Saturday, April 30, 2011

thundering hooves postmortem

"Thundering Hooves, the pasture-finished, organic beef operation that became a model of sustainability and staple of the Walla Walla locavore movement, has closed amid financial tumult " - Seattle Times,  March 16th, 2011

I first met Joel Huesby at the Farmer/Chef connection event a few years back, where he, and I, and several other farmers sat at a table with a sign labeled "meat" (as i recall, might have said "meats") and waited for chefs to come over to see us.  For me it was a bust -- chefs want a particular cut, and in quantity, and on a schedule that I can't make.  If I could grow a pig that was all bacon, I'd be set, but that's another topic. 

I'd seen Joel speak earlier in the day about his USDA butcher shop and operation, and the impression I took away that day was that he had a nice operation and was making a go of it.  He had several revenue streams, was producing what he sold, and had a nice marketing effort.

To be blunt:  Hearing that thundering hooves was closing its doors came as a shock to me, and I wondered why.  So I've spent the last three weeks interviewing everyone that would talk to me, and reading all of the things that were written about Thundering Hooves over the past 10 years.

Thundering hooves timeline

The start of Thundering Hooves is really the story of a small farming operation that was initially started by Joel and his wife Cynthia.  As with most farming families, Joel has a job off the farm installing phones and did farm in a conventional way, growing crops under contract to a cannery and alfalfa for animal forage.

Around 1994, Joel apparently became disenchanted with the life of a contract farmer, and let his fields go fallow for a few years.   Here's Joel:  "...During the initial period of withdrawal and rehabilitation, weeds grew. The soil lashed out. It got ugly. When someone asked me what I was growing, I said, "Dirt"..."

As Joel Salatin does on his farm, Joel Huesby sought out organic material to add to his soil, finding a cheap source in the form of wood pulp from a now-bankrupt paper mill, ponderosa fibers, eventually spreading 34,000 tons of it over 215 acres of his 225 acres total. 
It's not clear how this production gap was paid for; perhaps the mill paid enough to dump the pulp that it made up for crops that had been produced, or savings, or debt.  Joel considered this to be successful and has told this story many times.
Initially it was Joels wife Cynthia who started raising chickens for sale starting small (the first batch for sale was just 15 birds.)  Cynthia:  "...It just exploded from there", reaching a production level of 7500 birds a year in 2004.  Although they started producing chickens, they eventually dropped chickes from their product line. 

At first the idea was to have a small operation, but it rapidly became clear that no matter how much profit you made on 15 birds that it wouldn't pay the bills, and that the operation needed to grow to provide a living for the Huesby family.  So thundering hooves started to appear at farmers markets, first in Walla Walla, the largest population center closest to the farm, and then in Pasco, Washington and finally in Seattle.  This was a way to broaden the sales, and eventually this became a series of dropoff points in Portland, Seattle and other communities.     

The chicken business grew rapidly, but interestingly, Cynthia is on record as resisting fast growth of the business.  "...I’m the one who doesn’t want a lot of growth...", which seems prophetic, given that rapid growth is one of the primary reasons for the failure of Thundering Hooves by Joel Huesby. 

"We must grow to support our families, part 1"
The basic calculation was that the operation needed to be scaled up enough to produce enough profit to support the families of the people involved;  in this case, more chickens, and then even more chickens.  This basic decision was repeated several times with several different products, and with the slaughter facility that Thundering hooves eventually purchased. 

By 2005 thundering hooves had accumulated $800,000 in debt.  Initially this was in the form of bank loans, but as the business grew they were able to get capital from customers, and the percentage owed to banks decreased from 2005 to the shuttering of the business in March of 2011.  
This debt was initial purchase of livestock, equipment, fencing, trucks and other assorted equipment; moving from a crop-oriented farm to a livestock-oriented farm required quite a bit of investment. The meat shop was a big part of this initial debt.   As they added each different type of product there was a substantial investment in the equipment, facilities and learning curve required for each one.  Chickens, Turkeys, Cattle, Lamb. 

Eventually it became clear that they couldn't pay that debt on the proceeds of the animals that they raised themselves; they needed larger volume, or larger margins, or both, and the direction they chose was to sell products from other farms. 

Along the way other products were added; beef, turkey and lamb. In 2004 they were still discussing adding pork to their own operation. By 2005 Thundering hooves was selling products from [at least 5 ] other farms, and had crossed the line from being a farm that sold just its own products to being a distributor of farm products.

