Thursday, November 8, 2012

Sustainability Means Making Choices

"What do you mean you didn't raise turkeys this year?" the caller asked incredulously. "We've always had one of your birds for Thanksgiving," she continued to whine hoping to guilt trip me for a decision that has not only added to my sanity, but to my bottom line as I have chosen to spend my finite resources (pasture, time, inputs, infrastructure) on a different type of livestock I've not had yet here at the farm--pastured pigs.

My foray into heritage turkeys began while I was still living in Ojai, California. The hatchery mistakenly sent a batch of Bourbon Reds instead of the Bronze Breasted (the brown version of the commercial white birds) I normally raised. Not a big flock--a dozen birds at the most as I was unaware that small-scale pluckers were available.

The birds were fed with gleanings from the avocado and citrus orchard in which I lived and were processed by hand thanks to my dear friend, Nancy and a good bottle of wine on what always turned out to be a sunny day with temperatures never dipping below the low seventies at worst.

Fast forward a few years and three thousand miles to the humble beginnings of Painted Hand Farm.

With limited fencing, we began with six Broad Breasted white turkeys poults (that's a baby) purchased from a local commercial turkey farm. Little did we realized that those poor little devils had been mutilated, toes clipped off at the first joint leaving them with bulbous knobs that left alien-like footprints as the birds matured. Similarly, the top half of their beaks were missing turning them into feathered Simpson cartoon characters.But the worst of all was the de-snooding of the males. Yes, it's as emasculating as it sounds since there is scientific proof that females prefer long snoods.

One had a bum leg to start with and we called him Stumpy. He limped around the barnyard avoiding a collision course between machinery, barn restoration and larger livestock which at this time amounted to only my mare, Bango. With an acre on which to roam, horse and turkey tangled in an effort to use the gate at the same time and Stumpy lost and we ate him.

Having been given a lovely commercial incubator that was lugged across the country, my hopes were to gather and hatch out all the farm's turkeys. I'd hatched quail, guineas and chickens, but no turkeys as of yet. When the obvious anatomical differences as well as size presented with the first flock of the farm, we harvested the larger, dumber and most irritating members of the flock leaving four females and one male.

The birds grew throughout the winter and spring arrived along with high hopes of hatchlings. The only problem was the big breasted Dolly Parton of a tom was so overly endowed with white meat he could only give good wing despite the hens lined up in a row, tail feathers flipped up to reveal their vents pulsating in anticipation. Every single egg was sterile.

Thanks to episodes of The Man Show and Dirty Jobs it quickly became apparent that ordering poults was going to be easier than hatching our own.  And so the last two of these monstrous freaks became the reason why a pair of turkeys are always smoked at the Labor Day Goat Roast.

For a few years we kept the number around a dozen until I became thoroughly ensconced in the pastured poultry sustainable agriculture movement. Then I doubled the number. While I wanted to raise the Bourbon Reds again, their hefty price tag for poults quickly sent me back to the Bronze, only this time I opted for the standard variety instead of the Broad Breasted--a comfortable medium. 

While I had hoped to retain a few choice specimens as breeders, in reality my technology and writing skills far outweighed my farming acumen and submitted a recipe to a burgeoning little website, LocalHarvest, which resulted in hundreds of calls for my sweet little flock raised on the rolling organic sylvo-pastures of Painted Hand Farm. Needless to say, I sold all of them.

"Let's raise 300 next year," my companion quickly suggested at our success. Having paid the bills for just getting two dozen to the table, I quickly surmised that his ambitions would require nearly a ten thousand dollar investment in birds and feed alone, not to mention additional fencing, feeders, waterers, etc. in order to support a sizable flock.

"Not so fast. Let's do 50," I responded and 50 it was. The following year, the number grew to 75 and there in is where I hit my limit as the fate of Mother Nature took over and ratcheted us back to 50. Those kinds of losses are hell on your budget.

But then I began going to farmers markets and that darn recipe was still floating about this thing called the Internet. Listen to Joel Salatin and only sell locally--don't ship. I watched a local Mennonite family with whom I butchered one year choose to ship. "It was a nightmare! We'll never do it again," they advised. I listened.

50 birds also seemed to be the limit that the pastures, the paddocks, the stock trailer and the farmers could manage. And in full disclosure, I should say that the birds were never really my thing. Once that relationship ended, I thought to myself, "Why am I raising these horrible throw-backs from the age of dinosaurs?"

Every single year it seemed as if the dank, chilly and wet winter sets in on butcher day. Nothing fills the nostrils more than wet turkey feathers caked with blood, guts and shit of which you will smell until the end of the day when you step into a hot shower and toss your clothes in the washing machine. Slaughtering turkeys is no picnic and if you are fortunate enough to be able to pay someone to do it for your, it's going to cost anywhere from $3.50 to $9 a the math.

