This is when it all started - it was the first year that I raised my own pigs and then my friends Justin Turcotte and Michele Seplak Turcotte came up to my house and helped me harvest the meat that was going to feed my family for the upcoming year. The experience was a mixture of anxiety, sadness, gratefulness, fulfillment, happiness and an overall sense of achievement for something BASIC ... I was following the steps of what millions of people did before me - I connected to what my ancestors did before industries were created, before we had electricity and phones and even gas. All these emotions I went through were once experienced by the young man and women that started my lineage and eventually saw me coming to the world. And the end product was incredible. I stepped out of the system and created something independently from anyone else. I felt alive. After starting my commercial farm I had very little time to harvest and see the animal start to end. Usually someone else does the slaughtering (a USDA inspected facility) and the butchering happens under extreme time constraints in a sterile and impersonal room. Today, for the first time in too many years, I will be harvesting again my own meat, at my farm, and tomorrow a group of people will join me as I carefully harvest each part and gratefully plan for meals for my family for the next year. And for the first time in a very long time I have again a mixture of all these feelings that made me feel alive the first time this crazy journey begun. It is funny how such feelings have remained. I am glad that the nervousness and sadness of harvesting my meat with my own hands has not gotten any easier even after so many years and so many animals I have raised and butchered. I have always been alarmed of how easy it is to take a life ... in the flick of a minute, with an extremely simple gesture, that life slips from your hands. The only thing that allows me to hold on to a sense of humanity are the emotions that go through me as I see this life go away - as soon as I am certain that I did my job as quickly and efficiently as possible and he/she is no longer suffering, all the images and memories of the time I had with this specific pig flash through my eyes. Sadness enters my body and questions about being a carnivore enter my mind. I am not interested in explaining why I choose to be a carnivore because I do not want this to be a platform to try to convince others of the legitimacy of my choice - I only want to share this experience with others who have never raised, slaughtered and butchered their own animals. My answers have always been in favor of being a carnivore, but just because the answers are positive it does not mean I do not question it. After, comes the stage of gratitude and the memories of the sacrifices done over the year to ensure this animal had as natural of a life as I was capable of providing. The memories of the pig running through the field with ears flopping in the wind, the times he rolled in the dirt, got to harvest his dinner from the parsnip field or laid down in the sun munching on an apple fallen by a wild tree, got into a playful fight with a sibling and, of course, the first time he got to suckle on mom's milk and snuggled next to her for some warmth. Comparing this to industry raised pork, or even local pork from farms that raise 900+ pigs, gives me a sense of accomplishment. Perhaps I do not provide the perfect setting for my pigs; there are times when they do not have enough hay, times when the shelter leaks, times when I waited too long to deworming - there is always something I can do to improve my management - but I look at them, all 89 of them, and I know in my heart they are happy animals. They would have not had this life if I did not decide to have a farm and if people around me did not value this sort of thing to spend a little more money and go a step further to come and find me and purchase the meat from my farm. They would either not be here or they would be in a sterile barn where they can hardly move and would never know what it is like to find an unexpected hickory nut under a tree. Now, as the day unfolds, I will have time to say goodbye to the pig we will harvest tonight. Tomorrow that will turn into a multitude of roasts and chops and cured meat that through the year will create new memories for my family and my farm. May I not waste one single bite that costed the life of this animal and may I have the energy and focus to ensure that each part will be honored in the way it deserves. Now, off to feed her and give her a last hug (and choccolate - I give them chiccolate the day they are harvested because I am not sure it is good for their health but... at least I want them to try it once... it cannot hurt them right?)
It is January.
It is January.
January arrived with a bang! Stefano and I were busy cooking and serving the Cenone to our guests. It was so much fun I do not even have the words to describe the pleasure of cooking traditional foods that have populated my childhood and seeing people appreciating these flavors and enjoying each others company. I was in heaven. Thanks for coming over guys, you helped me have the best new years eve I can recall.
