Monday, October 24, 2011

Individual Cuts vs. The Whole/Half Hog

I thought I would expand a little on the cuts vs. whole/half animals post a little since there were a couple of comments on my previous post. First of all I don't believe I'll ever get to a point where I don't do any individual cuts (although I could be wrong), but I would like to get a point where it is a very small portion of the sales. As I detailed in the last post I strongly believe that a whole/half is the most sustainable for all involved, but I also understand that there will always be a majority of customers/potential customers who like the convenience of only buying pork chops and bacon.

In our case we sell the individual cuts through multiple sources ... at a farmers' market, through an on-line order food cooperative, monthly deliveries to a group of customers in the Des Moines area, and off the farm. With all of those various methods of selling (some of which overlap) keeping an inventory is a requirement. That inventory takes quite a bit of time as we keep track not only of quantity, but also of weights (we use a spread sheet at the farmers' market with weights to make selling easier). When we process a hog (or anything else) that will be for sale as individual cuts there is also an extra charge at the locker to make it an "official" animal and have labels with weights. On top of all of that time there is also the expense of running freezers, or in my case of never having enough freezers!

As you might imagine all of that adds up to quite a bit of extra time and money spent in order to offer the convenience of individual cuts. I can see the benefit of individual cuts if you were just doing it for a few cuts (burger and steaks as mentioned in one of the comments), but if I could get away from it I would. We do try to keep everything that we can get a label for. That means we have plenty of lard, leaf lard, and pork soup bones. And, at certain times of the year we really get overloaded on things like ham, ham hocks, and roast.

On the flip side when we sell a whole there is no need for freezer space, there is no inventory, and there is not as much time spent in selling it. This was our first year doing a pay-as-it-grows program on the pigs and it seems like there was a decent amount of interest in that. It is something that takes a bit more paper work and time, but if you compare it to the individual cuts you realize it isn't so bad I think. Plus, when the whole hog is sold there isn't any "tough sell" cuts left over and with a little education I think our customers will really come to appreciate getting those cuts!

Like a said ... just a few more thoughts on the cuts vs. whole animal discussion ...

:: Farm Rock :: This Too Shall Pass ... by OK Go ... watch here ... buy here ::

Friday, October 21, 2011

Sustainability :: The Whole Hog

Sustainability is a word that gets thrown around a lot these days. Every sort of agriculture from large-scale row crop operations to confinement agriculture to the smallest market garden farms use the word sustainable. So, if feel that it is always necessary for me to define the word when I'm using it. In my case i would simply sum sustainability up as the sort of farming that lets me survive physically and emotionally ... adds to the health and well-being of friends and neighbors ... takes into account the created purpose of the livestock ... takes stewardship of the land seriously ... and has fun doing it. Of course now that I've written that out I realize it's not quite as simple as it seems on the surface ... nevertheless I'm always striving for sustainability along those lines!

With that in mind I think I've come to the conclusion that selling halves and wholes is the most sustainable option for the farm. I'm not completely sure that I will ever make it to the point where I'm only selling wholes and halves, but I do believe it is a very sustainable goal to work towards on every level. Let me take some of the above definition of sustainability and explain what I mean ...

  • Simply said ... going to the market every week (while working a full-time town job) takes up precious time and energy. I love the interaction with customers and the opportunity to share the reasons for the farm and the way the farm works. The sale of wholes and halves still takes time marketing and communicating with customers, but in the end it is much less time consuming and stressful.
  • I think most would readily agree with me that wholes and halves is most sustainable for the farm, but I believe it is equally sustainable for the customer (friends and neighbors). When a family purchases a whole or half hog (since that is all we're selling now) they get all the cuts. I agree that it is easier to just get the things you want (chops, bacon, etc.), but when you get a whole hog you get all the good out of the animal. This type of purchase encourages the customer to make use of everything ... including some of the most healthy things that many people would skip. Lard is the perfect example ... and it is not as difficult to make and use as you think!
  • Crooked Gap Farm is a place where a pig is a pig. That means that the pigs are allowed to fill their created pigginess, but also that the whole pig is used just as it was created to be. I strive to make sure that all that can be used or sold is used or sold and when dealing with wholes and halves it is just that much easier.
  • On the surface it seems that the way you sell an animal wouldn't have much to do with land stewardship. But, I think it does! Just think of it this way ... when you are selling the majority of your livestock as wholes and halves you are able to really align the animals with the seasons that work best for them and the land. This allows the farm to maintain a high level of ecological sustainability and to tap into the natural instincts of the animals. I love it!
  • Finally ... I just want to have fun farming because that is one of my key components of sustainability! When I was a kid I played with my toy tractors for fun ... I ran through manure piles for fun ... I pretended to farm for fun! Now that I'm an adult I want to keep the fun around ... too many farms forget the fun and I refuse to be one of them.
:: Farm Rock :: Deer in the Headlights by Owl City ... watch here ... buy here ::

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Pigs :: The Good

A farm is a constant lesson in humility ... or at least my farm is. When one thing is going well that usually means that ten things aren't. But, one (faintly) bright spot this year has been the pigs. I still feel like I have a lot to learn when it comes to farrowing, handling, feeding, selecting, sorting, etc ... But, on the whole I would say that the pigs are the highlight of the farm for me. Despite all the things that still need to be learned or figured out the pigs are still doing well as the center piece of the farm and at least continue to provide a cash flow.

This is the first year that I've had a somewhat organized plan for getting them to the woods and on pasture. I was able to make a five or six acre semi-permanent paddock for the growers that was a good mix of pasture. Although I did not get it divided up for rotation like I wanted to the area was large enough to give them plenty of room to forage through the woods and the grass. They truly were happy pigs (and still are) out there.

The downside of course to pigs on five or six acres is that when it comes to loading up three of the forty odd pigs out there things aren't as easy as in a confinement operation. Let's just say that I have spent "a while" loading up pigs ... even when I thought I was taking the time to do it right! What I did do is build a "sorting/loading" area around their water. The idea being that if they are used to coming into an area at least they may give it a chance when it comes time to loading. I also tried to strategically let the feeder empty when it was time to load them so I could feed them by hand in the "sorting/loading" area.

Sometimes it has worked ... sometimes it has not. One of my major problems is that my small livestock trailer has no center divider so there has been times when one pig has escaped while trying to load the second or third pig. I'm getting better at it, but it is not a perfect system. What has happened though is that each time I've had to load pigs my loading system has grown ... my most recent (and successful) method had me putting up an electric netting fence all the way to their feeder to corral them ... it worked!

Raising the pigs to market weight isn't the only issue though ... sometimes I think marketing is even more important than any sorting system or rotational grazing. This year we have been marketing through our usual channels like the Iowa Food Coop and by selling wholes and halves, but have also added the Downtown Des Moines Farmers' Market (for twelve Saturdays). All of the time marketing has led to my deep belief that selling wholes and halves is the most financially and ecologically sustainable thing for the farm, the heritage breeds, and our customers! More on that later...

:: Farm Rock :: Able by NEEDTOBREATHE ... listen here ... buy here ::

Monday, October 17, 2011

Where Have I Been?

Have you ever had one of those moments where you wonder where you have been ... only to realize that you have no idea where you have been! That is kind of what I feel like. I know that I have been somewhere and I know that I've been doing something, but I don't really know where or what. Now I am back though ... and I really mean it though ... at least for a little while that is because I have the posts started already. I do know a few things for sure though :: I am still farming ... somehow, I am still a beginning farmer, and Blogger has changed a lot and I'm confused!

