Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Ham Sweet Hitched

How did it get to be Christmas Eve Eve?  Seems like it was JUST here last year, a fresh ice storm wreaking havoc on our roads, trees, animals and ever-loving souls.

This year, it's in the 40s and rainy.  A slight improvement, I suppose, but for the 10th time our ground is thawing again and the mud is rising up to claim our boots, the grass clinging tightly to the Earth, and plenty of other things I'm sure we haven't realized we've lost yet.

I've been carrying a running dialogue in my head about the differences between last year, our first year here with the Farmstead, versus this year.  Most of my punchlines are FARMING:  YEAR TWO.  It's a good way to blow off steam when I'm dealing with a frustrating problem, but it also gives me hope for YEAR THREE.  Each year we will change our practices, refine our approach, improve our methods and, hopefully, produce better meat from happier animals on improved land.

An example, in case anyone was wondering about my inner joke-alogue...

Year One:  "Oh I can't find my gloves.  I can't lift [______] or tear down [_________] without gloves!  It'll tear up my hands!"

YEAR TWO:  "Gloves?  Ain't nobody got time for dat.  Oh hey I just tore a callous on my hands."

Maybe one more...

Year One:  "Please buy from us!  We'll give you a discount!  Free farm tours 4 lyfe!  Desperation!"

YEAR TWO:  "Dear Customer, you're fired.  Please don't contact us again, as we are clearly not the farm you are looking for."

[Yes, we really did fire someone this year.  Listen— you can argue with us about pricing and whatnot all day long, but at the end of the day, if it's not worth it to you, it certainly isn't worth it to us.  We pay for it all up front, spend a lot of time taking care of animals & infrastructure, such as it is, and you STILL want to argue about 50 cents/lb.?  No thanks, we'd rather keep it for ourselves.]

Anywho.  It was a great year.  We made a number of huge improvements, including but not limited to, adding a wood boiler to heat our house [bye bye propane!], building a permanent goat fence that none of them can climb out of, building two doors for our little red barn, improving the "driveway" that goes down to our shop, planting 50+ saplings, clearing scrub trees & weeds, reseeding with forage mixes & cover crops, and building 3 mobile coops for brooding chicks, ducklings & poults.  We also added a barn from Mid Michigan Mini Barns and brought our horses home!!  No big deal, just my lifelong dream becoming a reality.  Life is sweet.

And, we got married.  10.18.2014.  Amanda VanVels Photography captured the day beautifully, and many, many hands pitched in to get the house and the farm looking its best!

The sky threatened rain that day, but instead it was cool and breezy.  The trees held their leaves and released them softly, one by one, rose petals of autumn. All of our animals behaved, the guests had fun, and the food was delicious.  I'll post more photos at some point, but for now, I'll leave you with wishes for a Merry Christmas and a Hammy New Year to you and yours.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Then And Now

Four years ago, I was fresh out of college and traveling abroad.  Along a winding trail or 5, I made my way to Spannocchia, which is certainly one of the most beautiful places I have ever had the pleasure of visiting.  Having never worked around farm animals before, I was unsure how the experience would affect me and influence my views on food, and the world at large.  

Well, now here I am.  Living on, or actually, owning a small farm.  Whoops... how did that happen?  We have a pig due to farrow in the next few weeks, and two more that are probably a month out.  Two pregnant goats, 6 broody ducks, 2 broody turkeys, one broody [and very cranky] hen.  Genesis.  Five years ago I had never considered farming as an occupation, even in passing... turns out, it's an occupational hazard.  It gets into your blood and keeps you going on nights and weekends, like some organic, compostable drug.

The picture that crowns this blog was taken four years ago, in the hollers of West Virginia where I had the pleasure of learning from one of the greats of swine husbandry, Chuck Talbott.  Among many other things, Chuck taught me one of the most important things I know about raising livestock, when one day I lamented that the newly-born pigs were so cute that all I wanted to do was sit out in the field and watch them, shirking my many other duties.  