What do you do during this time of the year? For the farm January is a time when our chores end earlier (because it is dark earlier), so we get to enjoy more time in front of the warm fire in the living room. Eva is old enough to play cards so we have been doing a lot of that, something that I grew up doing with zia and nonna. Everyone at the farm is an avid reader, so in the evening we tend to gravitate to the couch by the fire with books about cooking, butchering, baking and psychology (I am a psychologist) scattered all over the room. Starting in the late evening and going all night till the early morning the two ovens in the kitchen do not get much of a break between ciabatta, whole wheat loafs, pandoro bread, brioche bread, puff pastry and all sorts of baked goods that the two male bakers at the farm produce on a daily basis – I have to thank my mother for gifting me a fast metabolism and 85 pigs that keep me busy scooping manure if I do not reach 200Lbs in the winter. The house smells like a bakery all night long making the atmosphere even warmer in front of the fire.
January is also time to fix the greenhouse, get the beds for the seedling organized, order the seeds, turn the compost, and plan the garden for next year. There is always so much excitement in the planning stages. It is also the only time when you feel things are organized… as soon as the spring begins and you realize you have under-estimated the amount of work that it takes to open up a new pasture for the pigs or the time it takes to bring food to the further pasture … all those plans begin to shift and get reshaped into something more manageable. But in January you can dream of a perfectly functioning 2 acre vegetable garden, 20 synchronized pig paddocks and cover crops. This is also the time to shear sheep to free them from the burdocks they have collected in November and hope that next year we can remove all the burdocks before the sheep find them. You arrive home with your clothes smelling of lanoline a scent that brings me back to the times when zia did laundry in Italy. It is also time to say goodbye to the ram lambs that will be sent to the slaughterhouse and to name the ewe lambs that are officially recognized as breeding stock.
A new generation of pigs is about to arrive at the farm. Many of you met Gustavo, our new Berkshire X Old Spot boar that loves tomatoes. Today he was introduced to Franchina, our youngest gilt (female pig that has not had a litter yet). Franchina is a ¼ Duroc X ¼ Hempshire X ½ Tamworth. She is a beauty. He is massive. They liked each other … immediately. In 4 months we should see the effect of adding the Berkshire to the genetics of our litter. Franchina comes from Josephina, one of the three sows that we have selected as our top breeders. The other two sows (Salciccia and Mozza) are about to give us litters that were generated with Zeus (Tamworth X Hempshire). It is fun to be finally at the point where we can play with genetics and see the effects on the final product!
Fresh veggies and fruits on Wednesday and Saturdays for the pigs! We have started picking up the pulp from Tomgirl Juice (Burlington) and … oh boy the pigs love it! It is so much fun to feed them the colorful pulp and plants left over from the juice bar! We are using the pulp only as supplement to add vitamins and anti-oxidants to their diet. In addition to provide a yummy and enjoyable treat for our animals, all these flavors will get trapped in the fat cells and will be released while cooking making the flavor more complex. Gustavo (boar) could hardly contain himself last night when I walked into his pen with a bucket full of vegetable goodies! He was so excited he started jumping and running after me as if he was a little piglet again. Happiness! It is so satisfying to give our pigs fresh wholesome food that we know it is good for them and they enjoy so much! And it is also satisfying to think of all the wonderful flavors that will get trapped in the fat cells and that will be released once we sit down to enjoy the meat coming from our piggies.
Welcome January. I am looking forward to the rest of the month.
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
Twists and Turns at the Farm
I realized it has been a long time since my last posting. Life has been a wild ride at the farm and it took me all the energy I got to hold on and not fall off. Lots has changed and we are now reaching new equilibrium so I want to reflect a little bit on the past year. The main change that affected everything at the farm is that Charles no longer lives here. We came to the realization that the paths we wanted to pursue were getting more and more distant and less parallel. Now Charles has an apartment in South Burlington. It was a difficult choice but I am very proud of how supportive and loving we have been able to remain throughout this transition. Eva, our little one that many of you have met - yes the one that goes around with a princess dress or a dragon costume with a pig nose :) - is doing well and has adapted well to the concept of one family with two houses. She enjoys having the undivided attention of mom during mom's days and dad during dad's days.
The other bump in the road is that Alex had a major car accident in December - yes, exactly the day before all the porchetta roasts were due for delivery - He broke 2 vertebrae in his neck and risked to be completely paralyzed. Fortunately after and emergency surgery that fused together his spinal column and few weeks of bed rest he started getting up and moving around and now I have not seen him in over a month because of sugaring season, so I am sure he is doing okay.
