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Good Stuff: Winter Comes

Good Stuff: Winter Comes

Winter arrived with the thunder of a runaway freight train shortly after noon yesterday. I was shoulder deep in the freezer in the barn, digging for lamb shanks for the evening’s meal. I pulled my head from the freezer just in time to hear the […]

Lamb Shank Ragu

Lamb Shank Ragu

The wide egg noodle is an overlooked and under-appreciated dinner delivery mechanism. Smooth, buttery (after you apply butter, of course,) and reminiscent of a hearty chicken soup on a cold winter night. They somehow dress a meal up and down simultaneously. You can tuck into […]

Moving Pictures

Visual media has always been an integral part of what we do. The best part of a small farm isn’t the long hours, lack of family vacations, and annual mountains of paperwork, after all. The best parts of a small farm are the sights. Some of these can be captured in a snapshot; the three generations of beef cattle waiting at the gate; a gentle nuzzle a gilt places on her mama’s cheek when they’ve lived together their whole lives, the way the sun grazes off the back of the ram at dusk in the wooded lot. But many others cannot; the flap of a pig’s ears when he shakes his head, the rhythm of a mama cow chewing her cud, the satisfaction of collecting a full nest of eggs and the clean smooth bed of straw left behind for the next morning’s bounty. For more than two years we’ve been contemplating–and trying to work up the courage–to pencil moving pictures into our to-do list. Video, we keep hearing, is the future. And we’re not inclined to disagree with that. But it’s also incredibly time consuming and for that reason we’ve been daunted.

Next year, no matter how daunted we remain however, moving pictures are coming to our farm blog (and a youtube near you.) At this point our intention is to publish a short “vlog” each weekday beginning January 1. We’re hoping the transition will be smooth and we’re already practicing in hopes of getting the kinks worked out of the process before we dive in full-steam ahead. In the meantime, we just published our first video on our YouTube channel–a trailer for what’s to come. You can watch, like, and subscribe now so you don’t miss any of the videos we release in the future. The subscribing part is important; we’ll be hitting the full schedule in January, but we’ve got a couple early specials planned between now and then.

What We Do: November 2017

What We Do: November 2017

We had our first hard, killing frost on October 26. We’ve entered the 100-meter dash portion of winter prep. No longer are we running a marathon. Not this month, not with this forecast. Now we’re in a game of chicken with Mother Nature. Nothing horrible […]

On Not Relenting

On Not Relenting

One day a couple weeks ago, as I woke to the third cold, dark morning in a row, I went from, “it’s okay; we accept all seasons for what they are,” to, “I’m building a greenhouse,” by seven thirty. By eight thirty I was shopping […]

What We Do: October 2017

What We Do: October 2017

When I write blog posts here they’re always for you — the Michiganders who support our existence by eating locally and well, the fellow small-scale farmers and homesteaders who like to share in our experiences and earned knowledge, the ag and food-enthusiasts who share our passions even if not our lifestyle — but over time each post becomes infinitely more valuable to me. Early on I couldn’t have predicted how much I would enjoy looking back on the thoughts, trials, successes, and ideas we were dealing with at each step through the process of building this place from scratch. And yet, I often find myself going back through these archives to recall a snapshot in time.

What weather had us on the edge of our seat? What week did we begin and end the chicken season? When were the tomatoes ripe and when did they stop producing? So much of what I have written here acts as a record for my own perusal and I find myself going back over my words and pictures more now than ever. Which is why I realized last week while looking back on last year’s fall and winter weather for the farm newsletter, I’d really like to have a single list of the projects and tasks I’m undertaking each month. The day-to-day rarely changes — feed, water, bed, clean, ear scritches and belly rubs and chin scratches for all — but the month to month is constantly in flux. What better way to record it than with a monthly blog series? And perhaps you’ll even find it interesting too?

So, without further ado… during the month of October, 2017, this is what we’ll be doing:

Breed Sows for Late January & February Farrows

Three, three, three. Months, weeks, days. That’s how long it takes to bring a baby pig into this world. Which means sows bred the first week of October will farrow — that is, give birth — on or about the last week in January. Which, with our weaning schedule, is just about perfect for the first spring pigs around here. Once we begin we’ll breed for more pigs every few weeks until all of our gilts and sows are expecting. By staggering their due dates we’re able to make the most of small facilities while also ensuring we have plenty of time and attention to give to each group of newborn pigs during their earliest days.

Preg-Check January Farrowing Sows

Once bred, we’ll go back to each sow a few weeks later and use an on-farm ultrasound to confirm they are, in fact, expecting. No matter how many sows you’ve bred and farrowed, there never comes a point where you can look at an individual gilt or sow early in gestation and say, “Yup! She’s bred!” with certainty. And with some sows, including my favorite sow in our herd, you can’t even tell late in gestation. Each sow, like each woman, simply carries her pregnancies differently and so, if we want to be really sure a sow is bred, we have to have some way to check. The ultrasound is non-invasive. Since all of our gilts and sows are quite friendly we don’t even use a chute, crate or any other restraint. The entire device is handheld so I squirt a little gel on the wand, walk up to them wherever they are standing or laying, and press the wand gently against their belly just in front of their rear leg. Within a few seconds we have a definitive answer. And, since we use a live boar rather than artificial insemination, a definitive due date — or at least due date range if we happened to miss the action itself a couple weeks earlier. This way we can better ensure we have her in a comfy delivery pen in time for the arrival of her bitty bacon seeds.