For many years, however, raising a flock of turkeys--be they heritage or not--was profitable and fun. But then a few things happened.

First, I found myself farming alone and turkeys require a lot of time and labor. For example, heritage birds fly. This means clipping wings at least twice during their lifetime--a two person job. My year of keeping a flock solo resulted in a little too free-ranging turkeys who would make their rounds throughout the neighborhood twice a day and ultimately roost on top of the fence, not inside. Hungry birds will bear down on humans at an amazing speed if they think you have food for them. Anytime anyone would walk out their front door in the neighborhood or drive into their driveways, the entire flock would mob them. This did not go over well with some of my less agrarian neighbors so I gave away several turkeys to make up for the terror and turds in their front yards which the accountant pointed out was not a legitimate expense.

Secondly, the explosive growth of the sustainable agriculture movement meant that I was not longer the only pastured poultry game in town. My first year at market, I was the only farmer with Thanksgiving turkeys locally raised on pasture. The next year there were three. At the next market there were four and then it seemed everyone was doing it--farmers with more land, more labor, more capital and more processing capacity. Some of them didn't have to farm for a living and were able to offer a premium product for little profit leaving those of us whose sole source of income was the farm struggling to justify why our birds were so expensive compared to so & so's. 

Third, in case you've been living in a cave deep in the Himalayas, have you noticed all the news stories about the drought? Sure, we've got plenty of rain here, but in the mid-west, animal feed is at a premium driving the cost of grains necessary for growing out healthy turkeys as much as 35% more than last year. That means the turkey that I was selling for $3.50 a pound a few years ago now needs to cost at least  $4.75 at a bare minimum in order to deliver a 25% profit. And when you're looking at four to five months of caring for birds twice a day (turkeys take an amazing amount of water, too) combined with all the expenses, it's easy to see how the profit margin quickly shrinks.

With more people raising turkeys, the number of no-shows also began to increase. Taking deposits added yet another layer of time for record-keeping. You'd be amazed at how many people will put down a clearly-stated nonrefundable deposit on something, not show up and then demand their deposit. Let someone else have the aggravation, I say. 

But I think the final straw of my foray into fowl was the accounting of resources here at the farm. You see, I have a finite amount of land--20 acres. My limited space is one of the reasons I choose to produce small ruminants and calves as opposed to larger animals such as cows. Also, the sylvo-pasture is home to more predators than traditional open fields meaning I'm even more limited for pastured poultry. Trust me, cleaning up a hundred broilers housed in the woods for the shade during the summer that have been decimated by mink or weasel is most disappointing and extremely unsustainable.

Ah, there's that word--sustainable. It's been bandied about by both legitimate and illegitimate sources (yes, Monsanto I'm talking about your outright bribery via NPR's Market Place ad spots). And even those claiming to be sustainable really aren't when you peel back their non-profit status and peek beneath the hood of rich in-laws and multi-million dollar endowments.

These last few years I've been given the freedom to experiment with what is sustainable as well as what isn't. One of the things into which I've delved is pastured pigs and in the end, the numbers didn't lie--three pigs delivered more profit than 50 turkeys. After all, everybody loves bacon!

So, why not do both? goes back to that little thing called resources. There's only so much pasture to go around, so much capital to be invested, so much human labor available. Hire more people! Lease more land! And my all-time favorite....get some interns.

But I've been watching other farmers go down that path and invariably, they all say the same thing..."god, I hate these fucking turkeys."  They may not admit it to their customers, but I heard it at one time or another from ever single one of them, even the plain folks.

And so this year I decided to devote my resources to pastured pork instead of pastured turkeys--heritage or otherwise. I know it's not what anyone wants to hear, but sometimes we farmers need to take a break in order to remain.....sustainable.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Waste Not!

Burn & Scrape--a traditional African practice
As a meat goat producer, I've counted over thirty different nationalities of customers over the years. With 80% of the world's population eating goat meat (the most widely consumed red meat on earth), I've been exposed to a variety of recipes as well as methods of preparation--one of which is leaving the hide on the carcass after slaughter. Prior to evisceration, all the hair is singed and scraped from the hide leaving only the skin. 

What? You might ask, but the truth is skin is the largest organ of all mammals (including humans) and is comprised of lipids--aka: fat. 

In subsistence cultures, little is wasted when an animal is harvested for food. Unfortunately, the USDA doesn't see things that way, so we, as Americans, often discard up to 50% of an animal's live weight prior to consumption. 

Throughout the years I've watched as my customers have slaughtered and butchered their animals according to their own cultural traditions, often taking every part of the animal except the contents of the stomach. Some even capture the blood! 