If I were to step back and look with a totally objective prospective I think I would say that the farm is actually moving along as well as could be expected ... considering the circumstances. I always need to keep reminding myself that when the farm started it started with nothing and now it at least has something! Here is the nickel tour of what has been happening ::

  • The pigs remain the centerpiece of the farm and they are being raised with some degree of success in the woods and on the pasture. 
  • The cows are doing their thing, but the jury is still out on how well the beef side of the farm is working (maybe more on that later). 
  • I love the sheep ... although they have caused innumerable problems and I'm pretty much clueless when it comes to them.
  • The laying hens are still the rescue chickens and have the run of the farm. There is one small batch of pullets in the "egg-mobile" following the cows, but something bigger needs to happen next year so that the layers are pulling their weight on the farm.
  • This fall the first small batch of meat birds will be going to the processor. This was the trial run and I believe I'm ready to really ramp things up next year.
  • Ten weeks down at the Downtown Des Moines Farmers' Market and two to go. It has been a good learning experience and I have lots of ideas for next year if I'm able to make it full time.
On the downside I am still off of the farm from 7:30 AM until 5:30 PM every day. Now that the daylight hours are getting fewer that is making things more difficult and in my mind I'm rushing to get things prepared for winter ... the reality is though that I'm just hustling to get each days chores done. Keeping the head up though.

So ... I'm back ... at least until I run out of my posts (I do have a few written ahead). 

:: Farm Rock :: Dark Horses by Switchfoot ... watch here ... buy here :: 

Friday, September 30, 2011

An Invite to our Farm

This is the Beginning Farmer's Wife taking over a post since the Beginning Farmer is crazy busy! :)   This Sunday, October 2nd, you're all invited to our farm. Check out my blog for details!

Friday, September 02, 2011

Farm Blogging

It's been months since I have sat down to write a blog post and actually accomplished something, but the video below (and the thoughts that are screaming to get out of my brain) reminded of one of the reasons I liked blogging. I like stumbling across things like this and then sharing and interacting with the feedback.

Here is what I think of the video ... I like Coldplay ... I like this song ... Willie Nelson does an interesting cover of it ... the animation is fun ... the subject matter is cool ... and maybe it is a little bit of a commercial for Chipotle. Also, I've been reworking my blog in my head ... which may mean a bit of a relaunch if anyone is interested ...

Without further ado ... Willie Nelson singing "The Scientist"and a farming video all wrapped into one ::

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A Diverse Farm ...

As you can see from the picture above there was a new litter of pigs born Sunday night in the storm and things seem to be going well. But, if you look closely at the picture you will also notice a chicken in the foreground. I think it's a perfect example of the diverse farm and also helps remind me that the chickens are out doing their job in the pig lot, the pasture, and all around the farm. Plus, they are laying eggs ... although I wouldn't mind having some more egg layers around!

Monday, June 27, 2011

Need a Sign :: Need Your Help

Okay ... the first farmer's market is coming up very quickly and I need some serious help on a sign for the tent. I am feeling sort of uncreative at the moment which is why I have seven sign ideas instead of just one. I feel like I've tried to cram too much information onto the signs, but here they are anyways. You may have noticed that I'm focusing on the "heritage breed meats" thing a lot instead of the farm name. Part of that is because the heritage breeds are something important to the farm and I'm new to the market so it helps differentiate me from the other livestock farms there. And part of it is ... well it is because I got stuck on that phrase. Please let me know if there is one You particularly like ... or if I should just go with a simple "Crooked Gap Farm" sign. Just place your vote in the comments, and as always ... thanks for the help!

Sign #1 ::

Sign #2 ::

Sign #3 ::

Sign #4 ::

Sign #5 ::

Sign #6 ::

Sign #7 ::

Friday, June 24, 2011

More Thoughts on D.C.

The biggest most recurring thought I had while I was in Washington D.C. meeting with congressional leaders and their aides ... the fact that ever meeting I had with someone was a meeting that was preceded by another meeting. That's just how Washington D.C. works I guess. I was there to speak on behalf of some beginning farmers and talk about how the current governmental programs do or don't help a beginning farmer and what could be done to level the playing field (or at least allow me on the scale) slightly. But, while I was out there I realized I was a small fish in a rather vast ocean. One meeting before mine included six very well dressed men with briefcases and fancy charts ... they were with a road construction company and I'm fairly certain they were there for a similar reason as mine ... to share their story and ask for support (which in governmental terms usually means money).

All of that made me wonder what I was doing there ... was my voice going to be a voice or a murmur ... did it matter if I shared my story ... where those "asks" I was asking for even worth the time? There was always a thought in the back of my mind that was a little cynical about the system. But, at the same time I will admit that I was slightly intrigued by the process.

The main reason that the our group was out there was to paint a picture of beginning farmers across the country and speak with congressional leaders about the upcoming farm bill ... which I learned may happen anywhere between 2011 and 2013 ... although it is scheduled for 2012. In fact the thing that we were sharing with people was what is considered a "marker bill" for the next farm bill. In this case it was probably one of the first "marker bills".

As I looked at the bill there were things that really intrigued me and things that I questioned. Some of the ideas for allow beginning farmers microloans through the FSA were interesting, but I was always wondering where so much money comes from! As I mentioned last time and will mention time and time again the biggest thing I shared with the people I met with was that I just wanted to be able to compete in the market without having to always fight an uphill battle against my bigger farm neighbors ... there is room for all kinds of farms as long as one of the farming kind doesn't get pushed off the cliff in favor of the other (and I know both sides probably feel like they're the ones headed for the cliff at times).

Just some more of my thoughts ... oh and the picture above is of my (blurry me) and Tom Latham a representative from Iowa ...

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Mr. Smith (Book) Returns from Washington

Somehow I accomplished it ... my first plane ride ... the D.C. Metro by myself ... hailing a cab ... wandering the halls of the U.S. Congressional offices ... and roaming the streets of the nations capital. And as you can see from the picture on the right I have proof that I was actually there (picture lifted from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition blog ... check it out). Before I say anything else let me just say that I really enjoyed myself. The planes, trains, and cabs were no big deal and even though I was nervous and spoke without thinking once or twice I loved the experience and would jump at again if given the chance. As some of you may know I'm a talker ... so I was really in my element with the meetings where I was able to talk about my passions and the issues that face a beginning farmer. I'm not sure if I made a lasting difference, but I was able to speak my mind and that is all part of the process.

I hope to share more in the coming days (or weeks considering my recent blog activity), but thought I would just give a brief overview this morning. As I mentioned just a moment ago my "fly-in" was sponsored/put together in part by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), the Land Stewardship Project (LSP), and the Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) ... acronyms are big in the District of Columbia (DC). But, the trip included beginning farmers from all over the country representing different areas, types of farming, and other organizations. There were farmers from New York, Michigan, Illinois, Nebraska, Colorado, California, and even more states. What was really exciting about the group was to see that even though people were coming from different types of farms (CSA's to cattle ranches to dairies to transplant farms) they came together on many of the issues that effect beginning farmers.

Over time I will share some of the neat things I learned about and spoke about, but the biggest thing that all of the beginning farmers (and myself) talked about and wanted was a more level playing field. One congressman I talked to said that everyone wants "a level playing field as long as it is tipped slightly in their favor". I had to disagree with him because I felt (and believe the others felt the same way) that level would be okay, but more than anything as a beginning farmer I'd just like to have the chance to get on the scale with the bigger agricultural industry. I'm not saying my way is the only way, but rather don't exclude my way or shut me out because it's not your way ... if that's what happens then I think you would be missing out on a lot of great young farmers!

More to come later ...

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Price Taker or Price Maker?

From page 83 of Success on the Small Farm by Haydn Pearson ::
For every hundred men who are good producers of the scores of products that come from America's farms, only a few are good salesmen. 
The profit made on a farm depends upon the marketing ability of the farmer. For about a century now, farmers in general have labored under an economic handicap that no business except farming could survive. That is, farmers have sold their products at wholesale-price level; they have bought their equipment, grain and, in most instances, from 75 to 90 per cent of their food at retail-price level.
An interesting quote from 1946 ... something to think about at least ...

Monday, June 06, 2011

Rock Stars and Professional Bass Fishing ...

