Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Welcome to the Farm Rosie!

We got a cow!

So as many of you may have heard we recently got a cow.  Her name is Roseanne, but we're calling her Rosie.  Rosie was the wife of Samwise Gamgee in the Lord of the Rings which works out nicely. Yes, we're nerds. 

She is a 3 year old Jersey Cow who was raised by a farmer and her two daughters here in Michigan. The girls usually train horses and worked with the cow just like they do their horses.  The result is a great cow!  She has been halter trained, which allows you to lead her around on a rope like the best trained animal you can imagine.  The girls also hand milked her last year, so she is very accustomed to be handled and touched.  The girls even would saddle her up and ride her around their yard! She is already bred, due later this summer/fall to a Simmental breed bull.  The Simmental is a dual purpose breed that grows a bit quicker than the Jersey breed which means it should be a great calf regardless of sex.

We had a lot of motivations for having a dairy cow here on the farm.  Obviously we are very excited about raw milk.  (We'll get together a whole post about raw milk later and sorry we won't be selling.)  The most financially important benefit is the feed benefit to our hogs.

A cow can thrive on our pasture alone with no other feed inputs over the summer.  Meanwhile a single hog can easily eat 600-800 lbs of feed over the same time period.  Once Rosie comes into milk she will easily produce 20 to as much as 45+ pounds of milk a day, or about 2.5-5 gallons a day!  Sara and myself use currently 2 gallons a week, meaning we have to deal with an excess of at least 10 gallons a week.  Luckily for us, milk is an almost perfect food for hogs, with the exact right types of proteins as well as reputed to result in the best flavored meat possible!

Most important to Sara, and certainly I am excited as well, is cheese and butter.  We cannot wait to make our own homemade butter from the sweet fresh cream of our Jersey cow.  Jersey's are reputed to have the highest butterfat content milk, which means really yummy!

Lastly the cow is an actual compost machine.  She takes in greens and extrudes soil building manure which will greatly enrich our compost pile and all of our land.  This is why we will thank her while we shovel out her stall!

Of course as Joel Salatin tells us "Anything worth doing is worth doing wrong first."  In the spirit of this, the first morning, I failed to secure the stall well enough and went in to check our new chicks. Just long enough for her to get herself out of the stall and mosey to the barn door where Ender, our 6 month old farm dog, found her.  Ender had not yet been formally introduced to Rosie, and did his job as farm dog and began barking at the giant strange creature in his barn.  This resulted in a game of chase around the farm which wasn't always Ender chasing the cow and both of their tails were wagging away the whole time as Sara and I ran around in a borderline panic.  Ender chasing Rosie,  Rosie chasing Ender, Sara chasing Ender, me trying to run and get in front of them all.  It was a disaster.   

To Rosie's credit, she never tested the fence line and respected it as a barrier. Eventually, tired of trotting along, she settled down in the woods.   We grabbed Ender, and as soon as he was not hounding her, she immediately allowed me to walk up and guide her back to her stall.

This was a very stressful situation that could have went far worse, and that certainly taught us to make sure the stall is secure.  Afterwards once everyone was secured, we were certainly laughing at ourselves.  Since then Ender has been getting controlled visits with Rosie and has done great today!

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Farm Update

Farm Update

Well it has been a little bit since we have posted so we thought we should fill you all in with what we have been up to.  

Firstly last week things finally dried out for a few days and allowed us to get our first planting plowed.    We used our cultivator to break the surface just a bit and to cut some of the sod in our pasture which is growing with a fury I had never seen grass grow in Colorado.  Must be all that rain! We then dropped our plow and turned that soil over.  After a bit more work with the cultivator and a rake we had a seed bed ready for planting!  

We use a middle-buster plow, which is also known as a Potato plow.  Certainly I would prefer a moldboard but they are not as available in our price range and tractor size range. The end result though is definitely workable. We managed to get radishes, peas, and lettuce in under a row cover just as a rain hit and didn't let up until yesterday.  Now we'll be finishing up the first planting this morning and adding Potatoes and Oats in some other beds this week!

