Thursday, February 28, 2013

"Critical Area Regulations"

Snohomish county has a dwindling number of farms; over time, the county that I live in and farm in is becoming a bedroom community for people who live and work in King County, and for people who work at various industries in Snohomish county itself, like Boeing

Both the state and local government are very interested in regulating land use, and in particular, those areas that contain water, are adjacent to water, have contained water in the past, might contain water in the future.   Since this regulation is very important to the local agencies, they always name it something urgent.  In this case its "critical areas".   Water is the key element here, and since  we get a lot of rainfall, this basically means all land. 

Farmers tend to own or use large tracts of land; by regulating the use of farmland, you get more bang for your buck, as far as these agencies are concerned.  There are also fewer voters.  If you pass a regulation on farmland, you get to control 100 acres and 1 voter.  If you pass a regulation on houses, you get 1/16th or less of an acre, and thousands of voters.  And thousands of angry voters can vote you out.  1 angry voter doesn't have much of a voice. 

Most of the available farm land that is economically viable for farmers is in the river flood plains, some protected by dikes, some not, and all of it is considered "shoreline", no matter how far it is from the water.  Most if it is also considered wetland, or, in the language of these rules, "critical areas"

So a lot of regulatory effort is actually aimed directly at farmers and farmland because it's easy, and cheap, and the people you're regulating don't have much of a voice, generally speaking.

I attended a meeting sponsored by the Snohomish  Growers Association, where members of the county planning agency, PDS (Snohomish County Planning and Development Services) were presenting the new "Critical Area Regulations" to a largely silent group of growers and farmers.   For the rest of this, I'll use "wetland" to mean the same as "Critical Area". 

The audience are mostly people who are actively growing food (animal and vegetable) or operating agritourism businesses in Snohomish county.  Many of the people in the room had tens or hundreds of acres of land that they farmed, and a couple had a thousand or more.  This meeting, and these regulations, directly affected all of them.    It was hosted at Swans Trail Farm, a farm that specializes in agritourism and hosts weddings and meetings and so on. 

One of the biggest things that farmers hate about the current regulations is that they specify large, fixed-sized buffers between things that take permits, like building a barn, and "critical areas"/wetlands, which are defined as... well, in my experience, it's pretty much anywhere the county doesn't want you to do something.   Yes, there's some talk about "wetland indicator plants" and "wetland soil conditions" and "standing water during the growing season", but it boils down to the fact that most of the time you have to prove your land isn't a wetland or critical area, via consultant usually, for thousands of dollars, before you can be issued a permit to do anything.  Fixing your driveway?  Prove that it's not a wetland.  Want to build a loafing shed?  Could be a wetland under it.  Prove that it's not.    Not sure what a wetland is?  You have to hire a qualified wetland biologist to say whether it is, or is not, a wetland.   What's a qualified wetland biologist?  See below. 

Part of the reason that it's set up this way is that it is very popular with folks who work in the industry.  There's a pretty sizeable payroll of wildlife/wetland biologists and consultants to help you write things like a "Salmonid species and resident killer whale habitat plan", and they're overjoyed to do that for you at $3,000 a pop.   there are classes to teach people how to become killer whale consultants.  there are continuing education credits for it.  And there's money to be made on this whole industry that has sprung up around these regulations.  There's your money to be made.  All of this stuff increases the cost of your farming operation, and all of it slows down anything you want to do with your land or your farm.

One of the biggest risks that you run when you start down the wetland biologist path, is that the State Department of Ecology can deem your land to be "constructively abandoned" and decide that the entire area is now a wetland and can no longer be farmed at all.  It happened to me, folks.  I lost 25% of my acreage on one parcel exactly this way.  I'd be very careful about biologists, and I'd be particularly careful to be out on that land tilling or mowing or otherwise working it.  Cut down any tree that approaches 6" in diameter - if they're bigger than that they're deemed evidence that you've abandoned the land.  Mow all plants down regularly.  Consider spraying everything with a herbicide if you can't mow it.  If you don't do this, you can lose the ability to farm your land, and probably most of the value of that land, too.   

