Gathering together a new way of farming and eating

This weekend we hosted our second farm potluck of the year, this time in conjunction with Slow Foods of Yamhill County.  Unlike our earlier potluck this season, which was wide open to both farm members and market customers as well as our greater community of friends, this gathering brought in folks mostly from the Slow Foods mailing list along with members of Slow Foods and some of our farm members.   Many of the folks had farms of their owns, some were WWOOF-ers from another farm in town,and all of us were genuinely interested in not only eating and/or growing food locally, but in the greater implication of this act.

It occurred to me while talking with everyone that the new American small farmer can hardly help but also be a food and land activist as well.  While we not only attempt a different model of production from larger-scale agriculture through polyculture planting and direct marketing, we also attempt to take a somewhat man-centered activity–agriculture–and make it once again accountable to the rest of the ecosystem. This means many things, and covers a wide array of different approaches to raising crops and animals; but the common theme is that once again, farming feels as much like an act of stewardship as business.

a happy little frog hiding on a happy little pepper

And this is really the more important missing ingredient in modern ag today.  Large fields of monocuture grains aren’t going to dissapear and probably shouldn’t.  We buy grains for our animals and ourselves, and with the right approach, these fields could be providing just as much food without the chemical load and soil depletion that we commonly see.  And with even a wink and a nod toward the well being of animals, operations like Wright County Eggs wouldn’t be around to cause such huge food safety issues.

And one thing that has become clear to me this year, as more and more of our counties small farms add some portion of organic production to their retinue–a lot of this is demand driven.  The folks here at our farm this weekend are driven by conviction and belief, and this is a large percentage of where sustain-ably produced local food is going to come from; but many growers who have hitherto been fine growing more conventionally can see that the demand for less chemicals and more conservation is pushing them to make the decision to give this new model of growing a go.

And that is where all of us eaters come into the picture.  Our buying habits have more power than we can imagine.  Right now, there are not enough eggs being produced and sold at our farmer’s markets and directly from other small farms in the area–the demand is so high!  And yet, most of the time, if we can’t get eggs from a source such as this, we will still go to the store and buy them.  The egg industry can partly be the disaster it is today because we, as consumers, eat so many eggs.  This is a hard one even for us.  It is hard to see your way around consuming eggs year-round and as often as you would like when there is a such glut of eggs in production.

*nothing* compares to safe, healthy, delicious farm eggs

After we lost most of our laying flock to predators a few years ago, we had to go about a year without having our own eggs and we couldn’t always get them locally.  We would buy organic eggs from the store, raised in the Willamette Valley, but by bigger egg producers than could likely be considered sustainable.  When we got a small flock going again last year, we were happy to have just enough eggs for our family for a while.  Then this year we added enough to the flock to sell eggs again, but while we wait for them to start really producing (they are just now starting) and while we have an otherwise egg-laying strike going on with the older hens whom we moved mid-summer and disrupted somehow, we have not had enough eggs for ourselves again.  This year though, instead of buying eggs when we can’t get them at market, we are eating all sorts of non-breakfast breakfasts.  It has been a challenge for us all, in our minds mostly, getting over the egg thing; but it has been enlightening, and in light of the recent egg recall, it has felt especially important.

And all of this is just a roundabout reminder, to myself and others, to keep up the good fight we are all involved in, all at our own levels and in our own ways, of reshaping farming and food culture in this country, all with an eye towards a system that is more than just concerned with human activity and human desire.  Farming is at the same time so integrally connected with natural cycles and the natural world as it is so supremely anti-natural in what it attempts to do.  To bring these into balance is the goal of the new American farmer and should be the driving demand of the new American eater.  Together, small get togethers at small farms all over the country will be a much larger part of the picture than we ever could have imagined.


At market and in the farm kitchen this week

Pickings were slim this week at our market booth and a few others as the cool weather and gray days were again here more than gone.  We could hardly believe that there was so little growth from last week’s harvest to this week’s.  This happens in early spring, but the pace of growth usually continues to get faster and faster as we approach the summer solstice.  The longer days usually mean more sun and warmer temps, but not so this spring.  We have had funny (although really, not so funny) conversations with a few other farmers, commiserating over wet fields that can’t be tilled and spoiling crops and worries about the rest of the season.  There is some solace in this, knowing we are all in the same boat.  It’s wild that in every year of this farming adventure, the weather has provided such a hurdle in one way or another.  It is one of the constants of farm life, I suppose.

