Wednesday, May 18, 2011

THE CHALLENGES OF SIMPLICITY

   Talking about poultry and eggs last week we mentioned some things in passing about how we feed our chickens, and it occurred to us that we might have given a false impression about the simplicity of keeping chickens the way we do, so we thought we'd tell you more this week about what's involved. Straight heirloom corn, for example, is certainly a simple chicken feed, but feeding simply corn (or barley or wheat, depending largely on the season) presents a whole array of other challenges, which is why most small farmers and even most people with backyard chickens opt for the store-bought, “scientifically formulated” chicken feed mixture with the long list of mysterious ingredients (whether conventional or USDA organic) like we discussed last week. So the question we want to address here is why feeding a homegrown kind of feed to chickens is so uncommon. In other words, what's not simple about feeding simple, homegrown feed?
   The first challenge is that locally grown, non-GMO (not genetically modified) grain -- which is the only grain we feed -- isn't typically for sale anywhere, so generally our only options are to grow grain ourselves (and hand-hoe and hand-harvest it, etc.) and to find local grain farmers willing to deal with us in relatively, by today's standards, very small quantities. However, a small quantity for the grain farmer is typically a large quantity for us. The heirloom corn we bought from a nearby “retired” hobby farmer last year -- it took years just to locate a farmer growing a surplus of heirloom corn like this -- wasn't for sale by the bag as needed; really the only way we were able to buy it was to buy the entire crop at harvest time. And the corn came on the cob, so we had to have built a corn crib to store it (about 70 bushels on the cob) and finish drying it. Then in order to feed it we had to remove the cobs by hand and pass them one at a time through our corn sheller. That's one series of logistical hurdles, but since we don't use insecticides we can't simply store large enough quantities of corn to feed our flock of chickens through the summer and early fall without the corn getting destroyed by little grain-eating insects. So to make it through those months we've been buying wheat from some brothers that keep an old combine running and grow a few acres of grain, as best we can tell, just as a hobby. (That the only farmers growing the kind of grain that we'd want to buy can only justify their farming as a hobby shows how badly we need to increase our awareness and the value we place on local grain farming and grain-fed products like pork and poultry, etc.) Together with another friend that raises livestock and poultry, we've been buying these brothers' entire wheat crop as feed for our animals. What that means for us is that we wind up with a row of 55-gallon drums full of wheat lined up in front of our barn, where the brothers are able to unload the wheat. Then we had to get those drums under shelter. This past year we borrowed a hand truck for moving appliances, which was a big improvement over brute wrestling, but with uneven ground and barn bedding, etc. still took two plus hours of strenuous work. As nice as it would be to avoid that kind of work, it was the most efficient way to get the job done, given the scale necessitated by breaking with mainstream ways of farming, which is the broader point we're trying to make: breaking with mainstream ways of farming isn't easy and it often dictates a scale incompatible with modern, labor-saving machinery.
   But the challenges to simply feeding locally grown grain don't end with the grain, because grain isn't a complete feed. Corn or wheat only work as feed for our chickens because all day long, until we top them off in the evening, they're eating grubs and worms and grass and weed seeds, etc., etc. In order to make that kind of foraging possible, we have to manage predator threats, we have to keep the chickens out of the gardens and away from all the crops they would eat or scratch up, and we also have to deal with infringements on people spaces. We keep predators shy mainly by keeping a couple outdoor dogs (which have their own set of requirements) and by being here, working outside and walking back and forth, all day long almost every day. We keep the chickens out of the gardens and away from our crops at the expense of fencing, and by chasing down the occasional fence jumpers with a fishing net (i.e. at the expense of our dignity) and then finding someone else to whom we can give or sell those hens. Furthermore, allowing chickens to free forage means allowing chickens to poop in all sorts of places we would rather not have chicken poop, like on the walkway from our driveway to the house. Fortunately for the sake of our chickens' forage we don't have neighbors within 1/8 mile or too much traffic on our road -- that comes with the cost of being further from town and market and customers -- but for most other small farmers providing comparable forage would probably mean daily setting up new rotations with poultry netting. All this to say there are plenty of hurdles and costs to keeping things simple. We hope understanding some of these things will help you appreciate the end product.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Why does feeding a chicken have to be so complex?

