Unexpected Arrivals

I love our local “consumer newspaper.” You know, the free one they stick in your mailbox and everyone advertises their yard sales in it? I’ve noticed many local farmers use it to advertise produce, u-pick, farm stalls, etc. Recently I saw advertised canning tomatoes. I called up and ended up going to this little farm about 20 minutes away to get 250 lbs of tomatoes for myself and a couple of friends. It was one of many mutually beneficial arrangements I have made through ‘accidental’ finds: I saved the farmer the cost and hassle of having to package and transport the tomatoes to a market, and in return was able to purchase them for $24 a bushel (that’s about 55 pounds of tomatoes, if you were wondering).

And now my family has what will be up to a year’s supply of tomatoes for sauce and soup, and tomato powder (you can make paste, put it in chilli, etc):

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One of my favorite things about these encounters is the people I meet. I never cease to be amazed at how knowledgeable these farmers are. Not only do they know everything about what they sell, and are happy to answer all your questions, but they have wonderfully practical tips and suggestions.

Which brings me to our unexpected arrivals. Whilst I was perusing this same free paper last week, I came across a “piglets for sale” advertisement. I’ve had the idea of doing pigs in the back of my mind for some time: whenever I visit the local farm shop I get my meat from and they don’t have any pork or bacon left, for example! (Eating locally and in season is an excellent way to change your mindset from the ‘what-I-want-when-I-want’ consumer to a more mindful partner with the producers around you.)

I thought I’d go have a look. I was a little wary because the price for the piglets was a bit lower than I had seen on average at  auctions and from more official breeders. But when I spoke to the farmer I was really impressed. He knew all his breed lines and about the strengths and weaknesses of his breed. He carefully selected his breeding pairs and went to great lengths to get good pigs with fresh bloodlines to avoid illness and inbreeding. He was natural but also practical. And as an added bonus he castrates them too before they wean and are sold. (I’ve not tried boar meat to my knowledge, but the consensus is it’s not nice!)

We went back a few days later as a family and, having run some numbers (my husband is especially vigilant about keeping our farm finances in line), decided to put a deposit on two piglets. They will be arriving in about a week, which means all hands on deck preparing for their arrival! Having initially decided to fence off a portion of the more worn cow pasture for them, my parents. who live nearby, suggested we keep the pigs in their orchard instead.

The piglets are Old Spots, a breed originally thought to be “orchard pigs.” And since the orchard already had a fence in need only of repair, we set to work:

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Grandpa took us for a ride in the bucket while he cut the pasture with the bush hog, lifting us up and we got near the trees to grab the occasional apple.

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Keeping the pigs in the orchard meant reworking some of our costs and plans. It will be a better long-term solution for raising pigs  – these ones go to the butcher in February as our family’s own supply – but we plan on getting more to begin to make the farm profitable or at least pay for some of the costs of raising our own food.

I had already decided to begin mixing my own chicken feed – another great tip from my amazing farm friend Doreen at Barrows Farm. (http://barrowsfarm.weebly.com/) With a little research I discovered that the local, organic grains I had sourced from a mill 20 minutes away would also be perfect to feed our pigs. (I also get my bread flour from these guys: cporganics.com) And since all the grains were “waste” from the mill, my animals were acting as effective recyclers too!

I love all the people I am meeting on this new life adventure. People are good, and kind, and passionate, and full of knowledge and experience. They have stories to tell, they have lives and families they are feeding even as we feed our own from the work of their hands in combination with our own. How much more meaningful is a human experience where my literal daily bread is baked through my own effort in combination with individuals I have met and talked with and learned from, rather than a bag (or baguette) I pick up off a shelf?

Our whole success here at Wensleydale cottage is woven into opportunities to give to, and receive from, those around us.

Our neighbor who has a tractor (we do not) gave up his Monday afternoon to mow the pasture perimeter for us:

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My church friend loaned me her pressure canner to make my tomato canning quicker and safer:

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And grandma and grandpa helped us plan and prepare for our pigs:

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We try to find equal opportunities to serve our friends and family too. It is a wonderful thing to have our human experience so deeply woven into the experience of those around us.