The regulations that they're changing are the county regulations.  These have no effect on the regulations that the Washington State Department of Ecology enforces, or the regulations that the Army Corps of Engineers enforces, or the regulations that the Snohomish County Surface Water Management department enforces.  So if you're contemplating some farming related thing, you may have to coordinate and appease multiple overlapping regulatory agencies before you can do anything, under either the existing regulations or the new, proposed regulations.   Even if you comply with county regulations they offer no defense to these other agencies.  Being square with the county is only the first step, not the last when it comes to regulations. 

Now to be fair, all of these same laws apply to things like single family houses; in theory, if you have a wetland in your backyard, you're supposed to go through the same process, but in practice, that's too many voters, and too little land, and there is effectively no enforcement of these issues past the issuance of a building permit.   So if you've got a wetland in your backyard, you can probably cover it in a concrete patio.  But farmland is monitored for compliance, and there are reports on "environmental degradation", because, well, we gotta save the environment.  No matter what the cost, especially if we (the people regulating this stuff) don't have to pay the bill.  Lets soak the farmers with the costs to comply with all of these regulations -- they are made of money, after all.   

So during this talk they said that if you had a wetland in the 5,000 to 10,000 square foot size that you could probably farm it, but as I pointed out, I could jump over a 5,000 square foot wetland. That's 1/8th of an acre.  In terms of farming acreage, this stuff is basically meaningless; it doesn't do the average farmer any good.  So I personally took no comfort from it. 

The new regulations allow you to to use "best management practices" to qualify for permits for things on your farm.  So in the old system you'd have a fixed-sized buffer, say 150', between you and wetlands.   Buffers range in size from tens to hundreds of feet wide.   Under the new regulations, if you use a farm plan or BMPs (Best Management Practices) you'll be able to place a barn inside the buffer. That sounds good, right?  Be able to use more of your land, place buildings and infrastructure where you need them, and generally speaking farm with less interference.

Well, sort of. 

What they're doing here is adding an additional agency, the Snohomish County Conservation Distrct, into the mix.  They're saying that you can have a farm plan developed by this agency, and that PDS only needs to see that portion of your farm plan that covers the wetlands, and that this farm plan will then allow you to get your permit.  And the farm plan will be developed using "best management practices", as listed in the USDA Field office Technical Guide. 

Now there's some language that says you can use "other" practices that are considered "best", but in practice that usually means a fight, and that means legal fees and delays, and as someone who's paid my fair share of legal fees and endured my fair share of delays, the bottom line is that if it's not in the manual forget it unless you have money to burn. 

I asked the audience at this meeting, about 60 people who are actively involved in agriculture, how many had read that manual, or had any idea about the proposed "best management practices that they may be required to perform to get a permit". 

None.  Not one farmer had any idea what they were being asked to agree to. 

Here's how it works:  You want to build a barn.  You go and apply for a permit.  Maybe there's wetlands, maybe not.  You may end up having to hire a wetland biologist to figure it out -- because they won't take your word for it, you only own the land, you're not a member of the green money machine.  That wetland biologist may, or may not, turn you into multiple agencies either during, or after the work.  As a private citizen, they're allowed to report anything they want to any regulatory agency they'd like.  Be nice to your wetland biologist.  It's a little like that old mafia line...  "gosh, you sure have a nice farm here.  It's be a real shame if it got all covered with regulators and fines and stuff....  a real shame"

So if you don't want to have that fight, you could just assume that there are wetlands.  Now you contact the Snohomish Conservation district and over the course of a few weeks or months, you work out a farm plan with them, and part of that farm plan will require various practices and procedures which have been deemed "best".  In truth,  many of these are currently used, some are not, some are expensive, some are not.  My point here is that you don't find out what you're going to be asked to do until you get into this process, and you WILL NOT be issued a permit unless you go through this process.  And once you're done with it any regulatory agency that wants to can supeona that document and use it against you.   The portion of that document that you submit to PDS becomes a public record that can be viewed by anyone who wants to submit a public disclosure request.  So when you're working on your farm plan you have to consider that it's all going to be public, or could become public.  But we'd all be ok with everyone knowing everything about our farm, or the way we are organized, or our practices and future plans.  Right? 

