Friday, December 28, 2012

Satisfaction and Taste

A while ago I was lucky enough to be on the panel of a screening for the film "American Meat". As far as food documentaries go this is one of my favorites (right up there with "King Corn") and I suggest checking out one of the screenings if you can! I follow their blog and facebook page from time to time just to keep up with where the film is showing and the response they are getting (and I'm hoping to find out when I can by a copy of the film for myself).

While scanning their facebook feed this morning I saw this quote, "Hard work is one of the most important ingredients in a meal." That really resonated with me so I followed the link to this article and video. The video features chef Dan Barber talking about the fact that seeing the food growing and the hard work put into raising those veggies and animals adds to the flavor. I don't know if I can explain why that is, but I have to say that I agree whole-heartdly!

There is just something great about enjoying a meal that you have worked so hard to prepare. On the farm we are able to have meals consisting of almost every ingredient originating from no more than 400 yards away ... those meals just plain taste great! I believe though that there is satisfaction and flavor to be found from putting the time into preparing a meal from a farmer that you know instead of from a supermarket aisle. There is just more flavor in a meal prepared by the hard and caring work of a cook with ingredients from the hard and caring work of a farmer you have a relationship with.

Sometimes that is the missing ingredient ...

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

It's the End of "Dairy" As We Know It?

On the days leading up to Christmas the story of potentially rising milk prices seemed to be the story de jour. I began hearing about it last week and a little searching found this article from the New York Times on December 20th. Then this report from Fox News on December 21st. Just one day latter, on December 22nd, "The New American" shared this opinion piece. And, not to be outdone (although a little late to the game) the local news station in my area posted this article on December 25th. I'm sure you've heard plenty about this as well.

Of course this "possible" rise in prices are completely related to the Farm Bill ... or more specifically the lack of a Farm Bill and the fact that if no new bill is passed our current farm law will revert to the 1949 laws. I don't really feel like discussing the nitty gritty of the fact that even though lawmakers know that things are expiring they really don't make any progress. I don't really feel like mentioning that when I went to Washington D.C. two summers ago it was to talk about the Farm Bill ... the one that still is not in existence. Nope, I don't want to talk about any of that!

What I do want to do though is ask a question. Specifically I want to ask why milk prices will double (that is what they are suggesting) just because there is no Farm Bill? I mean ... aren't we paying the price of what milk is worth right now? Aren't we paying for the real cost of our milk at the stores? Isn't the market (supply/demand) determining the price? Like I said ... just a question.

In completely related news we are beginning to research and prepare to milk our own cows. This isn't something we are doing because of fear. It is something we are doing because we have tri-purpose cows. It was a small part of the reason we chose the Dexters in the first place, and now that the farm is sort of coming together and the fact that we have just had three heifer calves in a row we finally feel ready to take on this challenge. Of course it will be a while as we tame down cows and really focus on our new heifers.

For now though we have a halter on the calves and are working on making them our friends and we will be reading The Family Cow by Dirk Van Loon (it seemed to have good reviews). I'd love to hear any thoughts or encouragements when it comes to milking on a small scale ... or about the coming "moopocalypse".

Friday, December 21, 2012

Another Farm's Farrowing Perspective

Frequent commenter Donna O'Shaughnessy has been following along with my ramblings on winter farrowing and took the time to discuss her farms farrowing/breeding plans on a post at her blog called Midlife FarmwifeTheir farm is in Illinois and pretty much straight east of my farm, so the weather patterns will be similar to what I'm facing ... which made this information very intriguing. The post titled, "Farrowing Follies" details their farms handling of sows from breeding, gestation, farrowing, and weaning (among other details). There are also good pictures to give you an idea of their set up!

If you are interested in the e-huts that she references here are some plans from Practical Farmers of Iowa. I also like her "hogciendas"and have been thinking about building something like that. Even if I ended up with a different sort of farrowing system they would be great out in the woodlots or for sheep in the winter. Basically I just need more portable buildings that I can drag around with the tractor!

Thank you so much for putting together such a great post Donna!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Sometimes ...

We are under our first "Winter Storm Watch" of the year. Even though it is December 19th and I shouldn't be surprised by this ... I can't say that I'm ready. So ... I have been hustling and hustling and hustling to get some things ready last minute before we have some snow falling on ground that isn't frozen (meaning it will be muddy!). Last minute is the way everything seems to work around here and sometimes it has me wondering why I'm even doing this. Luckily I was at my Uncle Loren's house a couple of nights ago to get some fencing supplies and I was reminded of why ...

I think part of the reason that I farm is because ... well just check out this picture ... because it kind of just runs in the family! I'm not completely sure who that is, but I know that it's one of my uncles and I know that is pigs being raised out side and doing what pigs do best! That is not the only reason that I farm though ... sometimes it is important to remember some of the side benefits of farming ...

You know ... benefits like having a goat so you can hook it up to a wagon and take rides around the farm. Now ... I just need to find a goat ... and a wagon!

(As always ... if you feel liking seeing my family up close you can always click on a picture to make it bigger. Trust me ... they are better looking in these pictures than these days ... kidding, kidding, kidding!)

Monday, December 17, 2012

Winter Farrowing :: Huts and Hay

Winter farrowing has been on the forefront of my mind lately (in case you haven't noticed), and as I look at the 8-day forecast and see highs around 30ºF the many ideas I have keep tumbling around in my mind. So far I've talked about traditional hoop buildings ... greenhouse type hoop buildings ... and of course using a deep bedding system in either option. If you read my post last Friday you were introduced to Becker Lane Organic Farm and the report he did on his greenhouse farrowing building (with in-floor heat). But, as I made my way over to his website and Facebook page I saw the picture above (here is a link to the description of that picture from the Becker Lane Organic Farm Facebook Page). A quick e-mail to Mr. Becker led me to the knowledge that they now farrow outside year-round in insulated huts either made by, or similar to, Booth Pig Equipment huts.

Which all led me to thinking ... maybe a building of any type isn't my solution ... maybe I just need some big straw bales, a wind break, and some insulated huts. In fact Mr. Becker's farm does not even use heat lamps in his huts so he is only using the work of the insulation, bedding, and the sow's body heat. I don't know why I haven't thought about this more since I have known that Mr. Walter Jeffries of Sugar Mountain Farm has been writing about outdoor winter farrowing since at least 2006. You can read about his experience here ... and here! The great thing about Mr. Jeffries posts is that at the bottom of the posts he gives you the outdoor temperature, so you can tell that it is working in cold conditions.