But skin? The first time I was asked to burn & scrape a whole goat it wasn't that much of a surprise as several customers had been doing that to the heads and feet of their animals, but until asked I had never seen or done this myself. 

In speaking with a Nigerian customer, I told him about the others who burned the heads and feet and he responded with the question as to whether I could do the whole goat that way. So one day he came out to the farm and we slaughtered a goat together, him coaching me through the process of traditional African goat processing. 

That whole experience got me thinking that for my next Goat Roast I would prepare the goat with the skin on. After doing so, never again will I remove the skin from a whole goat prior to roasting--no basting, no drying out, stuffing stays put and it adds a most incredible depth of flavor. 

I also no longer remove the feet and head from my roasted goats as they are always a treat for my Nigerian friend who taught me the ways of Africa.  

So now when I engage with African customers, I can offer them a 'taste of home' by having their goats processed in a traditional manner. Nothing pleases me more to see their faces light up when I asked if they would like the carcass burned and scraped. 

As producers, we must be open to cultures and preparation methods uncommon to our own scope. Over the years, I've eaten raw liver, eyeballs, goose intestines (thought it was pasta!), lungs, pressure-cooked bones and an assortment of offal our government deems inedible.  While some may consider it fodder for a trendy reality show or catchy travel blog, the reality is this is how humans have eaten for thousands of years and they're not going to stop any time soon. 

Friday, April 27, 2012

The Circle of Life

This week again illustrates the circular journey I have embarked upon as a farmer who raises livestock.  If you eat meat, especially that which is sustainably produced and harvested, this post will give you an inkling of the life a farmer must live in order to get that pork chop from the pig in the pasture to your plate.

Yes, the time came to take Jake to visit Mr. Horst. Eloise got a pass on this one so she can try her hand at a litter of piglets this summer as I've had a most wonderful time in my foray with swine. I hadn't expected to get a gilt when Brook Miller of North Mountain Pastures dropped off a pair of weaners from Mark Fisher over at Otterbein Acres. {note: a gilt is an unbred female pig, kind of like heifers with bovines and a weaner is a piglet no longer suckling on its momma} But there she was and I had the choice to ultimately send her along on the sausage wagon or try my hand at some Painted Hand Porkers.

Pigs elicit a kind of love affair with people who raise them. I've watched as Cedarbrook Farm David Ober's face lights up when he's talking about his pigs or how a normally quiet and laid back Forrest Pritchard of Smith Meadows becomes positively animated when asked about his porcine pals. And who else, but Bev Eggleston--a Joel Salatin protege--can pull off fashionably wearing a swine stole for his photo shoot in Gourmet MagazineThere's no doubt in my mind of the deep love and appreciation these fellow farmers feel for their hogs.

Like all my livestock endeavors, I started with a pair. Given the reality that living animals sometimes die, especially due to "operator error", I decided to make sure I could actually get the pork from my meadow to mouth before investing any more resources into a new venture.

One of my biggest concerns with adding pigs was the possibility of having them get loose. For most of my fellow pig pals, this is not much of an issue as their properties do not directly interface with residential neighbors and the only damage caused would be self-contained. But even out here in the middle of all this agriculturally zoned land, there are pockets of residential real estate often owned by people who are bat shit crazy about their fastidious lawns and flower beds, not to mention those who are insanely petrified of livestock. If an occasional errant chicken who crosses the road is cause for repeated calls to the local township supervisors for fear of an avian attack, surely pigs on the prowl would be cause to call out the National Guard.

But I needed my gardens tilled and the last person who borrowed my rototiller brought it back broken with an unsubstantiated offer to have it repaired. Two pigs were cheaper and easier than a new motor. {Note to self: do not lend equipment to anyone unless you want to clean it, repair it or replace it}

If it is one pet peeve I have about pastured pork that has always raised my hackles are those who keep their pigs on a dirt lot, feed them garbage and call them pastured. Even pigs on pasture eating moldy bread, stale cereal and high-fructose laden processed crap, I consider circumspect. Sure, pigs are nature's garbage disposals, but there's a big difference in quality between bacon that comes from a well-fed pig versus well, a fed pig.

How did my pigs eat?  LOTS of produce from neighboring farms and market leftovers, including delights from Toigo Orchards, Garner's Produce and Musachio Produce Farm. In addition to mounds of fresh, ripe produce, the pigs were also given 'leftovers' from all my custom butchering and whey from a local creamery.  Ok, so they did have some stale tortillas and chips after the Labor Day Goat Roast, but for the most part, these pigs have been paleo.

And it's true what is said about pigs being smart, like dogs. They are definitely happy to see you, especially when they're hungry. The high-pitched squeals of delight truly rival the deep chested barks of any mastiff. They come when they're called and will 'sit' for a treat like an ear of sweet corn. They love to have their bellies scratched. Given enough space, pigs will run full bore (or would that be boar?) in a game of chase, twisting and banking with speed and agility certain to shock anyone having never witnessed pigs in the pasture before. 

