Monday, November 28, 2011

Pens to Pasture ~ Slow Hand Farm

When friends and family began raving about and forwarding to me the weekly CSA newsletters and farm updates sent from their farmers, I paid attention. I also laughed (and even teared up) at these genuine writings intimately describing all it takes to grow our food. It didn't take long to realize that these stories must be shared with a wider audience. So...welcome to Pens to Pasture: Fodder from the Field where each week we feature one farm and the stories they share with their customers through CSA newsletters, blog stories and e-mail updates. We celebrate the agricultural life, the hard work of farmers and the grace and openness with which they share it all through writing. Dig in, enjoy and be sure to share the writings of your farmers by sending an e-mail here.

Slow Hand Farm ~ Portland, OR 
Josh & Kji
Community Supported Agriculture on a Small Scale

I'm so honored to share the words (and vegetable pictures) of Slow Hand Farm, mostly because Josh taught me almost everything I know about growing vegetables when I was an apprentice at Sauvie Island Organics in Portland, Oregon. Beyond the actual growing of vegetables, Josh keenly demonstrated the importance of crop planning, record keeping and a good Excel spreadsheet - three cheers and eternal gratitude for that! I also remember many conversations with Josh, around the long lunch table, that ended up in that farm's CSA newsletter. (More on that to come!)
Stats from the SHF website. Wow.
In 2009 Josh broke ground on his own venture, Slow Hand Farm, to focus on hand-scale production; small and affordable CSA shares and special varieties. Slow Hand Farm is very special, in large part because Josh can tell you almost anything you want to know about each variety and each individual produce item harvested from the .2 acres of land they cultivate. This (very) small farm is also special because it offers single-person sized shares filled with the farmers' favorite varieties in spring, summer, fall and winter subscriptions. It's the ultimate make-your-own-perfect-CSA-share. 

Slow Hand Farm communicates with members through a weekly blog post, and their attention to detail shows. You are welcome and encouraged to read much, much more about Small Hand Farm at the blog or Facebook page. Extra savory are all the lovely pictures of the share and the farm - you'll be amazed at the magic they cultivate in a tiny space! Below are two recent CSA posts hinting at the beginning of winter...

P.S. Josh is a jack-of-all-trades, engineer extraordinaire and farming genius. If you like to geek out on small scale farming practices (like, the important details) or farm images, check out his other site.

- - -
Monday, November 14, 2011
Soup Share

It occurs to me that there are some nice opportunities for soup in the share today, especially if you have some good dry beans to toss in, and maybe a bit of stale bread.  You might want to look for a recipe for ribollita, one of my favorite fall meals.

Today's share has a bit of kale, chard, carrot, celery and garlic in it.  This is not at all what I planned for last fall when I was looking at what would go in the share today, but it's still a nice mix and it reflects everything that has happened in the season up to this point and my best judgement this morning about what I need to keep around for shares in the following weeks, and what would be best this week in the shares.  At this point in the year most everything we have for the shares for the next two months or so is more or less ready.  It's not just a matter of harvesting what is "ripe," it also has to do with guessing what will hold in the ground longer, what won't get eaten by voles or deer, what will survive impending frosts, and what would be a nice combination, giving a bit of variety from week to week

The chard and celery won't hold on much longer due to their sensitivity to freezing so I wanted to give those two out today.  The kale is from a bed that hasn't been cleaned up in a while, and it seemed like some more greens would be nice in the share.  The carrots have finally started to get a little size and the voles are starting to move in so I'm trying to thin them out, give a little more space and assess the damage. I don't plan for garlic in the fall shares, but this is leftover from what we saved for seed and I figured it should get eaten.

Next week is Thanksgiving so we'll take a week off from harvesting.  I'm taking some of this afternoon, and likely many to come, starting to look at the plan for next season.

Thursday, November 17, 2011
Thanksgiving Holiday

Today's share is basically the same as Mondays so no new photo or talk of the vegetables.  Next week is Thanksgiving and we're taking the entire week off from harvests.  It's also supposed to be cold, like freezing cold, this weekend.  I've been anticipating that, which is why the chard and celery was in the share this week.  Those two crops will likely freeze out this weekend.  Even so, we covered the celery with row cover, and lots of the rest of the crops as well.  I'm hoping that the cover will stay on (it has a nasty tendency to blow off).  I'm also hoping that the newfound protection the voles are feeling under that nice white blanket won't encourage them too much and that they'll leave a bit for us when we get back to harvesting.  They've already taken out a number of the celeriac, root parsley, and radicchio.  Our trapping campaign is woefully inadequate right now, we'll have to get on that.  In the meantime, hope all of you have a great Thanksgiving, we'll be back in action on November 28.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

How Turkeys Become Turkeys

My favorite part of Thanksgiving is the celebration and expression of gratitude: for family, farmers and all the goodness in the world. I'm also partial to a good pumpkin pie and even the cranberry jelly that comes out of a can. The turkey, however, I can do without. That changed a bit when I harvested this main course for the first time. 

In honor of our dear friend the turkey, and in appreciation of those who raise them and prepare them for our tables, I present to you the annual romp through the slaughterhouse. I always feel that knowing the origins of my food increases its taste and my appreciation for it. This piece was originally featured in the Slow Food Tufts blog in 2009. I enjoy revisiting it every year, and I hope you will too.