There are multiple things running through my mind as I think more about outdoor winter farrowing. I worry about mud because as you can see in the picture above those sows only have a little area in front of the hut and in the freeze and thaws of our winters in Southern Iowa that space could become very muddy. I can also see that protection from wind and precipitation would be very important to weaning a good number of pigs from each litter. But, in my mind one of the most important things would be good mothering sows. I think it would be important to have sows that were very careful and caring with their pigs in order to protect them from crushing.

Pretty much all that I have decided after a few weeks of obsession over winter farrowing is that I just need to get out there and explore different options that farmers are using in my state. So, after the holidays I hope to do a little "tour" of some different winter farrowing set-ups. If you happen to be in my area and are willing to let me stop by I'd love to hear from you. Or if you wouldn't mind doing a "virtual tour" and sharing it with others on the blog I'd love to hear from you!

For now though ... does anyone have any thoughts on or experiences with outdoor winter farrowing?

Friday, December 14, 2012

Greenhouse :: Hoghouse

Inside a Farrowing Greenhouse at Becker
Lane Organic Farms.
Do you ever find yourself answering your own questions? On Wednesday I wrote about how (with expansion in mind) I thought it was time to add a hoop building to the farm for winter farrowing and winter housing for the grower pigs, but the thing that had always been holding me back was the thought of keeping the building empty for the spring, summer, and fall as the pigs are out on the pasture. Then I randomly found a three-ring binder from the "National Conference on Hoop Barns and Bedded Systems for Livestock Production" (nice short name huh?). As I thumbed through the material I came upon this little tidbit in the "Alternative Systems for Farrowing in Cold Weather" booklet ... "Greenhouse with Radiant Tube Heating".

You can read the article that I came across by checking out this .pdf and scrolling down to page 9. A little more searching turned up this gem from Jude Becker of Becker Lane Organic Farm. The second link there is really a great summary of data and pictures of his greenhouse/hog house construction. Mr. Becker's building was quite a bit more advanced than I was contemplating with it's in floor heating and wood boiler, concrete floor and walls, and eventually it was divided into quadrants with a feeding system. You will also find that his results were much less than stellar, but I think it does give me something to think about for the future.

Some time ago I watched a video online about a farmer that was using a traditional hoop house for winter farrowing. He was using deep-bedding and his pasture huts for farrowing, but also had a heat lamp in the creep area of each hut and a radiant heat tube hanging at the peak. This particular farmer said his goal was to keep the building slightly above freezer so that the sows would be forced out of the common area and into the huts for farrowing. In my somewhat warmer Southern Iowa climate having two layers of plastic with air between them (provided by a fan) may help keep the main area around that 32º some or much of the time.

There are always downsides to every system though. Many of the fabric hoop house owners that I have spoke with tell me that they have had the same tarp on their buildings for 15 years and some even longer. With the plastic I'm sure it would have to be replaced much more often than that and there would be costs and labor associated with that. The benefit that has me most interested in this system though is the ability to have a secondary use for the building in the summer ... by growing some sort of crop once the pigs out out! Of course there is no real "need" for a greenhouse when I would be using it, but maybe I can figure out something instead of having an empty building.

I would love to have a discussion on this topic, or hear any thoughts you all have on the viability of this type of building. Plus ... if you have any suggestions on crops that could be raised in the building ... well ... I'm open to suggestions!

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Time Has Come ...

Working on my Uncle's new
Pro-Tec hoop building
A very quick search of my blog posts showed me that back on November 7, 2008 I first mentioned a hoop house structure for livestock/storage. Then again on March 4, 2009 I wrote an entire post dedicated to hoop buildings and hogs. There were other mentions along the way, but in my Annual Mud Post on April 21, 2011 they were the topic of discussion once again. As you can tell from my writings and ramblings they have been on my mind for over four years now! I think it is safe to say that now is the time that they have most consumed my farm thoughts.

In case you missed it, I wrote last Wednesday about the "Tipping Point" that the farm was at and whether it was time to scale up or scale back. My gut is telling me to press forward, but from the past four years of experience I know there are some areas that I need to greatly improve if I want to scale up. One of the most glaring is my winter livestock handling and more precisely the winter pig farrowing. In a perfect world I just wouldn't farrow in the middle of the winter, but I need finished pigs ready for processing throughout the year so winter farrowing is always going to be part of the farm.

So ... for my needs and uses I believe it is time for me to put up a hoop building to use in the winter months. My plan is to continue things as normal in the spring, summer, and fall with the pigs out on the pasture and woodlot. When things turn cold, muddy, and frozen I will bring the pigs up near the house so that I can ensure they have fresh water and plenty of feed at all times ... along with a place to get out of the weather. That is where the hoop house comes into play, and I plan on my building doing double duty.

The buildings that I have been looking at so far are from Pro-Tec and Silver Stream. If I went with a Pro-Tec building it would either be 30' or 36' wide. The Silver Stream building would be 30' wide for sure. The idea that I have is to split the building down the middle length wise so that I either two 15' wide areas or two 18' wide areas. Then I can use one side of the building for farrowing in the winter and the other side for my grower pigs. With that set up in the hoop building I will then be able to use my portable sheds to hold the boar and gestating sows.

Right now I'm planning on four groups of four sows each next winter, so that will give me plenty of room for farrowing (depending on the overall length of the building). One of the great benefits of the hoop house when it comes to farrowing is that I will be able to bring my huts inside and use them for farrowing just as I would in the summer. I believe a set-up like this will help me get the most use out of a building for an operation my size and then allow me room for growth.

The biggest downside that I have been struggling with is that the building will be sitting empty for a portion of the year and I hate the thought of that. So ... if anyone has any thoughts on a crop that I could raise in there during the summer months I would love to hear about it! Also, have any of you put up a hoop building ... any tips or thoughts?

