The last time your farmer posted to this page, the wheel of the year had just turned to springtime, and we were so grateful for warmth and growth and life and so much more. And now we are at the longest day of the year, high summer. What has changed? A lot!
Farm-wise, our right-hand gal, our farm collie Gilly, went on a nuptial visit with another English Shepherd named Smoke. We are hoping for pups in a couple of months, pups that will help on their farms, watch children, remind stock of the rules, comfort folks that need a little extra love, and help in so many ways. In other matters: Beulah is honeymooning with our boar, Possum (without sex, there is no farm - whether it is plants pollinating and bearing fruit, or animals mating and raising their young); a new female, Zinfandel, or Zinny, has joined the farm; we are raising lots of chickens and expecting more eggs this summer; the wild blackberries back in the woods are full, and now here come the Japanese beetles to strip all the fruit trees and bushes clean. Out trudges the farmer with pheromone traps to lessen the damage and put a dent in the population. She drags hoses to fill wallows and water tanks twice a day to keep stock cool and hydrated (and sometimes hoses herself off). She mends the over-worked hoses that burst, usually at a Bad Time. She weed eats the tall grass out of the fencerow so the electric fence does its job. She mends the electro twine that has fallen to the whipping line of the weed whacker. The joy of spring has turned into a lot of work!
A new batch of freshly hatched chicks feeds a black rat snake that somehow found a place to squeeze into the brooder that we thought was tight. We have also learned that even heritage breeds of turkey are still stupid, if not as much as a commercial ones; next year, we will hatch the eggs in an incubator for an improved survival rate. Life and Death. Death and Life. The wheel turns, and turns again. We see it all up close and personal on a farm.
There is so much of everything on a farm in the summer, all of it needing attention right now. We didn't get a hay crew to mow and put up hay in time, and now the grass is too stemmy. We'll have to buy hay. Chores, watering, all the bounty of the place to be dealt with - vegetables to clean and preserve for the winter. Pickles to can, jams to make. But also - fresh food in such a variety of color and texture and flavor that it is impossible to be jaded by it. Sunsets so glorious that they stop a farmer in her tracks almost every night. I sit on a feed bucket, sweaty and stinky and tired at dusk, and the fields light up with a thousand sparking fire flies. These are the gifts of summer that counterbalance the length of the work day. I sometimes have to be reminded of them by witnessing them.
So turn, wheel, turn. I will turn with you. Turn towards days that are slightly shorter, turn towards life a-borning and life a-waning, turn towards an inevitable autumn, where the farmer can catch a breath and have time to look back on the crazy, sumptuous, and arduous bounty of summer.
Farm life has been busy as the world awakens from the winter deep-freeze. Two new mother pigs with their new litters, a frisky, naughty steer breaking into pastures of green, the land itself is emerald and swaying with delight in the still-weak springtime sun. Temperatures are variable enough that all kinds of clothing is at hand for whatever the day may bring. Turkeys laying and sitting eggs, hens busy in their gathering and laying, roosters proclaiming their magnificence on top of the compost heap. Our pond is full. The grass is thick. The days lengthen. A new season turns.
And a tired, dirty farmer waxes poetic. Stick to your day job, farmer! Let the peepers in the pond sing the glories of the farm.
Here's our annual report on how the pigs' money got spent on the farm. To start off, we moved to our own farm, Iris Hill, and no longer have to rent. Yay! Getting it ready to accept animals securely and move them out contributed a lot to the expenses this year, but it was money well spent.
In addition to feed, which is always at the top of the expense list, the farm spent a fair bit of money on contract labor. We had a handful of folks come out to clear fence lines, reclaim hog and cattle panels and tee posts from over grown fields (a cost savings!), put in tee posts and wooden posts, put up perimeter fencing and run high-tensile electric fencing on the insides of the enclosed areas, hang fences, build huts. We aren't finished yet, but it is certainly looking do-able. As my industrious nephew-in-law and right hand man Kenneth said, "I thought maybe we had bitten off more than we can chew, but now I know we can do it." Never underestimate the land-clearing properties of the pastured hog!
