Posts Tagged ‘subsistence’

Ducklings at 1 Week


The ducklings hatched one week ago, and their rate of growth is impressive.  Here are photos from yesterday, when Midnight took them for their first field trip to the dandelion patch just outside the barn.

Midnight leads her brood of 17. She seemed to be quite happy to get out as well, snapping at insects and sampling vegetation.

The grass looks a lot taller when little ducklings are in the middle of it!

The ducklings enjoyed their first nibbles of grass and dandelions.

Duckling fuzz proves to be effective camouflage among dandelions.

All this sight-seeing is tiring. Ducklings stop for a rest.

With the field trip over, the ducklings were a bit slow to follow, so momma duck did a little chastising.

Does this spark any early memories of your own field trips or vacations?  If so, please leave a comment – we’d love to hear about your adventures.

Thanks for visiting, and please stop by again soon.  We’ll keep you updated as God continues to bless us!

P.S. The kids discovered this morning that Midnight is already starting her next clutch!

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Occupy Movement Hits the Flying T


I walked to the equipment shed a couple days ago and found that the Occupy movement had hit our farm.

"Occupy Shed" Protest

They weren’t as persistent as protesters in other parts of the country.  By the time I’d come back from occupying my tractor seat and evicting some more Pin Cherry trees from the pastures with my chainsaw, they’d moved on.  Even though it was nice and dry inside the shed, they knew I wasn’t going to feed them there and so they went on their way to forage for food (you can learn a lot from animals).  However, one of them did leave me a symbol of their protest – a fresh egg in the corner of my tractor bay.  Sometimes protests can be so yummy.

Occupy Skillet

This got me thinking.  If the chickens represented the OWS folks, that would make them the 99% (good guys/gals) and me the 1% (evil greedy egg-eater).  But I’m not sure I want to be counted in the 1%.  Maybe I am anyhow.

Occupy Pasture

If we’re talking economic status, I definitely don’t qualify as the top 1% in the US, but I’m also not in the 15% who are below the national poverty line.  In fact, I’m probably in the top half of citizens financially because last April I was one of the only 53% who paid income taxes.

I’m also in the 37% who voted in 2010, the 6% of my generation who are military veterans (and the less than 1% who are combat vets), the 7% who hunt, the 30% who change their own oil, the 95% who don’t go much deeper under the hood than spark plugs, and the 12% who consider faith a vitally important part of our lives.

Occupy Trough

Some of these groups have more significance than others, and a lot of this is a matter of perspective.  Getting back to the financials, 5% of our population in the US is in “extreme poverty” (half the poverty line), so the rest of us are in the top 95%.  If we look at it globally, it’s an even different perspective.  A family of four in the US making $22,350 (2010 poverty rate) is in the lower 15% of the US… but they’re in the top 10% worldwide according to the Global Richlist.  If you currently bring home the US median income (over $50K), you’re a “one percenter.”  In fact, the mere fact that you’re reading this right now puts you in the exclusive 30% of  the population with Internet access.

Occupy Hammock

BTW, if you’ve never spent significant time in the “two-thirds” world, you really don’t know what poverty is.

Still, I don’t feel comfortable with this at all.  Part of it is because when I look at these percentages, what I see is that it is “us” versus “them.”  No matter what X and Y are and what distinguishes between the two of them, the X% vs Y% debates today are taking on the form of ad hominem attacks – accusing “who” instead of discussing “what.”

“There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism.” – President Theodore Roosevelt

President Roosevelt was talking about the scurge of those working to assert the specific interests of “German-Americans,” “French-Americans,” “Irish-Americans,” etc into the workings of the United States.  What he insisted was that instead, we needed to work together as a union towards the interests of the nation as a whole.  To extend that idea, I believe we need to stop thinking about who is right, who deserves privileges to be bestowed or stripped, and who has or has not, and instead focus on what is right, why it is right, and how we can do right.

Occupy Barn

So, as I think about the “Occupy” phenomenon beyond my own equipment shed, only one percentage really makes sense to me.  I’m in the 100% of us who should be taking an interest in where this nation is headed.

