One essential aspect of preparing charcuterie is the breed. Different pigs put up fat at different rates and in different places. In Italy, farmers have been developing their favorite breeds after hundreds of years of observing and crossing pigs. We could simply import a "Cinta Sienese" or "Nero di Cinta" and be done with it. However, that simply does not fit with our approach to farming.
We believe in the importance of biological diversty in our food. Having a pig that is native to our geographical region not only increases the chance of the animal to strive here but also opens up the possibilities of discovering new and delicious flavors and products. It took us a lot of research and disussions with experts in Italy and in the US, and now we are truly happy to announce that we have identified the breed that we want to raise for our future products: a cross between a Red Waddle and a Durac.
Charcuterie takes a lifetime to prepare, so our customers will not be able to enjoy the outcome until March 2015! Yes, this is how much planning ahead we have to do, and that is why prices for our cured meat is higher than for fresh meat. Anyway, we are starting now to set up the Red Waddle/Durac vs Large Chester/Durac (our current breed) challenge. When the prosciutti and salami are ready, we will shoot you an email and we will bring our products to the Farmer's Market to ask you for your evaluation!
When we started our farming adventure, one thing that was hugely important for us was to create a farm connected to our community. Indeed, we are working to make our farm pleasant and available to our community so that people can enjoy not only our products but also the animals, the land, and all the good things that a farm can offer. While planning this we were not really considering the other side of this relationship: how much the community would be investing in us.
We recently had a very difficult day at the farm, and we had the opportunity to observe our community getting together to support us. It was truly impressive. We had a very tight schedule that started at 6:00am with opening the farm and clearing the barn for the new litter of piglets arriving the next day, then a trip to Addison to check out piglets from one of our breeders. Then for Farmer Ale it was time to drive back up to Burlington to teach for 4 consecutive hours and then back to Hinesburg to close the farm while Farmer Charles was planning to care for our daughter, set up the new 75 chicks arriving the next day, and buy a car (our main vehicle died on us after 18 years of reliable work). Well, things never go as planned, as we have seen in a number of occasions. Our truck (and only functioning vehicle) broke down while Farmer Ale was driving back home from her class, and the post office informed us that the chicks were ready for pick up!
We had no way to get to the farm to close the animals, we did not have a way to pick up the chicks or get to the mechanic's shop to purchase the car ... now what?
This is when the community support started kicking in. The post office clerk from Hinesburg drove to Essex Junction post office to pick up the chicks and then drove them to our place because "she was concerned about the little guys." A friend from Charlotte quickly found a way to feed her three kids, leave them with her husband, drive to our place, and take Farmer Charles to the mechanic's (and let him borrow the car seat for our daughter). Two other friends from Burlington drove Farmer Ale to Hinesburg to the farm and patiently waited in the car while outside it was pouring cats and dogs and then drove the wet passenger back to her house. As if that was not enough, they brought food and cooked for our exhausted farmers. So ... we safely closed the farm, bought the car, and got the chicks fed, warm, and happy, and even managed to eat a savory meal.
Truly an amazing day -- thanks everyone!!!
Italians are notoriously late. At least this is the stereotype. They reliably arrive one to two hours late to any dinner appointment you give them. But I am finding out there ought to be an "agricultural schedule"!! One of my pig breaders gave me the first litter of piglets five weeks late, but the second litter is one week early. The first batch of chickens arrived on time, but the second arrived ten days early. For someone starting a farm and having to build up all the infrastructures, this "flexibility" in deadlines is quite something. For us, it means that our daughter is getting to share her playpen with 75 chicks for the next week. I am sure these will grow to become the most socialized broilers in the world!
There are farmers who describe themselves as "grass farmers" because their primary focus is to take care of these precious plants that transform the sun into energy. Personally, although I agree about the importance of and focus on grass, I feel I am more of a fence master (well, actually, servant).
For anyone interested in starting farming or keeping livestock, the first thing they have to ask themselves is whether they like to spend time outside working on fences. Fences constitute about 70% of my work day at the farm. And it is impossible to farm all day and not consider the huge impact that fences have and have had on our lives and development as human beings. I do not want to wax philosophical on you now, but ... we have evolved as a species because of fences. We were able to settle down and stop moving around following the herds of animals because fences allowed us to keep animals in one spot. We have been able to keep ouselves and our animals safe since fences can be used for protection from predators. Basically, a farmer is the master of fences. By using fences, we are able to provide meat and vegetables to our community, and this frees time for others to get busy in other areas, such as fine arts, engineering, etc., etc. All because of these nets and branches I am carrying around and carefully placing around the perimeter of the paddocks. Fences are my eternal love, mistery, foe, and threat.
