Fall breeding, fall lambing and a new fall menu at 502 Smokehouse!

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The weather is cool and crisp as we prepare for fall lambing on the farm.  I have 8 ewes due next week.

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We  have also sorted another group of yearling and 2-year old ewes for fall breeding.  They went in with the ram on Sunday so we will expect this group to begin lambing in late March 2017.

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We  also have a great new customer in 502 Smokehouse.  This popular Louisville food truck now has a brick and mortar business near University of Louisville’s campus at 4th and Brandeis.  Their new fall menu includes Swallow Rail Farm mutton and it is fantastic.  Give it a try when you are around campus!

 

October 24, 2016Permalink

Swallows glean in flight

IMG_2838Swallow Rail was the name my Dad gave the farm over twenty years ago.  He wanted it to be relevant, reflecting the spatial and natural qualities of his 18 acres in Western Shelby County.  His inspiration came from the swallows that swoop and swerve so adeptly in open fields, catching insects on the fly.  The rail of Swallow Rail comes from the two railroad tracks that flank either end of the road.

 

As we continue caring for his 18-acre dream the name he chose remains as true today as it did twenty years ago.  The swallows still fly and the trains still run.  It’s like generations of swallows have been trained, like a Pavlovian response, to come to the field as soon as they hear the loud hum of the mower.  They know a hearty meal waits if they let me stir up the insects as I do my chores.

 

They fly about in rapid movement; sometimes I flinch because they come so close and at such great speed.  If they were bats catching insects I would be uneasy but because they are the swallows I feel a sense of comfortable familiarity; and that they belong here more than anyone else.  They are doing what they do best, out there in the field catching insects on the fly.  They know exactly how to manipulate their bodies to move this way or that.  Tail forked, pointed or fanned; wings out-stretched or pulled close to their bodies, their flight truly is an aerial acrobat.  Swallows are one of the few birds that are entirely insectivores and they have all the moves to catch as many insects as possible.

 

I did a little research on swallows, particularly the barn swallows that follow me in a tangle as I mow.  The barn swallow is the only swallow that has a “swallow-tail”, a term that has come to mean deeply forked.  The colorations also make this bird easily identifiable (which is helpful to me because I am not a very good birder).  As they jet through the air you can catch glimpses of its blue-black back; the underside is buff-colored to cinnamon with a slightly darker throat.  And then, of course, that amazing forked tail.

 

The barn swallow is most common but there are others including the tree swallow that has entirely white underparts; the cliff swallow has a rust-colored rump and a squared tail; the bank swallow is marked by its brown back and dark band that runs across its otherwise white breast; and the much desired purple martin, which is the largest of the swallows and has an entirely blue-black body.

 

Most fun was my “field work”.  I spent about 2 hours roaming in and out of different microenvironments of the farm.  I carried a little stool around with me so I could sit quietly in the nut grove and watch the cardinals; then over by the catalpas in the middle of the field where the Eastern King bird has a perch; and on the side of the dam where the Joe-Pye weed and ironweed are in bloom, providing a meal for the resident pair of hummingbirds.  And the Mockingbirds that so annoyed me this spring with their loud mimicking song at 4 A.M. are now busy with their children in the crabapples. In fact a young one spent last evening chasing mosquitoes on the back patio!

 

We so often don’t take the quiet time to simply sit and observe.  My observations reaffirmed the idea, once again, that there is an extraordinary balance in the natural world.  I do not need to put out a hummingbird feeder full of sugar water if I let the native wildflowers (called weeds by some) grow on the dam or put potted tropical plants on the patio.  The grove of catalpas in the middle of the back field makes it a perfect place for my little Eastern King Bird who watches from her perch for an insect meal. Her tail fans out and she shows off the unmistakable white band that allowed me to identify her.  I am often mesmerized by her moves because she hovers just above the grass with her wings out stretched, fluttering like a heavy butterfly or a papery puppet on a string, until she goes in for the snatch.

July 27, 2016Permalink

Annual Farm Reflections

Reflections on another year of food and farming

 

I like to take time to reflect on the general state of things as one year ends and another begins. Other than a few minor details I like where I am.  I get to think about food and farming as a practical application at home as Andy and I cared for 800 Freedom Rangers on pasture for the summer season; 65 head of sheep at their peak after lambing and 100 layers that reliably deliver the gift of an egg every 36 hours or so (except for this time of the year!)  These animals give us remarkable gifts as mothers and as producers of animal protein. They are pretty awesome companions on any given day, too.