Chickens roosting in the barn for the night

   Last year we recommended Organic Valley to you all as a relatively better choice for milk by supermarket standards. We figured any company that big wouldn't maintain much integrity very many years, but we didn't foresee having to issue a retraction so soon. We know there are still a lot of good farmers supplying Organic Valley, but a recent comment by the CEO, George Siemon was enough to spoil any endorsement we could make for the brand. The CEO's comment actually had nothing at all to do with dairy; his comment was made in defense of using synthetic methionine in organic broiler feed -- apparently eggs are sold under the same brand name: “I don’t understand what the big deal is. There are tons of synthetics in your life; now we are saying none in animals?” You see, a diet of strictly grains and oilseed meals (i.e. corn and soy) is so unnatural for chickens that they're unable to get all the essential amino acids they need, and because a natural diet is so incompatible with modern, large-scale ways of keeping chickens, the people that write the rules for the USDA organic program made an exception for synthetic methionine in poultry feed, so that modern, large-scale farms could continue to supply "organic" consumers with poultry products.
   There would be several ways to avoid the need for synthetic methionine in poultry feed, but the solutions all get in the way of industrially defined efficiency. One solution would be to supply chickens with fresh, green feeds. Another solution would be to let chickens scratch up things like earthworms and grubs. Another solution would be to simply raise chickens that grow at a more natural rate and don't run into nutrient deficiencies as readily as the modern hybrids bred for intensive factory farming. Another solution would be to give chickens the kind of surpluses (like dairy byproducts) that small farms generally find themselves with. All of these things happen as a matter of course on a farm like ours, and any one of them would likely be a solution to the USDA organic methionine problem. Unfortunately, all of these solutions are too far removed from the reality of “USDA organic” practice, so the people in charge simply wrote the rules defining “organic” to accommodate industrialized farming methods by allowing synthetic amino acids in poultry feed. Now, maybe synthetic methionine isn't as harmful or risky as many of the other synthetics used in agriculture -- we don't know and for our sake we don't need to know -- but the kind of farming made possible by synthetic methionine, thousands of chickens crowded into buildings never eating anything fresh, fed by Midwestern mega-farms, is certainly harmful, and it's a far cry from what organic ought to mean.
   We found the following mystery ingredients in one blend of USDA organic feed (which we're sure is more natural than what's fed to the flocks supplying supermarkets, whose feed ingredients we've never seen disclosed) -- keep in mind this is a USDA certified organic feed:
Sodium Silico Aluminate, Dicalcium Phosphate, Yeast Culture, Vitamin A Supplement, Vitamin D3 Supplement, Vitamin E Supplement, Choline Chloride, Menadione Nicotinamide Bisulfite Complex, D-Calcium Pantothenic Acid, Niacin Supplement, Riboflavin Supplement, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride, Thiamine Hydrochloride, Vitamin B12 Supplement, Biotin, Folic Acid, Manganese Sulfate, Ferrous Sulfate, Calcium Iodate, Zinc Sulfate, Copper Sulfate, Sodium Selenite, Dried fermentation product of Enterococcus faecium, Dried fermentation product of Bacillus coagulans...
   Some of these ingredients have more natural sounding names than others, but surely none of them was fed to poultry 200 years ago. Where do all these things come from and at what ecological costs? Would you know how to grow or mine or synthesize any of these things? Why does feeding a chicken have to be so complex? For comparison, we don't feed anything to our chickens that farmers didn't feed 200 years ago. According to the season and what we can grow ourselves or buy directly from neighbors (besides surpluses from our own farm like garden extras or surplus dairy from our animals) we simply supplement free range forage with barley or wheat or heirloom (non-GMO) corn. It really doesn't seem to us that normal chicken feed ought to require sophisticated modern science. For us eating organic doesn't mean eating processed foods with long lists of ingredients that came from who-knows-where and were produced who-knows-how; why should eating organic be defined so differently when it comes to feeding animals?
   USDA organic is a huge improvement over conventional -- don't get us wrong, it gets a LOT worse -- but it still leaves a lot to be desired, and as a system it's nothing we find hope in.