There was a time when I saved up all my extra money and bought rock star gear. I had electric guitars (still have one for sale if anyone is interested), I had multiple bass guitars, I had amps, I had heavy speaker cabinets, and I even was putting together a modest set of recording gear so that I could record the next great song. I played shows for 10's of people and for 1,000's of people (at least once or twice) and I thought about taking the whole music thing to the next level ... at least I wanted to ...

But, I just don't think I was cool enough for the rock star gig. So I thought to myself ... surely I'm cool enough for the professional bass fishing gig! I started trading out some of those bass guitars and amps for fishing poles, lures, reels, more lures, more poles, and more and more and more lures. I began reading Bassmaster Magazine and clipping out the articles ... I knew what all the hot lures were just as the were becoming popular ... I wanted to be a professional bass fisherman! I wanted to fish and talk fishing and sell fishing and be outdoors ... at least that was the plan ...

Then came the farm ... my guitars are out of tune and tucked away in a closet ... the only two amps I had left are at my mom's for storage ... my stash of lures and rods and reels sit about ten feet away from me collecting dust and catching spider webs ... none of those things are relevant for what I'm doing right now and what I want to be able to do. But, there are times that I wonder ...

Sometimes I wonder if I shouldn't just give up on the farming dream. I know the statistics for new business start-ups are very dismal (and that is what this farm is), so sometimes I wonder if I'm just one of those many businesses that are just prone to fail for whatever reason. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to come back after work and sit down for a leisurely meal or a quick bit of yard work. Sometimes I wonder if I shouldn't just sell it all ... get a small house in a small town near a lake and just work for the weekends ...

Please don't think I'm complaining ... I'm just wondering ... But, the reality is that I want to farm. I want to make the farm go and be as profitable and sustainable as possible and I want to throw myself behind it one hundred percent. Maybe someday I'll look back at the farm as one of those phases or dreams that just never materialized (like music or fishing), but right now I feel that if I look back at the farm and see it had failed it won't be because of lack of effort.

:: A Positive Note :: As I read over what I just wrote I realized it was kind of a downer ... so let me just end with this thought ... if I'm going to be a farmer I'd like to bring a little rock star influence into the world of farming!!

Friday, June 03, 2011


I think (or at least I hope) that everyone has their "thing". You know ... the "thing" that they are passionate about, that they enjoy doing no matter how challenging, and that they can really wrap their minds around. For some people it is art (music, painting, sculpting, video, etc.), for some people it could be baking/cooking, for others it may be writing, some will find communication to be their thing, and some people have the mechanical "thing" down. Of course there are many, many, many other "things" that people are passionate ... knowledgeable ... and skilled at, but that is a sampling at least.

Me ... I think my "thing" is talking. Ever since I was a preschooler my "thing" has been talking (I had the time-outs and detentions to prove it). Now, I'm not saying that being a talker is a bad thing and it surely has a place in the type of farming and selling that I do ... But, sometimes I REALLY WISH my "thing" was being mechanical! Because with the type of farming that I do and the type of money I have to invest in infrastructure it would be nice if I could do a little work for myself every now and then. There are to many times I find myself just standing and looking (trying to figure out how to do something) instead of actually doing ... and too many times what I'm trying to figure out how to do is rather simple!

Case-in-point ... right now my tractor is absolutely giving me fits. I understand that this is just all part of owning a 50 plus year old tractor, but at the same time I wish it was working like a charm! Currently my starting is going bad (and has been for over a year) ... my PTO (which was fixed last summer ... for a few months at least) is not functional ... and just recently a cylinder went to pot on my loader rendering the tractor immovable until I get the loader off (which had me standing and looking last night). Eventually ... hopefully ... I will get it all straightened out, but in the meantime I'm standing and looking and wishing I could find a great mechanically minded person willing to barter with a guy that is very talkative ...

That's life at the Crooked Gap ...

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Doing it Right ...

Blogging has unfortunately been pushed towards the back of my work load lately, but I have been bouncing around a lot of things that I would like to write about ... one of those things was this topic ...

From the beginning of the farm (and to be honest even before the farm was owned) I have been going and going and going and trying to attain my perfect farm. Often that has meant that I just head out and get what I ... only to fully realize that I am not quite ready yet for that particular animal or venture yet. Actually, now that I think about it ... it's not that I don't realize I'm not ready, but rather that I don't care that I'm not ready and that I think I can just push on through it anyways.

It was that kind of thinking that had me start out with a cow and a calf over an hour away at my dad's and then eventually end up with over a dozen cows and calves at my dad's and then eventually bring that whole bustling herd to the farm before I even had a perimeter fence up yet. It was that kind of thinking that saw me bring up a load of sows that actually had one farrow in the trailer ... and ... well ... you get the idea. Sometimes I get ahead of myself and sometimes I just think I can do more than I really can.

This spring I have actually been doing a good job though. I don't have things set up nearly like I would like them to be and I'm not close to as far along as I thought I would be. But, I'm not doing things half way. I'm not running the pigs out into the woods in a paddock that will only keep me from doing it right ... I'm not just turning the cows out all willy nilly with out a plan ... I'm not raising meat chickens yet (which is something I very much wanted to do).

No, this spring I'm doing things the right way. It is taking more time, but hopefully in the long run I will see a difference for the better ... that is the idea at least ... I'll let you know how it works out.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Out To Pasture ...

If you follow my Twitter you will know that I finally got the cattle out on pasture the other day. Obviously I would have loved to make it happen sooner, and plenty (or all) of my neighbors have had their cattle out of the winter lots for quite some time ... But, I didn't want to sacrifice my pastures just for the sake of getting them out on the grass. The fact of the matter is that at this point my pastures don't take off like the ones around me, but they are beginning to turn around and with careful management they will be where I want them to be ... careful management just takes patience sometimes.

My greatest fear was getting them out on the grass before it had a chance to get going and then just running spots as I worked my cattle through the rotation. Because I held off (and because we have had some good growing weather recently) I think I will have a better summer and hopefully a long fall of grazing. I started the cows off down in the bottom where the grass is growing the best and then I am going to work them along the edge of the woods next, which is actually outside of my perimeter fence. As you can see from the blurry picture above it is green and they seem to be enjoying themselves.

After just a few movements though (four to be exact) I am so glad to see things working out just like it does in my mind. When I move them into the next paddock and look back at the one they were previously in it looks like it was bombed with manure and there practically isn't a piece of grass or clover that hasn't been pooped on ... eaten ... or trampled. Now I just need to get the chickens following behind ... oh ... and figure out what to do with the sheep ...

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

My Pasture ...

Whew ... first of all let me say that it's been awhile since I have taken/had the time to sit down and write ... even for a few minutes. A couple of weeks ago I started getting busy and then last week up until yesterday I was doing my civic duty ... jury duty ... and it was very time consuming because on top of jury duty I was also continuing to work at the town job to help keep the finances from taking a hit. Thankfully everything finished up yesterday and I'm hoping I can somewhat return to a normal schedule.

I just wanted to take a moment though and give an update on my pasture because a question about it popped up in the comments awhile back. First of all let me share the background ... This will be summer number three of grazing the pasture and hopefully the first with a whole seasons worth of multiple moves per day. The first season was what I would call "unmanaged grazing". At that time I had no perimeter fences so I just moved the cows around in large areas as there was need and as I could put up fence. The second year I did finally get the fence up and I rotated daily (for the most part), but not as many moves per day as I would like. Now I'm into year three and hopefully I'll be apply some changes based on what I've learned ... hopefully ...

The thing is though ... generally speaking the pasture has not improved as much as I would have hoped. As I've mentioned before this land spent at least 14 years in the Conservation Reserve Program and had a pretty weak stand of native grasses along with plenty of brush and bare spots. The warm season grasses that were growing are tough to graze early in the season so I haven't been able to get my cattle on grass as soon as I would like (such as this year ... they still are eating hay). Last year I no-till drilled seed on about 10 acres, but the spring was so wet that I could never get out and mow down the weeds that were taking over my new seeding. The result is that my alice white clover seems to have taken hold fairly well, but the grasses really did nothing!