We also have been watching our inside plants really begin taking off under the lights.  We have about 35 flats going with some really good looking tomatoes starting, and a lot of other stuff!

"Bright Lights" Swiss Chard
A few varieties of Tomatoes
Look at that true kale leaf starting!

 Our big projects have involved livestock though.  We had to get a big brooder ready for 30 cornish cross chicks, which are meat chickens. 

 We over sized our brooder so that we could use the same brooder for 30 chicks as we will when we get 100s.  We have the brooder segmented in to a 1/4 of it's full size and we can easily expand to segment of half of the brooder at a time. 
If these chicks were all we had for livestock coming in the near future, we would be set to go.  But we also had to finish preparing for our 10 hogs which will be arriving in the next 7-14 days!

We also had to prepare for a large, grass eating, milk producing, member of the farm.  That's right we have been spending time driving all over Michigan, and searching the internet and talking to other farmers by phone and e-mail, looking for a cow!

We are very excited to be soon adding a cow.  We are particularly looking for a smaller cow either a Dexter or a Jersey breed cow.  We are hopeful that we may have found a Jersey that will fit our needs and could be possibly bringing her home this weekend.  We therefore had to make sure we had a stall prepared for her.  

Well with that note the sun is rising over Mirkwood, and it's time to get back to work!  


Thursday, April 25, 2013

TED Talk: An 11-Year-Old Kid Explains What's Wrong With Our Food System

TED Talk: An 11-Year Old Kid Explains What's Wrong With Our Food System

TED (Technology, Entertainment, and Design) talks are hosted by a private, non-profit organization the Sapling Foundation. They host conferences around the world, giving 20 minutes to renowned and new speakers across disciplines about science and culture. Speakers such as Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, and Al Gore, but also farmers, scientists, and authors can use this medium to tell their stories. Since 2006 the TED Talks have been offered free online under the Creative Commons license, and many are available on Netflix Streaming. Their mission statement is: 

"We believe passionately in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and ultimately, the world. So we're building here a clearinghouse that offers free knowledge and inspiration from the world's most inspired thinkers, and also a community of curious souls to engage with ideas and each other."

In the spirit of sharing stories and storytellers to spread knowledge and change attitudes, here's great TED talk from 11-Year-Old Birke Baehr, where he lays out just what is wrong wish our food system! 

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Pig Pen Made out of Pallets!

 Pig Pen all built and ready for piglets!

We've been getting ready for the 10 piglets we will be getting in the beginning of May.  As always here on the Shire, we love being able to reuse materials, especially pallets! 

 Therefore we have been stock piling pallets all winter and have really been putting them to work this spring.  We have been making crates for market, signs, shelves for seeds, and most recently our pig shelter.  

This project was very important to the farm, and is hopefully going to be a huge money saver, since when we began looking at shelters for as many hogs as we would like each summer we were seeing upwards of $1000 or more.  The shelter cost us under $50.00.

We began by digging a trench  with our potato plow to bury the pallets' bottoms in.  We dug 2x4 posts (from deconstructed pallets) 2 feet down into the ground, which we then slipped the pallets over and onto and then buried the bottom of the pallets in the plowed path. We also attached these posts directly to the pallets with screws for extra support.  

We then attached each pallet with horizontal supports at multiple levels of the pallets.  Lastly we covered about 2/3 of the structure with a tarp and bungee ties making sure it is taut and able to drain away, which seemed to work since it rained all night before these pictures.  


In the end, the structure seems to be pretty stable and sturdy, functions as a wind-break, and shelter and keeps pretty dry. Of course we'll see, when subjected to 10 hogs bouncing around I don't know how sturdy anything would be.  

On the open side of the pig pen we put step in posts and electric polytwine connected to a solar energizer. We got the idea from Milkwood Permaculture Farm. Our new piglets will spend their first few days with us in this pen, getting to know their new home and learning to respect the electric wire. After that, we will open them up to more and more pasture and forest for grazing.

