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.