Seed Money

Essex Farm Note

Week 5, 2015

The seed order is in! It was our largest ever, totaling just over $6,000. We went long on some expensive seeds, like hybrid sweet corn. We’re going to experiment with starting some of it in the greenhouse and transplanting it to the field, so as to avoid rot in cold spring ground and the damage inflicted on the young seedlings by crows and seagulls. We also doubled up on certain items, in order to get a volume discount on the seed, and will hold the extra in the freezer for 2016. We are contemplating selling plants from the farm store this spring, so we ordered a little bit of seed for that. Now it is time to think about getting the greenhouses in shape. In previous years, we raised plants in one, and chicks in the other, but this year, we’ll fill both with plants and raise chicks in the east barn. The plastic on the south greenhouse was damaged by an ice storm last year. We limped through last season with patches, but now we really need to re-skin it. We’ll look for a warm, calm day in March.

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Seed order!

The seed order total was dwarfed by another big outlay this week: organic corn for feed. Mark spent much of the week on the phone, shopping for 100 tons. The difference between conventional and organic prices is especially startling this year. Conventional corn is selling for about $3.50/bushel at the elevator, which would probably be about $5/bushel by the time it got to our grain bin. So far, the best we can do on organic, delivered, is about $14/bushel, or about $50,000 for 100 tons. This is why it is so tempting for animal producers to switch to conventional, and it is why ‘local’ has quietly trumped ‘organic’ in so many markets. We remain committed to feeding only certified organic grain or grain we’ve grown ourselves. One of our strategies for reducing the grain bill this year is to dedicate more acreage and energy to growing mixed grain/legume/brassica/pasture for pigs. If pigs harvest their own food it saves us the expense of having humans do it for them. Plus, green food and sunshine make for healthier, tastier pork. And while there is some controversy about the numbers, lard from pigs raised outside on pasture is a significant source of Vitamin D. Pasty people who love lard (my people!), rejoice.

Speaking of things piggy, Pancake has been repatriated. He and his buddies moved into the run-in with all the other pigs. It’s a mixed-age group and when I went to say hi to him yesterday I found him sleeping in the valley made by the warm bodies of two 200-lb sows. He looked content.

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Pancake, repatriated.

It was, however, a tough week for the dairy cows. They got some extremely rich second cut clover hay and either the hay or the sudden switch upset their bellies. I am always amazed at how fast dairy cows lose condition when they hit a bump in winter while milking hard. They look rough and thin right now, but should bounce back now that the feed situation is corrected. And the farmer team feels fantastic right now. Our new farmers are learning fast. We have our old friend Sam Ehrenfeld back in the region and in our butcher shop today. And we made an exciting new hire this week: Ben Christian is our new part-time assistant farm manager. He brings a combination of conventional and organic larger-scale livestock and management experience, plus a lifetime of local ag knowledge. We’re so glad he’s here. And that is the news from Essex Farm for this invigorating 5th week of 2015.             –Kristin & Mark Kimball

Seed Order

Essex Farm Note

 

Week 4, 2015

 

It’s seed order day. We’ve been perusing the catalogs for a few weeks but that was just window shopping. I thought you might be interested to know what goes into the decisions we make when we choose types of produce, the variety and the quantity.

The first considerations are taste, production, and suitability. If a variety is described as clearly superior in taste, nearly failsafe in lots of different growing conditions, or ‘the standard’ for commercial growers (a favorite seed catalogue phrase) it is a likely choice. We also look for plants resistant to the blights that tend to plague us. We have a short growing season here in the north country, 100 days from frost to frost, so we often choose the varieties that mature fastest. We also like varieties that will get us eating fresh vegetables as early as possible in the season, and varieties that will store well through the winter and into the spring.