But Kato, he said emphatically, that IS part of your job.  You should always be out there watching.  

So now, when I come home from work and know I have eleventy trillion things to be doing and cleaning and taking care of... I remember what Chuck taught me, and I go sit with the pigs.  

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Glitz and Glam

Ah yes, the glamorous life of a farmer.  The bruises, bumps, scrapes, cuts, burns, scabs, broken fingernails... the jeans with piggie nose-prints that you don't bother washing because it's almost the weekend and you know you'll be wearing them ALL WEEKEND ANYWAY!

I cut my fingernails short last night, because we've started actually being able to get our hands in the dirt again, and what's the point of having nice nails if you're just going to stick them in mud?  Then, I was trying to write a blog post for our Ham Sweet Farm page after dinner last night [which was at 10 pm, btw], and I fell asleep... mid-sentence... sitting on the couch... TWICE.  "Just go to bed.  You can finish that tomorrow," said C.  Story of my life.  So many things that end up getting finished, tomorrow.  But our first priority is always the animals, so little side projects like blogging, gardening, heck, even doing the dishes, have to wait sometimes.  If we need to build a new fence for the pigs, or set up a new brooder for chicks, or buy and load and stack hay... it just has to be done.

Don't get me wrong, this isn't a Woe Is Me post.  I enjoy it.  It's satisfying, relaxing, rewarding.  But then I see a picture of myself, communing with all my hens, wearing a glorified Canadian Tuxedo...

I mean, seriously, what is that??  Somewhere, my favorite Little Black Dress is weeping right now.  But there is a certain solace in femininity that I find here on the farm.  All of these animals are my babies, and the earth they tread upon supports us all.  This year we have semi-grand plans for a vegetable garden, or maybe even two.  We're running a small Meat CSA, with animals raised naturally by us and two of our local farmer friends.  We're improving the land upon which we live.  We're making plans for next year, 5 years from now, 10 years from now...  and I still get to dress up every now and then.   

Friday, March 28, 2014

A Night Away, for a Gala!

Last weekend, Christian and I snuck away for about 24 hours.  We left 12 pages of notes for our intrepid friends/farmsitters and hoped for good weather.  The event?  The 11th Annual Minnesota Life College Gala, hosted in part by my wonderful brother Graham.  We couldn't have been more proud to be there for Graham, alongside our friends and family and all the friends and family of Minnesota Life College students.

We even came home with Garrison Keiler's A Prairie Home Companion/Lake Wobegon prize package, and a gorgeous pastel painting by local [to Michigan] artist Jill Wagner!  I'd say all in all it was a fantastic evening… and after the winter we've had, we're happy to get away, just not for too long.  We may never leave in the winter again, for any reason, after this year's Polar Vortex strandings and mishaps.

But look at all the fun we had!  We clean up pretty nicely, too.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Spring is Coming!

Ready or not, here it comes.  With that 9 pm Sunday night call from the post office letting us know that our chicks were in, the 2014 HSF season was officially underway.  At least with daylight coming earlier and earlier as the days grow longer, we're not waking up in utter darkness any longer.  Those first hot rays of sunshine burning into the bedroom wall are a glorious change from even just one month ago.

Meanwhile, this is what my commute looked like, just yesterday.  Winter, just the sheer heavy-handedness of it, actually made me want to cry as I drove 20 mph with my hazards flashing towards the highway.  

There are days when it feels like winter is just NEVER. GOING. TO. END.

Maybe I just enjoy pain but I also kind of love that about real winters.  This one has gotten to be so terrible that thoughts of green grass and things growing again make me incredibly happy… I think about it the whole time I'm out doing chores each morning and night.  Every day of miserable chores is getting us one day closer to spring and a new year of things growing.  Praise Cheesus!

I don't know that I've ever looked forward to spring as much as I am this year.  It's a whole new feeling, kind of difficult to explain… it's as if people who haven't been through it with animals on the ground and seeds in the basement can't possibly understand how it feels to be so close to Spring.