So, that is where I stand now. Things are not at all where I had expected or hoped they would be, but I can see small changes here and there and I do have hopes for the future. One thing that I will continue thinking about though is some seeding in hopes of jump starting things a little. I was just disappointed with my last seeding try ...

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

If you've never seen Mr. Smith Goes to Washington I suggest you check it out. Me ... well, I've seen it but I believe I may need to give it another look because I'm headed to Washington D.C. early this summer on behalf of Practical Farmers of Iowa. I will be going as part of a group of beginning farmers from at least ten other states to speak with members of the House and the Senate about the issues faced by beginning farmers. I believe my focus will be with the politicians from Iowa. I'm very excited about the opportunity if for no other reason than to share the story of the farm and how my farm has all come together.

But ... I am nervous. Obviously I've never been around this sort of thing, but also I've never even flown! So, it will be a whirlwind three days of nerves, fun, and I'm sure tons of education. I will share more as the big trip comes closer and I learn more. But, if you have any Washington D.C. travel tips or other ideas I am always thankful for them!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Grass Farmer?

As I was driving the tractor across the freshly turned (somewhat) black dirt spreading manure all I could think about was ... what kind of grass farmer do I look like now! I was in the process of taking my pasture back to bare dirt in order to plant "king corn" ... and I was enjoying it and getting excited about it! And, part of the reason I was doing it was because I just am not quite ready to kick the corn habit just yet. My cattle and sheep are grassfed only, but my pigs are still feed plenty grain and I don't see myself ready or able to change that in the near future (all though I know there are farmers out there not feeding or limiting their grain fed to hogs). My pigs will be on the pasture and in the woods foraging for part of the diet, but they will also have my custom ration available to them and that is why the corn experiment is happening.

The other reason I'm pretty excited about the corn is because of my ditches. Yes, the ditches have me envious because there is much better forage in them than there is in my pastures. In my opinion 14 years of life in the Conservation Reserve Program did these fields more harm than they did good. After the field was entered into the CRP program it was seeded down with native prairie grasses and then left to nature ... the problem is that 21st century "nature" isn't like 19th century "nature"! Years and years ago when this land was originally in native grasses there were fires and large herds of animals doing their work ... for the past 14 years this land just sat. The result was a lot of scrubby wood bushes that grew, lots of bare patches, and a dwindling stand of those native grasses that were seeded. Nature was not actually allowed to work and I think my pastures suffer because of that ... but, that is a long discussion and I'm not ready to get into it yet.

No ... what I am excited about is eventually seeding these areas back to pasture and watching them take off and see what happens when the cows and sheep and chickens are allowed to let nature work. That is what I'm looking forward too ... and I'm sure my animals will be equally excited about it! Right now they are still in the winter area because my grasses have not started to take off yet ... time and the livestock management will help heal the land ... I need to find patience!

Friday, May 06, 2011

Corn(y) Plans ...

I think the corn plans are coming together ... better than expected actually. Now I'm actually finding myself wishing that I had more room to plant, but I will just stop with the two small areas I have planned! I must think small right now and keep plenty of grazing areas, but in the future I hope growing some more of my own feed can become a real possibility. This season the corn will just be an experiment and an opportunity to do a little "play farming" with my cousin, uncles, and my grandfathers equipment. Here are the plans as they stand right now ...

  • It looks like I'm going to be plowing up two areas totally around 4-5 acres. One section is a former winter lot, and the other section is kind of out in the pasture. Initially I wanted to use my current winter lot, but I just don't think that will work out this year ... I may end up seeding it and eventually using it for some sows.
  • As of this moment the smaller section is plowed and has been disked once. It will get another disking and probably hit with a harrow before planting. The larger section is in the process of being plowed and then it will go through a similar plan. I will be spreading some homegrown fertilizer on the larger section though since it will not be in the winter lot like I had planned.
  • Thanks to my cousin all of the equipment is here ore coming here. As I mentioned some of it actually originated on my grandpa's farm years ago, so this is the third generation to be using it. The plow, the disk, and the planter are all here and ready to roll!
  • I have e-mailed back-and-forth with Laura from Abbe Hills about open pollinated corn. I think this may be my best bet for now because it isn't too far away from me and sounds good. She has been helpful and suggested they shoot for 55º to 60º soil temperatures before planting (usually after May 15th). That is a good thing to know and gives me time to get everything done!
  • Cultivating after the crop is planted ... Well, that is still in the planning stages but if all else fails my cousin will bring up his tractor and a three-point mounted cultivator. 
  • Harvest and storage ... yeah ... let me get back to you on that one ... 

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

What am I Doing?

I always want to take the time to write and I always have things that I would like to share, but I'm not always able to put pen to paper (as it were) and get my thoughts down. That was what has been going on over the last week ... thus there have been no posts. It has been an eventful time though for me on the farm. The first lambing season is in full swing ... a calf was born ... the open-pollinated experiment is possibly coming together ... and I'm beginning to look at different options and methods of feeding the pigs.

But, the thought that has been on my mind the most lately is this one ... "What am I doing?" There are so many times throughout my farming day that I'm not sure what in the world I'm doing! I know that there was a point where I just needed to start "doing" instead of just reading all of the time, but sometimes I wish I was just still reading about farming and then sharing my opinions ... the doing always has me more confused, confounded, and oftentimes frustrated. And even when I feel like I've made a major accomplishment I realize that in "farming reality" what I just did was basically just another ho-hum part of farming, not a major accomplishment.

You see ... catching the calf to ear tag it, milking a sheep and helping her lamb figure it all out, disking and prepping the field for planting, making small repairs on the tractor, looking over and purchasing farm equipment, or wrestling a pig to the ground for a little doctoring ... those are all pretty much normal things for most farmers. In many cases they are things they've been around their entire lives. For me ... well for me each one of those things are a major accomplishment and at some point while I'm doing them I wonder to myself ... "what am I doing!?!"

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Six-Month Farming Plan (circa 1946)

While I believe a six-month farming plan (using the "off" months to still work, but at a slower pace) may not be quite as possible now as it was in 1946 I think there is some wisdom in the plan found in Success on the Small Farm. I know quite a few market garden/CSA's in the area and the surely do have their SUPER BUSY seasons, but I also know that they are beginning to do more and more with season extension that may take those six months and turn them into eight months or more. Nevertheless here is the plan ::
"The plan offers six months of leisurely living and six months of hustle.
Basically, the Plan is this. The corp program is laid out so that cash comes in from early May through October. The program is also laid out so that the peak demands of the farmer's own efforts are spread over the same season.
The best plan which the writer knows comprises a crop schedule of the following type: asparagus, strawberries, raspberries, sweet corn, melons, tomatoes, and squash. The asparagus starts in May; the last of the squashes should be sold in October. In between May and November are days of hustle, long hours of labor, perhaps surpluses for which a market has to be found, bad weather days when you'll watch dollars disappear. But all this is part of farming. There'll be rainy days when you'll bless the Weather Man for giving you a day or two to rest tired muscles. There will be days when you'll have to work 16 or 18 hours -- but not too many of them."

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Annual Mud Post ...

It seems like every year I have to site down and vent my "mud frustrations" on the blog. If nothing else it gets them off my chest! But, this year seems to be extra frustrating ... I'm sure there are many factors that have contributed to that fact. For whatever reason the winter had me frustrated and now the cool weather and the recent mud (and the 10-day forecast doesn't look promising) just seems to be continuing that trend. Maybe it is the "beginning" nature of my farm, but mud just makes me want to throw in the towel sometimes.

The wild combination of the normal spring mud, more feeder pigs than ever on the farm, the rising feed prices, lack of gravel on the drives, lambing season (for the first time), and the fact that I have no completely weather proof buildings (besides the house) has me wishing that I had more. Every morning and evening as I drive to and from town I find myself envying the buildings I drive past. Especially the abandoned ones or the buildings that are just part of a homestead where no active farming occurs. I would love to have the time to just tear them down and place them at my farm!

