Rising to the Challenge

The past month has been a whirlwind of activity out here on the farm. The grass has been growing like mad, meaning I’ve been trying to keep up, but I’ve been thankful for the extra grass to give to everyone! Literally all the animals are keen on a little green in their diet! The pigs have been gulping down mouthfuls. The rabbits nibble on bits. The sheep and cows, of course, are mad about fresh cut grass, as one can tell by the green faces of all the sheep-hard to tell such on the black cattle. Even the poultry like to come and scratch about the grass clippings for tasty morsels once the sheep have had their share!

May 15th is the estimate last frost day, but it’s looking like May 12th will a golden opportunity this spring. That means I’ve been tilling to get the ground ready in time, between storms that is! The plants that are already in the ground are getting prepared to take off! Soon the radishes and lettuce will be ankle high and ready for chopping into your salad! More transitions and moves are ahead as well.

The broiler chickens have been out on the grass for a few weeks and have been enjoying their spacious and green digs. The ducklings are with them and appear to be growing just as fast as the chickens! I’m preparing a new place in the garden for all of the ducks as they will be my pest control company this year. I’ve never done this before, so it will be an interesting experiment. The two yearling cattle will be moving to a bigger pasture down the road so they can get all the grass they could possibly eat and more, while Grover, the holstein calf, learns to eat grain and grass and join the flock of sheep.

All of this is going on while Covid-19 still has its grip on the world. I’ve risen to a great number of challenges in the past, but this is certainly one none of us have ever experienced before. This year, I’m rising to meet this new challenge and facing new struggles: Pork will be going to the butcher a month later than planned. It’s certainly not ideal, but it will have to be that way. Now here’s hoping the cattle aren’t delayed in the fall too.

The butcher might be delayed, but the crops are still growing. The hens are still laying. The broilers are still eating. Some things Covid-19 just can’t delay. Despite that, another challenge has arisen: An influx of customers looking for safe, reliable food. I will supply everyone I can with what I grow and raise. But there is only so much I can produce. One way to make sure you get vegetables, eggs, and meat every week is to join the CSA. CSA shareholders are guaranteed first cut of all of the produce. If you want to join the CSA, please just let me know. There is still a few more spots available!

And, as always, the farm is a safe environment to spend a calm afternoon, picking up some Vitamin D and laying down some stress. Come visit, pet a lamb or a calf. Pat the dust off a happy hog. Hold a chick or try to catch a duck! You can even come weed some veggie rows if you just need to get your hands in some dirt! These are challenging times and sometimes we just need to take a breather. I’ll rise to that challenge too and continue to offer my farm as a safe haven for you to get out of your quarantine zone, get some food, and de-stress!


How They’re Raised-Cattle

Starting with calves has been an interesting experience. Every species is unique and within each species, each member has their own quirks. I’ve heard “sheep are dumb” and “cows are dumb.” Let me just tell you, that’s a lie. Animals are instinctual, but they sure aren’t stupid. Cattle are some darn smart creatures and it gets them (and/or their owner!) into loads of trouble at times. Despite being on only my second pair of cattle, they have taught me so much about their species, so much so that I won’t do much more than only begin to help you understand these awesome giants. But I’ll at least start with how I raise cattle from bottle babies to half-ton toe-crushers.

Cattle raised on the WPP farm are bought as calves. The first two were holstein/hereford crosses that arrived after they were about a month old. The second two are holstein/angus crosses. Holstein is a milking breed and both Hereford and Angus are meat breeds. The first ones looked like dairy cows, but the second pair, twin girls, look like beef cattle. They were brought to the farm on their second day of life, after receiving their mother’s colostrum, which is a vital component of milk during the first 24 hours that provides antibodies to help the calves fight off bacteria and viruses.

Once the calves arrive here, they are bottle fed milk replacer for about 3-5 months. It’s not as ideal as having them with their mother who, naturally, would provide milk for the calf for nearly its entire first year of life. The calves are fed a little grain early on as they transition from milk to pasture to help their stomach turn from a milk-digesting stomach to a solid-food digesting stomach. Grain helps to jump start this process so that the calves are able to get the most nutrients out of the grass as possible.

