Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Tinkering Comes First

I love to fix things. Tear them down, clean all the parts, replace worn or broken pieces, refinish and then reassemble. The process gives me a better understanding of structure, function and a good dopamine rush when everything works as it should, especially when there are no leftover parts after everything is back together.

Slowly I've been tackling the spinning wheel. Once all the wood parts had been sanded it was the weather that put the breaks on the polyurethane coating. That's not something done in the living room unless one wants to do an Oracle of Delphi imitation. It seemed like each time my schedule allowed me to work on the wheel, it was raining, cold and humid--not conducive to refinishing wood. 

During the weeks, incremental steps forward were inserted into weekly errands. At trip to the hardware store yielded new screws. The piece of leather that attached the pitman to the treadle (I'm getting hip to the lingo) was the trickiest part. Old halters and reins scavenged from the barn proved too thin for the slot. The harness shop in my old neighborhood was no longer in business. I remembered there was an Amish harness repair shop at a farm where I once purchased guinea keets. It was near my poultry processor so popped over one week.

There was a woman hanging clothes on the line and I asked her if the shop was still in business. She said it was and then proceeded to tell me that she didn't think she should sell me a piece of leather without first asking her husband and he wasn't home. It took ever molecule of self-control not to scream, "Are you f%#king kidding me?" Instead, I pulled out the piece of leather and explained what it was for. I appealed to the farm women sisterhood of self-sufficiency. She buckled and we walked over to the shop. The miracle, a small piece of scrap on the floor the exact thickness I needed a bit larger in size of the wheel's piece. I wasn't going to press my luck by asking if I could use his tools to shape the leather and punch holes at either end as she had a look of fear simply by being in the domain of males according to her culture. I thanked her, offered to pay her, but she declined. After all, it was a scrap on the floor.

The weather finally cooperated and the wood was bathed in a few generous coats of Minwax on the front porch, curing on a warm sunny day. Unfortunately, that darn piece of leather was still giving me trouble. I didn't have the proper tools to shape the piece or to punch the holes. Sure, I could have bungled it with a nail, hammer and woodblock for one hole, but the other was more an oval, larger in diameter for the play of the treadle.

Mom was having one of her quilt retreats at her house and that tidbit of information jogged my memory that her sewing machine dealer/repairman had also once had a harness shop. When I stopped at his sewing machine shop he informed me he had not kept any of his leather tools when he sold the business. I showed him the pieces of leather and he smiled. "This I can do," he said as he fished in his tool box for the appropriate tools.

All the pieces sat on my living room floor waiting. But there were tomatoes to turn into sauce, peppers picked and ready to be sliced along with carrots for canning, market day, butcher day, a dead-in-the-water diesel runabout that needed the alternator removed to be fixed or replaced...

Finally, I sat down with my tools and schematic. It went back together easily and when I went to place the drive band, a piece of cotton string, on the wheel, I realized it had been chewed in a few places by one of my four-legged furry monsters. Not to be defeated, I pulled a strand of bright red yarn from my stash and fashioned a figure-8 drive band for the wheel. It was working.

This project has humbled me time and time again with the patience and practice required to do something as basic as turning fiber into yarn, something we, as a modern society takes for granted each time we put on a piece of clothing. It's not as simple as it looks so the next step is practicing with commercial yarn to get the feel of drawing it on to the spindle.
Meanwhile, there are four bags of roving awaiting spinning, five more fleeces needing to be skirted, washed, dried and carded, six more bags of alpaca wool in my second cousin's barn needing to be picked up and processed and several more pasture maggots to shear.

My Sheep2Socks journey continues...

Friday, August 18, 2017


It's been a long time since I've posted as I gave up blogging over the last few years for several reasons, the foremost being I've been farming my heart out and prefer the long end of a pitchfork to the short end of a keyboard. I  have also been focusing my time on several more writing projects. Since there are only so many hours in a day, the blog seemed a bit frivolous considering  how many of my blog posts were showing up, sometimes word for word, in other people's content and books with little or no citation. Yeah, that kind of sucked.....

But I've started a new chapter and wanted a place to document my progress; proof an old bitch can learn new tricks.

Anyone who knows me has watched as I've pulled about every penny from livestock--goats rented out for brush clearing or for camp, that end up in the curry pot, their livers as dog treats, their hides as djembe drums, their bones as artwork and garden markers. But now I have entered a world in which I swore I would never venture...SHEEP! I found myself looking after several wooly pasture maggots in need of shearing and could not resist the temptation calling from my grandmother's chintz picnic basket full of her knitting needles and notions.

Each morning when the big Tunis ram greets me at the gate to nose in my pockets for treats I sink my fingers to the knuckles in his thick wool amazed by its elasticity and heft. He stands unfazed each winter, snow gathering with ragged cracks like the mud flats of Death Valley.

A bag of his wool from three years ago sits in the barn collecting rat turds. Last year the shearer kept his fleece. This year I was determined to make myself a pair of socks from start to finish. And so I began my journey in June when the shearer showed up.

Granted, I know how to shear, but I'm not very good at it and the ram outweighs me--two factors that led me to to hand it over to a pro. However, when culling a few wild ones later in the summer, I swiped their fleeces and sent them to the butcher naked, clipping them both by hand using a pair of hand shears. Years ago when I was first learning to shear I watched a video of an elderly Navajo couple in their mid 80's meticulously clipping the sheep from which the yarns in their intricately hand-woven rugs were made. It was actually quite relaxing once I got the ewe's feet tied together and she quit trying to kick the snot out of me. I queued up an old Eagles playlist and began my task. Both sheep took less than an hour to shear with both fleeces coming off in a single piece.

Despite the lunatic behavior during lambing season that earned them a sausage wagon candidacy, one of the ewes laid her head on my thigh and calmly gazed as if in meditation while I relieved her of three pounds of thick wool while sweat poured down my back. There's an irony to working with wool on the hottest days of the year in order to be warm on the coldest days of the year. Just as most people are far removed from how their food is produced, we are equally ignorant of the textiles from which clothes are made, be it cotton, silk, wool, leather and even synthetics.

