Wednesday, June 27, 2012


As with any business, I've got accounting that needs to be done, and the guy I use is over in Bremerton, Wa.  Which means, when I go see him, about once a quarter, I get to do the ferry ride thing.  I have an excuse to ride the ferry. 

This is from the water looking at downtown Seattle.  the ferry ride is about an hour.  Lovely summer day today.  70 degrees, small breeze. 


Sunday, June 24, 2012

tractor time

 Spent the day today mowing a neighbors field.  It was a poplar plantation for the last 15 years and was recently harvested, leaving 6" tall stumps every 5 feet in rows.  over that has grown blackberries and grass and other vegetation, and the fellow would like to see what his land is like. 

I'm a little amused by this; I've been down here on this ground for going on 7 years now, and it took me a few years to work out how to deal with the terrain here.  It's wet and boggy, and the water table is high.  He tried using a small rental tractor to mow this, but it didn't have enough clearance, and it kept getting stuck; high centering on the stumps or just stalling out when the brush hog hit something thick. 
The kubota 9580 is my older kubota, and it's a pretty good mowing platform.  about 18" of ground clearance, 4x4 and the front load lets you paddle backwards out of the mud if you get into something deep, and there are deeps on this land. 

I'm doing the work for $25/hour, which is mostly a neighbor rate.  It's interesting to see what it takes to mow it.  With the stumps completely hidden by the vegetation it's a bit of mowing by Braille; I move forward in low gear and listen to how the brush hog sounds.   It's an 8' dual-rotor brush hog, offset to the left, and it hums a little when it's at full RPM.  the worst thing to hit by sound is an old tire; it sounds bad, but it doesn't hurt anything.  The stumps are pretty solid though, and I have to be careful not to snag the front edge of the mower deck on them as I pass over.  So I'm mowing about 12" above the ground. 

I put the front loader down so that it's just above the weight mount on the front, so I don't run into something tall by accident, to guard my radiator from damage.  It makes it hard to see in front of the tractor, but there's not much to see.  an 8' tall wall of solid green.  

It's not a pasture; the rows were the trees were are raised a little.  Mowing across the rows is a little like going across a corduroy fabric; I can feel the wheels go up and down.  Slow and careful; the brush hog whirs.  My hands on the lift control; I bring it up when I hit something hard, down when I'm over it; up when I feel the tires slip into the depressions.

my hand and ears are occupied, and I can think about things.  I've got NPR on, and they're talking about the internal politics of some nation.  I can't work up interest; I can't even remember the name of the nation.   the brush hog lets me know it's hit a stump by jumping up an down 2' and the percussion triggers my hand.  I look behind to see if it was a stump; sometimes it's some bit of debris from the house that used to be in this field, or flood debris from sometime in the past.  yes, it was a stump this time. 

The fellow I'm mowing for is a new landowner; and I don't think he knows what the math will be here.  He wants an acre mowed, which is fine, but with the stumps and soft ground and debris, I'll do a pass over the entire property once, but bypass debris and soft areas, so the mowing will look incomplete, mangy. 

I'll keep at it until his budget tells me to stop.  the tractors right front tire dips, and the tractor comes to a complete stop.  lift the mower deck, reverse, look to see what I hit.  A tall stump, hidden by the grass.  24" tall; it hit the weight guard in the front of the tractor; I move around it. 

Beautiful day.  new cut grass smells great.  kinda peaceful.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Cabelas charity fundraiser

 One of our pigs went to a fundraiser at Cabelas, but this time, it wasn't on the menu.   The fundraiser was for Cabelas Employees Foundation. 
 The basic idea was that each store manager had a fund contributed to by employees.  The manager that raised the most money got the prize!
 Derek's fund was the largest, and a large crowd gathered for the prize. 

Andrea, Derek and the gilt
 To make this easier, we chose a a friendly little pig, but you couldn't tell that  from Dereks expression
 He also got a little stuffed pig as a momento.
 Derek was a gentleman, and comforted the little pig afterwards.  Here he's singing to it. 

A good time was had by all -- well, the pig got tired of being held at at end, but a good time was had by most.,  Good cause, happy to help. 

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Wolfkill feed closes stanwood mill

I've written about my struggles to buy local, and I've written about Wolfkill in the past, but learned today that they were closing their Stanwood feed mill for good. 