But the yummy nightly snacks don’t stop there. Since it is usually the end of spring when the calves are coming off milk replacer, the sheep are also coming off their winter grain ration as they no longer need the extra sugars and proteins to stay warm and make milk for their lambs. Everyone transitions together onto alfalfa pellets. These are soaked to prevent them from choking on the dry pellets. Alfalfa is a high protein plant that herbivores love. It gives them a small boost of protein and encourages them to come when I call for them! This makes for retrieving wayward bovines a breeze! When I call “come on big cows” and shake the grain bucket, it’s a lovely sight as they come raising towards me kicking up their heels in excitement!

For the summer, the cattle enjoy the fresh green grass of the pasture and their nightly snack of alfalfa pellets, but once winter rolls around, grain and hay are on the menu. Around late October, early November, when nights start getting nippy and the daylight starts fading fast, they start eating almost entirely stored forage and a few pounds of grain. The grain helps the calves continue to grow well through winter and stay warm with the added sugars that the hay may not be able to provide. By this point, the calves are around 7 months old and well over 500lbs.

As yearlings entering their second spring, they again are switched back to alfalfa pellets and released back onto the pasture. During winter, they are stuck with the “sacrifice paddock,” that is to say, an area of the pasture that is sacrificed for the winter so that the rest of the pasture can have a rest and begin to regrow in the early spring. This sacrificial area will then be fenced off to hopefully give it some time to rest as well before the next winter. The cattle enjoy their second summer as they push past 1,000lbs each.

Once the cattle reach their second winter and before they again need to start eating hay and grain, they will go to the butcher. By this point, the goal is for each heifer or steer to weigh around 1,200lbs. They will have eaten minimal grain and been provided with 99% of the food coming in the form of fresh or stored forages by way of pasture plants, alfalfa, hay, or cut grass. By keeping grain feeding to a minimum, the beef from these grass-fed cattle is heart-healthy and provides a number of other health and taste benefits.

The best part for me, though, as the farmer, is being able to provide as close to natural of an environment for the cattle as possible with the current resources available. While it may not be natural for cattle to receive chin scratches and tummy rubs or be saved from getting stuck somewhere, they sure do seem to appreciate it. Cattle seem to be just as intrigued by humans as humans are by them, and while I don’t always appreciate a giant, slimy cat tongue lick from a cow, I know that’s just one way that they let me know I’ve been accepted as part of the herd.

Why Should You Eat Lamb?

Lamb meat sometimes has a reputation for being “smelly” or just being “gross.” Unfortunately, what may have been labeled as “lamb” might really have been “mutton.” The difference is only in age. Lamb is categorized as a sheep under one year old. Mutton comes from any sheep over that limit. There’s some leeway there, but that’s the general rule of thumb. Older sheep, like any animal, tend to have more flavorful meat. The body accumulates a number of compounds, minerals, and micronutrients in the muscle and fat. These leads to a more robust flavor, whether that’s good or bad is usually down to preference.

Lamb meat is mild in its flavoring. It has a very similar taste and texture to that of beef, but there is a richness to lamb meat that beef just doesn’t have. Grass fed lamb isn’t just a delicious Sunday dinner. There are also many environmental and health considerations that make lamb a worthwhile purchase. There are benefits to eating lamb that other meats aren’t able to always match.

Lamb is considered a “complete protein” and contains all nine of the essential amino acids along with CLA in higher quantities than you would find in beef. CLA is considered to have many health benefits. In lamb, you will also find high quantities of vitamins and minerals such as B12, Zinc, Iron, and bioactive nutrients and antioxidants. Some of these include creatine, taurine, and glutathione. These are good for heart and muscle health. Overall, lamb packs a lot into a small space, providing an easily-digested protein that contains more beneficial nutrients than many other meats or vegetable proteins.

Environmentally speaking, lamb meat is a positive choice for regenerating the soil and improving pasture. More farmers are turning to sheep as a method for reducing parasite loads in both cattle and sheep, increasing variety in pastures, and improving soil health. Most sheep are raised on grass and do well even with poor-quality forages. Katahdins, with their goat-like qualities, also make do with browsing on low-hanging tree branches and chomping down on bramble leaves. While not as effective as goats, sheep can help to clear pastures of unwanted plants.