Pigs are also clean, the cleanest on the farm, in fact. When they were at first kept in hoop frame, it wasn't long before the presence of pig through the open window became evident. While this tidbit of information might fall under the realm of TMI (too much information), it's a very real issue of sanitation in modern society as well as the central issue surrounding industrial agriculture---shit.  Pig poop and people poop have identical odors when the diets are the exact same foods from the same sources. When pigs are fed garbage or loads of grain and kept in confined areas, that's when things begin to stink and disease runs rampant, hence the constant need for constant medication. The same conditions occur in disaster areas, refugee camps and third world countries where there is little or no sewage disposal for human waste. 'Nuff said.

But back to pig poo...

When the Painted Hand Porker pair were put out on a half acre pasture, they chose to do their business at the furthest opposite corner from their shelter, leaving their bedding unsoiled unlike the goats, the bovines, the poultry and even the horse. And you know what? They didn't stink! One of my non-farming neighbors who had great apprehensions when the pigs first arrived commented at the end of summer that although they saw and heard the pig pair daily, not once did they ever smell them. Score one for sustainable agriculture. 

By spring, the pigs had completely rooted up their half acre pasture leading me to move them elsewhere so their old home in which they so lovingly prepared the soil could be re-seeded with oats, rye, clovers, alfalfa and chicory.  Moving them was as simple as taking them for a walk as they followed me closely hoping for some of the corn kernels rattling in the small white bucket I carried. No drama, no stress--just me and the pigs. 

Ah, but how they had grown and market season was rapidly approaching. Wanting to have Painted Hand Pork for the opening day of farmers markets, I scheduled Jake's date with fate. It seems like every time livestock need to be taken to the butcher, the weather is horrendous. Waking to the sound of pouring rain, I dreaded the deed that lay before me even more. 

In truth, I wasn't really looking forward to harvesting my hog as I had grown quite fond of him. Memories of  Mrs. Smyers reading Charlotte's Web to the class out loud in second grade echoed in my mind, but there was no spider spinning Some Pig in the cobwebs on the barn door.  

Being a one-woman show here on the farm is most challenging on days when animals need to be loaded on to the stock trailer. I've configured fencing, gates and paddocks to best aid in the process and keep it as stress free as possible, not just for the animals, but for myself as well. That's one of the main reasons I've opted for smaller livestock as it is much easier for me to push an animals that weighs 300 pounds or less on to the trailer than to fight with a thousand pound steer with no intentions of loading up. Last year a very large calf dragged me throughout the neighborhood before I got him roped, tied off to a post and called for help as I stood there bloody, bruised and gasping for breath. So much for letting them get a little bigger.

After backing the stock trailer up to the gate and getting a small bucket of corn, I entered the pigs' pen. Effortlessly, both followed me right into the trailer hopping up with grace I did not expect from 250 pound critters that are slung low to the ground. The appeared oblivious to their surroundings. Instead of trying to separate the pigs and leave Eloise behind, I left both in the trailer figuring it would be easier to separate them at Horst's with the experience of those who handle pigs on a weekly basis. I'd simply bring Eloise back to the farm and  unload her back into the pig paddock. After all, she'd need to get used to a little traveling here and there as we would need to make a trip soon for her to visit a most handsome Red Wattle Boar a few miles down the road. 

Anyone who has ever known me understands my affinity toward trucks with, how shall I say it? Personality. Big Stinky rattled down the road for the better part of twenty years and 489,058 miles before giving up. Big Ugly, too, belches diesel fumes but at a steady rate of 25 mpg. With fuel pushing $4.25 a gallon, the idea of paying money for a less fuel efficient truck which I only use for hauling livestock to the processor just isn't a sound idea. I keep the old beast well maintained and when it does break down, it's not too terribly expensive to fix--no turbo, no four-wheel drive, no electronics. Having just been at the mechanic's last month for a water pump and inspection, I was feeling pretty good going down the road....until I began to lose power. Oh no, not in downtown Chambersburg going around the circle! Ah, the engine revved again and all was well. 

Just passing the sign telling me I had eleven miles to the state line, I was confident I'd make it and then the engine just stopped. I coasted safely to the side of the road and tried to turn over the engine again. Nothing. I called my mechanic. "Sounds like it's out of fuel," he said. Having just put $119 in both tanks on Saturday evening and only driving back to the farm, I knew that was impossible even though the fuel gauge said empty (it's never worked since I got the truck and would be darn expensive to replace). 

Panicked, I called Horst's explaining my situation. "Call us when you get back on the road to let us know if you're going to make it by noon or not," they asked of me. When I inquired if I did not make it if I could take him the following week, they informed me it would be a few weeks until there would be a slot for him. My heart sank at the thought of not having pork for the opening day of markets. 