Can't wait for pigs!

Update: This works perfectly well as a seasonal (non-winter) shelter for pigs, we've used it for two years now, and the pigs still haven't budged it. One thing to consider is making sure your tarp slopes enough to naturally drain off any rainfall, and that this won't pool too much around the shelter but will run off somewhere else. This work great for just training piglets to electric wire, or for sheltering them all season long. But we have another shelter for winter time, see our E-Hut, which we housed our gilt in over the winter (the awful polar vortex winter) with no problems. This is one of our most popular posts, I'm sure because there are so many pallet-enthusiatsts out there and people looking for affordable shelters for their animals. I hope this has been a helpful template for you to try your own pig pen made of pallets!  

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Farm Update 04/2013

Getting to know our new climate...

As I'm sure you all know, we're new to Michigan. We moved from Fort Collins, Colorado last fall, so we're getting to know our new climate this year. Today has been a surprisingly Colorado-like day. It started cold and moist, with misty grey skies and a spray of rain. Then it turned to snow, spits and starts preluding to potato-chip size flakes drifting and dissolving into the greening grass. And now the sun is out, and blue skies make promises they can't keep behind the grey dome enclosing our hillside. 

There's a saying in Colorado, if you don't like the weather, just stick around 5 more minutes. It'll change. Today feels a little like Colorado--the schizophrenic weather at the foot of the Rockies, what is called the Front Range. This past week however, was not so familiar. 

Since Monday we've had flood warnings and rain that turned many of our neighbors hills and lawns into ponds, some even lakes by Colorado standards. Compared to our own land--a sandy loam hillside of pasture sloping eastward and downward into a sandy-soiled forest--we've found ourselves thankfully pond and puddle free. Makes sense, we do live on a hillside. 

When we moved here, we heard much of the renowned Lake Effect: Stronger storms dumping lots of snow just inland of the lakes. This winter we've found that we're just outside of the zone that gets dumped on, only receiving 41-60" of snow annually, and don't get hit as hard as, say, Grand Rapids. 

Next week's forecast: more rain. 

Why does this matter? One of the biggest tenets of agriculture is that you don't plow when its wet! This causes soil compaction, which impacts soil structure reducing yield and soil health. As our seedlings sprout and grow and and our average last frost date nears, we're eager to prepare the seedbed, sowing cold-hardy vegetable seeds and transplanting everything we've started in indoors. But until the soil is dry enough to plow, we have to watch and wait. 

On the bright side, these farmers still have plenty of projects to keep our hands busy while we wait for a break in the weather. Our piglet shelter is almost complete, and we've got 30 Cornish Cross chicks on their way that need a brooder built, and a chicken tractor too. Inside the barn, the seedlings are germinating well, with broccoli and spinach now starting to emerge from the soil blocks

The hens should start laying soon. They're 19 weeks old today. They've been restless, stuck inside except for brief moments where they run around between the rain drops, grabbing at earthworms and then running around like gleeful velociraptors.  We scattered some scratch around their coop and over the last few days they dug fox holes in their straw to take dust baths in the more decomposed layers (we do the deep litter method).

We also purchased 6 Heritage breed turkeys, mostly for ourselves and to maybe keep a breeding pair, if we decide we like turkeys. We are new to turkeys, Farmer Figgins has worked with chickens, ducks, geese, pigs, and goats before, but not turkeys. From what we have gathered, turkeys have a reputation. Joel Salatin best sums it up, “Turkeys have one goal in life – to find a more creative way to die.” 

We've already had one try and make an escape, jumping clear of the brooder... so we'll see.  

Otherwise we've been keeping busy by working on Roland the White, our farm truck.  We had the Universal Joint on the Front Axle go bad leading to a horrible clack clack clack as we drove through town, you might have heard us.  Next we had the Idle Air Control valve go bad.  This little part is what regulates your car when it is idling so that it doesn't just shut off, or rev itself really high.  For us this problem showed up as trouble starting the engine and then it immediately shutting off when left to idle.   

