Monday, January 30, 2012

Southern farmers feeding tomatoes to hogs

This article in the New York Times talks about the revival of southern cooking,  featuring several farms that raise heritage hogs -- like the Berkshires pictured wolfing down tomatoes.

Southern states have always favored pork as a staple, and the resurgent interest in lard and heritage breeds is getting wide, popular support. 

Wait a second.  Tomatoes are a vegetable (or a fruit?).  And isn't that what the Snohomish Department of Health is giving me grief about? 

As they say in the south,  sure 'nuff. 

Sunday, January 29, 2012

"where are all the customers yachts?" - farm blogs

[Update 2-2-2012:  Tim over at Natures Harmony blog has decided that I've wronged him.  He's inviting comments about his operation on his blog.  You'll find his blog entry here

He won't let me comment on it.  Perhaps some of you have opinions on Tims operation and openness to comments.  Feel free to post them here and there.  Cut and paste is wonderful. 

I'd particularly like the folks who got banned after trying to post comments in the parasites in ram flock blog entry -- he's using that as an example of him being open to criticism, when the backstory is that he started just flat out banning anyone who disagreed. 

Bruce ]

One thing that I'd like you to notice, if you haven't already, is that this blog has no advertisements on it.   No sponsors, no hotlinks, no revenue.  I'm not doing this for the money.  I'm not against the idea of making money, but I started this blog for non-monetary reasons, and I write what I believe here, and I do so because I'd like other folks to have a clear view of what farming is like, at least for me. 

What gets my goat, and it gets gotten from time to time, is when I see someone talking about something that I sincerely believe is harmful, or if they're talking about some sort of fantasy but offering it as if it's reality.  I think that this is the worst thing you can do to someone who's thinking about farming -- basically by selling them false story, you're sabotaging their future efforts.

So if you propose a method of raising animals and it's actually harmful to the animals, or just plain impossible, or if you talk at length about something you've never done, and claim to be able to help others do what you haven't done... well, you get your own blog entry. 

The title of this post refers to a book that was first published in 1940; a customer, visiting New York city at the time sees a harbor full of the stock broker and dealers yachts, and asks that question:  "Where are all the customers yachts?"   

The take home lesson is that anyone who is promoting a particular action or scheme may not have a dog in that fight.    It's a lot easier to tell someone else to do than it is to do it. 

 In fact, I think if someone comes to you and asks you to be your financial planner, it's fair for you to ask to see their portfolio.  I've had probably 20 people pitch me on why they should manage my money (or start a retirement account, or pick a mutual fund or...) and I have never had one show me their own portfolio results.   It's funny, because they were proposing that I tell them the same information about my own personal finances as I was asking from them.  Honest is as honest does. 

With Natures Harmonys "farm school" class and with the topics that they love to talk about on, starting my farm, financing my farm,  organizing my farm, or anything else related to my farm, I want you to have actually done it on YOUR farm.  I get a lot of people who comment about this or that on my blog, or who call in a complaint to whatever government agency that they think will care (and a surprising number of them have), and every now and then someone comes to the farm gate with a question or comment, and I deal with all of them in as civil a manner as they approach me.  More so than most, I'll actually talk about what I do, how I do it, and when I do it.  I work hard to be patient with people. 

But where my patience is tried, where I find myself nearing the edge of my endurance, are folks who believe that they know better than me about how to do what I want to do on my farm.  The most formal of those folks are the regulatory agencies;  every one of them that I deal with believes that it's their mission to tell me what to do, and in fact, there is no negotiation or discussion of any sort.  ("Mr. King, we do not think you are taking this seriously!")   You will do what we want, or we'll put you out of business or fine you $10,000.00 a day

The second source of irritation are people who believe that by virtue of having a pile of money, or a spreadsheet, can tell other people how to start their farm, or be in farming in general. 

  But they leave out the big pile of money part.  Farming is a lot easier if you have a mattress or two of cash. 

