Friday, April 29, 2011

2011 Garden

It is the end of April, and I am happy to report that the 2011 garden is off to .... well, it's off to SOME sort of a start, and that's saying something with this Spring's impolite behavior. Actual in-the-garden projects are behind, due to the staggering Wet that we've been dealing with. If it weren't such an obviously horrible thing for their pocketbooks and souls, it might be a solace to see that most local farmers, fully equipped with many-wheeled, many-armed tractors have also been forced to bide their time, waiting for mud to become dirt. It is one of those occasions where our behindness is not a function of inexperience or quirky equipment, but just the way the world is for everyone right now.

It seems we might be waiting a while, as each evening has been bringing with it a thunderstorm and drenching rains. And so, the garden remains untilled, the beds un-re-shaped and un-manured, the potatoes and beets un-in.

We've taken some evasive action -- the Big Man planted a few hundred onions in soil blocks, which he placed in my Brand New Swoon-Worthy Greenhouse!

And we've moved the planned potato bed from the area behind the house, which we can't clean out until it DRIES out, and into the area of the pasture that the pigs have already tilled for us. Mud does not stall their motors, it seems. In fact, farm draft horses have been looking mighty fine these past few weeks....

Seedlings, of course, are motoring along in their cozy, moisture controlled soil blocks, blissfully unaware of the morass outside, and their pleasant view from the guestroom window.

The peas that I optimistically planted 10 days ago have poked out of the ground, and some fresh green shoots have poked out of some of the soggy fruit trees!

So it seems that Spring has Sprung, and thus begins the hectic tizzy of farming season. Pigs to move and grow, grains to plant, sausages to grill, sunburns to fend off, dirt to wedge under fingernails, weeds to battle, lakes to swim in. It's a good sort of tizzy, provided that one insists on a lazy Sunday here and there, with poached eggs and too much newspaper, and some evenings off to simply sit on the hillside, and watch the clouds float by over the goldenrod.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Just watched the Government stock the lake


We have a lake right behind our house, Nanticoke lake, and it's part of a MUA. what is a MUA you ask? I hadn't heard of them before we moved here, but it is a Multiple Use Area. Basically a state maintained area that is primarily for sportmanship (hunting fishing, etc.) but you can also swim or picnic there if you like. Pretty cool, and it's nice that the state is supportive of the predominant pastime in our area.

Well, Nanticoke lake is not natural, it is a dammed lake. It's got some Bass in it but the big draw for the local sportsmen is that the government stocks it with trout. Trout can't live in there year round (it gets too warm in the summer) so it's basically shooting fish in a barrel. Since the trout grew up in a tank about 100 miles from here, and the Gov't didn't give them a map, they have little idea where to hide in Nanticoke lake.

Now, I was familiar with this practice before moving here, it is commonplace across the country in fact, but I had never seen it actually go down, until today.

The Gov't drives their truck'o'fish down to the park, then off loads the fish into trashcans full of water on the back of an ATV. Then they drive down the access road with the fish and dump them into the lake. Pretty much how you'd expect it to go down, except I haven't mentioned the 14 "sportsmen" who are standing there, waiting for the fish to hit the lake, so that they can then catch them with their rods and reels. It was an amazing sight, especially because all these guys are in camo, presumably so the Gov't won't notice them.

I'm all for hunting and fishing, but this is just silly. It is exacerbated by the fact that I can't go to the same lake during Canada Geese season and shoot any of the birds that wallow about on the shores of the lake, because it's unsportsmanlike (apparently they have to be in the air?) These are the same geese that land in a park in NYC and are offed by the same Gov't by the tens of thousands.

I Can dig a hole in the ground, build a fort like I wanted to do when I was 8, set up a bunch of spy cameras to see the world above (again, like I wanted to do when I was 8) put out 2,000+ fake geese, and pop my silly sportsmen head out of the hole and shoot like a maniac at flying geese. did I mention I made the fort in the middle of a corn field, full of bird food?