Throughout this period there were many media contacts; lots of interviews by Joel, public speaking engagements and farm tours, and the business grew itself on this grass roots advertising, with close to zero marketing budget, and sales grew by 30 to 50% each year through 2005.  With that sort of growth, things were looking pretty good at Thundering Hooves, but servicing the debt started to become a problem.  Prices were too low, costs of unconventional farming too high, squeezing the margins.  Here Joel speaks about his beef and practices

One example of this was their handling of beef cattle:  The beef that they would slaughter would be as much as 18 months older than typical slaughter beef.  This meant that the return on the money invested in cattle came back much more slowly than with a typical beef operation, and from an investment point of view the return was lower. 

   The equipment purchased was not new, or top of the line, and this meant that there was a large amount of maintenance associated with it; there were breakdowns of equipment at crucial times.  In addition to equipment problems there were continuing problems with wells and irrigation, and tens of thousands of dollars were spent on this infrastructure to support farm operations. 

Despite the growth of the chicken business, Thundering Hooves wanted to outsource it to some other farmer who to produce the birds, and then sell them Thundering Hooves brand name.   I asked several people why this change was made, and it was economics:    The profit margin from 30 beef was the same as the profit from 5,000 chickens.  With cattle, for the most part, you put them out to pasture;  with good fences and forage, you really don't have much labor.  With 5,000 chickens there is daily maintenance and feeding chores, and the slaughter/package/delivery made the margins very small.   Very labor intensive, small sale price, thin margins.

In 2007 they started looking for someone to outsource their turkey production to. 

Sales between 2005 and 2008 grew rapidly; typically at 30-50% a year.  At the end of 2008 the infrastructure was fraying and it was clear that the business was going further into debt.  At this point the sales were $1 million a year.   Thundering hooves recognized this trouble and brought in a business consultant, who advised them to raise their prices by an average of 20% to allow them to have sufficient margin to sustain their business and service their debt. 

Between 2005 and the close of the business in 2011, the debt owed by thundering hooves swelled from $800k to somewhere north of $2 million. 

In 2008 the consultant advised them to raise their prices by 20% and gave them tools to better analyze their costs.  With the price increase came the biggest recession in the last 40 years, and a drop in demand by consumers.  Sales remained at the 2008 levels through 2009, and at the end of 2009, despite the price increase, it was clear that something had to change.  The challenge in 2009 was just to maintain sales; growth was out of the question. 


In 2009, Joel started a related company, Modular Food Systems. I can't help but wonder if this distracted Joel from the problems at Thundering Hooves. In this video he's pitching people to give him $600,000 to build what sounds like mobile slaughter units to me.   It's not clear what the funding or status of this new venture is. 

"We must grow bigger to feed our families, part 2"
In 2010 the decision was made to increase the volume of goods sold; wholesale agreements were reached and sales responded, growing from $1 million in 2008 and 2009, to $2.4 million in 2010.   The goal of this growth was to make larger amount of money on increased volume.

This increased volume strained the capacity of every part of the system; all of the employees were working as hard as they could to produce the goods, but the margins that they were producing were smaller than direct-to-consumer sales had been.  

In January of 2011 talks between the management and the creditors of Thunder Hooves broke down, and the assets were seized by the creditors in March, resulting in the shuttering of the business. 


Farmers and Distributors
I'll make a distinction here:  Someone who sells someone else's products isn't a farmer, they're a distributor, a middleman.  A good distributor in my mind does several things; they select suppliers that have quality products; they ensure timely delivery, and in the event of a problem with a particular vendor (farmer) they find another source.  They manage the relationship with the vendor (farmer) and they're aware of problems (like a crop failure) in time to make a change so that their customers can get the products that they need. 

Thundering hooves was operating as a farmer (selling their own products direct to consumers and wholesalers) a distributor (selling other farms products to consumers and wholesalers), and as a retailer at their meat shop.   At their peak they had  21 Employees to cover these three very different business models.

As an aside, Corfini Gourmet one of the distributors who purchased meat wholesale from Thundering hooves did what a good distributor does, according to Daniel Newell, a local chef.  "[corfini gourmet]...had a sense something was going to happen, so they started to talk to other ranchers," explains Newell. Those ranchers had been breeding cattle sold to Thundering Hooves, who'd "raise and graze them," Newell says.

The turkey failure points out to me that they weren't handling their role as a distributor well.  It's a pretty fundamental mistake.

