On Sows, Bellybutton High

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One nice thing about the summers we’ve been having lately, is that while wet, they are also cool. Temperatures in the seventies and eighties are the norm, and, aside from a day here and there, we’ve not really even had too much of that stifling Michigan humidity either. It’s a far cry from the ninety-plus degrees and ninety-plus percent humidity we had, for many years, been accustomed to. It’s also much easier on sows. Continue reading

Light for Light: One Light Bulb, Endless Possibilities

Female farmer and her infant daughter, enrolled in the USAID ENGINE program in Northern Ethiopia, 2012

Among the first things I noticed after arriving in Ethiopia were the open-air butchers. Most were no more than twelve-by-twelve, just tiny shops cobbled together with steel siding and tarps; tucked in-between electronics shops and hair salons and places that seemed to sell nothing but furniture and bottled water. Inside slabs of goat and beef and lamb hung along the back wall. Outside people hustled by, kicking up the red-dirt as they shuffled through their day; men gathered to chat under the shade of a makeshift awning; in some places fresh, local fruits were stacked on mats for sale. Each time I’d notice one as our caravan traveled from meeting to meeting to places where we could rest our heads and absorb what we’d learned in the day’s meetings–sometimes lurching through the sort of bogged-down traffic you only find and learn to appreciate in the developing world, sometimes cruising along wondering how we got so lucky to miss the bogged-down traffic–I would smile a bit on the inside and hope I’d get a free moment to check one out before heading home. Continue reading

On Painting with Light, Independent Ewes + Rustic Brambleberry Galette

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As I type this I’m into my second slice of Brambleberry Galette, and I don’t feel the slightest bit bad about it. This happens every summer, during those sweet two or three weeks where it seems everything is ripe at once — at least if, like me, by “everything” you mean “all the berries.” It’ll be ten months before they come ripe again so it only seems appropriate to eat them in every imaginable way while we can. Continue reading

On Strawberry Jam & Tomcats + Sourdough Bacon Sandwiches, Two Ways

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Strawberry Jam
My Mother was never much of a canner, from where I got the gene that urges me to put things by we have to go back another generation. When I started my first garden she stopped by one day mid-summer to see it. “Yup,” she nodded approvingly, “your tomatoes are on track. Poopsie always said they ought to be in full production the first week of August.” When she was a kid my Grandpa would load all the kids in the car on that first weekend in August and drop them off at the Ox Roast in town, the local festival that still takes place today, and then head back to the farmhouse to put up the garden’s bounty. I don’t know what else he canned, I’m certain there were things other than tomatoes, but I don’t remember specifics. My Mother was among the youngest of twelve children and was twenty-seven by the time I was born so by the time I was old enough to care much about things like gardening and canning and cooking Poopsie was gone. Continue reading

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Church Fires & Big Pictures

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I’m not a lady. I mean, I’m a woman; I’m female, but I’m not ladylike.

If you’re familiar with the Myers-Briggs methodology of personality classification, I’m an ENTP. Male and female ENTP’s combined only make up about 3% of the population, and they say most of them are male. According to societal standards, the characteristics of an ENTP are decidedly masculine. We’re the “debaters.” We thrive on connecting disparate ideas to construct new theories and turn existing systems on their head. We value logic and reason to a fault, with an almost dogmatic distaste for emotions. In a man these are considered leadership traits; he is strong, convicted, smart. In a woman, they’re considered faults; she is bossy, a bitch, cold and socially-stunted. A male ENTP gets the job done, a female ENTP should smile more and consider people’s feelings.

Most of the time, I don’t give any of this a second thought. I have always subscribed to the “let the work speak for itself,” school of thought, and I’ve written about that in the frame of being a woman in agriculture before. What I haven’t written about is what that looks like on a day-to-day basis, what it means to “let the work speak for itself,” what it’s like to walk through the world wearing the armor of emotional callous needed to make that school of thought–that theory–reality. I’ve come to realize that this omission, though unintentional, is significant. It makes it seem as though doing this–being a minority who refuses to remain in the confines of the ill-fitting box that has been allotted me–is effortless, but the reality is quite the opposite, even for an emotionally-stunted ENTP.

The thing about microaggressions is that they’re almost imperceptible unless you’re on the receiving end. It’s not the outright bigots, those who make a big show of cutting you down, who do the most damage. Those people are easy to write off for the loons they are. It’s tiny slights even the perpetrators often don’t know are slights. It’s the quiet undercurrent that whispers, “no matter what you do, you will never be good enough.”

