Saturday, January 29, 2011

Just Deal With It

"Son-of-a-bitch! Those little fuckers chewed off my nipples!"

Normally, I could get away with bellowing this at the top of my lungs, but my mechanic had just showed up to borrow my stock trailer so he could take a beef to to be butchered and he was doubled over with laughter trying to catch his breath.

In the mean time, I had my bottle babies' breakfast streaming out gaping holes where latex had been only hours earlier. Given that powdered kid replacer has gone up to $63 for twenty-five pounds (not to mention the cost of the nipples themselves), I'm not one for wasting the stuff so a few four-letter epithets were in order when it began splattering all over my legs and boots.

And so my day began.....

This is not a nine-to-five or a Monday through Friday kind of job. As a matter of fact, during this time of year, there's no predictability to it whatsoever.

Thanks to my one very rotund hold-out doe and three bottle babies, instead of spending the evening sipping champagne and listening to Christoph Eschenbach conduct Beethoven's Triple Concerto at the Kennedy Center which would have been my first choice for this evening, I had to opt for an Old Fashioned, Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris's All the Road Running and tending to my charcuterie project for Charcutepalooza--the veal pancetta.Once it was all rolled and tied, up into the attic it went along with the drying ham hocks and the salo & lardo. There was a little hang-nail of lardo protruding from one of the pieces and I just had to nip it off and sample it. Oh! The utter opulence of silky pork fat melting on my tongue with a hint of salt, rosemary and pepper. I can only imagine what it will be like shaved over fresh, tender asparagus when the time comes.....

In the mean time, my consolation prize out of the pasture (and the garden) was grass-fed meatballs with baked sweet potato chips. Not too shabby considering how the day started.
Eschenbach will conduct Beethoven again in March. The does will all have kidded and the bottle babies weaned. It will be early enough in the season to slip away and recharge my batteries with those things that the solitude of the farm cannot provide.

Friday, January 28, 2011

What Hat to Wear Today

Carpenter, definitely.

Last week when I tossed down a bale of hay, it hit the bottom step hitting it in just a way that it broke the step. What added insult to this incident was I had just replaced that step, along with two others, the month before.

Since working with power tools when you can't feel your fingers isn't a wise idea, I traversed the treacherous step until the temperature hovered above freezing.
With a downright balmy 37 degrees this afternoon, it was time to uncover the table saw and find a suitable board in my lumber pile to replace the step.
Farming isn't always about feeding animals, driving tractors, planting and harvesting. A lot of the time it's about fixing things. It doesn't matter if you have chickens or cows, all livestock requires infrastructure. From roosts to shelters, feeders to fences sooner or later something is going to need fixed. Equipment must be maintained or you'll really be faced with the nightmare of constant fixes. I know several farmers who never maintain their equipment and it seems their life is one big emergency trying to mitigate constant disaster. I have been blessed with the knowledge that allows me to wear many hats around my farm.

The truth is that I now use more of my college education that I have in any of my former professions. Here are just a few of the hats, in addition to carpenter, I must wear in order to do my job well.

This spring I lined up all my equipment that had engines, motors and blades out in front of the barn and got out my tools. I pulled the plugs, points, condensers, air filters, frayed belts & cords and blades from everything and then headed down to the local equipment shop for replacements and sharpening. It set me back $62 and two full days. Everything got lubed, oiled, filled with fresh gas and put back together. And all summer long, everything started when I needed it to and worked just fine.
Plumber also falls into this category and it's saved my rear-end on many occasions. From replacing the guts in my toilet to repairing a busted sub-zero hydrant (in record time, no less prior to a night out in DC), my pipe wrench has been well worth its weight in gold.


This is a no-brainer, but you'd be surprised how many--a'hem--'farmers' call the vet out for the simplest of things to do stuff they should be doing themselves. My biggest personal peeve is those who decide to raise livestock, but refuse to own a gun and humanely dispatch animals that need to be put down.

