Why Whole Foods’ Big Poultry Revolution is Chicken Shit

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One of the most frustrating things about being in agriculture is watching people who mean well, but who do not have enough knowledge and experience to be truly informed, make bad decisions on behalf of the industry and its consumers. But then, I guess you could say that’s the most frustrating thing about being alive. In almost any capacity there are people who have surface familiarity with a topic in decision making positions. Such is the dynamic of power — especially in the information age.

This month Whole Foods announced that it would be pressuring all of its suppliers to transition to slow-growing meat chickens. This morning a long-term customer of our farm emailed me a link to the NPR article on it for my take. In emailing her back I realized it’s probably something I should post about here. We sell chicken, after all, and our goal in growing those chickens — as well as our pork, beef, lamb and vegetables — is not so unlike Whole Food’s own: high quality and flavor. In fact, over the years we have produced chicken in almost every combination you can imagine, looking for the best way to deliver the results we and our customers (who are often Whole Foods shoppers themselves) want.

We’ve raised standard broilers: indoors, in chicken tractors, entirely free range without a fence to be seen, in dirt floored pens, and in small grass paddocks.

We’ve raised slow-growing broilers: indoors, in chicken tractors, entirely free range without a fence to be seen, in dirt floored pens, and in small grass paddocks.

We’ve raised dual-purpose cockerels, so-called “heritage birds”: indoors, in chicken tractors, entirely free range without a fence to be seen, in dirt floored pens, and in small grass paddocks.

Through it all we’ve kept track of expenses vs income, customer satisfaction, farmer satisfaction, labor per pound of meat produced, feed per pound of meat produced, and animal welfare (including rates of injury, death, and predation.) What I’m saying is: we know a thing or two about raising quality, flavorful chicken in alternative systems. And as I read the article this morning all I could do was shake my head. Once again decision makers are taking a simple problem and instead of applying the simplest and most effective solution, they’re making gross overcorrections without considering the consequences and selling it to consumers as revolution.

The problem, as defined by Whole Foods — and on which I would agree with them, by the way — is that standard broiler birds are prone to leg problems. They grow rapidly, which means their weight gain can outpace their legs’ ability to hold them up and propel them around. Which can create animal welfare problems if they cease to be able to get around on their own before being sent to market. But the key word in all of this is can. There is a big difference between correlation and causation, and even where cause is clear cut nothing exists in a bubble. What we have found on our farm is that rapid weight gain causes leg problems only when it’s allowed to co-exist with inactivity. In other words, rapid-gaining birds who use their legs as they gain don’t end up handicapped.

Yet somewhere along the way people decided that it was inhumane for chickens to walk more than a few feet to the food and water source despite the fact that it is quite natural for them to travel hundreds of yards per day otherwise. Inside the conventional agricultural industry this became standard practice due to high-density stocking rates and competition. Not having food and water every few feet means birds might fight and some might not get adequate access which would be a violation of humane animal stewardship on its own. But then, for inexplicable reasons, the same standard was applied to alternative systems as well. Here stock density doesn’t create competitive environments, but farmers still were warned to keep food and water within wing’s reach or else fancy themselves neglectful and abusive. So much so that third party humane certifications demand it.

Certainly, when chicks are quite young you want to make sure their needs are met and they don’t have to work too hard for it. Babies should be treated like babies. But as they grow this is an absurd standard that does more harm than good, and virtually creates the problem Whole Foods is now re-creating the wheel to “solve.” Rather than simply create guidelines for their farmers to move the food and water further from each other as the birds mature, forcing them to move around more in order to prevent leg problems as they grow, they’re demanding their suppliers abandon an entire breed* of chicken. Which might not be the end of the world, if that breed of chicken itself was not a linchpin solution to much bigger problems — environmental, human rights and animal welfare in nature.