In any case, it sounds like spring in the house, even while snow flies outside.  ONE MORE MONTH!!

Saturday, February 01, 2014


This hog was born into a confinement operation.  Until today, he has never set foot outside the barn into which he was born.  He has never lived on anything other than slatted floors, has never seen light other than the dim florescent bulbs lining the barn aisles or the sunlight peeking through vented fans in the walls.  He's never seen snow, or straw.  Until today.

On this snowy morning, we welcomed a new boar to Ham Sweet Farm, and with it, we embark on a new project.  Last year we raised "feeder pigs," otherwise known as weaned pigs, and decided to keep the lone female to breed.  If all goes well, we should be expecting piggies on the ground by early June.

We have  a little American Guinea Hog boar already, but quite frankly, he is so much smaller than our gilt Gnocchi we don't think he can, well, err... get any business done with her.  Not to mention that when she's in heat, she's a raging, frothing-at-the-mouth monster.  Our little boar, The Godfather, is abjectly terrified of her.  Can't say I blame him… she's more aggressive with us when she's in heat as well.

The gestation for pigs is 3 months, 3 weeks and 3 days, putting us right at the start of summer for farrowing [birthing].  Perfect.  Christian and I decided that the best thing for everyone involved was to have her bred with a boar more her size.  But where does one find a boar?

We contemplated taking her to a few other farms for a "conjugal visit," A.I. [articificial insemination, test tube babies], waiting to see if The Godfather would change his mind and step up to the task… we contacted a farmer friend of ours about it, and he said he had a boar the farm could no longer use.  In the livestock world, being born a male is a great gig for a very select few.  But for the most part, males are either raised for meat or are essentially a waste product [think dairy industry or all the roosters people are constantly trying to re-home].  Boars, in other words, are a dime a dozen.  We asked our friend how much he would be willing to sell the boar for, and he told us that the going rate for a hog of his size "at market" was about $90.  Keep in mind, we're taking about a year-and-a-half-old hog who weighs 450 pounds or so.  We couldn't turn that down.

Side note:  Real Life now includes earnest discussions concerning tracking the heat cycles of our female pigs and goats, and excitement over good lookin' babydaddies for the aforementioned.  Our weekends are chock full of excitement!

Yesterday, I got home from work and Christian arrived home shortly thereafter.  I realized once we came in from chores after dark, I had just thrown my work clothes on over what I had worn to work that morning.  Nothing like building a pig hut in your favorite, and probably most expensive, pair of jeans!  Thankful for Carhartt weather these days.  It was warmer yesterday than it has been in quite some time, topping out at a balmy 28 degrees or so.  We prepped as much for our new arrival as time allowed before dusk came calling and it was time to take care of everyone else for the night.

When we woke up this morning, predicted snowfall of up to 8 inches made us think the delivery wasn't happening.  We did morning chores, and were inside about to make hot chocolate when Christian got the text— "The boar is on his way!  See you in a half hour!"  We threw our bibs back on and raced outside to put finishing touches on the honeymoon pigpen.  Just as we were finishing up with the pen and plowing out the driveway, a truck and trailer pulled in.

We opened up the trailer and he just stared out of it, unsure of what to do.  It took some coaxing but finally he jumped down from the trailer and sauntered into the pen we built to hold him and his new girlfriend.

We've been tracking her cycles for the past few months, and know she should be "coming in" tomorrow.  So today they're mostly flirting a lot, chasing each other around, and whispering sweet nothings to one another.  It's pretty cute.

So far, the new guy is doing just fine.  Cavatelli, Gnocchi's brother and lifelong pasturemate, is quite jealous of their new separation, so we may have more trouble with him in the next few days than anything else.  The boar has never seen or heard any of what he's experiencing today, so it's all new.  We have three strands of hot electric wire, laced with bright orange tape so he can see it, to keep him in.  He seems calm and inquisitive, shy, nervous.  Christian and I are both looking forward to watching him explore his new world.

 Also, his tongue sticks out a lot.  It's ridiculously cute...