The weather is fantastic these days (if you are into sugaring) and the sugarbush is looking its best. We are NOT good photographers but I think these pictures give you a sense of the beauty around us.
Every 3 or 4 months it is judgment day at the farm. You work hard to give your animals the best life they can have and you pay more attention to their diet than your own toddler's just to make sure the final product is the highest quality. Of course you spend your free time reading everything and anything in Italian, English and Spanish ever published on animal nutrition, just to ensure you are doing everything humanely possible to make your animals happy and the pork something worth the feast of a king, because this is the only way to celebrate their lives.
Then, the X day comes ... time to load them up, drop them in Clark's hands (the guy that slaughters them). You will see them on the other side. This is where a butcher, a farmer/butcher, and another human being differ -
Normal people at this point are thinking "oh how sad, it is hard, it will be horrible, how can you handle it?"
The butcher thinks "ok, it is time to get into action, I gotta get into the zone"
The butcher-farmer thinks "oh boy, this is the time I will know whether I wasted my past 14 months."
So the butchering day arrives, and every single drop of sweat you produced over the taking care of the animals, every cold bucket of water your dropped on you head in the sub-zero degree, everything ... is there in front of your eyes, and it is time to see if it was worth it. You spend 30 to 60 min to prepare the cutting room to make the process fast (which never is!!!) and then .. time to bring the first half in. You place your hands on each key part of the carcass, examining the fat quality, the amount of back and internal fat, the color and the size of the muscles, and for these first 10 minutes all you can hear is silence - people around you are silent because they may not know much about color and consistency of the fat, but they know enough that the verdict developed in these few seconds will dictate how miserable their day will be: Is this going to be a day with happy music, people dancing and throwing knives up in the air and other people tossing piece of meat and slap them into vacuum sealed bags? Or is there going to be silence and the occasional "No, not that knife, pass me the other?"
The feeling of cutting into the first carcass and seeing what you were hoping for, seeing a beautiful tenderloin, a great ham, an impeccable Boston butt.. is priceless .. when you get there you nod to your self - you did well. At this point you meet your fellow butchers in their zone - dissect, identify, organize - quick. But even at that time, every once in a while, you stop and admire the piece of art in front of you.
You think of that pig (often I can identify which exact pig that was), of the last time you said goodbye. You think of the extra carrot you gave him and wonder if that made a difference. You step back, look at what is in front of you and nod to yourself - yes it was worth it. The day is intense - barely enough time to pee - you do not even realize you need to pee. You just go go go , cut cut cut, and before you know 4:30pm arrives and at that point everything is done. Over. You gotta close. Everything left unopened on the table is not inspected - not for sale - wasted. So run run run.
6:00 pm arrives and you first become aware of reality around you? You are in the car, half way home with a truck full of cuts. Of beautiful cuts.
Still no time to stop, you contact all your customers, organize orders, and the delivery schedule. The next day arrives, you rush to the barn to see all your animals - you did not see them for almost 24 hrs (to a farmer, not seeing their animals for that long feels like a lifetime). You check everything to make sure you did not miss any important change in their development, and then you begin the deliveries. And that is when it kicks in ... not only all the days that went into the making of this final roast were worth it, but this is the only thing that is worth doing.
You meet the families that will center their meals and their celebrations around what you have worked on. You know you have produced the healthiest meat for this family. You know that your pig had time to dig his nose in the dust, run feeling the air flopping his ears, roll belly up while getting a nice rub, getting into a ear biting fight with his friends and even break through the fences to go visit the field on the other side of the road (which ought to be better than this one!). You know your piggy was fine, you know you cared for him from the time he was born and, most importantly, you know that, that promise you made when you first petted him, that his life would not go wasted, is well respected.
One of my customers mentioned shake-n-bake as a way to cook my pork chops (he was joking), I said I would not be selling him my pork (I was not joking).