Still, the farmer keeps smiling; and as hard as it has been to have lower than average harvests (and thus, sales) at market this first month, the CSA harvests have been good.  And as much as I go back and forth these days, becoming irrationally worried that it really will never warm up this year…I am sure that it will (right?)!  Either way, we are happy that we plant diversely enough to squeak by even if we had a crazy year that just stayed cool.

Even this guy, who is ever so serious as you can see, isn’t too worried even though each week he struggles to find enough flowers to fill his bouquets and this year’s annual flower  seed plantings are no more than an inch high and only barley inching there way higher each week.

In the meantime, market shoppers, CSA members, and us alike are all eating well from the springtime bounty that the earth is providing.  Salad turnips, eaten peeled and whole by the children, or sliced and added to our salads, or in tasty recipes like this turnip slaw (minus the sweet pepper), are so good.  We also saute them a lot, simply by themselves as a side dish, or in a dish such as this, with chard..mmm.  The turnip greens are some of our favorites, too.  They end up in soups or curries, lending to dishes their small mustard tang and nutritious greens goodness.

Kohlrabis are one of those fun, unique vegetables that are such a joy to look at, and after peeling away all those knobs and the thick outer skin, make a mama’s life easy by being a fast snack to set on the table, tasty just to munch on as they are.  But since we end up with so many, we use them in many of the same ways we use salad turnips as well.  Grated and made into kolrabi slaws with turnips or alone, or used as you would cucumbers in the summer to make this yummy salad.  Someone just mentioned to us at market this week that when they lived in Germany, in the winter they always made that sweet, creamy cucumber salad we all love in the summer with turnips instead.  We are trying it with the kohlrabi this week!

Spring always means lots of parsley and green onions, thrown in many, many dishes, but especially any kind of cold vegetable or grain salad (our go to market day make ahead lunch standbys).

And of course, sweet, beautiful lettuces!  This we eat for the rest of the season, but it is always the best in the spring, after a winter without lettuces.  And, for Farmer’s market shoppers, it is always nice to be able to get good quality meat easily each and every week.

Spring, too, brings about the time when our family begins to harvest some of the years first meat chickens and some of last year’s baby goats, finished on freshly growing spring green growth.  And finally, after almost a whole year, the last half of our spring piglets from last year were processed as well.

We don’t eat a lot of meat, and we especially don’t in the winter unless our freezers are stocked from our farm or others sources we trust.  We round meals out with legumes a lot of times, but we also can’t eat wheat and dairy, and most other grains aren’t really very good for us either, so good meat is definitely a spring blessing for us.

And we have, of course, been enjoying those special treats of spring that we don’t yet have growing on our farm.  We picked up asparagus last week, roasted it and swooned.  And strawberries, twice a week, from each market, get brought home and devoured.  We planted both of these crops this year.  The strawberry planting looks good, the asparagus…questionable.  We will just have to wait and see next year.  This year, we are waiting, as well.  Waiting for summer to come, but enjoying what we have right now as well.

What do we farmers do in january?

I know, I know…it is important to keep this thing updated, even in the quiet of winter, so here is some of what we are up to at the farm.

*Starting the construction of our new chicken coop, the one that will find most of us (human, dog, cat, and pig) and farm members alike being again well nourished by copious amounts of eggs-yeah!! The new coop is being made from a nice wood privacy fence that was taken down in big pieces and then given to us. We have opted for a permanent home with access to four large pasture areas to rotate them through rather than a mobile home. With a small clutch, 40-50, we think this will still work to keep the birds on good pasture continually. This time around, the fencing will be predetor proof so we don’t see a repeat of this spring’s sad chicken wipe out.

*Working out the details of just what kind of hen’s will be coming home to take up residence in the new coop. The children can’t help but request the “punk rock” and “brain” chickens, both different Polish chicken breeds or all the other birds in the catalog that aren’t chickens, the quails and pheasants in all their beautiful variety. In the end, we compromised. The adults chose again the breeds we went with before, Rhode Island Reds, Barred Rocks, Buff Orpingtons, and Silver Laced Wyandottes, all breeds that are fair sized when mature, lay a good amount of eggs, know how to forage, and lay well in winter. We also know that the Orpingtons will brood, a trait we want some of our birds to have. For the kiddos, a few funny haired Polish and some Araucana/Americanas. Of all the chickens we had before, it was only the Araucana/Americanas that were blessed with names–Harry, Ron, and Hermione in turn since the oldest boy and I had just finished the Harry Potter books.