Monday, December 10, 2012

A Diversified Farm

Tacopocalypse's Market Set-Up
I have always known that I wanted a diversified farm with many different enterprises. Diversification is important to me because of the benefits that the farm can receive through having a variety of things working together on the land. In just four years we have already seen healing on the land from our multi-species rotational grazing and woodlot raised pigs. Besides the benefits to the land there are also great things about having multiple enterprises when it comes to the pocket book. One family can only purchase so much pork ... but if we can also offer them chicken, eggs, lamb, and beef then we don't need as many customers. Not that we don't want many customers, but rather that we want to be able to have close farm relationships with our customers.

Lately though I have been thinking about farm diversification when it comes to marketing as well. Currently we sell whole/half hogs directly to customers, at the Downtown Des Moines Farmers Market, individual cuts through pick-up locations, and from time-to-time online through the Iowa Food Coop. The one thing that I have stayed away from is wholesale to stores or restaurants. Part of the reason that I've stayed away from that is that I've always been adamant about keeping all of the sales dollars in my pocket. But, the other reason is that I just haven't found the right fit.

In some ways my thinking has changed though as I think about adding diversification to the marketing. One of the benefits of having a number of enterprises is that if one has a slow year than the others can help keep things going. In some ways the same could be said about a diverse number of marketing outlets. Even though we may be losing some sales dollars by selling to a store or restaurant there can be some benefits.

A couple things that come to my mind right away are the ability to have our product in front of a different set of faces and with extra sales comes the need to scale up a bit which may help out in our other marketing efforts. It has been my experience that by having our products available to more people it benefits all of the other marketing examples. For example we have had customers who purchase from us online through the Iowa Food Coop begin purchasing whole and half hogs from us and sometimes even continuing purchasing select individual cuts. Plus, there are things we could add to the operation if we had more sales that would help in every aspect of certain enterprises.

With all of that in mind I'm beginning to explore some opportunities and moving forward with at least one "strategic relationship" (that seems like a good phrase). There have been chefs in the past interested in working with us on our woodlot raised heritage pork, but in each case it just wasn't something that would work out on the farms end. Now we've found a partner in Tacopocalypse that seems like it is going to work with us on many levels. They are a very popular vendor at the same market we attend (we are across the street from each other) and they also sell at two locations along with the catering side of the business. The thing that is going to make it work this time is that they are willing to use so much of the hog and not leave us stuck with other things to sell. But, more on Tacopacalypse later ...

All of this of course is part of the bigger puzzle that is the farm. It's our job to make sure that all of the pieces fit together as they should and nothing is left with a ragged edge. I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences with various marketing opportunities if you have any!

Friday, December 07, 2012

The Tipping Point and Scaling Up

It is my experience that at some point in the life of a business or an organization things come to the tipping point ... the to the edge of a cliff. Once they are at that edge or tipping point there are a few things that can happen. Number one ... they can realize that they don't really like the direction they are going and either reboot or just plain pull the plug. Number two ... they can just stay the course that they are on and probably slowly fade over time because of attrition or lack of passion and excitement. Or, number three ... they can dive in even deeper and take things up a notch or two (of course that assumes things don't blow up in your face). Realize that I'm not organizational or business management expert, so those are just my non-technical observations.

The farm (Crooked Gap Farm) seems to have hit that tipping point or the edge of the cliff (depending on which mental image you would like to have). We started out with herd of Dexter cattle (a herd that was too big for my lack of expertise) and just six hogs on the farm the first year. From that point we have grown by adding enterprises, markets, and transforming our woodlot raised heritage breed pork into the centerpiece of our farm. Now we are at a point where I feel we either need to make some major steps to scale up the farm and the production or scale back down to a "hobby" level and produce enough food for us and a few others with the leftovers.

My pride says, "Let's kick it up a notch or ten and get going!"

My fear says, "You know it wouldn't be so bad to just have three pigs, a couple of cows, and a handful of chickens ... plus I wouldn't have to get up at 4:00 AM 26 weeks a year for the farmers market!"

My gut says, "I think we can do this ... maybe ... with some help ... I think ..."

Of course scaling up and jumping in even deeper means some changes and a different approach to many aspects of the farm ... all of that will take lots of thought and planning! I'll be taking some time over the next few posts to dig into the ideas ...

Do you have thoughts on scaling up small scale farms? I'd love to hear them!

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Pork Chops Come From Where?

I stumbled across this video the other day and thought it would be a perfect fit for The Beginning Farmer Blog since pigs are such a big part of my farm. It appears that the video is from The Better Bacon Book: Make, Cook, and Eat Your Way to Cured Pork Greatness which is a book/set of videos available only on the iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch. It actually looks like a pretty cool "app" with videos on how-to cure your own bacon, build a smoker out of a trash can, and even some history of bacon. Plus, it is only $2.99 so maybe I'll have a review shortly ...

So, incase you have ever wondered where the baby back ribs came from as opposed to the spare ribs then I suggest watching the video. Oh yeah ... and this guy seems pretty good at what he does! Have any of you ever cut up your own hog or cured your own pork? I'd love to hear your thoughts and tips ...

Monday, December 03, 2012

Truck Farming

I can't tell you how many times people have said to me that they can't believe I am farming without a real pickup (it's even been said here on the blog). Since we began the farm I have been doing all of my farming with a somewhat trusty and clunky SUV. The great thing about the SUV was that I could haul lots of people or take the seats out and use it to take calves to the vet, haul buckets of corn, pick up feed from the feed store, and even take large round bales to the cows (that involved a couple of chains and I would not suggest trying it at home). I used the poor SUV to push things (the license plant is hanging on barely), to pull trees out of the timber (the better the tread on the tires the better off you are), and of course to pull the stock trailer to pick up and drop off countless pigs, sheep, cattle, and chickens.

But, last year I decided to step up into the pickup world ... I purchased a mini-sized Chevy S-10 with 4 cylinders and five speeds! It worked okay for piling full of coolers and driving to the farmers market, but for any sort of "truck" job it fails miserably. That is why when the rear-end on the no longer trusty SUV took a death blow this year at the end of summer I knew it was time to step up to a "real" truck ... one that had a bed you could fill up, one that could pull big things, and one that was big and loud and red!

There is just one thing though ... If I believed in luck I would have to say that I have bad luck when it comes to purchasing vehicles or just plain vehicles in general! So, even though I was excited to get a truck I was not excited about looking for one and buying one ... which is why it took two months. Finally after getting the feeling that my friends were tired of me borrowing theirs ... I landed on this beauty ...