  They'll teach classes about how to finance your farm, having purchased theirs with cash made somewhere else.  Or they'll speculate about how to make a profit, having never made a profit.   Or they'll promote themselves as expert farmers when they found that the job they created they needed to flee as it was destroying their life

Teach me how to run a sales or marketing firm and earn a few million bucks, and I'll take that class. Your credentials are good there.  You've actually done that.  Or any other venture you had some success in. 

But I think that folks who want to teach others how to make a profit should probably do that themselves, first. has been speculating, both in their podcast and in a blog entry.  Now mind you I think that they're all good folks, and hardworking -- but so far, I don't see any evidence that any of them have actually made what I consider a sustainable farm -- one that makes a profit, provides a decent wage for employees if there are any, and is a desirable job -- one that the farmer wants to do.

Full disclosure, folks.  If you are going to talk about profitable farming, why don't you start with your own credentials.  Tell us about the reality of the operation, what you do, what works, what doesn't.   If you're going to talk about balance sheets, how about you show me yours? 

And if you started your farm with a million bucks and a house on the golf course, why not talk about that, too?    I find the disney version of the story lacks the details that really make it useful. 

Update:  Prior to writing this, I did ask "dusty bottoms" this question:

"With respect to the podcast, are comments that disagree with topics that are discussed appropriate?  Or the conclusions made?

While Tim and Liz do have a point of view, it's not the only one.  A wider discussion is more fitting for a website that is aimed to help farmers.    If this is a broadcast-only medium, It'd be nice to know that up front. "

And I got this reply: 

Dusty Bottoms replied to their discussion "Farm Dreams Podcast Comments/Questions" on Farm Dreams
Yes, of course comments that respectfully disagree with any view on a blog or podcast are appropriate.  That's how we learn and grow.

Thanks for participating.

And then they banned me from their website 20 minutes later.  So much for open discussion. 

Slate article with similar story line

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Natures harmony, by any other name

Tim and Liz are back in the farm blog and podcast business, this time under the name

As usual, dissent - even questions - are not allowed.  My question about why they were operating under a pseudonym was deleted 7 minutes later, and a followup question to "marsha": 

"Marsha via 3:44 PM (10 minutes ago)
to Bruce

Marsha has sent you a message on Farm Dreams
Subject: Message from Form Administrator,
Hi Bruce,

Welcome to!  We're thrilled to have you as part of our community!
A comment posted by your account was removed from the forum.  As forum administrator I strive to keep all topics and comments focused on the threads and on the aim of, which is to encourage, inspire and help others to learn skills that relate to farming, preparedness and homesteading.  While I felt that your comment was not constructive and not on topic,  I hope you continue to utilize and find it useful.

went unanswered.  Well, welcome back, Tim and Liz.  Hope this works out better for you than your farming venture did. 

My experience with Tim and Liz is that while they claim to have reviews of their products online, no negative review, comment or anything other than glowing praise is ever published.  Try it out for yourself; rate their podcast on itunes as anything other than 5 stars (out of 5). 

Friday, January 27, 2012

What on earth do they feed dairy cattle?

One of the things that I try hard to do is to use food that would otherwise be wasted to produce my pork.  Most pig farms do that; it makes sense both from an economic and from an ecological point of view. 

Walter Jefferies just scored tons of dairy products in his operation, which, honestly, I'm jealous of.  I'd love to have a house of cheese, myself!  I guess I'll content myself with a mountain of pineapples
Yes, I really feed tons of pineapples to my pigs

But that's not the topic of the day.   I was reading the local paper, and I ran across an article about a local dairy farm that constructed an "anerobic digester" to produce power from the cow manure

Here's the quote from the photo gallery associated with that story: 

"The Werkhoven Dairy in Monroe, Wash. has 1,000 milking cows that produce milk for Darigold everyday. Recycling several products like beer and wine into the food for the cows is just one way the dairy has become a model of environmental sustainability"

Now wait just a second.  If you recycle food products back into animal feed, and feed it to animals, you're a "model of environmental sustainability"?!?!

 Let's review here: 

Feeding beer, wine, whey, and other stuff to dairy cows is a model of environmental sustainability. 