*Delivering the last remnants of all the free-roaming poutlry to the butcher. As much as we love the site of a few birds in the yard, they have repeatedly made landscaping and gardening in our huge sheet mulched garden by the house impossible, not to mention the constant annoyance of finding them on the porch or front yard play area sitting all day or roosting at night…birds tend to leave a lot of mess behind them! This included our wild mutt banty/barred rocks. They truly were great in so many ways. They had enough smarts to survive the predators of spring, they had babies, they never came to eat the grain the regular layers and meat birds relied on, and still layed eggs year round, right through the winter when they were mature. They also never stayed in any kind of fencing we tried, and in the end, this is why they had to go. The other birds to go were the lone duck we still had waddling around, and a lone goose that our friends gave us and who just recently went from calm, squawking duck pal to the meanest goose around. His hissing sounds, nose to the ground line drive towards you, and little beak bites were more intimidating than you would imagine. Andre thought it was quite amusing, but I was honestly afraid of that bird, not to mention the kidlets. He had them up in trees one day, afraid to come down–not good! I have vowed to never have geese here again; Andre is holding out to see how great the bird tastes come Easter. I am sure I won’t change my mind either way!

*And not everything has gone to the birds around here. We will be putting new-used plastic (some that our friends at Country Garden Nursery lost during the snow from their big hoop houses) back on our little greenhouse and starting seeds in the next couple weeks! Some lettuce babies that were started in cold frames are getting transplanted out, and some new things will then be sown in the ground in the cold-frames, probably radishes and swiss chard. All in all, the over-wintered veggies are looking good and slowly putting on growth. We have continued to harvest turnips/tunrip greens, cabbage, beets, brussel sprouts (ugly as can be from aphid damage this fall, but still tasty after peeling them down) and leeks, leeks, and more leeks for the family. We are letting the rest of the veggies in the fields put on growth, so our winter vegetable palatte is limited in ways, although we have a tad winter squash left and some dried and frozen tomatoes as well as saurkraut to round things out. Part of the excitment of the changing tides around here is that expectation of late winter/early spring harvesting that we will begin in March, not just for CSA members, but for us as well!

*And in non-farm goings on, we are spending the nights by the fire, playing games together or doing our own things. I love the winter for this down time at night, something we don’t have when days stretch out until 10:00 and the warmth comes from outside instead of inside. We are, in this respect, equally excited for the year to come, but content with the blankets piled high and the crackling of the fire a constant sound, the feeling of foraging for freshness instead of swimming in it, the endless pages being read and the comforting arms of the home wrapped around us. Perhaps you won’t trust me any longer if I say this (that is if you have been following along here), but isn’t this the best time of the year?

This week…

We baked in the sun, but the veggies loved the heat and we could use some more of it to ripen some of those heat lovers out in the field!

Relished the thunder, lightning, and rain that followed the heat and refreshed all of us, animal, vegetable, and human alike!

Spent all of my newsletter writing time yesterday trying to get our truck back home from town because the ignition is not working (Uhhhgg!)

Said good-bye to family as they headed back home for California.

Enjoyed some intensely beautiful sunsets all week and a lovely full moon.

Feasted on the first of our meat chickens. We were afraid to raise the standard chicken breed used for meat because although the cross of a cornish chicken and barred rock chicken produces a fast growing (6-8 weeks rather than 16-24) bird with large breasts, we had heard that these birds didn’t’ forage at all and just sat by the feeder eating feed and getting big so fast that they could hardly walk. However, after a year of roosters raised for a longer period that ended up being so tough that they all became soup birds, we decided to try for some chicken we could roast. We were so pleasantly surprised. We started them in our green house which has a grass floor and had plenty of mustard starts that we weren’t planting. From the beginning these birds foraged for green stuff in addition to eating grain, but never once have they gorged on grain and not ranged for bugs and good green matter. They are healthy in all ways, (they do indeed mature quickly), like every other chicken we have raised the birds are delicious !!

We were one of three farms featured in The Oregonian today in their Market Watch where they did a write up on the McMinnville market!!

The change to our flock

Farm News…
After our failed experiment last year with raising laying hens without wheat, soy, or corn in their diets, after waiting a long ten months for these birds to begin laying eggs when a standard diet would have brought us the bounty of eggs in just six, after finally being able to offer Growing Wild Farm eggs, not a lot, but just enough to keep our family in 5-6 dozen a week with a plethora of cull eggs for the growing pigs without cost, after all of this, a mere two weeks of terror here on the farm has ended it all. Well, not “it all”, but it feels that way. I find that I can hardly accept the reality as I go to collect eggs now….really just five eggs, only so many that I don’t even need a basket, just my two hands to carry them inside.