One of the most infuriating things I've ever had to do was kill a suffering lamb for a vegetarian CSA manager who decided to raise meat for her customers. Not only did she take the triplet ram lamb to the veterinarian to be "saved" (read: say goodbye to all profits), she left it suffering in her bathtub hoping it would "just die" while she worked in her greenhouse. When it didn't and she could no longer stand that awful sound animals make when they are in the throws of death, I was the one who had to shoot it.

I can see calling out the vet (by the way, it's a $48 service call just for them to show up during normal working hours and $75 for the off hours) for valuable breeding stock or dairy animals, but most issues with livestock bound for consumption, a tube of Super Glue, duct tape, Peptobismol and blood-stop powder works just fine. If not, get out the gun, string it up on the pole and call it "family meat". Oh yeah, add Butcher to the list.

It doesn't matter if you are raising animals or produce, having a basic understanding of soils, water and the life forms with which you will make your living is critical. Simple things like learning how to read a soil test and know what to add to balance for optimum fertility or understanding the life-cycle of a pest or a parasite so it can be mitigated without harsh chemicals make a difference. If I hadn't had a university education in these subjects, I probably would have listened to the idiots who told me to bulldoze my entire property, spray it with herbicides and plant a monocrop for pasture.

Sales & Marketing

If you're going to raise it, you're going to sell it one way or another. The better you are, the more money you make, period. Also worthy of mention in this category, is Accountant, another thankless job that I hope to someday outsource.

Speaking of outsourcing, there are a few things on the farm I absolutely refuse to do--serious electrical work and running a chainsaw. Give me a tractor, a backhoe, any type of hand too, power tool, mower, weed whacker, but I draw the line at a chain saw. Yes, there's one on my front porch, but it's not mine. I fired it up once thinking I could overcome my shortcoming, but I chickened out before I put the blade to wood and opted for my DeWalt Sawzall instead even though it took three heavy-duty extension cords to reach my destination.

Little electrical stuff is within my realm, but when it involves tying into the breaker box, that's where I draw the line. The most frustrating thing about my job is that I am only one person and pretty darn pig-headed when it comes to asking for help. While I may be able to do most of what needs done, ultimately, it boils down to time. Some days the clock and daylight beats me before my list is done, but when I do get to cross those items off my list and look back at what I have accomplished, it's a darn good feeling.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

It's all Relative

"There is no such thing as bad weather; it's inappropriate gear."

Words of wisdom from a Tlingit lady, who overheard a group of kayakers whining about 19 days of cool, rainy weather at Resurrection Bay, Seward, AK.

Last summer when the temperatures were in the upper 90’s as I was standing under my pop up shade on the blacktop at the Bloomingdale Farmers Market on the corner of First & R Streets in Washington, D.C., my customers repeatedly told me what a “tough job” I had. After they stocked up on their meats, vegetables, fruits, breads, cheeses, pastas and sauces, they’d go back to their air conditioned homes and be thankful it wasn’t them out there sweating their butts off.

But me? I was thankful I had such a great “office” right next to the DolceZZa Artisanal Gelato stand. A small cup of Honey & Avocado or Tangerine & Southern Comfort hits the spot during those scorcher Sundays. Little did my customers understand that I was thinking ahead to weeks such as the last few here on the farm.

For most people, a snow day or sub-zero temperatures means stocking up on the essentials, battening down the hatches and cranking up the heat. I do the same except for my job (and your dinner) depends on me making sure everyone has food, water and warm, clean bedding. It doesn't matter that it's four degrees with twenty knot winds dipping the temperatures well below zero. This time the ice cream headache isn't from wolfing down frozen gelato too quickly, but simply from walking out to the barn.

So similarly to the summer months when I tackle the elements with sandals, shorts, t-shirts, wide-brimmed hat and a couple Klean Kanteens full of water, when the brutal cold and snow arrives it’s simply a matter of being prepared and properly outfitted.