The thought of being able to provide this type of meat not only to my family but to my community, and to be welcomed by so many families is the best feeling. Indeed, for years,every time we had a piece of our meat, I would complain to Charles "it is not fair, why are we not sharing this with the whole world ... how can you enjoy this if other people do not know this?" So now ... we are in the fridges of more families than I would have ever thought possible ... we feed a number of families we have never met before, but nevertheless they trust us with the nutrition of their little ones. And we take that seriously not only health wise but ethically too.
So, isn't this a good reason to feel high?
Good night and if you have one of my piggies in your fridge, please enjoy to the fullest.
A message from my desperate husband: "if you are even remotely interested in talking about pigs and pig nutrition please call Ale as soon as possible, because there is only so much I can handle!!"
Today, while shoveling pig manure, I started thinking about gender stereotypes for farmers in the Western world - because this is what you do when you have a shovel, 30 minutes of idling time and a PhD in psychology. See, recently I have received a number of invitations for special workshops and events that specifically target "female farmers." It looks like we are a rare breed that needs protection in Vermont and perhaps across the nation. Also, the other day I saw a poster at a friend's farm with a picture of a woman the poster said "without her there would not be a farm." A nice thought, but a thought that indicates that people need to be reminded that women are farmers or that women are behind the scenes.
Truly, I do not get this and let me explain why:
as a farmer, I spend 60% of my time feeding my animals, 20% of the time making sure they are warm and safe, 10% curing those that are sick, and 10% playing and petting them. Since I am a mother, I feel I am extremely qualified for all these tasks since, with my toddler, I spend 60% preparing her food and feeding her, 20% dressing her and making sure she is not killing herself, 10% taking care of her colds or flu or other medical problems, and 10% spending time singing songs and playing with her.
Indeed, being a farmer prepared me to be a mom and being a mom makes me a better farmer.
My stubborn sheep do not want to go in the paddock I prepared for them? Not very different from Eva not wanting to wear the clothes I prepared for her in the morning. Pigs getting into silly fights with each other do resemble brothers spending their afternoon fighting. My ram is sneaking out to go see the ewes ... well ... now I am fully prepared for Eva's attempts to go out at night during her teen years!
And yet, the prototypical farmer in the US is a male. I find it a curious thing since all the skills you need to take care of the animals are really the same you use to raise a child (or a drove of 40 children). This also makes me think that many good male farmers would be excellent primary care providers for their children and yet they believe that women are better at that.
I always find it interesting when society pushes us to think that there is such a big gender difference, especially when, in reality, the difference between women is a lot greater than the difference between men and women. Indeed, I have yet to find a convincing argument that women are so much different from men in any specific area, other than in some obvious upper-body strength difference. But again, as Waldo, my landlord and experienced farmer always tells me, "farming is about working smarter not working harder" so the muscles have little to do with farming - I am sure when he figures out how I used his words he will roll his eyes ... and smile.
In any case, if I need to dig a post I will ask for help to the manly guy down the street (or to my husband), I do not have a problem with that, but in the meantime, I will keep running the farm and make sure we are getting the money to pay the manly guy to dig the post. And in my free time I will attend some of those women farmers gathering so I can hang out with other women that can be feminine and shovel pig sh#t at the same time.
Am I wrong?
Here is Eva and Thelma, one of our Buff Orpington, plotting for their next mischief
I am sure people know that life at the farm does not stop for holidays, not even around Christmas. We do not expect to take the day off ... we just hope it does not get more complicated than usual ... that's all. Next year we are definitely putting the "easy Christmas at the farm pretty please" on our letter to Santa. To briefly explain the situation, we offer you a multi-day snapshot into the myriad workings of Agricola Farm…the most sophisticated and smoothly run operations this side of the lake.
Christmas looms and still no presents purchased for our daughter. We are in the middle of a crazy day spent between doctors’ appointments and rushed bank appointments - but we are only few feet from a toy store - we peer steely-eyed at each other and make the quick decision to park in the lot and attempt a mad dash for toddler loot... the phone rings… the pigs are out.