The change to our flock has been dramatic, we have less than half as many layers now. The cause, hungry animals of all kinds. We have yet to catch a varmint in action, but right about the time this all began, we came home late one evening to a farm that smelled of skunk. Because of some evidence, Andre thinks raccoon. And I know that the barn, sans barn cat, has brought in some smaller rodents who are enjoying eggs when they can. Now, our whole simple free and natural chicken farm has proved to have another flaw,–not only do laying hens from hatcheries seem incapable of meeting their protein needs from free ranging our fields, they are not safe with all this open access living either.

The biggest blow, I think, is that we can not just resume the level of egg production in any easy manner. You can buy full pullet hens that have reached maturity and are ready to lay eggs, but at a hefty cost. Otherwise, we get the day old chicks again, and you feed them and wait,. Not 10 months again I am sure, but 6 months if we go by the books. This is the whole summer gone, and again, coming into eggs when the day length is on the short side. A chicken’s reproductive system is ruled by the length of the day, and since we do not use artificial lighting to keep the hens a-laying when their bodies are not meant to, that means really, we probably will be waiting until next year, when the days begin to lengthen, for eggs as we knew them…in great abundance.Now we can see how other’s who we know have done eggs before and are done now. If you find yourself with predator problems, it is hard to find a way out. It seems once they have found your farm, they are not easily deterred or encouraged to go away. Our home is not close enough to where the chickens sleep to hear any nighttime commotion, and our dear dog has aged beyond being an effective chicken protector. It takes time to build new systems, and so every night in the interim we are at risk. We are going to borrow some traps, but the reality of the catch and what we will have to do with the varmint is less than appealing. And because of the time it takes for a hen to reach egg laying maturity, the time that you are just spending money (lots of money now as grain prices skyrocket), means that the profit on eggs is slim to begin with, and not realized until that early input is paid back. If you lose your birds before that time, you have just lost a lot of money. Most farms can’t make it with losses of capital like this, especially if it is a repeated problem, so out of the chicken business they go.

We are torn. Andre, who is often bothered by the troupe of chickens who find their way to our front door, has wanted to downsize to just enough hens to lay eggs for our family for a while anyways. I think that the number we had before created a perfect system for our farm, supplying us with eggs, extra protein for the pigs, field clean-up of other animals, and fertilizer for the veggies, all at no cost to the farm (aside from making up for the cost we put in before we began selling eggs, which would not have been made up for with these numbers). For right now, we have our first batch of meat chickens brooding in the greenhouse, so we will at least have to wait for them to be big enough to go to the chicken tractor before we get new babies. Of all the batches of broody hens we had, we only had two babies hatch out. This is unfortunate, since these naturally hatched chickens do not come over for grain when we feed the rest of the chickens, and actually start laying eggs at 6 months without any supplemental feed. Ahh, the beauty of nature, impossible to mimic. Do we take the risk again, invest more into chickens for eggs? We are still in the black as far as the finances of Growing Wild Farm eggs go, but only if we do not assign a value to the extra benefits of having the chickens here. Still, it is hard to start over, to put more money into a system that can be wiped out so easily. On the other hand, all farming ventures are intrinsically risky. Although we have a fair amount of control in the vegetable field–with soil fertility the all time best insurance against pests and disease, as well as the key to an abundant harvest– we have no control over the weather and limited protection against it. Our whole first planting of spinach bolted (went to seed) because of fluctuating spring temperatures, so we were only able to get one small harvest off of that row. Our first bed of broccoli, one of the most temperamental veggies to grow, contains many plants which have buttoned, or produced very small little heads on immature plants, an occurrence caused by the erratic and cool temperatures they experienced after transplanting. Staring down a long row of time and money that won’t see a return is frustrating, and because the weather will always be beyond human control ( as bothersome as this may be to our desire for control and order), is often unavoidable.

Thankfully, in the midst of all this risk, we have chosen a way of farming that buffers our losses. We don’t, as they say, put all of our eggs in one basket! A diversified farm is not likely to suffer losses in all of its operations in any given year, so a predator invasion doesn’t ruin us, a batch of bolted spinach and buttoning broccoli just a minor loss. If our whole spring crop were one of those two things, yikes! Still, I don’t know how often we recognize the risks farmers of all kinds take, and that this business, in all of its forms, from big corporate agri-business to direct market small farms like ours, provide the community’s, nation’s, and in some cases, the world’s food. We tend to take this supply for granted, but farms are all always at the whim of nature. It is always humbling for us, as we imagine ourselves trying to create natural systems here on our farm, to be reminded that we are trying to rid ourselves of one half of the natural picture…the dangers to the outcome we are working for. For us, the benefits outweigh the risks tenfold, and the losses minor in nature’s grand design.