The split hooves of sheep also loosen soil and allow pasture seeds to gain a strong connection to soil and water, allowing thicker swards and a thicker sward means more CO2 absorption. Their manure is formed into small pellets that absorb into the ground slowly and don’t smother grasses. Running sheep and cattle together, either in the same paddock or one trailing after the other, reduces parasites since most parasites are species-specific and provides a more evenly grazed pasture since sheep and cattle prefer different plants.

In some places, sheep have their tails docked or their skin “crutched” on their rear to prevent flies from laying eggs in poo stuck to their wool. Katahdins, who have no wool, only hair, do not require tail docking. Crutching, now considered a cruel practice, is never done on the WPP farm. Male lambs are castrated humanely within two weeks of their birth so they have minimal discomfort. In addition to being a healthy protein source and a positive environmental support, you don’t have to worry about whether the lamb you buy is treated ethically and humanely when you buy from Wise Produce and Proteins.

Growing Peas on the Kitchen Table

In January of 2018, I responded to a craigslist ad that listed about 60 mason jars and about 200 seed packs for only $60. I knew this was a steal and jumped at the chance. Even without the seeds, the mason jars themselves would have had me out the door at the same speed! I was a little disheartened to find that the seeds were dated for for 2010, 2011, and 2012. Most seeds aren’t viable past 5 years, depending on the vegetable.

But these seeds were sealed in plastic and were organic heirloom varieties, so I had some hope that maybe they might be okay if they were kept in the right conditions all that time. I still wasn’t feeling too positive about them though and wasn’t about to set any sort of high expectations. I figured I might get some to germinate, but after checking the viability of various vegetable seeds, I was uncertain that some would come through at all.

I was eager for spring. January was icy and ugly and I was getting tired of it. So I got some plastic pans out and threw all of the snow peas into the potting soil and set them on the kitchen table. I watered them carefully and checked them daily. After a few weeks, I was shocked. Some little green leaves were working their way out of the soil. The best was yet to come. By the end of the week, I was pretty darn sure that every last seed had germinated.

I was giddy at first. Then I began to realize that I had about 500 pea shoots growing on my kitchen table and it was only February!!! I held off as long as I could, but you can only wait so long before things start to get a bit jungle-like. So I set about making a suitable place for my little snow pea shoots. It was warm enough outside to turn the soil, but I still had to scrape heavy chunks of snowy ice off my garden plot. I put down some fine compost on the turned sod. I didn’t really have the time to be making this into anything spectacular; the peas appeared to be growing at the rate of an inch per day! I swear it seemed like that, anyway!

I brought my peas to the farm in their two plastic flats. At first, I carefully plucked them from the flat and gingerly patted the dirt over their roots. As I looked down the row and saw ever limited space, I began to grab at chunks of soil-containing-peas and slapped them into the row. I was less considerate as I went, realizing just how many peas I had unwittingly grown in the kitchen.

Those may have been some of the most forgiving peas I’ve ever grown. They didn’t do much growing when I first threw them out into the cold. There they sat, waiting for the sun. I put up their support poles and string and they waited. Finally, March 15 rolled around (official estimated spring planting day for this area). The peas also know this as the date they can start growing. So off to the races they went! I had a glorious crop of snow peas that spring. They produced far into the summer and gave me all that they could. It really didn’t seem to matter that I had grown them in the kitchen or thrown them into cold, wet ground. They grew just the same regardless, just as every other year.

Seriously though, just imagine me out in the snow and ice, scraping at the ground to find grass and ground so I can plant peas, in the winter. Yes, I am a crazy farmer. You just don’t know if it will work sometimes, which means you need to do some trial and error. If that makes me crazy, I’m all for it. I’ll try some crazy things and sometimes they truly work out. Other times, it’s a dud. That’s okay though. That’s just the same as a scientist, isn’t it??

The Beginning of Everything Part 2: Navy Seal of Chickens

I had my chickens “secured” in what might be confused with a homeless person camping out in the back yard. A blue tarp covered a small space enclosed by chicken wire. After a few weeks, my father grew suspicious of the tarp and goes “what’s that?!” I knew I was had. I answered honestly: “uh, chickens.” I thought about giggling maniacally and just bounding off. I didn’t. He was flabbergasted, but there wasn’t much he could do now. He threw his hands up and walked away.