But feeding fruits and vegetables to pigs is "improper handling of solid waste"

Actual photo of fruits and veges we feed to the pigs, deemed "solid waste"

I think that the main difference between our operatoins is that the dairy farm receieved more than $1,000,000 (one million dollars) in grants and subsidies, and me, well, I'm not subsidized at all. 

That must be it.  If you get a million dollars, THEN you become a "model of environmental sustainability". 

I'll be waiting for my check. 

Farmhand update

New haircut is an improvement, Isaac!

I was in small claims court with Isaac Dozier earlier this week for our initial appearance.  I've written about the issue I had with Isaac, and then about serving him with papers from the lawsuit.  In addition to taking my equipment, Isaac also made complaints about me to the Washington department of labor and industries, the health department and so on.  Guess that's what I deserve for hiring him, eh? 

So I'm sitting there in small claims court, and they're calling the names of the people on the docket, and much to my surprise, I'm not the only person there to sue Isaac that day

When I served Isaac I wrote "...does this stuff happen to Isaac every day?", and I didnt' realize that it apparently does.

We sat down with a mediator, and basically I asked him to return my equipment and tools and I'd call it a day.  I don't hate the guy; I just want my stuff back.  He agreed.  The Labor and Industries complaint was the next topic, and after thinking about it, I said, ok, Isaac, I don't want to chase you around or deal with you any more.  I'll give you $100.00 if you drop that, and any other complaints you have. 

I did that not because I wanted to give him $100.00, but because it costs me time and money to deal  with labor and industries, and with my equipment and tools returned, I really didn't want to have to chase this guy around any more. 

He took the $100.00, and that resolved our basic issues. 

He asked me to remove the blog entries.  "It's just your opinion!" and I said "Isaac, when you do this sort of stuff there are consequences.  " 

6 months later Isaac appears to be unemployed. 

Oh yea:  The other person there to sue Isaac was a woman who was owed about $2,000.00.  This is the second time she's been in court with him.  Apparently they signed a lease together, and while he was working for me he wasn't paying his rent.  Or utilities.  Or anything.  She sued, got a judgement, and a payment plan.  Isaac apparently didn't make his payments, and she was back in court to get a judgement for the remaining amount. 

The judge listened to her testimony, looked at the original judgement, asked Isaac for his side, and then gave the woman everything she was asking for; judgement against Isaac. 

Take home lesson for me:  New employees get a background check and a credit check, no exceptions.  If they're not paying their bills or they have a record, I'm going to pass. 

Good luck, Isaac.   Good riddance. 

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

So you want to be a farmer...

 It's on the rainy, cold, freezing days that your determination to continue to farm gets tested.  We don't get much snow as a rule in western Washington, but we've gotten a foot or so.  The picture above is my large hoop house that I built back in 2009
 During heavy snows, I inspect the greenhouse to make sure that it's shedding snow as it should.  Everything looks ok on the outside.  The snow shoulders will actually insulate the greenhouse a little bit, making it a little warmer for the animals inside. 
 I'm standing just inside the end of the greenhouse, looking down to the far end.  There's about 75 grower pigs in here; the largest are just reaching 200lbs, the smallest are about 40lbs.  They're curious about me, grunting softly and coming up to nibble on my boots or push on my knee. 
 Normally I'd be using automatic waterers, but I have to consider that they'll get frozen during cold weather, so I switch them out for sheep troughs.  The pigs push at them, and if they get close to empty they will flip them over, but if you keep them full there's really no issue. 
 As I walk down the greenhouse I'm keeping an eye on the roof to make sure that the snow isn't piling up.  Snow can weigh a great deal, and if I find an area where it's not shedding I'll get a brace and raise the plastic in that area. 
 This is from the other end of the hoophouse, looking back at the entrance.  You can see the big feeder there in the distance.  At this end it's noticeably warmer; I'd guess 30 degrees.  This end is sealed, and between the pigs body warmth and the composting floor it's pretty comfortable.  Chilly, but nothing like outside. 
The snow continues to fall.  It's really pretty at this time of year. 

Monday, January 9, 2012

"Certified Naturally Grown" - what does it really mean?