Wholesale market
Thundering hooves sold meat to other distributors (wholesalers), one of which was Corfini Gourmet.  Margins for this business are often thin, and distributors can switch to another vendor fairly quickly.  This lack of margin, concentration of a lot of sales into the hands of one distributor (wholesaler) combined with the inability to guarantee a steady supply was a contributing factor to the eventual closing of the business.   Having a number of customers is generally considered more stable than having several, or just a single, large customer. 

Want to know what I consider to be a sustainable farm?  Very simple:  One that stays in business.   It's fine and good to be for the environment, and all farmers I know  care very much about their land, but you can't save the world unless you're a going concern.   If you, dear reader, are interested in farming to improve the environment, please do consider this point carefully.  Whatever good practices Thundering Hooves had been promoting are now moot.   It makes great public relations, and newspapers love writing feel-good stories about it, but the bottom line is...  well, the bottom line.  Make a profit.  Keep going.

By this measure, Thundering Hooves was not a sustainable farm.

Reasons for the demise

Joel Huesby:   "...said the operation's demise came ironically as a result of massive growth and demand. Between last spring and fall, he said, demand for Thundering Hooves beef, chicken, pork and other products grew more than 350 percent. But with commodity prices at their highest rate in history, Huesby said, Thundering Hooves got behind on payments to creditors. "

Huesby said the company's original vision became obscured when demand exploded. "It got away from that, in part, because you get dollar signs in your eyes and, in part, you get massive demand."

I've spoken to several people and I've gotten different answers.  Here's a couple that I found interesting:
In a comment made to a local news story, a user named "David_the_Gourmet" made the following comment: 

"Actually, the reason Thundering Hooves sought to grow its sales to more restaurants and grocery stores in 2010 was because it was riddled with debt and had been living on the brink of bankruptcy for a few years. They had been living on borrowed money, and their hope was to grow quickly in 2010 and find new investors to help with the cost of growth by converting debt into equity, but the majority owners couldn't resign themselves to giving up control of the company and turned down the offers that might have saved the company. As I understand it from those who were involved, they would have been unable to survive as a small company given the position they were in. Growing quickly was their last hope, which fell short when they alienated their major creditors. There was also in-fighting among the family, which had a lot to do with differences of opinions as to whether or not to let their creditors take control, which probably wouldn't have been so bad because all of the creditors were either Thundering Hooves customers or fans of local, grass fed meats. It's a shame."

HDBright offers this
"It sounds to me like the managers (family business) needed a consultant. According to this article, the demand is still there. I don't understand why a 1 or 2 year plan to regain control of the business couldn't be financed to get out of the hole and back into the red. [black]"

What actually closed when thundering hooves shut their doors?

The farmers who supplied products to Thundering Hooves are still there.  The customers are still there.  In fact, several members of the thundering hooves staff are trying to start a successor business, careful to note that "...Blue Valley Meats has no affiliation with Thundering Hooves, nor the debt that ultimately led to the company's closure."

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Thundering hooves postmortem - part 1

Sorry, a draft was published in error. I'll be publishing the final version in a week or so.

My love affair with Diesel trucks ends

I've owned a diesel truck for more than a decade now.  I preferred diesel trucks because the engines lasted longer, got better mileage, and generally had more power for the stuff that I do with them; pulling things and carrying heavy loads. 

My next-to-last truck was a 2000 ford F250 diesel, and with regular car and a little maintenance here and there I put something over 220,000 miles before I sold it, and I was happy with its mileage -- after 220k miles, I was still getting 17mph.  Excellent mileage for a heavy truck. 

Without thinking about it too much I purchased a 2006 Ford F250 diesel with 55k miles on it.  A few years old, still in good shape, with (I thought) another 170k or more miles of life left in it. 

That truck has been in the shop 4 times in the last 10 days, and cost me $4200  (and cost Ford Motor company $6700 in warranty) repairs.  Turns out that the  6.0 liter engine has had terrible problems; so terrible in fact that Ford ended up suing their engine supplier, and the engine supplier sued it back. 

"To recap: Ford started having problems with its (flame-throwing) Power Stroke engines from Navistar. Ford stopped paying Navistar for the engines, because it decided Navistar owed it for warranty work incurred from the last-gen Powerstroke diesel. Ford sued Navistar. Navistar stopped shipping engines. A Judge intervened, told Navistar to start shipping engines again and Ford to start paying. Ford started work on its own diesel engine. Navistar sued Ford for $2 billion. Navistar sues Ford again, this time for "hundreds of millions of dollars" – which is today's sad story. I think that about covers it"

Engine history quoted from here

So I'm pretty unhappy with my 2006 version of the ford diesel.  And so I look for later versions, and find that the replacement engine for the later trucks (the 6.4 and 6.7 liter engine models) have various problems mostly related to emissions control stuff. 