This new regulation is doing what is referred to by attorneys as "inclusion by reference".  The biggest change in the current regulations is that you are going to be required to adhere to a new set of rules that you don't know anything about, as a condition of getting any permit of any sort from the county. 

There's a term -- "buying a pig in a poke", which is basically buying a pig in a sack.  You hope that it's a good pig in that sack, but you aren't going to see it before you pay your money. 

This regulation is exactly that.  Buying a pig in a poke.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The daily

I recently purchased a large grinder, a hobart model 4346 Mixer/grinder.   It can grind 200lbs of meat at a time.  I've been looking for a big meat grinder for a while, and ran across one at a price that I liked.    This particular unit was in the meat shop of a grocery store, and produced all of the locally ground beef that the store sold.  It came with a variety of grinding plates and accessories. 
 The overall condition of the grinder was good; the decals and labels are all good, and the basic grinder itself is constructed of stainless steel; which is a great material for food-handling stuff.  it's easy to clean, looks good when its clean,and you can sanitize it pretty easily.  This grinder in particular was in use up to the point that I purchased it, and honestly, the cleaning that they did wasn't up to the standards that I usually keep.  So I'm going through it now and cleaning the entire thing. 
Its a meat grinder.  Do we really need instructions? 
 The decals are actually required by various state agencies, and if they're not clearly legible you have to replace them.  They're all in good shape here. 

Spend the 7 cents!
 This hatch on the grinder gives you access to the inside to check transmission oil levels and clean, and it secured by 36 small screws.  Now I've got to say that having a hatch that you need to open secured by small screws seems like a bad engineering choice, but what really got me was that when I got this grinder the previous user had removed 33 of the screws, leaving one in the center top, and two at either bottom corner.  I understand why they did that, but how lazy are you?  With the screws out, the gasket that keeps water/cleaning fluids out of the body isn't sealed, and that'st not good.

The other thing that the user did is that they replaced the screws with standard steel screws, not the stainless ones that were originally used.  Standard screws rust over time in contact with the stainless steel, and make unsightly rust stains.  Stainless screws that fit cost me $0.07 (seven cents) each, so I fixed this problem for about $3.50.  Rust stains like this can cause a violation if you're inspected by the health department. 
Clean and shiny
 To remove the rust stains took 10 seconds with a bit of steel wool and comet.  A good rinse and its shiny and beautiful again.  I'm having to basically scrub every inch of this grinder, but with a good, deep clean the next cleaning will be much easier. 

More standard screws
 I have to wonder if they just didn't realize that there are different types of screws, or just didn't care.   It's pretty clear what happens over time.
Another access plate.  I ended up replacing 48 screws as I work my way through.  It's satisfying to see it become shiny and beautiful.

The eagles have landed.

Bald eagle:  9' wingspan on this one. S/he's flying low at the sheep flock, scaring them. 
 We are in the middle of our lambing; we've got 67 lambs on the ground so far, and the eagles have taken notice.  I have a pair of them that spent a lot of time swooping down over the sheep flock and scaring the lambs.  The dogs do a good job of barking at them and getting them to fly off, but it's clear that the eagles have decided that lamb is delicious. 
 They'll sit on fence posts for hours, usually a couple of hundred yards from the sheep,and watch them...
They are bigger than they look:  Bald eagle

The pair that is vexing me
Here's both of them together.  I don't know if they're a mated pair, or a brother and sister, or just two opportunistic eagles that happen to hang out together. 