Last month I wrote an entry on the USDA Organic certification program.  In writing that, I ran across another organization that also certifies farms, Certified Naturally Grown, or CNG for short.   

Here's the first paragraph from the wikipedia entry on CNG

"Certified Naturally Grown is a non-profit alternate farm assurance certification program created for small-scale organic farmers, and striving to strengthen the organic movement by preserving high organic standards and removing financial barriers that tend to exclude smaller farms that are selling locally and directly to their customers. "

That sounds pretty good; the basic idea is that it's too hard to keep up with the requirements of the USDA Organic certification program, so they get farmers to inspect other farmers, and is easier for the smaller farmer to deal with. 

What does it really mean? 

I'm not going to go into the nitty gritty details of what the certification process is, or what their requirements are.  You can see those on their website if your'e curious. 

As with the USA organic program, I think that  it's a reasonable expectation that anyone claiming to be certified actually follow the rules and practices, and, actually, that they be really certified.   I asked the following questions via email to, their contact address. 

What do you do in the following cases: 
1) A farm that claims to be Certified Naturally Grown that's never been certified by you
2) A farm that may have been CNG at some point, but is no longer, and still claims to be
3) Farms that are CNG certified, but no longer appear to be abiding by the certification agreement

I received the following response from Alice Varon, Executive Director of CNG

"...In situations 1 and 2, we ask them to discontinue using our name and logo.  In situation 3, it depends on the particulars, such as whether it's a willful violation or a misunderstanding, how serious the breach, and whether they will change their practices."  

I did a bit of searching, and found a farm that was claiming to be Certified Naturally grown.  I went to that farms website and found several references to being certified, along with a picture of their certification certificate.   To keep this on point, I'm not going to mention the name of the farm, but it's a pretty big name on the internet. 

I then went to CNGs website and looked up that farm.  No listing as certified by farm name, or even in the same state.  I was a bit confused by this, and wrote Ms. Varon asking for clarification: 

Me:  "I've looked at at length and cannot find a profile for , which apparently has been certified in the past.  Can you verify that is no longer CNG certified? 

Ms. Varon:  "That is correct, they are no longer certified"

I provided Ms. Varon a link to the certification certificate, the farms name, and other information on 12-23-2011.  As of today, about two weeks later, the claims remain on their website, and as far as the consumer can tell they're still Certified Naturally grown. 

Ok.  So they were certified at some point in the past.  Maybe their certification lapsed recently.  I asked Ms Varon about that directly.  Three times.  I finally got this answer: 

Ms. Varon: "...Regarding , we don't provide information about farms that are not currently certified with our program."

Here's the biggest problem I have with this: 

1) No apparent action taken when they are put on notice that a farm is violating their policy. 

2) No way for the consumer to know why a farms certification was removed.  Was it bad practices?  Bad husbandry?   I'd like to know why a farm is no longer certified.  Voluntary?  Who knows?

3) And finally, because of this organizations reliance on farmers inspecting other farmers, I'm a little skeptical that their standards are being uniformly applied across all of their certified farms. 


  Third party certification programs have standards are are, basically, random.  I think of them as little trade groups; special interest groups, not much different than the big agriculture farm lobby.  They're out to sell you a story, same as any other brand in advertising.    

There's basically no history behind CNG with respect to a farm.  If you want to see what a particular farms records are, you're out of luck.   Contrast that to government based certification -- open government laws mean that if you really want to, you can look at just about any document that they have on file about a particular farm.  Not so with these guys.  They won't even tell me the dates of certification, reason for it being pulled, or anything about a farms records.  Have they lost their certification many times?  No one knows.  Strike that.  CNG knows, but they won't tell. 

They take no apparent action when put on notice that a farm is violating their policies.  That is inexcusable. 

Farmer-to-farmer inspections are a little suspect, in my opinion.  Remember that CNG is about creating a brand.  The last thing that most brands want is any sort of controversy about their brand, or standards.  In my opinion, if I'm inspecting the guy down the road, and he is inspecting me, well, there's a lot of reasons that I can think of that I might overlook a practice or lapse.    I can't even tell who did the inspection of any particular farm.  Anonymity is the enemy of public trust. 