When a problem arises, as they often do, this is where we are taught the lessons of nature.  Owls can silently steal a young broiler from pasture at night that no electric fence will keep out. A fox can jump out of the prairie and snatch a layer in the blink of an eye as the Great Pyrenees is asleep under the pines. A watchful eye is always cast during the rainy, hot season when parasite pressure is at its peak for the sheep.  Lambs are most vulnerable.

Our primary function as shepherd and chicken farmer is pretty straight forward. We provide fresh water, a bit of a ration, and clean grass to move to.  We also provide adequate protection from predators, including parasites.  The nuances of our charge changes from season to season and we have become accustom to a life that mirrors this. I think this is why farming is so satisfying for those who choose the vocation: it is constantly evolving and no two days are the same as new challenges present themselves reliably!

Since 2010 we have built relationships with people in Kentuckiana around food that go beyond just talking about it.  We are now producers.  Yes, I get to teach food related subjects for the Anthropology Department at the University of Louisville; but we also have a customer base that values local, pasture raised lamb, chicken and eggs.  People have very different reasons for sourcing food from local farms. Some do it for their health, some for culinary reasons, and others to keep their food dollars as close to home as possible.  Plus, everyone agrees that you can find community at your neighborhood Farmers’ Market along with some simple, great tasting food.

Food and Water Watch asked me to comment on a few questions for their Ecocentric blog in November and one of them was “what do you want your students to understand most about our food system?” My answer was short: that it is so complicated and it should be so simple.  As you think about the year ahead think of ways you can simplify things.  Grow food, eat real food, don’t waste (or generate waste with pre-packaged foods). Our dismissive attitudes about food have turned us into trash producers. Throw the fast food bag on the ground or out the car window; shovel the leftovers on your plate into the garbage; buy another plastic bottle filled with tap water.  Really?

Waste is not the only thing to consider, of course. Consider the lives involved in producing what you do not produce yourself; whether that is animal, vegetable, farm worker, rural community or wait staff.  Value clean drinking water because not everyone has it. Consider the true cost of things not just the cheap price we put on a gallon of milk or buy 3 and get one free (of which we do not need but one to begin with!) truly consider your local food economy by becoming a part of it: grow, preserve, conserve and value the simple things in life like eating real food with loved ones as much as you can in 2016 and understanding the implications.  Happy New Year!

February 26, 2016Permalink

Ewe lambs for sale

This spring’s lamb crop is ready for harvest (for the ram lambs) and for sale as breeding stock (for the ewe lambs).  Various retail cuts are available, along with some lean lamb sausage.  Some folks by a whole or half a lamb for the convenience of stocking their own freezers, on average a half of a lamb butchered to your specifications costs about $200-$225.  Please see the Chicken and Lamb Prices tab for details.  Katahdin ewe lambs for breeding stock are $200 each.
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December 14, 2015Permalink

Reflections on 2014 and fleshing hides

IMG_1060Another year in animal husbandry

I use this annual reflection to track our record of animal husbandry since we began raising a few hens for a personal egg supply in 2007.  Those few hens turned into over 100 in a few short years.  It was contagious, I suppose, as our taste for productivity grew and we added not only more eggs but meat chicken and lamb to the mix.IMG_1061

I think one of the most provocative questions there is for small scale producers comes from folks who say “how can you kill them?”  My answer is that I don’t.  My job is to keep all my hens, broilers, ewes and lambs alive.  The goal is to maintain healthy and productive hens that can range freely and will lay eggs frequently- and not get killed by fox.  The goal is to maintain a healthy flock of breeding ewes and get ram lambs up to 100 pounds before they are processed.  The broilers have 10 happy weeks on pasture if we do our jobs right and feed, water, shelter, move to fresh grass and protect from owls, raccoons, fox, weasel, dogs and hawks.  All of this comes after we have successfully brooded them in the barn. Our job is to keep them alive until they have reached their potential as food.

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Each year I challenge myself to one more task so that I can knowingly speak about the cycle of life that I have come to understand personally raising animals for food- both for myself and many loyal customers.  When you are involved in every aspect of raising animals for food you realize how valuable that animals life was so when it ends there is a sense of urgency not to waste any of it.  I have learned to make liver pate (and truly enjoy it); I can make some great broth and chicken soup from old stew hens culled from the layers.  Andy can slaughter and I can process chickens (but I much prefer it when we pay other local businesses like Faulkner Meats or Marksbury to use their expertise to do it). The dogs get raw lamb bones that otherwise would have been thrown out at the butchering stage.