If I can sneak up on an animal that can fly, and get close enough to shoot it dead, I have to believe I'm more of a sportsman than the guy in the fort. Apparently not.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Too Many Books and the Ensuing Pessimistic Spiral of Doom

I have a book called The Apple Grower that describes planting trees this way: "The planting of a tree is a sacred act. Each time we open up the earth, layer out the developing roots, and tamp the soil back in place we embrace our mutual destiny with trees...."

It’s a long book, full of lovely pictures of a bearded man tenderly interacting with his fruit trees. Many of the pages are spent discussing in remarkable detail the beneficial microbes, insects, mycorrhizal communities and ground covers that make an orchard thrive. It is all very specific.

We plated our 14 fruit trees on Sunday, and it was not in any way a spiritual experience, except perhaps in that way that some rituals are meant to push you to a point where you are totally broken down so that you can be rebuilt and made stronger.

There was hail, sleet, snow AND rain. Wind gusts of 50 mph (“Plant on a calm, quiet, partly cloudy day", specified the directions that came with the trees, seemingly oblivious to the region's Aprils). The rich “channery silt loam” soil of the farm gave way after 10 inches to clay, which meant that our 18" deep holes, in the completely saturated mid-April conditions in upstate NY, filled with water that did not drain. Even the channery silt loam soil that we were back-filling with was, by this point, just mud that stuck to shovels, boots and gloves. In other words, nothing like Book Soil. Book Soil must be somehow loose and loamy (even down to 18 inches!) and moist but not sodden (even in April!). I required several pep-talks from the Big Man (by this time very practiced in pep-talks).

But, by the end of the (extremely long) day, the sun came out, the trees all stood and had remained standing in the gusts, the weather report predicted drizzles instead of downpours that might give the soil a chance to dry out and the pep-talks had worked their magic. Trees want to live, just like the garden plants that I was so nervous about last year (reading too many garden books), the piglets that I was convinced were too small and silly to survive (reading too many pig blogs and books) and the uber-free-range chickens who, really at this point, are nearly feral and don’t seem to need us at all (reading too many magazine articles about chickening). Eight to ten inches of good, loose-ish topsoil, upon completing some research, is actually outstanding; the average is 2-8 inches. The numerous rocks in our ground, the existing roots of goldenrod, field brush and hay and the sloped planting site should help the drainage. It might not have been quite a spiritual communing, but it is extremely fulfilling to look out the back window and see rows of trees willing to give it a go.

We also planted hops! For making beer to drown our muddy sorrows in.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Hocking Our Wares

The time has come for us to sell you food, real deal food, grown in the mud and rocks of our rolling hill. Specifically, we'd like to sell you pork. While we may have a few other offerings throughout the season (We're in the midst of scaling up our garden and planning for some meat chicken production this Summer), hocking pork is on the top of our To-Do list.

There are a number of reasons for this, not the least of which are ???????. No, the big, dark cloud looming over our pork is processing. You see, there are but a few businesses that can take our pigs and turn them into the cuts of pork you're so used to dealing with. Some of them are USDA inspected, but most are not. This presents it's own set of challenges, both logistically and legally, but I think we're up to the task.

As I write this I'm having trouble sticking to the point and not going into the nitty gritty of why meat processing is so convoluted and confusing, but that will be fodder for a few blog posts in the near future. To keep it as straightforward as possible I will lead with an anecdote:

Last Summer when we found ourselves with both chickens and pigs in the pasture we took a clear stance: Intervene as little as possible. We were only able to do this because of the small numbers of stock we owned and it proved to be fruitful. We chose not to build a well fortified bunker for the fowl to keep them safe from the pigs; building a bunker takes time, and dealing with birds inside one is less than ideal. While we lost a few animals as we learned the perfect level of protection, we also found out exactly how little we had to do in order to meet our goal. Why is this applicable, you ask?