[Edit:  The following was in my morning readings the day after I wrote this post]

But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.  For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.

– 1 Timothy 6:6-10

May I learn to be content.

On Firewood, Fuel Oil, and BTUs


We went to a funeral this weekend for our neighbor’s Dad.  He was an amazing, godly man who grew up in the Northeast in the 1920s.  His bedroom was an outdoor covered porch, shared with his siblings.   His story isn’t unusual for that time.

1920s New England Homestead. Image by nps.gov

These days (call it being soft if you will) we enjoy a bit more shelter during the winters, and our house at the Flying T has quite the mish-mash of fuel types to help give that shelter some heat.  Down in the basement, we have a boiler fueled by a 250-gallon fuel oil tank that supplies hot water baseboard heat in several zones throughout the house.  We have small electric oil-filled space heaters for certain zones that we don’t wish to keep heated by diesel all the time.  Our hot water is supplied by an instant hot water heater, fired by a propane tank that also feeds the stove and oven.

However, the bulk of our heating is supplied by the woodstove in our living room that (at least in our limited experience in the new house at the tail end of last winter) does a pretty good job of keeping our living spaces warm.  It’s a HearthStone stove that circulates air to maximize efficiency and uses natural soapstone to store and release heat.  In addition to the more even radiant heat this provides, another benefit is that we can get the stove nice and hot in the evening, pack it up with wood and close the damper before we go to bed, and it will still be warm when I wake up to toss more wood in in the morning.  The chief drawback is that if we let the fire go out, it takes a longer time to get the stove warm again.

As this will be our first full winter in the house and seasoned firewood can be tough to find and expensive to buy in February/March, I’ve made sure we have plenty of wood for the winter.  We still have about an eigth of the cord of “seconds” I bought when I first arrived, as well as a full cord my parents gave us as a true “housewarming” present.  At the beginning of Summer, we purchased another 3 cords of green firewood and stacked it in open criss-cross fashion to dry.  It’s cracking nicely which tells me it’s pretty well seasoned.

To that, we’ve added another roughly three cords of wood cut, split, and stacked from our woods throughout the year: about a cord and a half of Red Maple, another of Pin Cherry, and a half of odds and ends we pulled out in the cleanup after Irene.  That’s stacked in another location on the property, and from the looks of it, should be plenty ready by the end of Winter when we need it.

A good cord of well-seasoned hardwood stores about the same number of BTUs as 150 gallons of fuel oil.  Given our oil boiler’s tested efficiency of just over 80% and a conservative rating of 70% for the stove (it’s advertised at 80%), that means we pull about the same amount of useable heat from each cord as we do from 130 gallons of diesel, so I figure our firewood stacks are worth about 850 gallons (given that the Irene stuff isn’t all hardwood).  Click here to read a pretty good article on these calculations on the National Ag Safety Database… it’s an old article, so don’t laugh or cry too hard when you see the prices. 

We’re getting a quote of about $3.65 a gallon delivered to pre-buy fuel oil through the winter.  Seasoned hardwood goes for around $250 a cord delivered, but green wood dries out just fine over the summer and costs only ~$175.  I estimate we use about a gallon of gas/oil in my Stihl per cord and another half gallon of tractor diesel to get it out of the forest and to the wood pile, at which point we pay our son about $10/cord to stack it (almost all of which he puts in his Haiti missions jar).  That might only be $15-20 in direct costs, but given the hours spent sharpening, oiling, cutting, hauling, and splitting (with mauls and axes – we think of it as saving on a gym membership), I think $175 is pretty fair for a cord of green wood whether we cut it ourselves or have it delivered.

Bottom line: Our firewood stack represents about $1225 in money and time.  The equivalent 850 gallons of fuel oil would cost about $3100.  Savings: $1875.

Time to cut some more wood.

Can Handshakes and the Internet Make Better Food?