All of that's fine; I'm an engineer, and I recognize that version 1 kinda sucks, but these problems aren't getting better very fast.

And all of these engines get WORSE MILEAGE than the old 7.3 liter engine.  In other words, in todays market you'll pay more for diesel than gas, and you'll get about the same mileage for the money. 

So now it's hurting four different ways for ford trucks, and at least three different ways for any modern diesel truck: 

  1) Engines are works in progress, and have teething pains.  (ford only)
  2) Diesel vehicles are usually 10 to 25% more expensive than equivalent gas versions
  3) In modern trucks the mileage is about the same, as with gas versions. 
  4) You cannot run any of these newer engines on farm diesel, which eliminates the main retirement option of old trucks -- the on-farm-only truck. 

So what to do. 

I think I'm going to sell this new, pretty Ford truck and buy two vehicles to replace it.  A small car that gets good mileage, for transporting people, and an older ford diesel (like a 2000-2003) that has that old, thrifty, bulletprooof engine I like so much. 

In this case I'll accept the higher maintenance costs of an older truck to get the 18-20mpg that I used to. 

Doesn't help that the newest ford diesel trucks are (to my mind) unbelievably priced.  $50k for a light truck?  Are you Kidding me?  75K?  I'm gonna die!)

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

New farm equipment: Dump trailer

I think that every farmer has what I've heard called the "line of shame".  It consists of equipment that you thought would make life easier in one way or another, but for some reason just didn't ever work out.  That new planter, or seeder, or...  well, just look around at any farm and you'll find the line. 

So when I was looking for ways to make my life easier, I was really hesitant to buy anything for fear of adding to my line of shame.  In fact, I rented a dump trailer before purchasing one as a proof-of-concept (that's the rented trailer in the picture above) and tried it out, figuring that the rental fee was a small insurance policy. 
We have been getting produce in these 4'x4' boxes, loaded by pallet.  That means that to unload it, we've got to cut the side of the box off, rake out the contents, and then somehow dispose of the pallets, boxes and plastic bag that this whole thing is packed in.  The pallets are kinda handy... until you have 200 of them.  And then 300. 
So this what I tried.  Dump all of the boxes at the source, leave the pallets there -- just load the food into a dump trailer and drive off with it.  Worked really well -- reduced the roundtrip time from 4 hours to a little under 2 -- it it required no raking.   And best of all the boxes, pallets and plastic bag got left at the pickup point.  Excellent! 
This is the new trailer.  It's a little bigger than the one I rented -- 2' longer -- but it has the same rated capacity (14,000 lbs).  I haven't made sideboards for it; I'll do that tomorrow, basically because anytime you've got an operator putting stuff into a trailer they are going to smack the sides.  Wood is cheap and easier to replace than metal, so a wood siderail is a must. 
I chose to get a combo rear gate.  it's a spreader gate (opens at the bottom, for spreading material as you dump it) and as barn gate, to swing wide for complete dumps.  $200 option. 
I also chose to get a tarp for it.  On the farm acreage I never use the tarp, but if you're going to be on the highway, a tarp is a cheap way to avoid tickets for an unsecured load -- and in these times of state budget shortfalls, tickets can be plentiful. 
Here I've loaded it with 8 yards of wood chips as a test.  Probably 3 tons of material. 
Drove it to a muddy spot on my tractor road and dumped it.  Love that.  Beats bringing it over one tractor bucket at a time. 
My second load I stacked 6' high in the bed.  Worked great, dumped fine. 

Dump trailers in this area run between $3k and $7k, the bigger the trailer the higher the price.  People don't sell used dump trailers very much; I looked for a while (weeks) for a used one, but found that the discount for used wasn't much, and given than I'm using this trailer to feed animals, I need it to work, so I bought new. 

Figure it'll pay for itself in 3-4 months. 

Monday, April 18, 2011

Slaughter time

Donald, the farm kill guy for sylvana meats came by on Saturday and took four pigs to market.  Previously I'd dealt with Al Stevens when I sent pigs through Sylvana, but he retired at the first of the year.  Donald came this morning with two helpers, an experienced guy and a new hire, and the three of them put the pigs on the truck. 