  • Environmental Problems
    The standard cornish cross broiler’s rapid growth is not just an ability to pack on pounds. It is an ability to pack on pounds while eating less feed per pound of growth. In the farming community we call this Feed Conversion Ratio or FCR. And while it sounds wonkish and boring, it has enormous sustainability implications. In the U.S. the average FCR for cornish cross broilers is about 1.8. Which means it takes less than two pounds of feed per pound of gain. For the sake of simplicity and continuity I’ll stick with the numbers NPR used for examples in their article. This means that for a standard broiler to be grown to six pounds, it requires about 10.8 pounds of feed.

    While the 25% increase for slower-growing birds quoted in the NPR article doesn’t sound like much at first it means about 13.5 pounds of feed is needed for a slower-growing bird of the same size, or 2.7 additional pounds. And so you can see how it adds up quickly when we’re talking about the sheer number of birds Whole Foods suppliers raise. Let alone the entirety of the U.S. poultry industry. According to Whole Foods their demands will affect 277 million birds per year. Which means Whole Foods’ supplier farmers will use 747.9 million more pounds of feed per year to produce the same amount of meat for Whole Foods’ customers.

    And while “feed” may seem abstract for someone who doesn’t use it every day, it’s largely just corn, soybean meal, vitamins and minerals. With the corn and soybean meal being the bulk of it and the important part here. Rounding for simplicity of math (but not so much as to be inaccurate), the average broiler’s diet over the course of it’s lifetime is made up of about 60% corn and 25% soybean meal.

    So in the case of Whole Foods’ slow-growing broilers, that’s an additional 448.74 million pounds of corn and 186.975 million pounds of soybean meal per year. Using the most recent USDA yield trend data for corn and soybeans, this means Whole Food’s teensy-tiny 3% of the broiler industry alone will require more than 11.13 million bushels of grain, calling for more than 112,000 additional acres of crop land — 47,698 corn and more than 64,921 soybean. Which means Whole Foods’ feel-good poultry campaign either requires us to take more than 112,000 acres out of wildlife habitat and put it into cropland or all of that additional demand will fall on current cropland, causing a run up in grain — and by extension food — prices. Which brings me to…

  • The Human Rights Problems
    The World Food Programme estimates that 795 million people in the world today are hungry. In the developing world 12.9% of the population is chronically undernourished. In the U.S. alone 1 in 6 people face food insecurity. 20% of U.S. households with children reported food shortages in 2011. Meanwhile, the global population is increasing rapidly. Earth will be home to 9.7 billion people by 2050, representing a 33% increase in population over just 35 years. Most of this growth will take place in developing and poor nations where food insecurity is directly related to extreme poverty.

    In a global economy it is impossible to insulate food choices in prosperous countries from affecting food insecurity in poor nations. Which means that moves like this one by Whole Foods will be a considerable contributor to food insecurity, hunger and starvation around the world in the years to come.

  • The Animal Welfare Problems
    And as much as I would love for all of this — the environmental and human rights issues — to be enough, I know we live in a world where the picture of a slain elephant garners more outrage than that of slain children in war zones so I will also add this: Whole Foods is not just demanding this change of feel-good, hobby farmers with plenty of space to spare. They’re also demanding that farmers who raise their birds in conventional barns follow suit. I don’t need to explain to you that smaller, lighter animals often are more active than their heavier counterparts. We describe lightweight boxers as “scrappy” for a reason. Putting lighter, scrappier birds in an enclosed barn together will not end well for the birds. We are going down the cage-free eggs path again, because we still haven’t learned our lesson. Chickens are not nice to one another in enclosed spaces, and the more active they are the more time and energy they will spend picking on one another. I don’t like battery cages any more than the next bleeding heart, but I don’t buy cage free eggs for a reason: those battery cages served the purpose of preventing hens from brutalizing one another in enclosed, densely stocked barns. Putting slow-growing broilers in those same barns will result in that same competition and fighting. It’s not more humane, it’s less.