Earlier, I explained that while I believe Organic certification has benefits for certain consumers and producers, it also has some inherent flaws and weaknesses.  I believe there is a better solution for many of us.  Like many of the practices we’re finding to help us make healthy and ethical choices in the ways we produce, market, acquire, and consume food, this solution is an old one with a bit of assistance from newer technologies.

The old part of the solution is the handshake.  In lieu of third-party state-managed certification processes, farmers and customers need to know each other and talk face-to-face.  The farmer needs to know what the customer values and desires, in product, quality, and methods.  The customer needs to be able to trust that the farmer will produce according to those values and desires.  Both need to come to an understanding of what this will cost.

Photo by Growmark.com

The best way to achieve this is through face-to-face contact.  Even in this age of smart phones, tablets, social media, and near-instant communication, we haven’t found a true substitute for shaking another person’s hand and looking her or him in the eyes.  Meeting in person allows the best opportunity for the customer to express his or her values and desires not only for the type of food, but also for how that food is produced.  It also allows the producer to present the realities of whether or not he or she is able to meet those values and desires, and the costs of doing so.  If the perfect match of these values, desires, abilities, and costs does not exist, these meetings also present an opportunity for finding the best match through compromise.

I admit, the "Great Compromise" wasn't all about food

There certainly are obstacles to such meetings, especially in today’s world.  Increased mobility, urban concentration, farm consolidation, and the sheer business of life all drive us away from physical, personal meetings.

Consider how car buying has changed in just my generation.  When I was a kid and my folks bought a new car, Dad did most of the research, mostly by talking to friends and going to the library (for those who’ve never seen one – it’s a big building with books in it and these helpful people called librarians who put Google to shame when you ask “What would be a great book for a 7 year-old kid who likes dinosaurs, Star Wars, and hunting?” – they still exist, by the way, and I highly recommend you visit and support them).  A lot of that research was supplemented and guided by his previous experience with different manufacturers.

After he did that research, Mom and Dad (and sometimes us kids) would go down to the local dealerships and take a look at the floor models of the cars they were considering.  Over a couple visits, they’d talk to the salesmen about models, options, and prices, and probably take a test drive before making their final decision and buying or ordering a new car.  The transaction always ended with a handshake.

Spring forward a few decades.  The last new car we bought (and probably the last new car I will ever buy) was while we were stationed overseas.  We did almost all of the research on the Internet, ordered the car through a series of emails (and only one phone call) with a dealership in Germany, completed the paperwork electronically with a scanner.  The car was built, put on a boat, and then trucked across the country to Texas to a dealership there, and we never saw so much as a photograph.

When we returned to the States, my family stayed with relatives while I continued to Texas.  I landed, got in a taxi, and made a cell phone call to the dealership (the first time I had spoken to them) to tell them I was on my way.  When I arrived, the car was in front of the dealership, washed and ready.  It took literally 5 minutes to complete the delivery and temporary registration paperwork before I was driving to base.

To some extent, this is amazing, and in another it amazes me how little human interaction was required to complete such a major financial transaction.

Food is an even more important choice, and it has changed similarly.  Just a couple generations ago, my Grandparents got their milk from the farmer who produced them (to whom my Grandpa had sold the Ford tractor, and for whom my father had worked the past summer).  The following generation, raw milk was produced by local farmers we didn’t know and processed to a dairy we didn’t ever visit, but we did know the “Milk-O” (Aussie for Milkman) who sold and delivered bottled milk and yogurt twice a week.

Nowadays, most people’s milk is produced by immense corporate farms, transported hundreds of miles overland in tractor trailers to huge dairy processing plants, hermetically sealed, and then transported hundreds of miles more to warehouses and then grocery stores before the consumer picks it up from the dairy aisle, rings up the purchase at an automated register, and swipes a credit card, often not even needing a signature to complete the transaction.  In many places, he or she can do that entire transaction online and have the purchase delivered to the door by yet another party.

Don’t get me wrong – this kind of process is essential to a large percentage of our highly-urbanized population.

Yet, for many of us I think we can take the best part of our old ways – knowing who produces our food and how they do it – and combine them with the benefits of technology to overcome obstacles presented by our mobile, urban, and busy society.

