It doesn’t seem possible that it’s still February and we’re enjoying nearly two weeks of balmy spring weather. This fickle month has seen some of the biggest snowfall that we’ve had in years and for the past several days I’ve been wearing short sleeves! I’m sure the cold will snap back into place before too long, but it is restorative to remember what it’s like to feel the warmth of the sun and the energy that begins to pervade every living thing during springtime.

Working outside all winter makes the spring seem even more magical and empowering than ever before and already I can feel the excitement that warmth and growth are bringing to the farm. It’s not just an mysterious feeling either. There are real signs, life that is beginning to well up, green tipped buds,  delicate snowdrops and pale crocuses. Last week we had two new additions to the goat herd and already there have been seven calves born this month! Watching them stumble around the pasture in all their ungainly enthusiasm is as sure a sign of spring as anything I know.

There is a certain vitality that I think gets covered up in winter. It hides itself deep down in the roots of trees, below the frozen dirt, under layers of protection and warmth. In spring though, it bursts out. Jubilant. Like all that life has been just waiting for a little encouragement. Even if the weather does turn cold again, spring has begun. There is not holding back the tide of life that has begun to flow. I’m ready!

image-2

image-1

happy budding!

Sweetbread

Some of the farm crew decided recently that, when it’s time to really settle down and build a house, we’re not gonna go with wood, or brick, or stone, or even the slightly more hip clay and straw mixture for our material. We’re going with plastic!

We’ve been in the hoop house building game for the past few months and, not only are these structures large, clean, open, and bright, they are also cheap and amazingly resilient. I mean, the roof blew off our barn just a few weeks ago but the hoop house that is up behind the barn stayed remarkably intact.

Hoop houses, for those who don’t know, are basically greenhouses without any kind of temperature or humidity controls. They’re meant for animals. We recently built two that are 30ft wide x 108ft long x 16ft high. We’re housing 1000 laying hens inside each one for the winter. They are simple structures of metal hoops, spaced four feet apart down their length with a kind of end wall at the final hoop. A sheet of thick plastic stretches over top and on the ends to create a completely enclosed building that heats up quite nicely with a little sun and the body heat from all the animals.

We had quite a time getting the plastic over the first house. Walker, Zach and I chose a relatively calm day after we’d finished building the basic structure of the house. We unrolled the giant sheet of plastic and tied several ropes to one side so that we could toss them over the hoops and pull the plastic over from the far side. As we were pulling up the sheet, as slight wind began to blow and our hoop house cover became a massive, impermeable sail. Walker and Zach held on for dear life but, since I didn’t have a rope in my hand at that moment, I dove onto the plastic and tried to act as an anchor. For a few minutes I thought we were going to get lifted off the ground but eventually the wind died back down and we were able to pull the plastic over our hoop frame and get it secured before any more big gusts could tear it out of our control.

When chickens and pigs are inside a barn for the winter it’s dark and stale, much less appealing than the bright, warm interior of the hoop houses. They are also large enough that, when spring comes around and it’s time for the animals to move outside, we can use the tractor to clean everything out. My recent blog post about deep bedding the pigs in the barn through the winter also applies to the hoop houses. Chicken and pig manure is too concentrated in nitrogen to make good compost by itself but the added biomass of carbon from the hay we spread in the buildings provides for a great composting milieu.

So far, our experience with these houses has been very positive. They are relatively easy to build (if you have the right tools) and sturdy (though I suppose a few years wear and tear will be the true judge of that). I do hope they work out for the chickens though, because there are a lot of birds strutting about in there and they seem pretty content right now!

Best,

Sweetbread

When I rolled up into the barn lot this morning, I couldn’t help but scoff at all the predictions of snow that I’d been hearing all weekend. The air felt warm and breezy; none of that stiff, sharp electricity that so often precedes snow here in the mountains. One of my friends in high school used to claim he could smell snow coming. He maintains to this day that his percentage for accuracy far outstrips the weather channel.