The NPR reporter wants you to believe that the size and growth rate of broilers is responsible for the modern history of our increase in chicken consumption, and that by extension Whole Foods’ slow-growing chickens will force Americans to cut back. “A century ago,” writes NPR author Dan Charles, “your typical chicken was really kind of scrawny. It took about four months to grow to a weight of 3 pounds. One result: Americans really didn’t eat much chicken.” But this, again, demonstrates a failure to distinguish between causation and correlation. And in this case even the correlation between broiler efficiency and chicken consumption is loose at best. People didn’t eat less chicken in the past because chickens didn’t grow quickly, they ate less chicken because they were poor and farms hadn’t yet industrialized. It simply wasn’t available and where it was, it was too expensive. History has been very consistent in this regard: as incomes rise, people eat more animal products. So long as we continue to prosper people will eat their meat. Prosperity is the reason for Whole Foods’ very existence, and it’s not going away anytime soon.

And in many cases this isn’t a bad thing. Researchers in Kenya found that the addition of milk and meat to the diet of impoverished school children improved development outcomes for everything from growth and weight gain to test scores to leadership behaviors during play. Can meat and milk be overconsumed? Sure. As can any and every other kind of food and drink. But in the big picture it’s a valuable source of nutrition and will continue to be, increasingly so, well into the future. I believe Whole Foods’ customers want to make good decisions, I believe they want their food dollars to act as a vote for good in the world and for better outcomes for the environment, their fellow humans and for the animals which act as a part of the system. It’s a sentiment I share with them, and a founding principle of my own farm. Which is why I know in this case, Whole Foods is not just failing its customers it’s perverting their trust for monetary gain. And that, my friends, is chicken shit.

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* Standard broilers are not technically a breed, they are hybrids or “cross-breds”. Think: Labradoodle. I’ve used the word “breed” here for lack of a more succinct and accessible descriptor.

** Since this post was written quickly between farm chores on Tuesday, an earlier version contained a couple of mistakes — one due to rounding, and one due to missing a step. Those have been fixed in the current version.

Miscellany: Mud Season Updates

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Do not be fooled. That field only looks dry. It’s actually saturated and squishy underfoot.

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I’m a little behind. Sunday, with just six and a half weeks until last frost, I finally put tomato seeds to dirt. I wasn’t too worried about it. I’m planning on buying most of our plants this year, but I can’t get some of my favorite varieties from local nurseries, so if I didn’t get my San Marzano Redortas started soon we wouldn’t be having them at all. Riesentraubes will come next. Probably later today, when I get around to finding them in my seed stash in the barn. There was a time when my seed stash was well-organized, but that time is no longer.

I’ve been thinking about planting early. I think everyone will be. But when and who will go first is the question. Not yet, of course. The soil temperature is still only in the low forties. Today is the last day for frost laws in our neck of the woods though, and there is sun and warm rain in the forecast. It won’t be long.

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The sheep will be shorn this afternoon. It’s later than we did it last year, relative to their due dates, and a little closer than we’d like. But the spring is a busy time and this is the earliest opportunity the shearer has had to get out to us. To be fair, only Louisa is really that much closer to lambing. But the poor thing looks like she’s carrying quintuplets and I feel both a little bad and a little worried about putting the poor old girl through a haircut just two weeks before she’s due. (Last year’s came four weeks before she lambed, which isn’t so bad.) Hopefully she won’t be inclined to think being shorn is a license to lamb early. If she could keep them in there a couple weeks more and then put a couple of ewe lambs on the ground, that’d be swell.

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We’ve been facing the inevitability of mortality with our oldest dog lately and the spring is exaggerating the effect. In the winter everyone wants to lay in and hibernate, so the difference in ability is not so stark. But with warmer weather comes more activity. The dog who for most of her life could not get people to throw a ball enough times in one day, whose boundless energy would make your shoulder hurt from trying to throw the ball as far as you could, now only gives “chase” once or twice to soft tosses a few feet in length. She still loves it as much as ever, but in much smaller doses. And it is but one of many tiny reminders that time is short. Her circle of life is nearer and nearer to a full ring every day.

