Greetings fellow Fat Heads!
Tom’s getting ready to educate another batch of university students on The Wisdom of Crowds effect (and hopefully get a good video), so I get to occupy the Big Chair for the week.
Tom gives regular updates on how Chareva and he are integrating their lifestyle with the land they’re on. I don’t live on acreage, but I’ve been moving along a similar path up North here, starting with buying raw milk and pastured eggs a couple of years ago from an acquaintance — now friend — Linda, who I’d met via Garrick Veenstra, an all-natural, no chemicals, local vegetable farmer (those were some of my first guest posts). I thought it would be fun to give you an update. As Tom and I actually communicate mostly through the comments on this blog, we’re not comparing notes often, so I’ve found it interesting how similar our paths tend to run.
First a topic Tom hasn’t really hit on here — what most folks in this country would call “garbage” or “waste.”
A friend of mine who’s also working towards self-sufficiency on his own small property (a few acres) worked out a deal with the produce manager at one of the stores of a large national food chain. He picks up the unsalable produce they normally pay to have hauled off, and has been building a few compost piles on his property.
The thing is, we Americans have been trained to be pretty discriminating about what we consider good food. Not well trained, just trained. We won’t buy fruits or vegetables that aren’t just the right size, or isn’t just the right color, or has even a little blemish. So since we’ve all been trained that only “perfect” looking food is good food (even though that means it’s probably been bred for looks, low cost, and ability to ship instead of flavor), the store employees routinely have to go through and throw out any food that doesn’t meet the Miss America standard of beauty. Plus, since commodity veggies and fruits tend to be way cheaper than labor costs, the most efficient thing to do is to pitch any carton or flat or bag that contains even a few rejects.
Fortunately for me (or unfortunately for my friend if you want to look at it that way), there’s a small trailer park behind the treeline of his property, and it’s inhabited with a few of those type of people who start calling the health department, fire department, police department, village president, and anyone they can think of whenever someone does something weird — like building a compost pile on their own property. This helps keep themselves from thinking about why they don’t have jobs, and live in a trailer park. Everything he’s done, including building his compost pile, is by the book, and there’s a couple of hilarious stories there, but he got tired of the nuisance and asked if I thought Linda would be interested taking the loads for awhile to build up a compost pile at her farm so he could get a break from his neighbors.
Plus it was getting to be a bit much for his small property, anyway. So he’s been dropping it off at her farm once or twice a week, taking one home for himself once in awhile, and on my weekly run to Linda’s for milk and eggs, I swing by my buddy’s office, swap vehicles, then go do the pickup and head for the farm, unload, check on the chickens and cows (getting to that shortly), then swap back on my way home.
How much of this “waste” are we talking? Well, here’s a picture of my buddy’s pickup truck after we’ve unloaded most of one run at Linda’s farm…
… That’s a big Chevy truck and the bed holds four rows across, five deep and three high, so anywhere between 50 and 60 of those boxes’ worth. Maybe 5% has fuzz showing by the time he picks it up, maybe 25% is overripe, 20% blemished, 20% wilted, and 20% looks OK. The other 10% is gorgeous — it was just hanging out with a few bad apples!
That’s one load from one of several stores in a medium-sized suburban community, and he has to pick it up at least three times a week to keep up. Of food that we Americans call “garbage,” but a single load like this would start a food riot in probably 85% of the world. Makes you want to cry.
After we untie the plastic bags, we dump the produce, put the plastic in a pile for the garbage, then were breaking down the cardboard boxes and either burning them or hauling them off. Then after my buddy mentioned that the cardboard boxes were great dry matter for the pile (duh!), we started throwing them back on. It looked like this (this is probably two loads)…
I finally — three months in — figured out that if we put the first box we’ve emptied right on top of the pile and then empty the next box box right into it, then pull out the plastic bag (then rinse, lather, repeat), we don’t have to break them down, they stay in place, and it cuts the time to get everything unloaded in half. Hey, I’m not stupid. I’m just slow.
We normally let it build up for a couple of weeks. Linda moved the coop for her pastured egg chickens next to the compost pile and they love poking through it. They especially go for anything with seeds in it. It’s made a notable difference in the eggs Linda gets from her chickens, and they were already way superior to a store bought egg before they had access to the compost heap. And yeah, the guy in front of the picture is named Einstein…
Every couple of weeks, my buddy swings by with his small tractor and dumps some wood chips from a huge pile Linda’s had aging for a couple of years onto the fruit and veggie pile, mixes it and mounds it up.
[n.b., Fat Heads: having friends who own trucks and their own tractors is way better than owning your own truck and tractor. I also have a friend who owns a pontoon boat. If I can find a friend who owns his own plane, I'm set!]
A few weeks later, it looks good enough to play King of the Mountain on (that’s The Grandkids, who’ve you’ve seen here before)…
That’s beautiful soil for next year’s garden beds.
Moving on, a few weeks before Tom reported their chicken house building project, I was taking delivery of 50 meat chickens and setting them up in an old construction trailer converted to a brooding house/coop at Linda’s farm. When we first got our two cows onto Linda’s farm to pasture, I’d asked Linda about raising some meat chickens. The original idea was to keep them on the cows’ pasture in one or two “chicken tractors” somewhat like Chareva’s chicken house, but lighter construction, and then move them around every couple of days. Cow pies to a chicken are like Pecan Pie to us. They scratch them up for the bugs, spread the piles better for the soil, and it drives both chicken and cow parasites nucking futs, disrupting their breeding cycles. That’s the true Joel Salatin model, one of my favorite authors and something of an icon in the real/local food movement.
