Last Call: 2016 Lamb

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The best and worst thing about living on a small farm is eating what you produce. It’s the best thing because the things you produce are so delicious there’s no comparison to their grocery store counterparts. You cannot buy meat, fruits and veggies like this in the store. But it’s also the worst thing, because you get spoiled so you don’t even want to eat anything else. And the problem there is that it means you either have to raise a wide variety of foods or bore yourself of the same old meals pretty quick.

For us, being bored was never an option. When we became bored of chicken, we added turkey. When we became tired of chicken and turkey, we added pork. When we became bored of chicken and turkey and pork, we added beef. When we became bored of chicken and turkey and pork and beef, we added lamb.

Now, in our second year with lamb we’re relishing the experimentation a new-to-us meat brings to our kitchen and the kitchens of our customers. Of course, as with all things, lamb is seasonal and so we’re putting out our last call to join us in this fun new farm-to-fork adventure until next fall. If you’d like to try out our second ever crop of Pure Michigan, pastured lamb, get in touch by phone or email. We have a limited number of whole and half lamb shares available. Wholes are $1.50 per pound liveweight, plus processing. Halves are $1.75 per pound liveweight, plus processing.

These won’t last, all will be gone before the first of February.

The Best People Love Food: A Survey

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“Cooking is like love. It should be entered into with abandon or not at all.”

Harriet Van Horne was a wise woman.

I have always been a supporter of American farmers broadly speaking; not just of our farm or of farms like ours, but of farms in general. It takes all types of types, as they say, and that is no more true when it comes to raising the food that keeps our shared humanity alive. Of course, there are also reasons we do things the way we do and food quality is not the least of them. “We believe in good food,” is our motto by design, not accident. I don’t trust people who don’t have developed taste buds and diverse tastes. I don’t trust people who don’t love food of all kinds; who aren’t consistently excited to try something new, to find something delicious. Which isn’t to say I don’t trust anyone who dislikes certain foods, but I am certainly distrustful of people who dislike many foods or who don’t see food as something that begs to be explored.

And I am definitely skeptical of people who do not enjoy the act of cooking. Not the harried kind of cooking so many of us are forced into on weekday evenings, the type tucked between workdays and nights raising a family, but the kind that you can embark on when you’re not in a hurry. The kind of cooking that happens with a glass of wine or a cold bottle of beer in hand and a towel slung over the shoulder. I am skeptical of people who never enjoy that kind of cooking, who never take for themselves the sort of satisfaction that only comes from a dish made of fresh, whole food and fussed over a little at the stovetop.

Recently, I have been giving even more thought than usual to food quality; it’s role in all of this and much more. I have my opinions about food quality, but I wonder how representative they are of the wider world. Do you feel food quality is improving? Declining? Staying about the same? Over what period?

So I put together a short survey and am welcoming feedback. When I did this a few years ago with the “What Makes a Good Farmer?” survey it opened up a lot of interesting avenues of thought that I had not previously considered, and I hope this time accomplishes the same thing. So far, the responses I’ve gotten after just sending out the link on social media yesterday are definitely challenging my expectations and providing insight that, while not surprising, is definitely worth exploring.

I plan to write up an article on the results in the next few weeks, probably here. Until that goes up I’ll leave the survey open to responses and check in regularly. If you have a few moments to spare please click here to give your thoughts, and be sure to share the link with your friends and family as well. The more the merrier — and better representative of the greater population, I hope.

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The Myth of Cheap Garden Hauls + Heirloom Favorites

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If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard someone say, “I’ll just grow my own, it’s cheaper!” I would have at least one large piggy bank full of nickels. I’ve heard it about fruits and vegetables, pigs, cows, sheep… basically, if it comes from a farm people seem to think they can do it better and cheaper themselves. And in certain cases, they’re right–or at least not wrong. A couple dozen square feet of raised beds or a handful of pots on your porch don’t require much tending and the super-containment reduces the risk of failure, at least at first.