Another consideration is distribution of labor. With some plants, like potatoes, the ratio of labor in to calories out is astonishingly good. Others suck up labor all the way through the growing season. They must be started in the greenhouse and transplanted or take a lot of labor to harvest. We have to be careful not to overdo it with the labor-suckers. We usually sneak in a few hail Mary crops that only succeed in years when the conditions are perfect for that plant. Celery is one example. Popcorn is an another. This year, we might try a little okra, which will yield well only if we have a blazing hot summer.

The last thing we consider is price. The cost of seed is significant but as a percentage of the investment in a crop (that is, compared to the labor that will go into it from planting to eating) it is small. So, unless a cheaper seed seems just as good or better than a more expensive one, we don’t shop seeds on price. Neither do we privilege heritage or open-pollinated varieties over hybrids if the hybrid looks likely to give us better results. The crop that really sold me on hybrids way back when was cabbage. We’d grown an open pollinated variety for a few years, and it was OK, and then we grew a hybrid (called, un-poetically, Storage #4), and it was easier to grow, tasted better, and yielded almost exponentially more. Hybrids are pricey but I don’t mind paying the plant breeders for all those extra benefits.

Speaking of cabbage, Jori and her band of helpers spent much of the week at the Grange’s community kitchen, making kim chi and sauerkraut.  The kim chi should be ready in about four weeks, the kraut in six to eight. I can’t wait to eat those good fermented friends. In other news, Pancake is finally fully porcine. He has two young pigs living with him in the greenhouse now. They have taught him to push and shove for food like a normal pig. He is still friendly but he and Mary are no longer good playmates. Once there were other pigs in the picture their play took on a rough, serious edge, and I won’t allow it. I still can’t quite believe this vigorous young hog is the same flat little guy who couldn’t even hold his head up when we found him. Here’s to life, the daily magic that never gets old. And that’s the news from Essex Farm for this chicken-soup 4th week of 2015.

-Kristin & Mark Kimball

Let it Blow

Essex Farm Note

Week 3, 2015

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Had a lovely farm walk with Mark this morning, just as this front was coming in. The earth and plants are so deeply asleep. The mighty asparagus, thick enough to hide in over the summer, is reduced to piles of crackly brown sticks underfoot. We pushed through the raspberry canes that snagged us all season, so devoid of life now they rattled together in the wind. We checked on the kale, which is still conspicuously green in a field of white and brown, and still good to eat. The mice have dug a bunker in the old parsnip furrow, and are gleaning the frozen roots. We crossed the swamp and walked through seventeen acre field, which is crisscrossed with coyote tracks. At the metal barn we contemplated the disturbingly fast rate at which we are going through hay – two bays of the barn are empty already, only two bays to go, and we are not even close to halfway to grass. We will be reducing the herd size every week, but we will still have to buy hay before May. At least we have plenty of bedding, so the cattle are dry and comfortable.

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The temperature was dropping by the minute and the wind seemed to come from every direction in strong, sudden gusts. We stopped to check on the horses, pressed our faces into their thick fur and good smell, and then turned toward home. We are at the point in the year when it feels like the cold can’t touch us. We are adjusted and we are prepared. Let it blow. Many thanks to Kelly E. who brought us a load of good used outerwear yesterday, along with her delicious coffee cake. Those gifts made me think of the interplay between independence and interdependence in our community. There is a strong tradition of independence in the North Country. We cut our own wood and hunt or grow our own food and work hard at our own businesses and we are stoic in the face of adversity. But there is not a lot of extra fat in this land. It is a place with a small economy and a big winter, and the only way it works for all of us is to be frugal and take care of each other. I have lived here for eleven years now and I am still moved by the way this community takes care of each other. Person to person, family to family, farm to farm.

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Pancake the orphan pig is growing so fast and so fat, we have contemplated renaming him Pound Cake. We put another piglet in the greenhouse with him today. I think I expected a great reaction from him, but he was unimpressed, and, after sniffing the butt of the new pig, dog style, he ignored him, and continued to play with Mary. I bet he will discover the joy of a pig mate tonight, when the sun goes down and he learns how warm it is to snuggle with his new friend in the hay.