My chickens needed a real home. They couldn’t live in a shanty town forever. I set about designing a coop and preparing the materials. Surprisingly, despite my father’s objections, he decided to aid in the construction of the coop. Mere hours later, with only slight frustration and disagreement, we finished the coop and I painted it a rustic barn red. I was delighted. It had a nifty sliding door with a handle, two windows, a side access door so I could clean it out, two nesting boxes with an easy opening to collect eggs, and a little ramp for the chickens to scamper down.

Building the coop was actually the easy part. I had no idea. I figured I’d just catch them and put them in. I hadn’t yet learned that they are darn near blind at night and generally just stand still, hoping you go away and don’t decide to eat them. No one told me how to herd them! No one teaches you the art of gracefully engaging in chicken snatching. It would be another year before I learned about poultry hooks and fashioned one for myself out of an old metal coat hanger.

Chickens are fast. And agile. Freaking dinosaurs that they are, maybe now you’ll think of the T-rex a little differently. I doubt he struggled to get around. His little arms get mocked, but I’m sure he was crazy fast and agile too like his miniature current-day versions. A chicken will outrun you. They will dart into small spaces and around corners like their little life depends on it. (They think it does) I didn’t plan on eating them, but after running around the yard after them, I sure was thinking about it.

I attempted to catch them in broad daylight with a friend. Together we worked to corral these seven mini dinos. One darted into a clump of weeds and we thought for sure we had her. We both advanced on her location and I quickly threw my hands into the weeds. Nothing. We shoved the weeds apart. Nothing! We had both watched her leap into the weeds to hide, never seeing her leave that spot. Minds blown, we resumed our efforts with the other six. Suddenly, she was with the group! Then and there, we named her “Navy Seal,” beyond impressed with her ability to suddenly disappear.

Long story short, they eventually made it to the coop. They protested initially. But they soon found their new digs to be quite cozy and settled in for the final weeks of summer. They provided me with a few eggs after a few months of confused head scratching. I had wrongly assumed I had bought fully matured bantam hens. I could not have been more wrong. Three of them ended up being roosters and none of them were fully grown OR bantams. Obviously, I had more reading to do if I was going to be a chicken farmer of any sort.

What’s Up With This Whole “Grass-fed” Thing Anyway?

You eat because you have to eat to live right? And because food tastes good too, of course! Healthy, delicious food sometimes looks just the same as some less healthy options. Grass fed beef and feed lot beef don’t look all that different and some people don’t find it to taste very different. It’s a subtle difference that can make a big difference to your health.

Grass fed, pasture-raised cattle at WPP aren’t stuck in a stall their entire lives, being handed all the food they need. The calves brought to the farm are only about 24-48 hours old after being sure to receive the necessary antibody containing colostrum from their mothers. This ensures that they are able to fight off potential illness and infection as youngsters. Once they join the flerd (flock/herd), they cattle are allowed to roam the pastures, starting to nibble perennial grasses and legumes.

Just about a month old!

Grass fed doesn’t mean they only eat grass. Clover, dock, plantain, and many other broad-leafed “weeds” as you might call them, make up the diverse diet of herbivorous ruminants like cattle and sheep in addition to the numerous species of grasses. The benefits of being out on pasture, eating what’s natural for cattle aren’t always measurable, but most of them are. So let’s get into what those benefits are and why on earth you should care!

Some benefits are related to the health of the cow, some to your health, and other benefits are for the earth itself! But today, in this blog post, we’re going to focus on YOUR health and how grass fed, pasture-raised beef isn’t just good for your taste buds, but your heart and other organs too!

I’m betting you’ve heard of how awesome Omega-3 is for your cardiovascular system, right? It is said to lower inflammation and increase heart health. Feed-lot beef is found to contain similar amounts of Omega-6, which is necessary, but it’s found to be in a ratio to Omega-3 that appears to have negative impacts on health. In lab tests, grass fed beef is found to contain up to 5.5x more Omega-3 than conventional beef.

She finally stood still long enough for a picture instead of trying to lick the phone!

Another important component of grass fed beef is in the fats it contains. Grass fed beef has more conjugated linoleic acid or CLA, a type of fat. This is linked to lowered rates of inflammation and aids in boosting the immune system. It’s also thought that CLA has cancer-fighting benefits. But grass fed beef also tends to have less fat overall due to the cattle spending more time moving around finding tasty plants to eat and the fact that grain tends to encourage packing on the fat, especially fat like saturated fat.