 Since we do the farm kill it gives me an opportunity to inspect the carcasses for my husbandry.  I'm looking for any signs of parasites or disease, and for the overall condition of the animal.  How much back fat, size of loin, that sort of thing.  These halves all looked great.  Click on the picture for a bigger version.  Average was 3/4" of back fat; nice lean hogs.   Young and tasty!
 After we'd gotten three animals on the truck, I took one of halves home.  I do this for two reasons; first, I eat off my farm.  What I produce is what I feed my family, and what I sell.  I think that's a fair deal, and it ensures that I'm not going to do something that will hurt either the quality of the animal or the health of the people who eat it, because I'm one of them.   Second, I want to be able to taste the animals I sell, and I enjoy the process.  I cut the half I took home into 4 pieces.  The part that I processed tonight was the ribcage, right behind the front leg, to the mid-back. 
 Here's the primal.  It's about 35lbs.  At the bottom you can see the spine, at the top is the belly. 
 To break this up, these are my preferred tools.  The knife on the left is a skinning knife.  I'll use that to skin the belly off of the ribcage.  The larger knife on the left is for cutting the roasts.  In the center is a steel, that I'll use to keep the other two razor sharp.  Sharp knives mean less work. 
 Here's that primal broken into cuts.  clockwise, from the top left is the boston butt.  That's the large muscle that is just behind the pigs head.  To the right is the loin, which I've removed whole.  I'll cut that into two pieces and roast it tonight for dinner.  On the right is the belly meat, which I'll cure as bacon, and finally on the bottom left is the ribs, with the spine on top. 
 One tool that I didn't show you is my meat saw, but I used that saw to cut the ribs in half.  On the right is your standard spare ribs, on the left is the baby back ribs.  Yummy!  I'll eat these for dinner tomorrow, but I'm going to do the prep tonight. 
On a sheet of aluminum foil I've coated the ribs in a dry rub, consisting of 8 parts brown sugar, 1.5 parts salt, and 1 part spices.  The spices are 5 cloves of coarse chopped garlic, and a good portion of crushed red pepper.  Finally a dusting of onion powder and then liberally coated, wrapped in foil, and put in the refrigerator overnight. 

To cook it I'll add 1/2 cup white wine and bake in a 350 degree oven for 2 hours, until the meat is tender.  I'll then pour the liquid out of the foil packets into a small sauce pan and reduce it to make a BBQ sauce.  I'll brush some of that on the ribs and broil them until they're a little charred and delicious. 

Tomorrow:  Sausage and Bacon

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Eagle update

 We've definitely got a pair of nesting bald eagles.   They're sitting in a tree on the edge of my property, eyeing the lambs right now.  They haven't taken one, but I'm concerned.  In this area bald eagles are mainly scavengers; eating the spawned out salmon in the fall, and whatever dies in the other parts of the year, but they will steal kills from smaller hawks.  The smaller hawks, like the redtail that I see pretty often, HATE the eagles and drive them off whenever they see them, but the redtails have been absent for a few days. 
 The chickens aren't really big thinkers.  They'll go on high alert when they see the eagles pass overhead, but then they'll settle down.  It's pretty clear that chickens cannot count.  Seeing one eagle fly away means that they're safe -- and the 2nd eagle is a complete surprise.  Also true that after the eagles have landed in a tree or brushline and sit still for a few minutes the chickens completely forget about them.  Birdbrains. 

The guinea fowl are another matter.  I know when the eagles are around because they'll hang out in places where I think they believe that the eagle couldn't get them.  Here they're roosting on the corral loading chute.  Definitely more IQ points than chickens. 

Naked burglar

We sent four hogs to market via Sylvana meats Saturday Morning, and had gotten to the farm early to do so.  Day started at 6:30 or so, and the hogs were killed and on the truck by 9.  We did the other chores, ran some errands and by 3pm we were done, so headed home. 

I've been having trouble with my pickup truck, and it was in the shop.  That figures into this story because I'd usually be carrying a rifle, shotgun and pistol with me.  The rifle we use for slaughtering hogs; the shotgun for pests, and the pistol in the even that we need to put an animal down or need to deal with some sort of emergency.  We'd taken them all out of the truck and put them into the gun safe in the house; the farm kill guy uses his own gun. 

On arrival to the house about 3:30 or 4pm I was sitting in the car replying to an email on my iphone and adrea unlocked the back door, and came back immediately:  There's someone in there!

We'd been having some work done, and I wasn't sure if it was one of the workmen, perhaps returning for something, or even if there was anyone there.  Normally, if i'm going to clear a house, a pistol or shotgun is my choice...  none available. 