Being new to all this even with the cadre of fiber livestock friends I've amassed over the years, the Internet was my bible. Mistakes and failures would be a given so I took on the responsibility of finding them myself.

The first step was to skirt the fleece which means to clean all the detritus from the wool. Not having a skirting table, I opted for the foot stool of my porch chair and began picking away. I used to make fun of those little slinkies and canvas coats the show people used to keep their animals clean. No more. Picking shit, grass and seeds out of raw wool is a tedious task that never seems to be completed. Each pass regurgitates more bits when you swore that section was clean. Neil Gaiman read Coraline in its entirety while I picked both fleeces.


Next step: to wash the wool. Here is where the plus side of having many extra water tubs came in handy. The bonus: the tubs got scrubbed clean. I went for the method that I found the easiest--setting the water baths of Dawn Dish Soap out in the hot sun for a few days. I rinsed by setting up an equal tank of clean water next to the bath water so the temperature would be the same when the fleeces were transfered to the rinse water as several sites said that if the water temperatures were different I would end  up with a giant ball of felt. The fleeces were washed and rinsed over a period of a week and set out to dry in bulb crates on the front porch. Hopefully, the cats would not be assholes and pee in them.


Sharing my new adventures on social media has been for the win. My fiber-loving friends squeed in excitement at my endeavors. "How are you going to card your wool?" asked one friend. When I admitted to have yet obtained the hand carders I was planning to use she graciously offered me the use of her drum carder. Once again my ignorance showed as I offered to bring my wool over to her house to card one afternoon. "You can take it home with you. I won't need it until the end of August," was her reply. It's a gorgeous piece of equipment and once I got it home I understood her offer to lend it to me. Carding is a time-consuming process. In an effort to gauge how much time I invested in this step, I began listening to Roberto Bolano's epic novel 2666 as an audio book as I worked turning the raw washed wool into roving, which is what you call wool that has been combed so all the fibers go in the same direction. The novel is 38 hours long. The wool from the two sheep was completed at hour 36.

When I took my roving, to market with me the following Sunday to show Annie, the yarn vendor, she asked if the drum carder had a motor. "That's ok, you've only got a few fleeces to do, but a motorized one makes it soooo much easier." Her next question was how I was going to spin the roving into yarn. "I have a pair of drop spindles," I told her. Without missing so much as a heartbeat she offered to lend me one of her unused wheels. SCORE!

A few weeks later I drove down to  her farm studio to pick up the wheel. Stepping into her old farm house with several rooms of yarn, fiber, knitted pieces, hand-made soaps, patterns and assorted equipment all displayed in antique farm items like nest boxes and Hoosiers, I could feel myself being sucked into a vortex similar to my mother's quilting where one could never have enough fabric or gadgets. There was a felted cape dripping ringlets of raw pearlescent Border Leicester wool that sent me to eBay to purchase felting tools as soon as I got home. I was in absolute awe of the scope of Annie's talent. And then she opened to door to her work room....  There were multiple gadgets that spun like contraptions straight out of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

There was the dying shed with pots full of dark liquid awaiting the boxes of white and gray skeins stacked everywhere. "I should be dying all this week, but this weather!" exclaimed Annie who said that she had to hang freshly dyed yarn throughout her house to get it to dry. Into another shed we went, full of feed bags stacked neatly at attention with the tops open like gaping baby birds. "This is all my wool I have yet to send to the mill," she said. There must have been a hundred bags.

We went to yet another barn--the Bull Barn--that had a pipe cage as if to contain Lucifer himself. Given that a few weeks ago my USDA processor slaughtered a Black Angus bull about the size of a VW van, the cinder block barn seemed appropriate. There in the corner past all the holiday displays in storage were a pair of spinning wheels. The first she grabbed was the quintessential spinning wheel complete with fancy lathed pieces supporting a wheel with more lathed spokes. "Oh no, I don't think this one is all here," she said as she reached for another wheel, much different than anything I had ever seen. It had a solid wheel set between what I could only describe as a cross between Old Adobe Mission and the Danica House furniture store in Santa Barbara. "This one is all  here," she said handing the the flyer and bobbin (two new words from the fiber lexicon) my way.

We made our way back to her front porch where she sat up her own wheel after putting together the what I found out was a Clemes & Clemes Modern made in Pinole, California just north of San Fransisco. They've been making wheels since 1970 and this one was probably one of their first. Next, I was schooled on the components, how it fits together, is adjusted and works overall. Similar to my mentality of carding, I thought it would be something I just sat down and did. How humbled I soon became. "Just practice treadling," Annie advised, "It takes some practice to get the rhythm." I just wanted to make the wheel go in the same direction without vacillating in the other. "When you get the wheel cleaned up and oiled, it will work smoother." So she sent me on my way with a wheel, practice roving, a skein of purple Star Night, a set of needles for knitting in the round and a pattern for a Mighty Manly Hat, basically a stocking hat with ribbing--very basic which was something I could handle.

When I arrived home I began to clean the wheel. There were places where the veneer was peeling off which could not be sanded down so I removed the wheel to strip off the veneer and sand the underlying wood which was quite beautiful. From there it was a slippery slope and soon the entire machine had been broken down into its most basic parts. New leather was needed for the piece that attached the treadle to the pitman. (I only know the names of the parts thanks to the online manual and schematic) I could sacrifice an unused pair of reins for that. Wood cleaner, sandpaper, steel wool, 3 in 1 oil, and lots of elbow grease. Half of the pieces are cleaned, the rusty parts in a bag for my next trip to the hardware store for brass replacements. That's where I am at this point.

