for an internal temperature of 150F.) I meant to roast it with the skin side up, but forgot until I checked the temperature after 30 minutes; then I turned it.

Altogether it took about 45 minutes to reach 150F. I let it rest in the pan for 5 or 10 minutes before we sliced it to serve. Two things I noticed that were a surprise to me: first, the skin seemed to dissolve into the fat just below the skin, and like the fat, literally melted in my mouth. Second, the fat on this pork did not seem greasy at all! I have heard that the diet of the pig directly affects the quality and taste of the fat, so I think we'll keep doing what we've done so far.

Roasted pork belly seems to be a "hot" menu item in restaurants these days, and I'd highly recommend that you try it when you have the chance. It's not always easy to find uncured pork belly that you can roast yourself, but you can try asking the butcher at your grocery store or co-op. It's worth the effort, in my opinion, to find really good-quality pork, though, which may not be available at your grocery store.

Have you tried roasted pork belly? If so, where did you have it? If you've bought and roasted your own, where did you get it and how did you cook it? I've heard of a slow-roasting method where the belly cooks for 5 hours or so, but I have yet to try that myself.

Gilts behaving badly

After a hard day of free-ranging, the Three 
Little Pigs snooze in the turkey roost area. 
(Photo by David B. Miller)

"It's like three of the most gorgeous [gilts] raising hell."
-Molly Shannon as Mary Catherine Gallagher in SNL's hilarious film Superstar

Oh, those pigs. Sigh. The Three Little Pigs (can I just say that they are NOT afraid of the Big Bad Wolf, so you needn't e-mail me), unlike our first four Tamworths, are determined to prove that their reputation as escape artists is well deserved. No matter how we adjust the two strands of electric rope, they continue to find new ways to get out. During their first week here, we actually saw them jump over the fence. Frankly, I never imagined pigs could jump; it was quite a sight, believe you me.

The Three Little Pigs are all gilts; that is, female pigs less than a year old. Why this batch are so different from the others we've had is a mystery to us. It's not as if they are hungry and just busting out looking for food. It's not that they are simply adventurous little things that want to see the world. We're rapidly coming to the conclusion that they are breaking out pretty much because they can. Apparently being pasture-raised isn't enough for some pigs; they want to literally free-range like all the birds do. At least they don't seem inclined to disappear into the woods, thank goodness.

I figured out the other day that they respond to a waving broom much more positively than to waving arms. For some reason it is relatively easy to herd them back into their yard with the broom (I did this by myself a few days ago, much to everyone's surprise). Not that I'm wasting time analyzing the whys and wherefores; it's good enough for me that I've found something that works. I'd much prefer to find a way to prevent them escaping in the first place, but what the heck, they're going to be slaughtered in a couple of months anyway.

Poor little pigs, they seem so happy when they're running free and turning over the birds' feeders and rooting up my garden. Gilts, you know, just want to have fun.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Tamworth pork: The other red meat?

We've been quite busy this past week or so dealing with several hundred pounds of wonderful Tamworth pork. The two pigs we had brought home last June at 7 weeks of age had grown steadily, happily rooting and grazing on pasture as well as enjoying top-quality organic grains. We knew they were bigger than the two Tams we had had slaughtered last year, but we were fairly astounded to learn that they were actually quite a lot larger than we expected.

Last Thursday, we met with Gabriel (chef at the Alder Wood Bistro in Sequim) and Sean (one of his cooks) to begin the process of butchering the hogs. The Bistro is closed every January, affording the crew there a much-needed and definitely well-deserved vacation. Although Gabriel was just buying one of the two pigs, he kindly allowed us to use his cooler to store both carcasses for a few days while we cut it up and made decisions about how to use it all. This was a huge help to us, and we're very grateful for the use of his kitchen space and his knowledgeable help in butchering the pigs.

As I mentioned, the pigs were much bigger than we'd expected. They had been broken down into the large primal cuts: Head, back leg (ham), front leg (shoulder), loin, and side (belly). When we heaved one of the 35-pound loins onto the work table, we weren't too surprised to see a good thick layer of beautiful back fat under the skin. Once the guys had taken out the tenderloin, which lies against the baby back ribs parallel to the spine, they began dividing the gorgeous loin into thick chops. I was so interested in this process (which I'd only been involved in once before, when we slaughtered our first two pigs last year) that it was a few minutes before I noticed something: not only was the meat much darker red than is usual with pork, the meat was beautifully marbled and, to my eye at least, looked more like beef than pork.

Gabriel and Sean worked away at boning and cutting up the pork for several hours. Later in the afternoon, everyone took a break and Gabriel cooked up some of the meat for us. He took some boneless pieces from three different cuts, seasoned them with a little truffle salt, and grilled them quickly. Sliced thinly and served with a mixed-greens salad, the pork was (as my visiting sister Lindy said) "a revelation." The appearance, texture and flavor was actually reminiscent of a good steak. I don't think I had ever had pork cooked this way, and it was truly delicious.

So there you go, folks. Tamworth pork is the new beef, at least while it lasts at the Alder Wood Bistro. If you're within a few hours' drive of Sequim, believe me, it's worth the trip to eat here. The Bistro is open Tuesday through Saturday, 11 AM till 3 PM for lunch, and 5 PM to 9 PM for dinner. Reservations are a good idea if you're coming for dinner; call (360) 683-4321.