I walked in and heard water running, somewhere upstairs.  I yelled "come on out!" and no response, and I walked up the stairs to the second floor, where i could hear the shower running in the upstairs bathroom.  A computer of mine was on the floor of the hall, and the room looked like it had been ransacked. 

I opened the door to the bathroom and there was a skinny white guy IN MY SHOWER. 

Who are YOU!  "dude, it's cool, it's fine..." 
No, it is NOT fine.  Get out of my house! 
So I looked down and all of his clothes were on the floor by the shower.  Shoes, shirt, coat,  pants.  I picked up all of his close and went down the stairs, out the back door and tossed all of his clothes over the fence into the neighbors yard; it's a 30' drop off  retaining wall.  Screw you, burglar!

I called 911, and while i was on the phone with the police dispatcher the naked guy came to the back door and said "give me back my clothes".  I said "just wait, I'm sure the police will take care of it for you" and he went back into my house. 

30 seconds later ANOTHER GUY comes out of my house; dressed in a grey top, black slacks and black and white tennis shoes, he's mid-20s, white, skinny, with short dark hair.  I tell him to stop that the police are on the way, and he doesn't say a word, just starts walking away. 

I'm not about to let this guy get away; i'm not sure what they've taken or what damage they did getting in, but I follow the guy, on the phone with 911 dispatch the whole way.  "We're walking south on boyleston, he's running now..."  I chased him 12 blocks, and the police nabbed him at the corner of boren and pike.  Positive ID and he's in custody.  Excellent.  Thank you, Seattle Police. 

So I get a ride back to the house from one of the officers, they take pictures, and then I find out that andrea chased the naked guy down the street.  For reasons that are not clear to me, he chose to steal a pair of my snowboard boots when he left.  So he's running down the street barefoot in a towel carrying a pair of snowboard boots and his coat when apprehended, 200' from my front door. 

When they retrieved the naked guys clothes, they found a knife and flashlight; the knife made me glad I'd de-pantsed the guy right off the bat.  Plus no one feels tough when they're naked. 

Gun safe was fine; they'd taken a sheet off the bed and filled it with dvds and small electronics, and then one of them decided to take a shower.  Just plain weird.

The police officers were laughing at the whole situation; "you handled it exactly right; called us, kept the guy in sight; taking the clothes was GENIUS!  made him super easy to identify.  'naked and dripping wet'"

"these guys who burglarize, it's not like they do it once.  We love to catch them.  ".  Thanks again Seattle Police. 

This could have turned out differently. If it'd had my truck, and felt that my or andreas life was in danger during this episode, one or both of these guys could have ended up dead.  Broad daylight, saturday afternoon.  Pretty damned brazen. 

Guess I'm going to call an alarm company on monday.  The joys of living downtown. 

Saturday, April 16, 2011

it's official: The worst spring ever

Rain and cold, cold and rain.  Cliff Mass, a local widely respected local professor who teaches meteorology at the University of Washington has made it official. 

2011 is the worst year on record, with the fewest days over 55f.  Ever. 

I've been waiting and waiting for my grass to start to grow in earnest.  I have plants that I'd like to plant.  I have used up nearly all of my carefully gathered hay from last year.  I put away extra hay so that I'd have some left for the summer -- bedding pigs and such -- but I'm consuming it now, still on hay with the majority of my ruminants, waiting for the fields to dry and the grass to grow. 

So to those folks who have given me grief about mud and wet -- look, this is part of the deal of farming.  It's weather-dependent, and it actually makes me feel better that this is the worst year ever. 

Which means that it can only go up from here!

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Taking pictures of farm operations a felony?

Mel, a reader of my blog, pointed me to a bill introduced in Florida that would make it a felony to enter an agricultural property and photograph operations there without written permission

And I have to say that part of me really likes that proposed law, and I'll give you an example why, from my local newspapers in the last week: 

April 6th, 2011:
Three animal carcasses were found beside a local road and a $5,000 reward was offered by a local animal rights group

April 7th, 2011: 
A vet who examined the carcasses says that they were raccoons, and the reward was retracted.

I cannot speak to other parts of the country, but I feel like I get a lot of scrutiny from people, and I can see where this sort of law comes from, the problem that they're trying to solve.  I'm not the only one.  Michelle, in this entry on her blog, talks about the naivete of non farmers and how annoyed she is by it. 

In this neck of the woods, all it takes is someone saying that there's a problem and it feels like there's a group of people looking to jump right in an "right the wrong" -- even when there's no wrong in the first place.  Take a look at the first picture I posted here, of the sow. 