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I have done almost everything except witness the slaughter of one of my own lambs (which may have to wait another year). Instead this last challenge was my idea but Andy actualized the hardest part of it.  Typically the lamb hides are picked up from the abattoirs by rendering companies that also collect the offal (the viscera).  The pelts are processed into leather goods.  I felt like we needed to experience this part, too, to be fully engaged in the process.  I picked up the hides, salted them and 3 days later we had a plan and crafted a fleshing bar.  I was not grossed out because once you set to your work the focus becomes more about not screwing it up.  Andy felt the same way particularly since he was the one doing all the scraping.  4 hours, four hides.  It was work.

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In Kentucky the infrastructure to support our small scale animal for food production is growing.  Small, family oriented slaughter and butcher establishments will help to maintain a respectful knowledge base for the business of slaughtering and butchering but it will also help to keep the business closer to home so to speak.  No absentee ownership that promotes a disconnect between the farm and the eater; no demoralized workers; no inhumane treatment of animals…this is what supporting local businesses promotes, too.  The consumer has more control then they dare to imagine and slowly our localized food economy will reinvent itself.  Perhaps reinvent is the wrong word; maybe I should say it can recover itself like when many of our rural communities where the greenbelts to our cities- country folks feeding their city neighbors. I remain confident that we can continue to restructure a new kind of food production that emphasizes small and close to home.  I meet people every day that are new partners in sourcing food with a conscience.

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I would like to thank everyone who has helped us whether it was with technical assistance, moral support, collaboration, purchasing product or just spreading the word.  Our gates are always open to anyone else ready to join in.  I will even show you our untanned, raw hide lamb pelts. Happy New Year.

 

 

December 29, 2014Permalink

Ode to Jack and the turnip

It looks like this late turnip crop is going to be a good one thanks to cool temperatures and adequate rain fall.  I may even have some little ones ready in honor of Halloween this year, too, even though they will only be salad size.  What does the turnip have to do with Halloween you may ask?  Well, they just may be more authentic than that pumpkin on the porch.Finca and Round Bales

Pumpkins have been for sale for weeks and children have decided on costumes but somewhere in the middle of it all is the story of All Hallow’s Eve.   Halloween, as it is known today, has its origins in something a bit more interesting than just pumpkin carving and candy collecting.  In fact, the evening’s festivities marked the beginning of winter for the Druids, an ancient Celtic race.

The Druids were essentially reacting to a belief that the souls of the dead returned to wander among the living for one night.  The Druids would light huge bonfires and dress up to both acknowledge and scare the ghostly beings away from their homes.  When Irish immigrants came to North America they brought All Hallow’s Eve with them; their children brought the tradition of carving the Jack-o-lantern.

Irish legend has it that a drunkard named Jack was the first to carve a “Jack-o-lantern,” back in Ireland it was carved from a turnip.  One day Jack had a run-in with the devil and a legend was born.  After some shenanigans Jack managed to trap the devil up in a tree by carving a cross in the trunk; he then proceeded to make a deal with the Devil and bargained for his soul before he would allow the Devil out of the tree. The Devil promised not to take his soul, so Jack wasn’t going to hell but he wasn’t going to heaven either.  The deal resulted in Jack wandering between the two destinations, in eternal darkness.

When Jack crossed the devil’s path once again, the devil threw a hot ember at him out of spite for tricking him up that tree.  In his cleverness, Jack quickly hollowed out the turnip in his pocket and placed the ember inside.  He now had a lantern to light his way as he wandered for eternity.  The Scots called their turnips “bogies” which gave way to the term “bogie-man” as children ran scared with their turnip lanterns on the night of All Hallow’s Eve.  I wonder if this has something to do with the golf term “to bogey”.  Golf did originate in Scotland and a turnip and a golf ball and one over par……well, you can see where this is going.

Anyway, because of the availability and ease in carving, the pumpkin became the “Jack-o-lantern” of choice for Irish immigrants in the New World and this is the tradition that persists today.  Pumpkins have been around for a long time, dating back to 7000 BC in the highlands of Mexico where they were prized for their seeds.  The flesh of the wild species was bitter so they were harvested as gourds for use as storage vessels, rattles and utensils.  The flesh of the pumpkin was not used until after it had been cultivated for centuries.

