Sunday, March 16, 2014

Winter 2014 Farm Update

Winter on the Farm 2013-2014

It's been a challenging winter on the farm. We've gotten several feet of snow, a couple ice storms, and seen a few passes of the Polar Vortex which brought cold temperatures, long snow storms and wind temperatures reaching -30 F. Fortunately for us, our neighbor kindly plowed our driveway all winter long, which was really helpful when we needed to get the pig out in the middle of February to be bred at friend's farm!

Fortunately for us, our neighbor has kindly plowed our driveway all winter. 

Our cat Katniss, longing for summer and
 keeping out of the dog's reach on the woodpile

Winter on a farm is all about ensuring you have the essentials: water, food, and heat. We found that we underestimated some of these needs this winter and didn't have enough for heat for both our hungry wood burning stove and for straw for winter bedding for the animals. Luckily, we live in the country, where connections for straw bales can be found at our local hardware store or craigslist. In a 20 mile radius there are four places that sell seasoned wood, that we know of. We've been loving our new wood burning stove, we've saved so much money on propane, which was especially high this winter because there has been a shortage in Michigan. 

Cabin-Fever crazed Farmer Don

To supplement our wood supply, Farmer Don has chopped down a couple of dead pine trees in the forested part of our property, or as we refer to it, Mirkwood. Pine burns fast so it makes great kindling for getting a fire started. With all the chainsawing, wood chopping, bale throwing, and bucket slinging these farmers have gotten more than a little winter-crazed. We're all getting cabin fever waiting for spring, this time last year we had green growing grass! 

As for water, our waterline out to the barn is not below the frost line, so that got turned off and drained some months ago. We had wanted to redig it last year, but hadn't the time at the end of the season. So, we've been getting our water to the animals the old-fashioned way. With five gallon buckets, a lot of them. Chopping wood, hauling hay and straw, and carrying full buckets every day has made for some very in shape farmers!

The farm after a two day ice storm. Try carrying buckets of water across that!

Many people in our area lost power for days or even weeks after the ice storms and polar vortexes. We have been very fortunate and have not experienced any power loss. In some ways it may have been a good thing that we didn't re-dig the irrigation to the barn for winter use. A farm we follow in NY, called Chicken Thistle Farm, had their irrigation in their barn freeze and burst, flooding their barn. They are closer to the Lakes than us, but their pipe was 50" deep, and the frost line in our area is around 42". 

This Willow got bowed down under the weight of the ice after an ice storm

In the Greenhouse

Our new greenhouse has survived the wild winter weather quite well. We had a huge wind and rain storm in the fall that unrolled the plastic from one of the roll-up sides, but besides that we have't had any issues!

The Greenhouse has withstood the winter very well,
despite the large snow banks against the side

We planted a variety of cool-season vegetable crops in the fall in the greenhouse--arugula, lettuce heads, spinach, kale, Swiss chard, kohlrabi, radishes, turnips, and green onions. Most didn't make it past the first major snow storm in late November--when it started snowing before Thanksgiving and wouldn't stop. The spinach however is still alive in the greenhouse! After months without water and freezing temperatures, we got to enjoy fresh mid-winter spinach with a pesto chicken and mozzarella sandwich a few weeks ago. Just yesterday Farmer Figgins peeked in the greenhouse and saw the spinach crowns are still there and green!

It's finally that time of year when we can start planting again! Night temperatures are still too cold in the greenhouse, so we've been starting seeds inside our house in a grow tent. In this little 4'x4'x9' tent we have 20+ flats of seeds started! As the night temperatures rise and the seedlings grow stronger they'll be transferred to the greenhouse to continue growing. At which time we will have to start setting peanut butter flavored mouse traps, a sad reality in any greenhouse. 
We started shallots, celery, onions and perennial herbs
 in a growing tent inside the house.

Shallot seedlings
Cut lettuce and celery seedlings

In the Chicken Coop

The chickens have been mostly coop-bound this winter, large drifts of snow have overwhelmed their pasture and fencing. Rather than let them out to wander on the snow drifts and risk a predator while their fence is out of commission, we've decided to keep them indoors and give them more space in the coop. 