Fencing material, such as tee posts and wooden posts, power augers, field fence, panels, hot wire and all the accessories also expanded our expenses. Right now, we have 3 areas fenced off and in use, and will be able to finish off the new sow paddock and the long finishing paddock for the fattened hogs this spring. We'll probably hire more help to do that.
The pastures need reclaiming and reseeding. We got a start on that in 2017, seeding in a diverse array of plants: oats, barley, clover, vetch, radishes, turnips, winter peas. The hogs ate lots of squash and pumpkin, so those fertilized seed packages will sprout later this year. We had a drought this fall, which reduced the amount of green forage available, but we were able to get 5 acres of hay field cut and baled, filling our barn with "banked" forage, which the animals are all making use of till things start greening up next month. The bales cost us only $1.65/bale in the form of the service of cutting and baling.
We bought a really nice looking Hereford boar for our sows. Bad news: his testicles didn't descend. Good news: he was still edible, so not a total loss. We also purchased a new, grown, and proven boar, a Gloucestershire Old Spot named Possum who will be joining the farm later this month.
We needed pregnant sows, so Big Lil, Almond, and Beulah went to visit Possum's daddy, Kermit. We paid for their pleasure-filled vacations, with the pay-off that Beulah is due 13 February, and Almond is due 1st of March. We'll have piglets everywhere this spring! Big Lil didn't settle, but it was still hot this fall, which can affect fertility, so she will get an extended honeymoon with Possum.
We bought a family milk cow that was pregnant. The idea was that we could milk every day, give whey, buttermilk and unused milk to the pigs. It was a great idea that wasn't a great reality. My knees hurt too much to milk every day, and I am just not a person that bonds with cattle in general. I am fond of our cow, but we will be finding her a new home where she will be more appreciated and of use to a family as their cow. She had a very healthy calf, and he will be raised out on the pasture this year and go to his destiny early next year. He will have benefitted from his mother's milk for 5 months, and he is stocky, healthy, and active. We are already pre-selling beef and have 1/2 of a beef available for our meat layaway plan. He will pretty much pay for the expense of buying his mother. So that was a loss for last year, but the steer will be earning money for the farm this year.
The bottom line is, we were in the red this year by a fair amount. We had to buy pigs from off-farm, we put a lot into infrastructure at the new farm, and we're shifting up how we are doing things. Some things worked, some didn't. Our financial advisor points out that we are in an expansion phase. The business has been growing steadily. We even made a profit in 2016, our 2nd year of business, which is pretty good for a farm. We are careful in how we spend the money on this farm, making do with good, used equipment, building a lot of structure and infrastructure ourselves, making sure the sow fertility will support growing our own feeder pigs for the fattened stock that feeds our customers and their families. We're preparing pastures on a new farm for rotational grazing that will increase the health and tilth of the land, but it will be a 2 year process before we see returns on that. So we are taking the long view, and we have indeed already seen a lot of progress here at Iris Hill, and look forward to seeing what unfolds here in 2018. We invite you to come along with us!
Praise be for Iris Hill.
1. For trees here are plentiful, and render shade and many tasty acorns for me.
2. For I enjoy many good things.
3. For I sleep, and wake, and live in fresh Ozark air, and it is sweet.
4. For there is green all around me, and it is delicious.
5. For I may root in the cool soil and find my rest there.
6. For these hens lay many eggs, and I enjoy the bounty thereof.
7. For I am early a-field, gleaning breakfast in the rising sun.
8. For Farmer Merry knows the best places to scratch.
9. For there is a party at the swimming hole every evening, and much mud is to be had.
10. For there is milk and whey from the cow.
11. For Farmer Merry cooks much with apples, and I help.
12. For I am a hog of Iris Hill, and many times blessed.
Or, How the Hogs Spent Your Money.
This isn't the only green a hog runs through! As a matter of due diligence, I am outlining some of our expenses in raising these pastured hogs. The farm just started using QuickBooks this year to maintain business records for tax purposes and to also break out categories of expenses and income. In the interests of transparency, I'm sharing some of those with you today.