I am still learning just how much we take this for granted, even as I experience it every day. Here is an excerpt from an email my friend recently shared with me, illustrating just how much we don’t see and understand about the people who work to keep our bodies healthy and fed every day. I hope she won’t mind my sharing:

“Current auction price on feeder cattle averages about $2.00/lb. So let’s go with a 700 lb animal, that’s $1400 in cost before transportation, feeding, etc. If I keep it for six months (180 days) and it gains 2 lbs per day, it will gain 360 lbs. It will will weigh in at 1060 lbs. {That will come to about 530 lbs at butchering}. If I sell that at @2.00/lb that is $1060 in income, which is less than what is invested without input cost. At $3.00/lb, that means there is $190 of profit after initial investment.
Now, it costs me 25 cents a day per acre just for land taxes. One animal requires a minimum of 1 acre. That’s $45 right off the top before fencing, labor, water, electricity etc. At $3/lb, I’m actually making about 10 cents a day after expenses. That’s the farmers perspective… doesn’t make much sense does it?”
As a small farmer, on the surface, it certainly doesn’t make sense. Even large farms only stay afloat in large part by eeking out a profit through economies of scale. If you are a local producer, or raise your own food, you do it because you are passionate about it. Because you know that our current food system is unsustainable, unethical, and unhealthy. Don’t get me wrong: in many cases producing your own food or buying locally can be more economical than purchasing from the store. Primarily, it puts you in control of your consumption: you choose how you produce your own food, have options for what it will cost, and provide your own free labor. There is a beautiful flexibility in sourcing and producing your own food. And knowing what went into it and from where is priceless. But it’s not hugely profitable, not in the business sense. You don’t become a local food producer to make tons of money: you do it to make good food for yourself and those around you, and hopefully eek out a living in the process. Many of these farms have other sources of income to pay the bills, mine included. Why? Because the way we eat at the moment, as my friend so aptly put it, “doesn’t make sense.”
There was a time, not too long ago, when families and communities produced their own food. You ate, literally, by the sweat of your brow. In our modern society with our intensely specialized jobs and jam-packed cities, this is clearly not possible for many people. But all too many of us who are perfectly capable of lending our labor to producing some of our own sustenance and supporting those in our community who do too, choose convenience over substance. I completely understand this. The terrible irony of my buying a pizza for dinner because I’ve been too busy putting up fence around the farm, is not lost on me. And trust me, half way through my week of tomato canning, I was sure I’d made a big mistake. Surely I should just buy a jar from the store when I need it? It’s easy to be short-sighted when we get bogged down in all the effort of sourcing, preparing, and growing your own food. But now my tomatoes are canned, and for the rest of the year I can just open a can to make dinner, with no more effort than buying it. In February, we will have enough pork to feed our family for more than a year, ready to be eaten when we want it.
I love the changing seasons here in NY. Each one is distinct, with its own requirements and pleasures. So too, are there seasons of eating. There are seasons of busyness, seasons of expense, seasons of preparation and planning and work and sweat, so we can enjoy the seasons of harvest.
Now, you are probably thinking, why all this passion about what is, at the end of the day, just food? Sometimes, so do I. The other day I was watching a video about a busy mother. I was watching it thinking to myself about how much work it is just to be a parent, and adult, a wife, a member of society, without trying to run a farm too. For a moment I thought to myself “Oh no, have I made an enormous mistake?! Should I really be making this much work out of getting food?”
The fact is, it’s not just about food. Aside from all the benefits of allowing our bodies to grow and function with wholesome, unadulterated nutrition as intended by nature or God or evolution (take your pick, they all point to the same conclusion about our physical/nutritional needs)…apart from the positive contribution it makes to the livelihoods of those in our communities…considering the benefits above and beyond giving you back control of your basic needs, how they will be met, and at what cost…there is this:
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 Tonight, when my seven year old son and I went out to do the evening chores, I could see without a doubt that this is not a mistake: the fact that we have the choice to live as we do is a blessing. And as he worked without complaint, lifting heavy loads, tenderly carrying chickens to roost, asking questions and observing all the time (“Mum, why doesn’t the water in the cow trough evaporate much? Mum, aren’t cows useful, they mow your lawn! Mum, look how beautiful the sunset is over there tonight…), I realized something.
Too often we exchange opportunities to work and grow, for busyness and convenience. Life is meant to be a school, not a warehouse. And the lessons learned here can be beautiful and life-changing, if we will learn them.
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The boys dropped their backpacks in the garden and came straight off the bus to help harvest potatoes.
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A neighbor’s Birmingham roller pigeon came for a rest on my car while I packed the grain into buckets.
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A fresh delivery of grain from the mill.
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The girls checking out what we are doing, as we put up some new fence.
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 Do we really see that red jelly filling as “real fruit” and seek to get our “daily nutrients” from this stuff?
Is this really what we choose as perfection: something so impersonal and processed as to be virtually unrecognizable from the simple home comforts we used to value?
A very simple illustration of how much the prevailing culture created around us no longer makes sense.
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