By the way, if you get out here to the Bistro soon, they might still have some of the fantastic pates that Gabriel made using the Tamworth livers. Just sayin'.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Rooster talk: Predator alert or photo op?

The other day, David and I ran outside when we heard an aerial-predator-alarm call from our roosters. I don't know how to describe this exactly, but we've started to discern some subtle differences in this kind of alert. This time, our first reaction was that it must be a big bird coming in low overhead. Sure enough, we got outside just in time to see a pair of golden eagles cruising low overhead (the first one we saw wasn't much more than 50 feet up).

They were enormous, amazing, beautiful birds, and it was the first time we've seen golden eagles here, although we've had a lot of bald eagles around in the past year or so. Silly me, I had run outside without my video camera. David said to me later that for birders like us, the roosters' alarm calls can be helpful in letting us know not just that there's a potential predator in the vicinity, but that it might turn out to be a rare opportunity to see something like a golden eagle. (Golden eagles usually are higher up in the mountains than our place, which is at about 1000 feet.)

As I said, there seem to be some variations in the aerial-predator call. I'm going to try to get some recordings of these calls one of these days. In the meantime, I must remember to grab my camera next time I hear our helpful little roosters give the head's-up.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Slaughter v. Harvest

We have been asked recently why we continue to use the term "slaughter" in favor of the current trend toward using other terms such as "harvest" to describe the killing of farm animals raised for food. It's a somewhat tricky question, as we don't wish to offend anyone or seem to be passing judgment on their choice of terminology. I'll just say that there are definite reasons we choose to say "slaughter;" please hear me out and know that I respect your choice, whatever it may be.

First, the Merriam-Webster dictionary definitions. Harvest: (1) The act or process of gathering in a crop; (2) to gather, catch, hunt or kill (as salmon, oysters, or deer) for human use, sport, or population control. Slaughter: To kill (animals) for food.

Do you see the distinction? "Harvest," by the second definition, is clearly referring to wild animals, those "caught" or "hunted" as opposed to those specifically raised for food. Also, we feel that using "harvest" in the context of killing chickens or turkeys for food (vaguely grouping this process with "gathering in a crop") is frankly euphemistic.

Our position, then, is simply that we feel more comfortable using the term "slaughter." If you prefer to use "harvest," please do let me know; I am interested in your point of view and the reasons for your preference. I think it would be a good topic to have a discussion about.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Happy New Year! I am back....

Hi there! I hope you all enjoyed the holiday season. After being down with a nasty 'flu for a couple of weeks (during which I couldn't be bothered even to check my e-mail, never mind find the energy to write on this blog), I am back! I've got a lot to talk about, too, so look out for more posts than usual this month.

You might think that January is some kind of off-season for farmers, full of short days and long winter naps. The days are certainly short (although already noticeably longer), so we need to maximize our daylight-hour efforts. We've had some cold weather lately, with several days in a row last week where the daytime high temperature didn't even reach freezing. On those days we spend a lot of time just making sure the animals' drinkers are kept thawed. Luckily we haven't had much snow lately, as that adds another degree of difficulty to the daily chores.

We also are racing the clock to get firewood in every day. Some recent high-wind activity brought down some trees on our property, and my husband David has been keeping quite busy locating, cutting up, and hauling them out of the woods. It's nice when the trees come down right next to the road, but more often we end up having to haul the rounds out by wheelbarrow (sometimes a sled), so it can get to be time-consuming. The payoff, besides the extra exercise, is that our house stays nice and cozy even when the temperatures drop down into the teens or lower.

Today the big project is getting the pigs moved into new paddocks. Even the newest pigs (the Three Little Pigs) are big enough at 4 months old that they have reduced their current paddock to mud in a short time. It's helped that lately the ground has been, for the most part, frozen; it's easier to walk around in their yard without getting stuck. The downside is that the pigs can't do much rooting, which is pretty much their favorite thing to do. They also do better when they have the variety in their diet that pasture crops provide. Part of their new paddock will include access to a wooded area. I'm hoping they'll find some truffles....

Speaking of pasture crops, I've spent the better part of the last two days doing some intensive planning and research about various grains, grasses and legumes. Since it seems that we will be continuing to raise pigs, it's becoming necessary for us to develop a good plan for sustainable rotation of grazing pastures. It's a lot of work because I'm relatively new to this, but at the same time it's exciting; the "big picture" of the future of our farm is starting to take shape, on paper at least. It will be up to us to make it a reality, starting this winter.

The egg production is up dramatically over the past couple of weeks, and we should be easily able to keep up with the Alder Wood Bistro's needs when they re-open the first week of February (they close for vacation every year in January). Our two older pigs are scheduled to be slaughtered on January 21, and we will be teaching several people how to break down the pigs into chops and roasts. We will also be starting another round of curing prosciutto, pancetta, lardo, culatello, guanciale, and several kinds of sausage (all without nitrates, of course).

Other stuff coming up: Before long, I will be starting some seedlings in the greenhouse, a task that I look forward to every year. Recently I have been learning to hand-hew logs, and I have hewn a number of cedar logs, from which I will soon be building a grape arbor. There is split-rail fence to repair where a tree came down on it during a windstorm, and a drainage ditch culvert that needs attention. This is also the time of year when we realize the need to repair the half-mile of road between the house and the gate; in the low areas especially, holes seem to develop quickly with the fall rains.

So... plenty to do. Lots to look forward to and daydream about. I'm excited, aren't you? All the best to you in 2011.