As we move forward in our production and marketing plan, we are looking at how we can do that.  One way obviously is through the use of the Internet and social media to market our products.  This blog and our website are examples – with a few clicks, you can quickly research what we produce, how we produce it, and the values behind it.  Through comments and emails, we can discuss better ways to meet values and desires of potential customers.  Resources such as the NH Farmers Market Association,  New Hamphire MadeSlow Money, and others can help us network with consumers and other producers.  As we progress, we may take advantage of other possibilities – maybe virtual farm tours, or perhaps even live “farm-cams.”

These are all great tools, but we will always face-to-face meetings and handshakes at the center of our business.

Organic?


When we first started dreaming about our farm, “organic” was high in our priorities.  This flows out of our family mission, to glorify God in all ways, and to live that out on our farm by raising, managing, and using His creation in a healthy, sustainable, humane, and respectful manner.  Since we planned to produce food for others, organic certification seemed like the way to pursue this mission.

Rhode Island Red Free-Ranging at the Flying T

However, as we started researching exactly what organic certification involved, our dream crumbled a little.  This crumbling was due to two primary factors:

1. A realization that “organic” just wasn’t the utopia we’d imagined, and…

2. The unrealistic requirements for a very small farm to maintain both organic certification and solvency .

At the risk of making ourselves vulnerable to claims of “sour grapes,” I’ll say that the first reason was the most disheartening to us.  Previous to our research, we had held special reverence for the word “organic.”  We’d paid extra for organic produce, animal and vegetable, and assumed a lot about organic certification.

Organic certification requirements are pretty complicated – not as bad as the US tax code, but it’s obvious that the authors went to the same law schools.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because it helps make sure that folks that stamp their goods with “USDA Certified Organic” have met certain standards.  For animals, those standards in a nutshell are:

1. Appropriate housing that permits natural behavior, including outdoor access.  Depending on the animal, this may include a minimum number of days on pasture.

2. Certified organic feed, including pasture.  Again, some types of animals require a certain amount of their feed to come from pasture (I believe Dairy cows are now above 30% of total Digestible Dry Matter, which is a good thing).

3. No antibiotics, drugs, or synthetic parasiticides unless they are published on the NOSB (National Organic Standards Board) list.

4. Organic processing of meat, milk, and eggs.

5. Record keeping in accordance with the regulations.

6. An “Organic system plan,” a lot like a business plan that shows how the farmer plans to maintain organic practices.

7. Measures to prevent contamination of soil and water from production (such as manure runoff).

8. Absence of genetic modification, ionizing radiation, or other such interventions/contaminations.

This sounds pretty good, and it is.  But any time you get a bunch of lawyers to write rules for folks to follow, those folks are going to hire lawyers to make sure that those rules don’t get too much in the way.  Let’s use the organic chicken industry’s lawyers as an example, and to keep this from becoming a book, let’s focus on rules 1, 2, and 8:

Rule #1:  When the lawyers get here, they run square into the 2010 Access to Pasture rule, requiring that any bird raised indoors must have free access to pasture except in certain circumstances.  What this has been interpreted to mean is that a factory organic farm can raise 2,000 chickens in a 100′ x 40′ pen (2 sqft per bird) as long as those birds have free access to outside “pasture.”  This pasture can be enclosed and covered, and doesn’t have to have anything growing on it.  Access can be satisfied with some small openings leading to a few 30 sqft outdoor “porches.”  All the food and water is inside the big room, but if the birds want to leave that behind to go see the reflection of the sun, they’re free to do so.

Organic chicken farm, from http://www.myessentia.com

Rule #2:  Now if you’re running that many birds in that little space, there is no way they can support a majority of their dietary needs on forage.  Any vegetation that might exist at the beginning will be gone in a matter of days, and with it will go all insect life.  So 100% of their feed will have to be what the farmer provides.  Rule #2 requires that this feed also be certified organic, and most of this will come in the form of processed grains from organic farms, the various components of which were grown, harvested, and transported to the mill with fossil fuels, processed using more energy, and then trucked through the distributing train, again with fossil fuels.  Of course, it is possible that this farmer lives next to a grain mill that in turn has local access to organic corn, soybeans, alfalfa, limestone, monocalcium phosphate, kelp, diatomaceous earth, clay, salt, DL methionine, vitamin & mineral premix, garlic, horseradish, anise, and juniper berry (all ingredients of one brand of certified organic chicken feed).