Feed is the heavy hitter; if any of you have raised kids, you know what I'm talking about. Imagine feeding 10 hungry teenagers. At once. I should put a revolving door on the feed room. The good news is, this figure could be worse; since the hogs eat out of our pastures, the amount of concentrated feed is lower. They still have to eat concentrate, since they can't get all of their nutrition from fodder, and they get vitamins, minerals, and amino acids that they need to grow well from feed. Feed is the line item I keep targeting for improvement. We still want to feed a quality pellet that doesn't have a lot of corn in it, but there are price advantages to buying larger quantities, and I am working towards that. We use one of these self-feeders during the critical growth period of the pigs. It is cheaper to buy a ton and a half of feed versus 10 bags here and there. When I find another one of these feeders and put it to use later this year, the feed company will come to the farm and pump the feed right into the hoppers, and that's the tipping point we want because: 1) 3 tons of feed is a very favorable price break; 2) loose feed that is not bagged is a favorable price break; 3) it's delivered! And pumped into the hopper! And your farmer's back isn't broken (neither is the bank).
As a sub-category, we have seeds, which I buy pretty regularly to give our hogs a very diverse, healthy diet. They love this stuff! Also hay, much needed in the winter while the pastures slow down and regenerate. This year, we're laying in a stock of hay as soon as we find a good hay man in the area of the new farm. Once again, buying in larger quantity will be budget friendly.
Bedding, such as wood shavings and straw, are a steady demand as well. With all the rain this winter and fall, the waste area (or courtyard, when I use euphemisms) where the heavy hog traffic became a deep, soupy mud hole. I know, because Almond grabbed the water hose and ran with it, and I got a good dunking in it. Not for the faint of heart. I have lobbed bales of straw into it, and they have sunk, never to be seen again. On the plus side, that is some rich, fertile looking stuff! Oh, yes, and we use straw and chips to keep young pigs snug, hogs warm in the winter, and for bedding for mom and her new litters. She'll make a nest that I refer to as the "hot dog bun" that the babies stay in, safe and warm.
We don't maintain a boar on the farm to keep our sows in the family way, so there is an investment for breeding supplies, aka "Boar in a Bottle". We are scheduled to have babies at the new farm in June. I helped!
Vet expenses. We don't need the vet often, but we're sure glad to see him when we do. He did the castrations on all the little guys, plus checked on the new mothers when he was done. This expense also includes all the medicines we might need but don't often use, such as antimicrobials and antibiotics; it includes vaccines, wormers, gloves, thermometers, and all sorts of other supplies. If anything unexpected happens, it's usually on Sunday night or during the holidays. It's a sort of Farmer's Murphy's Law thing. But over all, the hog are pretty healthy, and I've thrown out some out of date antibiotic that was never used. That's a-ok.
Equipment, such as fencing, gates, fence chargers, feed troughs, self-feeder, water tank heaters, hoses - really more odds and ends than you would imagine! Materials for building the pig palaces. An 85 gallon water tank which not only provides lots of water to the hogs whenever they want it, but - in the winter - also serves as a toy and exercise equipment as they knock it over and roll it through the mud and across the pasture!
Trailer maintenance - new tires, because if they are going to go flat, it will be on the highway with 3 large pigs in it. And a new wiring harness, thanks to the red pigs that chewed through the old one. Nom, nom, copper!
Piglets, because sometimes a litter from our own sow doesn't come to term, or there is a deadline for delivery and we have no hogs available of the right age. So we buy piglets from good, local farmers who pasture raise their hogs, too.
The annual pig roast, which is our way of celebrating another year of farming, the generosity of the animals, and our gratitude for our community. It's a good time, with lots of people, fine music, and pork, of course.
And finally, for the first time, Farmer Merry has gotten a paycheck from the pigs. I joke (but it is true) that the hogs have more money in their account than I do, but up until the last 2 months, it has all been plowed back into the care and operation of the hogs and the farm (see above). I am as thrifty, frugal and careful with their money as I can be without denying them anything they need to thrive, so they cut me a very small paycheck last month and this month. I bought books and groceries. And truth be told, I am very happy to be working for the hogs, and for you, the customers that I consider to be the board of directors for the farm.
This is part two of a series introducing you to the heritage breeds we have and use here at the farm. Our long-term goal is in crossbreeding 3 old-fashioned breeds of hog to achieve a hearty, healthy, delicious hog with hybrid vigor, one that thrives and excels on our pastures and on the plate, The Berkshire is one of those breeds.