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

"I want to grow my own feed"

When I hear people talking about their dream farm, or their back-to-the-farm ideas, one thing that comes up pretty often is a desire to grow their own feed, or to be in some way self-sufficient as far as feed goes. 
Part of the land at the new farm; it was in corn last year, harvested for silage

I've heard it from folks who feed their animals -- like chicken owners who want to grow their own grains -- and also from people who want to raise their own animals on forage.  It's really the same thing, and I think it comes from the same place.  there's an attractive quality to the idea of growing your own food. 

And I am not immune from it myself.  When I look at the new property, any input (input = farmer speak for stuff you have to get from off-farm, usually purchased items) that I can eliminate is very attractive.  The more self-reliant my farm, the better control on costs I have, and I also have less dependency on other peoples farming practice. 

Let me give you an example:  If I buy hay from someone, I have to figure out first whether they know what they're doing, and then wonder about their quality control (because even people who know what they're doing make mistakes or lose a crop here or there) and I have to keep an eye on how their year is going.  If my hay guy has a drought and her production gets decimated, or his tractor breaks during haying and the hay gets rained on or any number of other things happen, I may have to find someone else to buy hay from.  

And hay is a particular problem, because around here the window to make hay is pretty small, and it's cheapest during that window, so I really have to be on it to get the best price and that usually means picking it out of the field.  If I don't find out about the supplier problems soon enough I can get stuck having to buy hay at higher prices.   

If it's hay that I'm producing I have much more information about it, and I know exactly what the quality is because I've been there the whole time. 

Now I'm using hay here as an example because while it does cost something to produce, the majority of the cost of hay in this area isn't the cost of the hay, it's the transportation of the hay from where its made to your barn.  So by producing my own hay on my own property I'm basically eliminating the road cost.

But to generalize this, everyone likes the idea of making your own feed.   If it's so good, why don't more folks do it? 

One of the biggest things about producing your own feed is that for most of us, actually harvesting a crop is really, and I mean hugely, labor intensive. 
Do you know how much work this is? picture courtesy of ylmb25
American farmers do almost no hand harvesting today; most food that we use as feed goes through some sort of mechanized harvest.  In the case of most grains, like wheat or soybeans or corn, they're harvested with a combine.  One person with a combine can easily harvest and initially process many acres.  In the case of feed corn, the combine will pick the ear, shuck it, and then store the shucked corn in a hopper, which can then be unloaded into a dump truck or grain truck.  you can unload the grain while you continue to harvest, and there are companies who move from field to field doing this harvest for hire, "custom harvesting"

What this means for most of us is that someone out there can do the harvesting for a very low labor cost.  A harvest specialist  (or planting specialist, actually you can hire both ends out) can do the job for less time and money than you can.  It's not like I sit on my hands all day and look for things to do; my time is already consumed by all sorts of farming stuff that I have to do -- and that's one reason that even though there are good things about raising your own feed, there's a strong attraction to hiring it done. 

There are things that I will do myself, by hand, like having the kitchen garden with its stand of sweet corn that I pick for dinner, but when it comes to feeding animals, I have to look at the overall cost, and when I figure my limited time into it, off-farm feed gets pretty competitive. 

But there's another aspect to it, too.  Buying feed off-farm means that I can have a larger number of animals on my land than it would otherwise support.  Michelle, over at the collie farm blog,  does a great job in caring for her sheep, but buys hay every year to tide her through the winter.   She's effectively carrying more sheep than her land will support, which both allows her to specialize in sheep and to be able to avoid supporting the equipment and expertise required to make good hay.  Since her primary occupation is an an engineer, she's not terribly sensitive about prices or profits, but that's ok.  She likes sheep, enjoys working with them, and that's a return that's worth more than a profit to her.   If she were to have the number of sheep that could live on her land without a hay supplement it would be a much smaller number than she has now, and she isn't raising all that many as it is. 

I think that's a great approach, but I draw a harder line when it comes to the farming venture.  I want the farm to be able to support itself and pay a good wage (not the $2.75/hour that Michelle says is her rate!) and that means that I either have to get a really good price for a small production, or I have to ramp up my production to produce the income required.  So I do a little of both. 