The other thing about microaggressions is that they’re cumulative. Take on too many, too quickly, before your mind has time to clear them out, and they begin to alter your perception. Future slights, no matter how micro, are magnified. Take on enough in a short period and you begin to see everything through the lens of the microaggressions; everything becomes one. Entrenched in an environment laden with microaggressions, you begin to lose your ability to deal with them; they accumulate quicker.

There was a period in my life where, due to gender-related microaggressions, I felt like I was going to war every single day. But in this war there were no clear enemies and allies. With microaggressions the same people are both. In this war, they are allies one minute and enemies the next. There is no rest, no safety. I was always on high-alert. At first you know their intentions are not vicious, and you give them the benefit of the doubt, but over time the intention loses significance.

I felt like I was losing my grip on reality. I questioned everything, including–no, especially–myself. I lost every ounce of confidence I have ever possessed, I become depressed, I gained sixty pounds, I began to have uncontrollable panic attacks every day, the stress took such a toll on my body I began to have stress-induced heart arrhythmia. This is a short list, and one which is difficult for me to admit even to this day. And that, I suppose, is another thing about microaggressions: it’s easy to internalize them as your own problem.

The message I internalized, one that the shame I feel writing this post even now points out is still inside of me somewhere, is this: If only I had been stronger, I could have dealt with slights as quickly as they came my way. I failed. Except I have two distinct advantages in all of this. One is, ironically, the same personality traits that have so often caused my grief. Especially, my innate tendency to prioritize logic and reason over emotion. Even if I feel like a failure, I know microaggressions are not the problem of the person or group at whom they are directed. In this case, they are not mine or a part of me. The other is that the microaggressions I experienced are not ubiquitous. There are many places in this industry–in this world–where I do not have to deal with them at the level and frequency I was dealing with them during that time. There are plenty of roles, places and people who admire and value the traits that made me a target in those other places with those other people and in those other roles. And, most important of all, I was able to adjust my life in such a way that I could remove myself from it. It was not an overnight fix. It took nearly a year, but it was possible.

Last night another church with a predominantly Black congregation burned down. I don’t know if it was arson or an unfortunate coincidence in the timing of an accidental fire. If it was arson, I don’t know if it was a crime fueled by hate or one spurred by stupidity and pyromania. But here is what I do know: It doesn’t really matter. There is a whole group of Americans immersed in an environment where microaggressions against them are ubiquitous and they cannot escape.

Meanwhile, this nation has embroiled itself in a misguided debate about intention. As a person who highly values facts and whole stories, whose default mode is collecting tiny pieces of information from every available corner to put together a bigger picture, I get it. I understand the want for more information, and the reluctance to hang our collective hat on something that may have holes in its veneer. What I don’t understand is the insistence to hyperfocus on one sliver of the picture so intently we fail to see that we can make a bigger, more powerful image without that sliver anyway.

We don’t need to wait for the investigation to determine the cause; any inquiry into whether or not this particular church fire was a hate-fueled arson is of absolutely no consequence to anyone other than the local law-enforcement who are tasked with bringing justice to whatever perpetrator they may or may not find. On a national level, it is nothing more than a distraction from the greater, much more productive discourse we should be having: that until we address the microaggressions against Black Americans, every aggression, regardless of intention, will be magnified, and major aggressions will be powder kegs tossed on a raging fire. And most importantly, that this is not the problem of the people whose community has collectively absorbed so many microaggressions they have reached a breaking point.

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Miscellany: Rain is a Good Thing

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I woke up to sunshine this morning, and it couldn’t have been more welcome. Our spring and early summer weather seems to have flip-flopped the past few years. It used to be that by June the rainy weather would begin to taper off, the ground would dry out and we could get things done. Now, it seems like May is drier than June–even if only slightly–and you have to seize as much time as possible early in the season, because the rain keeps on coming. Every few days there is a shower or storm; just enough of a soaking to keep things soft. I keep reminding myself that rain is a good thing, that it could be a lot worse, and that all-in-all we’ve made a lot of improvements in our storm water management that have really been paying off, but I’m stubborn and impatient and hard to convince.