What if I said "I took this picture of a sow that collapsed in a field, obviously too weak to stand up, and I think that she's suffering", and then posted it to the local craigslist animal group?  It would take me all of 45 seconds to do, and if I supplied the address, who knows what sort of grief the poor sows owner would have to deal with.  People coming to take pictures of the suffering.  Calls to animal control.  Local news reporters.  Animal rights groups.  Concerned citizens.   When the truth is that she's a sweet girl who just got done giving herself a dip in the pond and is now sunning herself, gloriously and happily pregnant.
  But when one of these media frenzies happen, the truth doesn't matter any more, and suddenly you've got a situation on your hands that requires you to spend hours and hours defending what, at the most basic level, is a normal, everyday thing.  Sows lay down, and when they're pregnant, especially late-term, they lay down a lot. 
Or this sheep.  Clearly it has some sort of skin problem -- look, the wool is coming off of it!  It's all mangy looking!  Clearly undernourished!  ABUSE!  (Or it's spring, and it's shedding, and this breed of sheep, hair sheep, katahdin, shed their wool every year)

I can completely, wholly, without any reservation at all say that I know exactly the kind of trouble that this bill is trying to solve.  And knowing all that...

...It's a bad bill. 

I don't want to run a farm where I can't have people see what I do.  I practice visible agriculture.   I'm ok with people coming and seeing what I do.  ANYTHING I DO, and so if you really want to come and take pictures, give me a call and we'll set up a time.  I promise not to make any special preparations for you.  Make sure to wear your boots.  I've got mud.  boy do I have mud.

I believe that's the biggest problem I have with modern farming methods -- you just dont' see what they do.  We have become just too far removed from our food, and when that food is animals, from the animals, too.

  Those stacks of cages with 6 birds stuffed into each one, or the pig barn that has to run huge fans or the pigs will die from the ammonia that their waste generates.  That stuff gets stuck onto a property hundreds of yards from a road, and no one gets to see it.    The barn is neat and clean, and the grass is trimmed on the outside, and what goes on inside no one knows.  

I can't make taking pictures of farm operations a felony because sometimes we really need to know whats inside that barn.  I feel the same way about photographing police officers doing their work.

As much as I hate the scrutiny I personally get, I accept it, and embrace it because it's the right thing to do. 

And that's why I think that it's a bad bill. 

Thank you, Mel, for giving me that link. 

Friday, April 8, 2011

Very nice quality boar piglet

I run a herd of 40 sows and 4 boars, and produce around 1,000 pigs a year. There are very few male pigs that I see that I consider to be top-notch, and this guy is one of them. Excellent conformation, good, wide stance. Gaining weight faster than his siblings in the same litter. Really nice hams, perfect in all respects. This is one that I'm considering keeping.

I only get a keeper male about every year or so.

If you have been considering replacing your existing boar, or having a new boar to breed your sow, or starting a pig herd of your own, this would be a good pig to pick. This is a top-notch piglet. Health guaranteed, vaccinated, he'll be ready to go in 2-3 weeks.

You're welcome to come and look at him in person, or I can email you more pictures. He's a beauty.

I found the eagles nest

I've been watching  a pair of eagles around my farm for the last few weeks; concerned that they're going to eat more of my livestock, and I noticed that they kept flying in a particular direction.  So I started looking there and there's a pretty prominent landmark -- a cell phone tower. 
So on closer inspection the cell phone tower has been decorated a bit.  The eagles are carrying stuff up to it and building a nest on top of it. 
you can see some of the branches on the right side.  I don't think that the eagles have heard that cell phone radiation may have some help concerns. 
These little twins were born a week or so ago, and they're about as cute as can be.  They are one of the reasons I'm concerned about the eagles...
...and there's the cell phone tower.  This could be trouble. 

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Chop wood, carry water

I find that when I'm working hard I'll often be thinking about other things.  I've been a little produce-centric this week; turns out that there's been a lot of produce coming available, and I'm trying to suck up as much of it as possible -- for composting purposes if I can't use it directly for pig feed.   
The handle on my rake is a little slimy, and it's cold.  I'll have to wipe it down tonight.  hmmm...  a layer of garlic and onions and peppers.   That's a pretty good taste combination; some charred onions with a rough-chopped clove of garlic and some pepper, in a little bit of olive oil is a pretty awesome base for a philly cheesesteak.  A little thin-sliced beef and some cheese on a french roll.  Marvelous.  Yum. 
darn orange.  its stuck on the rake.  hate that.  Like it better when the oranges are frozen, then they just roll out.  Roasted whole heads of garlic are good; drizzle them with a little olive oil and just slow roast the whole thing.  Don't bother to peel it, just use a knife to cut the top off.  Some nice bread to spread it on.  Maybe sourdough.  been a while since i made bread.  .  