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Carrying Pancake’s new roommate to the greenhouse.

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Pancake meets a pig for the first time — and sniffs his butt like a dog.

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Old friends…

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…are the best!

            We had a rousing hockey game on the pond this week. Fledging Crow Farm was here and so was Harvest Hill so the ice was soon a blur of sticks, beards and Carhartts. No way to be cold when you are moving that fast.

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It’s time to look forward now, and think about spring. Kristen Howard is talking mushrooms. Kirsten is talking flowers. I am contemplating geese, turkeys, or maybe some meat goats. What would you like to see us try this year? Give us a shout and let us know. There is still enough winter left for dreaming. And that is the news from Essex Farm for this winter wonder 3rd week of 2015.                                                                                                 -Kristin & Mark Kimball

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Mark made this giant shovel out of an old barrel. Perfect for clearing the rink.

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Happy flock. Hopefully all pregnant. First lambs due on April Fool’s Day.

 

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Beef herd in the covered barnyard.

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Mary and Mark checking on the hay

Water and Ice

Essex Farm Note

Week 2, 2015

A good stiff chill this week, to remind us we live in the North Country. When the weather turns cold everyone I see asks me about the animals. I’m looking out the window at the sheep right now. They are so well insulted by their wool, the snow doesn’t melt on their backs. We put farrowing huts in their corral this week, bedded with hay. They have not even tried them out yet. Instead, they are lying down in the thin sunlight, chewing cud. I think the rest of the stock feel the same about the cold (barring, perhaps, the fur-less pigs, who have spent the week buried together under lots of hay and straw). Animals eat more during a cold snap, but away from wind and wet their internal furnaces keep them comfortable and content. I worry much more about their wellbeing during a heat wave, or when the flies are bad.

The trouble with cold is water. When the low fell to -15 degrees on Wednesday night, the drains froze in the milk house and the office trailer, and some of the frost-free hydrants stopped running. This happens in fields with water tables higher than the valves that are supposed to empty each pipe to below the frost line after use. One of those troublesome hydrants is the one we use to water the horses. Luckily, they are near a field with an old, hand-dug well in it. Mark and I walked over the frozen field to inspect it. Had the heat of the earth kept the water liquid, when all the other surface water on the farm was hard as stone? The well sits next to a solitary ancient oak with a trunk so large and hollow the children can play inside it. We used one of the oak’s dropped branches to lever the cover off the frozen ground. There is something magical about that well. It is nearly small enough to encircle with my arms and the stones that line it look carefully placed. Who dug it, and when and how? How many thirsty beasts has it satisfied across the years? To that number add eight frosty muzzles, because it stayed open all week.

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Our roster of farmers was full this week, with the arrival of full timers Ethan and Kristen, plus a wonderful working visit from Kirsten’s boyfriend Ben. Mark had that content look at dinner that means we spent the day moving forward, instead of just barely keeping up or dealing with emergencies. The chainsaw got fixed and sharpened and some wood bucked up. The shop got cleaned. There are new tomato stake holders that can be moved by skid steer. And the whole crew made one final run to the transfer station with a wagon load of trash and recyclables. The dump run generally falls to the low end of the priority list and when the trash builds up it gets messy and often has to be re-sorted. Moreover, it takes up an entire half bay of the pole barn, which could be put to better use. So Mark made some calls this week and arranged for two dumpsters, one for trash and one for recycling, that will get picked up and disposed of once a month. Small news, perhaps, but a substantial improvement in efficiency. Speaking of efficiency, we are looking at roll-out nest boxes to reduce breakage and egg cleaning time. The question is, do we design and build them ourselves, or break down, wring our frugal hands, and buy them? To be continued… And that is the news from Essex Farm for this fast-ice-pond-hockey 2nd week of 2015.

-Kristin & Mark Kimball

Fresh New Year

Essex Farm Note

Week 1, 2015

We canned the last of the 2014 syrup this week. Good thing sugar season is only 8 weeks away.