Despite having Platinum AAA service, I knew there was no way I could get the trailer down to Horst's before being towed home so I called for roll-back service, sent the truck to the mechanic and stood in the pouring rain while going through my list of other farmers with trucks I knew could tow the trailer. Given the crappy weather, a local produce purveyor was able to ride to my rescue in time to get Jake to the ball and Eloise back to the castle before the stock trailer turned into a pumpkin.

I'm not going to lie about it--taking the animals I've so lovingly raised to be processed is emotionally draining. Some days I'm elated to unload them and shoo them up the ramp at Horst's. Other times, due to their obnoxious behavior they don't even make it that far. When a regular ethnic customer showed up at the farm one day looking needing a goat for a big family party I offered him two smaller goats for the same price. Why? They had no respect for the electric fence and were always popping through because, yes, the grass is always greener on the other side. My running joke about having four-legged employees is if they don't behave or perform, I don't have to fire them...just eat them. But sometimes there are the ones I hate to see go and Jake was one of them.  

Knowing that in two days I had to make yet another trip to Horst's to deliver calves and goat for their date with destiny, I called my mechanic.

"What's the damage? Will I be back on the road by Wednesday?" I held my breath hoping for good news. 

"You were out of fuel. Both tanks were bone dry," he replied. Diesel theft is a regular occurrence around here, especially since the cost surpassed $4/gallon. Instead of a repair bill, I put the money toward once again, filling the tanks. 

Seeing as my mechanic is also my township supervisor, he melted all my frustrations into a puddle of laughter by suggesting that I better protect my property by getting more attack chickens. I'll have to take him some pork chops. 

Wednesday's trip to Horst's was relatively uneventful as the animals loaded right up when presented with the lure of a little sweet feed. All the calves and goats were on the trailer in less than a minute! Again, the bittersweet feelings stuck in my throat as I first ran the goats up the ramp and on to the scale. They had all been born on the farm, as had their mothers and their mothers' mothers. And it seemed like only last week I had picked up the gangly little bull calves in the back of the Subaru from the Certified Organic Amish dairy farmer a few miles down the road. But here they were destined to become scallopini, osso buco, chops, legs, shoulders and an assortment of other cuts, organ meats and sausages.

But I knew they had all lived well for their time here on this earth and given the gratitude of my customers, I also knew they would be dearly enjoyed as they made their journey from the pasture to the plate. 

While it is true that most of my bull calves are purchased from local dairy farms when they are a few days old, occasionally one comes from the offspring of my personal dairy cow, Emma. With only two functioning squirters, I can easily handle a few gallons of fresh milk a day to turn into butter, cheese, creme fraiche and kefir. Any leftovers are greatly appreciated by the calves, dogs, cats, chickens and yes, the pigs.

So after a few very physically and psychologically draining days, Emma surprised me with a set of very healthy and hot red twin calves restoring my faith again in the circle of life in which we all must participate in order to keep food--good, healthy, sustainably-produced food on our plates. 

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Rise of the $20 Chicken

I hate to say this, but customers are going to get sticker shock this year when their local seasonal farmers markets open. Yes, the price of your food is rising and this is why.

Most notedly, it will be with the meat and dairy vendors, but the fact of the matter is all of us--fruit, vegetable, bread, flowers, value-added--all have to drive to the market. In the last two years, the cost of just getting to market has increased overall by 40%. That's for fuel, maintenance and insurance for vehicles.

While fuel prices may be obvious to everyone, we farmers are increasingly being saddled with not just rising costs of inputs, but also onerous state and federal regulations that continue to take a significant chunk out of our profits and ultimately, your wallet.

The biggest offender has become the lowly chicken. Here's the breakdown of what it takes to get our feathered friends from the pasture to your plate.

Day-old chicks are generally ordered in batches of 50, 100 or 200 on a weekly, bi-monthly or monthly basis. Broilers (meat birds) cost between $0.75-1.31 per chick depending on the supplier. Cheaper is not always better, as many of us have learned through experience (i.e. mortality). For math purposes, I'm going to stick with a 100 chicks at a dollar a piece, which has been fairly stable the last several years. However, all chicks are shipped via United States Postal Service and yes, postal costs have been rising. I'm fortunate to live close enough to commercial hatcheries to not incur steep shipping costs.

Cost of Chicks  $100
Shipping            $14.10
Tally                   $114.10

For the rundown on this exercise, I'm not going to include the cost of equipment as many of us over the years have devised our own homemade equipment costing a fraction of what commercial-grade brooders, waterers, feeders, nest boxes, housing, fencing, etc. would cost. But realize, there is still a significant investment made on our part, especially those of us who process our own birds.