My goal is to raise the feed that is most cost-effective to raise, but carefully consider the off-farm feed to allow me to carry either more animals or to avoid having to invest in custom planting/harvesting equipment & expertise. 

Monday, February 25, 2013


We are receiving between 10 and 15 tons of food a week now pretty consistently.  It comes on pallets, packed in a cardboard box with a big plastic bag inside it.   It turns out that I can sell the pallets that the food comes in on to a variety of outlets, and so now we're making $300 a week on pallet sales as well, which basically covers the fuel cost and a bit of the labor.  Farming is a game of pennies, and 30,000 more pennies is a nice find!

plastic pallets under a hay stack
 One type of pallet that we get a fair number of is the plastic pallet.  I haven't found any recycler who will pay for them because they don't have a marking on them saying what sort of plastic they're made out of.  I don't know what it's called, but it's usually a triangle a number in it that indicate the type of plastic.  you'll find it on most plastic products, but not on these.  They originate in china, and what they are used to ship is mostly food products, sometimes dairy.  
hay that will be fed to the cows, stacked on pallets
 So I've had a stack of them outside my gate for a while, and it occurred to me that they're pretty much perfect for stacking hay on, to keep the hay off the ground and let some air circulate under the hay.  I like them better than wood pallets, as they don't rot.  So I started stacking my hay on it, and then I put a layer of them under my feeding area, where I feed the cows. 
hay that is being fed to the cows, on pallets
I guess that the best way to sell something is to model it, because pretty much as soon as I put them down I started selling these things for ...more than I get for wood pallets...

Yep.  People like that they don't rot, and I'm now selling them as I get them as hay stack foundations or as something to put down so that your horse or goat or whatever it is doesn't waste as much hay.  You slap one of these down and the ruminate eats a bigger percentage of the hay -- less waste.  And since folks can pay as much as $15 a bale, well, darn, $3 for a pallet that will last forever seems pretty reasonable. 
Cow tested and approved.   Recycling.  Got to love it. 

Friday, February 22, 2013

farm dreams

My whole farm plan for the next year is really on hold right now; I'm working on buying a farm, and honestly, it's been driving me a little bit nuts.   

The aggravation this week has been about the appraisal of the property.   The banks appraiser is, honestly, slower than any other appraisal I've ever seen, and it's a pretty important part of the process.  The bank wants this independent appraisal to show that the property  is worth as much as they are willing to lend me.  So I've been waiting for three weeks for this appraiser to come up with a number.  It has to be more than $275k, which is the amount remaining on the land after I make the 35% downpayment ($147,000 to save you the math).   So for this guy to do some work search out some similar properties, I've been on pins and needles for weeks.  

And this is seriously disturbing me.   

I'm ok with a no, or a yes, but this weird maybe state means I can't really make plans for either property; the new one, or the old one.  It's messing up my farm dreams.  

I would much rather be working on what sort of alfalfa I should grow on the new property, or ordering electricity to be installed on the old property -- I've been farming without electricity for 7 years now, and if I'm not going to the new place, it's well-past time to get some volts so that I can do warming pads and heat lamps and all of the other stuff that makes the animals comfortable.  How about lights for those late nights?  

But I'm reluctant to do that because the new place already has electricity and water to all of the barns, and if I move there it's all there already.  

I do what I can with my frustrated planning urges.  I peruse the seed catalogs, and I have my well-worn farmtek catalog (heated waterers!) and I speculate at how many acres of sweet corn I should plant, and I do the chores and I wait.  and dream.  

Friday, February 15, 2013

Sunny... Concrete & poultry

Weather was beautiful today.  Got to the farm earlier than usual to do some of the chores, and then prepare for a concrete pour. 
 I was working with 3 guys today; Sean and Loren, and Shawn, who's the nephew of my farm neighbor, Hussein.  Hussein called me earlier this week to ask if I had some work, and I explained that I wasn't sure -- if I close on the new farm, yes, probably another full-time position or two, but I didn't hire anyone without the chance to work with them, so I hired Shawn for the day to see how he would work out. 
 This section of the driveway is 10' wide x 115' long x 6" deep.  It's got reinforcing mesh in it, and it's the main driveway for the farm, and the main working area.  I've found that concrete is expensive to put in, but in the long run, saves you money on gravel.  I'd put $600 in gravel into this driveway, only to have it disappear.  With concrete you do it once and that's it for the next 20 to 30 years.  It's much more durable than asphalt. 