Now I am a real farmer ... I have a big red truck that is loud and can pull lots of heavy things! It's not a new truck ... it's not a low mileage truck ... it has some rust covered up with paint ... and it has your typical bumps and bruises. But, it will be a nice addition to the farm and I know that my friends will appreciate me not borrowing theirs (really they have been a huge help though!).

Friday, November 30, 2012

Crazy Ideas :: The Perfect Processor/Butcher

I know that Joel Salatin bought one ... I know that Walter Jeffries is building one ... and I know that I would love to have my hands in one somehow. I mean don't you ever just get those crazy little ideas in the back of your head? You know ... ideas like making a career change or I don't know ... starting a farm! Well, I get crazy ideas in my mind all the time if you haven't noticed already! My latest crazy idea involves having my hand in the meat I produce from the very beginning until the very end.

Now I'm not trying to disparage my current processor or any other processor for that matter, but there is something appealing to me about having as much control over my final product as I can. I would say that on my ideal farm I would have as much control as possible raising the animals from beginning to end, producing all of my feed and forage, processing and curing the meats, and of course marketing the bounty of the farm!

It's not that I'm trying to create my own little bubble world, but rather that I would love to be able to have the control and ability to try as many different things as possible (different cuts, seasonings, cures, etc.). There are just certain things that a locker that is trying to cater to as many different types of customers as possible can't do. But, boy would it be cool!

So, what do you think? Are you in favor of small scale meat processors or cooperatively owned small scale meat processors? Do you think the are feasible (maybe Mr. Jeffries can chime in on this one)?

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Talking Turkey ...

Hopefully you realize that Thanksgiving day was just last week ... and with Thanksgiving comes a nationwide focus on the turkey. Which means we see video of the president and governors pardoning birds to live out their lives on a farm, we search the internet for ideas on how to cook the perfect turkey, and in my case we hear lots of radio news stories about turkey production in Iowa. Of course the reason I heard so many radio stories is because I really only listen to talk radio stations and the played the same or similar stories all week long!

The basic story that I heard quite a few times last week is that Iowa is the number nine turkey producer nationwide and the number five processor of turkey in the country. According to this article that I found we produce about 11 million birds each year in the state! But, the thing that article says, and all the radio stories I heard said was that when you sat down for your turkey dinner you wouldn't be eating an Iowa produced bird (unless of course you purchased your turkey directly from the farmers). It seems that almost all of Iowa's turkey meat ends up in sub sandwiches at Subway or Jimmy John's.

I'm not an economist, I'm not a financial guru, in fact I'm not even an intelligent agricultural guy! So, I understand that maybe I have no reason to even think about this sort of thing and that there is probably some large answer that I could not completely understand. In fact according to this flyer from the Iowa Turkey Federation there are 85 turkey producers in Iowa (it may not be a real up-to-date flyer) and I always think it's a good thing to have more farmers in Iowa!

But, I just have to ask the question ... If we produce 11 million birds each year in our own state and we have multiple turkey processors, then why can't we purchase an Iowa raised and processed turkey for Thanksgiving dinner? That was just the thought that kept running through my head ...

With all that being said ... as long as there are no set-backs and I feel like we are set up enough to get things going we are planning on raising a limited number of heritage breed turkeys next year. I see it as another opportunity to bring a bit more diversification to the farm ... and to have a great tasting bird for Thanksgiving dinner!

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

A Post Election Thank You

Tonight ... we stand before you ... with victory in our hands! (wait for applause to subside) The votes have been counted ... you and others from around the surrounding counties have spoken! (wait for this round of applause to subside) We want you to know that it is because of you that we are here today ... that without you none of this would be possible and we just want to offer our thanks from the bottom of our hearts ... Thank You ... each and every one of you Thank You! (there will be more excited applause here so just wait it out) Now, just as we have promised we are going to head out to the fields and woods and pastures and bring you some of the best heritage breed meat available! We're going to put on our mud boots and dig in just as we promised! Thank You! (wait for applause) Thank You! (wait for applause) Thank You! Good night and may God Bless the farm! (exit stage right to extreme amounts of applause)

Over the past few weeks I've been talking with and e-mailing some of our whole and half hog customers and I've often found myself saying or writing, "thank you so much for your support". It sort of made me feel like a politician in this political season, but the more I thought about it the more it made sense. I think that when a customer decides to purchase a half or whole hog from us (or any other item) it is like they are voting for us and for our farm and for the work we put into it. And I am very thankful for their support!

I can't tell you the last time that I checked out at the grocery store and had the cashier say, "thank you so much for your support." I'm not saying that they aren't thankful (who am I to know that), but I do want my customers to know that I am very thankful for them and their support. In fact I don't really see them as customers as much as friends and supporters! All of the "votes" for our pasture/woodlot raised heritage breed meats are what makes it possible for our farm to keep going and even grow (which we are growing). Without our supporters we wouldn't be around for very long.

With all that said ... I am very thankful for all the support that we have as farmers. Thankful for the support that comes from family. Thankful for the support that comes from all those who love our heritage breed meats. Thankful for all those all over the country that encourage us in our mission. So ... truly ... from the bottom of our hearts ... Thank You!!!

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Short Days :: Long Days

I know that I said a while back that I was back to blogging again, but then I sort of trickled off ... like I have done a lot lately. This time it wasn't because of a lack of desire to write, but rather because I've just been plain busy. Now that I have more mobility and one semi-working foot to go along with the good one I've been trying to do as much as possible ... although I do things more slowly than before because I'm not near full strength yet.

With that being said there has been a lot accomplished lately. As you can see from the picture above we made it through our second Farm Crawl which meant we spent a lot of time getting the farm prepared for hundreds of people. In fact in the week leading up to the Farm Crawl there was much cleaning done as well as even some fence building. Now we have a hi-tensile wire fence around the yard and for the first time in four years the animals don't have free and easy access to the yard ... on the downside there will be A LOT more mower gas used next year (even if it is another drought).

Of course the Downtown Des Moines Farmers' Market has continued (only one left) and we have begun taking in hogs for our whole and half customers. I'm very thankful for our whole/half customers and will admit that it is a lot of fun (and feels like a huge accomplishment) to take large groups of hogs into the processor all at once. I have another batch going in a couple of weeks and then we'll be down to our sow herd and pigs mostly between birth and 150 pounds ... a little less feed will be used at least for a short while.

