Food Fraught!

National Lampoon’s battle cry of the 1980s, “Food Fight!”, has, lo these three or four decades down the road, morphed into “Food Fraught!” 

Yes, a terrible pun and take off on John Belushi’s battle cry “Food Fight!” in Animal House. In our own country, and, in fact, throughout the world today there is a food fight going on: it concerns how food is produced, what food is consumed, human health, and animal welfare, and is literally fraught with a tangle of so many issues – of humane treatment of animals, of what that means, of carbon footprint and chemical input, and definitions of terms like natural and organic that one scarcely knows where to start.

But I probably don’t need to mention this to anyone reading this blog, and many of you may already read daily, as I do, food bloggers such as Marion Nestle, Barry Estabrook or Mark Bittman, who are concerned about the safety of our food supply and the treatment of the animals that feed us.

However, now that we are vendors at our local farmers market, I think it a good time to write about our production model and philosophy. That is to say, how we raise our animals and prepare them for the table, and where we stand on some of these questions.

First of all, we try to be as closed a system as possible (that is, we try to use minimal outside input), but, since we are still a young farm (under three years old), we are still on a climb to create that system. We currently use a mix of organic, local, and commercial feeds; when we use commercial feeds we try to use only local brands. In addition, we also use the vegetables and fruits we grow here on the farm to feed our animals, and we use the milk from our goats to make cheese and whey to feed our chickens and pigs.

We try to be as organic as possible, but for a number of reasons are not, and probably never will be certified. Expense is part of the reason for that – the cost of organic certification is high, and the regulations terribly stringent and intrusive, and I say this as one who frankly believes in a well-regulated market. We raise all of our fruits and vegetables organically though: we only use organic substances to control pests and plant diseases, and these sparingly, because we believe the three best things for controlling disease and pests on plants are manure, manure, and more manure. Plus compost!

In terms of feed, we also try to be as organic as possible on that score too, but also demand that the feed be local to reduce our carbon footprint. We will not use organic feeds produced outside of the state and country the same way we will not eat organic foods produced abroad because, first, we do not trust the enforcement of organic standards and practices elsewhere, and second, why would we send money outside of the community? It makes no sense to buy feed produced in Indiana (or, God forbid, China) for numerous reasons: Why do I want my money to go to support the economy in Indianapolis as opposed to McMinnville? How much energy and added costs will be spent hauling feed from the middle of the country to the west (where we have plenty anyway!)? And how are organic standards being enforced abroad? Given what I know of Italian culture and economics, for example (having spent a good amount of time in Italy), I would no sooner trust that a bottle of olive oil from Italy is genuinely organic than in the Man in the Moon. That might be unfair, but if you have read Roberto Saviano’s Gomorrah you have some idea of how compromised the world agricultural system (heck, even the blue jeans you’re wearing) can be. And let’s not even get started on GMOs – safe to say, until we get more research in on them, we endeavor to use feeds that are as GMO free as possible, and of course, none of our organic feed or own stuff contains any GMOs.

Another reason not to be certified is that, frankly, we feel certification is an unfair tax on smaller producers, who already face an uphill climb just by the small nature of their operations and the economy of scales. That price would need to be passed on to the consumer. My impression is that most people who undertake small farming do so because they believe in the democratic nature of food – that healthy, nutritious food should be readily accessible to as many people as possible and that people should have a choice over what they consume. That is already a difficult thing to achieve, and passing the cost on to consumers would only make it worse.

So without further ado, here is a summary of how we feed and treat our various animals on the farm.

Layers

Let’s start with our layers. Our layers are fed on a mix of commercial feed and feed grown locally and organically by Susan Richmond at Bellemare Farm. Susan uses horses to grow sustainable organic heritage grains such as farro; she mixes her own feed for our layers whose diet is also supplemented seasonally with fruits from our orchards, vegetables from our garden, and cheese and whey from our own goats milk. In addition, our layers are given free access to grass where they can free range and scratch for bugs. Occasionally they are given a nice big scoop of compost from our bins so they can scratch for worms.

Susan’s barrels are mixed into batches of around 300 lbs. You can really see the fine seeds and grains that come in the mix, so both you and the animal know what is in it, as opposed to commercial feeds that are heavy in corn and soy.

