Saturday, December 31, 2016

2017: 10 years of farming

This is a narrative of what I did today on my farm; at the bottom I'll talk about why I do things this way and what's changed (a lot) from when I first started farming

At this time of year I'm killing a pig or two every day; the niche that we have found and filled is for people who want to see their meat before it's dead, and who want and value processing the animal themselves.  

So I met a group of friends who are from Moldova, who live in the Seattle area at my farm gate this morning.  They did what most of the people who come to the the farm do.  They called and asked about a pig (or sheep, or goat, or chicken, or cow) and in broken english we talk about what they

I hadn't sold anything to this group (it's usually a group, 4-6 people, two or three households) and I tried to get a feel for whether they understood what they were asking for, and that I understood
what they wanted as well.  This particular group spoke english and russian, and the most-experienced of the group seemed to speak only russian, so there was a lot of back-and-forth where I'd ask a question, it would be translated to russian, and then the russian answer would come back, and then get translated back to english.  

So we would go back and forth "how big a pig" "have you processed a pig before?"  "what do you need to process a pig in terms of tools?  Knives?  hot water?  scrapers?"   "I will kill the pig for you for free, is that ok? "  

Over the last 5 years I've gotten adept at this conversation; and I've learned about the food traditions of many different cultures.  Samoans and Marshall islanders, Hungarians, Ukrainians, Mexican, central and south america, and southern USA, Cubans, Germans.  

So over the phone, when everyones questions are answered, I ask when they want to do this, and they ask when I'm open.  I say 9am to 3pm (it gets dark at 4:30, and I don't want them to be here after dark for a variety of reasons - mostly because everything is more difficult after dark), and they almost always say that they'll be there at 9am.  

They are never there at 9am.  

I actually am ready to go at 9am, in the sense that if they should actually come at that time I could accomodate them, but I have other chores to do, so I use the skidsteer to deliver fresh sawdust bedding to the cows, and check on the pregnant sows (piglets born at this time of year are especially valuable - they are the right age for show pigs next year,and command a premium price), and I keep my noise-canceling stereo earphones on so that I can hear the phone ring if they call, and I go about the chorse.  My guess with this group is that they'll be there at 10:30 or 11, but they surprise me.  At noon I call them and ask, and they haven't left seattle yet.  So I explain that I'd like to run an errand and I'll be back at the farm at 1pm, and they say that works for them.  So I run my errand and am back at 1:10, but they still aren't there.  At 1:30 I get the call that they're at the front gate and i go meet them.  4 young men, in their 20s, one speaks pretty good english, 2 of them a little, and one none at all.  

"you guys have done this before?  " yes, of course.  I smile a little at the dismissive attitude, kind of "of course we have!  we are from Moldova!", but that's fine.  It's a pretty relaxed day for me.  Back to the barns we go, and I show them some pigs; they pick a barrow sleeping on a pile of sawdust, we haggle a little on the price; I raise it $25 because they were late, they don't notice, and since there was no resistance to the increase in price I pitch them on $10 for using my knives, and think about bumping them another $20 for the propane, but heck, it's the holiday season.  I think to myself that I should have charged $50 more for the pig, but no big deal.   Happy new year! 

Pig selected I go and get the sticking knife and the .22 rifle and the clip of non-lead .22 bullets, and walk back over to the barn where the pig is.   Taking careful aim I shoot the sleeping pig in the head, and then pushing it over with my foot place the rifle down.  Tracing the collar bone in from the left shoulder I find the mark and stick the pig.  A gush of red arterial blood comes out, a fountain, telling me I've gotten a good stick, and I pick up the rifle and step back.  The customers watch this process intently.  The blade comes up coated in blood.  I unload the rifle and clear it, and then walk over to the hose to clean the sticking knife.  Some groups catch the blood; the blood itself is part of the cuisine, others don't.  This group doesn't show any interest so I don't get to watch the rodeo, but that's ok.  

When I come back into the barn a few minutes later they're busy laying out the supplies they want to use; a couple of knives, some paper towels, some plastic bags.  I give them the bucket of my knives and have a couple of them go and grab the pig and bring it over.  We put it on a couple of pallets and I walk them through how to use the torches, and start some water heating for them, and then stand back and watch them work on the pig.  

This group wants to do a torch-based dehairing, which I've started calling the "russian way", when in truth its pretty much all of eastern europe, and they ask about how I process a pig, so I talk about scalding and scraping  and they conclude that their way is superior (doesn't every culture think their way is paramount?  I have to smile again at that)

It's interesting to watch people do their traditional things, and over the course of this particular session they bring out some home-made wine that is pretty tasty, and they're trimming little bits of the burned skin off and salting it and eating it, and they are maintaining their cultural connection with their history and their country.  

