Keepin' Up with LIG
Wednesday
Oct032012

Let It Grow's Pastured Chickens

If you’ve been following us for a while, you’re aware that one of our first enterprises on our farm is pastured poultry, specifically laying hens.  Several years back, we had a notion to get some chickens and were inspired by the many backyard coops that we saw on Raleigh’s Henside the Beltline Tour d’Coop.  Using that inspiration, last year we built our own coop, raised eight chicks in a makeshift brooder in our guest room (not recommended!), and ended up with six hens in our urban backyard (two of the chickens ended up being roosters, who are not allowed in the Raleigh city limits).  It was a wonderfully educational and entertaining experience that I would recommend to anyone.  It was a logical step to expand our chicken enterprise as we moved to the country and started our farm.  In this post, we hope to lay out the foundation for why we believe pasture-raised poultry is the healthier, more responsible, more fulfilling, and certainly the more delicious path in raising chickens for eggs or for meat.

The first issue that we’ll address is nutrition and taste.  When thinking only about the eggs available in grocery stores from concentrated animal feed operations (CAFOs), it’s easy to conclude that an egg is an egg is an egg.  However, evidence from sources ranging from in-depth nutritional analyses to your very own taste buds show that when comparing eggs from confinement operation to eggs from pasture-based systems, the eggs from pastured hens have clear advantages.  The simplest and most obvious advantage is evident the second you crack open an egg from a pasture-raised hen.  The yolks are darker and the whites are stiffer.  Cook it up and the flavor is a full and rich, unlike the bland and watery tendencies of the grocery store alternatives.  Beyond the visual and taste evidence, there is pretty clear science to back this up.  Studies from Mother Earth News and Penn State University support that eggs from pastured hens contain more vitamin A, vitamin E, and omega-3 fatty acids and less cholesterol and saturated fat.  Still not convinced?  Come on over for breakfast sometime and we’ll cook up some sunny-side-ups or some eggs benedict and we’re pretty sure you’ll leave convinced that nothing will beat an egg from a happy, pasture-raised LIG hen. 

As with all of the food we raise, there are issues beyond flavor and nutrition that drive our decisions on how to grow our plants and raise our animals.  We strongly believe that the modern industrialized food system, for all of its amazing production and efficiency, completely ignores the moral and ethical care of the animals that are raised for our consumption.  Understand that we enjoy meat.  In fact, we have 20 chickens and an entire pig in our freezer at this very moment.  However, we believe that intertwined with the privilege of enjoying meat and animal products is the great responsibility of compassionate care for the animals.  Pets and livestock animals are sentient beings that we have domesticated over time for our pleasure and benefit.  As a general rule, if we choose to take another creature under our care, we also choose to be responsible for it’s well-being.  By extension, if we choose to consume an animal, we bear some responsibility in how that animal is raised.  Unfortunately, without digging for hidden camera videos online, it is difficult to know exactly how livestock animals are raised anymore.  Besides being highly productive and efficient, the modern food system is designed to be anything but transparent.  While the packaging of our food still boasts bucolic scenes of pastures and fences and barns and contented animals, almost none of our food comes from that setting anymore.  Any of the products that you may buy in a grocery store that come from pigs or chickens come from pigs or chickens that are packed onto the slat or wire floors of confinement houses and only see a barnyard through the ventilation holes of the mega-capacity trailers that they’re loaded onto to take to the slaughterhouse.

We can observe an animal’s well-being and contentment through their natural behaviors.  From their first days of life, it’s rather easy to observe what chickens like to do.  They love to scratch in the dirt for seeds, bugs, or other goodness.  They love to take dust baths, both to cool off in hot weather and to ward off skin and feather pests and parasites.  They love to forage for food, munching on grass and clover and excitedly chasing bugs across their pen.  Though I’m not sure I’d argue that they are the smartest animals out there, they are curious and engaging.  Below is a video of our chickens exhibiting many of these behaviors and just, well, being chickens: 

Alternately, consider a hen’s plight in a confinement egg production facility.  Can they scratch?  No.  Dust bathe?  No.  Forage?  No.  Be curious?  No.  In fact, their lack of things to curiously investigate often leads hens to peck at each other, often to the point of serious injury or death.  How does the industry deals with that?  De-beaking.  De-beaking is just about what it sounds like…take a hot iron and cut off the chicken’s beak.  They are allotted a space about the size of a piece of notebook paper and crammed into cages with multiple other hens.  There is a waterer, a trough for food, and a trough for eggs, and that is all that the hens know for their entire lifetimes.  The tight confinement of these settings of increases unsanitary conditions and promotes injuries that are left untended.   The following video is about 9-miutes long, but it provides a very good overview of the conditions that surround the eggs available to us in the grocery store:

One additional thing to note…some eggs in grocery stores maybe labeled as “cage free” or “free range,” but it is important to know how those terms are defined by the industry.  The USDA defines “free range” as being allowed access to the outside, which can mean big cage-free confinement houses with little doors that lead to bare dirt or concrete pads.  As you can see in the video of our chickens, there is a bit of a difference between their system and ours, which is why we use the term “pasture-raised” in describing our hens.