A snow bank outside of the chicken coop looking out on the pig and cow pastures
Chickens confined in too small of a space and with little to do will often peck each other, we've noticed a few of the chickens have bare patches on their lower backs by their tails. We opened up the entire coop to them to give them extra space during the winter, as well we've been spraying Blue Kote on their bare backs to discourage pecking and treat the area. We keep their light on a timer so that it comes on early in the morning before sunrise and comes back on late at night around sunset. We do this to encourage them to continue to lay through the winter, since chicken's laying ability is dependent on the length of daylight hours they receive. As a result, we're still getting half a dozen to a dozen eggs a day! 

"Chickens are ‘told’ to produce eggs by their endocrine system, a system of different glands and organs that produce hormones.  As the daylight hours shorten in winter, changes in these hormones shut down egg production. Adding additional light triggers the endocrine system into action, causing them to produce more eggs. Continuously giving chickens light in the winter fools their bodies into thinking that the days aren’t getting shorter at all."
New heated waterer for the winter
Another change for the winter we made was to purchase a heated water fountain for the chickens. We bought Farm Innovators' "All Seasons" 3 gallon heated plastic poultry fountain. It has worked well for the winter, we've had almost no problems with the water freezing up since we switched, but the handle is a little flimsy piece of plastic that makes up-righting the fountain after refilling a pain. Also, it does not hold up well to being filled and then carried some distance. The bottom does not close as tightly as most common waterers, and lots of movement can cause it to open. If you bring a bucket of water out to the coop and fill the fountain right there however, there are no problems. 

The chickens enjoying a winter snack--skim milk!

We've also been giving the chickens some leftover skim milk from making cheese and dairy products. We have been giving this to Arya, but while she's away on vacation the chickens have been enjoying the snack!

In the Pig Pen

Even with the wild weather we've been having, we're glad to report that our "Farrowing E-Hut" we built for Arya has proven a great shelter for her this winter. During the worst parts of the winter we'd find her hidden under a pile of straw she'd somehow burrowed into, happily snoring away until breakfast time. After eating, she'd clamber back in and snuggle herself back into her nest of straw.

Though she's had a lonely winter by herself in the pasture, she is now on vacation at a friend's farm in Ionia, MI. Farmer Figgins moved Arya all by herself, the hardest part was getting the ball into the hitch, while getting the pig in the trailer ended up being the easiest part! By offering her some warm scrambled eggs right off the stove and putting the bowl right under her nose, she followed the bowl and walked over the turned off and dropped down electric fence line and followed her nose up and into the livestock trailer. 

Our sow Arya with ears perky and upright, 
starting her heat cycle 

Farmer Figgins delivered Arya right as she was coming into standing heat. She spent the week with a dozen 4 month old pigs while periodically being moved to a separate stall with a Hampshire boar named Bud. Try as he might, Bud could not get any action with Arya and they spent their time fighting. Arya is currently out of heat, but she's staying on her vacation until she comes into heat again (usually every 18-24 days) and stands for the boar. 

A sow or gilt will show she is coming into heat when her back end becomes red and swollen, sometimes having a watery discharge. They become more vocal and restless, and will mount other pigs and sometimes be aggressive. Standing heat lasts from 1-3 days, generally shorter for gilts, and is when the mating or artificial insemination should occur for best results. There may be a sticky discharge, she'll be more vocal, have a poor appetite, act attracted to the handler, and most importantly stand rigid if mounted or pushed down on the back. By "attracted to the handler", we do not mean oh-la-la-la, bat-my-eyelashes attracted. We mean--a very excited pig nosing you hard in the thighs and legs, biting sleeves or pant legs or errant fingers until she is distracted by food. The easiest way to tell if a gilt or sow is in heat is to approach her from behind and press down on her back, where a boar would if he was mounting her. If she becomes rigid and stands still for this, she's in standing heat. Congratulations, now you know more than you ever wanted to know about pig reproduction! 

Snowy pasture at sunrise

How has our electric fence system held up through the winter? We did end up having to switch to a regular electric fence charger this winter, we were not getting enough sunlight with the solar electric charger to charge the fence. Arya learned that quick and started going underneath the bottom line to another pasture to wait for her breakfasts some mornings. But once the charge was restored, she quickly stopped doing it. 