Once the chicks arrive, they are brooded meaning they must be kept in a warm, dry, safe place until they get feathers. No, birds do not go right out on the pasture although some farmers will brood on pasture within their chicken tractors (contraptions that allow birds to be raised on confinement on pasture). This typically takes a few weeks and requires electricity for the heat sources as chicks need to be kept at temperatures in the mid 90's.

Chicks are fed starter mash--a finely ground mixture of grains and minerals. Contrary to popular belief, chickens can not be raised solely on pasture, especially if they are confined to a chicken tractor. They require protein in order to grow. If left to forage, they consume bugs, grubs, worms, flies, grasshoppers, even snakes, mice and lizards! But for the most part, we're left paying to feed our chickens.

For a moment I'm going to digress to the heritage versus utility breed argument. Most of us who subscribe to the sustainable model of agriculture began in a utopian model of farming and that meant going back to what are defined as "heritage breeds" meaning they haven't been specifically bred to grow faster and disproportionately to supply consumer demands (i.e. bigger breasts & thighs). But after a few years (if that) of penciling out the numbers on paper, many of us realized it cost us more to produce a skinny bird that people didn't really want. The truth is a K-22 or Cornish Giant tastes just as good as Brahma or Australorp as long as it is raised on pasture with quality feed and water. By the way, those heritage chicks cost approximately $2.50 each, even when you buy 100 at a time.

But back to the numbers...

I can raise a great tasting meaty bird on pasture in 6-8 weeks using a non-medicated grain-based diet. Lately, many chicken producers have been pushed by our educated eaters to reduce the use of soy in our feedstocks. What some of us have found that while soy-based feeds do indeed cause birds to grow rapidly, that fast track lifestyle increases mortality meaning they die from growing too fast. Their poor little hearts just can't keep up with their bodies and at the slightest excitement, they'll drop dead of  heart failure.

In the last two years, the cost of chicken feed has increased 22%. Organic (non-certified) soy-free feed now costs $36 for 75lbs. By comparison, a non-medicated soy-based feed is running around $21 for the same quantity.  It takes approximately 13 pounds of feed to produce a 3 1/2 pound pasture-raised broiler.

$0.48 feed X 15 pounds = $6.24 to get the chicken to a size to harvest in 8 weeks on non-soy feed or
$0.28 feed X 13 pounds = $3.64 to get the bird to the same size in 6 weeks with soy-based feed.

Heritage breeds require twice as long to reach harvest weight so basically double the cost.

Here's the tally with the cost of chicks & feed.
100 Chicks
Utility on Soyless feed           $738

Utility with Soy-based feed   $478
Heritage on Soyless feed       $888
Heritage on Soy-based feed  $628                                                

So that means it costs anywhere from $4.78 to $8.88 for the farmer just to produce the bird. That doesn't include our labor. Remember, these things require daily care for six to sixteen weeks, depending on what type of birds chosen.  And at this point, it still is a live animal.

On to processing, packaging and selling.....

Let me preface this portion of this post by saying killing and cleaning chickens isn't fun, but you get used it it. Some farmers choose to pay someone else to do this deed and yet others of us are forced to pay for processing even though we would much rather do it ourselves. I'll explain.

Meat sales are regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). These are the regulations to which, as a poultry producer, we are required to abide. For many years, farmers, market managers and consumers have looked the other way at many vendors who cross state lines in the mid-Atlantic region who taking on-farm processed poultry to farmers markets. Why? Because USDA processing will add as much as $5 per bird to the overall cost of production. So on a 3 1/2 pound bird, you're paying $1.43 a pound for the producer to transport the birds (often more than an hour away) to a USDA approved slaughterhouse where we have zero control over the processing of the birds we have so lovingly raised. In order to mitigate contamination, USDA processed birds are submerged in some sort of sanitizing solution after processing. These solutions can be chlorine or formalin-based, meaning your dinner is dipped in toilet cleaner or embalming fluid. At some of these facilities, the processor doesn't even guarantee that the birds you get back are your own!

According the law, I am able to raise and process up to 20,000 birds on my farm in a calendar year and sell them directly to the consumer, but only within the state produced. While it is perfectly legal for me to raise, kill, clean, package and sell poultry in Pennsylvania, crossing the state line only twenty minutes away constitutes a federal offense. Yet, I can drive them three hours to Pittsburgh or Philadelphia.

Last year an intern at a Washington DC news organization wrote an investigative piece where she purchased chicken livers and hearts from two popular farmers markets in the District. A private testing laboratory confirmed the presence of Salmonella in one sample and E. coli in the other. Ironically, cooking kills both pathogens. After all, who eats raw chicken hearts & livers?