Ultimately, you as the consumer have the choice.  While our modern food system is very large and seemingly unavoidable, you truly can vote with your pocketbook on issues like this by purchasing LIG (or any other small, sustainable farmer’s) eggs instead of the eggs at the grocery store.  Are they more expensive?  Yes, they likely are.  However, consider the unseen costs that come with the confinement system that we looked at above.  Furthermore, as a food, it is clear that pasture-raised eggs are the better-tasting and more nutritious choice.  Additionally, you are more than welcome to come out and visit our happy, healthy, pastured hens anytime you wish and see for youself where your eggs come from.

We encourage you to comment to this post or send us an email with your thoughts on the matter.  Thanks for reading and for supporting LIG!

Tuesday
Aug072012

We'll Get By with a Little Help from Our Friends

A little while ago, I read the book “Outliers” by Malcom Gladwell.  For those of you who haven’t read the book, I highly recommend it.  In the book, Gladwell makes a compelling point, through various stories about individuals and groups of people, about how much of a group project success is.  An individual’s success is not just about her/his own efforts but it’s because of the contributions of lots of different people and lots of different circumstances.

It is with these thoughts about success and how we as individuals achieve success that I write this post.  As we begin our farming venture, the outpouring of generosity, support, kindness, and care overwhelms me.  My cousin, Kristin, volunteers on the farm every Friday...for free.  I have to threaten her for her to even accept gas money. Our friend, Dane, who lives in Richmond, has come down many weekends to help with various farm tasks.  His farming know-how, endless energy, amazing dog, King Ghidorah, and great sense of humor always arrive at just the right moment.   Michael’s family traveled from PA and while they were here, they helped to build shelves in our barn, weed, and work on the tractor. 

To aid in our fence-raising we have had many much-needed helpers join us including a co-worker’s husband, Mike; Kristin’s boyfriend, Adam; and my brother, Christopher.  Would you believe it that even the Priest at our church offered to strap on some boots and come help drill some holes!  (Jim, if you are reading this, don’t be surprised if we take you up on your offer!)

There are some folks who cannot help on the farm in person have helped monetarily.   There is no way that we would be able to be where we are today without the investment from our family.  We have not had to ask for any money; it was offered to us.  To those folks, THANK YOU so much!

In addition to our friends and family, the generosity from our neighbors has been unbelievable.  The gentleman who farms all the land around us, Mr. Weaver, has disked our entire acreage…twice...and accepted no payment.  Mr. Weaver and his daughter, Susan, have been there for us every step along the way.  Even though I imagine they are thinking to themselves “Those crazy hippy kids,” they have been an invaluable source of support, help, and advice.  Another valuable asset and friend to us has been a long-time family friend, Danny Hinnant.  His father and my grandfather were dear friends.  Danny has been so generous with lending us anything he has that we need.  One night Michael came home to find Danny weed-eating our ditch...in the pouring rain!  There have been many other neighbors that have assisted in one way or the other.  Their company, time, and generosity are so incredibly touching.  While there are perks of city life that we miss from time to time, the generous and welcoming spirit of our friends and neighbors here is beyond anything either of us has experienced in any place we’ve lived before.

Over the last several weeks, we've been greatly encouraged by all of the support and patronage we've received from the customers and fellow vendors at the Clayton Farm & Community Market as well as our colleagues at Johnston County Schools.  While we have our own personal motivations to follow this path, it helps to know that there are people out there who appreciate it!

So that’s how we are building our farm…with help from our family and friends, one seed, one row, one post, one hoed weed at a time.  There are days when we are so tired we can’t think and when the steps between where we are and where we hope to be seem innumerable.  However, the support of our family, friends, and neighbors seems to make the load lighter and put the wind at our backs.  My emotions overcome me when I think about all the help family, friends, and neighbors have given us.  There are times when I feel I am imposing on others lives (or bank accounts), but then I think that this is how we have become who we are.  No one has gotten to the place they are in life without help.  So, we are happy to accept the help that people offer us and hope that one day we will be able to help return the favor in some way.

Monday
Jul232012

Our first market day, continued heat, fence-raising, and more!