Bill Gauch Called in in October of 2011: 
For what it's worth, all the indicators are there to suggest your local mill is going to be out of business soon. I'm guessing the reason they couldn't fill your orders in the form you wanted was because they had already bagged up the feed they had and couldn't pay for more until they sold what they had. The fact that they ran out would suggest that they are not even squeaking by. At the very least, it seems like they aren't running either side of their business very well.
 Absolutely right, Bill. 

It's sad to see; they were a locally owned and operated mill that provided a good quality product since the 1920s.

I have never understood why they didn't pursue the retail markets for their feed.  There's more dollars of feed sold today than there has been at any time in the past, its just in 50lb bags and for things like horses and chickens and pigs.

The basic issues seemed to be that the profit margin wasn't there for feed; that the biggest customers, dairy farmers, were the least able to pay their bills, so they had a lot of receivables, and that the mill was going to need some maintenance that would be costly.

Just to give you an idea of what I was thinking:  They were selling feed at $400 a ton; which ends up being about $10 for a 50lb bag.

All of the feed stores in this area are selling bags of pig feed for $15-20/bag.  A simple retail store with a little work could have sold them feed at $800 a ton, and they could have supplied a local feed to every retail store -- even if it cost more than cargill, people will pay a little extra for local.

So they could have been making a nice profit, but they pursued the declining dairy market until it was nearly dead, and ignored the booming sack feed market.   And then sold the business to cargill instead of another local mill. 


click to enlarge

Custom tractor work

One of my neighbors called me and asked me to do some mowing for him, so I had an excuse to go to pacific industrial supply in Seattle.    It's actually one of my favorite places to go and look at industrial equipment. 

They do a lot of work for the fishing fleet that is based in Seattle; so there's always a pretty interesting selection of chains and cables and stuff that goes with it. 
 They have both new stuff, like in the picture above, or used stuff, like in the picture below.  There's times when I don't know exactly what will solve the problem i'm working on, so I'll spend some time staring at a bin of random bits and something will leap out at me. 
 Some of the clevis are really huge, like that one to the right of my foot. 
 Bins and bins of this stuff.  What i'm working on is to stabilize the three-point lift arms on the back of my tractor.  The factory-supplied chains and turnbuckles broke, and I'm just tired of having to pay gold-plated prices to fix it and wait 2-3 weeks.  So I'm going to replace it with locally sourced parts so that when it breaks again I can just fix it with stuff on hand. 
 They want $3500 for this JD gator.  Don't know if that's a good price.  When it's used stuff there's usually some dickering before you get to the real price.  It's rare that I've paid the asking price for stuff like this. 
 This is, apparently, plastic-coated chain.  Some sort of elevator use.  Couple of hundred feet of it.  Guess if I need it, I know where to go!

Unique vehicle

I was in downtown seattle to buy some parts for my tractor, and saw this food truck.  Being that it's pig-themed, I liked it. 

Here's the homepage for the business

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Meat rustlers

One of two calves shot and butchered in the pasture

If you wonder how bad the recession is, people are stealing meat in Spain.  But not in the shoplifting sense -- they're shooting and butchering the animals right in the field.   Meat isn't the only thing being stolen -- most food crops are targeted. 

You'll find the details in this story, courtesy of the Seattle Times. 

We do have livestock theft in the US -- when I was driving my new stock trailer back I was stopped in Montana by a state trooper who carefully inspected my trailer to make sure it was empty -- apparently large trailers with out-of-state plates are suspicious in rural areas, but I've never seen cows get butchered in the fields. 

It's tough all over. 

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Coop Farmer-owned USDA slaughterhouse

Note and disclaimer:  I went to this organizational meeting,and here's the writeup.  This writeup is solely my opinion, based on the notes I took at the meeting and the materials they presented at the meeting, and may or may not reflect the views of North Cascade meats; if you'd like to contact them directly you can do so at  I have no connection of any sort with them other than as an interested meat producer. 

Update:  They've posted a video of the meeting on youtube.  You'll find it here

North Cascades meats the name of a group of meat producers in the north part of the state that wants to start their own USDA slaughterhouse to process their beef, pork and lambs.

 The meeting itself was done in an auditorium, and a slide presentation was done by the board of the proposed group.  The audience was a mix of farmers and meat retailers, with a few consumers here and there.  I'd guess that around 100 people attended.