We canned the last bit of sweetness from the old year.

Welcome, welcome, fresh new year. The girls are sleeping over with friends tonight and Mark and I have a romantic evening planned, just the two of us and a pile of seed catalogues. The 2015 growing season will never be as perfect as it is right now, when it all fits, neat and beautiful, in the imagination. I expect the summer will be more colorful than usual. One of our new farmers, Kirsten Liebl, comes to us from the famed Chanticleer gardens in Pennsylvania. She knows flowers. When she was considering working here, one of the conditions of her tenure came in the form of a list of seeds that she handed to Mark. Required: helichrysum, gomphrina, ammi majus. The fact that Mark didn’t even insist that the flowers be edible means he really wanted her to be here.

New Year cleanup included an overhaul of the walk-in freezer this week. Lindsey and Sabrina spent long days making lard – which Mark has dubbed North Country Olive Oil – from the frozen fatback we had stored up. I am reading the Little House series with the girls (again), and watching Sabrina stir and stir the melting bits of lard reminded me of this passage from Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder:

All that day and the next, Ma was trying out the lard in big iron pots on the cookstove. Laura and Mary carried wood and watched the fire. It must be hot, but not too hot, or the lard would burn. The big pots simmered and boiled, but they must not smoke. From time to time Ma skimmed out the brown cracklings. She put them in a cloth and squeezed out every bit of the lard, and then she put the cracklings away. She would use them to flavor johnny-cake later.

We do have the craklings in the share today, members, but when it comes to cracklings, remember what Ma says:

Cracklings were very good to eat, but Laura and Mary could have only a taste. They were too rich for little girls, Ma said.

And big girls too. I know from experience.

We have some lovely uncured pork hocks from the freezer in the share today too. I admit to taking more than my fair share of hocks in the past. They are my favorite cut for pozole, which I make, using our own field corn for the hominy, in enormous multi-gallon batches for the freezer. I’ll post my recipe one of these days.

I took a video of Pancake and Mary playing in the front yard this week. The crazy thing is not that Mary likes playing with Pancake, but that Pancake invites Mary to play exactly like a puppy would. It is cute and they have a good time rolling around together but I also find it slightly disturbing, in the way of the uncanny valley. I guess I expect small pigs to act like small pigs and when they don’t it is just weird. I’m eager for the most recent litter of pigs to be weaned so that Pancake can go learn piggish ways. My friend Heather suggested putting one piglet in the greenhouse with Pancake, so he can start off easy. Good idea.

And now the short news. We canned the last of the 2014 maple syrup this week. Good thing sugar season is only 8 weeks away. Mark spent a wet and muddy time figuring out that the frost free hydrant near the butcher shop had rusted through deep underground, and after only ten years. It’s fixed now, finally. The whole gang slaughtered a big batch of chickens yesterday — our second to last bunch, and by far the latest in the year we’ve ever done them. Chicken slaughter is probably not anyone’s favorite job on the farm, and it is even less fun when the temperatures are below freezing. They began in the morning and cleanup wasn’t finished until after 7pm. Thank you, sturdy farmers. On the good side, the pond is frozen thick and smooth again and perfect for skating, as long as the snow holds off. We are expecting some roller coaster temperatures this week, with a low near zero tonight, and highs around 50 on Sunday. I think we’re ready to take whatever comes, as long as the roads are clear enough for school on Monday. Neither I nor the kids could take another day of winter break. And that is the news from Essex Farm for this first, best week of 2015. -Kristin & Mark Kimball

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Pigs enjoying the spent butternut squash. Some people say that squash seeds help control internal parasites. If so, these pigs will have extremely clean insides.

Mom, this hay looks good enough to eat. Could I taste it?

Mom, this hay looks good enough to eat.

 

Experiential learning is a powerful thing.

Experiential learning is a powerful thing.

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Hens are snug and cozy in the East Barn for the winter. They are laying well, about 25 dozen per day.