And then most recently I was able to go up and help my uncle put the tarp on his 36' x 100' hoop house. His is for storing machinery, but it was nice to seen one in person and the building up close. It makes me want a hoop house for winter farrowing/growers even more than before. So ... I'm researching different brands, checking prices, and trying to figure out just where I could put a hoop house!

I hope everyone is getting much accomplished this fall ...

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Building a Monopoly Style Monopoly

Lately I've been listening to podcasts while I'm driving to and from the farmers market, doctors appointments, and work. It seems like a slightly more profitable way to use that down time and I can usually find something encouraging to listen to. Most recently I stumbled across a podcast from Seth Godin. I had heard of him before through a variety of sources so I decided to give his new podcast (actually segments from a lecture) a try. So far so good ...

But, what struck me was this quote, "Every successful business has a monopoly ... has a monopoly on what it makes that someone else can't make the way they make it. That leaves out commodity businesses ..." (he also said that he was thankful for commodity businesses because they produce things that we all need) And, I really like this quote, "Brilliant entrepreneurship is around figuring out that thing that you can do that's in the marketplace that people are willing to cross the street to get. That people understand that this is the one and I need it."

The whole episode was interesting, but those were two keys that I took away and really made me think about the farm and marketing for the farm. To be blunt ... my prices are higher than those at the supermarket. Sometimes they are quite a bit higher and other times they are only slightly higher. But, what I realize and what my customers realize is that comparing our woodlot raised heritage breed meats with those that come in a frozen tube in the freezer case or on a styrofoam plate in the cooler aisle is not comparing two equal things. Sure, they are similar in the fact that they are both meat products ... and there are plenty of people that would argue with me saying that there is no difference between the two. But, when it comes down to it I'm not raising and selling a commodity ... I'm working to raise something, "that someone else can't make the way" I make it!

Another important thing to realize that even within my own "community" of farms (other farms doing something similar to mine) I have to offer something that encourages people to "cross the street to get". At the Downtown Des Moines Farmer's Market I'm one of multiple people raising pork, beef, lamb, and poultry products. So, the question I continually ask myself is how do I make the farm stand out? Of course I continually work to offer up great tasting meats, but what else can I do?

A couple of things that I've worked to focus on is building relationships (the market and things like the farm crawl are great for that) and raising rare or heritage breeds. I'd love to hear more thoughts on these topics, and you can be sure that I'll continue listening to the podcasts as long as they are released ...

Thursday, October 04, 2012

An Open Letter to Uncle Loren

Over the past four years, since the very beginning of the farm, we have been helped by countless family members and friends. They have spent an incredible amount of time helping us get this dream off the ground and dealing with my crazy ideas and procrastinating ways. Our "farm angels" have helped us build a home, construct fences, move pigs around, fix equipment, find hay, make portable pens and buildings, and above all help us to survive the first four years without doing complete damage to our minds, bodies, and souls!

But, I want to take a moment today to send an open letter to my Uncle Loren. Some of you may know of him, but I'm convinced all of you should get to know him ... or someone like him. He is one of the many people that have helped out so much on this farm journey ...

When my feed auger wagon broke and my feeble attempts to fix it fell far short Uncle Loren showed up in the middle of the night to take it home to his shop to fix (after I called and said I was at my wits end). When the cattle had spent most of their time on the farm getting out of my horrible excuse for a fence Uncle Loren showed up with the equipment and the knowledge to get the fencing project started. When the pigs are boggling my mind he is always just a phone call away. When a tractor breaks down he has shown up with a loaner (sometimes a long-term loaner) to help me. When water lines and electrical lines needed to be run underground ... well ... you probably get the idea ...

My Uncle Loren has invested quite a bit of his time and himself into the farm. In fact just this week he spent almost two days building more fence, setting corner posts, smoothing ruts, and even moving and leveling a building that had been sitting haphazardly in the pasture for the past few months. When he left late Tuesday evening it hit me just how much he gives and how hard he works. The farm would not be where it is without the help of so many people! And, Uncle Loren is one of those people ...

Uncle Loren ... Thank you for the knowledge you share. Thank you for the work you give. Thank you for the time you so freely share with us. Thank you for the example that you are.

One of my many dreams is to have just a fraction of your farming knowledge. You remind me that farming is not just a set of physical movements, but rather an art. Uncle Loren ... you are an artist.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Oh No :: No More Bacon!

Just the other day our local news station had this article on their website ...

"Bacon, pork prices to increase next year"

There were a few quotes that stood out to me ...

The group said farmers worldwide are cutting their herds "at a significant rate" that could double pork prices in Europe in the second half of next year.
"If I were purchasing all my grain to feed my hogs, I'd probably be closing out right now," said David Struthers. 
"You will be able to eat BLTs next year. You just might be paying a little bit more for the bacon than what you did this year, but we will not run out," said Joe Kerns. 
"If we have another dry year things could get really ugly," said Struthers.
Wow ... there is so much to think about in this little article. First of all it has me scared ... the fear has been there deep down for awhile, but I've tried to not let it come to my mind. But, I'm with Mr. Struthers ... if we have another dry year things could get really ugly. As a beginning farmer who still hasn't established everything on the farm and as a hog farmer that must purchase feed I don't even want to begin to think about grain prices going any higher than they already are. I'm praying (really praying) for a wonderfully cold and very snowy winter followed by the muddiest spring the farm has seen!

The article goes on to talk about the shortage that is expected in Europe and the probably price increases that will be seen in the United States. Many hog produces are cutting the numbers in their herds (in fact I know a few hogs leaving the farm in my area as well) and once those cuts are felt there will likely be price increases.

But, for me the most telling quote was this one ...
The National Pig Association is calling on consumers to choose local products to help boost prices to help farmers.
I whole heartedly agree with that statement! I have one question though ... are they talking about purchasing from local farmers directly or purchasing for local grocery stores. The only reason I ask is because at a recent taste test there was a pork shoulder roast from the local small-chain grocery store. The person hosting the tasting talked to the meat department at the grocery and asked about where it came from ... the grocery store said it came from Tyson, but that it probably was an Iowa pig. The host then called Tyson directly and they said there was a chance that it came from Iowa, but it also could have come from Canada or Mexico.

