Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Snow Days on the Farm

We recently had three great snow days on the farm. More than anything, these days were the silver lining in an otherwise cloudy situation. For two days of the week, I didn’t have enough gas in the car to make the 45 mile drive to my internship in Holland. On the third snow day, the weather was so bad that my supervisor instructed me not to make the drive. So, I lost valuable internship hours and was unable to spend valuable time with clients. Because of the circumstances, it was quite embarrassing.
However, since Jenn was home all three days, and we home school the three youngest children, we were together as a family with three days of unscheduled opportunity. So what happens on a farm during snow days? Well, since we have plenty of food in the house, we didn’t need to shopping or anything like that so we were able to stay home and enjoy the snow. Of course, we had to feed the laying hens and the eight barn cats, but other than those chores, we were able to build snowmen, make full family dinners, do a lot of reading to each other, clean our bedroom, write content for blogs, create art, engage in Bible study, shovel snow together, rescue chickens caught in the snow, feed suet to the winter birds, listen to a music by diverse bands like The Crossing, Talking Heads, and Mudhoney and Motorhead, Taylor Swift, and Parliament.
Snow days are a good time to take naps, and tell stories about infamous blizzards of the past. All of our children were born during winter, so we had snow stories for each birth of the youngest three children. We remember broken arms caused by huge icicles, sledding accidents caused by huge trees, and hockey game cancellations caused by huge storms.
A great thing about blizzards, however, is something rarely talked about on our farm or by others, for that matter. The great things are that we are in a warm place with food, heat, hot water, transportation, and most of all, each other. That is a blessing that many people don’t share. That’s why giving, especially the sharing of time, can be such a blessing to others.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Sandhill's experiment with Broilers

OK, back to farming. One of the new enterprises that was undertaken at Sandhill was the addition of broilers to our ongoing farm experiment. We had raised layer hens for a few years, but we have never raised them for meat (except for culled roosters) until this past year. We decided to try two rounds of fifty broilers each. We followed the suggestions laid out by Andy Lee’s book entitle Chicken Tractor (There is more to the title, but I can’t recall it offhand) and commenced to building the pens that would hold the chickens.

The materials we purchased for the two 8’ by 10’ cages (three feet deep, two deep would have been better) cost us about $80 each, using 1” by 2” boards, chicken wire, and a rather expensive composite plastic corrugated covering. We fastened the sides and top, and the chicken wire with staples and three inch screws. We kept each panel separate in our basement where we erected them until the snow melted and we pieced each side together with zip ties and reinforced that with screws.

Next, it was time for the broiler chickens. We ordered the more marketable White Mountain crosses, which are bred to grow to five or six pounds (or more) in eight weeks. We are still not sure about ordering dual purpose heritage breeds for this year, which grow slower but are more in tune with our farming philosophy). At any rate, when you order fifty chicks of any breed, you have to brood them from one-day-old to the point where they are hearty enough to stand against the cold and other elements. Not having a brooder, and having eight barn cats in our garage, we made the decision to brood these first fifty chicks in our house because the May weather in Michigan last spring was still very cold, especially at night. First, I’d like to state that many people we have spoken with in our community have brooded chicks inside their homes. Secondly, I can tell you that each of us have reported that this is a most unpleasant experience. After brooding the chicks in a plastic swimming pool last season, this year we will build a brooder (To purchase one costs about $290 - $350)and place them in the garage with appropriate protection from the cats. You will never feel the need to clean as thoroughly as you will after having livestock in your house. (On the other hand, 10 or so layers, even 25 layers, are not as bad to brood in the house, as there is less waste to deal with).

Once they were hearty enough, we transferred the chicks out to the chicken tractors, and began to move them to fresh grass every day, and fed them broiler grower twice a day. We fed them a lot, but took seriously the instructions to keep them on feed for twelve hours, and then remove the feed for twelve hours, to reduce complications arising from over eating. We went through approximately 15 bags of feed in eight weeks costing around $13 a bag.

