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.