Broilers

Our layers have not had the foraging instinct bred out of them the way our broilers have, so our meat birds are given a high protein commercial (but local) feed the first three weeks of their life, then are put onto a local, organic feed (also produced at Bellemare Farm), although the feed has a higher protein content (20% for broilers as opposed to 14-16% for layers). We keep them out on grass, of which there is plenty for them to eat in the spring and fall. They actually need to be taught, however, to eat grass; layers recognize grass as food instinctually, broilers do not. So, in order to teach them, we need to add grass clippings to their feed when chicks so they know to forage for it as adults. They are given plenty of fruit in the summer which they will eat, but unfortunately, unlike layers, they do not tend to recognize cheese as food, so their diet tends to be limited to their feed, grass, and fruit. They are allowed to be on pasture, but, due to predation and for the animal’s safety, need to be kept in chicken tractors, large wire boxes with no bottoms and a shade top which allows them to be on pasture but also keeps them safe from predatory birds and coyotes which abound in our area. We put no more than 25 in our 4 x 8 tractors and 50 in our 8 x 8: they are moved twice a day so that they are on fresh grass constantly, with free access to food and water. There are times when our supply of organic feed dries up. In that case they are put temporarily on a local commercial feed, but for the most part they are fed organically. We do not medicate our birds unless sick, but being out on pasture we experience a minimal of health problems; no chemical inputs whatsoever go into our pasture, just chicken manure, which makes for a very lush and vigorous pasture in the spring.

A close up of the broiler feed Susan mixes. It consists of peas, hard red wheat, oats, flax seed, camellia meal, lime, and some fish or kelp meal for added minerals. Layer feed also contains rye and triticale (a type of hybrid wheat and rye).

Susan grows all of her grains the old fashioned way, with draft horses to draw the attachments and to fertilize her fields. If we had someone in the picture for scale you would find that these horses formidable in size indeed. It bears little mention from the photo, but Susan’s farm in Willamina is set in a very picturesque and beautiful valley just on the edge of the coast range.

Horse drawn attachments are the order of the day! You don’t see many of these around, because Susan is one of the few women in the country to grow heritage grains organically and sustainably using, literally, horse power.

The mixer that Susan uses is a pretty heavy duty piece of machinery and a great work horse – this one is a used one and has been in use since the late 1960s/early 1970s.

Ducks

Our duck layers (Kakhi Campbells are the breed), are given free range in our fruit orchard, no holds bared. They eat a minimal of high protein commercial feed, which really serves as just a supplement to the worms, bugs, and grass they eat in our garden. They also get the thinnings of leafy greens from our garden. From November until April they are given free run of our large vegetable garden where they dig through the mud and grass for slugs and their eggs, so act as pest patrol.

Goats

Our goats are given a local blend of dairy ration (developed by a local specialist on goat care, Dr. Laura Acton), alfalfa hay, orchard grass, and pasture. We try to balance these so that they obtain proper nutrition and at the same time produce good flavorful milk that produces a terroire as important to their milk as it is to Pinot Noir. We use their milk to feed our chickens, pigs, and ourselves. We are happy to sell their milk direct from the farm – we ourselves use it to make ricotta, feta, chevre, and will experiment this year with aged cheese. The ricotta makes an awesome cheesecake, and the feta and chevre are super versatile, and great for fritattas, salads, pizzas, custards, omlettes, and lots of other great stuff. We also produce excellent goat meat great for roasting, meatballs, cassaroles, or the grill.

Pigs

We are currently experimenting with developing pasture-raised hogs for subscription, and are starting with raising crosses of Tamworths and Large Blacks, and Old Spots and Large Blacks. They are kept on pasture so root in our land for roots and grass; they are given local, organic feed when available, commercial feed, and are given goats milk every morning and evening (1/2 a gallon per pig). In addition they are given acorns from our oak stands and fruits and veggies from our gardens and orchards. They get to till our pasture and create mud wallows where they can loll in the mud to their hearts content, the way pigs ought. They are thoroughly spoiled, and occasionally given beer and massage. All of this makes for the best pork you will ever eat, bar none.