We faced two problems with our two sets of broilers. First, we lost nine chickens to the late July heat, not because they didn’t have enough water, but most likely because they didn’t have proper shade. One thing we know, the broilers will not walk more than three feet to drink water, so, if there is not proper shade, they will be overwhelmed by 90 degree heat. This was a tragedy around our farm, as we felt that if we would have been on the farm instead of working outside the home, we could have better protected the animals. An tarp solved this problem. The other problem was predators. We dealt with them severely, shooting two raccoons that had stolen two chickens from us, and one skunk that had killed two chicks. Predators always return to the scene of the crime, because they know it will be easy pickings. Raccoons, however, tend to come within four hours of darkness, and I only had to wait for a few hours before shooting them an hour apart with a twelve gauge. The skunk took some thought, however, as I was concerned about the release of musk. Skunks come in the morning, and I decided to use a .22 caliber rifle for the skunk. It worked, with minimal smell resulting. Many folks, especially Quakers, are concerned about the hunting of predators, as opposed to trapping them. In rural areas, once predators feel safe enough to approach human homes, they will continue to do so wherever they are released from live traps. To release a raccoon into another homes range is to give other home owners trouble. Also, when we tried a live trap in Ohio once, the raccoons were smart enough to steal the bait from the trap, then proceed to raid our barn for chickens. I am not about to live trap a skunk. As for pacifists having guns on the property, the reality of coyotes, small predators, injured game, and sick and dying animals is a reality of rural life, and hunting weapons, while not absolutely necessary, are a solution to such problems.

Back to chickens. Finally, after eight weeks of feeding broilers, it was time for butchering. There are many ways to prepare a chicken for butchering. I prefer to shoot them in the head while holding them upside down, as it is quick and painless. Killing cones will be added this year, because as the birds flap after death, the wings can break due to the force of the spasms. After they bleed out, I remove the head, then we scald them in 155-degree water that we have added dish soap to in order to ease the removal of feathers from the carcass. Picking a chicken by hand is a time consuming process, and for this year, we hope to build our own chicken picking machine ( A new chicken plucker from a manufacturer costs more than a thousand dollars). It will reduce the time to prepare a bird for butchering from 10 minutes per bird to 20 seconds for two birds. Once the bird is plucked, it is ready for dressing, which, after four or five birds, takes about three minutes or less. However, the first one might take as many as fifteen minutes. It simply takes practice. After dressing the bird, we clean out any remnants from dressing the bird in a water bath, then age the bird for a day or two in a refrigerator before freezing. Our shareholders can pick them up cold or frozen, either way. We have not received one complaint about our birds, and we love them ourselves. They taste great, even better when you raise them yourselves.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Plain clothes, farming, and intentionality

A lot of folks, ranging from family members to liberal Quakers, from good friends to strangers, ask us why we wear plain clothes. A lot of people ask us if we are Amish. When we tell them we are Conservative Friends, they inevitably ask, “what’s the difference?” So, I’d like to use the farm blog to talk about that aspect of our faith and practice that is related to clothing and lifestyle. Much of it has to do with the Friends testimonies concerning simplicity, equality, integrity, peace, and community. Much of it has to do with the biblical witness. And, as with everything that people do intentionally, why we do what we do has a lot to do with politics, economics, and public witness.

Our family wears plain clothing, we farm, and provides ministry to people in a variety of ways because we believe that the life of Jesus is the normative life for those who express faith in the God of Abraham and Sarah. Integral parts of the Hebrew Bible, and much more of the Greek Testament, present the ideal of a community of faith that stands out as a witness to YHWH. The biblical memory of Jesus, and much of the Greek Testament, places a focus on humility as being characteristic of this community, as well as socio-economic choices that eschew the kind of pride that is often related to clothing styles of one fashion or another. Of course, Jesus sets the tone for, and is remembered by the fledgling messianic communities, to emphasize the importance of public witness in standing fast against the persecution of empire and the Yahwist aristocracies of Jerusalem and the Diaspora. So, plain clothing is a testimony to the kind of humility that is perhaps evidenced by individuals in Christ-centered communities who submit to a corporate character, while at the same time promoting an awareness that a people dedicated to God exist in the midst of communities who are not aware that alternatives to the socio-economic standard exist.

As a Quaker, I am readily aware that, like early messianics, early Friends were persecuted for their ministry, but continued forward with a very public witness despite persecution. This public witness to Jesus, to peace, and equality, and simple justice, is made all the more obvious when it can be related to a people who can be readily identified as such a people. Many a conversation about the peace testimony, the Underground Railroad, or George Fox have been started because of my plain clothing.