After the ice storms we did find that the electric fence wire became weighed down with the ice. An easy trick for de-icing these wires is to follow the pasture line with the wire inside one of the step-in post clips. Angle it just right and pull it along as you walk the fence line and it will knock all that ice off! 

The other thing is that at some point the snow will fall above your lowest fence line, and you will have to raise it. Or, you can shovel underneath the wire. If you have a small winter pasture area this isn't too much of a chore. But it is another winter chore you have to do. Welcome to winter!

In regards to fencing, we'd like to move to a more permanent fencing system. Bottom line, permanent fence posts offer stability and less maintenance in the winter, but step in posts and movable paddocks gives you flexibility to move and try new areas, but greater management issues--such as deicing, moving the lines, and shoveling snow that has piled too high. We've found that temporary, movable fencing is great to use while you are studying the land, getting to know it and how you are going to use it, and while you are deciding on what the best permanent pasture set-up could be. 

In the Barn

Pippin is starting to munch on hay when it's meal time for Rosie!
In the barn the cows have been getting restless along with everyone else with the long winter. Pippin is almost 2 months old now, he's still loving the walking milk bar that he gets to spend his days with, but has started munching on a little bit of hay with Rosie at mealtimes. He's still not too interested in grain though. Soon we'll be castrating him.

Pippin is almost two months old now, and he's almost outgrown his first halter!
Pippin was a pretty shy calf when he was first born, hiding behind his mother and running circles around her to get away from us. But gradually, he has become less shy and will tolerate being petted, brushed, scratched and poked on the nose. Getting comfortable with a calf is about keeping a routine. For us, we go out to milk at 7:30 am while Pippin watches from the stall next door, then we move him back in the same stall with Rosie until they are separated at 7:30 pm. Multiple times throughout the day he is handled and interacted with, increasing his level of comfort and ease.  

In no time we'll be doing some castration!
Besides providing us with milk and all the other dairy products we've been experimenting with, Rosie also preforms a very important task on the farm, and that is Compost Maker! We started a new compost pile next to the barn and it is enormous! The pile of snow behind the pile is actually more compost, just covered in snow that fell off the barn roof. By next spring this will provide us with a lot of very fertile compost for the garden soil! 

The new compost pile which is half buried in snow all the way to the window.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Tomato Varieties for 2014

2014 Tomato Varieties

We're very excited for tomatoes this year for the CSA. We're bringing back a few that we liked from last year and adding some new ones that look delicious! This year we'll be growing tomatoes outside in the field and also inside our new greenhouse. This year we will have 11 different varieties of tomatoes this year, we're hoping to have more variety less bulk quantity. We'll have extra available for those of you that like to preserve tomatoes by canning, freezing, and dehydrating. If you want bulk quantities for preserving purposes, we will them available on pick up days! 


Black Krim- This heirloom beefsteak hails from the Black Sea area of Russia. Heat tolerant Black Krim has a violet-brown and purple-red, they will turn almost black with enough sunlight and heat. A big favorite at taste tests with a flavor described as tangy, rich, and sweet. 

Kellogg's Breakfast- This variety ended up being our favorite last year, with the beefsteak fruit weighing in 1-2 pounds. It comes from a West Virginia heirloom obtained by a Michigan man, Darrell Kellogg, of Redford, Michigan. Delicious rich flavor with a good acid/sugar balance that is very fleshy and not overly juicy.  

Brandywine (Sudduth's Strain)- This variety was collected from Dorris Sudduth Hill who family grew it for over 100 years. Large pink beefsteak fruits up to 2 pounds with incredibly rich, delightfully intense tomato flavor. Considered to be the most delicious strain available, a must have that we're excited to have in the garden with year! 

Pink Beauty- A tried and true hybrid variety that produces flavorful, flattened tomatoes. Medium sized, 6-8 oz slicers that are firm and blemish free. We heard about this variety from The Chicken Thistle Farm CoopCast who said it is their favorite tomato. 


Amish Paste-Reputed to have originated in one of the oldest Amish communities in Medford, Wisconsin, this popular variety produces 6-12 oz fruits, from oxheart to plum shape and often coreless for easy canning! Delicious flesh is juicy and meaty, excellent for sauce or fresh eating. It is somewhat seedier and sweeter than normal paste varieties. One of Slow Food's USA's Ark of Taste varieties!