The Upshot

So the take-away from all of this – the short version, as it were – is that we source our feed almost exclusively on a local level, we try to use organic, non-GMO feed, also sourced locally, and we use our own organic fruits and veggies. Only occasionally do we have recourse to commercial feed, and then, with rare exceptions, it’s sourced locally. All of our animals are pastured and on grass, and as much as possible we try to let the animal be the animal it was intended to be, so our hens scratch, our broilers forage, our pigs root, our goats graze, and our ducks snurfle the dirt. Except for the necessary deworming and booster shots required for health and humane treatment, none of our animals are medicated unless sick. Clean, delicious food, healthy people, and a healthy planet are inseparable. Our philosophy can perhaps best be summed up by Carlo Petrini, the founder of the slow food movement in Italy, who stated “A gastronomer who is not an environmentalist is stupid. Whereas an environmentalist who is not a gastronomer is just sad.” As always too, we invite our customers to come and look for themselves at how our animals are not merely raised but, we hope, pampered.

 

Breaking Downton Abby’s Bad Throne. Or Something.

(With apologies to Petronius’ muddled version, via Trimalchio, of the Trojan War).

Okay, full confession. Life on the farm is tough, and to unwind after some of our long hard days we have taken to a habit something we have never done before. We have fallen into the category of those who binge on TV series. It started with binging on some old BBC drama series: I, Claudius; The Fall of Eagles; Brideshead Revisited; The Jewel in the Crown. We then turned to more recent series: the Tudors; the Borgias; HBO’s Rome. In the past year we have simultaneously become addicted to Downton Abby, Game of Thrones, and Breaking Bad.

The problem is, we don’t watch one straight through – we intertwine and interrupt out of order the various series, and at times it’s really hard to keep them straight.

So here is my recollection of the plot of what we have been watching this year. Some guy named Walter Frey, who is a chemistry teacher at the Twins, rules the seven kingdoms of Westeros but is diagnosed with lung cancer. He summons a drug dealer, a guy named Jesse, to become the Hand of the Earl of Downton; during the visit Jesse’s valet is found to have a criminal record setting the downstairs servants gossiping that he ought to be sent to the Wall.

Hank Stark, DEA Warden of the North, protects New Mexico from Lord Grantham. Winter is Coming, s’up.

And that’s just the intro to any given episode. At this point a periodic table appears on the screen with funny mechanical devices become cities on some dog’s butt.

Now we watch several seasons at a time, so I’ll just try to recap the first couple of seasons. At the opening season of the cotillion in London a girl named Arya White gets into a fight with a couple of guys from a Mexican drug cartel and Syrio, her dancing master, kills them. But the bodies are in the manor so they have to have a downstairs servant help get rid of them.

They also use acid to dissolve the footing of Brand Stark while climbing, causing him to fall into a meth lab in an RV. At this point Edith, Mary, and Sybil decide to sleep with their brother, a guy named Hank Lannister who is a DEA knight I think. This infuriates the Earl of Grantham, who starts to cast about for a new heir to the manor, some guy named King Joffrey. This infuriates Arya White, the daughter of Skyler Frey and Matthew Greyjoy, who starts to recite the names of those she wants to kill, including some guy named Walder White, the Hound of Grantham, and Jesse Baratheon, I think.

Heisenberg of House Bolton is a real hit with the downstairs servant staff!

Enter Circei. Circei is the Earl of Grantham’s bastard who owns something called a Dire Basset, whatever that is. Anyway, it turns out that Circei is sleeping with a guy named Mr. Carson and they have an incestuous son named Mr. Bates. Mr. Bates falls in love with Jesse Baratheon’s daughter whose name is Jane, sometimes known as the Red Witch. The Red Witch pays for Walter Frey’s cancer treatment by turning tricks with some guy named Matthew but Matthew dies when a drug deal goes bad and flees to a place called Kings Landing which is somewhere in New Mexico.

At this point the child of Saul Goodman and Marjorie Tyrell, who are of the house Bolton, slit the throat of Edith, Sybil, and Mary, at an event known as the Car Wash wedding. They behead the dire basset and send the DEA knight, Hank to celebrate Christmas in Scotland. At this juncture Marie, Hank’s warg, has an out of body experience and starts to spy on Mance Rayder’s meth lab; Mance is supposed to produce a certain amount of product daily, but his wife gets raped by a valet and he is forced to stop producing meth for a time.