Zach and I were surprised to see a few flakes begin to fall as we moved the cows a little after ten. It still felt too warm, too like a rainy day to be seeing snow. With the cows happily munching away at their new strip of pasture, we headed up to Berry Hill to continue pruning the blackberries. By this point the snow was coming down hard, in big, clumpy flakes, the kind of picturesque snowstorm you might see on a Christmas card, though nearly all of it was melting the moment it touched the ground.

Our management of the blackberries has been slowly improving over the years since we planted the canes. Last growing season we hit a bit of a low point. After a particularly brilliant bloom, the fruit began to set far too heavily on the plants. We tried to go through and thin things out, but our efforts were too little too late. Overproduction caused energy shortages in the plants that lead to many of the fruiting clusters rotting and falling off before they ever ripened. It was disheartening to see so many green fruitlets that would remain hard and dry until they shriveled off the stem.

This year we’re trying to stay on top of our game and so Zach, Walker, and I pruned with much less reserve than in previous years. After taking out all the dead floricanes (fruiting canes from last year), we trimmed back the number of primocanes (fruiting canes for the coming growing season) until only the healthiest remained. We then clipped back all the stems that were too small to support fruit clusters or that were situated in unproductive or particularly crowded space.

By the time we’d finished with the first row and were ready to take lunch, the snow, still falling heavily, was beginning to stick to the ground and to the blackberry canes on which we’d been working. It seemed like our blackberries were already bearing new fruit.

 

 

 

Happy Sledding!

Sweetbread

Pigs are gross. Plain and simple. Ok, maybe these pigs are cute, but on the whole– not cute, gross.

A Pig may make a nice pet if it is well trained, consistently cleaned, and not allowed to grow to enormous proportions.  On the whole though, pigs are pretty nasty.

Even when they have a huge paddock full of grass and shrubs, it only takes them about two weeks to turn it into a muddy, stinking wasteland. I’m always amazed, when we move our hogs to a new pen, how quickly they destroy every living thing within the fenceline. Granted there are anywhere from 130-200 of them, but it’s still an impressive feat of rooting, mucking, and eating.

It seems strange then to suppose that we can keep our herd inside the barn for a full four months without the space becoming so fetid that it becomes impossible to enter. Surprisingly, the barn remains fairly pleasant through the winter mainly due to our practice of deep bedding.

Every couple of days we roll out one or two round straw-bales, spreading it evenly through the barn (we have to buy our straw because, as you may have picked up from the last post, we no longer have our own hay equipment). This bedding not only cuts down on the smell, it also provides warmth and comfort for the pigs on especially cold or windy nights.

Over the course of the winter we spread upwards of 70 bales which, weighing roughly 500lbs each, comes out to around 35,000lbs of straw! In the spring, when we move the pigs out to pasture, we can take the tractor and scrape that rug of hay and manure out into a pile and let it sit for a few months. It will reach temps of over 100 degrees and quickly break down to a beneficial compost for some of our fruits and vegetables.

They may be nasty, but pigs are an important part of the farm. They may destroy plants, but they help us grow plants too. That is part of the beauty of farming!

Best,

Sweetbread

That’s a bad pun and one that’s not entirely appropriate as we haven’t grown or cut hay at Hickory Nut Gap for several years now. For some reason I can’t seem to begin these blog posts without some sort of joke or catchphrase, even if they’re terrible.

When most cattle farmers find out that we don’t cut hay, they are incredulous. “What, how do you feed the cows during the winter? You must spend a lot of money buying bales”, is a pretty common response when someone finds out we don’t raise our own hay or make corn silage. The fact is though, we don’t need to. What’s the secret?

Strip grazing.

Though you may begin to fantasize of shirtless young farm hands moving cows through languid green pastures, this is not an ag. version of strip poker . Strip grazing and related terms like mob or intensive grazing are gaining ground among agricultural as well as foodie communities around the country. If it’s new to you, strip grazing is a simple idea with extraordinary consequences in the pasture. Basically, our cows are not permitted to graze on an entire pasture all at once. If they were, they would eat only the choicest morsels of grass, leaving or trampling everything that is less desirable. This is not only an inefficient system in terms of food availability, it also depletes pastures of vital nutrients and encourages the growth of those plants and grasses that the animals don’t find particularly pleasant.