Sadly, the Toyota Prius Combine release date has been pushed back again

Rule #8:  What can the lawyers do with this rule?  They can ensure Cornish Rock Cross hybrid chickens, most likely the organic or non-organic chicken you buy at the supermarket or farmers market, qualify as organic.  They’re not genetically modified, just specifically bred to grow extremely quick (usually harvested from 8-12 weeks of age), with sparse white feathers (easier plucking with no pigment left on the skin), and broad, tender, white breasts.  They also can exhibit extreme mortality rates past around 4 months of age due to heart failure, exhaustion, or skeletal problems.  They taste great, by the way, and I don’t have any problem with folks that raise them.  They just don’t fit into our plan right now.

Cornish Rock Hybrids - from tinyfarmblog.com - notice they're growing faster than their feathers

These principles, of course, also apply to other areas of agriculture, whether producing fruits, vegetables, meat, eggs, milk, or other products.

This isn’t to say that organic practices or certification are bad.  We are not to the point yet where we can produce even the majority of our food on our farm, and though we patronize several farms in the area as well as farmers market, we still do a lot of shopping at the grocery store.  When making food choices for our family there, we lean heavily on certified organic produce.  The National Organic Program (NOP) rules and regulations are far from perfect, and subject to a bit of controversy, but by and large, they provide guidance under which which healthier and more wholesome food can be produced.

Not certified organic, by the way...

That’s where the strength of the NOP lies.  Though it’s obviously not perfect, in a world where the vast majority live in densely-populated cities far removed from farms, the NOP provides a framework for consumers to make smarter decisions about the composition and quality of their food.  It does this by holding larger producers accountable to these better (again, not perfect) practices.

Why do I say “larger producers?”

That gets us to point #2.  Besides the fees involved in organic certification, maintaining organic practices obviously carry some expenses that can be difficult for a small operation to bear and still present a price consumers are willing to pay  (Slowmoneyfarm has several excellent posts on this topic, particularly this one).  Much of this is because of competition with larger producers both able and willing to take advantage of the loopholes in the system such as discussed above.

Ability is one obstacle.  A volume producer will always have advantages that come with being able to purchase in larger lots and lower prices while combining and reducing other production expenses.  Still, if small farmers can find a supportive market, it may be possible to approach competitiveness here if they are willing to take advantage of some high-volume practices, though again Slowmoneyfarm does a good job explaining how this is extremely difficult.

That willingness to do this is the second obstacle.  Profitability (or perhaps even solvency) requires taking advantage of practices such as use of non-heritage breeds, stocking stables/pastures/pens at much higher rates, using higher levels of confinement to minimize labor costs, culling rather than treating many sick/struggling animals, and stockpiling feed.

Willingness is the obstacle that stopped us.  We have the facilities that with a bit of modification would make this work with organic chickens and ducks.  It would mean confining them and stocking both our laying and meat flocks at what to us seems an absurd density.  We would need to use non-heritage high-production hybrids for both operations.  Besides the problems these present to our values, such confinement would eliminate the benefits of free-range poultry.

Do you really want to put us in a pen?

We could do this also with meat goats.  Again, we would stock at much higher rates, and manage both the confinement systems and available pasture to ensure they maintained a 100% organic diet.  This would include separation from our poultry, horses, visitors (and probably our kids) to make sure that they didn’t end up eating something improper.

For all of our livestock, this would drive us to breed for size and speed of production, not non-production values such as temperment.

So what is a small farmer to do?

Photo by John Vachon.Oct. 1938. From the Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. America From the Great Depression to World War II: Photographs from the Farm Security Administration-OWI, 1935-1945.

