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.
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).
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
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!