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Earlier this week the rain came down so hard I couldn’t see more than a few feet out the kitchen window, and each crack of thunder had me worrying that the sheep–whom we’ve moved to pasture–would be spooked and bolt. I’ve read conflicting reports on fencing sheep with electric. Ours is a simple two or three-strand setup, depending on which paddock we’re talking about here–rope with a strong fencer on all of them–and so far we haven’t had any problems. I haven’t seen the ewes touch it at all, and the lambs have all been popped on the nose a time or three, but never gone through and when the storm passed they were right where they belonged, no worse for wear. Day by day, the ruminants are carving out a permanent spot for themselves here.

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One evening last week The Man and I were sitting in the side-by-side, parked where one of the pig pens and the paddock the cows are currently grazing meet. To our left the steer chewed their cud; to our right the gestating sows and their resident boar bounded around their pen, nosing in the dirt and tearing weeds from the fenceline. The differences between species have never been lost on me, but in that moment the contrast was more stark than it ever has been.

Most of the people we’ve sold live pigs to–whether feeder pigs or young breeding stock–keep in touch. There have been a lot of them over the years and I truly enjoy hearing about their trials and triumphs. Many are repeat customers and it’s gratifying to watch them learn and grow each year, but it is a rare few of them who are making a go at farming. Farming for a livelihood affects your lifestyle, and farming for a lifestyle affects your livelihood, but you have to be clear which one you’re doing. If you’re cultivating a lifestyle rather than a livelihood that’s fine, but it’s called homesteading. Of the rare few who have tried farming, I can only think of one who I expect to stick with it to a scale that could provide any sort of income. At least with pigs. These beasts are not for everyone, delicious as they may be.

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Speaking of animals that are “not for everyone,” I count chickens among those which are not for me, but we brought them back anyway this year–after 4 years, if memory serves–and I’m happy to report they’re doing well so far. Just a few more weeks on this first batch and we’ll decide whether or not to raise another. I’m afraid if we raise too many I won’t be able to eat chicken myself again, so we won’t do more than two batches per year. Not because I get attached to them, but because I begin to be able to smell the distinct scent of live chickens on chicken meat. No one else can smell it, but it turns my stomach. It took months for me to be able to eat chicken again after we quit raising them last time and when I confided in our butcher about it he told me it’s the same reason he doesn’t eat lamb; after slaughtering many lambs over the years lamb meat smells like live lambs to him.

And last but not least, as a quick note to regular readers: I’ll spare you the apologies for the decidedly inconsistent schedule of blog posts here these days, but I do want to let you know that I post more regularly on Instagram these days and have been experimenting with including short stories and thoughts along with the pictures. I like it a lot. If you’re not following over there, it might help fill the silence until I’m posting regularly here again.

On Talking to the Animals

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I love food choice. That’s cliché, but true.

I love that the food options available to me and my fellow Americans are virtually limitless. If you want to be vegan, you can be vegan. If you want to go gluten free, go gluten free! If you want to exist solely on foraged dandelions and the eggs found in abandoned robins’ nests in Central Park, I say good luck to you, sir! I think this conviction of mine, that providing food choice (and thereby security) should be the ultimate goal of the global agriculture industry, has only grown stronger as I’ve traveled to other countries, many of which do not benefit even from the simplest choices we take for granted.

I even stand for the inherent right of people to be misinformed, misguided or downright unreasonable in making their food choices. I don’t abide the idea that you have to have a reason that has been validated by a scientist, government or official organization. In fact, I very much make some of my own food choices on rather wishy-washy criteria. I’m human, and I appreciate that you are, too.

What I do not appreciate however, is how food choice is somehow misinterpreted — often by those who choose to exercise theirs most — to also equate with a freedom to blatantly misinform other people in an effort to get them to exercise their food choices the same way you exercise yours.

Recently a Facebook friend who happens to be vegan posted a short story about how when her cat had cancer the veterinarian told her that chemotherapy is administered to animals at a lower dose than humans because there is no way to explain to the animal why the negative effects of chemotherapy are worth enduring in the hopes it would save their life. She said that this had stuck with her as a justification for being vegan, that even though animals are smart we can’t explain things to them so, “they will never understand why we treat them the way we do.”

Aside from the ethically-questionable practice of not treating animals with a full dose of chemotherapy, because they don’t understand why it’s worth it, and the hypocrisy of a pet owner positing that because animals don’t understand why we treat them the way we do we shouldn’t treat them any way at all, there’s some extremely flawed, and blatantly false assertions here.