For now I just need to take the steps that I can. I need to remind myself that I can only advance slowly and that I can't have everything at once! I do believe that I need to figure out something for these muddy spring months though. I'm not overly concerned about the cattle and the sheep seem to be doing okay, but I would love to figure out a better solution for the pigs. A place for feeding and watering that doesn't become a bog (I do try to get those spots off of the ground). I'm beginning to wonder if a hoop house wouldn't be a good idea for these winter/spring months where they can't be on the pasture/woods.

Lots to think about ... major financial choices to make ... and plenty of mud to deal with. As I was quoted in the Des Moines Register a few weeks ago, "I get stuck getting things unstuck."

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Money Savings on the Farm ...

Building advice from a 1946 farming book ...
"Many farms do not have running water. Naturally this will be one of the first major improvements a farmer will make; but until running water is available, here's the way to construct a practical shower bath for less than a five-dollar bill. 
Choose a corner of the shed, ell, or a back room. Have a sheet metal pan made at the local tinsmith's. It should be 4 feet long, 3 feet wide, and the sides should be 6 inches high. At one end, flush with the bottom, have an inch hole. Have a pipe from the hole go through the side of the shed or house.
Set the pan on a sufficient slant so the water will drain out and carry most of the dirt with it. Then at the high end of the pan, set a two-by-four or a peeled oak post three inches in diameter. The post must be firmly nailed at the top and fit tightly against the bottom of the pan. At about 5 3/4 feet from the floor of the pan, drive a spike into the side of the post. On this spike hang a 12-quart garden watering can with the spray-type nozzle. Twelve quarts will give a person an ample bath. as the water runs out, the can turns slowly downward so the shower keeps going.
Around the whole thing hang a regular shower curtain or oil cloth. The writer has been using this type of shower for 13 years and knows how it works. When one comes in sweaty and dirty from the field, there's nothing so refreshing as a good shower. The water necessary for tempering cold water is heated on the kitchen oil stove. In very hot weather an extra pail of cold water may be appreciated.
If one has this shower in a small room or a section closed in by canvas, it would be possible to use it the year round by warming the nook with a portable oil heater or an electric sunbowl."
I bet you are wishing you hadn't gone to the expense of installing that fancy shower in your house. All you needed was a 12-quart garden watering can! Of course it's only funny now because of the advancements we have made ... I'm sure in 1946 it was helpful!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Four "Don'ts" for the Beginning Farmer

Yes, I'm still working my way through Success on the Small Farm by Haydn S. Pearson. I can only imagine that all of you reading this are searching the book sites for your own copy of this classic (it's out there and it is relatively inexpensive). Last night as I was reading I came across a lot of interesting quotes, but I thought I would focus on a fairly informational one list of "don'ts" now ... as long as I can share a great section tomorrow that makes me completely rethink home construction!

Here is an interesting little list from chapter four ::

  1. Don't go into poultry as the major line -- hens or turkeys.
  2. Don't specialize at first on one or two crops.
  3. Don't try to do too much and neglect everything.
  4. Don't think you can run a real farm and hold down a part-time job.

Like I said ... a very interesting list of don'ts. Obviously we could argue whether or not these are valid "don'ts" for the beginning farmer, but for the moment I just want to see how I've done with the list and think about how that impacts the farm.

Luckily I didn't get in to poultry as my major line ... although I know quite a few that have and that Joel Salatin's book Pastured Poultry Profits makes a case for poultry being the centerpiece of a farm. Unfortunately in this chapter Mr. Pearson does not share why he includes each item on the list. Maybe the reasons will show up later in the book. So far so good though ... I did not start out with poultry as my major line!

The second point is a little iffy ... On one hand I didn't do that because I'm not working with a market garden (which is the main focus of the book), but I did kind of focus just on my cattle and hogs. In my mind livestock is partially exempt from this "don't" though because it is a whole different animal for the beginner (pun kind of intended). There is a possibility though that in the 21st century Mr. Pearson would include "Don't begin a livestock based farm ... period!"

Don't try to do to much ... guilty. Don't neglect everything while trying to do to much ... guilty. I think this is actually a great point and wonderful advice for the beginner. It is important to rein yourself in from time to time in order to let your physical surroundings catch up with your mind. I'm working on that one ... and failing from time to time.

Finally the last "don't". Yes, that is very true. Don't think that you can work part-time/full-time in town and make the farm go ... or at least go very quickly. I'm not saying that trying to do both is a bad idea, I'm just saying that it will take time and you need to be prepared for it to take time. In some senses I think working in town and on the farm has benefits for the beginner ... just take your time commitments into mind when you are planning your goals and thinking about farming ventures.

Overall I don't think I pass the Haydn S. Pearson "Successful Farming Test". But, it's my first time through the book, so give me some time to work on things ...

Monday, April 18, 2011

1946 Farm Statistics ...

I may or may not be addicted to my new book, Success on the Small Farm, but one thing is for sure ... there are a lot of quotes from this book that jump out at me and just scream that they want to be shared and commented on. Here are a couple I came across last night ::
"Statistics tell the story. Only 25 per cent of the farms of the United States have telephones; 40 per cent have no bathtubs; 56 per cent have no mechanical refrigerators; 83 per cent have no running water; 69 per cent have no electric lights."
It is mind boggling how much can change in about 60 years. Now the statistics would have to be about high-speed internet connections, smart phones, satellite television, and iPads! The point though that Mr. Pearson (that's the author) is getting at is that farmers don't have to live without those "luxuries" just because they are farmers. Of course I can't ever think of time when I thought of electric lights as a luxury!

That quote was just for fun though. It shows how much things have progressed and gives an interesting historical glimpse into the farming of six decades ago. This next quote hit much closer to home and should probably be included in every book, article, blog, tweet, or anything else directed at a beginning farmer!
"It's an odd quirk of human nature that once a man has made up his mind to be a farmer, he wants to get into action quickly, irrespective of the doze and one factors involved."
Yes. That is an odd "quirk". And, for my experience it is completely and totally true. At least for me it was and is true and I'm constantly have to try and hold myself back and slow down in order to make intelligent decisions instead of hasty excited decisions. I've written about this subject before, but it is always nice to get a pleasant reminder of the realities of farming and of starting a farm.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Quotes for the Beginning Farmer ...

From Success on the Small Farm by Haydn S. Pearson (published in 1946).

"Farming is a business. Its success depends upon an adequate cash profit. In recent years there has been undue emphasis on farming as 'a way of living.' If one likes farming, it is a satisfying way of life -- provided there is sufficient income to enjoy the comforts that modern science has made possible."

"Never was the opportunity brighter to make a good living on a small farm. The opportunity is especially great for a one-man farm based on diversified crops. A small acreage with several high-priced specialty crops sold at retail through a roadside stand or through a high-class wholesale market can provide a cash profit income of between $2,000 and $3,000 a year. This amount of money, plus the home raised food program outlined, will allow a family to live in comfort."

Just some pearls for your weekend from nearly 65 years ago ...

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Poetry :: For the Farm and Ranch ...

I heard this poem last night on the radio as I was driving up and down the slightly rolling hills of Southern Iowa. It resonated with me ... Plus, it made me wish that I could write poetry and have a cool poetry reading voice! You can follow this link to listen to a little background of the poem and then hear the reading.

Oh ... the poem is titled ... "Things of Intrinsic Worth" by Wallace McRae. I think it is great stuff ... great stuff! The poem speaks of something that is missing ... at least that is how I heard it.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Time/Money Conundrum

Yesterday as I was tackling the days chores and trying to get things ready for the summer growing season (getting the pigs in woods and cows in the pasture) I was thinking about the conundrum facing the beginning farmer. When you are beginning (even though I'm over three years in I still am very much a beginner) like I am without the benefit of family/shared land, facilities, or equipment everything has to come from somewhere. Many of the things I have acquired through extended family or borrowing, but there are other things that I have just needed to buy ... or at least felt the need to buy.