We make a B-line for the farm and arrive on the scene of the crime. There are flashing police lights, 20 cars in the middle of the road, and 4 or 5 people attempting to corral our 11 adult pigs, who at the moment are undecided on their general plan of escape.
Ale gets out of the car, grabs the bag of feed in the back and the pigs start running towards her. It is a relief, maybe this time it will be an easy capture! Alas, after they arrive to Ale, and her food, they keep going ... They were not interested in food (no surprise there, they were fed few hours earlier). The other major problem: the road to the barn was completely iced over. Place yourself in the shoes of a pig: you are 220 to 300 pound, carefully balanced on top of 4 tiny feet that have zero traction on ice and your feet get really cold
really fast. Would you consider going down a 20% ice slope to go back to the barn, when outside it is sunny and friendly people are all around you yelling things that are not quite clear but seem to be important? Exactly.
We tried all our tricks: food, water, bucket over the head. Charles, in his nice office clothes, was directing the efforts and educating the kind people that stopped to help on how to be "urgent but gentle" when approaching the pigs. At one point Ale grabbed one of the smaller ones by the tail and ear and things were going okay - until the pig decided he did not like that at all so Ale was left hanging on to the tail while the pig ran down the icy road. After a few yards riding behind the pig someone kindly mentioned "hey, you can let go, it is not a ski lift." A few bruises and indelicate falls later all 11 pigs were back in the barn. Our heroes (that would be the farmers, dear reader, not the pigs!) Ale and Charles were exhausted and relieved. The policeman was disappointed he did not get to bring home a fresh ham.
In the winter in Vermont, water is often the farmer’s biggest challenge. And indeed, the hydrant at the main barn was frozen in the morning. This meant an extra 1 hr of chores to get the water to the pigs.
The hydrant, the water tank, AND the 4X4 we use to carry feed and water were all frozen. Not too shocking given the balmy temperature -9F. But that did not discourage our Holiday spirits. We still opened the presents with
Eva and then Ale bundled up to do chores. Everything was white but not slippery like a few days ago when the pigs escaped. We filled the buckets, one by one and carried them to the barns. A number of people slowed down to wish us Merry Christmas - that was nice ... it made the whole chores-from-hell experience a lot more bearable. Thanks Williston.
Adopt a Tree in VT
Our Adopt a Tree initiative is going well! We have given out 30 trees for adoption in less than 1 week. We have many many to go so tell your friends, family, colleagues, strangers on the bus, anyone you know likes tree, anyone who likes sugar, anyone who likes Vermont! We are super excited about our sugarwork operation and can hardly wait to get started so help us out and get some good maple syrup. By the way, today we saw in a retail store that 1/2 gallon of industry-made maple syrup was priced at $32.50 - so our $35 for adopting a tree is truly a bargain! Join the others and contact ale (email@example.com) to reserve your tree.
We have been on a Blog break for a while. Time to come back.
SO SO SO much has happened!
The main change - the most visible one - is that all our animals are in the barn (I should say barns). We were going to keep the sheep out in the pasture, and they would have been very happy out there, but the truth is that our pasture did not have enough grass for them this year. Next year we will have time to seed it and organize the rotations so that we can maximize the grass production - this year we are just glad we have found a farm that works for us in a community that loves us. We have new piggies (as you may know from our Facebook updates). The 10 readheads are all happy and growing in our barn. Soon we will open up a larger pen for them and we will give them access to the front yard but I doubt that with this weather they will venture outside their cozy mound of hay. The ewes are all happy and (hopefully) pregnant. The ram found a way to sneak into the ewes pen (and also to sneak out in the evening ... weird ram!!) so we have no idea what day exactly the ewes were "serviced." We will run a "guess the lambing date" game - the game is less fun that it sounds since we need to be there at lambing to make sure ewes and lambs are okay and if we do not know the date that means a lot of long cold sleepless nights.