Traditionally, the Berkshire - an English breed imported to the USA as early as the 1820s - was a solid black hog with white points on the face and four feet; deep sided with lots of capacity for babies and forage. Modern Berks are not so deep and have recently been bred up to be broad, stocky and very muscular. The famous flavor of the Berkshire has been lost in pursuit of show ring winners, and it is harder to put fat on these very muscular modern hogs. Birthing difficulties are also an issue. Our hogs have fallen somewhere in between, but we are striving to find a good balancing point with the Berkshire genetics we are bringing into our breeding plan.
Berkshires are famed for their pork - a deep red meat that looks more like beef than pork, marbled throughout the muscle, and flavorful in a way that has won the praise of chefs and everyday consumers like you and me. It is prized in Japan as Kurobuta (black pork), and it draws high prices on their market. Ideally, the flavor of Berkshire pork should be very porky, almost beefy, with a lot of umami, and with undertones of black pepper and mushrooms. In other words, the flavor of this pork should make your taste buds get up and mambo!
We currently have one purebred Berkshire gilt who will be joining the sow herd, and also a half Berkshire x half Large Black Hog gilt, also destined for the sow herd. We just took a pure Berkshire in for a customer and eagerly await the review on how he performs at the table. Also scheduled for customers is another purebred Berk and another half Berk half Large Black.
The Berkshires and Berkshire crosses we have raised on the farm have done a magnificent job in eating off of our diversified pasture. Often, they will prefer to eat out in a newly opened grazing space over eating a commercial hog ration. They are strong, healthy, active, inquisitive.
What is the benefit of crossbreeding these hogs? There are benefits that they will bring to the other breeds, as described above; what I would like to improve for our program is: longer body especially through the bacon, not just for more bacon but to have more teats for nursing babies; less muscularity with a better tendency to put on some flavorful fat without losing the thickness in the loins, hams, and shoulder; an even more laid back personal attitude than their somewhat docile nature; and even more improvement in their ability to thrive on a pasture-based system. They are a great building block, and I'm glad we have them in our breeding program. I think our customers will appreciate the flavor and generosity of meat that they bring to the table.
Drummer Mickey Hart wrote that everything has a sweet spot - a place where everything just comes together perfectly - a golf club or ball bat, a drum, sure, but also a work of craftsmanship or a relationship or a marriage or a walk in the woods. All of life has a sweet spot. That concept has stuck with me for many years, and I strive to acknowledge when I am in a sweet spot of any sort. Here at the farm we are currently renting, there is a paddock that I refer to as the Sweet Spot. The picture above was taken yesterday in that very place. Lush oats and forage wheat growing out in a winter pasture is a delightful sight for this pig farmer.
The Sweet Spot on this farm is almost 3 times the size of the regular paddocks. It doesn't go into the paddock rotation schedule often, and it is always planted generously with good things to eat. There's lots of good shade and some nut trees. Right now, the clover, alfalfa, vetch and radishes are coming up among the succulent grasses. In the beige and brown landscape of late winter, it is an oasis of vital, shimmering green. Yesterday evening, I opened the 3-wire electric gate and invited the hogs out to the Sweet Spot. Tentative at first -they are quite averse to hot wires - first one then another entered the lush green sward. Soon, they were all in the Sweet Spot, running from one spot to another, exploring, taking huge bites, kicking up their heels.
The Sweet Spot is also the place I turn the hogs out into near the end of their time on the farm before we take them to the processor and before they go to feed others. Yes, it is good for the flavor of the pork to do this, but that isn't why the hogs get to spend so many of their final days in the Sweet Spot. Here, they eat well and as much as they like; here, they get the choicest morsels; here, they have lots of room to spread out or to run or to lay in a cool spot in the sun and have a snack.
