Wednesday, May 26, 2010

New Farm Update

This week, we cleared some land for our barn. We will get some power poles this weekend and set them in the ground to build a pole barn. We have also hired a neighbor to “brush hog” the land. A brush hog is basically a heavy duty lawn mower. It rips out any sage brush or rabbit brush. The land has a lot of good native grasses that we want to keep as part of our pasture. We will plant additional seed including a mixture of grasses, both cool season and warm season, clover, alfalfa etc… Ideally there will always be something growing a good portion of the year. If we were to till the land, we would lose a lot of the native grasses which can be difficult to reestablish.

We also began drilling the new well that will supply water to our house and pastures. We set aside enough money to drill 200 feet. The first day of drilling didn’t go very well. The well drillers went down 140 feet and only found enough water to supply a rate of 5 gallons per minute. This is basically enough to run one shower and nothing else. If that wasn’t bad enough, the water wasn’t very good and rather dirty. The next day I called to get an update and they had reached 180 feet with no additional water. They called back a couple hours later to report that they had reached 200 feet and found an additional 10 gallon per minute (gpm). This is enough to supply our house and maybe a little bit of lawn for the kids to play on. They wanted to know what I wanted to do. My options were to live with 15 gpm, or to drill deeper. The problem is that water is hit and miss around here. Just a few miles away some wells were drilled to 1000 feet and water was never found. At the cost of $70/foot this wasn’t an easy decision to make on our limited farm budget. ($70/foot is just the cost of drilling and well casing.  It doesn't include water pipe, pump, electric wire etc...)  I could drill deeper and still not have any more water than the 15 gpm I already had and not only not have enough water but now be over budget as well. Hollie and I talked about it and decided that the whole reason for buying this land was to have more pastures in order to grow our farm. We decided to roll the dice and keep going. I called the well driller back and asked him to go another 80 feet and see where that put us. They replied that they would go get more pipe and be back in the morning. I barely slept that night realizing that our whole farm teetered on something as basic as water. I was so stressed out that my back, neck, and jaw ached from being so tense. My mind was going a million miles an hour playing out all the different scenarios. Our kids felt the tension and realized that something wasn’t right.

The next morning seemed to drag on as I waited for an update from the well driller. Finally around noon they called and reported that they had gone 40 more feet and were now getting about 40 gpm of good water. Instantly relief swept over me and the tension disappeared. Hollie was so excited that she took the kids over to the land to see the water they were pumping. By then they had gone the last 40 feet and were now getting 70 gpm. Then they explained that they still needed to perforate the pipe which they estimated that once done, would give us a total of 100 gpm. We are still waiting to find out the actual results of the pipe perforation, but regardless, we have enough water to irrigate some nice sized pastures. So we are already over budget, but at least we have water.

How's the Chicken?

Last Saturday was our first CSA Share delivery where we delivered to all of our customers. Preparing each 10lb share turned out to be a little more work than we had calculated. We tried to make sure that every share included both beef and pork as well as a variety of cuts. At first we second guessed our decision to limit CSA Shares. However, now we are glad that we did. Like everything else we have experienced, the first few tries require us to overcome a learning curve. Once we get into a good groove with our CSA Shares, we will reevaluate our ability to handle more CSA Shares.

Last Saturday was also our first chicken delivery. Aside from the chickens being a little smaller than we expected, we are very happy with the quality and flavor that our chicken offers. We have already had several emails from our customers who are thrilled with the superior meat quality and flavor. The chickens we delivered on Saturday were the New Hampshire Reds (Red Ranger). We found that the chickens that reached a 4lb dressed weight had considerably more breast meat than the 3-3.5lb chickens. Our next batch of New Hampshire Reds will be raised two weeks longer in order to get all of them into this 4 lb. range. We plan to have these ready the first weekend of August. In the meantime, our next group of chickens will be the Delaware and Plymouth Rock chickens. We expect that these chickens will be true to the heritage breeds with more slender dispositions and an abundance of flavor. We will harvest these chickens in June. For July we plan to harvest another type of chicken. This chicken will be the Slow Cornish Cross. These chickens have the heavy muscling and large breasts that many are used to. The difference is that they grow much slower allowing their skeletal system and organs to keep up with their growth rate. As a precaution, we are also feeding them a lower protein feed to ensure that they stay healthy and happy. This is simply an experiment, but so far we haven’t lost a single Slow Cornish Cross chicken which leaves us very optimistic.

Turkeys have been a bit more challenging than the chickens. Again, we blame ourselves for simply lacking the experience required to raise poultry on pasture on this level of production. However, how else can we learn unless we try? This past Friday we moved our 80 young turkeys from the brooder to the pasture. The forecast called for a little rain but in Vernon it decided to snow. Sadly, we found 17 turkeys that didn’t make it through the night. Had we known it would get cold enough to snow, we never would have moved them from the brooder. Interestingly, all but two of the 17 were Bourbon Reds. The Royal Palms seem to be much more hardy and cold tolerant. This is good for us to know as Vernon is rather cold. In fact, we run the furnace in our home from September to the first of June. This only leaves about three months of warm weather. Even during these three months, we have day/night temperature differences of 40-50 degrees. This kind of weather can be hard on certain breeds of animals which is partly why this year has been so challenging. Since, nobody in Vernon or Utah for that matter, has raised large numbers of heritage poultry, we really have no record to reference. We are learning as we go. We have helped several other small farms who are getting started in Utah by sharing our experiences so that they might avoid some of the problems we have incurred. We are learning (the hard way) which breeds are better suited for our climate. We are confident that by next year we will have a much better success rate.

