Thursday, May 28, 2009


You might wonder of all the kinds of meat to sell why we're raising veal calves. Although once fairly common in Western cuisine, veal is an oddity -- and an especially high-priced one at that -- in North Carolina kitchens today. Moreover, veal is perhaps more closely associated with the abuses of factory farming than any other meat. That's a shame, but so is most of modern, industrialized agriculture. What we suspect a lot of people fail to realize is that what's sensible and economical for a small, low-tech farm like ours often varies drastically from what's most profitable for large factory farms. Chicken, for instance, is the cheapest meat to produce when chemical fertilizers, pesticides, antibiotics, artificial stimulants, confinement "houses", genetically modified crops, etc. are plentiful; on a small farm, following organic principles, chicken is an especially challenging meat to produce for market, especially in quantities comparable to the amount of veal we can raise. Of course, veal is the same animal as beef, so you might ask why we don't just raise all our calves out as beef. The trouble with beef is that it takes well over a year, often closer to two years, to finish a beef steer. That's problematic because high quality, tender meat depends on a good rate of growth and therefore on nutritionally high quality feed, and the nutritional quality of pastures generally goes way up and down over the course of a year. Factory farms don't worry about the seasonality of grass, because they feed cattle mostly on grain. Grain certainly makes tender meat, but it would be a ridiculously expensive way to feed cattle apart from chemically intensive Midwestern mega-farms. The nice thing about veal is that the cow maintains a top quality feed supply (milk) for the calf, and because it only takes a few months to raise a veal calf, we can raise more calves when the grass is rich and milk is plentiful and fewer calves or no calves at all when the grass is poor and milk production drops. In other words, veal allows us to raise high quality meat in a cost-effective, seasonal way. If you consider other grass-eating animals that are raised for meat, the meat of the young, milk-fed animal is traditionally considered far superior to that of the mature animal (e.g. lamb vs. mutton.) And in comparison to beef, veal remains a gourmet, specialty item. A different logic applies to small, low-tech farms like ours, however, and so we can offer veal at least as affordably as comparable beef. If the logic of organic principles, of small, local, low-tech farms makes sense to you, too, then we encourage you to try veal. Pasture raised veal fed real mama's milk is a small farm delicacy worth enjoying.

Thursday, May 21, 2009


This past winter we found ourselves with an abundance of good ingredients for making homemade soap -- tallow and milk and cream -- and so we looked up some recipes and put together the most "homegrown" soap recipe we could. After trialing a few variations, we came up with the recipe for the milk and honey soap we're offering now. We rendered the tallow from the fat of locally raised beef steer. For the liquid we used 100% milk and cream (no water) from our Jersey cow, Elsea, along with a little bit of honey from our bees. The milk and cream, in particular, are supposed to give milk soap its gentle, moisturizing feel. The tallow produces a hard, long-lasting bar. We're excited to be able to replace supermarket soap with soap that we can make with, other than the little bit of soapmaking lye, all local and homegrown ingredients. We'd love for you to try some of our old-fashioned soap enhanced with milk and cream and maybe even let it be a regular substitute for soap made of industrially produced ingredients.


From a nutrient perspective harvesting is the opposite of fertilizing. Everything we grow and then sell contains nutrients that come out of our soils. When we sell vegetables or eggs or meat, we're exporting nutrients off our farm. If our farm is going to keep producing, those nutrients need to be returned to the soil one way another. Conventionally, nutrients come from mines, are chemically processed with fossil fuels, are applied by the farmer, and the nutrients leave the farm through leaching, run-off, and through the sale of farm products, often polluting waters or contributing to landfills in the end. The organic ideal is a complete cycle: nutrients that leave the farm in the form of food and feed would be returned, however indirectly, in the form of compost and manures and other forms of organic matter. This is where we want to ask for your help. Do you have any nutrient sources, anything organic (in the sense of having come from a plant or animal) that's not getting returned to the soil like it ought to be? If so, we're interested in finding ways to cooperate in returning those nutrients to productive land. Of course, there are lots of things that can make nutrient recycling complicated. Nutrient sources can be difficult to transport because of bulkiness or excess water weight. Some nutrient sources can pose health or varmint issues if not handled properly. Sometimes forms of organic matter get mixed with heavy metals that can be toxic to soils. We want to start with those things that are easy and work toward the ideal. Composting can greatly facilitate nutrient recycling. When organic waste material breaks down in a compost pile bulk is greatly reduced, water weight is lost (thereby concentrating nutrients), weed seeds and plant pathogens can be killed by the heat of decomposition, and otherwise harmful wastes can be effectively sanitized. Grass clippings or leaves can form a good base for a compost pile. Some relatively nutrient-rich things like egg shells can simply be air dried and crushed. If you're asking yourself: can't I just pay the farmer to take care of this for me? Do I have to be involved? The answer is that if you eat, you're already involved in agriculture and in nutrient cycles. The only organic alternative we have to directly or indirectly retrieving nutrients from consumers is to import organic matter from conventional farmers. (For example, we've purchased straw mulch from a nearby farmer.) That's certainly helpful to our nutrient situation but it only displaces the abuse of organic nutrient cycles to our neighbor; the only solution that's ultimately organic is recycling. Hopefully we can work together more and more as stewards of different stages of a truly organic nutrient cycle.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