What I have learned from several of my friends who sell on a commercial level is they utilize small, professional mills which have sprung up in the wake of small flock fiber production over the last twenty years. When I first texted a picture of a soaking fleece to one of my fellow livestock gal pals, she responded with "Send it to a mill! I don't do any of that shit anymore."  I know she shears all of her own animals--sheep, goats, alpaca, llama--and she dyes and knits, but it is the tedious hand labor of skirting, washing, carding and spinning she outsources. I look at it like livestock for meat. It's great to birth, raise, slaughter, butcher and cook my own animals, but after a while even I get to a point where I offload some of the work on to someone equally if not better equipped to do the job. But the first time, I have to be able to say I've personally completed each and every step it takes to get from sheep to socks.

So here I go......

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Frozen Farmer, Frozen Food

It's official--the redneck refrigerator (i.e. front porch) has now turned into a redneck deep freeze. I figured this out last night when I went to gather a bucket of blemished fruit brought back from Sunday's market only to find a box of fruit-shaped rocks. The apples and pears were hard as baseballs. I took the box into my kitchen to thaw out. The pigs would just have to wait until morning.

I haven't posted in a few months because, well....there's no pasture right now, but that doesn't mean that there aren't farmers out there filling your plates. This time of year is when those of us who attend winter markets go into overdrive on customer education.

"How come you don't  have any fresh chicken?" one customer asked, turning her nose up at a frozen bird.

The answer is meat birds simply do not grow in winter temperatures. They are bred to have minimal feather for plucking and there is no green pasture or bugs & grubs to support the rich diet they need. If I were to raise meat birds in this weather, they would need to go inside and eat twice as much. Plus, processing birds takes water...lots of water and to be quite honest, I do not want to be outside in three degree weather with wet hands. It just doesn't work that way.

"The yolks of the eggs aren't as orange as they used to be."

Again, access to green pastures makes all the difference in an egg. While farmers can continue to feed organic, non-GMO grains, supplement with alfalfa hay and artificially add a few hours of light to the hen house to maintain egg production through the winter months as the birds require 16 hours of light in order to continue laying, getting those brilliant yolks just isn't going to happen again until spring.

"Wow! I bet you're cold standing out here for four hours." 

Yes, but customers also have to realize that if when we aren't at our winter markets, we're back at the farm continuing with the chores associated with raising the food we're continuing to bring to market each week. Most vendors have stock-piled their goods in cold storage, but they still need to be sorted, packed and brought to market. Those with greenhouses must still contend with Mother Nature by either adding layers of row covers over the greens for more insulation or using some sort of heating method. Meat producers must care daily for their livestock. Everything must be tended.

After these last few weeks at the outdoor weekly market I attend on Sunday, I can honestly say how much I appreciate my customers who not only show up and purchase food, but go out of their way to offer a little respite from the weather with a cup of hot coffee or cocoa. One even brought a pair of disposable mini pocket hand-warmers. A warm farmer is a happy farmer and will continue to feed you.

So what's it like to farm during a Polar Vortex season?

Pretty f&%#ing miserable, especially for those farmers whose lives seem to be one big emergency after another. But for those who understand that there is no such thing as bad weather, only being poorly prepared, the worst we're going to get is cold feet, numb fingers and little grumpy.

When new & beginning farmers show up here at the farm wanting to pick my brain about their new endeavors, the issue I want to pound into their heads is WATER, WATER, WATER!!!

Dealing with water most of the year isn't problem, but when the temperatures drop to sub-freezing single and negative digits for days on end, water becomes a serious issue that can be detrimental to not just the health of the animal, but to the farmers as well.

Dehydrated animals are stressed animals weakening their immune systems and making them more susceptible to illness. Two of the smartest things I did here at the farm was to insist on installing the absolute best outdoor non-freezing stand-pipe hydrant at a depth deeper than normally required in order to ensure that even in the most brutal winter temperatures, it would not freeze. At the same time the ditch was open for the installation of the water pipes, I invested in having electric cables installed with outdoor outlets within a few feet of the water source. Now, I know that most people think that water an electricity don't mix, but on a livestock farm that experiences freezing temperatures, it's the only way to go.


Because it's much easier to drop a stock tank heater in the water, plug it in and keep the tank filled than it is to be swinging a 15-pound sledge breaking up solid ten-inch blocks of ice, lugging five-gallon buckets as the water sloshes out to soak your insulated coveralls freezing them to your legs and having your gloves freeze to the hoses as you try to drain them before the water freezes inside of them effectively rendering them useless until the weather warms up or you lug them inside to soak them in your bathtub in order to thaw them out so you can use them.

If you don't need a big stock tank full of water for larger animals or flocks, Tractor Supply and just about every other farm supply store worth their salt sells heated buckets. Word to the wise...don't walk into these stores when the temperatures dip below zero and think you're going to waltz out with one or any other device used to prevent livestock water from freezing. 

The next critical piece of the puzzle for farming in frigid temperatures is feeding and bedding properly. Sub-zero nights mean that its time to invest in extra bedding. While those nice big bales of wood shavings are easy to handle and smell nice, they don't do squat for keeping animals warm. The best choice is clean, dry straw.

I am amazed at how many people don't understand the difference between hay and straw. Straw is just what it sounds like...you know, the hollow tubes you get with a drink? Well, straw for bedding is made from the dried stalks of harvested grains, such as oats, rye, wheat, barley and even rice. Animals may nibble at it, find errant heads of grain, but for the most part they will not eat it unless they are extremely hungry, meaning they haven't been given enough hay.

Hay is harvested pasture. It is what is fed to the animals during the winter. There are three distinct types of hay--grass, herbaceous plants and legumes. Different types of hay provide different types of energy. For example, alfalfa is high in protein and calcium. It is a very dense, high-energy fodder (farmerspeak for harvested and stored forage) as compared to grass hays, such as timothy, brome and orchard grass.

Nothing frustrates me more than to see farmers who know darn well that inclement weather is on the way waiting until the last minute and then guilt-tripping their hay dealer into an emergency delivery. Similarly, hay auctions are a popular way for farmers in this area to obtain fodder, however, in single-digit temperatures, many hay farmers will take their sub-standard hay to auction knowing darn well that those who show up are most likely desperate and will pay any price for something to feed their animals which are now eating twice as much just to stay warm.