Warmest wishes to you and yours on the national holiday of gorging and appreciation. May your turkey be juicy, your mashed potatoes buttery and your revelry savory.

- - -

Waking at 5 am, I dug my favorite farming clothes out from under the bed. I missed the early mornings, dirty hands and exhaustion from physical labor and looked forward to the long day of work ahead. This used to be my every day routine, pre-dawn mornings and perpetually dirty work clothes, when I spent my days on a farm in Portland, Oregon. Since going back to graduate school in Boston, mornings start later and the farming clothes are tucked out of site, undoubtedly a bit lonely.
Today began with a three-hour drive south to a diversified farm in the Hudson River Valley of New York. It was a long haul to visit Sara, one of my dearest friends, and some soon-to-be Thanksgiving turkeys. I was off to help harvest and process 150, seven month old Broad Breasted Whites that spent most of their turkey lives foraging on pasture. “Harvest” and “process” are, of course, pleasant euphemisms for slaughter, the last stage of raising livestock and getting it to market.

 As many Americans were in the pre-Thanksgiving frenzy of buying frozen turkeys at the store, my excitement peaked knowing I would experience this process from a new perspective. Today's turkeys would not come from the aisles of a grocery, but from the wet, slippery tiled floor and food-grade surfaced walls of a small-scaled poultry processing facility. All the birds were scheduled to be slaughtered and readied for market largely by hand that day, all pre-purchased by those willing to trek to the farm to pick up a turkey from its source. And for myself, I was just grateful to place one more puzzle piece into the landscape of skills needed to raise food and successfully market it as a small farmer.

On the walk from my car to the barn I felt that familiar mix of excitement and nervousness roiling in the bottom of my belly. I was in an unfamiliar place about to embark upon a new, and quite messy, expedition. My step was quickened by that first-day-of-school anticipation, the squawk of the geese in the pasture and the glow of the early morning autumn sun warming me through my wool sweater. Being at once totally present, and looking forward to the day poultry processing would become part of my own routine, I opened the heavy door and stepped in to the small facility. Before the door could close, I was immediately instructed to change into a pair of sanitary rubber boots for slaughterhouse use only, lined up by the door.

“So, what made you want to come here and do this?” one of the farm crew asked as I walked toward him down the white-walled hall.

My answer was simple: I want to gain all the firsthand experience I can because one day I plan to raise poultry on my own.

I had a few weeks  to mentally prepare for this adventure between accepting the invitation and my three-hour early morning drive to these rolling hills. I spent the time recognizing my immense excitement at participating in harvest and learning a bevy of new skills about small-scale poultry processing. Not only did it feel like an important step to gain poultry production knowledge, but also a huge step toward a deeper understanding about what it takes to produce the food I eat. Tempering my overt enthusiasm was the awareness that turkey harvest unavoidably included killing a living animal. I believe strongly that animals are an important part of the nutrient cycle of the farm, and of our food system. So for me, I concluded that if I’m going to eat the meat, it should be humanely raised using sustainable practices and that I should be able to kill it…or at least be intimately aware of how it ends up on my plate. But at my core, I was just inexplicably excited to experience a part of the food system in this way.

I knew, roughly, what to expect inside the small slaughterhouse: the large cones that would hold the birds upside-down as their necks were cut, the hot water scald to loosen tough feathers for plucking and the stainless steel work tables for manual tasks. Not to mention the infamous plucker: the stainless steel cylinder lined with rubber fingers that quickly pull feathers from the birds as they spin around and around in the basin. Then evisceration…the process of removing the turkey guts by hand. I’ll call them guts because before that day all I thought of inside a bird was a mish-mash of intestines and the mysterious ‘giblets’. This last step of the process was the biggest mystery, and I was thrilled to become intimately familiar with the internal organs of a turkey.

Quickly, the door to the small processing room swung open to expose five farmers, gloved and aproned like disorganized surgeons, along with large tubs filled with ice and cooling turkeys. I waved a hello to Sara, as there are no hugs when covered in turkey, and introduced myself to the rest of the crew. Sara was disassembling turkeys as they landed in a pile after spinning out of the plucker. At this stage they remained whole birds, featherless and pink, but missing heads and feet. Sara’s job, and later mine, was to remove the oil gland, trachea, crop and neck. The necks were collected in a bucket of ice and then each bird hung one at a time on a rack for evisceration.

Two very skilled and quick moving livestock apprentices took on this task as I watched with awe and jealousy. First, a sharp knife cut a circle around the vent of the hanging bird. Then the intestines were gently escorted out of the bird and onto the stainless steel table below, ultimately into a barrel to be composted. Internal organs were then removed. The sponge-like lungs headed to the compost, but the liver, gizzard and heart were sorted into buckets of ice. They would later be packed into bags with the necks and stuffed into the cavity of the birds, the infamous giblets. I tried my hand at this, and at first it was the equivalent of playing Operation, blindfolded. But slowly I became familiar by touch -rough, slippery, tough and squishy- with these distinct organs inside a still-warm bird.

OK, this is the point where you may say, “Stop! Please! Too much information!” The point of these precise details is not for the gross-out factor or to open debate about the ethics of eating animals. But for those of us who believe in good, clean, fair food: this is it. This is small-scale production that treats animals, farmers and environment fairly. And the more we understand exactly what it takes to raise this kind of food, the easier it is to support farmers, growers and producers who share these values. Each of us may value a different part of the process, but the power is in the knowing.