Farewell, Axel

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One of the most gratifying things about raising kids on a farm is that, as they get older, they prove they’ve been paying attention and in some cases know even more than you do. The older a boar gets the more risk there is that he will become dangerous — either because he gets grumpy and set in his ways in his old age, or simply because the sheer size of him means accidents can happen too easy. Older, bigger boars are also harder on the sows. Natural mating means the sow has to hold his weight up on her back when they’re breeding. Holding up a 300 or 400 pound boar is one thing, holding up a 600 or 800 pound boar is another. At that point he’s two or three times the size of the gilts and young sows, and his weight is unwieldy for the older sows who are bigger, but not in better shape.*

Axel, the boar we’ve been using for the past couple years, had hit that 600 pound mark a while back. We have a few young boars who were left intact coming up the ranks right now, and as we restructure and reassess our goals following last year’s losses he didn’t have much work for him anyway. I’ve been meaning to move him along, either to the compost pile or the packer, for a few weeks. The problem we have this time of year however — and the one we’re focusing our attention on fixing this year — is that during the mud season our farm lane gets really wet, and since it’s a steep incline there’s no guarantee that if you go down there with a trailer, you’ll be coming back out until it either freezes or dries up. Since all the loading infrastructure is in the barnyard, next to the pens by design, that means when we load pigs this time of year it’s an leao of faith. They have to be walked up the hill to the trailer and put in it without the aid of any kind of permanent (and therefore strong) chute or alley. It’s open land up here and if they want to bolt for the next county, there’s not really anything stopping them. For market pigs and sows I don’t worry about it too much. Market pigs are small enough that even a hog panel held in place by hand is enough of a funnel to get them going in the right direction. And sows, while big enough to pose a physical challenge that we cannot compete with, at least do not pose quite the same risk that they will become aggressive if we have to insist they go where they would rather not. And even a big sow is often a quarter or a third smaller than a boar.

The Man and I had been discussing whether we wanted to put Axel on the trailer next time we went to the stockyard, or if we just wanted to put him down and make compost of him like we did the last boar. The last boar, Geoff, was about a third bigger than Axel even and he had shown aggression before. With him we didn’t even bother trying to load him with the built-in alley in the barnyard, let alone without it. We put him down in his boar pen and then picked him up with the skidsteer and drove him to the compost after he was already dead. In his case, safety came first. Boars aren’t worth much at market and it wasn’t worth risking life and limb. He died happily munching on a treat from his trough, and no one was ever even remotely at risk of being hurt by his half-ton of muscle. Axel has never shown the slightest hint of aggression though, so it was a bit of a debate. We hate to “waste” animals, though I suppose you could argue the whole dust-to-dust, fertilizer-value of the compost isn’t really a waste. But at the same time, we try to do things the smart way, not the hard way. Farming is inherently dangerous and so I try to make sure our choices don’t make it more so.

Yesterday as we debated whether or not to bring Axel up the hill with a couple sows we were loading on the trailer, Wren finally chimed in: “Axel isn’t Geoff. He’s a big puppy. He likes scratches and peeing in mud puddles. I think he’ll be fine.” And so when we finished laughing about his love of peeing in mud puddles — every single time we let him out after a storm he’d run as fast as a 600 pound animal can run to the nearest puddle, stand right in the middle of it and pee — it was settled. With some trepidation, of course — plenty could have gone wrong — but settled nonetheless. And she was right. Axel followed the sows up the hill as fast as his legs would propel his big old body and hopped right into the trailer without hesitation.

Axel was, indeed, a big puppy. He was bred and born and raised right here on our farm. I suspect we’ll even miss him a bit, but such is the reality of farming, rather than homesteading. Ways must be paid and weight pulled, and every job eventually comes to an end.

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* One way to get around the issues with natural mating is to collect the boar’s semen and artificially inseminate the sows instead, but that’s another topic worth another whole post so I’ll write more on it some other time.