The cows run out of food faster, and when things grow back, there is less good stuff to eat.

Instead, we divide our fields into narrow strips with plastic posts and wire reels. The cows are permitted to graze on one strip of pasture for an allotted amount of time depending on the time of year, number of cows, and size of the pasture. When they have consumed all the grass in one strip, we remove the reel and posts separating them from the next strip, and then put up a back fence to keep them off the part of the pasture that has already been grazed.

This method forces the cows to do several things. First, it gives the animals less choice of grasses to eat, thereby forcing them to consume all of the existing forage rather than just the best parts. The hungry animals also eat more of the available grass before needing to move to a new strip. Finally, the manure, which is a vital part of the cow-pasture relationship, is evenly distributed throughout the pasture instead of being concentrated around the richest parts of the pasture with the best grass: fertility distribution made easy.

Strip grazing allows us to utilize pasture space more effectively and draw out our forage through the winter. We stockpile grass instead of cutting it all down and stockpiling hay.  Strip grazing also helps to maintain healthy pastures and keeps us from needing to feed hay, even in the winter when the grass is no longer growing.

This is a long post, but I hope that the material is at least interesting, if not revelatory. Explaining the things I learn on the farm helps me to better understand the concepts myself and see the gaps in my own understanding.

best,

Sweetbread

My Grandmother, Elspeth Clarke, went to school at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, NY. She relished bringing her friends back to the North Carolina Mountains to get a glimpse of rural southern life. Many of her friends had grown up in privileged homes in the North and were elated to spend a week or two traipsing through the gardens at Hickory Nut Gap and going on long hikes and horseback rides through the mountains. The farm, since the time of my great grandparents, has been host to lots of young folks who want to experience something different from academia and business. Today that tradition continues to exist. Hundreds of young men and women have worked here through the years hailing from all over the world. I would be hard pressed to try and come up with the nationalities that have been represented here through the years. The truth is, Hickory Nut Gap has always had a strong focus on education and personal development, as well as agricultural production.

Sometime in the early 1940’s, My Grandmother sent her friend, Paula Gifford, to the farm for a short vacation. Paula wanted to get away from her home in New Haven for a time and had heard about the McClure’s beautiful spot in North Carolina. The young lady took a bus from New Haven to Asheville and then got a ride with a local out to Fairview. She was dropped off near Smith Farms at the home of Loise and Charles Arrrowood. She used their telephone to call on the McClures who quickly sent someone to escort her the rest of the way. While she waited, Paula talked with the Arrowoods about her trip, her home in New Haven, and about Hickory Nut Gap. She asked the couple what kind of farm Hickory Nut Gap actually was (because even then there were too many little projects involved to get a sense of the whole). Loise Arrowood thought for several moments and then exclaimed enthusiastically “It’s a people farm!”

There are some things you can control, like the heater in your car, and other things you can’t, like how many Turkeys you manage to raise successfully despite predators, finicky weather, and random disappearances. As a farmer, you have to learn this lesson early on. There are just too many factors that are beyond your influence.

We were feeling great about our crop of turkeys this year. We felt great when we only lost a handful of chicks in the brooder. We felt even better when we managed to count 380 birds the day we moved them out to the pasture. We were ecstatic when, after a few weeks, we had only lost three or four of our fowl to hawks and they were quickly growing to the size that would make them an unlikely meal for most predators. We estimated that we’d have at least 350 by the time thanksgiving shoppers showed up. With that number in mind, we started selling birds. Of course, 350 was supposed to be a conservative guess. If we only promised 350 birds, that would leave room for transport and processing damage and any other slight problems that might arise.

The other evening Walker got a call. It was Amanda from the Foothills Processing Plant informing us that the numbers were in…324 birds, not counting those damaged during transportation. That is the kind of phone call you don’t dread. Not only because it meant dozens of customers would be left out to dry, but it also meant that, somewhere along the line, we’d made some big errors in judgment that couldn’t be undone.