Juliet-Juliet produces small meaty fruits perfect for eating raw, delicious for salads, salsa, and fresh pasta sauce. Somewhere between roma and grape tomatoes, these delectable saladette-type tomatoes won top honors from the All-American Selections in 1999 and have been a favorite ever since. 


Black Cherry- The only truely black cherry tomato. These vigorous tomato plants yield abundant crops in huge clusters of 1", round, deep purple, mahogany-brown cherry tomatoes. Fruits are irresistibly delicious with sweet, rich, complex, full tomato flavors that burst in your mouth, characteristic of the best flavorful black tomatoes. 

Wapsipinicon Peach- AKA Yellow Peach, White Peach. Originated in 1890 under the name White Peach. This strain came from Dennis Schlicht and is named after the Wapsipinicon River in northeast Iowa. Heavy producer of 2" round fuzzy yellow fruits. Sweet, juicy, well-balanced flavor. Winner of SSE’s 2006 Heirloom Tomato Tasting

Riesentraube Tomato-An old German Heirloom from 1800's Pennsylvannia. The name is German for "Giant Bunch of Grapes." Carolyn Male says in her book 100 Heirloom Tomatoes for American Gardens..."Riesentraube evokes a broad spectrum of flavor components that you just don't expect in a cherry tomato.  The taste is very full, like that of a beefsteak.  Amazingly intense tomato taste, not sweet, just superb!"

Red Velvet-We still have some seeds from last year's snacking varieties, so we'll be growing a few of these as well to compare the flavor with our new varieties! This heirloom comes from Elmwood, new Jersey and is known for the striking silvery gray dusty miller-type foliage of the tomato plants. As well of the excellent, sweet flavor of its cherry tomatoes.

Yellow Pear-We're bringing back the Yellow Pear again with its deliciously tangy pear-shaped fruit. These produce 1 oz, 1 1/2 inch sized bright yellow, pear-shaped cherry tomatoes that will produce until frost.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

New Crops for 2014!

2014 CSA New Crops and Varieties

In between shoveling snow, getting extra straw to keep the animals warm, and chopping down some of the dead trees in our own woods to keep ourselves warm, we've also been picking out new seeds and crops for the coming CSA season! With the seeds ordered and on their way, we thought we'd brighten everyone's cold day with the hope of a fruitful season to come.

Cold Season Vegetables

For cool season crops we'll be seeing a return of carrots, beets, lettuce, spinach, arugula, cut lettuce mix, kohlrabi, kale, radishes, swiss chard and turnips. Our cold season crops didn't do that well last year because the ground they were planted in wasn't tilled enough, resulting in a hard pan that the roots had difficulty penetrating. This year we're planning on seeing much more of these crops, and those that we struggled with last year--broccoli, cabbage, leeks, onions, snap peas, and potatoes as well. New cold season crops we're adding this year are celery, cauliflower, parsnips, and shallots! We are planning a summer planting of our favorite cool season crops in the partially shady spot by a hedgerow, so that hopefully we can extend the season and have fresh salad and greens for longer into the  season!

Albion Parsnips

Parsnips-Parsnips are a root vegetable related to the carrot, it's long tuberous root has cream-colored skin and often becomes sweeter in flavor after winter frosts. It was used as a sweetener before the arrival in Europe of cane sugar and beets. The parsnip is usually cooked but can be eaten raw, it is high in vitamins and minerals, especially potassium, and also contains antioxidants and dietary fiber. 

Saffron Shallots

Shallots-Shallots are part of the allium family with onions, leeks, and garlic. Shallots have a brown skin covering faded purple crunchy layers inside. They taste less bitter than onions, and when cooked take on a sweet edge. They ca be used raw in salad dressings, and are delicious with asparagus, mushrooms, swiss chard and peas. Also pairs well with chicken and pork! 

Ruby Queen Corn

Warm Season Vegetables

For warm season crops we'll be seeing a return of some of our favorites, as well as some new varieties for everyone to try. We'll be seeing green beans, corn, cucumbers, eggplant, okra, peppers (bell, sweet snacking, cayenne, habanero, jalapeno, ancho, and anaheim) pumpkins, summer squash, tomatoes, and winter squash again. We'll also be growing some tomatoes, eggplant, cucumbers and peppers in the greenhouse, so we will see them even earlier in our shares this year!

