Friday, October 28, 2011

A little snow to kick off the season

The farm looks and feels a bit different this morning. We have about an inch of snow/ice/crud on everything, and yesterday our friends at Snug Planet wrapped up a two-day blitz of insulating our attic and basement. As they were starting to clean up the rain/snow/ithacation mix switched to straight up snow. We woke up to a lovely scene this morning.

Yesterday, before there was too much slush on the low tunnels, I picked the few ripe and nearly-ripe hot peppers and tomatoes that were left on the vines. We drained all the rainwater capture tanks for the season and rushed around putting things undercover before dark. Then we cleaned up and gave ourselves a nice treat and went out to dinner (on a gift card we've been forgetting about for nearly two years) with our good friend Kat. Sorry, Kat, no more bouquets for a while.

We didn't get all of the trees we've been propagating in their final spots yet. But there should be a few warm days next week to at least hill them in temporary spots. Our pork is all sold and the last three pigs leave the farm early next week. We'll share more about our ideas for next year's farm soon as we figure out the plan.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Pigs in the Woods

When we brought our six Duroc-Berkshire-Mulefoot cross pigs to Tree Gate in May, they were six-week-old weanlings, weighing in at just 40 pounds each, and extremely wriggly. Since our pigs live outdoors, we chose those with the darkest coloring to reduce the risk of sunburn—and ended up with five males, despite a general preference here for females of all species.

Initially, we housed the piglets in a straw-filled nest in the tractor shed with access to a pen shaded by saplings. There we trained them in the way of Tree Gate Pigs. They learned the whistles we use to call them, discovered that a good belly rub can be quite a treat, and decided that since the electric fence bites, it's best to avoid touching it. Those lessons mastered, we introduced them to pasture in late June. Ever since, they've moved to fresh grass every 10 to 14 days. Initially, it took several people to manage the process, because untangling electric netting and keeping six exuberant pigs from running amuck can get a little hairy.

This last move was our most ambitious -- we've been anticipating it for weeks, and despite our fear that it might end with loose pigs roaming the gorge at our property line and wandering downtown, it went like a charm. Once we dragged the pigs' house and feeder a couple hundred yards from the pasture and into the woods, we opened an alley of electric nets to guide the pigs to their new home. Dean had a bucket of apples (their current favorite treat) to lead the way, but they were so energized by the adventure, they quickly outpaced him in their rush to explore. Already, they've discovered all sorts of new tastes and textures in the soft soil beneath the trees and they seem more alert and energetic in this new setting.

In a few weeks, we'll introduce a trailer and start feeding them inside it. Getting used to going up and down the ramp ahead of time makes loading them for their trip to the butcher much less stressful for everyone. In the meantime, we're marketing the meat, which will be available around Thanksgiving, to people intent on filling their freezers with all of the bacon, sausage, chops, roasts, and hams associated with one side (half) of a pig. Our customers get to specify such butchering details as seasoning for their sausage, how thick their steaks and chops are cut, which pieces get cured or smoked, and how it's all wrapped.

Here's the FAQ we wrote for prospective customers:

about the pigs: Piglets on large farms are often prophylactically treated for worms or with antibiotics to compensate for unnatural living conditions and diets. Instead, we keep ours on fresh pasture and make every effort to eliminate health-compromising stressors.

your cost involves two factors: the hanging weight of your pig and the cost of butchering.

hanging weight: This is the weight of the carcass before it is trimmed into individual cuts, the lard and gristle removed, and so on. We aim to send our pigs to butcher at between 250 and 300 pounds' live weight. The number is variable because while our butcher date is fixed, the growth of each pig depends on everything from the weather (weight gain slows as the temperatures drop) to each pig's personal appetites. The actual weight of what goes in your freezer also depends on your instructions to the butcher. If you want bone-in roasts, for example, you'll put slightly more in your freezer than if you have the bone removed. Smoking reduces weight through moisture reduction. Last year, our fall pigs had hanging weights of 128–130 pounds/half (at $3.50/pound, same as last year, that works out to about $450/half). For freezer planning purposes, the volume of meat in a half fills roughly 2 office paper boxes.

butchering cost: this depends on your pig's hanging weight and your instructions to the butcher -- paper or plastic wrap? what gets smoked? do you want the lard rendered? Last fall, the fees at our butcher (USDA-certified Shirk's in Dundee) ran about $100–$125/half; plastic wrap and smoking are pricier options than paper wrap and uncured cuts.