We are facing a major dilemma ... the Farm Service Agency (FSA) does NOT want the Siple family to lease us the land for more than 1 year at a time. This makes our job as livestock farmers close to impossible. This limitation is very unfortunate and makes absolutely no sense to us or the Siples. The Siples want us on their farm for EVER, and we want to be there for EVER but FSA (main lender for the Siple Farm) does not seem to think this is a good idea so we are actually forced to keep our eyes open for other properties. How sad. We will let everyone know if we find something different - so far all the animals are cozily anchored down in the barns on South Rd and we are not planning to move them :)
ANd here to finish with some good memories of the season so far - here is a picture of our chickens on the pasture few months back - what a wonderful place we live in!
Agricola Farm is in production! Our first test run has started. We took our first pig (Cassandra) to the slaughterhouse. The trip and the transportation went very smoothly. She was slaughtered within 2 hours of her arrival (which is ideal) and had a few pig companions to talk to while waiting. I toured the place and everything looked very well organized, clean, and professionally handled. I am very happy about that! We used to do our own slaughtering and considered that an important aspect of the process because we could make sure the animal was as relaxed and happy as she could be up until the last second. Now we must use USDA approved slaughterhouses, and out of all the alternatives this is a good one. We took Cassandra there in the early morning when the weather is a bit cooler, and the trip is only fourteen miles of backcountry roads. We did continue our tradition of giving the animals a chocolate treat on their last day. Pigs love chocolate, but I am not sure it is very good for their diet, so we reserve it for their last meal letting them experience it at least one time.
Last Wednesday Farmer Ale used the MAd River Food Hub to prepare the first 100 batches of sausages and to try our test run of coppa, pancetta, culatello, prosciuttino, and bacon.
YEAH!! Agricola Food is coming to your table soon!
Recently we experienced a beautiful sunset at the farm. The purple sky reflected on the wet road dividing the north and south fields making the road look purple. We were closing the chickens at 9pm and fully enjoying the view. I have to admit that at 8:30pm I was not so happy about the prospect of having to come back to the farm. We had already been there at 6:30 to close everyone for the night, but the chickens just did not want to go in. It felt like herding a bunch of 3 year-olds. So we left and came back at 8:30, and the chickens walked back into the coop without any trouble. We locked the coop and said good night. GOING BACK WAS ONE SMART DECISION!
We heard from Alex, the farmer living close to the barn, that a large bear visited the barn at 10pm! Apparently he touched the fences and made a scream that is hard to repeat. Alex thought that someone was impaled and dragged down the street. Then his house lights came on and caught the bear straight in the eyes right before he turned towards the woods with such a vigor that Alex could hear the floor shaking under his feet and could hear his panting while he was several yards away.
So ... 1) the electric fences work against bears and 2) always close your chickens!
The BIG move is done! We moved all the big pigs! Now the big pigs are in the yard in the back of the barn and the piglets are in the front (sharing an area with the chickens). The move was great! Thanks to Annie Murray-Close, Keith Burt, Emily Albarillo (who came all the way from NY city!), Waldo Siple and Mary Siple!!! It was fun (but ... we may have a different definition of fun from most people.) The pigs easily followed from the lower field at the Silver Street Farm all the way to the horse barn where Waldo perfectly backed up the animal trailer we borrowed. It took quite a bit to get them from there to the trailer itself ... and I have learned something valuable: pigs do not like slopes! They are much more likely to go up a step, as long as not too high, than they are to go up a ramp, even if the ramp has a very gentle slope.The slowest of all was Spots. She really wanted to check out the situation first. After the other pigs got into the trailer and started enjoying the hay, the bread, and the water, she decided it was cool to try herself and dutifully stepped into the trailer. I guess another piece of advice for anyone out there wanting to move pigs: do not rush and do not force an adult pig to do things that are completely against its will. We were gentle and calm the entire time. As soon as Spots started complaining because she was feeling forced, we backed off. There is no way you will win a fight with a hog, so be mindful, sweet, and calm. It is an exercise in zen :) oh the things pigs teach you!!