After half the turkeys were resting in ice baths, we got to the task of cleaning out the gizzards so they could join the other giblets. Turkeys do not have teeth, so the gizzard is an internal organ, a secondary stomach, that mashes up ingested food. It looking something like a round oyster or mussel covered with a smooth layer of muscle.  The external squeezing of the muscle grinds ingested food with grit: rough non-food matter that’s pecked up by the turkeys and stored in the gizzard for this purpose. Little did I know that each gizzard gets cut open, grit cleaned out by hand, and the rough lining peeled out before it joins forces with the rest of the giblets.

We stood around the processing room, the floor slippery with melting ice and turkey mess, chatting as we worked our way through the icy buckets of fist-sized gizzards. Sharing small, sharp knives each gizzard was cut open like a clam, exposing the gritty contents of the turkey’s stomach and an edge of yellow lining. This is delicate, detailed work when compared to the previous hours of the day, but rewarding. I slowly opened my first gizzard, almost like unwrapping a small gift, to find a collection of pebbles, short pieces of straw and small bits that looked eerily like sea glass. I paused, not quite believing what I saw. Maybe there was something about turkey digestion that I just didn’t understand.

Sea glass?

I glanced around the room; every other gizzard was full of the frosted glass too. Everyone in the room was noticing this treasure at the same time. Jovial accusations and laughter sparked up in the circle around me and I caught only snippets of conversation.

“It just appeared out of nowhere,” the newest apprentice spoke quietly amidst the teasing.
“Middle of the pasture…”
“…and there went another windshield,” spilled out of the livestock manager’s mouth.

Through the rapid-fire banter of the crew and the jovial finger pointing, the best I could piece together was this: Someone drove the farm truck quickly through the turkey pasture, and the remnants of an old farm building suddenly appeared on the horizon. There was not enough time to avoid hitting the structure. A collision ensued and the windshield busted, leaving a sparkly pool of safety auto glass on the grass, irresistible to the curious turkeys. For all these turkeys knew, this was the best looking meal they would ever eat. This unusual ‘grit’ was then burnished into the equivalent of sea glass in the gizzard of every single turkey, helping to grind food from that day forward. Not to worry, the glass didn’t harm the turkeys, as the thick lining inside the gizzard serves to protect the bird in just this situation. Despite it all, I was awestruck as all the pieces came together.

It was amazing to see such odd and unexpected contents in the belly of the beast. More importantly, it served as a very direct reminder of the connection between what we put into the animals that will become our food and where it all ends up…be it the gizzard of a turkey, fresh produce, our air or water.

I left the farm that day exhausted, content, dirty and empowered. I was more steadfast than ever to make educated choices about the source of my food, proud to learn a new skill and determined to honor the gibblets of my next Thanksgiving turkey.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Pens to Pasture ~ Chustnut Farms

When friends and family began forwarding me weekly CSA newsletters and farm e-mail updates sent from their farmers, I knew these stories needed to be shared with a wider audience. Welcome to Pens to Pasture: Fodder from the Field where each week we feature one farm and the stories they share with customers through CSA newsletters, blog stories and e-mail updates. We celebrate the agricultural life, the hard work of farmers and the grace and openness with which they share it in writing each week. Dig in, enjoy and (especially this week) give thanks to those who sustain us by growing delicious food.

Chestnut Farms ~ Hardwick, MA 
Kim & Rich 
“Connecting Communities Through Agriculture”

It was a warm and blue-skied June day when I met Kim at the Chestnut Farms Open Barn Day. She was answering guests’ questions near the pen of very cute young piglets playing keep away with a piece of orange baling twine. Despite hosting a farm full of CSA members, she was willing to spend time answering our aspiring farmer questions with genuine enthusiasm, even though we didn't happen to be her CSA members.

Kim’s friendly and open demeanor wasn’t a surprise to me, as I’d been reading the Chestnut Farms monthly CSA newsletter for a while. My dear friend Darcy, who did subscribe to the Chestnut Farms CSA, thought I would appreciate the farm tales, especially the ongoing rooster saga, which I did. Much like the weekly e-mails from Puzzle Peace Farm, the monthly updates from Chestnut Farms inspired the Pens to Pasture project.

Chestnut Farms is a family owned operation in central Massachusetts, offering pasture-raised beef, lamb, goat, pork, chicken and turkey to community members using the CSA format. Members are guaranteed a certain poundage of meat each month, but the CSA ‘risk’ is in the type of meat provided in each share. Beyond conscientiously raising a variety of livestock on grass, Rich and Kim are keen to share their farm experience and promote larger agricultural issues through their enterprise. The passages below are selected from the Monthly Updates which are sent out by e-mail before each CSA distribution.

Beyond good writing and delicious meat, Chestnut Farms is beautiful. We spent the remainder of our Open Barn Day ooohing and aaaahing at the school bus-turned-chicken coop (which I loved enough to use as the main image on this blog), relaxing while taking in views of the sheep in their pasture, investigating the brand new manure management system and finally spotting the trouble-making rooster himself.

You can find all the monthly updated, recipes, farm photography, a very thoughtful pricing policy and much more at the Chestnut Farms website. Please do enjoy the excerpts from their monthly updates below. As usual, we welcome your submissions of your favorite farmer’s writing, just send it along by e-mail, and we'd love to share it! 