These changes have pretty much left me in charge of the farm on my own and fortunately I had Stefano and Tirragen to lean on or I do not think we could talk about Agricola any more, especially considering I have a full time day job at the University. It is now nice to reflect on all of this and see that we are getting at the end of the tunnel. Every day gets a bit easier. We are also hiring 1 (possibly 1 and 1/2) new farm assistants so that starting in June life will be even more manageable.
One things that keeps me grounded is that pigs, sheep and chickens do not seem to care about any of this - they still want their food, their water, a clean and safe shelter and they have their mating and family planning needs. So the farm has been continuing for its merry way and growing - and growing - and growing! And our community and supporters have been growing with the farm.
Life in the Barn:
Our barn is now hosting about 100 piggies of all ages and coming from three different breading mixes. They are so eager to go out and frolic in the sun on the fresh grass and we, evil farmers, not allow that (the tender new grass just growing would suffer too much). We have 13 new lambs and 3 more ewes that have yet to give birth. Lambs are at that special age when they are small enough to go through the holes in the fences but big enough to feel bold to explore the world, so, at any given time, if you walk inside the barn you may be greeted by a flock of baby lambs running full speed towards you and they may or may not be able to stop in time. Chickens have been growing too - we have selected the eggs for the new generation (something necessary to ensure chickens with larger breasts - more similar to what people are used to see in the store). One hen has been broody (sitting on eggs she wants to hatch) for over a month...we hope she will last few more weeks and wait for the eggs we are hatching in the incubator so that she can have her flock of baby chicks to train and protect (not only chicks raised by hens are better at foraging and hunting but they are also better at protecting themselves from predators). Soon we will have a number of hens parading thier chicks around the courtyard - that is when I feel spring is finally here.
Life in the fields:
The fields look empty without the animals grazing. However, this break gave us time to attend the pastures. We have cleaned up another field of the plastic left behind by the previous farmers. The plastic has been annoying and makes us feel we have a junk yard, not a farm, so removing it has been extremely satisfying, but I have to recognize the adaptability of different wild animals that have found refuge inside the crevices of this black and white mantel that is 2/3 under ground covered by years and years of abandonment in the fields. We have even found a family of weasel - a mom and 10 day old weasel babies...weasel are probably the most deadly predators for chickens but having to kill first mama and then the still blind, pink babies was quite traumatizing... life at the farm is not always easy and romantic... but as a farmer your priority is protecting the animals you are hosting and that includes eliminating families of young baby weasels. We have also been frost seeding the fields with legumes and grasses, especially those areas that were covered with plastic and weeds last year. On sunny days we walk up to the field to check the progress of the new grass and feel good about the fact that, acre by acre we are making a little progress in this 65 acres we have decided to look after. The experiemental paddock we grazed with sheep and pigs and then seeded at the end of the winter is also growing incredibly well - you can actually see the bright fresh green grass all the way from Panton rd and every time I pass by, I look at it and feel good about that entire week-end I spent removing rocks and planting seeds before the frost. I am also incredibly proud of the greenhouse Stefano and I have been building to host the thousands of vegetables we plan to grow in our 1/2 acre vegetable garden. We dream of lots of tomatoes for yummy tomato sauce, onions for savory preserves and lots and lots of fresh veggies to support the farm and to sell at our farm stand - so exciting! Right now we have over 300 onion, 100 peppers, and 250 tomato seeds under growing lamps and shortly we will move them to their new green house - so neat.
Life in the Farm House:
it is crazy busy! We have a large house but for some reason I always have all rooms full! There is Tirragen and Stefano; Eva on few days of the week, and then Alex (the other farm owner) now and again, and then guests from all walks of life. Right now we have Tirragen's sister visiting from California and getting a brutal awakening to winter in Vermont (poor thing... she choose the wrong week!). Plus we will have one or more farm assistants coming to help so ... we have so many people around all the times, and let's not forget we have Maurizio (the cat) and Giulia (the skunk) that keep us company. Giulia is quite friendly, really... even the propane guy commented on her friendly attitude. We have also forged supportive relationships with farmers around here and whenever in a pickle I can rely on 3 or 4 people that I know will do anything they can to help me out, and in exchange I butcher their pigs or have them over for a farm dinner - farming is never a solitary act and you can really see that in action here at our farm.
