Agricola 2016, A Year in Review
2016 … what a year! As I sit by the fireplace with Eva jumping from “castell to castell,” dressed as a ballerina with a plastic pig nose, the images of all that has happened are rushing in.
This year we really focused on our pastures and the rotational plans. We had a 12 acre poison parsnip field that we tackled in early June scratching our heads - what shall we do with this? We could go in the field only in the evening or on a raining day because the raccid poisonous plant was as high as our heads. I knew from my previous experience that pigs and sheep are not badly affected as humans are, but I was not sure how they were going to respond to that much parsnip. We tried with our stronger pigs in a small area and once we did not see any negative outcome we started bringing in everyone! The field is about half a mile from the barn so that meant lots of nice field walks with lines of pigs following us (most definitely the highlight of the year!). During a farm tour someone asked me where I learned to move pigs from field to field like that - in most farms, pigs are either put on a trailer to be moved to a far away field or the farmers build adjacent paddocks so that they do not need to “walk” the pigs. It made me think back to when I had only 3 pigs in Hinesburg and in the Fall I would take them on their weekly walk around the property and we would make stops at the apple trees and under the oaks to pick fallen acorns, and then back home. Yes, I would actually take the pigs for walks, and they would follow me back to their pens after a while. The trick? They liked their pen. If you like your home, you look forward to coming back after a short trip out, right? Pigs are the same. So today we use that knowledge to move pigs out in the far away fields.
This year we bought a new boar. His name is Gustavo and we love him! He is a gentle giant and a lover of vegetables and especially red tomatoes. He also likes warm hugs. We have been culling some of the sows that were giving us good litters but had difficult personalities and were not getting along with any of the other sows or were getting a bit vicious towards us. We are raising 4 new sows and are working on selecting their names. We are staying clear from asking Eva’s help for these ones though since last year we ended up with “Chicken Coop,” “Blue Sparkling Rainbow with Glittery Shining Eyes” and a third one that was actually an entire verse of a song with melody and everything. This year is the first year we sent to the slaughterhouse some of our older ewes. These were ewes that I got 5 years ago, right before Eva’s birth, to start our flock. It was hard to depart from them but… one had a terrible attitude and kept leading half of the flock into adventures around the neighborhood (life did improve after she left the farm), and the other two could no longer have babies because of mastitis or prolapse problems, so we had to say goodbye. One small silver lining is that their meat is truly fantastic and you would not be able to guess it was mutton. I just served it to a farm lunch and people were shocked to find out it was mutton. Yes it was! So, that makes me happy that we can enjoy and have a fully satisfying meal without wasting their meat after they have been part of the farm for a long while. 2017 will be the year of chicken, not necessarily because we will stop raising sheep or pigs, but because we are going to focus more on our biped feather-friends. After moving to this farm and having to face new voracious predators we took a break from farming chickens until we had the time to fully focus on their safety. Now… we are ready to enter the fight with the local weasels, coyotes, and various avian predators.
We put water probes and have now collected soil samples from the parsnip field. We collected water samples using these terracotta probes we placed about 20-30 inches below ground and after each rain fall we would suck the water collected on the bottom. This will allow us to see any effect the pigs had on water quality in that area. Why? Everyone says that animals on pastures have a good effect, right? Nope. Not always, and it really depends on how long they trump on the soil. We like asking questions and searching for objective answers rather than just using our intuition… so we probed the land. For sheep and cows farmers there are grazing stick to tell us when it is time to move the animal to a new pasture. For pigs… there is not such a thing. We used this parsnip field high in clay, to figure out how long to keep the animals there in different situations 1) to maintain the pasture and have the least negative impact as possible, 2) to slightly till the land to do some light re-seeding and improve grasses/legumes varieties and 3) for a heavy tilling to lift up and expose any superficial rocks so that we can clear the land and seed it. Now we are checking the impact of our practice on water and soil for these different types of pig management plans. 2016 was the first year we could actually add research to our farming. Exciting!
We have put quite a bit of effort in continuing to build the community around the Farm. It is not always easy to balance the needs of our animals with the demands that come with having guests, but the satisfaction of seeing people appreciating the opportunity to connect to our animals and the land is priceless! It is also a good way for us to keep in check and make sure we keep giving 100% and live the life we preach. We have added lunches to our monthly calendar and this has allowed us to meet many people that lived too far away to join us for the evening meals or that felt the dinners were running too late for their schedule. We have also reached out to the Middlebury community and have met many new friends there that have become regular customers around our tables. We have put together a very rustic, outside, wood fire oven that we have not used much in 2016 but that will receive all sorts of love and attention in 2017! As I write I have next to me the menu options for the Cenone, our New Year’s Eve dinner! We are so excited about this. We hope it will become a well embraced tradition at the farm! It takes us 4 days to prep the food for the event and 6 hrs to eat it J We are so excited to bring this Italian tradition here in VT. Among the most memorable ways we connected to our community was the Raviolo Clinic we did for Addison Farm to Early Childhood Program. Jed Norris, from Shelburne Farms brought over a group of early childhood educators for a tour and a class on making ravioli and connecting children to farms. It was so enjoyable to spend the evening with our hands dipped in flour and eggs around the kitchen island!