Many people also ask about head coverings. The women in our family do not wear head coverings because of the biblical reference found at 1 Corinthians 11. The women in our family, as well as the men, cover our heads as an attempt to humble ourselves before God, but also as a constant reminder that there is a Creator God who is always watching over us. We spend less time worrying about looking attractive to others and more time focused on standing along side of a Creator, who, while sometimes seems hidden, is always finding ways to present the divine self to us. Head coverings, as well as plain clothes, remind us that we must always be humble enough to see God reflected in those placed before us. Our hope is that, when we are humbled appropriately, others will see God reflected in our attitudes, instead of the consumer values that drive so many to spend small fortunes on hair styles and products like makeup that are intended to present us as something more in tune with popular culture than with a pattern that is not of this age.

Another concern we have with worldly fashions is the way in which modern clothes are manufactured. We believe that we are taking a visible stand against sweatshop labor by wearing handmade clothing that we pay a fair price for, which is made locally, with American manufactured fabrics. Also, we believe that purchasing clothes at contemporary clothing stores, resale or otherwise, promotes businesses that exploit women especially, and promote sensuality in children and teens that exploits their sense of identity, sexuality, and economic sensibilities. Fashion promotes a contrived sense of individuality, marketing toward those aspects of rebellion, sexuality, or self-marginalizing behaviors that people choose to engage in as a response to their own, and the world’s, brokenness.

Many think plain clothes and farming are a simple lifestyle, but really, our lifestyle is very intentional, and is expressly related to our belief that all people are equal, and all beings deserve justice. While there will never be a perfect place to stand in our world, the idea that persons should be judged more by their character and nature than by the clothing they wear is an integral part of plain clothing. Not only do adults suffer undeserved shame and disgrace because of clothes that might not comply with elite standards of society, school children everywhere suffer indignities because they cannot keep up with the changing realities of fashion. Also, fashions are frivolous, and exploit resources as well as promoting waste. They promote a double standard, as many people wear one kind of clothing to work and church, and another kind of clothing to “relax” in.

As for farming, we believe that food can be the center of an intentional community, providing the inspiration for people to contribute their own gifts to community in a manner that makes use of distinctive and local resources that enhance a community’s ability to know and depend on one another, and see the ecological and labor imprint that our lifestyles leave upon our own locale and neighbors. A side of beef, pork, chickens and eggs, clothing, heating resources, milk, and labor are all much more costly than the cheap products Americans demand for goods that exploit the cheap labor and resources of other counties. It takes time and resources to produce food, it does not magically appear at Wal-mart. In the economy of the Greek Testament, it took ten peasants to support the lifestyle of one landed elite. It must take many more resources and wage slave production models to support the lifestyle of one American.

As such, we wear plain clothing, and engage in an alternative economy as much as we can, in order to promote what we believe are the values that best reflect the character of Jesus and early Christ-centered communities. It is a voluntary public witness to our Quaker testimonies. We hope not to inspire others to dress plain, but to think seriously about the world around them, and develop their own community driven public witness to peace, justice, and the salvific character of Jesus the messiah.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Wrestling hogs and other well-laid plans