The to do list before May is long. We still have a lot of plastic to pull out from the fields, shelters to build or fix, structures to repair, farm signs to make and to post, new fences to make for the pastures, plus we have more butchering dates ahead of us, lots more agriturism activities (pretty much every week-end) to host. We have the beds of the vegetable garden to prepare, the wild flower garden to seed, the grill for the Farm 2 Grill events to prepare, a zillion new piglets that will arrive in the next 3 to 4 months. Then there are the new farm assistants to interview, the restaurants in New York and Boston to follow up with etc.... the days are full, but the sun stays up late and the energy at the farm keeps us buzzing with excitement. We are ready to wake up from the slow winter months.
See you at the farm!
I used to be normal... You know, one of those people that get excited about spring... Not any more. For those of you who are thinking about starting a farm, let me break down spring for you: everyone around you is excited about spring, EVERY O N E! This means the piglets, the saws, the boar, the lambs, the sheep, the hens, the chickens, the mice, the flies, the ants, the coyotes, the bears ... and no one stays in its freaking place!!! During winter, containing animals is a trivial issue. You spend most of your swear words on frozen water, frozen pipes, the stove that does not start, and who forgot to call the fuel company to fill up the oil tank. Your animals are all nice and cozy in the barn and, for once, you live the illusion that you finally "got it," you have mastered the most important and challenging aspect of being a farmer: containing the animals. Then springs come and reality sinks in. You have lived in the frozen illusion of being "containing the animals." The reality is that chickens stayed in the barn because there is no freaking way they will consider walking in 2 feet of snow on a subzero day, no matter how enticing the sun may be. The sheep did not "finally learn to respect the boudaries." They just had agreed that having YOU bringing them the food rather was a lot better than having to go out themselves in the -20F climate. And the pigs!!! oh the pigs ... because you really thought that THIS TIME you built the pig-proof gate. Ah! That's funny ... it took them less than 30 minute to find a way out the instant the sun was out and no one was watching. The well known knock at the door from the neighbour was all you needed to snap back to reality. Well, at least pigs came when you call them so I just had to stand in the middle of the street calling "Heeeeeere piggggggie pigggggie pigggggie heeeeeeeere1" and watch for the amusement and then the fear in the neighbors' face when she saw a drove of 15 adult pigs running full speed down a pretty steep hill. I mean, even the geriatric blind saw managed to get out and go for a walk up the hill! She usually does not even want to get up to get scratched! But everyone has SPRING FEVER at the farm.
It is not only the "breaking free" that makes the whole spring a less than idyllic time at the farm, it is everything!
In the past, Spring meant changing the clothes from winter to spring in the wardrobe. Now it means: nothing, absolutely nothing can be warn to adjust to the ever changing temperature outside. You either are freezing at the beginning of chores or you are sweating beyond what any non-atomic deodorant can do.
Another horrible present that spring brings is what farmers call their brown gold ... to me it is S&#T. I used to complain about mud on my shoes (in Vermont spring IS mud season) ... now, I have other things to complain ... let me remind you of few physics laws that take over in the Winter/Spring season. When outside it is 20F below, things (all things) freeze quite quickly. Unless you are ready to pick up manure within a few hours from when it was dropped you can rest assured that that turd is now frozen solid ... till spring. I have to admit that my pigs are not trained to all deliver the manure at specific times when we are ready to scoop it up. Now, imagine you have about 80 pigs and although you are able to catch some of the manure when you clean the barn twice per day, just for a second imagine what you DO NOT catch. Once you have a bottom layer of that lovely brown gold, then the next layer is almost impossible to shovel out and so ... it accumulates until one day those nicely shaped, frozen and oderless morsels of brown gold become alive and fully fragrant almost as if they were just laid. All of them ... at the same time, after a few hrs of 40F.
Before I had a farm I used to look almost eagerly to the week-end we selected for our "spring cleaning." I would be getting the dusting pad with the long arm to reach the webs in the corners, the special sealer and cleaner for the wood furniture. I liked the smell lingering in the air. Now, spring cleaning usually requires a complete astronaut outfit, an industrial size power washer, and ... let's say that the odor lingering in the air is no longer something I look forward to.
All this extra work is accompanied by lambing and farrowing. All animals decide to go ahead and deliver their babies just around this time so you are working around the clock to keep the barns clean, help the moms and do the extra necessary spring cleaning.