At WPP, cattle are also never given hormones, steroids, and rarely, if ever, given antibiotics or vaccines. Conventional cattle are injected under the skin with a hormone that is slowly released over their short life to boost growth rates. Due to the unsanitary conditions of feed-lot beef, cattle are often given antibiotics and steroids. Out on the pasture, however, this is unnecessary as they are able to move away from their own excrement and the chickens that they co-exist with move in to spread out their piles of dung, eat the bugs, and allow it to be absorbed into the ground more quickly.

Sometimes they get some treats like freshly mowed grass or corn leaves and stalks.

Sometimes, it is necessary to use antibiotics if an animal gets an illness or infection and some cattle are given vaccines to prevent against things such as tetanus. For instance, the first steer brought to the farm was given a tetanus shot when he was banded to become a steer rather than a bull since this process can allow for that bacteria to enter his bloodstream, but since that point, none of the cattle have received vaccinations. At one point, I was concerned about the potential infection that could have sprung to life through the one calf’s naval as it was slow to heal. For that, I bought long-acting penicillin, but waited to see if it would be necessary. Thankfully, her naval did heal on its own, so I never needed to use the penicillin, but I would have used it to save her life if I had to because to not do so would quite simply have been animal cruelty.

There are so may more benefits to grass-fed, pasture-raised beef, but we won’t get into all of those today. We will go into more benefits in the post “How it’s Raised: Cattle” when that gets written. We will also talk more about rotational grazing and how it impacts the environment and the animals. For now, though, look forward to winter 2020 when beef will again be available!

They’re pretty friendly creatures, too!

Every Precious Drop

Setting out on my own. A rented farm. Fresh ground to manage as I saw fit. It was exciting. Who am I kidding, it was exhilarating! I had farmed my parents land and worked out a deal with a neighbor to start raising broilers, but after three years and no room left to grow, I knew it was time. Besides, I really wanted some pigs and mom said “no” before I even had the words all out of my mouth. I had managed to sneak chickens onto the property, so I can’t complain. I grew quite a little operation in those first three years. It was a safe place to start.

But I needed to expand, so off I went! The rented farm was lush with opportunity and I was downright giddy to get started. Before long, I was raising 4-6 pigs per year. I hit some some struggles with the broilers. Predators are always hungry. Especially when they have young to feed. But I learned, built stronger defenses, worked some offense. The layers were working their magic and I grew my flock from double digits to triple. Somewhere in there I had amassed over 100 chickens for the purpose of laying eggs to sell.

Things were going okay as a young farmer, just getting her feet wet. But that dried up one day when the well pump failed. Due to extraneous circumstances and a strangely wired house, it was impossible to get the pump going again. For two long years, I muddled through. I lugged six 5 gallon water jugs from my second floor apartment to the truck to trek to the farm. In the winter, I carried these jugs through three feet of snow. In the summer, on especially hot days, I made three trips instead of two, bringing a grand total of 90 gallons to the farm rather than only 60 gallons.

I put a stop to my broiler operation as 100 broilers will go through 15-30 gallons per day. Predators took care of my laying flock, bringing me well under 50 hens. Between fledgling red tailed hawks being trained in the art of the buffet line of chickens, raccoons, and some extremely hungry foxes, the flock was hit hard. I allowed my hen numbers to stay low, taking care of the problems mother nature had thrown my way (thanks Abel!). I had fewer animals to water, but I still had crops to water.

Getting seeds to germinate is hard without adequate water. Carrots hardly grew as frequent, even watering is absolutely essential those first few weeks. With only 5 gallon jugs, it was impossible to water them well enough. I didn’t have enough time to drive back and forth from the farm into town and back, filling all those jugs and water all those crops. Half never even sprouted from the ground the first year. The second year, I planted less and grew more.

But I’m stubborn, I must admit. If I couldn’t have broilers, I’d get sheep. Three or four of them wouldn’t drink much and I was growing fewer crops, so I had some wiggle room. So I sprung for a ewe with two lambs and later found Sam the Ram to join the show. Then I thought, “why stop at sheep? I have these ruminants, why not add some calves?!” So I did. I found two calves, a heifer and a steer, both around one month old. Maybe stubborn isn’t the word for it. Crazy might be better served in this context.