Background information:  
There are three ways for an animal to get to your table in Washington State right now:

1) You own the animal and process it yourself
2) You contract with a custom slaughter/farm kill guy, and then send it to a meat shop for cut-and-wrap
3) the meat is slaughtered at a USDA plant and cut-and-wrapped at an inspected facility*

if you choose option 1, you can't legally sell or give away the meat.
If you choose option 2, as a farmer, you can sell a whole or half animal (or a quarter, with beef) to someone, but nothing less than that, and you cannot sell individual cuts, but you cannot do any value-added with the meat.  (sausage, bacon, ready-to-eat, etc)
If you choose option 3, you can sell individual cuts and have the possibility of doing value-added products.  

What this coop would like to do is make option 3 easier for small producers, allow the small producer to realize a better price from their production, and ensure that the ability to bring animals to market won't be cut off** at some point in the future, and to provide an outlet for the entire production  by cooperatively pooling. 

The meeting
It seemed like these guys are doing two separate things.

  The first thing that they'd like to do is start their own slaughterhouse to ensure their ability to reach their markets, and to have the cost of that slaughter be as reasonable as it could be.

  The second is to establish a brand name and produce that can be used to increase the value of the products that they sell.

Both of these goals are good, and both are doable, but the meeting suffered a bit because there was some confusion on the audiences; I know that it wasn't clear to me what was being proposed until the meeting was pretty much over and I talked directly to a couple of the board members.

Rancher concerns
The audience was a mixed bag of producers.  I'd say that the cattle guys were probably the largest group, and I think the most vocal, too, and had the hardest time with the branding aspect of this proposal.  The proposed brand that they'd like to have for their beef is for a grass-fed beef market; which raised many concerns from the audience about the standards that would be maintained.  How much grain could be fed?  (simple answer:  None)  Is corn silage considered grain?  What if I train my cows to be led around with a bucket of feed for ease of handling -- does that disqualify me?   What am I allowed to feed my cows in the winter?  Do I really have to finish cows in January?  There were lots of questions like this.  

My opinion is that they could have made this much simpler by presenting it like this:

"We propose to pay $xxxx per cow that meets our specs.  If you'd like to get that price, here are our specs.  If your cows don't meet them for some reason, that's fine, we'll still process your cows and you can still be a member, you just can't sell under the brand name.  We may establish many brand names in the future, but we're going to start with grass fed initially.  "

What having a brand does for the ranchers long-term is it provides a consistent supply for larger customers.  If I produce 10 cows that' won't keep a steakhouse busy for more than a month; so we need 11 other producers to cover the other months.

In addition, there is a need to be able to sell the non-steak portions of the cow, and to provide a consistent supply meat to our larger customers -- year-round supply.  

It sounded like, from the Q&A, that there would be several ranchers who would have to change the operations in order to supply the coop.

Pig and Lamb producer concerns
There appeared to be no general agreement on what could be fed to pigs and qualify for the north cascades brand; some people said no commercial grains; others said pasture access was key; other people talked about husbandry standards.  I did not come away from this meeting with the feeling that I understood what it would take to have my pigs conform to their brand standard.  I don't feed the majority of my pigs commercial grains, but I do from time to time buy feed.  And if you've read this blog you know that I'm skeptical about anyone who claims to raise pigs on pasture alone.

I'll be interested in seeing what happens with this proposal.   

 A local steakhouse owner got up and talked about how he really liked the idea of a local beef coop, and that the brand would sell well, as did the general manager of a local food coop, who sells $3 million in meat a year and has 13,000 members.  There is clearly a market for a local brand.

*Inspected facility:  You can produce value-added products in either a county-inspected facility such as a restaurant or commercial kitchen or farm kitchen,  or a USDA inspected meat-packing facility.  If you are producing these items in a county-inspected facility you can only sell the products on your premises.  If you're in a USDA inspected facility you can sell across state lines or retail.  

**Cut off:  Small-scale USDA slaughter is not a very profitable business; it's not very sexy, and it's not got a high enough margin to attract people who aren't in the industry to it.  As a result there's very little new investment in capacity, and when one of these slaughterhouses come up for sale it's often very difficult to sell them.  Some of them never get sold; the equipment is auctioned and the plant closes down.  When they do get sold, it's often to people who use them to provide only their own production, and as a result it reduces capacity even further.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

All beef is grass fed... beef prices this year

I've been in the market for a few steers I can raise this year, and prices at the auction for them have been high-very high.  Higher than I've ever seen them. 

Last years prices were high, too, but we're probably up 30-50% since last year.  What's going on? 

What's causing the beef price increase is the decrease in the US herd -- supply and demand, mostly.  The US cow herd is at the lowest level since 1950.  Ranchers have been selling animals for the last few years that they'd normally keep and breed.  