Even with animals, breeding one or two of your own can work… until it doesn’t. The problem, as with gardens, is that when the plan fails it usually does so in epic fashion. More importantly though, you can’t predict when that failure will come about and the smaller your operation the more acutely the failure can be felt. It’s the old, “all your eggs in one basket” issue. When you’re breeding just a few animals or growing just a tiny garden you have a lot more riding on each plant or animal.

Of course, there’s also the issue of actual inputs and the DIY route doesn’t pencil out in at least as many cases as it does–and I’d contend many more–but most people either just don’t know or don’t care what it actually takes to bring into this world a ripe tomato or a feeder pig or a frolicky calf. Continue reading “The Myth of Cheap Garden Hauls + Heirloom Favorites”

On Talking to the Animals

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.

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State of the Farm : 2015 Farmprint Course

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farmprintvertpics Every year about this time I begin to take stock of how our farm is functioning. Some years it’s inspiring, other years it’s frustrating, most years it’s a little bit of both. Regardless, it’s become a sort of cornerstone of how we do things and something I’ve come to look forward to and appreciate. The advice to write and follow a farm business plan is ubiquitous, but less so is the advice to regularly review, re-assess and revise that plan. Yet, it’s the latter of those two that has actually helped us grow our farm. Any business — especially a small business — is a constantly transforming entity, but I think that’s even more so for farm businesses. We’re subject to market conditions, weather conditions, and consumer psychology perhaps to a greater extent than business people in any other industry.

When we’re in the trenches my thought process rarely makes a conscious stop at the business plan, but because it has never been more than about twelve months since I revised it, it’s always in the background. I probably wouldn’t have recognized it in the earliest years, but I can now say for sure that it has been the conscious effort to adapt to continual market changes that has allowed us to make good decisions at the right times; it’s the little subconscious stops my brain makes when I’m trying to decide what to do that has saved our butts more often than not.

Which isn’t to say it’s always perfect… farming is still farming, but I shudder to think about decisions I might have made if this yearly tradition weren’t in place.

Which is all simply to say that this year, I’ve decided to open that process up as a course.

As I was penciling in time to make this happen for us this year I realized that this is something the industry could use. So I developed the steps I take into a curriculum, designed printables and forms, adapted my thought process to lessons and I’m inviting you to join me on the journey to The State of The Farm Address 2015. When we’re done, you’ll have your own state of the farm address. If you already have a farm business plan you’ll have revised it to better reflect where you are now and where you’re headed next; if you don’t have one you’ll have written one which is a great step in the right direction itself.

I’m calling the course “Farmprint,” because every business needs a blueprint — even farm businesses. Assuming it goes well, I think we’ll make it an annual event, but we don’t have to get ahead of ourselves. For now, you can go here to enroll.

The Farm-to-Fork Gift Guide: Do Good Edition

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Last year’s guide to gifts that give back was the first gift guide I’d ever published here, and I enjoyed it so much that when I decided to do a series of gift guides this year I knew at least one of them would need to focus on gifts that do good. And since today is ‘Giving Tuesday’ I wouldn’t imagine a better day to post it. So, without further ado, my top five picks for charitable and philanthropic holiday gifts this year:

Stella The Goat steals the first spot on this list. A partnership between two of my favorite organizations, Heifer International and the ONE Campaign, you can buy a Stella the Goat for a family in Africa this holiday season and give your family and friends an adorable card to let them know you’ve contributed to a worthy cause on their behalf.

If domestic giving is more your speed however, The Gift of Food Feeding America also has a gift catalog this holiday season. You can give in denominations that represent a wide variety of food items right here in the U.S.; from apples to peanut butter.

Of course, not everyone wants to pass out cards. For those who’d rather give a tangible gift that just so happens to give back, Gallo Wines’ Every Cork Counts Program is a fun spin. Gallo is donating $5 to Meals on Wheels for every cork that’s mailed back to them between now and the new year. Meals on Wheels feeds seniors who are housebound, bringing warm meals to their doorstep.