Market Debut - We're starting to feel like real-life farmers!  On Saturday we were able to make our first trip to market with our produce.  We bought a tent and tables, loaded up the truck, and drove to the Clayton Farm and Community Market.  We are glad to be a part of the Clayton market and enjoyed meeting many new customers and other vendors on Saturday.  It was nice to be welcomed in to such a friendly community group committed to offering Johnston County a market for locally grown and produced food and goods.  We will be at the Clayton market from 9:00-2:00 every Saturday through the end of October.  Come out and see us and all of the other vendors!

More Heat - Since our last post about the interminable heat wave of 2012, we've seen precious little relief.  We had part of a week of welcomed milder weather (upper-80s, cloudy, rain), but now are returning to the mid-and upper-90s for at least another week.  I received an email last week from Mike Lanier, an extension agent with the Orange County Cooperative Extension, that included a spreadsheet with some data he had collected on summer high temperatures by decade going back to the 1950s.  This spreadsheet shows a pretty dramatic scatter of weather patterns from the last half-century-plus.  I can pass along the data if you are interested, but I'll give a summary of the highlights for those not as enamored by data as I am.  The data is broken down by number of days with a high temperature in the ranges of 90-94 F, 95-99 F, 100-104 F, and 105-109 F.  The temperatures were measured at RDU airport and taken from the state climate office and Weather Underground's weather almanac data.  The data shows a clear trend upward from the 1960s to the present, with the heat of this decade on pace to dwarf any of the previous six.  Granted, we are only two and half years in to this decade, so a few cool summers could balance it out a bit.  However, the magnitude of the heating over the past few years, at least in terms of relatively recent history, has been quite impressive.  The key pieces of data from the table that illustrate this most clearly to me are the following:

  • Average number of days 90+ per year by decade:  1950s - 45.5, 1960s - 22.4, 1970s - 20.5, 1980s - 35.2, 1990s - 36.7, 2000s - 49.4, 2010-present - 82.6
  • Average number of days 95+ per year by decade:  1950s - 11.2, 1960s - 1.6, 1970s - 2.7, 1980s - 2.7, 1990s - 9.2, 2000s - 14, 2010-present - 41.1

Now, unless you're a climatologist, I'm not interested in starting a climate change discussion with this.  However, I feel safe in simply concluding what the raw data shows...it's really hot here, and it's pretty rapidly been getting significantly hotter.

Fence-Raising - We have made the first small steps of putting up our perimeter fence!  Besides the ages-old adage that good fences make good neighbors, the importance of us getting up a perimeter fence is that it is one of the major prerequisites for us to have before we start raising large animals.  We don't want anything getting in and messing with our animals, and we don't want any adventurous goats or furious boars befouling our neighbor's crops or yards.  We went through several different iterations of plans to get the fence up, but decided, like many things on the farm, that it would be best to do it ourselves.  Doing it ourselves accomplishes several things:  a.) it allows us to learn an important skill that we don't have (in a later post, I'll tout the genius of the design of an H-brace!), b.) it's cheaper, and 3.) hard work builds character.  I always like to remind myself of that last one whenever we're seconds away from losing all morale.

Anyways, with the help of our All-Star farmhands Dane and Adam and a pretty impressive 2-person auger, we have staked out the entire perimeter fence and have one 350' section of fence posts set.  There is much work yet to be done over the coming months and we are entertaining the notion of having an all-hands-on-deck fence-raising party sometime in the near future.  Any volunteers would, of course, be compensated in a banquet of free food and beverages after the day's work, along with a bonfire and a patch of grass on which to pitch a tent.  Let us know if you might be interested in something like that, and we'll keep everyone updated on how plans progresses.

Market Table Emails - If you're on our email list (sign up on the right if you're not!), you know that we will be sending out weekly emails with a list of our available produce for that week.  If you're interested in buying anything, just reply to the email or call/text us and we will make arrangements to get it to you.  This week's Market Table will be sent out just as soon as I get this post finished.  