A standing portrait of House Lannister . . . um, no wait, uh, members of Tucco’s extended family and sinister drug cartel . . . no wait . . . oh forget it!

It’s at this point that the ravens overdose on the meth and so are unable to warn the Earl of Grantham about the outbreak of WWI. In the midst of all of this, a bunch of zombies known as White Walkers get shot and are rendered paraplegic, forcing the collectively to break off their engagement with Mary, Walter Frey’s daughter, and to start collecting minerals. This infuriates Walter, who plots the death of Arya White. But Jaqen H’ghar Pinkman (“Yo, ‘sup, valar morghulis”) takes Arya White under his wing and they start on a long journey through the desert of New Westeros to find these two Mexican sellswords named Mike and Bronn who will “take care of things”.

Enter the Onion Knight who starts to have an affair with a journalist in London named Edith of Tarth. The journalist soon “disappears” in the land of the Dorthaki, ruled by Daenarys Targyrion, the “Khal” of the Germans, who has designs on inheriting Downton Abby. The Onion Knight, with the help of Brienne of Bates starts a desperate search for him – but there’s a meth lab in the basement depreciating the Abby’s value. Meanwhile Combo is sent beyond the Wall to Krester’s keep and gets a part of his ear blown off by an attractive Wilding named Grytt.

Oh, plus Seinfeld’s dentist kills Boromir, and Guy Peron has an affair with Tyrion’s whore – or something. Whatever.

Addendum: Since writing this initial summary I have also started watching the Walking Dead, and just want to give a heads up that the creatures attacking Krester’s Keep are now apparently ensconced in Atlanta, Georgia.

Farming, Day 750

Our circle garden on a typical June morning – cool and overcast. The only thing is, we have not had typical June mornings: the weather has been sunny, warm, and dry so far this early summer.

It has been just over two years since we started our farm operation, and as we start going to market, I cannot help but reflect on where we have been and how much we have accomplished. When we came on this property we were greenhorns, with absolutely no idea where to begin; we knew that everything would take time, that we would make some pretty bad mistakes, that we would dump lots of money into things that would turn out to be errors or money poorly spent. That is the nature of starting to farm with zero experience, beyond gardening, when you are 50. With no small degree of satisfaction, chagrin, and bemusement, I recall something as simple as trying to figure out housing for our first chicken coop. We had literally no idea where to start in terms of construction techniques, but we quickly learned.

Our lush veggie garden! Row crops in the front include potatoes, several types of beans, and tomatoes companion planted with marigolds. The bushy stuff in the boxes are peas and more potatoes, and the in ground bushes are comfy that we cut, soak, and use as an organic fertilizer.

Earlier this year I had a conversation with a friend of mine at Linfield who teaches in the Art Department, and he noted that both he and I, inasmuch as we were both attracted to academe and had made careers in it, probably didn’t have much in the way of technical skill and know how. How did I overcome that?, he asked. I replied that he was right, but that plunging into this endeavor we had little choice but to learn: we’ve relied on the kindness and generosity of people such as my brother-in-law Lin, our neighbors Greg and Bridget, and now our part-time hired hand Ryan. They’ve taught us (for I include both Nancy and Lori in this!) everything from carpentry tricks to how to change attachments on a tractor to how to change a belt on a mower.

I couldn’t resist several shots of our veggies, which are as healthy, green, and lush this year as they were small and sickly last. What a difference the weather and a year of soil amendment makes!

The help and advice of local farmers, extension agents, the Master Gardeners program through the extension, and people we have met here and there in other venues along the way, particularly the “goat” people (and I could name many names, but particularly Stacey, Emily, Karen, and Kristina, if any of you are reading this!), have been incredibly generous with their time and help in a way I have not experienced before. And I believe it gets to the base of people understanding what we are trying to do that has a common element that gets to an equally basic element of what people value: good food, humane treatment of animals, the basic elements of life, including hard physical work, healthy food, and a sense of community, all of which takes you outside of yourself and makes you realize there is much beyond you.

Our box of red potatoes holds center stage next to our kale with a view of a couple of our fruit trees looking south to the neighboring vineyard; the box in the foreground with the meager shots is a new permanent bed of asparagus I planted this past winter.