For myself, I heavily depend on gear from Patagonia. Before moving to Pennsylvania, I lived in Ventura County, home to Patagonia’s corporate headquarters. Every year I faithfully hit their parking lot sale where they would unload assorted gear for a fraction of its retail. Even after years of use, abuse and washings, much of the stuff still looks just as good as the day I bought it. Best of all, it’s designed to face the elements. The two pair of Capilene socks I bought in 1993 just gave out this year—which worked out to about $1.75 a winter for warm feet.

My next line of defense is wool. Not just any old wool, but good wool. Cashmere, alpaca and angora are my personal favorites. I’ve got a drawer full of wool socks all made from critters within a twenty mile radius of my farm and with whom I’m on a first name basis with the shepherds. Similarly, a good wool hat, either knitted or felted is worth its weight in gold. No, I'm not being a fiber snob. It's no different than comparing locally produced food to factory farmed crap.

To be fully prepared to work in sub-zero temperatures requires the following: Patagonia Capilene socks & long underwear (tops & bottoms), wool socks, Muck Boots, LL Bean two-layer union suit, Carhart jeans, cotton turtleneck, Polarfleece vest, cashmere or Synchilla pullover, cashmere or silk scarf, Patagonia winter shell lined with fleece, a face mask I found my my Grandma Meyers' knitting basket, my favorite heavy wool hat knitted by my friend, Lynne and three pair of gloves--inner fleece gloves, outer leather gloves and a spare pair of fleece in case my others get wet. Layers! Layers! Layers!

Ultimately, farming during the winter also boils down to having the right equipment. My number one, can’t live without items are my stock tank heaters. These lovely little gadgets ensure I’m not cursed with chipping ice with a digging iron just so my livestock has access to fresh water.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Accepting the Challenge

A few weeks ago, I was dropping off some veal and goat bones to a customer. As I entered her kitchen, it was scattered with an assortment of culinary projects--roasted buttered nuts and duck breasts splayed out in a pile of kosher salt like Mediterranean sunbathers in the sand.

"Would you like to sample this hot toddie recipe I'm reviewing?" Needless to say, she didn't have to ask twice. The roasted nuts were equally welcomed. Ironically, Christine and I are both technology journalism veterans who have migrated into the sustainable/local/artisan food movement--she opted for the kitchen and I, for the pasture already having done the restaurant/deli/catering gigs and knowing I didn't want to do it again. It turned out the duck breasts were going to be cured into prosciutto for something called Charcutepalooza--A Year of Meat, which was written up today in the Washington Post.

Now Christine really had my attention.

"Got any goat belly? Next month's challenge is bacon."

She caught me at the right time as the next day I was sending a cull doe along with my veal calves to the butcher. The original plan was to split the meat--she'd do half, I'd do half and we'd compare. But the goat was young and both belly pieces only yielded a few pounds so I sold it all to her.

I have delivered meat, cooked meat, raised meat, sold meat and written about meat. Now it was time for me to learn how to cut and cure meat. Having already embarked on this new journey, it seemed only logical to join the Charcutepalooza Challenge. Plus, there was already cured ham hocks and back fat drying in the attic.

Malted Barley Cured Ham Hock

Technically, I've missed the first challenge--the cured duck breast. However, it can be submitted anytime throughout the year so I'm still in the game. Not having any duck handy and wanting to get started, I opted for a wild Canadian Goose breast instead. As soon as I can round up a duck from Daniel, my neighbor and duck farmer, I'll get started.
Canadian Goose Breast in a bag with salt, sugar, herbs & spices

At a loss for what to cure for the February Challenge since the goat went to Christine, I considered whacking the spare mutton ewe leftover from Eid I plan on turning into a batch of Merguez. And then it hit me....I just had four veal calves processed.

Always one for trying new and unique ideas, I'd never heard of charcuterie made from veal. Even more appropriate, in my fridge there were two large pieces of veal belly I had snagged for "personal use". I thought about stuffing them with a vegetable, nut and mushroom filling, but the challenge called.....
Veal belly ready for salt, sugar, herbs & spices.

Will it work? I have no idea, but I'm willing to give it a go. Cure for a week, roll & dry. Who wants to be my guinea pig when the time comes to taste?