From: Chestnut Farms
Date: April 3, 2010 8:31:55 PM EDT
Subject: Chestnut Farms Meat Shares to be Distributed

Spring Chickens are here!! The first batch arrived in our henhouse this week and we will continue to raise all the way through next December.  January through March is a good season for New England Chickens to be in the freezer, as the growth rate slows considerably, meat birds can freeze (because they don’t move around like layer hens) and we don’t have an indoor structure to raise them in. We have both meat birds and layers in our first batch and are working hard to expand our layer hen population this year.  We are still looking for an additional school bus if anyone knows of one…

Finally, the ROOSTER.  We have a rooster who is roaming the barn,  He is a beautiful Arucana Rooster who believes he owns the homestead.  This has caused a bit of a personality conflict between Rooster and Kim.  I (Kim) have repeatedly tried to put him back with the hens on the other side of the road and up in the school bus.  Rooster responds by repeatedly escaping and coming down to the barn and eating the piglets food.  The last time this happened, Rooster added and attack. He clawed and pecked at me stating that there is no way he will leave the barn.  I was not pleased and noted that I need Rooster Stew. However, I have not been able to catch him.  This provides a high level of entertainment to the rest of my family.  Stay tuned for further adventures of Kim vs. Rooster!

We look forward to seeing you tomorrow.  As always, THANK YOU for supporting local farms  We really appreciate it – It DOES matter and makes a huge difference.

Naturally yours,
Kim and Rich
Chestnut Farms
Hardwick, MA 01037

From: Chestnut Farms
Date: May 3, 2010 8:31:55 PM EDT
Subject: Chestnut Farms Meat Shares to be distributed on TUES May 4th from 4 to 7 pm in Arlington

Kim vs. Rooster- Chapter Two:  When we last visited the saga there was a stand-off between Kim and Rooster – Rooster had attacked Kim literally causing bodily harm and Kim tried to kill Rooster without success. (I couldn’t catch him).  Then Rooster flew at a child who was looking at “his” piglets (the Rooster is the self appointed guardian of the piglets in the barn).  This time Sam caught the Rooster. Kim tied up his feet (not very gently) and carried him up to one of the Schoolbuses full of hens.  The theory was that 247 female chickens would keep his attention better than three sows and 27 piglets.  Like many scientific theories this one was bunk.  Within an hour, Rooster had fled the bus and the attached pen and was dancing around the farmhouse – not to be caught again. 

Hmmm – we have lots of coyotes thought Kim.  Let’s leave the Rooster alone and see what happens….  So all day and all night the Rooster was completely free and out of the barn.  The next morning at 4 am the singing began.  Just underneath Kim and Rich’s bedroom window the Rooster starts crowing and crowing and cocka-doodling – loudly – for HOURS. With 106 acres – barns, schoolbuses and sheds Rooster managed to find the ONE square foot below our bedroom window and crow.  Kim got out of bed and tried to catch Rooster – stew it is she vowed.  So at 4:30 am as the sun was thinking about rising, Kim was out on the front lawn in a nightgown and no shoes chasing Rooster.

Rooster won.

Rooster finally (two days later) returned to the barn and his beloved sows and piglets.  His picture is on the website. 

Rich and I will look forward to connecting with you tomorrow for your May shares. Happy Spring and THANK YOU for supporting local farms : )

Naturally yours,
Kim and Rich
Chestnut Farms
Hardwick, MA 01037

From: Chestnut Farms
03 August 2010 11:29:21 AM
Subject: Meat Shares are coming TODAY!!!

Farm dogs, turkeys and coyotes: Like all farms, we love dogs and even have three.  Not well chosen, but well loved.  We have a yellow lab that is a farm dog (nine years old) and the Lexi our female Saint Bernard is four.  We also have three year old Dozer (a 178 lb male St. Bernard) who was dropped at our farm.  So with 100 sheep, 100 cattle, pigs, poultry and a coyote problem we have an old lab and two huge, but rather limited dogs that are useless.    

Unless of course it is 2 am and the coyotes are howling. Then all three suddenly spring into action. Then the dogs will wake the dead in an effort to get OUT of the farmhouse and onto the front lawn where they can bark at the coyotes from a safe distance.  They bark, The coyotes bark back, Our dogs howl. The coyotes howl.  Then, apparently drawn to canine noise, the energetic turkey will wake and try to fly over their fence to taunt the coyotes. So we have turkeys (last night it was 12 of them) flying around the field, coyotes howling to call their friends in for a turkey dinner and three large dogs sitting right in front of the farmhouse barking.  Sleep over for awhile, Rich and I grab gun (him) and flashlight (me) and head down to the barnyard.  We put the dogs in the house and tell them somewhat ineffectively to BE QUIET.  As we head to the barnyard we can see and hear the pack of coyotes. In the moonlight I make out a turkey running to and fro and taunting a coyote as it slinks down in the pasture.  I shine the light and Rich shoots. It is tough at night to get the coyotes We were not successful last night, but I know we will have another chance tonight.  After a shot goes off, the coyotes all leave the pasture, but we know they are just over the stonewall in the woods.