As mentioned above, we have already heard back from several customers that the chicken is fantastic.  However, if anybody else has had a chance to try the chicken, we would love to hear your feedback.  What do you think of our idea to raise Slow Cornish Cross?  Do you like the idea of more breast meat or oppose the use of non heritage breeds?  Remember we we want to be your farmer.  This means we need to know what kind of food you want.  We look forward to hearing your ideas!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Bigger Farm

Some of our Berkshire pigs enjoying new pasture

Have you ever found yourself playing a board game like Risk or Monopoly where you go all out in an effort to win the game?  Where you make moves that are somewhat risky, where you spread yourself a little thinner than is comfortable?  This is how I often find myself playing such games.  Usually I end up losing but every once in a while I catch a break and the strategy pays off.  Usually it requires a little luck to gain some momentum, but once you get going, you see the light at the end of the tunnel and you know you are going to win.  I am sure that there is a smart person out there who has a term for such a situation/strategy.  Well, apparently, I like to play life the same way as this is the situation I now find myself in.  Only, I am still hoping for that little bit of luck to gain some momentum.

Our little farm continues to grow and we continue to learn along the way.  This year we decided to start offering pasture raised chicken and turkey.  We have raised poultry for years, but never on this scale.  As we now know, raising poultry 10-20 birds at a time is vastly different from raising 400-500 birds at a time.  There is very little room for error as we sadly learned when one of our brooders went out last month.  Of course, as luck would have it, it went out on a particularly cold night causing us to loose half the chicks in one of the brooders.  Combine that with a slower than expected growth rate from our Plymouth Rock and Delawares has left has feeling spread thin.  While we look forward to harvesting our first chickens of the year, today, we were sad to inform many of our customers that we would not be able to meet our delivery goals.  That one brooder incident also cost us a lot of money.  Our spirits were lifted however, when email after email returned from our customers expressing sympathy and understanding.  We were so nervous that some would be upset, and while I am sure that some are annoyed, all have been very good and easy to work with.  Several reminded us that such incidents are part of membership in a CSA.  While we acknowledge this fact, we will still deliver the chickens we said we would, just a little late.  We would like to thank our customers for their loyalty and understanding. 

New Hampshire Reds (aka Red Rangers) on our pasture

While it will take until July to get fully caught up on our chicken orders, we are optimistic with our chicken operation as our mortality rate is getting lower with each group of chicks/chickens.  Also, in seeking out the best chicken breed for our climate (by experimenting in raising 6 breeds), we have found a breed of chicken that we particularly like.  We have selected the Red Ranger which as it turns out is actually the New Hampshire Red.  This chicken is very meaty and hearty.  They grow well, range well, and don't peck each other like other breeds do.  They are well proportioned, not slender like some of the other Heritage Breeds, and not unnaturally large in the breast like the Cornish Cross.  They are just right for our farm when all things are considered.  Being able to discover the right breed this early in our chicken venture is that "little bit of luck" we need to get some momentum going.

Some very exciting (and scary) news is that just as our little farm was busting at the seams, we were able to close on a new piece of farm ground.  The piece we are on now is 3 acres with the cows on leased pasture.  Our new land is 20 acres in size and located just 1 mile down the road from where we live now.  While 20 acres is a lot of land to most city folks, it is scarcely a building lot to some country folks.  However we are grateful and happy for this land and will utilize it to the best of our ability.  Since we can't afford to keep our current place and buy the land, we decided to build a home on the new land and sell our current home.  This will also give our family a little more room as we too are busting at the seams in our 2 bedroom 1 bath house.  The land we just bought offers beautiful, unobstructed views of the mountains and is on the edge of town.  The land has only been used to graze cattle on it for decades.  This means that the ground is clean of any pesticides and gives us a completely clean slate to build our farm upon.  However, now is when the real work begins.  While keeping up with our current operation, we are going to attempt to put up new fencing, build a barn, drill a well, install irrigation, establish new pastures, set up new pens with sorting and loading chutes and run power and water to all the areas where we will be raising animals.  Somewhere in there we will likely sell our house which will require us to move to a temporary location until our new house is finished.  We are still not sure how that is going to work out, but will figure it out as we go.

In purchasing more ground, we are hoping to raise more animals and reduce our long wait lists.  We are especially going to focus on ramping up our pork and chicken production.  We also are planning to offer more on farm activities like regular farm days where customers can come tour the farm.  We are even thinking of doing some camping activities where our customers can spend the night and then help out on the farm the following morning.  The starry nights that Vernon's remote location offers is a site few people have experienced.  We have lots of other ideas we are bouncing around as well including my own secret project that will take transparency in the way your food is raised to a whole new level!

While expanding our farm involves some risk, we are confident in our investment given the strong response we continue to receive.  Hopefully with a little luck, we can gain the momentum we need to make offering locally grown, pasture raised, all natural, humanely treated, gourmet quality pork, beef, chicken, and turkey a winning venture here in Utah.

PS. If anybody would like to spend some time helping us on Fridays and Saturdays on our new farm we could sure use it.  We can offer you fresh air, a good work out, beautiful views and drinks (Gatorade, Coke, Water, sorry no apple martinis!).  : )