As we piled boxes of birds into the cooler this morning, Amy said something that made me really appreciate this job, even in the midst of a minor crisis. She handed me one of the 60 pound boxes and said, “It just makes me feel so bad to disappoint customers. I mean I know it’s not our fault exactly, but I can’t help but think if we had worked a little harder at a few details, we wouldn’t be letting all these people down.”

It wasn’t as though Amy was worried about the extra work this debacle cost us or the credibility of the business. She wasn’t even most concerned about loss of profit. She was thinking about the customers who were so looking forward to a Hickory Nut Gap, pasture raised turkey for their Thanksgiving who wouldn’t be able get one. I know that lots of businesses tout customer service as a core concept in their mission statements, but it meant so much to me to hear so directly that our goal is to give customers the very best product we can muster– to give this farming thing our best shot– our very best. Whatever the weather, whatever surprises come up, this bunch of farmers is going to put in the effort because there is value in a job well done.

Sweetbread

This summer we put together a hoop house just above the barn to help us accommodate larger numbers of pigs. The house looks like a long greenhouse without all the air circulation and ventilation mechanisms. In order to feed the pigs we plan to keep in the house through the winter, Walker recently ordered two new pig feeders from a catalogue. The feeders are steel, seven bushel, flap style contraptions that arrived in large boxes; some assembly required.

I loved Legos as a child. It was exciting to build my own space ships and castles from old lego sets, but I also enjoyed getting a brand new set and following the instructions until I’d built whatever model was on the box. Legos come with great step by step instructions in a colorful booklet. Kids can put these things together because the instructions are so good! Ag companies could take a few leaves from Lego’s book where instructions are concerned.

Our pig feeders came with a single diagram that attempted to show how each nut and bolt was supposed to fit. Not only was it nearly impossible to see all the directional arrows because the diagram was so small, it left out some crucial bits of information.

Despite the lack of detail in the manual, Walker and I were making good progress when we came up against another problem. While trying to attach the body of the feeder to the base, we realized that the rivets that had been assembled on the base were actually aligned incorrectly. This threw the alignment for the entire feeder off so that none of the bolt holes lined up.

When Walker called the company to ask if we’d perhaps done something wrong, he was told that there was no mistake, they were just cheap feeders. “They’re made in China. You’ll just have to drill some new holes or bend the frame or something”, the salesman told him.

It surprised us a little how flippant the salesman was about the shoddiness of his product and the insignificance of customer service.  The mindset of modern capitalism is “cheap and easy”. Growth is more important than craft; dollars matter more than durability. It’s funny that so many people talk about sustainability these days when most of our production is built to be replaced within a year or two. Food issues seem to be at the forefront of the argument for an ecologically conscious consumer/ producer relationship, but it can’t be the end.

As farmers, we need products like pig feeders and waterers and tractors to last despite heavy wear and tear. As cooks, we need pots and pans that don’t scratch and burn. As business people, we need telephones and computers that don’t need to be upgraded every six months. The list goes on and on. So, while the sustainable food movement is a vitally important step in protecting the delicate ecology of this planet, it has to be a stepping stone for other issues. I don’t know exactly what this means in terms of systems. That will mean big shifts in big businesses. But as an individual I think the choices are everywhere and I make them all the time. Where will I spend my time, my energy, and my dollars. I think that too often we are asked to take up the local movement merely as consumers. “Voting with your dollars”, is a slogan that we often hear. But we are not merely money spending figures, devoid of inherent value. We can invest our days and the strength of our backs and our intellect as well as our paychecks.

Maybe we won’t be able to buy a well-crafted pig feeder in the year 2013. Maybe there still won’t be one available in 2014 or 15, but hopefully, one day, it will be possible to know your pig feeder maker, just like you know your famer.

Sweetbread

When school groups come to the farm for field trips, I’ve noticed that, among the parents and teachers, there exists one of two ideologies about the kids’ farm education. When we take the youngsters up to see the baby chicks or the calves and piglets, the question of longevity inevitably comes up. “What happens to them when they grow up?”, “Where are all the mommy pigs?”, “Why do you keep them inside pens?”… When these sorts of investigations arise, I always take a glance at the parents to see how graphic I need to be. Can I use the word slaughter? That is only for the most extreme (often those alternative outdoor experimental schools). Can I talk about hamburgers and bacon? Sometimes the parents react more strongly to this than the kids.