So far we have only lost one turkey this year.  We have clipped wings and will do it again within the month. Clipping wings on poultry is like giving them a haircut. It doesn’t hurt and prevents them from flying over fences (usually) and into the mouths of foxes, skunks or coyotes.  We have learned to clip only one wing.  That way, as the feathers grow back in, the bird remains off balance. With one long set of wing feathers and one short it is hard to flap for an even take-off.  We like to say we have punk poultry!  If you would like a delicious, fresh, coyote-avoiding turkey for Thanksgiving, please fill out the form on our website.  We will be collecting for the turkeys at the Sept or Oct distributions.

Our sheep have enjoyed a great summer on grass and will be heading to the first appointment in early September for the harvest (slaughterhouse). We will then process by weight throughout the fall and winter.  As I noted last month, we like the lambs to be 100 lbs or so before we send them.  This results in the best yield and the most cost-effective harvest.  The goat herd has been fabulous at their secondary career of brush clearing.  They have cleared a whole pasture of multi-floral roses and are moving onto the next fenced area.  We are so pleased with their ability to take out the scrub and leave the grass.   They are also growing really well.  As I watch them loving the heat and hot of July, I recall the sad January where we lost so many kids – clearly our vet was right – goats love a warm climate.  They have thrived this summer.

Recently I spoke at the Livestock Forum at Tufts University.  This was put on by the New Entry Farm Program run by Jen Hashley of Jen and Pete’s Backyard Birds.  It was well done, well attended and so encouraging to see so many people interested in livestock farming.  I hope we are at the beginning of real growth in the family farm. 

Our cows have had a great summer, our pigs are doing well and continue to have wonderful litters.  We did spend last weekend chasing over thirty pigs through the woods, but they all came home and are now happily chewing on some fresh grass and roots in a pasture additions.   Pigs, like horses get bored and will try to get out of pastures when there is more exciting or fun things on the other side  They believe that the grass is ALWAYS greener outside the pen

Tomorrow is a play-off game for Sam's Little League Team. After much back and forth I have decided to attend Sam's game.  Anna and Theresa will be doing our CSA distribution. While I will miss personally connecting with you tomorrow, I hope you understand my parenting commitment.  I have not missed a single Arlington distribution in four years and really feel torn between my son and the shares - I will be there next month and hope you have a great August.  If there are any share questions or concerns, please let me know.  As always I personally packed your share and if there is a mistake it is mine.  

Thank you SO MUCH for being part of our farm family.  We really, really appreciate it.

Naturally yours,
Kim and Rich

Chestnut Farms
Hardwick, MA 01037

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Pens to Pasture ~ Puzzle Peace Farm

A few months back, I asked for your help in naming a new feature at – a weekly snapshot of farm stories straight from the farmer’s pen. I’m honored to present the first edition of Pens to Pasture: Fodder from the Field

About the time I moved to Boston, a few CSA e-mails and farm newsletters began popping up in my inbox. My Mom and dear friend Darcy were appreciating the news from their farmers, and wanted to share with me what they were reading. This sparked an idea. Collect the best of these informal agricultural stories, the trials and tribulations of everyday farming, and share them with others. Just another way to showcase the amazing work of local farmers and help folks understand exactly what it takes to grow the food we require and savor.

I adore the CSA newsletters, blogs and update e-mails composed and distributed by small farmers in an effort to directly connect with their eaters. Part storytelling, part marketing and part shoot-from-the-hip honesty, these bulletins share far more than the weekly CSA harvest report or what to expect on the farmers’ market table. In these writings, we are invited into the world of each farm to experience the details of the day-to-day beyond just the time in the barn, the greenhouse or the fields. These writings impart the subtle character of each farm enterprise, reveal a family behind the action, and provide a transparency and insight rarely exposed by any other small business. What other shop owner would share the details of their insurance policy, previous night’s dinner or stories of dancing in the rain?

I don’t know if any of the authors in this feature consider themselves to be writers, but they are - and I am grateful for it. Today’s small farmers are expected to be a jack-of-all-trades in order to survive, and how lucky are we that penning a regular missive to customers is a required aspect of success in this line of work.   

So, please join us each Monday for the latest edition of Pens to Pasture, and an inside glimpse at the farming life. And of course, your entries are always welcome. Feel free to send along your farmers' newsletters, blogs or other correspondences - especially the ones that make you laugh or fill you with awe.

Puzzle Peace Farm ~ Bostic, NC

It wasn't too long after my Mom found Thomas and Lindy of Puzzle Peace Farm at the Charlotte farmers' market that she started forwarding me their weekly e-mails. Talk about a delight! The e-mail updates from Puzzle Peace Farm are the biggest inspiration for Pens to Pasture, especially the first passage below. Thomas and Lindy write with such clarity, humor and frankness that I usually end up laughing out loud or tearing up when I read their e-mails. They convey so clearly the exuberance and exhaustion of farming - and I resonate with their motivations so much - I don't think the farming mentality could be better expressed than their words. These two also keep a blog that is not to be missed, including beautiful photos in the most recent post. And if you live in North Carolina, be sure to look them up at farmers' markets near Charlotte so you can enjoy their produce, pork and other delights in person. Thanks, Thomas and Lindy, for agreeing to be the first farmers featured in Pens to Pasture and thanks for growing lovely food and words!

Date: July 1, 2011 1:28:12 PM EDT
Subject: Puzzle Peace Farm, yet again...