The main reason for that is drought in the plains states.   Almost all beef cattle start out as grass-fed.  They're raised on pasture with their mothers for the first months of their life before they're weaned and sent off to the next step in the process. 

Calf production has been in the decline for the last 16 years straight, but drought has accelerated that process in the last couple of years, and you can expect to see record prices for beef in 2013.

Right now ground beef is wholesaling for $3/lb.

Most of the ranchers around me are looking pretty happy.  At these prices, they'll make a good profit on their animals. 

On my own farm I've purchased 20 steers which I'll raise on grass and sell in 2013.

Grasspunk just slaughtered a bull to eat.  Pictures here

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Airedale pups

We're just about to wean a litter of airedale pups.  They're about as cute as can be.  DOB 5-15-2012

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

USDA slaughter: North cascade meats

One of the local USDA slaughter plants has changed ownership, and they're having an organizational meeting to introduce their plans TOMORROW, June 7th. You'll find the details here

I'll be attending; sorry about the short notice.  I just found out tonight. 

Family Milk cow project: Raw milk and money

I've written a series about raising a family milk cow.  To see the first entry in the series, click here.
To see the previous entry in the series, click here.

I look at a family milk cow as being part of a basic ladder of farm animals that a homestead needs.  My personal goal is to raise as much of the food that I eat as I can.  I look at a family milk cow as being a step along that progression.

Anytime I look at adding an animal to my farm it's part of my nature to look at the money that it might make for the farm, and there's something very interesting about raw milk right now.

It's selling for $13 a gallon. 

For me, at that price, it's very interesting.  A good cow will produce between 4 and 6 gallons of milk a day -- and that means a potential revenue of $52 to $78 a day.  Using the lower figure, and figuring on a milking cycle of 10 months, we're looking at a revenue of $15,600 per cow. 

The sharp reader will note that I'm skipping various costs; licensing, feed, shelter, equipment and so on, but the bottom line is that it's an interesting enough business that it's worth exploring a little. 

Dungeness valley Creamery reports on their website:

"...Besides selling milk at the dairy, the Brown’s sell their milk in a number of stores across Washington. They can sell their milk for 4-and-one-half times the price they received when they sold it to the coop. While there are some new expenses, the profits, besides keeping Sarah on the farm, have allowed the Browns to hire additional help...."

Now that sounds pretty darned good for the business model.  Sell the same product at 4.5 times the price other people do, keep the family on the farm, provide a good income.

The downside is that there's always the chance that your dairy operation will get linked to an outbreak of something.  Dungeness valley Creamery had that problem in 2009:

"...The patients all report drinking raw milk produced by the Dungeness Valley Creamery in Sequim. No E. coli has been found in samples from the dairy's current batch of milk, but during an investigation at the dairy, WSDA found the same bacteria that caused one of the illnesses...."

I want to be clear here:  I don't make any judgement on Dungeness Creameries product or practices, and I don't know anything more than what I've read.  But even if you're not at fault, defending yourself against civil suits costs money, and sometimes a lot of money.  

Food liability law
Jason Foscolo is an attorney whos area of practice includes food law and related disciplines.   Here's what he says about raw milk in this blog entry:

"...The reason we are seeing more outbreaks also stems from ignorance of the law. Even in states where selling raw milk is legal, dairies still have to face strict liability in civil court for the harm caused by their products. If farmers had a better understanding of the almost-absolute duty the law imposes on them to make food that is safe to eat, they would either leave the raw milk business altogether or implement the technologies and practices that would lower the overall incidence of infection. The up-tick in outbreaks tells us neither is being done, and that is a shame for the farmers who may have to part with land to compensate the sick."

So let me paraphrase what he's saying here:  If the outbreak of illness is serious enough, you may lose everything in the resulting lawsuits related to the outbreak.   You may lose your farm or some portion of it.  That's a pretty serious penalty.

Distributors and retailers are at risk, too.

Whole foods and Puget Sound Consumers Coop (PSCC) no longer carry raw milk products on their shelves.  There are probably a variety of reasons for that choice, but one of them might be what happened to Jensen farms.

A quick summary:  Cantaloupe grown at this Colorado farm were linked to an outbreak of illness in 2011.  The outbreak was serious, and the cantaloupes were shipped to 30 states.  According to the story linked to above, the outbreak of illness killed at least 30 people, sickened at least 146 and caused at least one miscarriage.  