My thoughts ... purchase directly from you farmer and then know for sure you are supporting your local farmer! In fact we haven't raised our prices yet (and hope not to), so you can reserve a hog for the spring at the same prices you could last fall.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Single Sport Athletes ... err ... Farmers

Before we started the farm (and during the first year of farming) I was a head girls varsity soccer coach in our community. I loved soccer, coaching, and impacting students so it was a perfect fit for me. But, what it wasn't a perfect fit for was the farm and it seemed that just as soccer got busy the farm got busy so I knew that soccer had to end if I wanted to farm. But, if you have had any sort of involvement in high school sports over the past 10 years or so you have experienced or heard of the push towards single-sport focus. What I mean is that many students are moving away from playing four different seasons of sports and beginning to focus in on one sport and playing/practicing year-round.

It just too me about 30 seconds and a Google search for "single sport high school athletes" to come up with article after article talking about how it is detrimental to the athlete in so many ways. Here is one article and here is another. A few quotes really stood out to me ... "'A lot of parents are going to fast-track their kids,' Cuthbert says, 'and you've got to be careful about burning a kid out.'"
"Experts and may area high school coaches contend the one-sport emphasis is premature for an athlete who has yet to reach full physical and emotional maturity and has the ability and desire to play multiple sports." 
"A growing number of young athletes are focusing on playing a single sport, putting themselves at greater risk of serious injuries, physicians said." 
"Some parents believe that specialization can help their children becomes stars, earning a college scholarship or even a pro career." 
"The movement toward specialization may produce more successful athletes, but it also results in more injuries. More than 3.5 million children 14 and younger were treated for sports injuries in 2010, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. In contrast, 1.9 million were treated in 2002, according to the Centers for Disease Control."
You can see there is quite a feeling that this specialization in sports for students is not a great idea. I tend to agree with that because of what I saw with the students I coached ... or the ones I didn't get to coach because they were "focused" on only one sport. But, this is far from a sports blog ... so what does it have to do with farming?

To put it simply I think much of agriculture (like American youth sports) is too fractured and specialized. Of course I could go on and on about how specialization in agriculture is something I don't care for, but that really isn't my current frustration. My current frustration stems from the news I heard on the way into town this morning ... the farm bill will have to wait until after the election.

Of course this is the same farm bill that I went to Washington D.C. to discuss two summers ago (I guess things take time). But, it really isn't the fact that we won't have one that frustrates me (I don't know enough about it). What really has me down is the fractured state of agriculture in the United States (or the world). As I listened to the radio and read a few news reports I found that not only was the legislation fractured along party lines, but also along farmer lines. Farmers are at times lined up fighting against other farmers!

While in D.C. I had one senators staffer tell me that all I wanted was the playing field tipped in my direction. That I wanted an advantage, "because that is what everyone wants". That made me angry ... it still makes me angry! I don't want an advantage ... I just want to be able to do my thing and I want to be able to look at things holistically ... not fractured and compartmentalized.

It seems if we continue down the fractured and specialized road we will just find ourselves with twice as many injuries each year ... you know ... like we are seeing in youth sports partially as a result of the "benefits" of specialization.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Time For a New Boot

On September, 26th 2006 (wow ... almost exactly 6 years ago???) I wrote my second ever blog post. It is probably obvious from the post that I was pretty proud of the fact that I was able to wear out a pair of boots (even though it took about 10 years) ... it is also obvious that I didn't have a lot to write about! In case you are wondering I ended up trying a pair of Georgia Boots (they didn't workout) and ended up with a pair of Wolverine Boots (they were great). Now I've moved on to Red Wing Boots because I was able to get a great discount when I was working at the farm store.

But, just yesterday I purchased new boots ... errr ... a new boot. As you can see in the picture this is probably the most expensive boot I've ever purchased, but I'm very thankful to have a "boot" again on my right foot. I even get to wear a sock!!!

Honestly though, even though it is very very very painful to walk I am walking again and hopefully I can get to farming again. I realize not everyone has known about my wonderful achilles tendon tear, but I'm thankful for all that have been supporting through help and prayers. I still have a long ways to go and it's not like I can do much, but at least this is a literal "step in the right direction".

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Give & Take :: Nitrates, GMO, Local, Organic, Etc.

One of the greatest benefits of setting up at the Downtown Des Moines Farmers Market is that I have a chance to interact with customers. This interaction (as I mentioned in the previous post) allows me the opportunity to share our farm story and my passion for the way we raise our livestock and the meat we produce. But, it has also allowed me to see what is most important to customers when it comes to the way that we raise the food that we sell.

The big topics that always come up are animal welfare, nitrates in the bacon, GMO grains, locally raised (there are quite a few people who ask if I raise the livestock), organic certified, and plenty of other topics of debate. Sometimes the customers like the answers that I give and purchase ... sometimes they don't like the answers and they give it a try anyways ... and sometimes they don't like the answers and they decide not to buy at all. But, when it comes down to it for me it is really a game of give and take.

I say give and take because if I may one choice, such as deciding to use organic grains, then it will impact another aspect of the farm ... in that case the cost of the finished product for the consumer. With grain prices as high as they are now it is already difficult to figure out how everything to come together financially, but I can't image how it would be if I was only using organic grains. Recently I spoke with an organic hog farmer who was paying $18 a bushel for corn and nearly $30 for beans! Basically twice as much as I'm paying for locally raised (most likely GMO) grain.

If I was using organic grains my prices would have to be raised significantly and I would probably lose some customers because of that ... probably not many people would be interested in $7 or $8 ground pork. So, for the time being I'm sticking with my locally raised grains that aren't trucked around the midwest and support local businesses. Would I like to be able to use non-GMO grain ... YES!!! But, that will have to wait until I can source it in a way that makes sense ... or I can raise my own (that is a dream).

That is just one example of the give and take questions that are continually facing the farm. Financial sustainability means lots of questions like this and lots of conversations with customers. One thing I wouldn't mind changing is the nitrates because it seems to be a big concern for customers, but so far my processor doesn't feel comfortable with the other options.

How about you ... what do you think of these debates and give and takes?

Monday, September 10, 2012

Virtual Farm Tour :: The Farmer's Market

While not literally on the farm ... the Downtown Des Moines Farmers Market is a huge part of the farm. Last year we did twelve dates at the market (including the two winter indoor markets), and this year we are full-time vendors there each week beginning in May and ending the last Saturday of October. We are in the homestretch now, but it has been a very good and eventful season so far ... even if I've done about half of it on crutches and in a cast!