It also helps to understand the basic biology of livestock during an Arctic blast in order to keep them healthy. While it may be tempting to bump up an animal's energy with grain, the truth is ruminants, such as cows, goats and sheep will stay much warmer and well-conditioned by being fed a quality hay. Think of their stomachs as big fermentation vats. I've watched as grass-based farmers have succumbed to the ignorance to thinking adding a little grain to their grass-fed beeves' diet won't hurt, but the sad truth is that grain changes the pH in the animals gut decreasing functionality of the rumen and ultimately setting the animal back in production and overall health.

On the other hand, horses, poultry and swine will benefit from the added calories of extra grains and sugars during extreme temperatures. In order to ensure that these species are getting enough moisture even when they have access to fresh unfrozen water, I like to soak their feed in warm water. This morning, the piggies got an added bonus as I turned their grains into a porridge with the whey off a batch of ricotta I had made earlier. I also feed them several pounds of damaged fruit given to me by a local orchard each week after market. 

While the veal calves continue to feast upon their daily rations of warmed milk, it bears saying that it only takes one time of not bringing the empty 'mommy bucket' in from the cold and finding the teats frozen solid from milk from the last feeding to not do that again. They will violently beat the bucket against the fence sloshing the milk out all over themselves (and the farmer) making the most gawd-awful bellowing because they are hungry.

All livestock aside, one of the most important things a farmer can do in this weather is be properly dressed. Wool is your best friend along with Polarfleece, Thinsulate, silk and cotton. Learn to layer for the cold. Invest in good gear. Years ago I had a fellow farmer make an offhanded remark about my "expensive taste" for winter clothing as I was well-outfitted in Patagonia products. Yes, their stuff may be expensive, but the winter coat, fleece vests, pullovers, turtlenecks and headgear  I have owned for over twenty years. Do the math!  I also had to disclose that I used to live in Ventura County, home to the Great Pacific Ironworks and corporate headquarters of Patagonia where I was always near the front of the line for their annual parking lot clearance sales. Only this year has my classic Sychilla Shelled jacket begun to show its age, but with some mending I'm sure it will continue to serve me for several more years before being retired.

Similarly, all wool is not created equal. That hundred dollar cashmere sweater from LL Bean will last ten years or more and be worth every penny compared to a ten dollar wool blend clearance rack special. Can't afford to shell out for new gear? There's plenty for sale on eBay for a fraction of the cost. A few key items will last for years as they are only used during the coldest of days.

But the tell-tale sign that it is really cold outside is when Megs the Merciless gives up on nabbing mice in the barn for the comfort of flannel sheets, the down comforter and Mom's hand-stitched quilt.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Secret To Groovy Gravy At Thanksgiving

Pasture to plate, farm to table, nose to tail, and let's not forget my favorite--heads & feet--when it comes to
How does your turkey stock stand up?
poultry, it's time once again to take a good, hard look at not only how we vote with our food dollars, but how we reduce waste by extracting as much nutrients as possible from the animals that have given their lives to sustain us. Today, more people are making the switch from inhumanely, industrial-raised, antibiotic and chemical laden to locally, pasture-raised with non-GMO birds that  have not been mutilated, trucked  hundreds (if not thousands) of miles and have met with the most gruesome of end only be to dunked in toilet bowl cleaner, embalming fluid and acid to reduce the super bugs harbored in their inflamed digestive and respiratory tracts.
Rich stock from heads & feet makes the BEST gravy

Almost twenty years ago, I began raising heritage turkeys in the foothills of the Ojai Valley where they feasted on stone fruits, citrus and avocados that fell from the trees in the orchard I lived. I only raised about two dozen, enough for myself, neighbors, friends and co-workers. Bourbon Reds were my favorites, but no matter what I did they never developed the larger breasts that everyone associated with their holiday meal. But they were tasty!

Butchering day was always balmy, usually in the high 60's, low 70's. We'd set out two pots of scalding water on the Camp Chef Cooker so that when one got foul and cool a fresh one was ready. A bottle (or two) of great wine, good music and my helper was always sent home with the bird of their choice for their own holiday meal.

"What you do wit da feet?" my Thai co-worker asked when I put up the sign for turkey delivery at the software company where I was working at the time.

"Dog treats," I responded.

"No, no, no...I want them, all of them," she responded in earnest. And so when delivery day arrived, so did a bag of forty severed bird legs.

On the following Monday I returned to the office to find a fifty dollar bill on my desk with a note of thanks. While that had been the average price for a whole bird, I was a bit taken back by the amount for....well, what I had considered the scraps.

All clean & ready to simmer.
Upon trying to return the money to my co-worker, she insisted while tearing up. "That was the best time my family had since leaving Thailand. We hid them into movies and ate. Just like home. Feet and  heads, best parts."

"Heads?" I questioned.

"Oh yeah, make best soup, very good!" she responded excitedly. Seeing as her husband owned one of the best Thai restaurants in town, I could hardly disagree.

As the years rolled by and I purchased a farm and raised more turkeys, my curiosity got the better of me. At first, I started making stock from the feet. The first time I did it I realized that I failed to properly clean the feet as I shared pictures with my Thai friend.

Just like taking off a glove.
"Why you no clean feet first? You put them in pot dirty," she admonished me, "You peel dem first, take off toenails." I felt like a fool, but lesson learned.

And so as the years went by, I began to clean the feet and include them along with the rest of the giblets. If customers didn't want them, they could simply toss them out or feed them to their dog. But for some reason, the mention of heads just stuck in my mind.

Fast forward a few years to the advent of the Paleo/Primal movement and the maturing of the sustainability movement. The more I learned about the nutritional benefits of the parts that normally get tossed out, the more I began to experiment. Bone broth became standard fare in my home not just for its culinary attributes but as a health elixir.

As I became more deeply in tune with the animals I was raising, the mindfulness that they were giving up their lives, the choice to limit what I wasted, I toyed with the idea of those heads again and asked my processor to save the heads along with my hearts, livers, gizzards, necks and feet. They came back in a bag, but were fed to the dogs as treats instead. I felt like a failure.