She also pointed out that both farmers were selling non-USDA inspected bird outside of their home state. The result? Farmers markets put an all-stop to poultry sales at farmers markets unless the birds were compliant with the law. Producers lost anywhere from $200 to $2,000 at each market leaving them with a glut of product that quickly filled freezers, went to food banks and even ended up as pig food. This decree was well into the season so many producers also had large flocks of turkeys started for metropolitan markets. Would we be able to sell them come Thanksgiving?

Producers with large flocks had no choice but to turn to USDA processing in order to maintain their cash flow, but they also had to increase prices. Still, the numbers were harsh. Sadly, these regulations have forced many producers to become liars and law-breakers, only processing a fraction of their poultry at a USDA facility to get that piece of paper, while continuing on-farm processing of the rest of their birds. After the brouhaha died down, many market managers went back to turning a blind eye understanding the reality of the matter while others became tyrants threatening to kick farmers out of markets that they've spent years attending and building a faithful customer base.

On-farm processing isn't taken lightly. For anyone processing a quantity of birds regularly, investing in good equipment is critical. A good plucker and scalder will set you back a couple thousand dollars, but will pay off in the long run. Because the regulations stipulate that poultry must be processed on the premises where it has been raised, there are mobile units mounted on trailers that can be moved from farm to farm. The typical cost is around a hundred bucks a day to rent such a unit. For the purpose of this article, I'm going to estimate the cost of a farmer processed bird to be $1 and non-USDA on-farm slaughter services at $2.50 per bird.

Let's do the tally now.  To get the production cost per bird, simply divide by 100. Once you have the cost per bird, divide that by 3.5 to get an approximate cost per pound just for production. As you can see, it ranges from $3.97 to $1.65 per pound depending on what type of birds, methods of feeding and type of processing.

And the tally continues....
USDA processing will be $500 bringing the total cost of production to:
Utility Breed       $1238  (non-soy fed)  
Heritage Breed   $1388  (non-soy fed) 
Utility Breed       $978     (soy fed)
Heritage Breed   $1128   (soy fed)

On-Farm processing service will be $250
Utility Breed       $938    (non-soy)  
Heritage Breed   $1138  (non-soy) 
Utility Breed       $728    (soy fed)  
Heritage Breed   $878    (soy fed)

On-Farm processed by the producer will be $100
Utility Breed       $838   (non-soy) 
Heritage Breed   $988   (non-soy)
Utility Breed       $578    (soy fed)
Heritage Breed   $728    (soy fed)

"If I can't make $4 per bird, I may as not even do it," said one producer who sells poultry at several of the larger metropolitan markets, including the premier FreshFarm Markets. Their birds are pastured Cornish Crosses fed a soy-based grain. They have a portion of their birds processed USDA, but if they have to do them all under federal inspection, they will no longer raise poultry for meat, including turkeys which will put a serious damper on holiday dinners.

So let's add that profit on to the gross costs per legal bird. That mean the utility breed chicken fed non-soy based food processed by a USDA facility would cost $16.38 or approximately $4.68/lb.

Keep in mind that this estimate does not account for mortality (i.e. dead chickens) and sometimes that can be quite a bit. With all the rains last year, many producers often lost as many as half their flocks during storms, especially with turkeys which cost as much as $9 a chick and eat three times as much grain as chicken.

It also does not include the 5-7% fee collected on gross sales by most farmers markets, local health department permits required to sell "potentially hazardous food" and liability insurance ($500 per year, up from $295 just two years ago) that all farmers markets require.

Looking at prices from well-known pastured poultry producers in the mid-Atlantic region, $4.99/lb appears to be the average price per pound. So when you ask your farmer for a four-pound chicken, be prepared to fork over a $20 bill.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Comfort Food

Filipino Pork Adobo ready for slow cooking all day
Winter is here and that means hunkering down at the farm to deal with the tribulations that bitter cold weather presents--a third meal for the animals throughout the day, maintaining access to fresh water and eventually, kidding season. While it's true that I eat very well throughout the spring, summer and fall, winter is when I turn to those stick-to-your-ribs meals that can power me through a walk around the farm after an ice storm, high winds and heavy snows to look for downed branches on fencing and to brave sub-zero wind chills as 40 knots of Arctic blast blows across the top of the hill.
Lamb Liver with onion gravy over mashed turnips & cauliflower

Yesterday when I was loading up a batch of dog treats into the dehydrator, the aroma of liver prompted me to break out a package of lamb liver for myself and cook up a batch of liver & onions.
Fried Catfish, sweet potato medallions & spinach salad.
It may be winter, but that hasn't kept my dad & brother from fishing and there is nothing more I enjoy than locally caught fish. I still have a stash of sweet potatoes from Garner's Produce and until just a few days ago, there was still spinach in the garden.

