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 :: 
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