Our Farm Family:
In order to survive, our farm relies on the hard work of interns that move in with us and share with us living quarters, food, farm and housing responsibilities. We fall trees together, we work at the farm elbow to elbow and then we cook, and drink and clean and read and watch TV together. Every time our farm becomes a little richer with the sweat and the gifts that each intern brings. Tirragen was with us for half of 2015 and half 2016. His love for the animals and attention to the personality of each one definitely enriched our farm culture. Also we owe him the nice flock of meat birds we have right now (well into their third generation) and that you all will soon be able to enjoy! We also owe to Tirr the duck and geese that we have at the farm (true that we have no idea how to farm these birds yet… but they are here and made it clear they are here to stay, so we gotta learn how to farm them). Over the summer we were relying on the work of 5 people and, as I already told many people that saw me overly stressed in June), 2 people we hired stayed for 2 days then packed everything in the middle of the night and left! Yes, they left without saying anything –they just left an email saying that the cat allergy was too much for them. Even when I contacted them pleading to reconsider their decision because without them the farm may have gone under, all I got back was “we are not reconsidering, best of luck to the farm.” Mmmmh … “best of luck” really sounded like a “go to hell to the farm.” So, while Stefano was in Italy taking his agronomist exam, it was only 2 left at the farm, Drew and I. Drew was an intern from UVM who … who simply saved the farm. He worked 40 hrs per week next to me as we were building paddocks, putting down water lines, weed whacking around the electric fences, pulling birdocks off the sheep pastures, wheeling the feed for 80+ pigs half a mile into the pastures. And we were also planting vegetables, building raised beds for 140 tomato plants, for zucchini, planting peas, beans, lettuce…. And of course taking care of chickens, rotating the sheep paddock daily, castrating and vaccinating the new piglets, butchering three times a month and going to market. Drew gifted to the farm the pace of the hard working day we have kept till today. We have all learned a lot from his ability to face the day with a smile and positivity no matter how hard it was going to be and his ability to put 100% effort no matter what. His footsteps are all over the farm and each single one of our pigs has received plenty of petting and scratches from him because no matter how long the day was, Drew found the time to “flop a pig” while doing chores. And now we get to the present time. Now Andrew is sharing our house and farm. Andrew is not only an experienced carpenter that has given a facelift to the pens inside the barns and added new feeding areas that help us keep piggies clean and healthy, but he is a superb cook! His passion for old traditional foods and the art of baking has definitely shaped our lunches and dinners at the farm, not only for our guests but our daily meals at the farm. Andrew has been stimulating our interest in trying out new products that we will be excited to bring to market next year.
In addition to the “farm family” that lives here, our little farm community also includes Richard Witting, the chef that works his magic during the farm dinners. Richard strong connection to the land, his knowledge as an expert forager, and his creative tastes have left a strong print all over our farm and in our memories. I do not walk our pastures the same way any more. I am in constant search for some of the special bites of deliciousness that grow in the most unexpected places and this makes me feel so much more connected and grateful of the 56 acres we farm. In addition, Richard is father to a daughter that has become good friends with Eva and in the summer time it is fun to take the girls mushroom picking or foraging (an excuse perhaps for mom to be out foraging with Richard?).
In 2016 two new people enriched our farm team, Chef Julia Clancy and photographer, PR exceptional and jack of all trades Brooke Wilcox. Julia approached me as she was planning to move to VT. She read an article on Seven Days about the farm dinners and wanted to be connected to this type of environment. To get to know each other better we decided to have our interview over food where we would each bring an ingredient we liked. She brought a lovely lemon, I brought gizzards of a chicken we harvested the day before and… it was love at first bite. We have been enjoying cooking and promoting the farm lunches ever since. Julia studied in Bologna and brings some old Italian traditions to the farm that makes me feel back home like nothing else. One of the things that is part of every single lunch is a full large bowl of hand whipped cream (rigorously whipped by hand!) and of course all of us standing around the bowl with our spoons full of the white gold.
Brooke came to our farm one day because she wanted to take “some pictures” of food during a lunch. Before we knew it, Brooke was filling up empty water glasses, organizing the dirty dishes, and serving food! It was so natural to have her part of the farm that we just kind of started working together. I have to admit that at times I feel the Farm is acting more of its independent will than an entity I manage. I am barely hanging in here and trying to read what the Farm wants. Brooke is one of those instances. I was not looking for a PR person, the Farm was… and the Farm got one, whether I posted an advertising or not.
Looking forward to seeing you at the Farm!
Ale & the Farm