Obligations and priorities shift when you tend land and animals, and the land and the elements become your teacher. Like learning a new language, we now have terms, phrases, visual vocabulary, that would have been foreign to us two years ago. The simple act of pasture management is a good example of this: rye, fescue, blue, plantain, vetch, field peas – we could never have distinguished any of these grasses or important pasture covers two years ago. The Biblical phrase about the eye of the master fattening the cattle is now something I understand all too well: nothing is more important than observation, and every day it is imperative to observe your flocks and herds: are they behaving as the animal should? Are they eating? Are they active? Is the pig rooting? Is the hen scratching? Are the kids gamboling? Are their excreta normal? Are the does’ udders bagged up?

You can’t “beat” our greens for their absolutely luscious quality!

It is no less true of the fruits and vegetables, which require constant tending, particularly this time of year. In the course of our time here we have learned an enormous amount about how to tend vegetables and fruits organically. We’ve learned that nitrogen, usually in the form of blood meal, is incredibly important for leafy greens such as spinach, chard, lettuce, kale, and beets. Bone meal, on the other hand, is essential for the production of fruit on tomatoes and cuccurbids such as melons and squash. Small raised beds, usually in boxes, create great conditions for the production of veggies such as leeks, potatoes, and cabbage. Apples, plums, pears, and cherries require little work here, while apricots and peaches need a good talking to as well as diligent spraying (copper and lime sulphur which are considered organic).

After two years we have turned the circle garden into what will be a riot of roses and dahlias – to go along with our camellias and honeysuckle – in a few weeks. We also nursed along a couple of feeble clematises, one of which (pictured in the foreground) has an absolutely gorgeous floribunda type blossom.

Each plant needs its own tending and can present its own set of problems: leaf miners and fungus can ruin a beautiful bed of greens in no time; slugs can do such damage that you think you have mice or gophers; watering daily, sometimes twice daily, is essential. Extensions will advise deep watering once every few days – it’s nonsense. Vegetables, with a few exceptions, are like annual flowers, shallow rooted, and require constant watering, particularly in the dry season, when I spend about two hours out of my day managing water. Spacing of leafy greens is vital too – plant too intensively and fungus can spread due to lack of air circulation; don’t plant intensively enough and you allow space for weeds and invasive plants. Other veggies seem impervious to anything: potatoes, leeks, peas seem to have a relentless and hardy quality that make them pretty easy to grow.

This has been a more typical view of our circle garden this June – in bright sunlight. The red rose in the picture is an amazing plant, with huge red roses the size of a small dinner plate – the variety is called Oklahoma.

In the course of our time here, I myself have acquired a quite paradoxical and vexed view of animals. I have come to have a great respect for most of them. The chicken, the goat, the pig, the turkey: these are amazing machines, great products of selective evolution by us. The laying hen, the milk goat, and the pig in particular, because their productivity in terms of what they offer nutritionally and calorically for us, are nothing less than astonishing. A single 140 lbs. goat has given us as much as 10 lbs. of milk a day. Our wiener hogs grew to a modest 300 lbs dressed weight, but the amount of ham, bacon, and pork chops in our freezer – and their quality – is incredible, and unlike anything we have ever had. We now eat some kind of pork product almost daily, even if it is just a few ounces of smoked guanciale (hog jowl) to flavor our luscious home-grown greens (that we usually braise with a Walla Walla sweet onion). Our chickens have quite simply the best meat on any bird I have ever had – that is the product of the animal being grass fed and raised on pasture: fried, braised (last night in butter, garlic, tarragon, and white wine), roasted (oh my Lord our Peruvian chicken!), or smoked (after being brined then put on the grill with apple wood at 200 degrees for the afternoon).

 One more view of the garden in the morning sun – an iPhone is a poor means, I’m afraid, by which to capture the lovely views it affords.