The Downtown Des Moines Farmers Market is a pretty large market covering four city blocks plus three north/south side streets off of the main avenue. I believe it has somewhere close to 200 vendors and averages large crowds each week with over 15,000 people. Needless to say it is a very large crowd each week and even though it has been hot we have had nice Saturdays and plenty of people.

For our farm the biggest thing about the market is getting our name out there, meeting people, and sharing our story. The great thing about the market is that there is an opportunity to really build a relationship with the customers and they can get a pretty good picture of the farm. Just in this first year we have built a great following of regulars who come pretty much every week (and mostly at the same time). Those regulars have also become some of our best advertisers and often recommend our pork to friends or people checking out the display while they are making their purchase.

We have been averaging about a hog per week in sales at the market with pork being the mainstay of our sales ... and the only thing that we've had consistently each week. At the beginning of the market we had a little lamb left over which sold very well, and the one beef we did this year sold out very quickly! We have also had our whole chickens for a few weeks and should have more throughout the last two months of the market. But, our pork has been our thing and I hope to gain a reputation as the place to go to for the best pork at the market.

The biggest thing about the market for the farm though is just the exposure. I have often commented that our eventual goal is to be selling just wholes and halves. I strongly believe that is the most sustainable method for the farm and for the way we raise the animals, but in order to get to that place people need to get to know us. This year we have been taking reservations for whole/half hogs and quickly filled up the spots for our fall hogs and are now taking reservations for the spring. If things keep up the way they are going now I can see us eventually working our way out of the market ... which could be a good thing.

But, for the time being ... the market is a great avenue and connection to a great crowd interested in some of the best pork available!

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Outsmarting the Drought :: Dick Thompson

Dick Thompson is a man that I've never met, but he is one that I have often read about. Mr. Thompson was the founding force behind Practical Farmers of Iowa and still is deeply involved in the research and field studies down in the organization. In the article linked below he shares how he beats the drought through diversification instead of relying on crop insurance and other payments. I think this statement of his from the article sums it up best, but you should read the whole thing for yourself ...
"In 1988, our bean yields were 17 bushels over county average, our corn yields were 27 bushels over county average - so, I rest my case."
I think our farmers and the entire country would benefit from Mr. Thompson's approach, but those are just my thoughts ... let me know what you think!

Having a Profitable Farm Year, Rain or Shine

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Virtual Farm Tour :: Katahdin Hair Sheep

Let me just say this ... our Katahdin Hair Sheep flock is really a work in progress ... but, with that in mind I do think that they will eventually become a slightly bigger part of our operation than I envisioned. Lamb and beef are two things that I only have a few times throughout the farmers market season at this point, but I would say that are at least as many or even more people that ask for lamb each week! Plus, I think they fit well with our grazing system and on our farm.

Now, why do I call them a work in progress? Well ... let me just say that they are not exactly trained to the electric fence yet (including the electric netting). This is our second year with the sheep and I can't exactly say that we have been rotationally grazing them, but I can say they cover the acres very well and do graze on different species of forage than the cows normally do. From reading other people's accounts on raising sheep I think I just need to really focus on getting them used to the hot wires.

As I mentioned the demand has been fairly high for lamb meat and we have not had any problem selling what few cuts we have. In fact I've had quite a few people interested in ordering whole lambs and that will probably be something we begin in the next year or so, but for now I like the idea of getting as many people hooked on our lamb meat as possible! The downside though is that the way we raise our lambs it is very seasonal market. With our spring born lambs and fall processing we really only have them available for a couple months each year.

One option to spread the availability out a little bit would be to have fall born lambs and winter them over on hay, but I'm not sure if I like that idea because there would be extra hay costs incurred that don't exist with spring lambing. Which makes me think that selling whole lambs and taking reservations throughout the year for the fall would be the best possible market strategy for the farm.

I am pretty sure that there will be sheep and lambs on the farm for years to come (as long as we get all the wrinkles ironed out), but there are a few things I would like to try/explore. As I mentioned I may try some different breeding schedules, but I would also like to look more closely into the St. Croix breed if I can find some. I will also admit that I need to learn quite a bit more about the different cuts and how to prepare them! All in all though I'm pleased with the sheep.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Virtual Farm Tour :: Dexter Beef Cattle

The great thing about this year is that we have had an extremely severe drought which has led to grass that decided it didn't want to grow back as well ... hay that is scarce and expensive ... and lots fun in the heat! No really ... I think it is fairly obvious that it has been a difficult year in many places and as bad as it has been here there are probably areas that have had things worse. So, we are just plugging away with our Dexter beef.

When the farm began ... and really before the farm began ... I was working towards having the grassfed beef be the centerpiece enterprise of our farm. I read a lot of books on raising cattle, managing grass, management intensive grazing, and so much more. In fact the very first livestock we purchased were the Dexter cows and calves. I really wanted beef to be my focus, but once we really got going and moved to the farm it quickly became clear that the beef was going to be a small side enterprise of the larger farm business.

The reason is very simple ... land! We only have a total of 40 acres and from there probably only 25 or so acres are available for grazing (minus the woods/buildings). Those 25 acres will allow us to do a few beef each year (along with our Katahdin lambs), but with our limited grazing land right now it will never be a centerpiece. And, as things stand right now I don't see renting more land as a viable option ... so our purebred Dexter beef is a smaller part of our farm.

Now that I have that all out of the way ... how are things going? Grazing started out well this year, but it quickly became apparent that the grass would not be growing back. That along with my injury has meant less rotational grazing and more scrambling for grass! Nevertheless the cows and calves seem to be doing well and since we have had only bull calves for the last couple of years we should have more beef offerings the next couple of years.

I believe if you look over some previous posts you would see that I was beginning to question the Dexters because they don't produce as much meat as other cattle their size (Lowlines for example). I have been having some serious thoughts about at least crossing in some more beefy lines. Just this past Saturday though I think I ruled that out at the farmers market when I had multiple customers come up asking for beef and were disappointed that I was out because they said it was the best they had ever had! For now ... we're sticking with the Dexters.