Late frost

   Pretty reliably we can subtract at least 5 degrees from the forecasted low. So when the forecast is for 38, yikes! Forget that the calendar says May. Wednesday and Thursday nights we pulled out all the large garden pots we've been so generously given over the years and covered all 309 of the newly set tomato plants plus the squash, cucumbers, and zucchini. We knew there was nothing we could do for the field corn and potatoes. Then we set the alarm for 5:00 a.m. to try to wash any frost off the strawberries if needed. For the most part, everything came through alright, although we did see some damage to some of the strawberry plants.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

STONE GROUND HEIRLOOM WHITE CORNMEAL AND GRITS

Two years ago, while looking for extra grain to feed our chickens, we found an 80 year old farmer nearby that was growing about an acre of 'hickory king' white field corn. Even though he was growing this very special heirloom without any herbicides or other pesticides, he was selling it to the local feed mill for commodity prices. We arranged to buy his whole crop and paid him double what he asked for it, knowing how much it was worth since we were growing a half acre of a very similar heirloom ourselves (the only difference being we avoid the use of conventional fertilizer.) This past year we grew a much smaller section of field corn since we were expecting a baby right about the time we'd need to be hoeing the corn, so we were very pleased to again be able to buy this 'hickory king' corn from our neighbor. We stored the corn in our little corn crib (pictured here) until about January when it was thoroughly dry and then began the process of sorting and shelling. We used a hand sheller to remove the less perfect kernels from the end of each ear, setting aside that corn for chicken feed along with the whole cobs that weren't as nice, inspecting each cob underneath to make sure it was free of any mold before shelling the remaining corn for grinding. We winnowed the corn in front of a fan and froze it one bucket at a time to eliminate any insect pests. Now we're grinding it fresh as needed with the small granite grist mill (made in Wilkes County) that we bought when we first started growing corn. Unlike almost all the other field corn grown in our area (and nationwide), heirloom corn varieties are not genetically modified with non-corn genes. We believe it's important to preserve these heirlooms not just to maintain non-genetically modified options, but also because these varieties weren't bred to depend on high rates of conventional fertilizer, on chemical control of weeds, diseases, and insects, and on combine harvesting. That means they're all around suitable to local use on small farms and to communities deciding how to grow their own food. We normally grind our cornmeal coarser than what you'd find in supermarkets. It's the texture we mostly prefer for our favorites: corn muffins, corn mush, hush puppies, hoe cakes... If you prefer a different grind, we're happy to grind to custom requests. We also grind and sift grits. Our grits still contain some of the hulls of the corn kernel. These will float to the surface when you add the water to your grits. Skim these off. Once ground, cornmeal or grits like we're offering are best used promptly or stored in the freezer. Enjoy!

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Time for lettuce

   We're off to a very nice start on a beautiful lettuce season, so please enjoy. May is perhaps the best month of the whole year for lettuce.  Right now the loose mix is at its peak. Our spring mix is an assortment of buttercrunch and green and red leaf lettuces. Our head lettuces have started to mature as well.  Last year we discovered a green butterhead variety, which you hopefully enjoyed as much as we did. This year we've found a red butterhead variety that's looking very good, as well as a new Romaine type, plus two Batavian types with heat
resistance we're hoping will extend our lettuce season into early
summer. 
   Here's our standard salad dressing recipe. Of all the meals we've shared with people, our simple salad dressing probably gets the most recipe requests of all, so here it is:

1/2 cup honey
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
1 cup oil
1 tsp salt
2 tsp prepared mustard or 1/2 tsp ground mustard (optional)

optional additions: minced dried strawberries, poppy seeds, herbs...

Monday, May 2, 2011

Growth spurt

Rhubarb patch
Strawberries growing on straw

Garlic growing up

First of the sweet potato slips emerging


Home brew here starts with a barley patch