We clean the concrete by running the tractor bucket up and down it, and/or pressure washing it, and it makes moving equipment much less messy.  No more lakes of mud. 

The preparation is the hard part; the pour itself is a little like an afterthought.  I ran the chute on the back of the concrete truck, and directed the driver with hand signals; forward, lock the chute, turn on the concrete, turn it off...  I'd wave the chute back and forth, putting down an even layer of concrete, as close to level as I could get it.  Behind me was a crew of 3 guys; two on the "scree", a long board that spanned the slab, sawing it back and forth to get the concrete to a rough level, and a guy with a shovel, that alternately added or subtracted concrete from the area being screed.  I'd pour a 5 to 8 foot length, we'd scree and shovel, and then I'd move the truck forward.  At this thickness and width a concrete truck covers about 55'. 

The guy running the chute is actually the key player in this little drama.  If you pour it on too thick, or too thing, the concrete has to be moved by hand.  The chute is heavy, and it takes a little practice to get the hang of it.  I like laying concrete slabs like this in 8 to 10' widths because it's easier to screed and finish than wider slabs. 
Our slab is customized by poultry prints all over it.  You can get mad about it, but really, it's kind of cool to have turkey tracks on it; it is a farm, after all.  They'll eventually get worn down by the tractor bucket anyway. 

Beautiful day to be out working in the sun.  50 degrees, smells like early spring, things are growing.  Promise of the new year. 

Monday, February 11, 2013

The NY times agrees with me

Last  month I wrote a blog entry about people being unhappy with the return on their retirement accounts, and that it was causing food prices to rise.  In that post I wrote: 

"What I mean is this: Everyone, and I mean anyone, with dollars in a bank account is unhappy with the interest rate that banks pay on your savings. They're paying tenths of a cent per year. It's really tempting to anyone to get higher return, and a financial concern that can return 10 to 30% returns annually is considered to be attractive. "

Well, it turns out that not only are folks looking for higher return, they're getting sold products that are not returning any interest, but in fact losing the entire principal as well

Folks, I don't consider your stockbroker to be your friend.  If they approach you with some investment that is supposed to make a good return, ask them how much of their money is invested in that particular product. 

A very wise man I knew, Irving Wolfe, would be regularly approached by brokers interested in handling his investments.  He'd ask them for a personal financial statement, and an accounting of their investments, showing the returns that they were getting on their own portfolio. 

He never got a call back. 

Irving passed on a few years ago, but I still remember him telling me this story, and I thought at the time that it made a lot of sense.    Irving ran his own mutual fund and picked his own stocks, and did very well with that for many years.  I just don't have the time to spend on that, and so choose to avoid the securities market altogether, preferring land and direct equity in companies. 

My opinion?  Don't buy anything you do not understand completely. 


Saturday, February 9, 2013

My black pig is living a secret life

I post a lot of pictures on my blog, and they appear in all sorts of different places.  I generally allow them to be used if asked, free of charge, but when folks take my photo and use it without attribution it's a bit rude. 

black pig liberation front is one of those folks who liked my picture of the mean black pig, and while I'm happy that they have whatever their views are (there's a lot of text on their page that really doesn't mean much of anything) I sure wish that they'd give credit where credit is due. 

 I dont think that the mean black pig would agree that she is "...a symbol of emancipation".    I also don't think that she was a communist or a member of a collective.

Turns out that the black pig picture has been useful in identifying unknown photographs.   Someone posted a picture of some animal that was taken with a game cam, and they're trying to figure out what sort of animal it is. 