Ruby Queen Corn-We picked up a small packet of this in a store, purely on chance last year. Come corn-picking time, it was quickly selected as our favorite out of all the corn varieties we'd grown. Beautiful red kernels, but the flavor! Extra sweet and juicy, last year Farmer Don and Farmer Figgins consumed the entire patch, what little survived the storm that took out most of our corn, out in the fields, fresh off the stalk. But this year we're planning it to be our primary corn variety, just wait till you try it!

Excelsior Cucumbers-As well as doing slicing and lemon cucumbers, we're also adding pickling cucumbers to the field and greenhouse this year! We've bought a special variety, Excelsior, that does especially well trellised in greenhouses, for early cucumbers and pickles!

Excelsior pickling cucumbers

Purple Tomatillo-AKA husk tomato, jamberry, husk cherry, or Mexican tomato. Tomatillos are in the same family as tomatoes and peppers and cape gooseberries, they bear a tiny green or purple fruit inside a paper-like husk. The fruit has a tart flavor is often eaten boiled, fried, or steamed, and are the central ingredient in green sauces and chiles. The purple varieties, like the one we will be trying this year, often have a slight sweetness, so are somewhat more suitable for fruit-like uses like jams and preserves!

Purple Tomtatillos 
Delicata Squash- A unique squash with distinctive dark green stripes on a yellow background, with orange-yellow flesh inside. Also known as peanut squash, Bohemian squash, or sweet potato squash. It belongs to the same species as summer squash but is considered a winter squash. The flesh can be baked, microwaved, sauteed or steamed, or stuffed with meat or vegetable mixtures!

Delicata Squash

Costata Romanesco-A distinctive zucchini known for its gray-green color and prominent ribs and most of all its delicious nutty flavor. Costata Romanesco typically have better texture and are less seedy than other zucchini types! Perfect for small squash for sauteing and larger ones for zucchini bread. 

Costata Romanesco Zucchini

Lunchbox Peppers-Red, Yellow, and Orange, these mini sized peppers are purported to be remarkably sweet and flavorful. Best eaten sauteed, as an addition to salads, or as a healthy  raw snack. Can't wait to try them!

Lunchbox sweet snacking peppers

We'll dedicate a whole other post for tomato varieties, but sneak-peak, we'll be seeing the return of some of last years varieties as well as quite a few new varieties to try!


Last year we offered apples, watermelon and melons for fruit in our shares. This year we'll be bringing back our favorite varieties, like Moon and Stars Watermelon and Charentais melons as well as trying some new watermelon and cantaloupe varieties this year. Farmer Figgins has been doing some prunning of the orchard trees--which look like they haven't seen a barber in years. So hopefully we'll get apples and pears out of the orchard this year! 

One of our apple trees last year, full of fruit and overgrown
We're very excited to be trying out some new annual fruits this year! Annual fruits? you say. Meet the ground cherry and garden huckleberry!

Ground Cherries
Ground Cherry-Ground Cherries are in the same family as tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and tomatillos. Like tomatillos, ground cherries bear their fruit in papery lantern-like husks that turn brown when the fruits ripen. These plants are native to eastern and central North America and the fruit can be used for preserves, pie, raw over ice cream or in fresh fruit salads. They are stored best inside their husks for up to 3-4 weeks. The fruit is similar to a a firm tomato in texture, and like strawberries or pineapple in flavor with a mild acidity. 

Garden Huckleberries
Garden Huckleberry-AKA Wonderberry, Sunberry. Not a true huckleberry, this annual shrub is also in the Solanaceae family along with the ground cherry and tomato. It produces small metallic purple-black fruit in clusters. Tasteless when raw and unsweetened, but it can be made into a delicious mock blueberry pies and preserves! Great for freezing and canning. 


Last year we saw a lot of basil, lemon basil, onion chives, cilantro, parsley and sage in our shares. We'll be growing these herbs again this year and adding quite a few new ones! We're adding more perennial herbs this year, including lavender, oregano, garlic chives, rosemary, thyme and two fun ones: Stevia and Catnip!