Luckily with some help from Youtube, and the Chilton's guide,  the truck is back up and running though.  

Now to build that brooder.


Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Chicken Pot Pie Recipe

RIP Hedwig

This morning it was finally time to thin the rooster ranks. We have three roosters to our twenty 23 hens, well, now two roosters. That's right, Farmer Don and Farmer Figgins killed their first chicken today. And though it started with some uncertainty, we said our thanks and our goodbyes to Hedwig, and did the deed.  Rest in peace Hedwig. 

Chicken Pot Pie Recipe

-2 pie shells
-1 whole chicken, 3-4 lbs, trimmed of excess fat
-2 onions
-3 bay leaves
-1/4 cup butter
-1/4 cup flour
-1 cup diced onion
-1 cup diced carrot
-1 cup sliced celery
-1 cup cubed potatoes
-1 cup peas (frozen are fine, don't bother to thaw)
-1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage or 1 teaspoon dried sage
-1/2 cup cream, half in half or heavy cream
-1 egg, beaten

1. Put the chicken and onions in a large pot with just enough water to cover. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce to a boil over medium-low heat. 

2. Skim any foam that rises to the surface of the pot. Add the bay leaves, pepper and a generous pinch of salt.

3. Prepare your 2 pie shells and refrigerate for 1 hour. (recipe below)

4. Simmer until the chicken is cooked through, about 45 minutes. Continue skimming off any foam that rises. The bird is done when a thermometer inserted into te thickest part of the the thigh reads 155-165 F. 

5. Strain pot, remove the chicken to cool and save the cooking liquid. 

6. When cooled, remove meat from the bones, roughly chop or pull into pieces, and save for later. 

7. Take the cooking liquid and return to the stove. Place the carcass in the pot (you may want to break it up into pieces up a bit so they're all submerged, but don't add any extra water). Bring it back to a boil, reduce the heat so it steadily bubbles and let it bubble and boil for 20 minutes.

8. Strain into a wide pot, bring the liquid back to the stove and bring back to a boil. Reduce until you have about 1 1/2 cups, or 15-30 minutes. 

Tip for making ahead of time: Chicken and cooking liquid can be stored separately in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.

9. Preheat over to 375 F. Generously grease a 2 quart baking dish. A 9" pie pan or a deep-dish pie pan work well here. 

10. Put 1/4 cup of butter or extra virgin olive oil in a deep skillet over medium heat. When the butter is melted or the oil is hot, add the potatoes, onions, carrots, and celery and cook, stirring frequently, for 10-15 minutes, or until softened and tender. 

11. Reduce the heat to medium-low and stir in the flour, and continue cooking and stirring until it starts to turn brown. Add the sage and cook and stir for another minute.

Tip for making ahead of time: You can refrigerate the vegetable mixture at this point for up to a day, the  reheat just before proceeding. 

12. Add the chicken-cooking liquid and the cream to the vegetable-flour mixture and turn the heat up to medium. Cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture begins to bubble and thicken. 

13. Taste and adjust the seasoning to your liking, then turn off the heat and stir in the chicken pieces and peas. 

14. Put the mixture in your prepared baking dish and bottom pastry shell.  

15. Roll out the second pastry shell and cover the baking dish. Lay it on top of the dish and flute it as for a pie crust.

16. Cut 3-4 vents in the top. 

17. Brush the top with the beaten egg.

18. Bake for 50-60 minutes, until the crust is deeply golden and the filling is bubbling. 

Best Pastry Shell (makes 2 pie shells)

-3 cup all-purpose flour
-1 1/4 cup vegetable shortening
-1 teaspoon salt
-1 large egg
-1 teaspoon white vinegar
-5 tablespoons whole milk

1. With a pastry blender or a fork, combine flour, shortening and salt in a large bowl until mixture resembles coarse meal. 