Because small scale meat processing in America runs a similar gamut, from multimillion dollar compounds that process thousands of animals a day all the way down to people raising their own chickens and popping their heads off in the privacy of their own back yard, and you can just imagine which of these is more accessible to us. As farmers we are forced to spend some of our time marketing our product, a part of our business that we enjoy immensely, when it's in moderation. The trick here is to strike a balance, and much like the bird-pig-cohabitation-algorithm, we're going to try and start on the end of the spectrum that's easiest for us (again, an explanation as to why it's easier for us will be written in the near future.)

This fall we would like to sell 12-15 market weight hogs. We're writing to you now to see who might be interested in these schemes.

First, we'd like to offer you the opportunity to come to the farm and slaughter and butcher your own pork. We're planning another big gathering in the fall (late September, early October) and I've set a goal to sell 5 pigs to people who are interested in participating in the processing. We slaughtered and butchered a few pigs last year and it was fun, interesting, rewarding and educational. I have to believe that having more people involved would only intensify all those adjectives. We will start with live pigs "on the hoof" and end with vacuum packed (hopefully) cuts for you to take home with you. If you're interested in the butchering but not the slaughtering, let me know as it may be easy to set up. We may be able to make sausage and cure hams and bacons, but if it doesn't work out you will surely go home with the know-how to do it on your own time. The process takes 4-6 hours and the time would be spread over a few days and a few people in order to keep it relaxed. If you want your pork with the skin on this is your only option, no local processors have the appropriate equipment.

The pricing for this is as follows:
$2.75/LB hanging weight per whole pig
$3.00/LB hanging weight per half pig
$50/participant, 3 person per pig maximum, $100 per pig minimum

If you're not interested in all the blood and gore we can have the pigs processed for you. These pigs should be available for slaughter somewhere between September 15th and November 15th. If you want cuts smoked that process takes two weeks and can be done local to us or to you. If you're in a nearby major city (Phila, NYC) we may be able to get the meat to you so you don't have to come up here. We apologize for the vagueness of all this, but being our first year of pork production we have a very limited supply and the calendar is very fluid. If you need a specific date, delivery to you, whatever, please let us know when you express your interest. Flexibility on your end this year is greatly appreciated.

The pricing for this is as follows:
$3.00/LB hanging weight per whole pig + processing costs
$3.25/LB hanging weight per half pig + processing costs
We can have your pig processed at a number of local shops and the pricing will vary. You will be able to choose what cuts you'd like, how you'd like them packaged, whether or not you'd like your hams and bacon smoked, what kind of sausage you'd like and how much, as well as a few other variables. Bare bones local processing should cost $60-80 per half, the full monty (smoked hams and bacon, lots of sausage, etc) will run you another $30-$50 per half. If you're interested in USDA inspected processing that can be arranged, but the price is substantially higher.

What is a hanging weight, you ask? The Hanging weight is the weight of your pig without guts, skin, head or feet. A butcher hog is slaughtered somewhere between 200 and 250 pounds, although they taste just as good at any weight. The hanging weight is typically 70-74% of this (160# for 225# live weight). If you only want the commercial cuts, stuff you'd find in the grocery store, you'll be taking home ~70% of the hanging weight,(112# or ~$5.20/LB in your freezer max including processing). If you choose to take the mainstream but less common stuff (soup bones, stew meat, lard, etc) you can approach 90% of your hanging weight, and if you take the odder stuff (head, heart, liver, etc.) you can end up taking home more than the hanging weight (This is especially true if you choose to slaughter/butcher yourself, if done right you could end up paying as little as $3.25/LB in your freezer.)

A fellow farmer and blogger has done a nice write up on how this all breaks down.
how much pork is in a half pig?

Everything is first come first serve, and once we have it pinned down a bit we will be asking for deposits. It goes without saying that this is all experimental. If you see something you like but you want to tweak it a bit, let me know. If you're interested but you think a half is too much for you let me know, I may be able to find someone to split it with you, if we weren't flexible we wouldn't have lasted a week. You can contact us either through the comments or via E-mail to

Finally, if you're still with me, you should know that this time of year is very busy for us up here at TBA. If you're the type who wants to visit and sweat we have lots to do between now and June 1st, we'd love to see you, as would the piglets who get bigger every day.