Word came later that year though that I needed to move on. Might my water woes be over?? Indeed. I found a safe haven for my creatures, a place to grow some veggies, and watch water flow from a hose again. Those two years without water taught me some valuable lessons though. I don’t take water for granted like I used to when it flowed so easily from the hose at my parents’ home. Even now, at this third farm (fourth if you count my childhood home), every drop is precious. If the hose leaks, a bucket goes under the leak to catch it or I find a new hose. If I can collect some rain water, I do it.

I know how much my animals drink on hot days and cool days, in the middle of winter while eating hay and the long days of summer when they are on the wet, green grass. I know how much the broilers will drink in the shade compared to full sun all day. When water flowed freely, I just filled up the water bowls without thought. Once that water stopped though, I had to bring out the calculator while watching them drink every drop to make sure they would always have just enough. Even now, I don’t pick just any day to plant, I watch the weather and wait. When rain is fully expected that night or the next day, you will see me in the field, planting madly all the seeds I can when the time comes. Tonight, I’m watching the weather to see when I’ll be planting my spinach seeds.

Using a Cast Iron Dutch Oven

The Best Bread You’ve Ever Had

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Why on earth would you want to go back in time and use such a heavy, bulky thing like a cast iron dutch oven…I can just hear you asking me now. There are a million reasons! Some you might already know! For instance, you’ve probably heard that the heat is more even when using cast iron. But the uses and benefits don’t stop with even heating; I can assure you! I’m not going to go into all the benefits right now, there’s more on that another time. I’m here to focus in on something that you are bound to love.

Dutch ovens are pretty cool, but a cast iron dutch oven will complete your kitchen. Want to make soup? Dutch oven. Want to make a roast? Dutch oven. Want to make BREAD?! Duh, dutch oven! What? Yes. You haven’t eaten bread until you’ve eaten bread from a cast iron dutch oven. Some of my CSA customers have heard the whispers of bread next season. The rumors are true. Bread may very well be slated to go on the docket for 2020’s CSA!

But I’m not going to keep the awesomeness of bread baked in a dutch oven to myself or prevent you from learning the secret either! If you want to have a go at it, it’s pretty simple. Bread only really needs four things: Wheat, water, yeast, salt. I’ll leave finding the perfect recipe up to you, but I’ll tell you how to make that recipe absolutely perfect by baking that delectable loaf of bread in a dutch oven.

First though, you might need a dutch oven. This one has shown itself to truly be up to the challenge. It’ll help you to create the best loaves of bread you have ever had the chance to butter up!

So, now I’m sure you’re hoping I just get around to telling you the tips and tricks to getting that loaf absolutely perfect. Okay, okay, it’s really not that difficult. First, follow your recipe and come back when your loaf has risen. Ready for the next step? Get that dutch oven preheating! Most vessels made for the oven aren’t built to be heated empty. The cast iron dutch oven can withstand this pressure without cracking, so don’t use just any oven safe pot. The preheating is the most important step, I promise! Why? How?

It’s all in the steam. The dutch oven provides the perfect chamber to capture all that moisture contained inside your raw dough. But it has to be fully heated and up to temperature before you gently plop that dough into the dutch oven. You see, your conventional oven lets all that steam float around the oven and away from the loaf of bread. As your baking dough expands, the crust is already becoming hard, preventing your bread from being the delicious, crusty loaf it was meant to be! By using a dutch oven inside your actual oven, it contains all the moisture from within the loaf, keeping the crust malleable and soft as the loaf expands.

That’s not the end of the story, though. Let’s get into a little bread dough science. That humidity inside the dutch oven goes up and out of the dough, right? This cast iron dutch oven is designed with little dimples on the lid. These dimples cause the steam to fall back onto the dough. Liquid water is cooler than water vapor, which cools the crust. This causes something really neat (and tasty)! The water droplets give the bread time for the yeast enzymes to keep working their magic in turning starches into sugars. Your bread then ends up with a crusty exterior, and an insanely soft interior.

Now that you’re bread is baked, I’m sure reading the rest of this is pretty much out of your thoughts. But if you haven’t even gotten a dutch oven, just rest assured that bread will be getting tested all winter to prepare the best loaves for your CSA share in 2020.