A Few Favorite Things: March 25

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“No one ever told me that grief feels so like fear.”
– C.S. Lewis

This was a tough week. One that came on the heels of many tough weeks before it. I could write about tragedies the world over and crazy politicians in our backyard, but I won’t. If you really want my political and pop culture thoughts, you can always find them on the PMF Show and Twitter. I dipped my toe back into the news and social media pool this week, but just my toe and didn’t have much of a desire to go any further than that. I realized somewhere along the way that the most valuable thing my farm has to offer me is refuge and I’ve just been sinking into it and letting it do its job.

The sun is back out today after a dreary, drizzly end-of-winter storm mid-week. It’s a welcome sight. Aside from the sun, here are a few things bringing me joy this week. Hope they brighten your day too:

Watch: Last week Wednesday the first of two eggs belonging to a pair of D.C. resident Bald Eagles appropriately named “Mr. President” and “The First Lady” pipped on the DC Eagle Cam. By midday Friday one fluffy little eaglet had emerged. Friday afternoon the new family enjoyed a dinner of fresh fish, nest side, and we loved watching Mom and Pop trade off eaglet duties and hunting and scavenging time. Over the weekend the second eaglet hatched and it has since become part of our morning routine to check the cam.

Read: I was tricked into picking up “At The Edge of the Orchard” by Tracy Chevalier last week at the book store. It was on a mixed shelf of both fiction and non-fiction books and I didn’t notice the “A Novel” part at first. I can count the number of fiction works I have read (without them being assigned) since Middle School on one hand. It’s not that I don’t like fiction, it’s just that when there is so much to read about the real world I feel like novels are a waste of time. That said, I was only a few pages into this one when I realized I’d be making an exception to my own rule to read it. I’m about halfway through now and don’t regret my decision. The early to mid-1800’s Goodenough family may even be softening me to fiction in general. We’ll see.

Eat: Recently I was reading a blog wherein the author wrote that for dinner they were having, “Soupe au Pistou with Herbed Yogurt Butter and Homemade Rustic Rolls.” And at this I thought two things: 1) Yum! And 2) Soupe au Pistou is such a fancy-sounding name for what amounts to a simple vegetable soup. It’s not the French’s fault. Translated, the name couldn’t be more succinct — Pistou Soup or Soup with Pistou or even simpler yet, Soup with Pesto; Pistou being the usually-pine-nut-free French version of the Italian classic — but that’s the thing, isn’t it? That we Americans would prefer not to translate the names of our dishes; would rather not admit that we are not above peasant food, and that, indeed, peasant food is damn good? But sometimes I wonder if this is one of the reasons so few among us cook anymore. Are we running our brethren and sisthren out of the kitchen with fanciful — and thereby intimidating — names? I hope not, but have my suspicions.

Listen:

we’re all bruised and beaten
lost on account of many reasons
but only love would make you understand

On Informed Assumptions & High Hopes

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I wore a pair of size five normal, not-maternity jeans into the hospital to have my oldest daughter. I don’t think I could get a size five pair of jeans over my ankles now, but young muscles are an amazing thing. Penelope has young muscles, muscles that have never before been pushed and pulled and stretched by the miracle of life and they’ve kept me second-guessing as to whether or not she’ll give us a lamb or two this year. Looking at her here, I’d say yes, yes of course she is bred. But that’s only been my opinion about half the time. Including as recently as this morning. The other half I look at her and think there’s no way; she’s too straight bodied; too taut and cylindrical. While the older ewes are waddling around like hooved beach balls she’s still the ovine version of a runway model.

The earliest any of the ewes are due with lambs is Mid-April which means there’s plenty of time left for Penelope’s belly — and udder and vulva — to give us some indication whether or not she is with lamb. Either way, we’ll be happy with her. Technically, she didn’t need to be bred this year. She’ll only be one this spring and the decision to breed or not breed ewe lambs in their first year varies from shepherd to shepherd and ewe lamb to ewe lamb. In fact, the question of whether or not to breed Penelope (our only ewe lamb from last year) was probably the single most agonizing question of our first full year with sheep.