But when I started using a new processor this season for my poultry, he asked if I wanted to keep the heads as well as the feet. I said, "yes" and then I began cooking them down for stock in my crock pot.

Wow. Wow...effing, wow!  It was one thing to eat the feet, but the combs, the wattles, the snoods! What incredible stock I made throughout the season and here I was at Thanksgiving wanting to simmer down those big, fat heads along with the feet this year, but there was only one problem....I didn't raise any turkeys.

Yep....I'd opted for raising a dozen batches of broilers this year instead of my little T. rexes as I like to call them. There's only so much Hoop Coop space and pasture to go around. Either I could do broilers or I could do turkeys, but I couldn't do both.
Popping off the outer nail.

Given that the local Amish and Mennonites have gotten into the turkey act, I figured I'd let their numerous brood take care of the labor instead of me. Plus, at all my metropolitan markets there were plenty of people raising turkeys to the point I didn't feel as if I'd be letting down any of my customers. Instead, they got a steady stream of fresh broilers throughout the market season. Worked for me.

Although I had procured my bird from a fellow farmer, I'd failed to asked for the feet and heads so I contacted my processor whom I knew was dispatching my organic feed dealer's holiday birds. Yes, they did not want their feet and heads. Yes, I could have them. Score!

But when I picked up my goodies, I realized that neither the heads nor feet had been prepared for simmering. This is one thing that many producers fail to inform their customers about...how to ready heads & feat for making the BEST stock they will ever have.

Heads....while they may be devoid of feathers, one must still give them a good scrubbing to remove all the external dermis. Additionally, the outer beak and chitinous membrane in the nostrils is also easily removed after scalding.

Feet.....turkeys are, indeed, little T. rexes. Their feet are scaled just like reptiles. Prior to cooking, one must remove the outer scales and the toe nails. It's practically like taking off a glove. If the toe nails don't come off as easy as you would like, simply use a regular ol' dinner knife to pop them off from the nail bed which will yield the most awesome gelatin for your stock. Sound gross? Wait until you make the gravy and don't need any flour to thicken it to a silky consistency.

I know this may be too much for the everyday consumer, but for those of you who are really concerned about sustainability, animal welfare and most importantly, your own health, when you purchase a turkey (or chickens) from your favorite local farmer, next time make sure to ask for the heads & feet!

The scales from cleaned feet.

The bones from a batch of broth.
Filtering the broth.
For all the people who have called or asked me how to make the best Thanksgiving gravy ever, here is my recipe. I like to make a double batch (ie. a full quart) so there are enough leftovers for my favorite post-Thankgiving leftover delight of Waffles & Gravy.

Sandra's Groovy Gravy Recipe
2 cups Turkey Broth
1/4 cup pan scrapings (optional, if you want a smoother gravy)
1/2 cup of either white wine or cider (pear cider makes an out-of-the-ballpark gravy)
1 tablespoon arrowroot powder
Salt & Pepper

In a sauce pan, bring the broth and scrapings to a simmer. Thoroughly mix the arrowroot powder with the wine/cider and then whisk into the simmering broth. Stir until gravy reaches desired consistency. Season to taste.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Veal Chop with Pears & Brussel Sprouts

My favorite time of year at farmers market is when the fresh brussel sprouts begin to arrive. Sometimes they're still attached to the stalk with that wonderful cabbage-like tuft on top {TIP: don't toss it out, it's delicious and some farmers even harvest them to sell separately} or already cut off and sold by the pint or quart ready to be tossed into a pan. Really want to have fun with them? Add them to a batch of fermenting veggies. Additionally, fall also brings about the harvest of the veal calves and the arrival of pears, apples, quinces and freshly-pressed ciders. 
This dish is my go-to meal throughout the fall months when I need something quick and easy.  For anyone who laments, "It's just me," that's no excuse not to eat healthy and locally produced foods from your farmers market. This meal took about five minutes to prepare and ten minutes to cook and costs about the same that one would pay for a half-decent sandwich at a deli.

Veal Chop with Pear & Brussel Sprouts
1 Painted Hand Farm Veal Chop (rib or loin)
1 tablespoons butter
1 small shallot, minced
1 fresh pear, peeled & cubed
1 cup fresh brussel sprouts, cut in half
2 tablespoons fresh cider
Salt & Pepper
In a skillet, brown one side of seasoned chop using half of the of butter (about five minutes). Turn chop and add shallot brussel sprouts and pear with remaining butter. Saute three minutes, add cider, cover pan and simmer for 3-5 more minutes. For variations, try using leeks instead of shallots, apple instead of pear and Calvados or white wine instead of apple cider. Cranberries & orange juice are also a delicious combination to dress up your chops. 


Friday, November 15, 2013

A Delicious & Easy Fall Dinner

 This is one of my favorite fall meals because it is quick, easy and all the ingredients are readily available this time of year at the farmers market. Most of all, I enjoy experimenting with all the different types of wonder artisan and farmstead cheeses and charcuterie. Or try switching out the spinach for something a little tangier like fall mustard greens. Or give your squash an Asian flair with toasted sesame oil and ginger.  Any way you choose,  humanely-raised rose veal cutlets make a quick and delicious meal.