Wish the pigs ate citrus.  these grapefruits look good.  Wonder what grapefruit sorbet would taste like?  I've made lemon sorbet, and orange...  a little bit of the zest, the juice of the fruit and sugar.  I should buy an icecream maker.  been meaning to for a while.  Sorbet would be good in the summer.  Wonder if those are pink grapefruits?
These cantaloupes are frozen solid.  got to watch my feet; they hurt when they land on your toes.   Wonder if I could make sorbet out of cantaloupes?   I can't see why not.  Add a little lemon juice for tartness.  bet it would be tasty.  Maybe i should break one open and get the seeds and plant them? 
Broccoli and grapes.  it's sort of a salad mix.  doesn't appeal to me.  but broccoli with cheddar cheese melted on top -- yummy.  the grapes are frozen little marbles. I hate this kind of grape.  it's like a grape tease -- you think you're getting a succulent grape, but you really get something that is pretty much tasteless.  I love concord grapes, even with the seeds.  the skins are so tasty. 

a box of mixed citrus and romaine lettuce.  i love anchovies and romaine.  Ceaser salad; yum!  there's some bok choi in here, too.  haven't used them.  i should buy some and look up how to cook it. 

Ok.  All done.  wow.  it's been 2 hours.  didn't seem that long.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Found: Ferret

Andrea found this ferret while feeding the chickens.   It's pretty tame, i was able to scoop it into a box after I took this photo, and it seems to do ok in the house.  If this is yours please send me an email at and we'll work out how to get it back to you.  Thanks!

Update:  It must have rolled in something bad.  We've tried to wash it but its not used to us, and it seems to just make it mad.


LOL dude, stop trolling!
Skunks aren't ferrets

i think its a ferret, skunks are wild aren't they? she picked it right up and put it into a box and it was fine with that, but then it chewed a hole in the box and now its under the couch. skunks don't know to hide under couches.

If it really is a ferret then don't post a photo OF A SKUNK on your CL ad. The photo you used, is a skunk.

Second of all, no animal "knows how to hide under a couch". No animal even knows what a couch is, domesticated or otherwise. If an animal is terrified (as surely wild animals inside a humans house would be) they will try and hide in the tightest space available. And under a couch is some place that's very cramped and confined, which makes most small animals (cats, ferrets, guinea pigs etc) comfortable and safe feeling.

If that photo you posted is of the animal you found (like, you took that picture) then, dude, you have a skunk in your house and need to call animal control.

But if you think it's a ferret, don't post a picture of a skunk. Seriously.

Perhaps someone has already emailed you this but... That is not a ferret, that is a Striped Skunk. And they can seem tame but still be wild.

Though reguardless that is very nice of you to try to find it's owner if it has one.

Good luck!
It's a skunk, almost positive. Probably don't want to keep it in your home.

really? It chewed a hole in the box and now its under the couch. how do

 you get it to come out? I tried calling it and it just hisses at me.

[liz probably looked at the date, and then sent this:  ]
funny   happy fools day aye

 It is not my ferret, but I am pretty sure that the pic you have on craigslist is a tame skunk.. not a ferret..
Yeah.. I really think it is.. Does it smell bad? and the only way I can think to get it out w/o spraying is to call a pest control and tell them the situation..

it seems to smell now, we were trying to get it out with a broom handle but it really didn't want to move and it hisses. i think its tame though.

no, its not mine. I just saw it and don't think its a ferret. I'm originally from Oklahoma where there alot of skunks around.. Just trying to help.

Brian:  This is my ferret.  His name is Spanky.  When can I come pick him up?
Sue:  Ha. It is not my ferret, but I will gladly take the little guy. I have a “chew-proof” cage. I could come by tonight to pick him up. Thank you!

James:  I know you have been told...but that is a skunk! NOT a ferret! I would suggest removal of it ASAP
Sukhmani:  hi i saw ur craigslist posting....thats a skunk...not a ferret
Jenny:  i cant tell if u r serious or not... thats not a ferret, thats a skunk
Brenda:  Made my day!
Jackie: What a stinker you are for trying to pass off that story
Radical:  was an april fools thing, right?  I hope you dont actually have a skunk in your house. lol
Mary-Lou:  that is not a ferret, but a baby skunk

really?   it chewed a hole in the box and now its under the couch.  how do i get it out?