There is my quick rambling on our Dexter beef ... if you have any specific questions I would love to share more!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Reading & Listening :: Books & Podcasts

If you happen to follow Crooked Gap Farm on Facebook you may have already heard about my stupid leg, but if you don't ... let me just say that I tore my achilles tendon making an explosive play on the softball field (and recording an out) over a month ago. Since the fateful game I've worn a splint for a couple of weeks preparing for surgery ... had surgery ... and now have been in a cast for two weeks with four more weeks to go. After that hopefully a walking cast (that is what the doc said) for maybe six weeks followed by physical therapy.

All of that introduction was to say this ... I have to spend more time sitting down than working on the farm and have recently been scouring iTunes and Amazon for things to listen to and read. So, I'm hopeful that there are still people reading this blog after nearly a year of missing posts because I could use any reading or listening suggestions you have. I'll do my part as well and share a few that I've enjoyed lately.

Books ...

  • The Sheer Ecstasy of Being a Lunatic Farmer by Joel Salatin :: I've actually read this one in the past and have re-read it as well. You all may have heard of the author (sarcasm intended), but really it is a good read. As a side note I haven't read it yet, but have listened to a few podcast episodes feature Mr. Salatin discussing his new book Folks This Ain't Normal.
  • Storey's Guide To Raising Rabbits by Bob Bennett :: Honestly this is my son's book, but since he started in the rabbit business this year I figured I should do some reading as well. Even though we are raising our rabbits outside on pasture this book covered a lot of basic information and at least gave me an idea of what I was getting into.

Podcasts ...

  • Farmcast :: This one is hosted by Tim and Liz of Nature's Harmony Farm. During each podcast they discuss different items that have recently come up on the website and share some of their experience. I enjoyed their previous farm podcast and this one is a good listen as well.
  • Chicken Thistle Farm CoopCast :: I stumbled on this podcast a couple weeks ago looking for something to listen to while keeping my foot up so it doesn't swell to twice it's size! It covers the happenings on Chicken Thistle Farm located in New York. The raise some livestock and have a CSA garden among other jobs and farm ventures. A good listen and a nice perspective.
  • Joel Salatin on Inner Compass :: Search is a wonderful thing on iTunes, and it was a search that led me to this interview with Mr. Salatin. This is actually a video podcast of a local PBS show I believe. Although it took a while to download in town it was fun to watch.

There you have a few suggestions from me ... I would love to hear other suggestions!

Monday, August 20, 2012

Virtual Farm Tour :: Pastured Poulet Rouge

Pastured Poulet Rouge Chickens
A few people have asked about the possibility of a "virtual farm tour" that would catch people up on what is happening on the farm. I thought that was a great idea, so for the next few posts (I'm trying to be non-committal hoping that the blogging sticks this time) I'm going to share some of the details of our farm ventures. The first one I thought I would tackle is our pastured Poulet Rouge meat chickens.

Right now we are raising a slow growing naked neck Poulet Rouge breed that fits well in our pasture based system and is full of flavor. It is part of our farm values to help raise and preserve heritage breeds (the naked necks can be traced back to at least 1810) and these chickens help us stick with those values while providing a great bird.

If you have been hiding under a rock this summer I need to inform you that Iowa and much of the country have been experiencing a drought. Along with the lack of rain we have also been experiencing extreme heat, but I have been very pleased with the natural hardiness of our birds ... not losing any with the heat (although the predator losses is a different story). This natural ability to withstand the elements has always been one of the reasons behind our breed choices and breeding selection.

Last year we raised one smaller batch of this bird and so far this year we have/are in the process of raising three groups of about 50-75 average. The birds are being raised on grass in the orchard and they seem to be voracious foragers. Along with their forage we are feeding a 21% protein corn/soy ration that has a Homestead Feeds Chick-En-Egg Concentrate pack added for minerals (it is hormone free and animal byproduct free). During the first batch of chickens our protein level was not as high as it should have been and I noticed that the birds grew slower than expected ... that is now fixed and seems to be working better. We have used the Homestead line of feeds now for almost two years with the hogs and I've been pleased with it.

We process all of our birds at a state inspected facility which allows us to sell at our Farmers Market and on-line cooperative. The other exciting thing about the current processor is that they air chill the birds so they don't soak up a lot of water weight and the meat retains a great texture and flavor. I will say that we are very lucky though to have such a processor so close (about an hours drive).

The downsides ... it does take these birds about 14 weeks to finish out and the rate of growth does seem to be all over the place depending on the bird. We also need to finish building more portable chicken wagons, but that is just one of the many things on our ever growing list! Overall I believe they are good fit for us and I plan on continue raising them and working to build a market for the birds.

One thing that I always tell people though is that I have found that the animals that are born on our farm do better than the animals that we bring to the farm. With that in mind we are very seriously considering raising and selecting our own breeding stock so that we can incubate/hatch our own meat birds. I'm not sure that it will happen, but it is something that interests me quite a bit! If anyone has any thoughts or book recommendations on that subject I would love to hear them.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

This is a Blog Post :: Not a Test

Lately it sure seems like “the beginning farmer” has become “the quitting farmer”. And although I did not quit farming, it is very much evident that I did quit writing. I spent the last week or so writing and re-writing a post explaining why I drifted away from the blog and sharing the farming experience, but after reading it over and over again I think it is just best that I say ... I quit blogging about the farm journey and now I would like to start again ... yes ... that seems much easier!

Crooked Gap Farm is rolling along much as it was last time I wrote (I think). We are still raising beef, lamb, pork, chicken, and laying hens ... and we are still selling direct to customers and friends through half/whole sales, the Downtown Des Moines Farmers Market, the Iowa Food Coop, and random deliveries and on-farm sales. The hogs are still very much still the centerpiece of the farm and are living up to their definition as “mortgage lifters” (although we’ll see how that lasts with the current drought). 

The farm is also still very much in “beginning farmer” mode and I would be lying if I said that there were plenty of things that aren’t as far along as I would like them to be. It just seems like there is always an emergency that pops up and keeps us from doing the long-term projects that we would like to be accomplishing. But, I know for a fact that is just typical farm life and nothing special. 

So, here is a post on my blog ... the first in a very, very, very long time. I’m not making any promises on when or if there will be another blog post (I did just delete a folder of blog posts I had planned on putting up last time I said I would begin blogging). But, let me just say this ... I do want to write again ... I lost my drive to write and I would like to bring it back ... to share the farm.
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