Stevia-AKA sweetleaf and sugarleaf. This herb is widely grown for its sweet leaves. We bought a few plants from a fellow farmer at the Ada Farmer's Market last year, but the dog and cat kept eating it's sweet leaves! As a sweetener and sugar substitute, stevia's taste has a slower onset and longer duration than that of sugar. It's being used by low-carb, low-sugar sweeteners commercially today in our grocery stores. It originated in the Americas, the leaves of the stevia plant have 30-45 times the sweetness of ordinary table sugar. The leaves can be eaten fresh, or put in teas and foods. Medicinally it has traditionally been used as a cardiac stimulant and as a treatment for obesity, diabetes, hypertension and heartburn.

Catnip- AKA catswort or catmint. Catnip looks much like regular mint plants, but with brown-green foliage. In humans, the herb is commonly used in herbal tea blends for sleep, stress reduction and relaxation. It is also used as a culinary herb in many dishes. Catnip is best known for its behavioral effects on the cat family--not only on domestic cats but also other species of cats, like tigers, leopards, and lynxes! Catnip contains a feline attractant nepetalactone--when its leaves or stems are bruised cats smell this compound and start rubbing on the plant, rolling on the ground, pawing at it, licking it, chewing it. If they consume the plant their behavior turns to drooling, sleeping, anxiety, purring and leaping about, the response usually lasts for 5-15 minutes. Not all cats are affected by catnip, roughly 1/2-2/3 are affected by the plant, it seems to be a hereditary trait. So even if your cat is not affected by the plant, at least its human masters can use it as a culinary herb or for tea! 

So we hope you enjoyed your sneak peak for the 2014 CSA Season! We still have shares available, check out Our CSA page to learn more and sign up! 

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Biscuits and Sausage Gravy Recipe

Biscuits and Sausage Gravy Recipe

We've been having a hard, cold and snowy winter here in Michigan, with freezing rain, heavy snows, and the bitter cold of the Polar Vortex. We've been staying warm with our new wood stove and enjoying frozen vegetables from the farm, canned applesauce and salsa and the best pork we've ever had.  This recipe has been one of our favorites this winter and become our favorite way to use the bulk seasoned sausage from our hogs. The gravy has a bit of a kick, so you prefer it a little mellower, reduce the cayenne pepper and black pepper. We do still have sausage and other pork cuts available, so check out our Pasture Raised Pork page. You can order sausage and other cuts through our Pork Cut Sheet or email us at


-2  1/2 cups of Bisquick mix
-1/2 teaspoon of onion powder or garlic granules (depending on your preference)
-Sprinkle of salt
-2/3 cup of half & half

1. Preheat oven to 450 F 

2. Mix together ingredients in a medium sized bowl.

2. Drop by spoonfuls onto parchment paper on a cookie sheet. Flatten the top slightly with fingers greased with olive oil.  

4. Bake at 450'F for 8-10 minutes.

Sausage Gravy:  

-1 lb bulk sausage
-1 tablespoon water
-1 cup half and half, scalded
-3 tablespoons flour
-3 tablespoons butter
-1 teaspoon black pepper 
-1/2 teaspoon salt
-1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
-1/2 teaspoon onion powder
-2 Tablespoons of reserved sausage cooking liquid
-1/2-1 cup warmed milk to thin out gravy or black coffee for "red eye gravy"

1. Fry up 1lb bulk sausage of your choice. Cook in frying pay with 1 tablespoon of water in the pan to help disburse the fat and cook more evenly. Break into crumble size pieces as cooking, drain.

2. Reserve 2 Tablespoons of water/grease liquid for the gravy.

3. Using a small or medium sized double boiler, bring the water in the bottom to boil. If you don't have the right size, you can always improvise!

4. In a small saucepan, heat up 1 cup half and half, scalding it.

5. Melt 3 tablespoons of butter in the double boiler.

6. Whisk 3 tablespoons of flour into melted butter.

7. Add in scalded half and half, slowly adding while whisking constantly. Cook over simmering hot water, whisking constantly, until thick and smooth.

8.  Add the spices and combine.
Gravy after spices have been added

9. Add the 1 lb cooked sausage and 2 tablespoons cooking liquid and combine. Sausage gravy will be quite thick by now.

10. Add 1/2 cup to 1 cup warm milk to the sausage gravy, or black coffee for "red eye gravy" to thin the sauce to desired consistency. 

11. Top on biscuits and enjoy!