Stuffed Veal Cutlets with Roasted Winter Squash
Prep time - 30 minutes
Serves: 2

  • 2 veal cutlets
  • 1 small winter squash, such as butternut or acorn, peeled, cut into 1.5 inches thick pieces 
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon fresh rosemary
  • 1 teaspoon maple syrup or honey
  • 2 slices cured ham
  • 8 spinach leaves, trimmed, washed, dried
  • 2 ounces artisan cheese, sliced
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  1. Preheat oven to 400 °F.
  2. Toss squash with one tablespoon olive oil, salt, pepper, maple syrup and rosemary.
  3. Line a baking tray with non-stick baking paper.
  4. Arrange the squash on prepared tray. Bake on top shelf of preheated oven for 20 minutes or until golden brown and tender.
  5. Meanwhile, place a piece of veal on a clean work surface.
  6. Top with a slice of cured ham, four spinach leaves and a slice of cheese.
  7. Fold over to enclose filling and secure with a toothpick. Repeat with the remaining veal, ham, spinach and cheese.
  8. Heat the oil in a large non-stick frying pan over medium high heat.
  9. Add veal and cook for 2-3 minutes each side or until brown. Transfer to a baking tray and cover with foil.
  10. Bake in oven for a further 5 minutes or until hot. Remove from oven.
  11. Place veal on serving plates and serve with winter squash.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

PART FIVE: VEAL--Getting It On The Plates

This is the fifth and final installment of a five-part of posts regarding veal production for small-scale farms and why educated eaters dedicated to local foods and sustainable agriculture should be eating veal as well as beef.


The two questions I most often encounter are
  1. How do you figure out how to price the veal?
  2. How and who do you market to?
Let's address question #1 first.

Determining Price
One of the best workshops I ever attended at the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture's annual Farming for the Future conference was given by Mike and Chick Debach, owners and operators of Leona Meat Plant.   In their presentation, they broke down the numbers associated with processing animals adding into the formulas those things I had previously never considered such as shrink (the amount of moisture a carcass loses when it hangs), cut-out (fat, connective tissue, bones) and transportation. Previously, I only worked with the cost of production, live weights and hanging (hot) weights. And then there was the BIG expense I also overlooked, especially as I entered the world of farmers markets---marketing.

The first step is to know the production cost of the live animal and the live weight. This will give you the cost per pound to produce. For example:

    1. Purchased Calf  $50
    2. Milk replacer     $150
    3. Feed                  $25
If the calf is raised to 300 pounds, the formula to determine the production cost would be:

Total Production Cost divided by Live Weight
(50+150+25)/300 = $0.75 per pound Live Weight

The next step is to determine the percentage of live versus hanging weight.  Over the years, I have found that calves in the 300-pound range typically have a 50-55% range depending on their body condition. You must also consider that there can as much as 15 pounds of matter in the digestive tract if the animal has been fed within 12 hours prior to slaughter. For this example, we'll assign a value of 160 pounds for a Hanging Weight.

Hanging Weight divided by the Live Weight X 100
165/300 = 55% yield

To determine the cost per pound for the Hanging Weight:

Total Production Cost divided by Hanging Weight = Cost per pound Hanging Weight
(50+150+25)/165 = $1.36 Hanging Weight

Most folks who typically sell by the carcass stop at these numbers and then just add the butchering costs on to the bill, but if you are going to market individually wrapped cuts via farmers markets, CSA or buyers club, it's well worth continuing with the math to get a better idea of total production costs.

I have patronized abattoirs who charge a flat fee for calves up to 300 pounds and ones who have a set kill fee with a cost per pound for cut, package and labeling. Similarly, I've had processors who provided a custom label for me once I had paid the set-up fee (around $100) and ones who have required me to procure my own labels (around $300 per 10,000)

For this example, I am going to assign a set processing fee of $110 per calf with labeling included which is typical to what I currently pay for processing. One of the significant processing costs that tends to be overlooked is transportation. If you are traveling a significant number of miles to and from the processor (remember, you make TWO round trips--one to drop off the animals and one to pick up the finished product), it helps to include the transportation cost per animal in this part of the equation. I know that delivering live animals costs approximately $25 in fuel and to pick up finished product, $15. If I take three calves at a time, my transportation costs per calf are approximately $13. That would bring the Processing Costs to $123 per calf.

To acquire the cost of processing: 

Hanging Weight divided by Processing Costs
165/123 = $1.34 per pound for processing

Now you have a better understanding of the true cost per pound of finished product. 

Cost per pound Hanging Weight plus Cost per pound Processing
$1.36 + $1.34 = $2.70 per pound 
But wait, we can't stop there, especially if you are going to go to farmers markets. This number is a lot trickier to come by unless you've got a season of markets under your belt and have an idea of your total sales versus your total market costs which include market application fees, vendor fees, liability insurance (this is different than your farm or homeowners and required by most markets), transportation, health department licensing fees for each jurisdiction in which you sell that requires them, etc. In my experience over the years, I've found these costs will add as much as 35% on to the cost of getting a product in the hands of a customer. That means
$2.70 * .35 = 0.95 
 $3.65 per pound wholesale cost per pound

That might still sound inexpensive at this point, but we've not yet factored in the most important part of the equation....PROFIT. Yes, farmers have to profit or we'd all be out of business and everyone would starve (or eat very poorly). Just as in typical retail, mark-up is 100% bringing the minimum cost per pound of product to $7.29 per pound average for the entire carcass. 

While some cuts are more expensive than others, the first few times (and occasionally as time goes by) I inventory every single salable piece from a calf and determine what the average cost per pound for that specific animal amounts to. If I'm not hitting my numbers, it's time to examine my prices on all cuts. 
While there is an art to determining how to cut a carcass, there is also one for pricing products. After determining you average cost per pound, now it's time to bring individual cuts into alignment with the open market. Premium cuts, such as tenderloin, scallopine, cutlets, loin & rib chops as well as specialty items like ossobuco, are going to command a premium price while stew meat and ground are going to be at the lower end. 

I highly suggest also doing local reconnaissance by visiting other markets--bother farmers markets and retail locations--to gauge prices. The two biggest mistakes you risk by pricing your products too low are:
  1. Losing profits from not charging what the current market may bear. 
  2. Pissing off fellow vendors who are more experienced and knowledgeable by undercutting them. 
Although many have been led to believe that prices direct from the farmer should be less expensive than at a supermarket or retail store, keep in mind that a product such as humanely-raised veal, rose veal, meadow veal or naturally raised milk-fed veal (whatever you're going to brand your product to describe your farming practices) is a premium product. It is NOT the commercial, pasty pale cardboard that passes for veal.