The pumpkin became a staple crop, along with beans and corn, for many southwest and southeastern American Indian tribes and its appearance figures into many tribal creation stories.  The Iroquois creation story names the pumpkin as one of the three vegetables that Mother Earth provided for the people in order to survive.  It was grown among the corn that provided shade for the growing vine.  The pumpkin vine, in turn, acted as mulch for the corn and kept the weeds under control.

When the Pilgrims dined with the Wampanoag in the Northeast at the first so-called Thanksgiving they surely enjoyed roasted pumpkin seeds.  So, don’t throw away those pumpkin seeds after you carve your “Jack-o-lantern.”  Pumpkin seeds make a delicious and healthy snack.  Let the seeds dry well before roasting them in the oven.  Once dried, toss them with a little oil and salt.  Spread the seeds evenly on a cookie sheet and roast at 350 degrees until they are golden brown, tossing them about on the cookie sheet a couple of times in the process.  They are best when they are still a little bit warm.

 

 

October 22, 2014Permalink

Tall Grass Prairies, Tim Farmer’s Country Kitchen and the Belknap Farmers’ Market

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This spring we took advantage of our prairie as quality grazing for the ewes and lambs.  It worked marvelously!  Lots of tall grass with no parasites (until they were shed by the sheep, of course. As Dr. Ray Kaplan says “if you have sheep you have parasites”).  The prairie gets burned each spring so we can have a fresh start each year as dormant parasite eggs will be destroyed. The prairie grazing did require some due diligence on my part.  Strips needed to be mowed for the electro-netting; lambs would sometime get lost in the tall grass (not for long, though) and we needed to monitor any foot injury from the burned out wild pear saplings that dot the landscape.  The regrowth of grass was fast once they were moved off a section; but we could not keep them on it once the grasses had reach a certain maturity because if became less palatable to them. With some easier fencing I could get more efficient use of the prairie; I will continue to perfect the system.  So far so good on the parasite load after a recent FAMACHA (monitoring anemia by checking the color of eye membranes) check. IMG_0949

Tim Farmer’s Country Kitchen

We were also featured on Tim Farmer’s Kitchen recently talking about raising sheep and chicken.  Tim and his wife Nikki are super nice; their daughter Kelly shot the video and does post production.  Here’s the YouTube video:  http://youtu.be/vv3mdHKmzMM

Belknap sign Belknap Farmers’ Market

The University of Louisville now has a new Belknap Farmers’ Market located at 3rd and Brandeis on campus.  We are there with lamb, chicken, eggs and fruit every Thursday from 3:30-6pm.  It is a full service market with prepared meals, vegetables, fruits, meat, eggs, canned and baked goods, bread and honey.  U of L’s commitment to community engagement welcomes everyone to the market.  The community, students, faculty and staff make this market fun!  Come see us, it runs through October. Here’s their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/BelknapFM

June 21, 2014Permalink

Wiley Coyote gets a run for his money

Tuesday, 4:30 pm, after shedding my city boots for my country boots I head back out the door with my egg basket and a jug of water.  Our two livestock guardian dogs by my side we head back to the barn.  In the blink of an eye Baxter and Finca take off in full defense mode towards our hens and the barn.  Baxter takes the front and Finca takes the back.  And, to my bewilderment, a beautiful coyote is flushed from beyond and the dogs follow pursuit.  Wiley coyote hits the frozen lake and the dogs circle.

At one point Baxter (the Maremma who has remarkable speed) over shot the target and ran over the hill; meanwhile Finca (the Great Pyrenees who has might and determination) sat on the damn while Wiley Coyote sat down in the middle of the frozen lake.  I share the detail because I started thinking that this is probably the same creature I wrote about several months ago when we woke to an early morning pursuit between Finca and something (I was without my glasses at 3 am that morning so could not confirm what was circling a perennial bed with Finca in sleepy pursuit .)

That morning it seemed the creature was playing a game with Finca, a certain kind of Wiley taunt. I could imagine the creature thinking, “I can run in circles and wear this big white thing out!” I saw this yesterday; too, when this beautiful coyote sat down and looked at Finca as to say, “I dare you, again, big lumbering white thing!” at this point I am still an interested observer.  And, in fact, Finca did take the dare, and took to his pursuit on the icy lake.  Baxter shows up and the team successfully chases Wiley away.  At one point, even, Wiley literally tucked and turned tail when Finca got close.  I hope that Wiley understands that Finca and Baxter are not to be underestimated! And, I am happy to report that no chickens where involved in the incident.  Knock on wood, please.