Let me give you an example ... If you are a regular reader of the blog you will know that I purchase my pig feed two tons at a time and it is bagged. This is a time consuming process which includes a stop at the feed store to load 80 bags of feed into my trailer and then a trip back to the farm where I either load each bag one-by-one in to the bulk feeder or feed by hand each day taking the feed to the pigs. I don't mind doing the manual labor ... even when I didn't have a working tractor and I filled the bulk feeder one bag time climbing up and down the ladder. The labor isn't a big deal, but the time can be an issue. If I only have a limited amount of time to get the work done I sometimes feel the need to use/purchase labor saving devices ... that is where the time/money conundrum comes into play.

In the ideal farming world I would have the feed store deliver to the farm in bulk purchasing about 5 tons at a time. I could have them fill up my bulk bin and then fill up the feeder. If I had the bulk bin filled the next obvious piece of equipment would be an auger wagon to use when refilling the feeder. This would be a huge time saving method of doing things, but it is also a little spendy and if I'm going to make the farm work I need to be able to cut every corner I can and substitute my labor for equipment.

I think the solution is to ... well, I guess I'm not sure what the solution is. But, what I'm going to do is continue to try and grow slow and use my labor as much as I can. From there I think I can just keep my eye open for the types of things that will help the farm now and in the future. What I really need to do is be able to go slow ... even though I just want to race ahead!

Friday, April 08, 2011

Encouragement & Hope

Sometimes I need encouragement and hope on the farm. One of the places I like to go for that is the book A Bountiful Harvest: The Midwestern Farm Photographs of Pete Wettach, 1925-1965. For whatever reason those pictures just offer up some of what my heart and mind needs from time to time. I was looking at that book tonight and that led me to looking up a few things on-line, which is how I found the picture above. Those are some pigs at the Iowa State University research farm circa 1940 (I believe). I liked the picture ...

If you're looking for some encouragement I suggest the book below ... you can click on the link to find it on Amazon.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

I Went for a Walk ...

I worked late in town last night, but it was still beautiful when I made it back to the farm. So beautiful in fact that I decided to just leave the evening chores for after dark and go for a walk ... or should I say that I decided to go for a hunt ... Yes, hunt is the better description because what I was really doing is trying to hunt down my wayward sheep. And, by the wayward sheep I mean all of the sheep! Lately they have decided that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence, and in their defense it is, so they have been taking off. I should also point out that it really is my fault that they have a wandering eye because I don't have my hi-tensile perimeter fence on yet.

This past winter was a little more rough on the fence than I had hoped. Not that anything major happened, but the deer popped the fence staples out of the wood posts and there are a few shorts along the line that I need to take care of. When the snow was on the ground nobody was really interested in leaving the comfortable confines of the winter lot, but now things are a little different and the sheep are ready to go (even if the pastures aren't ready for them yet).

I thought I had solved the problem by adding some Gallagher electric netting around the perimeter, but I guess the sheep aren't to impressed by the non-electrified netting. You have to get up pretty early in the morning to put one past them! So, tonight after my evening stroll through the neighboring fields I decided it was time to get electricity to the fence ... even if it was only a little bit of electricity.

One of the major "problems" that occurred this winter was that the pigs got ahold of the electrical cord on my good Stafix fencer. Luckily it wasn't a major breakdown and I'm in the process of ordering a replacement now. But, my back up fencer is much less than half as powerful. Right now though it will have to try and do the trick. I fixed the perimeter in the most needed places and threw on the back up fencer ... it's going ... kind of ...

Now it is time to get the real fixes done. Part of the reason that I hadn't attacked the fence yet is that I was hoping to take care of a few things on the fence that just weren't quite up to par. When I put up the fence I was trying to rush and save money ... both of which didn't really work out. This spring I'm going to have to add some extra support posts in the corners especially to help shore everything up and try and reduce the pull on the corners. Since I need to do this I hadn't gone around yet this spring to tighten up the fence and fix a few of the insulators. I realize now that I just need to find the time and the money and get it done! 

Or I could always just learn to enjoy the evening walks ... 

Monday, April 04, 2011

A Beginning Corn Farmer's Shopping List?

If I'm going to do this whole open-pollinated corn experiment I need to start getting serious ... and fast! Of course I'm going to need to get some corn (if I can even find any this late in the game ... I remember some suggestions in previous comments), but I've also been thinking about the "shopping" list of equipment that I'm going to need in order to pull of this feat. As I build my shopping list it becomes very evident that there are really two lists that I could build. A list based on my labor/patience/time and a list based on a more mechanized approach. I thought I would share both lists and see if anyone had any suggestions. Before I get to the lists though I thought I should share what I'm working with. I'm thinking of planting in two areas that will total roughly five acres of ground I believe. Both areas have been winter lots or "sacrificial areas in  the past and don't have very much grass covering the ground right now. But, they both should have some good nutrients to work with. Now for the lists ...

Small-Scale :: More Labor

  • Soil Preparation ~ Rear-tine garden tiller (I have one, but it would require lots of time/patience)
  • Planting ~ Simple one row garden planter (Again, I have this one ... see above for requirements)
  • Cultivating/Weed Control ~ Rear-tine garden tiller
  • Harvesting ~ I've got two hands right and a wagon right?
  • Storage ~ Haven't quite figured that one out yet ... open for suggestions ...

Small-Scale :: More Machinery (less time needed)

  • Soil Preparation ~ 2-bottom plow (I have this one and plowing might not be a bad idea to take care of some of the brush) ... and then disc/harrow (I don't have a disc ... probably can get a harrow without much trouble)
  • Planting ~ 2/4-row planter (Don't have and would need to do some shopping or asking around)
  • Cultivating/Weed Control ~ Cultivator (Again, I don't have one ... I would think if I could locate a smaller three-point cultivator it wouldn't cost too much)
  • Harvesting ~ Two hands and a wagon still sounds fun, but I know a guy with a two-row picker ... maybe I could work something out
  • Storage ~ See above list ...

As you can see the "more machinery" list is also going to be the "more money" list, but is it also the "more practical" list considering a town job and all the other demands of life? I would love some input ... or even leads on equipment ;)

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Wikipedia :: The French Revolution :: Farming

Sometimes I find it amazing when I see mentions of farming in "out of the way" places, but then I need to take a second and step back realizing that farming has to be one of the main pieces of our foundation. Without farming our food would have to come from hunting and gathering (or something like that) ... and that might not be very sustainable for everyone ... at least not these days. But, just the other day the crazy thing that is my mind found farming at the totally logical intersection of 18th century naval warfare, the French Revolution, and of course Wikipedia (it's completely believable because it's on the internet right?).

Please allow me to explain how I ended up at farming the other night. As I mentioned in a previous post I'm currently reading The Line Upon a Wind: The Great War at Sea, 1793-1815. This book details the naval engagements and background surrounding the late 18th century and early 19th century. Obviously this meant that I needed to find out more about that time period and the events that were shaping the European navies. That is how I landed on the Wikipedia entry for the French Revolution ... more specifically the "Causes" section of that page. Within that section I read this ::
Economic factors included hunger and malnutrition in the most destitute segments of the population, due to rising bread prices (from a normal eight sous for a four-pound loaf to 12 sous by the end of 1789), after several years of poor grain harvests. The combination of bad harvests (due to abnormal/severe weather fluctuations) and rising food prices was further aggravated by an inadequate transportation system which hindered the shipment of bulk foods from rural areas to large population centers, contributing greatly to the destabilization of French society in the years leading up to the Revolution.
Of course I had to ask myself after reading that ... how does this relate to the 21st century world and what can we learn? Does this mean that if food prices begin to rise in the United States (which they are and they are predicted to keep rising) we will have a revolution on our hands (and heads rolling everywhere ... literally)? Does it mean that Earl Butz and his high-production ideas are the best way possible to farm in order to keep us from experiencing hunger and malnutrition? Does it mean that a food system based on import/export is ideal because it helps us deal with weather fluctuations? Does it mean that maybe a system based on transportation and centralized areas of agriculture is a system that in some senses is destabilizing for a country?