The notion that your product should be cheaper than what's in the grocery store is entirely incorrect. I had my eyes opened to what the market price would bear when I went to the upscale grocery store less than a mile from one of my metropolitan markets and found scallopine priced twice as much as mine. Judging from the size of their rib chops, the marbling and the color of the meat, I could tell the calves had been crated or chained, fed predominantly grain, had no access to grass, were anemic and probably weighed close to 500 pounds when they were harvested--certainly not a premium product. What a wake-up call. How was I to compete?

And this is where the second part of the equation comes in.....marketing. 

Setting Your Product Apart From the Others
The difference between marketing and advertising was once explained to me in simple terms. Advertising is the methods through which  you tell potential customers you have a product for sale. They are going to buy it because they need it. Marketing is telling the customer why they should buy your product.

Thanks to the animals rights campaigns against industrial veal during the 1980's, veal has been vilified as an ugly product from which anyone with half a conscious steer clear. Veal is a product that you can not take to a public market, put up a sign advertising and stand back waiting for sales. People will walk by and sneer, they will make openly rude comments to you, they will complain to the market manager, they will threaten to picket your stand, your market, your farm. That is why for anyone interested in raising and direct-marketing veal it is critical for you to learn how to market your products, to tell  your story of why your product is different, is better.

The foundation of my marketing has always been to have an open door policy at my farm. Customers are welcome to visit to see firsthand how their meat is raised, not just with veal, but with all types of livestock, poultry and produce. 100 % transparency without a hint of hesitation has swayed many potential customers on the fence toward a purchase.

Next, tell your story with lots of pictures. There are images of veal calves in pasture on the banner displayed at market, on the farm's website, on Facebook, on Twitter and in the farm's monthly newsletter. I show customers where my calves come from, how they are raised, what they eat and ultimately, where they are processed. But it doesn't stop there.



Painted Hand Rose + versus Veal Commercial White Veal -

+ Stays with cow after birth     
- Taken away immediately

+ Naturally nursed with colostrum    
- Force fed antibiotics & electrolytes

+ Transported directly from local family dairies to Painted Hand Farm.    
- Trucked hundreds of miles, often through large auction barns.

+ Fed all non-medicated whole milk products  
- Fed only medicated powder milk which is often soy and plasma based

+ Fed with nipples  
- Fed in buckets

+ Never injected with hormones  
- Synthetic estrogen implants used illegally to promote rapid growth.  
+ No antibiotics. 
- Prophylactic use of antibiotics.    

+ Raised outside in small groups  
- Crowded inside with hundreds of other calves in individual crates. 
+ No mutilation. 
- Ear-tagged or notched    

+ Lots of grass & sunshine  
- A life of concrete & darkness

+ Processed at a family-operated local USDA facility.   
-  Trucked thousands of miles to a large scale processor.

I believe in 100% transparency for our food system.

Feel free to visit our farm any time and see for yourself.
This is a sign I post at all farmers markets. 

Most folks haven't grown up eating veal, let alone cooking it. Instructions, recipes, ideas have always been an important part of my marketing plan in addition to eduction. Recipes get posted to my website, blog and Facebook with pictures included. Printed recipes are always available at market.

Customers want facts about their food. We've become a nation of label readers. Share scientific nutritional information with your customers, especially in comparison with other meats.

Beef Nutritional Facts
For instance, these are Nutrition Facts of Beef versus Veal. Customers can see that veal is lower in calories and fat compared to beef.
Veal Nutritional Facts
In some situations, depending on where you are located and what the local health department regulations are, sampling your veal products is a great idea. When I attended an indoor market and had access to electricity and a sink I would cook veal sausages in an electric skillet for customers to taste. But at outdoor markets and with new regulations, the licensing and health code requirements became so restrictive I chose to no longer sample meat products.

The key to marketing a niche product such as veal is for the producer to be knowledgeable enough about their own products that the information can be easily and quickly shared with potential customers, especially those who make disparaging comments. Here are some of my most frequent exchanges.

Customer: How can you be so cruel to those baby cows, keeping them in boxes in the dark and feeding them all those antibiotics and hormones.
Producer: My calves are hand-raised in large paddocks and on pasture. They are free to move about their entire life and receive no chemicals or drugs. Hormones are illegal to use in veal calves and wouldn't make much of a difference if they were used. Plus, the milk replacer I feed contains no soy or plasma. My calves are never chained or mutilated. They live as natural a life as possible until they are harvested. I am the farmer and you're welcome to come out to the farm and see for yourself anytime. 

Customer: I can't eat veal. It's a baby and I don't eat babies.
Producer: Essentially all animals you are eating are technically "babies". Meat chickens are harvested at 6-8 weeks, pigs at 4-6 months, lamb and goat at less than a year and even beef which don't reach maturity until they 2 1/2 to 3 years old. Beef producers need to get their animals to weight prior to 30 months or their processing is $80-100 more because the USDA requires the spinal column to be completely removed because of potential mad cow disease. My calves may be young, but they still weigh as much as 400 pounds. I am the farmer and I don't want to handle big animals. 

Customer: I'll eat organic, grass-fed beef, but I won't eat veal. It's not humane. 
Producer: Do you consume dairy products like milk, butter and ice cream? If so, you're contributing to the commercial veal industry as cows have to have babies in order to produce milk. The reality for male offspring of dairy cows, especially for smaller breeds such as Jerseys and Guernseys, is they are sent to auction or killed at birth because they are not economically viable to be raised for beef. They can be trucked dozens, if not hundreds of miles only days after birth and many often die. Sometimes the farmer ends up losing money after paying a hauler and the auction barn commission when the market for calves is down. I source all my calves within five miles of my farm from small dairy farms run by local families--some are even Certified Organic. My farmers give the calves a good start on mother's milk for 3-5 days before I pick them up. Plus, I always pay the farmer a fair price for the calves regardless of what they're going for on the open market.  They are started in pairs on bottles for the first month so I can ensure they are getting enough nourishment, then out on to pasture in groups of four to eight where they can run. The truth is at a certain point dairy calves' growth rates stall and it takes a lot of input to get them over the hump to where they'd make a decent beef animal. In terms of resources, such as feed, water, space and fuel, naturally-raised veal calves are much more sustainable than beef.