Here, in the Sweet Spot, I give them my gratitude for sharing their lives with me on our farm. They teach me a lot, every batch of pigs, every year. They share their vitality, their curiosity, their affection. I get to watch them play and wallow and sleep; observe their relationships, behaviors, and pecking orders; feel their warmth on a cold winter's day, or check their eyes to make sure they are healthy and thriving. I often sit on a 5 gallon bucket in the midst of their grazing or their lazing and allow them to approach. This has been our ritual for almost 7 months. Most will take turns coming to check in, snurffling me with their agile snouts, some will want a good scratching, or a little snooze at my feet. It is the finest part of my day, and they seem to enjoy it, too; they come trotting over as soon as they see me approach, though the bucket and what it may hold probably plays a larger part in their enthusiasm. These times more than make up for earth rooted up over the hot wires, or the times the large water tank gets upended and rolled back and forth in the pasture. Those are all small frustrations, and time with the pigs in any sweet spot more than compensates.
So, the Sweet Spot on this farm is a physical state of grace for all of us. It is a respite, a hog heaven, a free zone. It is elbow room with a buffet. It is an early morning vision walking up the hill of black hogs on vibrant green, wreathed in a light fog, bathed in the first rays of the sun. It is everything that Mickey Hart described, and our heart drums - the pigs' and mine - resonate to it.
Anyone who reads this blog knows that I am mighty fond of all of my pigs, but Big Lil is just extra special. She's sweet tempered, a great mother, tame as a pup and just a general, all-around love bug. So I was pretty worried yesterday afternoon when I called her for her dinner and she staggered up out of the field, then collapsed when her legs went out from under her. I didn't think this fat old farmer could run that fast, but I got to her licketty split. Felt her ears - ice cold. Felt her body and belly. Ice cold. A cold but healthy hog will feel chilly on the skin, but you can feel the warmth of the flesh beneath. I didn't feel that latent warmth on Lil, and I knew we were in trouble.
I had brought her up a hot mash (feed with a broth of warm water), which I routinely feed when it is really cold out. She gobbled it. I ran down to the farm house, grabbing blankets and a jug of warm water with molasses, brown sugar, olive oil, an electrolyte packet, and a dash of cayenne in it, and called out to Katrina that I needed help. She went off to finish the other chores and then went to town to see if she could find a space blanket for Lil.
Lil sucked down the gallon of water, ate more feed. I figured that she had a shot if she still had enough oomph to care about food and water. She got covered with two blankets and my Carharrt work coat. Eventually, she made the effort, got up, started to stagger off to the Sow Palace. It took her 3 tries, but she got there.
I hauled in another bale of straw and laid down next to her. Her belly was icy, but she still rolled over so I could scratch her. Katrina brought a couple of space blankets, a big bottle of Dr. Pepper, and a couple of hot bricks up shortly after. We put the space blanket over her, then piled straw on top of that, with warm bricks tucked under her belly. She guzzled down the soda (truly a quick pick-me-up), snuggled up over the bricks, and actually emitted a piggy purr.
I stayed with her as she started to warm up, her great, deep shivers slowing down as the warm bricks did their work. Katrina brought up warm cornbread, which we fed to her. She didn't miss a crumb. More piggy purring. We left her, then came back up with warm bricks twice more. As the deep chill left her body the bricks stayed warmer longer. When we went up this morning, her bricks were still slightly warm. All the bundling and heating had worked!
Once we got Lil stable and warmed up enough and I could thaw out a bit myself, I asked myself why she had gone into hypothermia. Her sow palace was stuffed with straw, warm, dry, out of the wind. She hadn't had any trouble weathering a couple of days of single digit temperatures, and had actually been active that morning. When I found her, it was 35 degrees out. It was a puzzle. Then I got to thinking about her habits, about how she loves to lay in the sun and take a snooze. And I think she went out in this relatively warm day, took a snooze in the sun - on hard, frozen ground, in a stiff wind - and woke up chilled to the core. If I had gone up to do chores earlier or later than I did, I don't think this story would have had a happy ending.
This morning, she was alert and got up to greet me. She ate and drank, then followed me, slowly but surely, to the water tank by the gate, where she drank some more. By the evening feeding, she came trotting out of her Sow Palace, emitting her sweet little squeals of joy, once again back to her old self. I'll have a better idea in a few weeks if the experience impacted her expected litter of pigs. And I stand, as I often do, amazed at the precarious nature of life on a farm, where timing can work for you or against you, and where observation and action balance life and death. And I am so, so grateful the balance tipped in Lil's favor.