 She shows up on a car-review site.  I'm not sure why.  She's in a collection of black pig pictures, and is sort-of attributed, but no web address and no clickable link.  A little better.

She shows up in a home decorating, fashion site.  I don't understand (italian?) but there she is, surrounded by pictures of beautiful women. 

Here's someones blog entry, a  pig story that has something to do with a wedding.  you'll have to translate from romanian to english to read.    This blog writer really likes her.  My picture is used all over her blog.  No attribution, no link. 

If you would like to use an image from my blog, just ask.  I'll give you permission.  I do ask that you make the image clickable back to the original, and include an attribution to my blog. 
(c) 2013, Bruce King, -- like that. 

Dog food

I have a growing pack of Airedale Terriers at my farm, and they're useful in all sorts of ways.  There is nothing better than a dog to help move the sheep, for instance, or to chase down a pig that is doing something that it shouldn't be.

The problem with a large pack of dogs is what you feed them.  There are lots of choices for dog food, and most people feed their pets a dry food that comes in a bag, and they don't think much about it.  In fact, here's a snipped from a dog food commercial that shows the ingredients that are added to their dog food:

Now those are some healthful, wholesome ingredients!  Man, that corn looks GREAT, doesn't it?  You feel good feeding your dog that.  Wow.

But I think we all know that what goes into dog food probably doesn't look like those pristine ingredients.  Lets look at a little more detailed view.  Unfortunately the audio is in German, but you get the idea.

Most commercial dog food is a mix of corn, rice or other grain, and a protein source, which is sometimes plant-based, soybeans, and sometimes animal based, which both of the videos show.  No matter what the ingredients are, they are all cooked, which kills any harmful stuff in the feed, and are basically shelf-stable, which makes it easy to feed to your pet.  

But in the last few years there have been a number of pet food recalls -- one of the largest being in 2007, with over 10,000 pet deaths reported.  

Pet foods are held to a lower safety standard than human foods, and a lot of consumers base their purchase of pet foods on price.  What this inevitably means is that there is tremendous pressure on pet food manufacturers to keep their prices as low as possible,and from that, to pay as little as they can for ingredients.  

So you can buy cheap stuff, and hope that there's nothing bad in it, or you can buy more expensive stuff, and hope by paying more that you don't get any bad stuff.  Unfortunately, if you look at the list of brands that got recalled in 2007, you will see all sorts of premium dog food brands.  Price alone doesn't protect you.  

My solution for my own dogs is to feed them a raw diet that consists primarily of ground pork, from animals that for on reason or another aren't market-worthy.  The best pigs go for human consumption; the grade "b" pigs go for dog food.  If we have a sow we have to put down, but there's nothing actually wrong with the meat.   In fact, it's pretty common for farmers to feed their culls to their dogs.  Michelle Canfield says, in the comments section of this post:  "...This year, my dogs are getting a lot of Old Ram, too!"

Not everyone has a herd of animals that they can feed to their dogs, so here's a few guidelines that may help you pick a better brand.
Guidelines for picking pet food

Look at the ingredients.  They're listed in order, with the largest amounts first.  Generally speaking, if the first two or three ingredients are corn or some sort of vegetable ingredient (wheat middlings, soybeans, etc) this is usually indicative of a low-quality food.  While it may feed your dog just fine, a better quality food might be worth paying a little more for.  

The ingredients should specify the animal any meat is derived from.  Avoid dog food that lists "meat meal" or "meat by products", pick one that says "chicken" or "beef".   "meat" covers a lot of ground, and my opinion is that if they can't keep track of which animals they're throwing into the grinder I don't want to feed it to my dog.   Avoid generic terms.  

If you have a favorite brand, do an Internet search to see if there have been recent recalls or problems associated with that brand.  One of the super-premium brands that I feed my dogs got caught in that 2007 recall.  

Roll your own
Many people choose to make their own dogs food, and chicken is a popular choice for the protein source.  Most folks who do this feed the chicken raw, and many people report that they get good results from the raw diet.