Customer: That's not real veal because it's not pale in color.
Producer: According to the USDA, this animal has been classified as veal. It is pinker in color because this animal had access to grass for most of its life and it was healthy. Veal that is extremely pale in color is because the animal was anemic and was most likely crated or chained its entire life. The idea that the paler in color the better the veal was a marketing campaign by the Beef Checkoff program when veal production in the U.S. became vertically integrated and industrialized. Pale veal has little flavor and a mushy consistency. That's why its often breaded and covered in sauce. One of my loin chops is like eating a little T-bone. It tastes just fine by itself. If you don't believe me or like them, I'll return your money.  

In these conversations, I've not only assuaged the customer's concerns, but go a step further to educate them about my farming practices versus industrial practices. And no one has ever asked for their money back.

But unfortunately, not all exchanges end positively in a sale. I've tried for years to get a trendy local food coop to carry my veal, but their answer is always the same, "We're worried it would upset our members." I have offered to write an educational article for their newsletter as well as their website and hand out samples with a educational display in their store, but they still declined. Yet as I peruse the store on a regular basis, I see products from farms with less-than-stellar agricultural, environmental and social practices. It is that stigma that I hope to diminish through sharing my experiences with raising and selling veal.

Who are the customers and where do you sell?
Over the years I've sold my veal through a variety of outlets in a myriad of cuts--whole carcasses, by the half, off the farm, through CSAs and buyers clubs, to individuals, upscale butcher shops and restaurants, but by far, my most successful avenue has been through direct sales at farmers markets. While the majority of buyers tend to be middle to upper income educated people who have traveled internationally, many of my customers also include many immigrants for whom veal was a staple of their diet in their homeland and they all say the same thing, "You raise real veal," as they are often appalled at the quality and price of products found in grocery stores and specialty meat markets.

Early in my veal rearing venture, I'd imagined that restaurants would make up the bulk of my business, but that was prior to the popularity of nose-to-tail establishments and practically all the chefs only wanted the choice cuts in quantities I didn't have the resources to provide.

For instance, the first thing most chefs ask for when I tell them I raise veal are the sweet breads, which are a fatty gland (thymus) found in the throat of a young animal. Recently, I had three calves processed and ended up with a half pound of sweet breads. Considering a trendy joint can go through twenty pounds of sweet breads a week, that would equate to processing one hundred twenty (120) calves each week just to meet the demand. Similarly, kidneys, liver and tongue are frequently requested items--all each in very limited quantities per animal.Chances are if you see these items as standard fare on a menu, they are coming from a not-so-nice place.

Another popular items chefs want are the bones. Any restaurant worth their salt understands the depth and clarity veal broth and demi glaze brings to fine dining.

"I go through fifty pounds of veal bones a week," said the chef of a local establishment when I was picking his brain at a party. Quickly I did the math in my head. Three hundred pound calf yields twenty to twenty five pounds of bones if I part it into cuts and thirty to thirty five if I turn all the meat into sausages, ground and boneless cuts. Later I would learn that places such as the Greenbrier go through as much a four hundred pounds of veal bones every week. This was definitely not my market.  

Similarly, I have had chefs want to 'cherry-pick' the cuts and then demand a wholesale price. When I explain that the only way they are going to get wholesale price is by taking a whole carcass, they've tended to balk. While this is not true for all establishments, many want term of 30 to 60 days and sadly, I still have outstanding invoices from a number of now-defunct restaurants who wanted to only source local and sustainably-raised ingredients. 

As CSAs and Buyers Clubs gain in popularity, they too, should be considered an option. However, as veal is not a staple item on American family menus, it tends to be pushed into the "specialty" category with lamb, goat and rabbit as opposed to beef, pork and chicken.Consider partnering with an existing produce CSA to offer products on a monthly basis. Also gaining steam are local "food hubs" where producers drop off product to be picked up by multiple purchasers.

Regardless of which audience you choose to market your veal, your job is not just to produce a phenomenal product, but to also educate your customers about the benefits of purchasing your product. For me, that means championing:
  • Humane
  • Pasture-raised
  • No antibiotics or hormones
  • Environmentally sound and sustainable
  • Small carbon footprint
  • Healthier
  • Locally produced and processed
As the popularity of local and sustainable foods increases, customers are taking pride in the fact they are choosing grass-based and artisan foods, but tend to shy away from the meats which have the potential to make the biggest impacts in animal welfare, farm viability and the environment.

When I'm in an in-your-face mood, I like to tell people that if you are drinking organic/raw/local milk and eating locally farmstead/artisan cheeses or ice cream, then you should also be consuming the veal that is produced by these dairy farmers. Just as consumers have moved away from industrially produced mainstream dairy and meat products in lieu of ethically and sustainably produced foods, the same should hold true for the consumption of veal.

In my experience, the farmers who truly care the most for their animals are more than happy to establish a relationship with a new/beginning/small scale farmer who wants to humanely produce veal. Repeatedly, I've been told that sending calves to auction is one of the most distressing parts of being a diary farmer, but in their all-to-busy lives, raising and marketing calves for veal is something there just isn't time for. Worse, for some dairy farmers who sell their fluid milk to a cooperative, their contract stipulates that they cannot raise veal for sale using the milk for which the coop has agreed to purchase.

Highlights of this installment....

  1. Factors and formulas for pricing your product.
  2. Tips and ideas for marketing veal in a positive spin.
  3. Determining your market.
As someone who has worked in both the food and farming industries, I see a huge opportunity for both sustainably-minded farmers and consumers to participate in an equitable and sustainable paradigm by choosing to raise and eat veal. 

PART ONE to this series can be found at this link.  
PART TWO of this series can be found at this link.
PART THREE of this series can be found at this link.
PART FOUR of this series can be found at this link.