Linda’s sister, who now lives off the farm, suggested that we rehab the old construction trailer, which she’d set up as a coop a few years earlier while she lived there and kept several dozen egg layers. The “almost done” nature of the trailer, and the late start we got made it a pretty easy decision. Linda does the daily feeding, watering, and general keeping an eye on the chickens, I bought the chickens, buy the feed and supplies, and we’ll share the “bounty” at processing time.
I got 25 Freedom Rangers, which is a hybrid bred strictly as a meat bird. That means they grow fast, and there’s no interest in their egg-laying capability since they get to the roaster long before they’d be ready to lay eggs. Since they’re a hybrid, even if you kept some with the idea of hatching your own supply, they wouldn’t be the same. Unlike America’s commodity meat chicken, the White Cornish Cross, the Freedom Rangers were developed to the French Label Rouge Free Range standard, which means they do well on pasture and aren’t plagued with the health issues common to the Cornish Cross.
The other 25 are Plymouth Barred Rocks, a heritage breed that is as close as it gets to what your grandmother might’ve had running around the farm. They free-range pretty well, and are a solid “dual purpose” bird, meaning they can be raised for meat and/or eggs. Unfortunately for this group, I’ve already got an egg supplier! Here’s what they all looked like a couple of weeks ago, at around 2 1/2 months…
They all were the same size and two days old when I got them on September 12th, but the reddish Freedom Rangers are now a full third bigger on average than the Rocks.
Although these birds are destined for the dinner table, we feel our part of the bargain means they need the opportunity to (to quote the aforementioned Joel Salatin) “express their chicken-ness.” Keeping them in a coop (even though they’ve got lots of room) and giving them only store bought fed without ever getting to scratch for bugs in the fresh air and sunshine would just make me an extremely small scale Tyson. Not what I’m going for. So, on days when it’s not brutal weather, Linda lets them do just that…
If you’re in it as a business, breeding so a bird grows to processing weight (around 6-8 pounds) in about 90 days for the Freedom Rangers vs. 120 day for the Rocks means you’re buying 25% less feed and turning your inventory that much faster, too. By comparison, the commodity market darling Cornish Cross, pathetic as they can be, are ready to process in 6-8 weeks. So you (or a customer) has to be ready to invest twice as much time and feed to get a Freedom Ranger, and even more for a true heritage chicken.
We do now have, however, a not major but at least minor offset to the feed disadvantage. Remember that compost pile we diverted from the Great American Waste Stream? Well, hey, chickens were the original homestead garbage disposal…
So as we unload each delivery, Linda and I separate out as many apples, squash, ears of corn, pomegranates (boy, do they LOVE pomegranates — almost all seeds!), etc., as we can and then she gives those to the chickens in the morning before putting out any of the store bought feed. It cuts the feed outlays almost in half! At around $15 for a 50# bag, that adds up when they’re now at a size that they can easily go through two bags in about 4 or 5 days if they’re only getting the feed. They’re also be happier, healthier, and should be tastier.
Now that this whole group is coming up on 90 days, we’ve decided to process a small “practice” batch of 4 or 5 of the Freedom Rangers this weekend as this is all of ours’ first experience (Besides Linda and myself, The Oldest Son and a friend from work have volunteered for duty). We’ll probably process the rest of the Freedom Rangers the next week, and then wait a few more weeks for the Rocks to get to processing weight. You can pay to have the birds all processed for around $1.50 each, which isn’t bad, but the time and travel cost (about 60 miles each way) make it pretty pricey for anything under a hundred or more chickens. Another reason we committed at the beginning to processing at least the first batch of 50 birds ourselves was that, although we know it’s not something to enjoy, it seemed to be the most honest way to show our respect for the birds, and so that we’ll better appreciate what procuring our own food really means.
(I was thinking of using that experience in a later guest post, but then Tom beat me to it last week after Chareva was “hot-rodding” their chicken house around the yard!)
I know I’ve been a little wordy, but one more quick update. The cows (Tom and Chareva are in on half of one of them) have been doing really well and growing through what up until recently has been a pretty mild Fall and Winter. Here’s Tartare…
And this is Royale…
I’d read about an idea that’s been gaining some attention in the grass-fed beef circles — fodder. The idea is that you soak grain seeds for a day, then spread them in trays that will drain, and water them daily for about a week. Seeds only need moisture and a bit of light for the first week or so of growth, which end up around 7 to 10 times the weight of the original seed. You’ve probably been fed fodder at some point in your life, although on the menu it’s called “sprouts.”
It’s more nutritious than hay, and cheaper since you’re getting a lot of added volume for a little water and time, so livestock can be supplemented or even fed mainly fodder over the winter and maintain or even gain weight. Linda, who’s incredibly patient with my tendency to get enthusiastic about ideas where I think of it, and then leave the most of the work to her, has got a trial system started. You can see about half of the setup here…
Each shelf is started a day after the prior shelf of trays, so you end up with a rotating daily supply. The cows are starting to look forward to their daily ration (and the chickens go nuts over the leftovers). This means we’ll be able to wait until the end of January to get the cows processed. That’s good because although they’re already at a good weight, the custom meat processing operations pretty much shut down to anything other than deer during the December/mid-January Illinois deer hunting seasons. This way we’ll be able to keep adding weight up to processing time.
Whew, if you made it this far, thanks for sticking with me. Up next, for those of you who are interested, and fair warning if you’re not, I’ve had a major epiphany and intend to elaborate on how Obamacare could quite possibly save the entire health care system, radically improve the health of most Americans (who weren’t already among us Fat Heads, that is), supercharge the economy, and restore our liberty. I’ve even already thought up a bumper sticker:
“Let’s just get it over with –
The Older Brother