  I made another blogger pretty mad when I pointed out that nearly half of grocery story chicken tested positive for all sorts of contamination; she's been feeding her dogs raw chicken for 9 years with good results -- maybe dogs aren't as susceptible to the contamination as we are.   I sure do know that my dogs eat all sorts of disgusting stuff.  

Personally, I'll stick with meat that I produce personally, with the odd bit of kibble.  

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Financing the farm

I wrote about a farm that I'm purchasing, and as this is a pretty large purchase, I'm carefully working through the options. 

Disclaimer:  I'm discussing my own thoughts on purchasing and financing real estate here.  You should consult with an attorney or accountant or both before you do anything.  These are solely my opinions and my personal plans, not in any way my giving you advice, legal or otherwise. 

Background:  I think that we will have inflation at a rate of at least 3% for the next 10 to 15 years.  It's a simple way to get rid of deficits -- inflation hurts people who save or loan money, and no one has to vote for a tax increase. 

Current interest rates are as low as I think I will see in my lifetime.  I'm seeing rates of 2.75% for a 10 year fixed, and around 3.5% for 30 year fixed mortgages.

Current inflation rates are around 3%, so any interest rate that approaches 3% is, basically, free money. 

Commercial loans are roughly double that rate, at 5.5%.  So in this case, if I can finance it through a home mortgage it's a much better deal. 

Most people don't know this, but you can shop your loan around.  You can do this via a mortgage broker, who has several lenders to choose from, or you can do it yourself by taking your loan around to various lenders.  Having multiple checks on your credit score isn't a downcheck if you explain that they are you seeking a better rate for this single loan. 

In my case, I was able to get a rate quote 3.35% APR by approaching a couple of local banks, and offering a bigger-than-normal downpayment.   I chose a 30 year loan because you can always pay it
back more quickly, but it's nice to have the option of a lower payment if you need it.

So the projected mortgage payment for this property, including taxes, is about $1250 a month, which is about what you'd pay in rent for a house on a few acres around here.   I want to keep that number as low as possible because fixed costs are dangerous to a farm.  the bigger your fixed costs the less you are able to weather downturns. 

The issue that comes up though is that banks don't like to loan money on land; to make this fly I may have to finance the land portion as a commercial loan from a farm-oriented lender, at 5.75%, and the house/barns from a mortgage lender. 

Worst case is that I have to finance the whole thing as a commercial loan, and then do a lot line adjustment to put the house on its own separate lot so that it conforms to what mortgage lenders want, and then refinance the house. 

Which seems to be a lot of trouble and transactions fees, but given the difference in rates (5.75% vs 3.3%, $1,259 vs $1618 ) I'm cutting the interest rate nearly in half, and at $350 a month difference
the changes will probably break even in a year or two; and the intention is to keep the property for the foreseeable future. 

When I get to that point I'll do the math, and if it makes sense, I'll follow through on the least-cost option at the time. 

I wondered why a lot of these farms had their house on a small part of the acreage, and now I understand why; it's to make the mortgaging of the house simpler and easier.  Residential land is also taxed at a higher rate than agricultural land, and minimizing the amount of land that is "residential" also reduces your overall tax burden. 

To give you a feel for that -- taxes on 30 acres of cropland is around $200 a year.  Taxes on my townhouse on 1/8th acre is $2300 a year.  Big difference. 

What I did to allow me to chase these different rates and get the best deal was negotiate a long close time -- in this case 90 days.   If you pick too short a close time you severely limit your ability to find a better lender.  In this case I called the lenders I was interested in, got their typical lead time for the longest closes, and then added 30 days to that.  Some sellers will balk at a long close time, and the bank did, but I provided a letter from the slow lending institution, that the delay was on the loan origination side, and they finally agreed. 

You can always close faster than your close time, but having the extra time makes life simpler, which is how I prefer it.  I have enough time to pursue a mortgage loan, and if that doesn't go through, go for a commercial loan before we reach the closing date.