I'd give CNG a solid D rating as a certification organization, based on these issues.   Sounds good on paper, but the implementation sucks.  


Saturday, January 7, 2012

The learning curve

 There are areas of my farm that you really don't want to drive a tractor at this time of year.  We're about halfway through the wet season, and the ground has had three months of rain to soak up.  One of the farmhands decided that he'd drive down the fenceline, using the tractor to retrieve a calf dome that he wanted to use to house some chickens. 
 What he didn't know is that down that fenceline is an old drainage ditch that's overgrown.  He thought that the new tractor was OK with puddles; but it wasn't a puddle.  It was deep. 
 When I got the call last night I was downtown, working my day job, and headed in to see what I had to do to get the tractor out.  Sometimes by stacking stuff under the front loader you can generate enough lift to get the front tires out of the mud, throw a couple of hay bales in under them, and then back up -- as you back off the hay bales under the front tires it helps you get grip with the rear, and you "paddle" with the front loader, and the combination will get you out.  But not this time.  As we lifted the front of the tractor it slid farther down the mud and deeper into the drainage ditch, and tilted pretty alarmingly.  After a couple of hours of this, I shut it down for the night -- too dangerous to work after dark on this.  Propping the front loader on a pile of hay bales, I went home. 

I never sleep well when I've got equipment in the mud, and so I got up early in the morning, headed down to the farm, and worked off my energy doing some chores. 
 After looking at it in the morning, I had the culprit attach a chain to the draw bar on the back of the stuck tractor.  This involved basically shoveling freezing muck out of the way, and then reaching your entire arm into freezing water up to the shoulder to scoop handfuls of freezing muck out of the way, and then to run the chain through the attachment.  One way you learn not to do this is to have to fix what you've done.  I'm pretty sure that the message got through. 
 Once the chain was in, I brought the other big tractor over, and the proceeded to paddle with the front loader and use the tires in very low gear, and pull with the other tractor.  The combination of all of that managed to pull the stuck tractor out. 
 It was entirely covered with mud, pretty much up to the bottom of the cab.  Pressure washing time, inspect to see what sort of damage was done, and back to work. 
This is the main reason that I'm inclined to keep two big tractors around.  They can pull each other out of the soup. 

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Final concrete

I know, you're probably bored by now, but I'm glad to have gotten the hard (and most expensive) part of the new barn complete.  The slab is down, level and turned out pretty nicely. 
30' wide by 80' long.

It's strong enough to walk on now, but I'll wait two or three weeks for it to cure before putting any weight on it.  At this point we can use it to bend the hoops that will form the roof.  I've already got the ecology blocks on site.  With the hoops bent and brackets fabricated it'll take a day or so to stack the walls and roof it.  Really looking forward to having it done.  

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Todays progress on barn

The holidays have complicated the barn construction; gravel pits are closed, concrete suppliers won't deliver, people want days off.  That's one thing that I do miss about working an office job; Friday used to be the day before I got a couple of days off.   Now the only reason I noticed it's Friday is that the bank is open later, and Saturday and Sundays are when the bank isn't open. 

The slab is turning out pretty nicely.  What we've poured is 18' x 80'; we still have the last 12' section to pour, and then some additional flatwork around it;  since I'm doing the work, I might as well put concrete around the faucets and around the water shutoff valve and so on, basically make everything neat and tidy

...and harder for the hired hands to run over or snap off or otherwise break.  We've had a rash of stuff get broken.   

The slab is pretty flat; the water you see in the distance is 1/16' of an inch deep at the deepest point (I measured it to see if I needed to do some rework there -- that's fine) and we've managed to get it down between downpours.  No freezing weather on the forecast; lows in the 40s for the next few days, so by the time it gets around to freezing again the concrete should be fine. 

I had a comment about animals and tracks.  I've got a few geese that are mostly pasture ornaments (well, not mostly.  They are pasture ornaments) and they've been the worst offenders.  You can see some goose tracks across the slab. 

Glad that this part is getting close to finished.  One more pour and the hard part will be done.  The rest of it will go up pretty quickly -- as in 1-day quickly.