On other occasions, the teachers are gung-ho about delving into the steak-ness of a cow. The other day I was leading a group of third graders through the farm tour and their teacher wouldn’t let up. During our visit to each of the animal pens he pressed the kids about what meat that creature was good for. By the end of the field trip I was surprised that the kids weren’t looking at each other and trying to figure out what the most tender cut of human would be.

Truth is, I don’t really appreciate either of these mentalities in the chaperones. I think that an over exuberance about the end product misses the point just as completely as an inability to talk about the difference between a beef cow and a dairy cow. I think the parents can learn just as much as their kids from a trip to the farm. What I know about small scale farming is that all the details have to be intimately connected in order to sustain a healthy system. Whenever Jamie leads a farm tour, he talks a lot about biodiversity. We are trying to mimic a kind of natural biodiversity in which plants, animals, fungi, lichen, bacteria… all work together. If we focus too much on one part of the system then we blind ourselves to the beauty and intricacy of the whole.

We don’t raise animals just for meat. That is a part of what we do. But we also manage our cows on pasture in such a way as to increase the nutrient density in the soils, prevent erosion, protect from drought, and encourage other pasture critters to thrive. We put our hogs on land overgrown with multiflora rose and scrubby trees that we hope to turn into pasture after a time. We keep our goats out on poison ivy and privet control. A local bee-keeper has several hives around the farm to help pollinate our fruit trees and pasture flowers. While it’s important to acknowledge that the animals do die and that they provide us with delicious, fresh meat, it’s equally important to understand that the animals are an imperative part of the farm ecosystem. Not just in their death, but in the way that they live and interact with all the other forces that are in the constant flux of birth, growth, and death.

I know that’s a lot to take in for a third grader. It’s a lot to take in for an adult! That is what agri-tourism is all about, though. I hope that at least some of that will make it through to the folks who come visit this place, or any farm for that matter.

Sweetbread

I recently finished reading Soil and Sacrament: A Spiritual Memoir of Food and Faith, a new book written by my cousin-in-law, Fred Bahnson. Fred is director of the Food, Faith, & Religious Leadership Initiative at Wake Forest University School of Divinity. He and his wife Elizabeth, live on a small homestead in Transylvania County, NC with their three sons.

Soil and Sacrament is a deeply personal account of Fred’s search for a life of faith, community, and work. It is also a beautiful study of the way in which food and spirituality are profoundly and inextricably connected. Fred visits several food-and-faith communities throughout the book and finds that “soil work reveals the joyful messiness of human life…”

I like thinking of farming as a representation of a spiritual truth as well as a reality in its own right. Everything on a farm or in a garden is so profoundly interconnected that the work does force us to pay close attention to each component in order to sustain the health of the whole system. I know that the only way for me to maintain a healthy outlook regarding work, and to maintain a healthy ecosystem within the farm, is to meditate on the relationships that exist there without assuming certain truths that may, at first seem self-evident. Fred’s book made me realize that the communities of grasses, fungi, animals, and trees on the farm are, in many ways, similar to the communities of people that live here. There are interactions in the natural spaces that mirror those in the human ones and are mirrored again on a spiritual level.

I found great pleasure in reading Fred’s book, not only because of the interesting stories he tells, but because his writing is beautifully crafted. The depth of thought and intentionality that drives the book is so apparent in every page. I also know firsthand that Fred is a masterful gardener and his knowledge of the actual work about which he writes gives that much more credibility to his prose.

You can pick up a copy of Soil and Sacrament, as well as Fred’s other book, Making Peace with the Land, at the farmstore. I definitely recommend that you do! (wow, this feels just like a grade school book report only, I enjoyed doing this one. Funny how you can’t stand something until you age out, then you wish you could go back and do it again!)

Sweetbread.