Hi Charlotte folks,

This week we will have... pac-choi (with recipes!), cucumbbers, a small amount of our first okra harvest (get there early if you want it), Red Pontiac Potatoes, heirloom yellow scallop squash and zuchinni, haricot vert beans, the last of the carrots, the first heirloom tomatoes, sungold cherry tomatoes, kale, swiss chard, and our heritage pastured pork, that we finish on organic feed.  Sorry to all of your pets that depend on our luscious goat cheese. We weren't able to make any this week. 

The pigs are alive and well... and in the pasture, for those of you wanting to know. All seems well around the farm. The fields are full of green, massive plants, and the bees are buzzing in harmony about the blossoms and buckwheat cover crops.  The weeds are under control (just barely), and there is still a bit of moisture in the ground. If there were ever a great time to host a farm tour it would probably be right now.  But it has surprised me at how long we've been hanging on in this transition phase between crops. I keep expecting the next week to be a better harvest but for the last 3 weeks it's steadily gone down. The tomatoes we started indoors in January that got hit by 2 hail storms are just now starting to produce good tomatoes, and very slowly at that. And the Squash got hit so hard by the vine borers that we have had  just a small fraction of what we had planned. Beans that we got handed down to us had really poor germination... I could go on and on. It has been tough, but we know that is just how farming is. There are no guarantees and everything is a gamble. This week's may be the least amount of harvest we've had this year, but, thanks to all the help we've had from our interns, I am hopeful that from here on out it will only get better. So cheer up and be glad... You are the ones that make this rough life possible. Because I'd rather be broke and tossing rotten tomatoes into the woods in 95 degree weather than sitting behind some computer in an air conditioned office any day... Well. It's not so bad at the moment, really. But I really should get back out there and help the crew with the harvest.
So on an end note... don't pity us or our other farmer comrades. We chose this path. And we get to eat like royalty. But you are allowed to appreciate us, as you have, just as we appreciate your support.

Thanks to all of you,
Thomas and Lindy

for other sad stories and occasional laughs visit our blog:
      Date: Fri, 24 Jun 2011 09:42:11 -0700
From: Puzzle Peace Farms
Subject: Puzzle Peace Farm At Yorkmont, 6-2
Hi everyone, hope you are all well.

This week we will have... green beans, squash and zuchinni, sweet green peppers (bell and marconi), radishes (spicy!), cucumbers (poona kheera, a white heirloom from India), Irish potatoes, kale, chard, carrots,  pac choi, fresh basil, pork, and "for your pet" fresh dill and garlic, and basil and garlic goat cheese. Please ask if interested or curious to know more about this.

We finally got a new litter of pigs. Three of them, eight weeks old, just weened, Ossabaw/berkshire crossed heritage breeds. Good looking pigs with their brown and black spots and the one that's black with white spots. They're fiesty too. The first one we put in to the fence immediately bolted right through and headed for the woods. None of us really prepared for the pursuit, with our shorts and sandals on, took off after him. We almost gave up. It was a rather expensive pig that we scrounged to afford but this chase led us deep into neighboring woods with lots of briars and at times we thought we had lost him. Finally we managed to direct him back to a path that led to our house where his siblings' squeals drew him in and, after some very makeshift barriers were patiently constructed, I managed to grab him. Ear piercing squeals followed. Unfortunately the fiasco wasn't over. We re-worked the fence to our satisfaction and tried again, saving the escapee til last. Again, as soon as we put him down he was out of the fence with a short little yip as it shocked his hams. Long story short... Another chase pursued, as long as the first, until we gave up.  He wandered back that evening and hung around outside the fence wanting in to be with his brothers and eating the food we had set out for him. I managed to slowly sneak up on him the next day as he slept and caught him and put him in with the others where he currently resides. Whew! Pigs are smart.

take care and hope to see all of you.

thomas and Lindy,


Date: Fri, 15 Jul 2011 09:19:28 -0700
Subject: Puzzle Peace Farm at Yorkmont, 7-16-11

This week we will have... tomatoes, tomatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes of all shapes and colors, a few bunches of kale, potatoes, basil, anaheim peppers, sweet marconi beppers, and sweet flavor-burst peppers, yellow scalloppinni squash (the best summer squash in my opinion), heirloom zuchinni's, green beans (haricot vert and regular), burgundy beans, pork sausage, fat back, leaf lard, and of course that delicious goat cheese that you shouldn't know anything about because it is only legal for me to sell it to you as "for your pet."

For all of you that formerly knew me as Tee Bone from the name on my emails, please note the change. It took several attempts, all of which I thought were sucessfull (but in the end were not), before I resorted to yahoo help. Apparently there are a dozen or so ways to name yourself on your email account. In an attempt to keep my digital ID anonymous when initially setting up my account I hastily and thoughtlessly chose this pseudo name which happened to be my old sign in name when I delivered pizza while in college, equally chosen with haste and little thought. Unfortuntely, I think I will have a hard time living this name down among some friends and customers. Maybe if I specialized in grass fed steaks I could keep it but for now I'm happy to see it go... Now that that has been over explained...

I am delighted to hear rain on the tin roof as I write. We need it so bad. Our methods of watering don't quite cut it for extended periods.

Thank you folks for all of your support. Hope to see all of you. Try some samples while you're visiting.

 Now I'm going to go dance and sing outside like a crazy farmer ought to


Thursday, November 3, 2011

Goodbye Goats. Farewell Chickens.