Love: After a good rotational season I look at the grass on my land and see the progress the soil has made - the richness of the grass, the ability of the soil to hold water. And I know it can all be attributed to the fences' keeping animals away from the grass when it is young and to their keeping the animals in when the grass is at its peak and needs a hair cut. I love how the fences allow me to add richness to our land.
Mistery: Really??? This tiny piece of metal will keep a 300Lb sow from wanting to graze over there where the new tender grass looks so inviting. However, the heavy duty 4-foot metal mesh will be completely useless in front of the genius of our creative sheep that use each other as trampolines.
Foe: If you ever happen to drive by 3256 Silver St and see me trapped in a tangle of white sheep fence, you know you better keep on driving. And do not bring a pair of scissors near me or I may make a several-hundred-dollar mistake.
Threat: If you have ever had pigs, sheep, or cows, you know how important fences are, and you know the feeling you get in your gut when the fences fail to ... well, fence. In our first years of homesteading, Farmer Charles and I learned quickly to fear the question "do you have pigs?" The first time we saw two policemen pointing directly to our home from across the meadow-
"Do you have pigs?"
"Where are they?"
"They're in our woods."
"No, they are not."
Through the years we have had strangers and neighbors knocking on our front door asking similar questions. These are not usually the questions of someone interested in petting your pig, wanting to see if you are selling their delicious meat, or just ready to congratulate you for your decision to humanely raise your livestock. Alas, this question is usually followed by a frantic run for the "emergency dairy bucket" - pigs will follow a bucket full of dairy products no matter where they are or how far they have to walk to reach it. So, the "emergency dairy bucket" is as important as a fire estinguisher at our place.
If you are so unlucky that your sheep are out and they have decided to go for a stroll, then good luck. We had a memorable two-hour event in the middle of Hinesburg where over 20 cars joined us (Farmer Chalres and Farmer Ale - 7 months pregnant at the time) trying to catch three little lambs that had just arrived at our farm and were not used to either electric fences or their new home.
Let's just say that we have learned to fear, respect and love fences very quickly. Through the years we have had fewer escapes, and now the pigs, if they run away, mostly come to our front steps demanding some cheese. However, a tree falling on the fences in the middle of the night, a lightening bolt shorting out the fence and killing the electricity in the barn...these are the images that remain vivid in our dreams.
I called the hatchery recently because we have been experimenting an allarmingly high rate of mortality in our rare breed Wellsummer chicks. Usually out of 25, we lose one (often none). But we lost NINE of our 50 Wellsummers (and zero of our 25 Buff Orpingtons). WHAT IS GOING ON!?? I fear entering the coop to see one more little body laying there! And Farmer Eva (18-month old daughter) is going to catch on soon enough that the chicks are not just asleep.
We have raised chicks for five years now and we have never seen anything like this. The awesome thing was getting the phone call from the chick expert on call. The whole experience mirrored my calls to the pediatrician - he called exactly within two hours, focused on symptoms, gave suggestions, provided different scenarios and ideas of what to do next, and told me to call again if the problem persisted in two days. The only difference was the lack of medications prescribed. I loved it! I felt I was a "mamma chioccia" (mother hen)!
It turns out we need to give them warm to hot water to drink. And it also seems that the Wellsummers are just too advenutrous for their own good. They go around everywhere (we found one in the garage!!!) and get into trouble. So, we need to increase chick security and warm up the water.
Every year, the time to pick up and transport piglets is a stressful time - the little guys scream their head off as we run holding them by one hind leg all the way from the car to the pig sty in the middle of the woods. This usually feels like a triathlon from hell (the last thing we want to do is stress out our little ones, but... how else can you transport them across 600 feet of meadow, through the narrow bridge of a pond and through the woods?) We have tried dog crates, but that was not any less pleasant for them (they were screaming the same way). However, this year, given that we are in a new location with lots more land and access to two wonderful barns (one 120 years old), things went quite differently.
The farmer that sold us the pilets drove right up to the barn where we had placed the electric fence-training area. They remained calm as we lifted them off the trailer and lowered them straight into the new pen. By the time Charles came up to the barn with a fresh bale of hay, I was done moving them - no panting, no screaming, no dropped piglet to run after, no trauma. Done. I almost thought that perhaps farming is easier than what I have done till now due to the more efficiently designed facilities. And that is the case... to some extent. We went to sleep confident and calm - sure that the we could finally get a good night's sleep and just relax instead of worrying at every single noise (as it always happens the first few nights when we get piglets.) We high fived, hit the pillows, and fell sound asleep.
And ... at 10pm the piglets were out and about! Fortunately it took only 10 min to get them back into the barn. That was a great reminder that you just better find your humility right away. Just because you feel you have learned to do one thing right, it does not mean you are doing all the other 3million things right!