"Well, at least you all know this so you are prepared" you are thinking. Can I please direct your attention to your calendar. We are in March. What is EVERYONE in Vermont doing in March, and most precisely, what are they doing on the first few weeks when the temperature raises and you are in your astronaut attire powerwashing the barn and delivering lambs? Oh my, of course, it is SUGARING season so no one, absolutely no one is around since everyone is cutting wood, tapping, boiling sap, checking for holes int he sap lines. And it makes sense because sugaring is such a neat tradition and it is so m,uch fun ... and that is what you think as you are removing the 16th wheal barrel of natural brown gold from the barn.
So ... spring is here. Great. I am glad it is here but just because it means that summer is not far.
Reflections on ravioli
Making ravioli is one of my very first memories of Christmas and family. I recall my mom and other ants, uncles, grandparents etc. getting around the kitchen table and preparing these incredibly LARGE ravioli. It was our family joke that all you needed for a Christmas meal at my mom's dining table was 1/4 of a raviolo (1 raviolo was for the very hungry ones). So ... they were not the perfect Italian ravioli, but they were our family ravioli and no matter how much the family members liked to complain and suggest we go buy the "real" ones "dal fornaio," we loved making them and everyone loved eating them. I also have lovely memories of going to pick ravioli dal fornaio with my father, right after mass. I particularly loved being in charge of choosing the type of ravioli. Each had a different shape to indicate a different filling. At home we would triumphantly show our bag of goodies and tell my mom about gossips we learned dal fornaio (did Maria's son get arrested for drugs? Was Luisa still seeing that guy with the crazy hair?).
Much changed from that time but ... not much really. As I moved to the States I continued to make ravioli. This time, fortunately, with friends who were better at making them than anyone in my family, so my skills improved. I cannot count the number of dinner parties where I made fresh ravioli. I almost do not feel like it is a dinner party if the table is not covered in flour and freshly made ravioli. Ravioli were also one of the first things I cooked for my husband (although he claims that the lasagna is what made him realize he needed to marry me). Ravioli were also at the table when, as poor graduate student, I was forming a life long friendship with two amazing people that share my love for food, community and supported me throughout this entire farming adventure, Justin and Michelle Turcotte.
More recently, I have had numerous raviolo lab-parties (I am a professor with an active research laboratory at UVM). Students that work for my laboratory come to my house where I teach them how to make ravioli. No matter what I do, food tend to infiltrate the tissues of any relationship I develop. In my lab we work hard and play hard, We also like to enjoy feeling like a team and having adventures together. One year I took everyone to Italy for a conference and of course we first had to have a Renaissance Dinner at my house as an introduction to the history of the place we were about to visit. Most years we simply get together at my place and roll dough. The seniors choose the filling and the newer assistants learn from the older ones how to make the dumpling or how much filling to place at the center of each raviolo.
It is surprising how much love, camaraderie, pleasure, friendship and communion you can fit inside a little pasta dumpling.
These days, I am making ravioli for the market. At times I make them during of Farm Meeting when everyone is around the kitchen islands rolling dough, talking about the new piece of equipment that broke down or while planning the new crops or farrowing schedule. Other times, I make them with a volunteer and you would be surprised of the depth of our conversations - I would be lying if I were to deny that a few ravioli got sprinkled with tears about the losses, joy and the difficulties of our lives as we shared our stories while rolling dough. At the market I have regular clients that share with me little snippets of their lives, the latest book they read, last night's meal they shared with their kid, all the small things that make the fabric of our lives. Once again a small community is formed around the ravioli. I am starting to think that ravioli are a little bit magic.
Given this history, it is clear that part of my mission is to bring ravioli into people's lives. But not just by bringing them to you at the market. I want to teach you how to make them so that you may experience their magic and build on your community made of friends, family, children, neighbors, co-workers ... or even enemies. I find it interesting that we are seeing more and more companies struggling to come up with ideas to connect and "build" a team. All we got to do is take a look at how things used to be done in our households. You do not need to figure out expensive and crazy adventures to have to become a team, just invite everyone to the table, figure out how each person can make a meaningful contribution to the process and make delicious ravioli with them. And then eat them (the ravioli, not the team members of course ... I felt given that I am a butcher I should specify this). Mmmh maybe my next marketing effort will be around providing cooking team building exercises :) it may be a good idea.