This morning I found my white cheesemaking smock freshly laundered, with a new hairnet in the pocket too, hanging on the usual hook in the cheeserie. Something about the smell of another household's laundry detergent makes items smell so much cleaner than my own. There was a certain irony to this fresh start to the week, as it was actually my last day at the farm for the season.

Diana keeps a seasonal herd, meaning her milking goats (and heritage Jacob Sheep too) stay on their natural breeding cycle. Unlike so many dairies that stagger the breeding of the herd to maintain uniform milk production over a year, a seasonal herd is quite the opposite. All the does are bred in the fall (October at this farm), carry their young through the winter and kid in late winter or early, early spring. The herd produces milk from the birth of the offspring through the end of fall. This method provides milk, and cheese, that is indelibly marked by the changes in the seasons and a short respite from twice-daily milking for the farmer and herd alike while the girls are dry.

this is, generally, how it feels
And back to the clean smock in the cheeserie - milk volume decreased to the point that required cheese production only twice (no longer three times) a week, and the CSA ended as well. With less milk, less cheese and fewer deliveries, there wasn't much justification for an extra hand on the farm. As a special treat for my last day, and a warm reminder how much I'd learned in a short five months, I was tasked with hauling and pasteurizing the milk that morning, as Diana headed into town to wave her daughters goodbye on the bus. It was an honor to feel trusted enough to undertake the alchemy of transforming three hundred and twenty some pounds of raw goat milk into delicious and tangy fresh cheese. Even better to feel confident through the process.

The learning curve has been steep this summer and fall, and I have been grateful to learn so much about basic cheesemaking, animal management and farm systems from the perspective of a small scale dairy. I especially appreciate the introduction to the policy, politics and regulations surrounding small scale dairy in Wisconsin. Oh, and eating lots and lots and lots of cheese. And, of course, a small amount of knowledge gained reminds me of just how much I have left to learn.

mingling in the barn
The introduction to goats and cheese is, of course, the main reasons I ended up here. But in every new situation, there is always comfort in that which is already known. For that reason, I flocked to the chickens in my early days at Dreamfarm, all 250 Americaunas, Bovans, Leghorns and someone else that just slips my mind at this moment. The girls live in four separate houses on pasture, fenced in from predators by circles of electric fence that stopped being electrified as the season wore on. These pasture raised ladies warm my little heart. Partly because these egg layers are the one thing I've had previous experience with, and also because layers are the only enterprise I've always placed on my own farm (of course, in my future planning mind). The truth is, the Dreamfarm chickens became my summer security blanket. They enchanted me and brought oodles of laughter. In return, I loved them.

At the end of each farm day, after the 'clean clothes' work in the cheeserie was through, we'd head to the great outdoors for the afternoon chores: feed and water the young goats, hogs, cattle, chickens, bucks, cats and dogs; collect eggs; give whey to the pigs and haul alfalfa to the feeders for the milkers. And then it was time for the second milking of the day. I was always drawn to the chickens, and happily re-filled extra waterers, collected the feed, grit, egg basket and cheese scraps into the cart to ramble down the hill to the hen's valley. At each hen abode we replaced waterers, moved and refilled the outdoor feeders, replenished the contents of the grit bowl and headed inside to collect eggs and survey mischief. The mayhem progressed through the season to include: pecking laid eggs, laying eggs outside the nest boxes (floor, below the roost, corners, tall grass...), brooooooooding and escaping. I'd like to note that these ladies take the art of escape to a new level. Part boredom, the search for better bugs and the chicken humor conspiracy - these girls spent more time outside the fence than inside.

chicken house one
There is just so much to love about chickens, it's hard to imagine a farm without them. There's a good reason why every farm doesn't have a laying hen enterprise though: despite all their value measured in humor, hand warming, feather donation and beauty - it's hard to make a profit with small-scale egg production. Between ever increasing feed grain prices, the cost of day old chicks or pullets, cartons and (heaven forbid!) your time, the five dollar price tag for a dozen beautiful orbs at the farmers' market may not cover the true cost. Sigh. Of course no farm enterprise should exist beyond the planning stage without black in the bottom line, but it's hard to image grassy green fields, cloud-pocked blue skies and classic red barns without the feathered trouble makers in the picture.

A few reasons why chickens earn their feed, even when they don't earn their keep...a list...

chicken house two
The way the ladies flock to the nearest edge of the fence and squawk hellos at the first sound of  the afternoon chore cart wheeling down the hill. I feel like a rock star each time. The football player-like squat and run-in-place of the Bovans, so tame! Instead of running away from you, these girls run toward you, crouch and then prepare to be picked up. The lack of tailfeathers on the Americaunas as they begin to molt, they don't seem embarrassed one bit. The brooding ladies, the same few every time, who huddle in their nestboxes to hoard the clatch's eggs. They don't know there is no rooster on site to fertilize the gems below their warm bodies, but they persist. Each time they make an evil sounding hiss, and either peck my hand or escape out the skinny space behind the nesting boxes when I reach in to collect the eggs under their rumps. It's the same drama, on repeat. Of course, there are the rebels, truly free range, who live in the barn. They snack on cat food, scratch for maggots in the barn floor straw, mingle with the the sheep and deposit eggs in the haymow. I've caught two nesting for the night in a small tree, quite a sight to behold at dusk. Of the highest importance is the fact that chickens give us eggs, the daily basket of white, buff, chocolate, pale blue and olive green prizes bouncing in the cart as we travel up the hill. A miracle for which I thank them (in person) endlessly. 