After writing about the pig pen yesterday I was reminded of the first year we had hogs and the time came to transfer them from our barn to the butcher. This happened in the spring, and I figured that I could get the job done easily enough if I just had a truck to use. It just so happened that a friend from seminary owned a rather aging S-10 that looked as though it had been used to haul livestock regularly, even if that was not the case. Better yet, my seminary friend grew up on a farm, and I figured she might provide some support if things didn’t go the way I had planned.
Julie came over early in the morning, and I initiated the first of what would be many grand hog hauling schemes. I had refrained from feeding the hogs the night before, so they would be nice and hungry on butchering morning. I backed the truck into our barn, and opened the rear gate. I then poured an ample amount of food into one of the hogs’ feeding dishes, gave them a nice sniff of aromatic corn mash, and set it up in the bed of the truck. It was my expectation that both hogs would walk right up the ramp I had made especially for the occasion, and I would shut them in and drive them to meet the butcher. The hogs however, knew something very well that I did not. Hogs do not simply climb up ramps into the back of small trucks, not if they are a little hungry, and not if they are starved. Contrary to all I have heard, hogs are not so curious as to climb into the back of a truck either.
The next plan was to simply wrestle the hogs into submission, and lift them into the back of the truck. Of course, they weighed more than three hundred pounds apiece, so I accepted the fact that I might need Julie and Jenn’s help. Another thing that I did not know, was that when you try to wrestle hogs, they do not simply submit to practical wrestling holds, but the fight back. Indeed, if you know the hog well enough to have scratched behind its ears every day for the last –say – five months, they think you are playing and wrestle back. So, as soon as I attempted to wrestle one hog into submission – she sat on me, and then rolled around a little bit because she was enjoying the game of balancing herself on my own ample belly. It was like watching a medicine ball balance on another medicine ball. Time for plan C.
Plan C was to try and hog tie the animal, so we drove all the way into town for a rope, and drove back to put it to use. The problem was, neither Julie nor me, nor Jenn , knew anything about hog-tying a hog, or any other kind of livestock. I couldn’t have lassoed a hog if it were laying asleep and I had a net. Time for plan D.
Plan D involved calling Julie’s dad, who was a farmer back in New York, and he said it was pretty easy to lead a hog around if you just placed a five-gallon bucket over the hog’s head. I had plenty of five-gallon buckets around the farm, and we immediately retrieved one in hopes of guiding a blinded hog up a ramp into the back of a truck. The problem was that Julie’s dad must have either raised some very small hogs, or pulled ten-gallon hats down over their eyes, not five-gallon buckets. The buckets did not come anywhere close to sliding down over our hog’s head. Time for plan D.2.
We called a local hog farmer and asked how he loaded his hogs into the livestock truck. He told us to use a ramp, and I said we did. He said chase it up the ramp. I explained that the hog refused this opportunity. He asked if our ramp had sides to prevent the hog from turning from side to side. A-ha, I thought, this is the answer. However, we had nothing that could be used for sides to my homemade ramp, but the two graduate students on site decided we could certainly construct something similar to a ramp with sides. We got together and procured some t-posts, some barbed-wire, and an old automotive hood that had been laying around the farm because those are the kinds of things that farmers never throw away. We pulled the truck around to the back gate, and erected a barbed-wire corridor that led from the barn to the back of the truck, with the car hood leaned against the side of the barbed-wire as an additional deterrent to the hog’s desire for freedom. Believe it or not, the plan worked. At least, it initially worked. But as soon as we got close enough to the truck, the hog turned, forced its way through the barbed-wire, over the top of the car hood, and back into the pig pen where, once it was safe again, began to smile again as though she wanted to play more. Bruised and bloodied from the barbed-wire experience, Julie and I sat and muttered about how much we hated these hogs. Rosa was having a great time watching all the work, however, and she remained optimistic by singing “we’re having bacon tonight.” Since we could not come up with a plan E, Julie and I drove back into town to ask people at the grain co-op if they had any ideas.
Of course, the people at the grain co-op thought we were crazy. Why in the world didn’t we use the proper equipment like everyone else in the county. We tried to explain that we didn’t have the proper equipment, which naturally left them to wonder why in the world we had three hundred pound hogs, then. I felt stuck. I was at the point where I just wanted to shoot the hogs out of spite, but the butcher could only work with them if they were brought in under their own steam. Back to the drawing board.
While Julie and I were gone, Jenn had the bright idea of going next door to the vet to ask how he moved hogs from one point to another. They explained that they did it with a hog catcher. We wondered if this was Preble County’s cousin to a dog catcher, but as it turns out, there is a special tool designed to grab a hog by the snout so that it is more easily managed. Jenn borrowed the hog catcher, handed it over to me, and I commenced to catching the hog.
Funny thing about hogs is, once they are caught, and being moved to a place that is not where they would choose to go on their own, they intend to dig into the spring muck and howl. Now, there is no way to describe a hog scream, or howl, or whatever that noise is that is made by pigs in danger of being turned into pork, but I assure you that it is intense and deafening. And while I pulled at the hog’s snout, which was looped tight with the hog catcher apparatus, Jenn and Julie pushed it from behind. We moved that hog about fifty yards - an inch at a time - up the homemade ramp and into the back end of the S-10, which has just enough room for one three-hundred pound hog. Unfortunately, I was in the back of the truck with her, and she was not happy with me at all.
Of course, hogs don’t know that you should never corner a seminarian, because we can be vicious on our knees. Even Quaker’s pray, and when I started to pray that the Almighty would get me past the hog, the hog started fussing to get the hog catching apparatus off of her snout (it was still stuck there), and cleared a path to let me by and out of the truck, where Jenn and Julie promptly shut the hatch. The hog was ready for transport, and just as Julie had predicted, it tasted all that much better because of the epic battle that we fought to get it to the butcher. As for the other hog, we were too tired to move that one for another two months, and it loved us all the same – until butchering day number two came along, and plans F through K.3 were employed.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Fresh Country Air