I hope I will see you around my kitchen table soon. The first raviolo clinic is February 21st (2015).
life in the coop
Containing the chickens is not our forte.
Indeed, we are thinking of changing the label and instead of advertising "chickens raised on pasture" we are going to indicate "chickens raised in complete anarchy."
They are everywhere!
Even if we have 56 acres, when you have about 600 chickens ... you start noticing!
One of the problems is that one of the farmer seem to have an hidden agenda about free chickens. We will not mention names but Ale seems to have a mischievous smile every time someone points out the chickens are out. Right now we no longer mention the chickens are out because we do not even know what is "OUT" and what is "IN," chicken wise. Since the chickens stay away from the road, this is not too much of a big deal (just gotta make sure you do not leave out anything that should not have poop on). The one problem with this approach is safety!
We close in the coop most of the chickens at night but the big rebels are on their own. There is a team that sleep next to the sheep (the sheep are not very happy about this but have not figured out how to evict them). Another team sleeps by the pig food in the lean-to in front of the barn. Among this team, one of them recently hatched 12 beautiful chickens. She was proudly walking around the recently cleaned front yard sporting her chicks in a neatly organized line. It was such a pleasure to watch! Sadly, today I could not find mamma hen anymore. I though that perhaps she went inside the barn looking for food but ... she would have never left the chicks alone! Some wild animal must have gotten her. I am sure she came out of her nest and attacked the predator when it approached because she was afraid for her chicks (she was an extremely protective mom).
We tried to move the chicks under the care of another hen that is trying to hatch eggs, but after a few minutes they all got out of underneath the surrogate mom and got back to the front yard where their mom used to show them how to hunt and forage.
I know that as a farmer I am used to animals dying (and killing chickens is a weekly affair here at the farm), but for some reason this makes me so incredibly sad and I cannot think of anything else. Our dilemma now is what to do with them. Obviously I need to find a way to close more chickens in the coops but, what to do with the baby chicks? I could move them into the special nursery coop with the other 200 baby chicks that where born 2 days before these chicks, or I could keep them with the rebel hens that used to hang out with their mom. The other hens do not attack the lill ones and the lill ones seem to learn what to do by modeling ... not sure what to do ... it does not seem right to close them back in a coop and raise them with the "mailed-in chicks" but it may be safer there for them ... what would you do?
To be cont.
the day after the second hen hatched her babies and her maternal instincts kicked in. She has accepted the chicks and now is raising 13 little chicks - things in life tend to work out... it is a good message, thanks farm.
such an overdue blog! We have moved to the new location on May 28th. The move was ... epic. Most of the work was moving out of our place. It took us 5 solid days of work around the clock. Charles would go to the hotel with Eva around 10pm and I would stay there at the house cleaning or packing till 4am and then Charles would wake up and we would switch. Little Eva was scrubbing the floors with mom till 10pm one night - what a sweety.
The new farm is absolutely fantastic with incredible potentials! We were lucky enough to qualify for a special project that wants to support the development of more agritourism in Vermont so we get to work with agritourism and marketing experts... once we open the farm to the public it will blow people away. I am sure! The barn itself is fantastic, but the views, and the way we keep our animals ... and the food we are able to offer ... what's not to love?
The biggest challenge right now is to figure out how to keep the animals safe and contained in this new location (new to them and to us). Till we get into a routine and all the animals know what exactly is going on and what is expected of them we are in constant danger for escapes. The sheep took Ale for a 3 hour run (about 2 miles) down the vast, never ending, hay fields owned by our neighbors. Seeing the sheep jump happily through the high grass was cute ... for the first 3 minutes, the rest was a living running hell. Let's just say we were extremely motivated to sell lamburgers at the market that evening!!
Fortunately the sheep did not cause any damage and all of them got back safely in the barn.
Pigs are completely adjusted to the new place and need only one wire. When we set up the new fencing they patiently stand in line in front of the wire till it is time to go explore the new paddock. They are as happy as I have ever seen them. Even if it is hot they get to play in their mud puddle and they hang out in the shade of their portable shelter. They love the brewers grains we are getting from Burlington Beer Co. and are just a bunch of happy friendly pigs.
More on chickens in next post
Virtual Tour of our Sugarbush
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.
High on Farming
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!!"