There are pros and cons to both breeding and not breeding ewe lambs their first fall. It has been well-documented that ewes who were bred their first year have better productivity over their lifetime. Since lambs are how ewes pay their way on our farm their lifetime reproductive productivity is important. I’ve been open with my philosophy on small farm finances for many years: it must pay its own way.

There’s also the issue of genetic improvement and replacement. If you’re breeding livestock you should be trying to improve your genetics. There is no time for contentedness in agriculture. You cannot rest on your laurels. There is always something. Keep back the best, breed them up to a better sire. Wash, rinse, repeat. Since it reduces the interval between one generation and the next by half, breeding ewe lambs their first fall is the quickest way to improve. For us, Penelope was our only ewe lamb from last year’s crop. Though she is a very nice ewe and probably would have made the cut either way, she’s technically the best only by default. So in this case reducing the interval is more about replacement than improvement. Our older ewes were culls from a neighbor’s bigger commercial flock. They were the old ewes he wasn’t confident would make it through the winter, who would have been pushed around by all the other sheep in his flock, who wouldn’t have been able to get enough to eat or a prime sleeping spot in a competitive environment. Since we were looking to get started in the sheep business as efficiently and affordably as possible he sorted off from his group of culls a few who he thought were most likely to do okay in our smaller setting, bred them for us, and we traded him a couple feeder pigs.

This means that with the exception of Penelope all of our ewes have many fewer days ahead than behind. Our tiny flock makes things easier for them. There’s no competition for food or the best shelter, but they’re still old and every life comes to an end. This year’s lambs could be their last so the more ewes we have producing lambs the better our chances of having ewe lambs to replace the older ladies should they not be able to produce a crop next year.

None of this comes without a trade off though. You cannot get higher productivity and quicker replacement and improvement without risk. There is no win-win in the real world, especially in the farm world. “You win some, you lose some,” has a nice ring to it, but on a farm it’s usually more like, “in order to win some, you have to lose some.” Out here, winning and losing go everywhere together. Breeding ewe lambs their first fall increases their risk of complications in lambing, at least for that first season. Young ewes also don’t tend to give as much milk as older ones, so even if they lamb successfully you could end up with a bottle lamb to contend with. Being pregnant means they may also divert calories away from their own growth in favor of the growth of their lambs, and could remain smaller until into their third year of life.

To reap the benefits of first-year breeding while mitigating the risks the experts say your ewe lambs should be at least two-thirds their full size at the beginning of the breeding season, you should breed them to a young ram and one from a breed that is either the same mature size or smaller than them. It should also be a ram who isn’t particularly heavy in his front end. Since that’s the part of the lamb that (ideally) comes through the birth canal first, you don’t want your lambs inheriting linebacker shoulders. Plus, in the heat of the moment your little ewe lamb has to hold up the weight of the ram who breeds her and you don’t want her to end up injured in the process. You want her big enough that pregnancy won’t set her back, and you want him to throw small, easy-to-birth lambs without throwing out her back while he does it.

Which brings me back around to Penelope. In some ways we were able to meet the ideal for early breeding with her, but in other ways we weren’t.

Without her full genetic history her ultimate mature size isn’t an exact science, but we can make some informed assumptions. Her mother is that “old snake” Louisa who has “a bit o’ Cheviot in ‘er,” but we’re not sure exactly what else. Her father, if her clean, black head is any indication, is (probably) Suffolk. North Country Cheviot Ewes normally weigh in around 175-200 pounds at maturity and Louisa is in that range. Suffolks are larger though, and ewes can weigh as much as 250 pounds. Assuming Penelope’s potential lies somewhere in the middle — and since she doesn’t have that standard Suffolk lengthiness, probably towards the bottom of the middle — she was right on target at 140 pounds at the beginning of the breeding season.