Micah and Rosa worked hard today, and they didn’t once complain about the odor that will be accompanying their boots for a few days. In order to try and save some costs for next year, Jenn and I decided to use the hog shelter for beef calves, and erect a simple livestock panel-and-tarp shelter for the pigs. Savings… four hundred dollars. For today, however, we first needed to tear down the hog pen so that we can place next years swine on fresh pasture. We are going to expand the hogs’ pasture area by about half, and we took down all of the panels and t-posts from this past year’s pen. That involved a lot of work that had to be performed in the areas where the pigs liked to eliminate waste. The smell didn’t bother any of us while we were outdoors, but when we got back into the garage, the smell of our boots and gloves was ripe, to say the least.

The subject of odors, however, or “fresh country air,” as some people like to say, can be a touchy one. It is true that many large-scale farmers tend to be bothered by suburbanites who move to rural areas and complain because the farms – well - they stink. Manure lagoons and spreaders do not produce the most pleasant aromas to be living with, unless you are profiting from them. As larger farmers like to say, the smell of manure is the smell of money. The fact is, however, that an ecologically considerate farm should not make the whole neighborhood smell like manure. If animals are pastured, and rotated properly, and the animals on the farm are all allowed the freedom to live the way God intends them to, the soil is improved, manure is spread throughout the pasture as chickens scratch it into the soil, and the smell is only evident when someone steps in a pie, or the pig pen has had about six months of continuous use. The only smell of manure that is around our home, other than when we step in something in the pasture, is the smell of manure that is spread by the dairy and egg farmers that apply it to plowed fields so that they can grow grain to feed animals stuck in confinement housing.

When people drive by a pasture full of cows or beef steers, they never say” “wow, that smells of manure.” They rather enjoy the vista, and smell real country air if their windows happen to be down. But, drive by many dairy farms, a corporate hog farm, or a corn or soy bean field at the right time of year, and you will surely smell “that fresh country air.” In fact, it is air pollution.

The suburban transplants shouldn’t complain about odors, though. Surely they enjoy the pleasure of cheap and endless supplies of confinement beef and pork, and processed food to fill their bellies with, while the land erodes away and future generations are left with fewer healthy food options.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Nurturing the agricultural dream

It may seem a bit odd to begin a blog about farming after our season has finished. But after having a great experience during our first year as CSA producers, we are already looking forward to next year, and are in the planning stages for the 2010 season. As for this blog, we thought it might be interesting reading for a few types of folks. First, it might take the place of a newsletter for our members, and keep them updated on how things are going, what we are doing, and what we are planning to do. The second type of folks we are hoping will enjoy this blog are those people who just want to keep up with how our family is doing, as we will probably include a lot of info about who we are as a family, who we are as Quakers, and who we are in relationship to farming and servanthood in the midst of community. Finally, we hope that this blog can serve as a catalyst for new CSA projects, and provide a forum where other budding farmers can find the inspiration to move forward toward realizing their dreams.

Jenn and I had been dreaming about engaging with agriculture for a good many years – more than a decade, before finally going ahead with a livestock experiment when we moved to Ohio, where I could attend seminary at Earlham right across the state line. We had raised a few chickens before, but this time we invested in a flock of 25, and went into the egg business. Also, we purchased our first feeder pigs to raise pork. When we returned from our sojourn in Ohio, we immediately purchased new layer chicks and a few pigs. We also purchased a dairy bull calf in an attempt to raise our own beef.

As we went along producing livestock for our own consumption, I continued to lament the lack of community that I felt could be centered around farm and food. But as I complained and spoke mostly negatively about this dream of a CSA farm that I had, someone at a Quaker book discussion finally got sick of my negativity and challenged me to do something positive. In response to that challenge, Jenn and I decided to move forward, despite our lack of experience with CSA farming, and developed a plan to farm and sell shares. The most fearful part was asking people to invest when we had no idea whether we could produce for more than just our own family. However, the best advice I have for dreamers like us is – stop talking so much and just get it done.

Yet, as time went by and the spring, summer and fall have passed, we did it. And, as I said above, we plan to move forward with even bigger plans for next year. As we move forth toward our second season as a CSA, we will use the wintertime to provide readers with anecdotes and experiences of farming that might keep you all informed about the beginning of the farming process, where it is that food comes from, and how it reaches your table. We hope you continue to read. Blessings, r. scot miller.