2. In small bowl, mix egg, vinegar and milk; add to flour mixture, mixing only until dough holds together in a ball. If the dough is too sticky, as in sticking to the sides of the bowls and shaggy looking, add more flour, 1/4 cup at a time. If its too dry and not coming together, add more milk, a tablespoon at a time. 

3. When solid, divide ball into two, wrap in plastic warp and refrigerate for 1 hour.
4. After an hour, pull out one ball of dough. Roll out and put in your baking dish, refrigerate until ready to be filled.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Why Grow Heirloom Plants?

Why Heirloom Plants?

We've been busy in the greenhouse again, our onions, leeks, and kale have all sprouted, and we've seeded kohlrabi, broccoli and spinach. Soon we'll be starting tomatoes and peppers as well.  In the next few weeks we will be breaking ground outside and seeding our first spring cold season vegetable crop. While drooling over our tomato seed packets, I decided to go through and see just how many heirloom varieties we are growing this year. 

For 2013 we'll be growing 36 different types of vegetables (tomatos cabbage potatoes etc), of which we'll be growing 84 different varieties. By variety, I mean a taxonomic rank below species, or an intraspecific name.   Yukon gold potatoes and Russet Potatoes for example would be two varieties of one crop.

-36 heirloom varieties, you can see some of them here.
-84 total varieties (most of which are open-pollinated and organic)

All making up the 36 different types of vegetables our CSA members will be eating!

Heirlooms can refer to heirloom seeds, plants, and varieties, of vegetables or fruit. Heirloom plants are considered to be old cultivars, used more widely before adoption of industrial agriculture after WWII. Heirlooms are often varieties that are maintained by heirloom gardeners and farmers, particularly in isolated or ethnic communities. They are more common in the Global South

Before the industrialization of agriculture, a much wider variety of plant foods and plant varieties or cultivars were grown.  In modern, industrialized agriculture, manual labor are replaced by petrochemicals and mechanization.  Most food crops are grown in large, monoculture plots. Few varieties of each type of crop are grown, each selected or engineered for their productivity, and their ability to withstand mechanical picking.  Also factors are ability to withstand cross-country shipping, be super sweet or their tolerance to drought, frost, or pesticides. 

All heirloom vegetables have kept their traits through open pollination. Open-pollinated varieties are plats that if properly isolated from other varieties will produce seed that is "true to type." Meaning the seed will result in a plant genetically identical to the parent, and that farmer can save seed to reduce costs and preserve the genetic cultivar they prefer to grow.

If open-pollinated varieties are allowed to cross within the same species, the resulting seed will be a hybrid. While many hybrid plants experience increased yields and vigor, called hybrid vigor, seed from a hybrid variety can be saved, but will not be true to type. 

Besides the ability to save our own seed, what is at stake here is our genetic diversity.  A hybrid's biology makes them proprietary. By forcing farmers to return for new seeds each season, these seed companies have effectively taken control of the means of production. As Michael Pollan wrote in his article "The Seed Conspiracy":

"But the same uniformity that smoothes capitalism’s way into the farm and garden also violates one of nature’s cardinal principles: genetic diversity. A field of genetically identical plants is much more vulnerable to disease, as American corn farmers discovered in 1970 when a blight decimated the nation’s crop, which had grown dependent on a few genetically similar hybrids. After such blights, breeders have historically turned to traditional varieties of corn, found in places like Mexico, to refresh the gene pool and provide new resistance. But what happens when Mexican farmers have been sold on fancy new hybrids and their traditional varieties have become extinct?"

Hybrid varieties can offer better disease resistance, uniformity, yield and vigor. Whereas Heirloom varieties can offer us the ability to save our own seeds, reduce our costs, increase food and seed security, superior taste, and local varieties more tailored to our specific growing region and pests. 

Here at The Shire Farm, we heavily favor open-pollinated varieties, but think both hybrid and open-pollinated cultivars have a place on the plate