With her growth in check and unlimited choice in rams to whom to breed her this would have been an easy decision. Ideally, after all, we would be able to just breed her to a small, young ram and not have to worry about another thing. But being a small farm, we only had one ram to choose from and he’s neither small nor young. He was a three-year old Polled Dorset ram who had been around the block a time or two on Michigan State University’s sheep research farm before coming to us. When we loaded him up I remarked to the farm manager that I wasn’t sure I’d seen a sheep that large in person before. When I got home and unloaded him I realized it was a bit of an optical illusion with him being up in the trailer, enclosed in a small space and me outside standing on the ground, he looked larger than he really is, but he’s not a little guy either. They say Dorset rams can weigh as much as 275 pounds and I wouldn’t be surprised if he was close to it.

Still, at maturity Dorsets are smaller than Suffolks and smaller than my educated-guesstimate of Penelope’s ultimate potential. Polled Dorset ewes should top out somewhere between 150 and 200 pounds. And while our ram is not small he is also not particularly large or heavy through his front end. Plus, we had one other tool at our disposal. Having produced a couple crops of lambs for MSU, our ram had a documented reproductive history; he came with EBV’s — or “Expected Breeding Values.” Most EBV’s deal with post-birth statistics, growth rates and carcass traits. But one, the birthweight EBV (BWt), helps predict how big lambs will be when they’re born. A ram whose BWt is a positive number is likely to increase the size of lambs at birth. In other words, lambs sired by him are likely to be on the bigger side. Rams with a negative BWt number, on the other hand, are likely to sire smaller lambs.

Our ram has a positive BWt, but a relatively small positive — +0.26. That, combined with the estimated growth potential of the Dorset breed and Penelope herself, helped me feel more comfortable making the decision to breed her in her first year. Of course, we’re still in the theory at this point. I’m not even positive she took (ewe lambs are less likely to take their first fall so it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if she wasn’t bred at all.) Until she puts a lamb on the ground, raises it up to a proper weaning age and size without help, and continues to grow well herself we won’t be able to proclaim any of this a success. In the meantime, we hope the assumptions that brought us this far were informed enough and hope for the best. Stay tuned.

A Few of my Favorite Things: March 18

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It’s mud season, and ATV season, and baby pig season, and will-we-have-enough-straw-to-get-to-the-dry-season season, and almost lamb season. The wheat fields are green, the frost laws are on, the ground is saturated, the song birds are back, the geese are overhead, the sun is out… sometimes. There is life, and it’s giving me life.

I have been painting. And writing fiction. And lighting morning candles. And being more meditative. And avoiding political news, because my heart — both literally and figuratively — cannot take it. I have been immersing myself in good and I thought, in case your heart needs to be immersed too, I would share some of my favorite pieces of it here today. Enjoy, friends.

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Watch: The Search for General Tso is described as “a documentary film about Chinese Food in America,” which is true, but also doesn’t do it enough justice at all. This film is a fascinating, well-produced look at the history of Chinese people in America through the lens of Chinese-American food and restaurants. Grab some take-out and have a movie night in; you won’t regret it.

Read: I’m a love-hate Elizabeth Gilbert fan. I love her voice and style. I sometimes hate the way she beats the artists-shouldn’t-be-tormented-souls horse to a pulp. She does that a bit in “Big Magic” and I almost skipped parts because of it — we get it, Gilbert, you don’t think artists should be drunken vagrants, get to the point! — but it didn’t make me love it any less. One of my favorite quotes from the book:

“Call attention to yourself with some kind of creative action, and… eventually inspiration will find its way home to you again.”

Eat: I made Bacheofe for the first time last winter. I was won over by the story behind the dish, by its inclusion of a little bit of every kind of meat, by its simplicity and, certainly, by Chef André Soltner in the video below. They’re calling for a short cold front here this weekend. We’ll be back down into the forties for highs and get some light frost at night for the first time since the turn of March so I’m going to seize the (possibly, hopefully) last opportunity of the season to serve hearty cold-weather fare.

Listen: I shared Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats on Facebook a while back. They have quickly become one of those bands whose new work I wait for very, very impatiently. The people need more of you, Nate! In the meantime, I’m playing everything he has ever made in his life on loop as a soundtrack for my 2016 life. Need Never Get Old, below, is a particular favorite, but really it’s all good.