This past winter news broke that something like a third of USDA certified organic farms in California had been using synthetic liquid nitrogen fertilizers in violation of organic rules. The fault lay principally with a large fertilizer manufacturer that was deceitfully using conventional chemical sources to manufacture its fertilizers more cheaply. It was a case of outright fraud that apparently went on for seven years (including almost three years after officials were first tipped off), affecting a huge segment of the USDA certified organic system. Normally, according to the regulations of the USDA organic program, land that has had chemical fertilizers applied to it cannot be used for the next three years for organic production, but with whole corporate networks of farms compromised (like salad mix giant Earthbound Farms), organic certifiers announced that those organic rules would not be enforced. Organic regulators assured consumers that synthetic fertilizers are perfectly safe.
That episode raises lots of interesting questions. It's particularly telling that so many organic farms in California depend on one-for-one substitutes for conventional fertilizers, substitutes that farm workers were unable to distinguish from conventional chemical fertilizer, and that are used exactly the same way with the same results. Are "organic" fertilizers that big companies process in big factories and that arrive in a bottle or a tanker truck, apart from massive frauds, otherwise not organically suspect? What is the ecological cost of such fertilizers? Why are California organic farms so dependent on factory fertilizers? What about the business model of these farms makes traditional, identifiably organic fertilizer sources (like leguminous cover crops) impractical? Why were organic certifiers so eager to secure the status quo following these abuses? How trustworthy can the USDA organic system be -- even when it comes to meeting very limited, legalistic standards -- when it's so far away, so convoluted, and so heavily industrialized? We see the whole episode as a further indication that the marriage between organic agriculture and supermarket-scale agriculture is shaky and ultimately unsustainable.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009


A lot has happened on the farm since the farmers' market ended last October. Winter set in early and hard bringing a quick end to our late fall crops. We spent a lot of our time this winter working on fencing and other livestock-related projects. Much of what we're doing with livestock is still very experimental and inefficient, but we believe strongly in the importance of diversity to our farm, as well as the importance of reclaiming control of agricultural sectors largely lost to small farms. We added Barbados blackbelly sheep and Great Pyrenees livestock guardian dogs to the farm in December, as well as another Jersey cow in March. We'll tell you more about our plans for our pastures and the sheep another time, but the short story is that the sheep have been a lesson in what doesn't work. (Anybody want to buy a breeding pair of Barbados blackbelly sheep?) All in all the dogs have worked quite well for us, and they've helped simplify the way we manage our dairy goats, but their role as sheep guardians will have to await a different breed of sheep more suitable to our circumstances. Elsea, our first cow, had her first calf born on our farm right before Christmas. It was a bull calf sired by the neighbor's Hereford bull. He's a healthy calf with an easy temperament to work with and is growing very well. By next summer he should be the first finished beef steer we will have raised.
We just finished planting the first crop of field (cornmeal-type) corn that we've planted on our own land. (We've only sharecropped field corn until now.) The remaining strips of crimson clover that we grew as a nitrogen-fixing cover crop are blooming beautifully right now, and the bees seem to be enjoying them, too. The bees have had a rough go of it until just lately. Conditions were very poor for the bees last summer and early fall, and we suffered heavy losses. This spring, in part because of the cool, wet weather the bees have built up very slowly and aren't up to size yet for the honey flow that's already beginning. We're expecting a very small honey crop this year. Meanwhile, we're rebuilding for next year and trying to temper our forward-looking management with lessons learned from last summer's dearth.
The garden crops have been a mixed bag -- as usual -- so far this year. We had unexpected, heavy insect pressure through the cool, wet weather. Seedcorn maggots killed half or more of the 4000+ onion plants we grew and set out, and cutworms have been systematically thinning everything from the cabbage to the radishes to the lettuce to the onions. Neither of those insect pests has ever caused significant damage to our spring crops until this year. Our later seedings of spring crops are generally looking a lot better than the earlier plantings. If it doesn't get too dry or too hot too soon we're still very hopeful for the late plantings of lettuce, spinach, beets, etc. The Irish potatoes are also looking very promising so far. We set out our largest yet strawberry crop last fall. They didn't grow as much and get established as well through the off-season as they normally do, but the plants are looking pretty good now, and there are a lot of small, green strawberries already. Of course, there's lots more happening in the gardens, but that's a little news from the off-season.