Mend Winter Sheep Pen Fence

I won’t point fingers, but Penelope is a one-ewe wrecking crew and since we haven’t had need for the pen and shed we use for the sheep through the winter since they were last housed in it this past spring, her previous shenanigans still require a little fixing. It’s always something.

Move Sheep to Winter Pen

Normally I’d have another month, maybe more, to get around to that wrecked fence. In a year with more usual weather the sheep would not be moved into their winter quarters until November and in mild years even December. Unfortunately, we’ve been under a moderate drought for months now so there is nothing left of the pasture and hasn’t been for quite some time. They’ve been getting hay on the pasture since August so there’s little reason at this point to leave them out. We’ll move them to their winter quarters where we can more closely watch their breeding activity and body condition.

Clean out, clean up and deep-mulch the garden

The end of the growing season is always bittersweet. I hate to see the fresh food market right outside the front door disappear for another long, dark winter, but I’m also ready for a bit of a break from the work of it all. Fighting back weeds and bugs, managing harvest and preservation windows, monitoring for drought and disease… the care taking of organic fruits and vegetables is never ending. This month we’ll be just a bit sad as we harvest the last of the season’s abundance, pull out the annual plants by their roots, and cover the whole patch in a few thick inches of whatever organic matter the rest of the farm can spare for us — compost, leaves, spent hay and straw. Waste not, want not.

The perennial herbs, asparagus, berries, and fall-planted garlic will get a little extra care taken in tucking them in, the rest will simply be covered up to help snuff out the native vegetation underneath and keep the weeds at bay come spring. Since we began no-till growing a couple years ago, we’ve never been happier with our produce and this method of weed suppression and soil amendment is an integral part of our strategy.

Bottle Apples

Did I just say I was sick of canning and preserving? I am, but nature doesn’t care. Apples are ready, and when apples are ready you make applesauce. I’ll put by a few bushels in sauce, butter, juice and pie filling by the end of the month.

Process & Deliver The Last of the Meat Chickens

With the end of October comes the end of the 2017 chicken season. I spent a good half hour watching a few of the current batch scratch around in the piles of leaf mulch I’d been transporting into the garden earlier this week and I have to admit I’ll miss the little buggars between now and next spring when we do it all over again. We have just a handful of chickens left un-claimed so if you’d like to put a couple free-range, humanely-processed whole chickens in your freezer for the winter, let us know soon. They’ll be ready to go early November.

On The Desperation of Drought, and Flushing Ewes Anyway

On The Desperation of Drought, and Flushing Ewes Anyway

It rained this morning. Big, beautiful drops of water fell from blackness and for an instant I could almost hear the soil rejoice. Drought on a farm can be a terrifying time. Last week the sky opened up and dumped as much as two inches […]

A Few Favorite Things: To Live Long & Well

A Few Favorite Things: To Live Long & Well

As we watch the nation go a bit mad over healthcare, The art of living long and well is forefront on our minds. We remain flummoxed at the silence on food policy surrounding this debate. How can we become a happier and healthier nation if […]

The Tao of The Fall Cilantro

The Tao of The Fall Cilantro

Spring cilantro is difficult in Michigan. Even with slo-bolt varieties — those that can withstand higher temperatures for longer periods before they begin to “bolt” or set seed, which makes the flavor of the leaves bitter even to those of us who otherwise love the stuff — the very best I can hope for with earlier sowings are leggy plants whose harvest window is a few days tops. Our springtime according to the thermometer is simply too short these days. It stays too cold for too long and then flips, like a light switch, into the ninety degree dog days of summer like that. Just when the tender shoots are beginning to leaf out, the temperatures sky rocket and away they go, sending up stems topped with the coriander seeds of the next generation.

Of course it took me several years of sowing cilantro in the springtime to come to this realization. I am nothing if not stubborn, and I really wanted that fresh-picked punch of flavor earlier in the year. There are ways I could make it work. There are row covers, and high tunnels; garden cloches for smaller patches, and cold frames if you’re really desperate, but all of these options require an outsized commitment of labor and management. I can’t ensure I’m always here and available at just the right moment of the average March day to remove the covers before the plants get too warm and place them back again before the nighttime temps fall. And this is where cilantro becomes a metaphor for the entirety of our farm.

We began here with a simple philosophy: as little as possible, as much as necessary. But because we are fallible humans we have occasionally deviated from it. Whether we’re moving pigs, farrowing piglets, growing vegetables and herbs, or refurbishing pastures, we have always sought to do as little as possible, and only as much as necessary. Because we have always found that working with Mother Nature rather than against her is best for everyone. Pigs stay calmer, people get injured less often, crops produce more bountiful (and beautiful harvests.)

It’s a lesson we learn over and over again. I’ve never stumbled across a patch of wild cilantro here so I do have to plant and tend to it, but I don’t have to plant it in the spring. Fall is just fine. And I need to remember that the way of the fall cilantro is the way of everything else. Or at least should be.

To Build on a Hill

To Build on a Hill

To live on a hill is a beautiful thing. The way the light spills over the horizon during the golden hours morning and eve; the way the dew and frost settles and then burns off again in pockets; the way the wind dances through the […]