I don't really know what it means, but I do know that it is part of history and that there is something we can learn from it. I am also glad that Wikipedia (and a book about really cool sailing ships) helped remind me just how important farming is in the big picture. And, I am thankful for my mind that never misses an opportunity to head down a rabbit trail ... sometimes there are big things at the end of those fun little side tracks!

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Are Dexters the Right Breed for Me?

A few posts ago when I was writing my chapter review for Tim Young's book, "The Accidental Farmers," I mentioned in passing that I was questioning whether or not the Dexter breed was for me. It's something I've been thinking about lately and just this morning someone posted a comment asking why I was thinking that way. So, I figured it was time for me to try and articulate some of my thoughts on the subject. First of all let me say that at this point I'm still keeping the Dexters and trying to work with them, but knowing what I know now if I was starting over with the same goals in mind I'm not sure that I would go with the Dexters.

I don't remember exactly which book it was, although I'm pretty sure it was by Joel Salatin, but early on I remember reading that "seed stock" anything was not a good idea. What that meant was that going with pure breed animals for meat sales based farm probably wasn't a good idea. I tried to think my way around that by telling myself that I wasn't really interested in selling seed stock, so the ability to sell a heifer every now and then was just a bonus. I loved the historical aspect of the Dexter, I loved the small size, and I loved what I read about their qualities as a historical tri-purpose breed (meat, milk, and draft animals).

Here is my totally uneducated thinking of why I may not be sold on them for my farm right now ... The Dexters are listed as a recovering breed by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy and at one time their numbers here in the U.S. were pretty low. I think as they began to recover some marginal animals were kept for breeding stock (both cows and in my opinion especially bulls) that helped grow the numbers within the breed, but didn't really emphasize the strongest qualities of the breed. On top of that I'm not sure there is a very large number of people raising Dexters in the same type of all grass and no antibiotic system that I'm using right now.

That's all to say that while I still think Dexters are a great breed and that they would work in many situations (including mine) they may not work perfectly in my system. Or more specifically the particular Dexters I have weren't the perfect ones for me. When I decided on Dexters over three years ago what I was doing was choosing a breed based on their general historical background. What I should have been doing is choosing cows (not a breed) based on how I want to raise them. I honestly believe I would have been better served spending the money to get cows from a rotationally grazed farm that was grass based only. This may have meant I bought Dexters or it may have meant I bought cows ... just great cows ...

I think Dexters can still work and I hope to make them work on the farm. Above all I still think they are perfect breed for the small land holder because of their size and relatively calm disposition (although there are exceptions. I would like to add a couple other cows at some time though ... just to see ...

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Sheer Ecstasy of Being a Lunatic Farmer :: Chapter 3 Book Report

Yes, I'm a book bouncer! My reading is dictated by my whim of the moment and last night my whim was  pushing me to Joel Salatin's latest book, "The Sheer Ecstasy of Being a Lunatic Farmer". Chapter three is titled, "Small is Okay" and it was an interesting contrast to the article I just read about the importance of beef and pork exports in the coming year. The article talked about how the rising feed costs were going to make things difficult for farmers in the coming year, but that they could find some financial security if the export of meat remained strong. As I read through Mr. Salatin's chapter on small farms I saw a very different picture of financial security for farmers. In fact he strongly suggested that exportation was the wrong direction for the farmers and the countries involved!

I think that this is the first chapter in the book where the "lunatic" part of the title really starts to come out. Just think about how often you hear someone say that it is not the job of the United States to feed the world ... that doesn't happen very often! He is not saying that because of some sort of U.S. first mentality, but rather from the point-of-view that other countries (even developing countries) can produce the food that they need to feed the people in their own country. That is a pretty huge departure from the commonly held beliefs of the farmers, consumers, and politicians here in the U.S.

Here is a quote from the book that helps him express his point-of-view (this is something that a governmental official from Belarussia shared with Mr. Salatin) ::
"The day the foreign aid was deposited in our bank, every hotel filled up with U.S. corporate salesmen from machinery companies to seed to chemical companies. All that money was spent on things we did not need, things we could not fix, things we could not afford to put fuel in. If we had know about your kind of farming, we could have put in water systems, fence systems, and gone to a pasture-based system and fed our people and had enough left over for export."
It is an interesting quote and very interesting topic to consider. Often times I think Iowans (myself included) see ourselves and our farms as necessary for the survival of the world. I mean we play a huge role in feeding the world right? Our farms are some of the most efficient and highest producing ever seen right (my farm is not included in that)? But, Mr. Salatin sees things from a different angle ... he sees the possibility of farmers all of the world producing food for their local communities ... and he sees lots and lots of farmers!

I would love to hear your thoughts on this subject. It is a topic that seems to boggle my mind!

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Agonizing & Pork for Sale & Farm Updates

Sometimes I just think and think and think and agonize and agonize and agonize ... and well ... you get the idea. There are just some decisions that I have a difficult time making as I try to process the information and come to the best conclusion. One of those decisions that I'm agonizing over right now is pricing. I know that I need to adjust my prices and I'm not ashamed of that (because if I don't the feed prices might drive me mad). But, what I do agonize over is just how much to raise them and how exactly to land on that perfect price!

Without a doubt I am not very prepared to figure out the exact amount that I need to charge because I'm not doing a very good job of tracking feed conversion and feed consumption of my growers and sow herd. That's not to say that I don't know how much they are eating and about how much per day that they are eating, but rather I'm just not sure how well that feed is working and at what rate it's turning into pig pounds! I've read quite a few research papers on the topic and I know that I need to do a good job keep the feeders adjusted and things like that to get just the right feed-to-weight conversion, but I'm not there yet.

So, I just toss the figures that I have around in my head throughout the day and then try to land on a price that I think is fair for the farm. I'm getting close to having it nailed down and when I do then I'll be sharing more information about the pay-as-it-grows program. If you are interested in a pork whole or half feel free to send an e-mail and I'll add you to the list!

Even though the weather has taken a step back from the 60º and 70º temperatures that were so much fun I have been making my way around the farm and taking stock of the projects that need the most attention as spring comes. There are some repairs that need to be done on the hi-tensile fence, along with some fencing issues that just never were finished. I really want to get out and mow down some tall grass and bushes, but the PTO isn't working on the tractor (again). Of course I need to get thinking about prepping the garden ... thankfully there is a rear-tine tiller to help me this year! And, if I wanted to save myself some headaches later this year I should really be out in the woods cutting paths for the pig paddock fences!

We'll see how the spring goes ...

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Downs and Ups ...

Normally you hear people talking about the "ups and downs," but today was a day of downs and ups on the farm ... or at least a slight bummer, then a very nice up, and finally a slight bummer that was really forgetable because of the up. I worked a long day at Farm & Home/NAPA, but was excited because I had found a nice looking little gas saving pickup that I was planning on looking at. So, as soon as I could sneak out the side door of work I called the guy selling the pickup ... and found out that he had just sold it. I guess it was an okay deal! Later in the evening I did go look at a different little pickup very similar to the first one only to find out it wasn't very much like it was represented to be. That was a second slight bummer that helped sandwich so completely great news ...

After the slight bummer of the truck being sold I checked my e-mail and found that ... Crooked Gap Farm is headed to the Downtown Des Moines Farmer's Market! Of course this will not be on a full-time basis because they have a "probationary" period for new vendors, but it does look like I was able to get a nice selection of dates that will fit in with when I will have the most available. Plus, most of the dates are fairly close together or every other week which will be great for helping customers remember the farm. I'm very excited ... and nervous (even though the first date isn't until July).