On the Meditation of Work

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I have gone in and out of meditative practice many times over the years. A bit, I suppose, like I have gone in and out of a regular writing practice over the years. In both cases, each time I reenter, I rue the day I let it slip. Reentry is turbulent.

I was trying to remember the other day how old Tripp is. Most people would probably go to their files and pull his registration papers, but as a photographer when I want to remember the chronology of almost anything I go to my photo archives. He’s four. Turned four just this month, in fact. He seems older. Not physically, not even mentally per se. But wiser. Or maybe I just feel older, wiser for having had him and for other reasons, but more than four years worth either way.

Recently Jon Katz wrote of meditative dogs at his blog, Bedlam Farm. I don’t know anyone who would describe Tripp as meditative. Sensitive, active, distractible, loyal, dedicated, energetic… sure. But not meditative. And yet the longer he is part of our family and a fixture on our farm the more I would describe him as meditative. Not because he fits any predefined notion of what meditative means as he grows older, but because as I grow older with him I have begun to expand my own definition of meditation. Of what it means to be meditative.

It’s funny how close I have come to this lesson before. More than once. But always there was a wall in the way; between work and (spiritual) play.

There is no shortage of instruction on conciousness, mindfulness and presence in eastern literature, but British Philosopher Alan Watts probably put it as well as any westerner could.

The “primary consciousness,” the basic mind which knows reality rather than ideas about it, does not know the future. It lives completely in the present, and perceives nothing more than what is at this moment. The ingenious brain, however, looks at that part of present experience called memory, and by studying it is able to make predictions. These predictions are, relatively, so accurate and reliable (e.g., “everyone will die”) that the future assumes a high degree of reality — so high that the present loses its value.

But the future is still not here, and cannot become a part of experienced reality until it is present. Since what we know of the future is made up of purely abstract and logical elements — inferences, guesses, deductions — it cannot be eaten, felt, smelled, seen, heard, or otherwise enjoyed. To pursue it is to pursue a constantly retreating phantom, and the faster you chase it, the faster it runs ahead. This is why all the affairs of civilization are rushed, why hardly anyone enjoys what he has, and is forever seeking more and more. Happiness, then, will consist, not of solid and substantial realities, but of such abstract and superficial things as promises, hopes, and assurances.

To Tripp everything is work and work is everything, and always he is present in it. He inhabits each moment equally — the one loading sheep and the one snoozing, upside down on the sofa. The dog is sensitive, active, distractible, loyal, dedicated, energetic… meditative. And I’m trying to be, too.

In Praise of Mexican Asparagus

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One of the problems with the locavore movement is that it expects a superhuman amount of willpower. And I say that as someone who would like to fancy herself — with a couple notable exceptions we can address at another time — otherwise a supporter of it.

At least this is the case for those of us in the north, whom for the better part of the past few months haven’t seen an appealing fresh vegetable in the flesh. Those of us for whom even the fruits and vegetables that technically keep the whole winter in proper storage — the apples and winter squashes and carrots and turnips of the world — have begun to get a wrinkle here and bad spot there. Continue reading “In Praise of Mexican Asparagus”

Miscellany: Spring Fever + Manure

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“It’s spring fever. That is what the name of it is. And when you’ve got it, you want—oh, you don’t quite know what it is you do want, but it just fairly makes your heart ache, you want it so!” – Mark Twain

Last Friday morning I woke up with a throbbing headache unlike anything I have ever experienced before. Being upright brought on vertigo and nausea so I did as little of that as possible. Sleep brought relief, on the other hand, so I did as much of that as I could. And the next thing I knew it was Saturday afternoon. Which wouldn’t have been so bad but Sunday brought with it the beginnings of what seems to be a head cold and Monday, with it, the losing of my voice. So as I began writing this on Tuesday night, and even now as I finish up on Wednesday morning I would be lying if I didn’t admit to being in a bit of a fog. Continue reading “Miscellany: Spring Fever + Manure”