what you'll get (results will vary! In this example from 2010, hanging weight per half was low -- just 80 lb. We anticipate hanging weights closer to 110 lb this year. Cuts were bone in with ham, bacon, and shoulder
bacon: 7-8 lb
sausage: 6 lb
ham: 12 lb (roasts &/or steaks)
chops: 10 lb
butt: 6 lb (roasts &/or steaks)
shoulder: 4 lb (roasts &/or steaks)
ribs: 6 lb
hocks: 3 lb
bones: 1 lb
lard: about 3 pounds, rendered (good for biscuits, soap, salves, or decline your share and TGF will pay for rendering, then make soap)

cut sheet: your instructions to the butcher. We will walk you through this form, but first you'll have to make some choices:
• wrapping: butcher's paper ($.50/lb) or vacuum-sealed plastic (.65/lb)?. We recommend paper; cheaper and very effective for up to a year.
• smoking ($.80/lb): nitrate free or conventional? ham fresh or smoked? additional cuts smoked?
• how many pounds/cuts per package? (ex: 1 ham steak/pkg, 2 chops/pkg, 1 pound sausage/pkg)
• sausage seasoning (pick one or two): none, regular, hot italian, mild italian, breakfast, scrapple (we found these all a bit salty and half-seasoning quite tasty)
• sausage casing (pick one per seasoning): loose, rope, or links
• ham, shoulder, butt: roasts or steaks? for those sharing an order among several freezers, steaks are MUCH easier to divvy up
• thickness: of steaks and chops: 1 inch thick? 2 inches?

hand-off: Because we have two butcher dates, half of the meat will be available just prior to Thanksgiving and the rest just after. Please let us know which date you prefer. We'll give you at least a month's notice and make an appointment for a mutually convenient hand-off to insure that your meat remains frozen during transfer.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Rose Wars

When we established Tree Gate Farm, Dean and I unknowingly stepped into a family tradition stretching back three generations in which food and flowers grapple for space, time, and attention. Mom filches compost for her blooms from dad's vegetable garden and in late fall, sneaks delicate potted perennials behind the garden fence for added deer protection. He grumbles, then winks. Grandma shared sunny yellow primroses with neighbors far and wide while Grandpa tended vegetables; the only bickering between them that family members ever recall was due to the clandestine transplantation of certain landscaping elements.

In 2008, Dean's mom delivered a wedding gift -- delayed several years by our search for land -- of divisions from her own perennial flower garden, many of which had been gifts from relatives and neighbors decades ago. Mom's vision and the legacy of relationships it represented created a garden that brightens the entrance to the orchard from last frost until the snow flies. That same spring, we rototilled a spot in view of the kitchen window and planted a plot of sunflowers. In 2009, family friends shared a handful of dahlia tubers that lend their exuberant forms and colors to the mix.

As the farm grew into its own as a business, I began selling cut flowers -- including salmony phlox from mom's garden and those dahlias -- to Business is Blooming. Under the tutelage of a talented neighbor, I learned to craft pleasing bouquets as gifts for friends, family, and favorite farm customers. This summer, when TGF angels Amelia and Leah invited us to set up a Friday afternoon mini market at Felicia's Atomic Lounge, where they feature our fruit and horseradish in their specialty cocktails. As a thank you for their hospitality, we crafted a weekly bouquet for the bar; as our summer vegetable inventory diminished, we started including cut flowers to round out the offerings. At our final market, the bouquets sold out.

Like every farm enterprise, flowers demand a rigor the hobbyist can forego -- planting on a staggered schedule, pest management, detailed recordkeeping, proper care throughout the season to optimize yields, thoughtful process to streamline the harvest for maximum efficiency. Ambivalent about the tension between function and fancy, I've been haphazard in my attentions to the blooms. This past spring I divided and planted several hundred feet of dahlia tubers, sunflowers, and a few other random ornamentals, all scattered across several acres, wherever I could find space amidst the higher priority vegetables. Then I abandoned them to the weeds as food crops -- potatoes, leeks, onions, plums, berries, chickens, and pigs -- clamored for attention. Amidst July's drought, the flowers languished, but with the deluges of late August and early September, they bounced back, setting buds and rejuvenating my enthusiasm. A week ago, having determined that even admidst such distracted management, the flowers might have something to contribute to the bottom line, we decided it's time to put the flower question on the table for our winter planning sessions: In 2012, will we devote a portion of our attention to their cultivation and marketing, or relegate them to the sidelines?

Forecasters are calling for a killing frost tonight and while the red sedums will retain their grace and the calendula blooms will weather the chill, the dahlias won't take it well. By morning, their distinctive forms and flashy colors will be reduced to a universal black slime. The cheery yellow petals of the sunchokes will likewise blacken and send sugars hurtling down to the tubers that already hold the promise of next summer's blooms. Since unlike the sunchokes, dahlias generally don't survive the winter in our climate, the tubers must be dug, labeled, and stored in a root cellar, then planted out late next spring.

Each fall, they present a choice: check that each plant is labeled and prepare to dig them for storage, or abandon the enterprise. Yesterday, I checked the labels. I a few weeks left to decide whether -- and how many -- to dig. This year, we'll take the decision seriously -- on a farm founded with a dedication to supporting the local food movement and preparing for energy descent, what place do cut flowers have in the mix? The neighborhood pollinators will have plenty to eat here, even if we never tend another cut flower. But there's something to be said for the joy of an extravagant bouquet, the visual appeal of shape and structure, the creative outlet of crafting an arrangement. Perhaps, like Dean's parents and their parents before them, we're destined to struggle with these questions not just this fall, but every fall. . . .