A brief look back at our 2016 here on the farm: red hogs! 2 litters of babies from our sows! Lots of new friends and supporters of our farm! Lots of infrastructure work, thanks, in no small part, to the red pigs! A good butcher, who not only does a good job but who also treats them with dignity! Whee! It was quite a ride, sometimes frustrating (like the day I sat out in the pasture and had a weeping meltdown), but mostly good and fun and growthy. We had our first ever Pig Roast. We got to see piglets born from our own sows, raised here on the farm their entire lives (this was rewarding on a level I cannot adequately relay). All in all, it was a good year..
And I believe we will have a good year this year, too. What's up?
First of all, we have been successful enough that, instead of being considered a "hobby farm", we will become a full fledged business - Farm 2 Fork Pork, LLC. That should be in place within a couple of weeks. I got Quick Books and a tutorial so I can keep better business records and improve invoices for customers. F2FP grows up! And probably quicker than my accountant thought.
Big news - we won't be renting a farm much longer. We found a farm we love, which we call Iris Hill; there is more land, a really good barn, and the house is lovely, spacious enough to entertain and to conduct my crafty hobbies like cheese making, canning, beer brewing, even work on pottery out in the shop. There is a good sized mud room, so my stinky work boots aren't 10 feet away from the dining room table (yeah, whiffy!). It feels like home. We close in about a month and will take a couple months to move everything, and I mean everything. Big Lil. Her babies. The new members of the sow herd, Almond, Belva Jo, and Cardamom. All the hog housing, all the feeders, all the electro fences. All that farm schtuff, in addition to the normal house items. And it will so be worth it. The pigs will have lots of room and more pastures, and an oak grove at the back of the property to supply delicious acorns.
Big Lil, our matriarch, is due to have piglets shortly after Valentine's Day, another bunch of sweeties like her previous litter, above. She's such a wonderful mama, and her babies do so well out on our pastured system, growing fast and strong, and they are so even tempered.
We've added many new customers who support our hogs and our way of farming by buying our pork. We couldn't do it without you! We have pre-sold all the hogs that will be ready in Spring, and have pre-sold a fair number of the Fall hogs as well. Buyers of our pork ensure that more heritage hogs are raised up, live out on pasture like that pictured above, and are treated with kindness and respect. If you are considering investing in a side or a whole hog, act soon; we have only a limited number of Fall hogs available. We will also be raising up some larger roasting hogs for the October/November timeframe, and those have to be reserved by July.
That's one of our roaster hogs, prepared for a farm table dinner at the Living Kitchen Farm and Dairy last fall; it fed a lot of grateful people. We'll be proudly raising up hogs again for Chef Bibi Becklund to prepare with skill and respect. I joke that Bibi even makes the squeal unique and delicious, but it's not far from the truth.
If we're really lucky, Michael and Tenley will again come play music at our farm open house and pig roast this fall in November. We will be feeding lots of folks, celebrating the harvest home, having farm tours, and sharing the joy of this farm with others. We hope you'll plan on joining us!
Linus expected toys and candy from the Great Pumpkin, but here on the farm, we know better. The hogs are the happy recipients of pupmkins, squash, and gourds left over after Hallowee'en and Thanksgiving, when home decor shifts from the autumnal to the yuletide.
For the pigs, the Great Pumpkin(s) takes the form of garden centers. We were fortunate enough to ask for, and receive curcubits from, a couple of generous garden centers, and we want to give them a shout-out. Here in Missouri, Wheeler Gardens gifted us with lots of left-over squash and pumpkins from their three locations. In Oklahoma, the Garden Trug (Tulsa) did likewise. Between the two locations, the hogs got almost two pickup truck loads of fine fall fruit.
This haul was as beautiful as it was nutritious. The hogs delighted in their bounty, which has been dished out over several weeks. The farmer was happy to augment their feed with good vegetables that enhance their health and flavor. The garden centers didn't have to throw all of this goodness in a dumpster and pay to have it hauled away. This is business-to-business at its best.
And the pigs? They think that pumpkin is great indeed!
Merry Schepers lives on a farm with her heritage pigs in Nixa, MO.