Since my work is done for the day I hang out and watch them, and they do pretty well on their own.  They want to know how I gut the animal and there's a bit of conversation with our hands as a couple of us crouch looking at the anus on the pig.  Brief gesture, outline of a circle "i cut here, and then use my finger to work around until it comes free, and then I tie it off with a string to keep the contents inside, but remove it from the cut in the belly" - this is complicated, so we rotate around to the side, and with a couple of gestures they get what I'm talking about .  

I check to make sure that they've got everything they need, and ask that they put the tools back in the bucket when they're done, and head back to the house.  I can hear them speaking russian as I walk away, laughing.  It's a holiday feast for them.  

A half hour later I walk back, and provide them a garbage can "put whatever you don't want in here and I'll take care of it" and they're pretty much done.  they've cut the pig into quarters and sacked it, but they've cut the head off; do I want it?  Sure.  So I walk them out to the gate holding the pig head, and close it behind them as I wave them bye, and into the house.  

My girlfriend sees the pig head in the sink and askes what I'm going to do with it, and I say "crispy braised pig jowels in cider" and she says "yum!" and a couple of minutes with the knife, and then out to the concrete pad with a small sledgehammer where I crack the skull and then call the dogs over, who quickly decide this is worth eating and run off with it.   The jowels have a mix of fat and lean that looks like american bacon, and they are actually very tasty.  So I adapted the recipe above to make a tasty way to eat something that I ran across pretty regularly.  

A little bit of prep work, and the jowels are in the refrigrator later that night, and then cooked the following day for dinner, along with some apple-mash (mashed potatoes with apple mixed in).  

What's changed from when I first started farming

My first farm venture was roughly based on some sort of pastured poultry exercise.  I was going to raise the chickens, process, bag and sell the resulting chickens, and maybe some eggs as well.  Over time I found that it was just too darn difficult to make that whole process work.  

The first problem is regulation; to sell dead animals to people you have to have a license to do so.  then you have to have some way to process them that's inspected by someone - either state-level or federal level - and then you've got regulations and inspections related to the storage, packaging, delivery and so on, and there's quite a bit of detail in there.  If you do it  yourself  it's a little easier, but unless you're getting $30 a chicken it's just not a business that I could make work.  
  the raising of the chicken wasn't hard; in fact, the math is pretty attractive.  Buy a chick for $1, put $4 worth of feed into it, sell it for $15 or $20.   The processing often cost as much as the entire cost to raise the chicken, or more.  

The same is true for pork.   I might sell some pork off my farm for $2.75/lb, but the farm kill guy needs his cut, and the meat cutting shop needs there, and by the time the side of pork gets to the consumer the bulk of the sales goes into folks who aren't the farmer.  Who aren't me.  And while I'm fine with providing revenue for other businesses, my main goal is to provide revenue for my business.  Scheduling in a farm kill guy makes the sales process pretty slow - sometimes they can get in with little notice, other times they're 4 to 6 weeks out.  I do enough volume that my main farm kill guy actually does a great job of responding to my requests, but I'm not fighting him - I'm fighting the supermarket where they can get their meat in a few minutes, not a few weeks.  Americans in general want cheap, and they want convenient, and that's not a trend or desire that is likely to change soon.  

So when I discovered that there were consumers who wanted to buy the live chickens at my farm gate suddenly I was able to cut out two whole regimes - the licensing portion and the outside contractor, and I was able to offer a product at a price that the consumer liked, substantially lower than they could get elsewhere and still make a good profit, it became a matter of finding the equivalent market for each of the products I wanted to sell.  

A little concrete, some stainless steel counters, hot and cold running water, a bucket of knives.  A plucker for chickens, a scalding tub for pigs.  A knife sharpener.  I charge the customers for the use of my facility, and make a few dollars with that past the cost of the cleanup.   The cleanup is with a pressure washer and a bleach solution and the stainless and smooth concrete makes it easy.  

It's a completely different mindset and product than I thought I would be offering, but economically it works pretty well, and is pretty easy.    

I'm going to note that people in my area that are trying to get USDA slaughter for their animals like the Puget Sound Meat Cooperative,  or the North  Cascades Meat Cooperative don't seem to be making a go of it despite the best efforts of a lot of good folks.  Instead of trying to swim against that tide I've chosen to go a simpler way with a clearer path to revenue for me.  

I sell the customers a live animal, and require that they process it in a humane manner.  with pigs, cows and sheep I require that I kill the animal; my experience has been that I cannot determine whether a customer is skilled enough to kill the animal humanely, so I do it for them for free.  Once the animal is dead the processing is up to them.  

After I made this switch I was able to reduce the number of people working on my farm, and generally speaking life became much simpler.  I don't have delivery routes or distributors, walk-in freezers, inventory (other than live animals) and I do a little advertising the word-of-mouth in various enthic communities is often all I need to sell everything I can produce.  

After the group left today I loaded up the dishwasher with the processing knives, pressure washed the processing area, and then went into the house for the evening where the smell of the braised jowels made my stomach rumble.  Yummy dinner the the first day of the new year.  

10 years of farming.  Most of the hard edges have been worn off.  

Happy new year to you and  yours!