A few chicken antics deserve more than just a few words...

I am convinced, after this season, that these fine fowl have sufficient brainpower to create and enjoy a specific breed of chicken humor. It looks something like this. Knowing full well the farmers prefer for the chickens to overnight in the houses, and that regular efforts are taken to accomplish this, the flock conspires and nominates one to three lovely ladies to escape for the day. The job of the escapees is to lure the farmer into chasing them in a completely futile attempt to catch the girls and return them to their house. Imagine a full grown adult, running in circles (or zig zags), slightly bent over, and using an enticing voice for "Here chicky-chicky. Come on, I know you want to come back to me." The remaining hens inside the fence congregate at the fence line to enjoy the entertainment and squawk with delight. I try to negotiate compromise every afternoon, to no avail.. I am sure this is how they contrive their daily giggles.

Beyond the laughter conspiracy, it has been well noted that some chickens eat the eggs in their very own house. As the season progresses, this phenomena seems to worsen. At first, I would find a wet, yolky mess in the bottom of a nesting box. Most likely a sign that someone acquired a taste for egg insides, through an accidental crack or intentional peck. Then the yolky mess increases, someone is acting intentionally. Next, a few brave souls swarm the egg basket at collection time. As the season wears on, they peck at the eggs in the basket, despite the presence of a large human shoo-ing them away. Then the procedure turns to ultimate mayhem - a mix of shoo-ing, protecting eggs as they are placed in the basket and breathlessly crossing your fingers to avoid cracking any extra shells through the chaos.

chicken house three
And some of the eggs that avoided being pecked, and ended up in the basket and safely back to the house were huge. Huge. Early in my time at the farm, I noticed some extremely large eggs during harvest. Really big eggs. I mean, bigger than the biggest jumbo egg you see in the grocery store. Too big to fit into a carton without cracking the shell. Upon preparing these eggs at home, I had the great joy (over and over) of discovering two yolks slip out of one shell when cracked over the hot cast iron pan. A wonder indeed. Many other people were eating these eggs and noticing the joy of the double yolk. Then the questions started. Diana and I pondered chicken twins while down at the farm, Nikki and I wondered at home, and regulars at the farmers' market starting asking questions too. Why two yolks? Why are the eggs so big? Can chickens have twins? Of course, this brought on research and instant proof (a la YouTube) that indeed both yolks in a double yolk can be fertilized to form two chicks. Two totally separate chicks. Twins, in fact, in most cases. Phew - mystery solved and the spellbindingness of chickens increases, and I still can not restrain my excitement when I see a double yolk in the pan.

{Just a warning, there's a graphic description of the nature of nature below. Skip the following paragraph if you don't like to hear about death or anatomy. Do read on if you are fascinated with how nature works.}

Toward the end of the season, as the afternoon shadows came sooner and steeper, and the landscape burnt with the fire of yellow leaves, predator attacks in the chicken valley increased. I'd notice a puff of feathers outside a fenced area, or inside. On one of my last chicken runs, Diana slowed the tractor as she passed me en route to the barn just long enough for me to hear, "There was a predator in the chickens." I could see the explosion of white feathers, like the contents of a burst pillow, that tipped her off at the last chicken house of the day. I wasn't sure what to expect up close. I did see, though, a gaggle of girls, her very own kin, swarmed around the feather pile. As I swung my leg over the fence, a leghorn ran toward my feet, depositing a detached head, comb and all, at my feet. Walking up the short hill to the bird's remains, and shoo-ing away the hovering ladies and insects, I instantly saw  the chicken body was cleanly slit open, an exact gash top to bottom, exposing. Most likely caused by the sharp talon of a predatory bird. (I don't know my birds well, so I call these birds "large birds of prey I should know the name of"). I bent over in amazement, in awe of this first person internal anatomy lesson, the chest peeled wide open. I knelt down to inspect further, in absolute amazement. And then I noticed it. A peek of white buried, giving way to a view of a wholly formed egg still inside this recently alive hen. It appears she was stopped before she laid today's egg. This is a picture my mind will not soon forget. Stark, beautiful and still miraculous.

{P.S. It's ok to start reading again if you took a time out.} 

chicken house four
I could, clearly, go on and on about the chickens. The goats too if given enough time. For now, my white cheesemaker smock, freshly washed, will hang on the hook in the cheeserie for the last few batches of cheese made this season. My farm boots flipped upside down on the boot rack outside the mudroom door. This may be the end of one season, but undoubtedly not the end of the stories and farm planning. I am so excited to return for more next spring, in time for February's kidding season - with so much more to learn in the second go round.

- - - - -

In the mean time, I get to warm my writer's chair, steep plenty of tea and dream for the farm-to-come. The short days of the winter months will be filled with writing, the other job that keeps me plenty busy, snow adventures and farm planning.

Keep posted for (with much hope) more frequent posting in the months to come. Brewing updates, cider press stories, quince detective tales, the vegan footprint and a peek at the use of agricultural plastics - just a few of the topics on deck - and, of course, more farm stories. The Pens to Pasture series will hit the blog soon, along with at least one other regular feature. And, if all goes as planned, the blog will get a smidge of a makeover. Fun times ahead indeed.

Enjoy the transition to winter, and the snow where you already have it. As usual, we love your comments and are happy to write about any (food related) topic you request.