Theo Congo Line Chocolate bars are not only food, proceeds benefit farmers in the Congo where conflict has reduced the amount of arable land in production and put farmers out of work. Be sure to check out their Congo Infographic for more info.

And last, but not least, FEED is, of course, an oldie but goodie. I’m a fan of their bags, but this candle caught my eye when I went shopping this year. Check out their own holiday gift list for more ideas.

Happy Holiday Hunting!

Looking for Farm & Food Themed Gifts for Kids? I got your back.

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The Farm-to-Fork Gift Guide: Kid Edition

food and farm gifts for kids ‘Tis the season!

The season for joy, for merrymaking, for gift giving, and for celebrating.

Whether you’ve got just one or two special children on your gift-giving list or, like me, the number of kids on your Christmas list seems to grow with each passing year, food and farm-themed gifts are a great way to make the season merry and bright, while also connecting them with the source of their sustenance and introducing them to American agriculture.

In this gift guide I’ve compiled my top farm-to-fork theme gift picks for kids, keeping my eye on affordability. Over the next week or so I’ll also share some good picks for tweens and teens, as well as adults, both men and women, plus a special edition for those of you who’d like to “do good” with your gift giving this year.

I’ve always gravitated towards classic toys and books so you won’t notice anything high-tech here; you can save yourself a run to the store for batteries and maybe just boost your kids’ creativity and imagination in the process. The aprons could even be donned to help with Christmas Day dinner prep, engaging the whole family in a little foodie fun.

Jamie Oliver says kids don’t need their own cookbooks and I tend to agree. Instead, bring out a picture heavy cookbook meant for adults to pique their interest. A mouthwatering picture is a mouthwatering picture whether you’re nine or ninety, after all.

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Continue reading “The Farm-to-Fork Gift Guide: Kid Edition”

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Thank a Farmer: Pete Blauwiekel at Blue Wing Farms

PetePigs If, at some point, I become half the hog farmer Pete Blauwiekel is, my work on this earth will be done.

So, when I decided I wanted to run a “Thank a Farmer” series on the blog this month, it’s only natural that he was the first person who came to mind — it’s merely a bonus that he also brings bacon into the world.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen Pete without a smile on his face. In addition to raising pigs, he volunteers his time heavily to the local 4-H swine program — something my own kids have benefitted from — and you can tell when he arrives on busy swine show days, because the whole barn functions like a well-oiled machine with him at the helm.

He’s one of a very small minority of hog farmers who are still raising pigs farrow-to-finish these days. It’s the same way we operate, bringing baby pigs into the world and then raising them up for the table. In 1992, 65% of hog farms were structured this way, but by 2004 that number had dropped to just 18%. And, as the industry continues to consolidate, it’s a structure that will continue to fall by the wayside. I don’t know if that’s good, bad or otherwise; it just is.

But that’s enough from me. Let’s get to know Pete: Continue reading “Thank a Farmer: Pete Blauwiekel at Blue Wing Farms”

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Farrow to Finish: To Market, To Market

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The old nursery rhyme says, “to Market, to market to buy a fat pig,” but in the case of our farrow to finish litter it’s more like, “to market, to market because they’re fat pigs.”

Though it’s taken me a bit to put together an update, these pictures were taken about three and a half months after our last check-in. The pigs are pictured at about six and a half months old and weigh between 250 and 300 pounds each. The barrows (boys) tend to be a bit bigger than the gilts (girls), but there are always big gilts and small barrows who buck the trend.

These pigs have been spending their days doing much the same thing they were in the last update: eating, sleeping, pooping, and growing. They’ve enjoyed free-access to feed since they were weaned, and have consumed between three and four times their body weight in feed and at least twice that much in water. Since these pigs were farrowed in the winter they’ve “come of age” in the warm temperatures of late spring and early summer. This means they’ve used more water than the same type of pigs born in the summer and brought to market weight in the fall and winter. Since pigs don’t sweat they need water to cool down when it’s hot outside and drink more to keep cool as well. Continue reading “Farrow to Finish: To Market, To Market”

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