I believe the solution is an old one.  In lieu of third-party state-managed certification processes, farmers and customers need to know each other and talk face-to-face.  The farmer needs to know what the customer values and desires, in product, quality, and methods.  The customer needs to be able to trust that the farmer will produce according to those values and desires.  Both need to come to an understanding of what this will cost.

The only way this can happen is through local consumption… and that is a subject for another post.

Orchardgrass


Though the most common grass used for hay in New England might be Timothy, another very common component of baled forage around here is Orchardgrass (Dactylis glomerata).

Orchardgrass (photo by Missouri Extension)

Unlike Timothy, which takes a bit of care to get established, Orchardgrass often finds its own way into pastures and hayfields.  Propogating both by seeds and by tillers that spread from its dense, clumped bases, Orchardgrass competes well with other grasses and weeds as it seeks new soil.  As its name implies, Orchardgrass is tolerant to shade (surviving even in less than 40% sun) and thus can be found commonly between trees in orchards or woods as long as they are not overly dense.

Identifiable both by its distinctive seedhead and its leaves, which are folded at the base, Orchardgrass is an increasingly-popular species both for pasture, silage, and hay.  In addition to its self-propogation properties, Orchardgrass is a robust producer in the vegetative state, outperforming Kentucky Bluegrass and Timothy while being more palatable to livestock than other high producers like Reeds Canarygrass.  Orchardgrass also is tolerant to close grazing, and as long as the base and tillers are left behind, regrows vigorously after close cutting or chomping that would kill Timothy.

Orchardgrass is not only more shade tolerant, but also can handle a wide range of soil pH and is more resistant to drought, and heat than Timothy, Kentucky Bluegrass, or even Smooth Bromegrass.  While it may stop growing or go dormant in these conditions, it springs back quickly with a bit of watering and Nitrogen.

Though it can handle infertile soils, Orchardgrass thrives in high-Nitrogen environments.  In a lightly-managed field, it will be common to find the strongest stands of Orchardgrass in the places where livestock frequently deposit manure, or where those nutrients collect during rainfall.  This is where we find most of it at the Flying T Ranch – in the low areas of our pasture as well as on the portion of our trails that get at least part sun.

Given good fertility, Orchardgrass will produce large quantities of Digestible Dry Matter (DDM) while simultaneously providing quality nutrition and energy.

Downsides include the fact that Orchardgrass also can out-compete legumes in its area, lowering the overall energy yield for a field.  Orchardgrass also becomes less palatable to livestock as it matures. 

However, palatability is all relative.  Back when we were in Texas, we didn’t buy “hay” for our horses.  Instead, we bought “coastal’ which of course is a type of “hay.”  Coastal (Bermuda Grass) made up the bulk of the horses’ feed, because what most large herbivores need the most of is roughage, and boy is coastal rough.  Our horses loved the stuff, though they obviously picked through it for the flake or two of alfalfa we’d add for energy and protein content.  Even the most mature Orchardgrass can’t hold a candle to the coarseness of a good bale of coastal!

Note: This is the second installment in a series I’m writing for a class in Forages and Grassland Management.

Tri-Dye Jam


Tri-Dye Jam

God blessed us with some amazing fruit this year, both on our trees and in the bushes around the Flying T.

We picked berries through the summer.  Wild strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries were superb on the farm and in the neighborhood.  Our blueberries were a bust, but two friend’s blueberry groves were absolutely amazing.  We also did a couple trips to pick-your-own places to fill up on strawberries.  As berry season was coming to a close, our peaches arrived by the bushel.

The canning operation was in full bore several days during August and September, and one of the many fun experiments we tried was what we call “Tri-Dye Jam,” made completely from peaches, raspberries, and blackberries we picked right here.  We’ve been using generic white labels, but decided to have some fun with these ones.

Tri-Dye Jam ready for the larder

For Tri-Dye, we modified the Peach Jam recipe from the wonderful website, pickyourown.org, using 4 cups of peeled and diced peaches and 1 cup each of raspberry and blackberry puree.

And yes, it tastes as good as it sounds.