Now comes the important work. I need to get together some brochures and better business cards, work on some displays, make sure I'm comfortable with the coolers from last year, figure out the best way to handle transactions, and maybe even start figuring out some processing dates for the hogs. There is so much to think about, but I'm very excited!

Friday, March 25, 2011

"The Accidental Farmers" :: Chapter 7 Book Report

This chapter, titled "Farming's Dark Side," is in my opinion probably the best and most important chapter of Tim Young's new book. Not that I haven't found nuggets in the other chapters, but rather that this is the most unique chapter (I feel) in the book. There are other books out there that will tell you about management intensive grazing, the benefits of chickens following cows, and even the values behind certain farm choices. But, I'm not sure that I've read a farming book yet (and I've read quite a few) that takes such an open and honest look at the "dark side" of farming. Mr. Young holds nothing back and writes about the realities he has had to face on the farm. You may disagree with his practices or think you would have done something differently, but I think you should respect his honesty, openness, and they way he sticks with his values.

As I have mentioned I think that this side of the farming life is one that has been missing from the books that I've read ... although I don't think it would fit in every book. Most of the time the "dark side" you read about in books, articles, or from the mouths of other farmers is that it just isn't possible to make a living on the farm. I guess I should say that more specifically it is very difficult to make a living on the farm unless you can hit on the right factors (rented land, owned land, right markets, marketing ability, etc.). But, what Mr. Young has done is opened up his farm I guess you could say to the daily reality of making the transition to the farm ... or just farming in general.

The "dark side" of farming has been one of the most difficult things for me. I have a bad tendency to get easily frustrated over a situation and just feel absolutely defeated. And, I'm sure I don't even want people to tell me how many times I have said that I was going to or had to quit the farm. I'll never forget the walk back to the house after the tractor just died (stuck motor because of lack of lubrication due to a clogged oil sump and a non-working oil gauge/light) and the conversation with my dad. I just wanted to be done! The frustration and realization that I just lost a substantial amount of money in a now dead tractor was just crippling! And that is just one of the stories ...

I think it is a great thing that Mr. Young has decided to pull back the curtain as it were (as he has done on his blog/podcast) and show the whole picture. If nothing else ... it's worth getting the book to read this chapter. Just to know what it's like and that the troubles happen to other people too!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

"The Accidental Farmers" :: Chapter 6 Book Report

I feel fairly confident in saying that I'm a big picture sort of thinker. I am much better at looking at things from the wide angle view instead of focusing in on the details ... although I do need to get better at the details because they are just as important as the big picture! But, that is all to say that I completely understand what Tim Young is writing about in chapter six, "Reviving the Prairie". When I walked over what is now Crooked Gap Farm for the very first time it was covered with tall prairie grasses and just seemed too good to be true ... once I had been on the farm for one season and the tall grasses had disappeared thanks to grazing and hay making I saw the reality of what I was working with. I saw that the farm needed some reviving!

Mr. Young shares his personal experiences and mistakes (I appreciate knowing others make mistakes!) with building a diversified livestock where the animals do the work of restoring the soil and ultimately the farm. In this chapter I think you'll find a very brief overview of management intensive grazing, and plenty of proof that it can be done. I do wonder though if Mr. Young has considered changing to multiple moves each day instead of just once a day? I've written about ultra high stock density grazing before and it is something that really intrigues me. For part of last summer I was making at least two moves a day I thought it was very beneficial. One downside for them at Nature's Harmony Farm though I think is the fact that their perimeter fence is not electric. That means they have to set up an independent paddock for each move where I have a little easier time with it because my entire perimeter is electric and I can easily tie into it.

As far as my use of high density grazing this coming season I think I'm going to be doing two moves again. My current job situation makes any more than that impossible, but a move before work in the morning and then again when I get off well give me two moves and should provide some of the benefits of a "mob". I'll just try to get all my paddocks set up in the evening. The rub of course will be the sheep ... I still haven't figured out how I'm going to graze them yet (with the cows or separately).

All in all this was a good chapter with lots to think about, but it is the next chapter that I'm really looking forward to ... "Farming's Dark Side".

Monday, March 21, 2011

Percolating ...

I don't especially care for coffee. In fact I can remember the exact time that I tried coffee for the first time ... I was out cross country skiing and Craig offered me a cup of coffee because it was so cold outside. I was cold and it smelled good, so I took a taste ... and then spit it on the snow! I distinctly remember not being able to get that coffee taste out of my mouth. I still do not like coffee (I'm a hot chocolate guy), but I do love the smell of good coffee and I do enjoy using words that I associate with coffee ... words like "percolating" Right now percolating seems like the best word to describe my mind. One of the definitions for percolate (according to is :: "to spread gradually". That is what all the ideas in my mind are doing right now ... they are starting to seep and ooze and spread and well ... they are starting to percolate. The only probably is that percolating is a slower process.

What I'm trying to say (see I'm having trouble getting the thoughts out) is that I have the farm and farming on the mind a lot. I'm continually trying to figure out exactly how to do the project that I envision. I'm always thinking of the next thing that can be added to the farm. I'm constantly fretting and worrying about jobs and how everything will keep going on the farm. And, I often find myself stumped and perplexed by farm issues. That is why I think it is good to have mind breaks from time to time. Lately I haven't been doing a very good job of giving my mind breaks, but tonight as I was trying to compose a post/information sheet for a "pay-as-it-grows" program (more on that coming) I was distracted by the music I was listening to ... and it was a good thing!

Outside of the farming world here is what I'm reading, listening to, and watching right now...
  • Get Low :: I rented this the other day because I loved the preview so much ... and I'm a Robert Duvall fan. It was a pretty good movie with an interesting plot. I mean it's about a hermit who built his own log house ... what's not to love!
  • Travel III :: This is a short album (there is also a I and a II) from the band Future of Forestry which gets their name from the C.S. Lewis poem I have mentioned on this blog a couple of times.
  • The Line Upon a Wind: The Great War at Sea, 1793-1815 :: Ever since the movie Master and Commander: Far Side of the World came out I have been enthralled by the tall sailing ships of the 18th and early 19th century. This is a big book that covers the Napoleonic Wars from the naval perspective. So far so good!
  • Sigh No More :: Music I just like ... that's it ... I think I found them last spring and I remember listening to this album as I was drilling seed in the pasture!
  • 48 Days to the Work You Love: Preparing for the New Normal :: Did I mention I was looking for a job ... still reading and still looking ... 
What are you reading, listening to, or watching these days? I am always amazed how reading a book about Horatio Lord Nelson and the Battle of Trafalgar can inspire me to farm ... but it does!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Saturation Point ...

No not the ground ... in fact the ground is actually starting to dry up rather nicely and I have been able to move around without getting sucked into knee deep puddles of mud! What I'm talking about is more of a business saturation point. As I look at expanding the farm and adding new enterprises I often wonder just how many small-scale ... pasture based ... direct market ... meat farms that the local area can support. I will readily admit that my meat costs more than pretty much anything the local grocery store is selling, but I'm not ashamed of that because I know how much it costs me to produce it and I know how much I need to get in return. Also, I'm confident in the product that I have ... not propaganda ... I just really am proud of it.

Regardless of how proud I am though of the meat I'm raising I still wonder if there is a point of saturation for this local food market. Is there a point when you will hit the top of the ceiling when it comes to the group of people willing to pay for a quality pasture raised product from a local farm? While at the INCA conference a couple weekends ago someone mentioned that for the first time in a while some local CSA farmers were finding it more difficult to sell all of their shares. They had been used to a waiting list in the past, but now they were even going into the season with some open. Does that mean that the market is hitting a saturation point or that marketing and customer education needs to change?

I'm not exactly sure what I think on this topic, but I would love to hear your thoughts on whether or not we are hitting a saturation point? If nothing else the idea of hitting a saturation point reminds me that I need to have a niche for my farm and I need know my story in and out so that I can share it with everyone I meet. I need to know why I'm doing what I'm doing and I need to convey that in all of my farm conversations.
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