Jensen farms itself has declared bankruptcy.  The company that installed equipment and a safety-audit firm and the insurance that the farm itself had resulted in a pool of about $4 million to pay the victims, but it doesn't end there.  From the story:

"...The plaintiffs might also pursue claims against others involved in the distribution and sale of the cantaloupes."  Bill Marler, attorney for 39 of he plaintiffs.

This is a huge risk, and one that many small producers of milk or food products in general might overlook.  With this in mind, it makes selling the raw milk a lot less attractive.

 Managing risk
Businesses usually manage this sort of risk by both adopting the best practices and by carrying both the right kind of and an adequate amount of insurance.   If I were to start a raw milk operation I'd probably want to spend a reasonably large sum of  money on attorneys to set up a business structure that would help my farm survive in the event of an outbreak. 

Here's a fellow who was apparently involved in the Dungeness creamery outbreak:
"Greg - January 15, 2010 7:39 PM
I am a huge supporter of raw milk and of buying all my food local, but I am also the "Vancouver man in his 30's" who got sick presumably from this milk. While I know it could have been from a number of sources, I am fairly sure it was the milk. I purchased the 1/2 gallon on Oct 28th at Whole Foods in Vancouver and took it straight home. I poured a big glass, took 2 huge gulps and nearly threw up, it was absolutely awful. It was acrid and sour and smelled so bad I nearly threw up again. Four days later my stomach started hurting, 7 days later I was in the ER in incredible pain. I missed nearly 3 weeks of work it was so bad. While I am nearly positive it was the milk, I did not lawyer up like the others and have asked nothing from the company, that would go against everything I believe in, although it did make me look a little stupid to get sick from something I am always telling others to do. Maybe one day I will have the nerve to drink raw milk again but not yet. "

I must say that I admire Gregs resolve and convictions in this case; he believes in choice and that he made an informed choice and decided to take responsibility for that choice personally.  But I can't bet my farm on finding customers who have Greg's amazing willpower to stick to his principles. 


Friday, June 1, 2012

We'll be supplying a pig for...

burning beast picture courtesy of their facebook page

We will be supplying a pig for Burning Beast, a local food extravaganza that benefits a local non-profit that... well, they're one of the organizations that seems to hate farming, but, well, what are you gonna do?    Rubicon Seattle

I say that they hate farming because what they seem to be doing with the farm that they purchased in 1993 is destroying it as a farm.  "Unfarming" is prominently displayed in their  website and their primary comments about the land stewardship is that they're restoring wetlands and rechanneling salmon spawning creeks and so on.  Which is fine and good, but couldn't there be some room for farming on this farm, too?    And farming, to me, means animals.

Farmland here is precious, and every acre that's lost means less opportunity for someone to produce that local food.  Whether it's lost to development, "restoration" or housing, it's lost, and often permanently.  

I say farming means animals because this fundraiser is pretty much a BBQ extravaganza!   They have hundreds of acres (385 acres, actually); some of it looks like very good pasture.  You'd think that this wonderful resource would be used to produce some of the local food that they celebrate -- animals.  How about a flock of sheep?  or some beef cows?  They've got pictures of 50 chickens being BBQ'd -- how about a few that got raised there?

Don't get me wrong -- local food is good, and a venue where local food is celebrated is great.  But shouldn't we actually be using our local farm resources to produce that local food?

Burning beast is July 15th, meats come off the grill at 5pm.

American Hutterites followup

I wrote an entry about a national geographic series on hutterites yesterday and thought that folks interested in the subject might want to read some commentary by people who are facing hutterites as business competitors. 

Personally, I think that they're fearsome competitors.  Apparently so do many Canadian firms who have them compete for projects and contracts. 

You'll find an article about it here, but the real meat-and-potatoes information is in the comment section. 

Selected excerpts: 

"...if you seem to be so concerned about improving your profits why would you go and tell everybody that your competitor sells better products for less money than you can. and also why don't you try the hutterite model in your company. Everybody works for a common good, the wealth is shared among all the employees, not just for personal gain of the owner, and everybody will be well taken care of. People will be provided with a home, transportation and food, what more do you need "

"...Every year they gain a bit more market share and they gain a bigger customer base,"

"...Yes, they are perfectly "free" to leave with absolutely no strings attached! Except that they haven't paid in to EI or CPP all their lives so they aren't entitled to Canada pension or EI if they are out of a job. And I'm pretty sure (correct me if I'm wrong) they can't liquidate their share of the property when they leave so they're broke too."