Of course, each of these culinary experiences came with a great deal of work. We had to learn about housing, nutrition, and health maintenance for each animal, and we soon learned that no matter what you do, some animals will invariably do something that is destructive, damaging to infrastructure, or just plain annoying: the same goat determined to get its head stuck again and again in wire fencing; the pig that overturns 10 gallons of water with its snout like it was a piece of paper; the rooster that plots malice in its heart and attacks from behind with its spurs; the kids who decide chicken feed is also goat chow; the hens who scratch down in a matter of minutes the compost pile you spend hours mucking and piling. Animals are wonderful savages that delight, frustrate, and create delicious products and by products, including their manure that fertilizes our pumpkins, corn, and beets. We daily get a full 50%-70% of our calories from our land, as well as supply others with a great deal of healthy food as well.

Meet our newest additions to the farm, two piglets that are Gloucester Old Spot/Large Black crosses; both are gelded boars who we’ve dubbed Walter and Jesse (see above post for the cultural reference!)

So, in the course of 750 days we can tick off some major accomplishments: learning the rudiments of construction and mechanics; learning the rudiments of animal husbandry, flock management, and pasture management; learning how to make hard cider; learning how to grow fruits and veggies in our climate; learning how to market our products; learning how to make cheese; learning how to dairy; learning how to raise pigs, goats, chickens, turkeys, and ducks; learning how to take time off and have a glass of wine or three as we enjoy this Pacific Eden into which we have come.

Our goats out on pasture; we use most of their milk to feed our pigs and chickens at the moment, and wow, does their milk make the finest pork we have ever had!

And of all of these, the last is the toughest. There is always something to do; but to all things there is a time. Twenty years ago when I was thirty-one, I spent the summer in Italy helping to excavate an ancient Roman city. It was hot, hard, dirty work. We slept in a cafeteria at a local school, all 60 or so of us on crappy mattresses. We got up at 5, had some hard bread and jam with a cup of espresso, started digging at 6, and swung picks and dug in the dirt until 1. We returned to the school, took cold showers at a local soccer gym, had a cold lunch of various salads, bread, and delicious cold white wine, and then slept until 4, when we catalogued our finds for the day. At 5:30 or so we headed to the local bar, drank lots of beer and watched soccer until 8. We then headed to a local restaurant for a large group dinner which included copious amounts of wine, went out partying afterwards until 11 or 12 since it was always too hot to sleep, and then got up to do the same thing the next day. It was tough, but I loved every minute of it – swinging the pick, hauling and sifting wheelbarrows full of Campanian earth, finding mostly part sherds, but also the occasional ancient Roman oil lamp, earring, or broaches for togas and mantles.

Our pastured chickens get access to plenty of grass and are moved at least twice a day – they have become a minor hit at the market and their meat is both lean and of superior flavor.

It was a part of my archaeology practicum that I undertook as a graduate student in Classics. Had you told me then that twenty years down the road, with tenure, three books, numerous articles and reviews, in fact, an entire career in academe well-established and under my belt, that I would once again be swinging a pick and digging in the dirt, I would have called you mad. But when we drink a cup of coffee with views of our vineyards, mountains, and gardens on a series of beautiful June mornings this year, in the midst of a profound peace, I think about the alternative: libraries, meetings, long stints in a windowless office. And I come to realize how impoverished our lives would have been without this mad little dream of spending the rest of our lives in the abundant garden that our farm has become.

Gravity

Booooom! Craaaaash! Claaaaaattteeeerrrr! Whoooosh! Trot trot trot . . . .

That was the sound that greeted us while working in the big red barn this morning. It was Jack, our 80 lb. 9 month old golden retriever puppy/tank/doofus dog falling twelve feet through the ceiling of our barn. Unbeknownst to us, he had crawled into the eves where, apparently, the dry wall that had been used in ceiling construction had not been well installed. He was hunting after our new cat, Thomas (also known as Tommy), had crawled into the eves, and suddenly came crashing through the ceiling.

Jack, none the worse for wear and still stupid despite his Newtonianesque discovery of the actual reality (as opposed to mere theory!) of gravity.

He fell into our small garage in the barn where we keep heavy equipment and gas, and the plastic gas tanks must have broken his fall and he mercifully missed hitting any sharp objects, and literally walked away from the accident. We watched him for the next few hours for any sign of concussion or internal injuries, but so far so good.

Jack converted our ceiling from one of 12 to 25 feet!

The landing pad.

He will not be going upstairs again. Unlike Thomas, he probably does not have nine lives, and if he did, he used eight of them up today. Gravity. Get used to it.