Since it all ended well it lifted my spirits a bit; after all the ice and snow and cold and broken limbs and frozen water buckets- I needed a pick me up.  And at that moment I was glad there was all that snow and ice because I had a map to follow and study.  I compared the huge paw prints of the LGD’s and the small prints of the coyote at its various gates.  I could determine that Wiley was not just there yesterday being chased but I could follow the trail all about the orchard, around the berries and asparagus; and, amazingly, the tracks ambled a few 100 feet from the barn where 80 chickens where hanging out and about.

The next morning the dogs give Wiley a run for his money.  andy and I watched as Baxter and Finca chased the coyote about in our neighbors field.  It was a perfect view:  a northern snow covered slope with a brown coyote trying to evade our dogs.  Finally Finca pushed him far to the southern edge of their precieved territory.

So, if I could communicate with coyotes I would ask that they focus on the rabbit population.  Which, interestingly, next to the coyote tracks I followed were indeed rabbit tracks.  So, maybe some outdoor tracking is in your future, too.  Walk about and investigate and you may be surprised what you see left behind in the snow.  Is it a bird, a raccoon, a skunk or opossum? Maybe a fox or coyote is in your midst, too? I am starting to see nature’s designs everywhere I trek in the snow; it is a good winter distraction as we wait for the ice to melt.  And, I will remember that tracking in the snow is more fun than the mud that is to come!

February 16, 2014Permalink

Caught on the road moving sheep

Moving sheep to pasture
Moving sheep to pasture- My friend and neighbor Kim Heston snapped this photograph as I was trying to move the sheep across the road to fresh pasture.  They overshot the entrance so I was tempting them with their purple feed bucket to move in the direction I wanted.  Thanks to Kim and our Simpsonville mail carrier for stopping their vehicles in assist.  And for Kim’s great photograph.  

 

January 13, 2014Permalink

Winter settles in as we plan for a new year

Sheep spring 2013 027While the winter slowdown has not yet happened it does seem to be around the corner.  Or is that just wishful thinking?  At any rate winter is a time to regroup and plan for another year for the farm.  We have some serious infrastructure planning to do thanks to a grant from Animal Welfare Approved which will allow us to add some fox proof fencing for our free-ranging laying hens; and some improvements to our sheep pastures that will allow for more organized rotational grazing and sorting.  The AWA Good Husbandry Grant is not just financial support but a vote of confidence which really does propel us up to the next level as farmers.  We can build our infrastructure as we also grow emotionally and intellectually with our farming practices.  I know this may sound a little strange but farming is very emotional because at any moment things can go terribly wrong.  I am not suggesting that we have a fatalistic approach to raising animals, fruits and vegetables but for each species there lurks a threat.

We hedge our bets with fencing, livestock guardian dogs, movement, sunshine and rain, and vigilant observation.  This applies to sheep and potatoes alike. Observation reveals a happy lamb or a diseased potato plant.  If we see the happiness we know we are on track; anything to the contrary we need to act accordingly to address the situation.  Yes, we have blown it on occasion and missed the signs of distress but the lessons have never been lost on us.  I try very hard not to make the same mistake twice.lambs 2013

We had 26 lambs born this year, increasing our herd of Katahdins by nearly 100%; over 300 Freedom Ranger chickens made it from our pastures to local plates; and pints of fruit and dozens of eggs went out to our Egg CSA members.  Next year we take another step forward and grow the operation to meet both our desires to farm more and to address the growing demand for humanely raised food that relies on and contributes to our local economy. More eggs, more chicken, more lamb and we plan to try our hand at turkey for the first time.IMG_0714

There are two things that I go back to as I try to maintain a meaningful existence.  First is this idea that individual dependency on the whole reinforces accountability to one another.  We have lost some of this accountability because of the anonymity of the services we use daily.  My customers know where their eggs, lamb and chicken come from so you can be sure that accountability is easy to trace.  The other thing that keeps me grounded is articulated best in a quote from Will Harris of White Oak Pastures, “the way you know you are successful is do you still enjoy watching your animals.” I can say that this is usually the best thing I do on any given day.

December 4, 2013Permalink