Besides the value and gift of food choice, I’ve learned another important lesson traveling around the world: that the most important communication is non-verbal. It’s in your posture, your facial expressions, your movements. It’s how someone who doesn’t speak your language knows if you’re being aggressive, or friendly. For the most part it’s not taught, it’s instinct. And, when it comes to livestock, a tremendous amount of time, and resources are dedicated to exactly this kind of communication — from the farm level all the way up to the upper echelons of agricultural research.

Dr. Temple Grandin’s entire body of work deals with communication between humans and animals and ways in which humans can better explain agricultural practices and processes to animals in a way that not only makes sense to them, but that makes them feel safe and comfortable. The amount of research and practical application for this kind of communication with livestock makes the same body of work carried out by the pet industry look like a baby’s board book.

It includes things as seemingly rudimentary as the fact that if I approach an animal quickly with a straight, tall posture the animal will see me as more aggressive than if I were to approach slowly, but methodically with my shoulders slumped and my eyes averted. To things as complex as the ideal, species-dependent width of an alley if I want an animal to understand that I need it to move forward down that alley and feel comfortable while doing so. We know the ideal temperature for each species’ comfort and pique biological functioning and have even devised ways to balance competing ideals when two types of stock must be housed together — such as with mama sows who like it cool and baby pigs who like it downright hot.

We have even researched individual triggers of stress in order to come up with methods to more effectively explain things in a way that does not elicit fear and panic. Here, the fact that animals don’t understand our language — neither written nor verbal — is even an asset. I can read the sign that says slaughterhouse and know what it means, but they can’t. So if the facilities inside are designed in such a way that they are comfortable moving about (and by and large they are), and the people inside are trained in how to non-verbally communicate with them in an effective manner (ditto), there’s absolutely nothing foreboding about it for the animal. To believe otherwise would be anthropomorphism — plain and simple.

The livestock don’t care why I want them to move down the alley, to enter the kill room, to stand still for a moment. They care only if the manner in which I ask is threatening and whether or not the options I give them for complying with my request are comfortable and make sense to the way they see the world. The simple act of holding a bolt gun to their head does not, to them, say death, and my butcher isn’t in the habit of jumping on their backs and ripping out their jugular — the way their traditional predators would, in no uncertain terms say to them: “Death!”

So while some people may want animals to understand, “why we treat them the way we do,” I want these people to understand that for all intents and purposes, we can and do explain to livestock everything they want and need to know. In fact, the ability to communicate things non-verbally across species is one of the most beautiful abilities of the human mind. That we can and have devised ways to communicate needs and motivations in a way that makes sense to not just one, but multiple other species, is one of the greatest accomplishments of modern man.

Sweet Soyaki Beef + Orange-Ginger Rice

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I usually try not to share recipes that depend on a certain brandname ingredient. I think it’s kind of silly. As far as I’m concerned, the best food has always and will always be brand-less — well-raised, tender and flavorful meat; fresh fruits and vegetables; potent spices. That said, I’m an American in the year 2015; there are store-bought sauces in my kitchen, and depending on which sauce we’re talking about there are either proprietary recipes and/or quality issues at play with each one. In this case, Trader Joe’s “Soyaki” sauce is where it’s at.

Normally, I use Soyaki sauce for making jerky. Thinly slice a roast, marinate it in the stuff overnight and dehydrate — it’s delicious — but yesterday I was craving P.F. Chang’s Orange Peel Beef, and had an unopened bottle in the pantry; it was perfect in the sauce.

Enjoy! We certainly did.

Sweet Soyaki Beef + Orange-Ginger Rice
 
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
 
Citrus-sweet stir-fried flank steak with a little kick, inspired by P.F. Chang's Orange Peel Beef.
Author:
Recipe type: Entree
Cuisine: Chinese
Serves: 4
Ingredients