I've had several requests to include recipes for the meals I post on this blog, so here you go. And yes...I'm still working on that cookbook!

Filipino Pork Adobo
3 lbs fresh pork
2 heads garlic, cloves husked and left whole
3 bay leaves
1 cup soy sauce
1 cup Filipino sugar cane vinegar
1/2 cup honey
Fresh ground black pepper to taste
Load it all in a crock pot and forget about it for 8 hours. Enjoy! 

Lamb Liver with onion gravy over mashed turnips & cauliflower
1 lb Lamb liver (I also use goat and veal liver)
1 large onion
2 tablespoons lard

1/4 cup arrowroot powder
1 cup stock (I use veal stock)
2 cups turnips 
2 cups cauliflower
1/4 cup cream (I've also used coconut cream to make this...awesome)
4 tablespoons butter
Season to taste
Melt 1 tablespoon lard in a heavy skillet and caramelize onions. Remove from skillet and set aside. 
Dredge liver (cut into four serving portions) in arrowroot powder. Melt remaining lard in skillet and cook liver on medium heat until cooked through. Return onions to pan with liver and add stock. Cook until bubbly and thickened. Serve over mashed turnips & cauliflower.
Steam turnips and cauliflower until very soft. Either in a food processor, with and electric mixer or by hand, mash the cooked vegetables with butter and cream. Season to taste. 

Fried Catfish & sweet potato medallions
2 whole small catfish or catfish fillets
1/4 cup arrowroot powder
1 cup beer (I've used champagne, too). Whatever you use, it should be carbonated.
1 tablespoon Old Bay seasoning
1 teaspoon Tabasco sauce
1/4 cup lard or coconut oil
1 sweet potato cut into medallions approximately 1/4 inch thick.
Coarse sea salt
Heat the oil in a heavy skillet and cook sweet potato medallions until they are cooked through soft and starting to brown. Remove from hot oil and blot on paper towel while cooking fish.
Just prior to cooking, mix beer, arrowroot powder and seasonings. Dip fish in batter and cook in hot fat until cooked through and crispy on the outside.

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Omen of 2012

  Maybe the name of this post should be....
  • Don't try this at home...
  • Oops!
  • I was just saying....
  • Holy Shit! What did I do?
Even better, a text shot off early in the afternoon commented on how sore I was going to be this evening from the frenzy of farm work in preparation for the Arctic blast about to envelope the farm for the next few days. Bedding for over a hundred animals covering six different species at the tail end of a holiday when family is in from out of town takes on urgency as well as orchestration. Stock tank heaters are my best friends. Ruminants get extra hay to keep those big brew vat bellies working while everyone is nestled all deep in their warm Triticale straw compliments of Pecan Meadows. Patagonia gift certificates and Muck Boots for Christmas? Oh, my family knows me well and loves me.

Gearing up for extreme weather at the farm, whether it be searing triple-digit temperatures with oppressive humidity or the stinging, bitter cold that dries out ones' skin as to create a pale dust like that of plaster demolition, is hard work. I contemplated calling in back-up, but opted to tackle my to-do list solo.

"I'm not going to do any large-scale animal handling or farm chores by myself," I professed only hours previously. And when it came time to ensure that everyone had bedded shelter from the elements, I resorted to my IH 444 for assistance moving portable shelters behind the shelter of tree breaks. After all, I should use my tractor instead of hurting myself.

While I'm at it.....

Nothing sucks more than livestock getting loose during inclement weather so prior to those days that the weatherman says is going to be batshit miserable to both man and beast, I take inventory about the farm that could lead to my four-legged employees roaming the 'hood. They may not mind the cold, but chasing down the herd when the air outside gives you an ice cream headache is definitely on my not-ever-to-do list.
 Since the number one culprit tends to be dead trees falling down on the fence, I try to pre-empt disaster by removing vertical dead pine trees in proximity to the fence lines. Seeing three dead devils woefully listing aft, I thought I'd kill a few birds with one stone while the tractor was in the area.
 "Give me a chain and my IH 444 and I can move the world," I used to say. 
No more. 
Farming accidents happen fast...really fast. 
As you can see, the remaining two trees are leaning aft. The one that is wedged between the wheel fender and bucket armature was in a similar position. A chain around the base attached to the 3-point hitch. Second gear should jerk those shallow roots clear of the soil. 
But before I could hit the clutch and break, the tree pivoted toward the tractor and came crashing down only inches from my head. 
Oh shit.
Oh, big shit.
Over the years I've pulled out, pushed over and lifted many dead pines with my beloved little diesel tractor, but iron & engines are dangerous no matter if they're a top drive on an offshore oil rig or a forty-six year old tractor tooling around in the dirt.
Today was a big reality check, the kind that roll out the black and yellow caution tape from the edge of the gate to the bridge. 
Reality bites.