  • Beef
  • 1 lb Flank Steak, thinly sliced
  • Vegetable Oil
    Marinade
  • 2 eggs
  • ½ cup water
  • ½ tsp Garlic Powder
  • ½ tsp Ground Red Pepper
    Sauce
  • 1 cup Orange Juice
  • ½ cup Trader Joe's Soyaki Sauce
  • 1 TBSP Honey
  • 4-8 dried chiles de árbol (or similar small, dried chiles)
  • ¼ cup Golden Raisins
  • 1 TBSP Cornstarch
  • Peel of 1 Orange, finely grated
    Rice
  • 1 cup Dry Rice
  • 1½ cup Water
  • Pinch Salt
  • 1 Pat Butter
  • ½ cup Orange Juice
  • ½ tsp Ground Ginger
Instructions
  1. Combine all marinade ingredients and pour over flank steak in a shallow dish. Allow to marinade at least 4 hours.
  2. Combine rice, water, salt and butter in a pot. Bring to a boil stirring to distribute butter once melted. Reduce heat to low, cover and allow to simmer. When rice has absorbed most of the water, dissolve ginger in orange juice and mix through. Remove from heat, leave covered and allow the rice to finish absorbing the liquid in the pan.
  3. Combine first five ingredients for the sauce and bring to a boil in a small sauce pot over med-high heat.
  4. Meanwhile, heat a couple "glugs" of vegetable oil over high heat in a shallow frying pan. Once hot, add beef to oil -- if hot enough, the oil should pop and crackle when you put the beef in the pan - and fry, turning halfway through, until the outside of the beef develops a dark, crunchy layer. Remove from oil and set aside.
  5. When the sauce begins to boil, remove ⅓ cup from the pan and mix thoroughly with cornstarch in a small dish. Reduce heat under sauce pan and slowly pour the cornstarch mixture back into the sauce, stirring constantly. Once thickened, add beef and grated orange peel to the sauce, mixing well. Allow to simmer five to ten minutes.
  6. Serve beef and sauce over rice; garnish with additional orange peel and sliced scallions.
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Midweek Miscellany: Pitchforks, Mycotoxins and Fighting Hunger

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They don’t make pitchforks like they used to.

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We sold 3,000 pounds of sows this morning. It sounds like a lot, but sows are heavy; it was only eight pigs. This is the second wave of sales; we shipped four others a couple of weeks ago. We’ll ship several more soon. By the middle of April I expect our herd will be just half — or less — the size it was at the beginning of the year.

While I’ve talked about the mycotoxin contamination of our feed on the PMF Show I haven’t yet written about it here. Mycotoxins are produced by mold in feed corn; the one our vet suspects has been in our feed unbeknownst to us interferes with the pigs’ normal hormone function and, in sows specifically, can cause pseudopregnancy and poor or even no lactation. In our case, it has caused all of the above. Many of our sows have presented as pregnant, but have ultimately come up empty at farrowing time when their bellies mysteriously vanish and their teats shrink without a piglet to be seen. At the same time, those who have managed to carry a litter of pigs to term have struggled to produce enough milk, and baby pigs don’t do well on milk replacer; we saved some, but the majority didn’t make it. Since pigs are how we make money, and baby pigs in the spring make up a significant portion of our yearly income, liquidating the herd will — hopefully — allow us to pay the bills on what remains.

And I won’t lie, it has been a bitter pill to swallow. Building this farm has felt like a long slow climb, and when we rounded what we thought was a peak this January we found it was only a plateau and that there is a lot of climb left in front of us. I am, at once, dealing with it very well, and not well at all.

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One of the ewes is developing a bit of an udder. I don’t know what it is about lambs, but I have always had a soft spot for them. I’m eagerly awaiting their arrival, but also won’t be disappointed if they make an entrance when it’s nice and warm outside.

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Remember the children’s book I had published? The one about where food comes from? My publisher, in partnership with Cabot Creamery, has agreed to help fight hunger and extreme poverty with the book by donating 15% of every sale to ONE. The whole campaign is exciting, because it brings together so much of what has felt like random, moving parts in my life and work over the past few years.

If you haven’t already picked up a copy, now would be awesome. If you have a copy, but haven’t told your friends about the book now is also a perfect time to do that, too. You can buy the book directly on Little Pickle Press’ website and they’ll throw in free shipping, too. Use code BCorps4ONE at checkout.

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It is almost 60 degrees here today, and will be again tomorrow, too. Mud season is upon us and I’m desperately hoping it doesn’t last all year like it did last year. There’s a lot of unfinished business on this property that we need to wrap up and it would be nice to be able to drive equipment around; it would be even nicer to not spend two hours every night trying to eradicate mud from the house after The Pig Dog comes inside.

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Have I mentioned that I have just transitioned back to being on the farm full-time this week? I’d been doing communications work for a local ag company for almost a year and a half and this is my first week back here. It feels good, and hopefully it will result in more blog posts. I’ve confirmed what I had already suspected, being in an office all day, every day is not for me.

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That, I suppose more than does it for this week. Back soon. Hopefully with something less miscellaneous.