Sunday
Jul012012

The Heat Wave of 2012, Firstfruits, and More

The Heat Wave of 2012 – As I’m sure everyone as noticed, it’s been a little hot outside.  We’ve cleared 100 for three days now, with another likely tomorrow and mid- to high-90s throughout the week.  Yesterday and Friday, they tied the record for hottest temperature on record at RDU of 105.  Obviously, temperatures like this aren’t good on a lot of counts.  First, it makes it a little tough to get much work done during the meat of the day.  It’s hot for anyone, but my Pennsylvanian/German blood wasn’t made to see 105.  Secondly, most of the vegetables we’re growing, even though they’re summer crops, can only take heat to a certain extent.  Tomatoes and many other vegetables won’t set fruit at temperatures this high.  The upside of having everything be late this year is that a lot of things aren’t in bloom yet.  But that doesn’t mean that another heat wave won’t be right around the corner.  Finally, the chickens…chickens, like dogs, don’t sweat.  They regulate their body temperature through panting, drinking, and lifting/flapping their wings.  For that reason, our #1 priority and duty for the last few days has been keeping all of our chickens alive.  We’ve been trying to spray down the dirt in their shaded areas and give them fresh, cool water in their drinkers every two hours.  We’ve also gotten two box fans, one for each flock.  Unfortunately, we’ve had two casualties.  We found one of our young flock dead on Friday morning, before the brutal heat fully set in.  We’re not sure if the heat was the cause or if it was something random.  Today, we lost McFly, one of our backyard laying flock who we’ve had since last year.  We also had to scramble to implement emergency measures to save two of the other backyard girls who were behaving very strangely and obviously not coping with the heat too well.  Losing any animals is not fun, but the loss of one of our backyard flock is tough.  Those girls are more pets to us than they are farm animals, and with only six of them, we have gotten to know their individual personalities quite well.  Today was a decidedly bad day.  Rest your chicken soul, McFly…

Firstfruits – On a more positive note, over the last week, we’ve gathered our first (small) harvests of tomatoes and potatoes.  The tomatoes are an early variety from Burpee that yield small red fruits ranging from about twice the size of a golf ball to baseball size.  Some of the Amish Paste tomatoes are coloring up, so they should be just around the corner.  Amish Paste are a roma- or paste-type tomato.  They are ideal for saucing, as they have a higher ratio of flesh to seeds.  The flavor is fantastic and they work for anything else you would like to use them for in addition to sauce.  We had planted a large number of Amish Pastes because we love using them for sauce so much, but we lost many in our showdown with early blight.  Hopefully we’ll still have enough to share.  The other heirloom varieties (Cherokee Purple, Brandywine, Kellogg’s Breakfast) have green fruits but we’re several weeks out from them being ready.   In the potato department, we’ve got some red-skinned, white-fleshed potatoes dug and more ready to be dug soon.  Soon after those, we have four other varieties that will be coming up:  German Butterball (brown skin, yellow flesh), Yukon Gold (brown skin, yellow flesh), Mountain Rose (red skin, red flesh), and All Blue (blue skin, blue flesh).  My original plan was to have red, white, and blue potatoes ready for 4th of July potato salad.  We’ll likely be a bit late for the Fourth, but hey, isn’t any day a good day for red, white, and blue potato salad?  All of the potato varieties are delicious and the reds and blues are neat because they keep their color really well during cooking.  Some colored potatoes will dull to a drab grey after cooking, but these come out just about as bright as when they are raw, making for some colorful cooking.

Orders – With out vegetables now yielding, we’re only a short time away from selling the fruits of our labor!  We’re anticipating being able to offer some potatoes and tomatoes for the week after 4th of July.  We will also have some other things available in small quantities (basil, garlic).  The squash, cucumbers, beans, and peppers are still a ways away, but you can look forward to them by late July or early August.  The way order will work for now is this…we will send out an email at the beginning of the week with what we have available.  You can place your order by replying to the email and we will arrange a pickup time and place.

Thursday
Jun142012

Summer!

Well, yesterday was my last day of work for the school year, so beginning today, we can stop trying to squeeze farming into the early morning and evening hours.  We've accomplished a fair amount in the last few months, but there is so much yet to do.  As we delve deeper and deeper into this endeavor, the more apparent it is that working with the land, plants, and animals has many lessons to teach...not only the biological, botanical, and ecological lessons; and not only the social, cultural, and economical lessons of agriculture; but also, and perhaps most importantly, there is a deep spiritual and philosophical thread running through the heart of the act of working the land.  It seems that at every turn we encounter situations that spur us to reach deep for patience, that force us to accept things that cannot be changed, and that strengthen our resolve to make the slow, steady steps toward acquiring the wisdom, skills, and knowledge that come only with season after season and year after year of acquainting ourselves with these things that we've grown so far from.  Not all the lessons are hard, however; the early morning sunrises, the pride in the first tiny green tomatoes, a cold beer to wash down the satisfied exhaustion of a day's work, and the marvel of chicken behavior all serve to re-affirm our faith in the goodness of the world.

A quick summary of what's been going on:

  • Water!  On Monday, our three month saga with Progress Energy finally ended as they installed the meter for our electric service and we were able to turn the valve and run our drip irrigation system for the first time.  Our friend Dane ventured all the way down from Richmond to help us set up the irrigation system this past weekend.  For those unfamiliar, drip irrigation systems run water into hoses that run the length of the vegetable rows.  Water drips out tiny slits in the hose spaced at 12" intervals, delivering water slowly and precisely to the roots of the plants.  With this, we will (hopefully) never again have to get up at 5:00am to fill a water tote and hand water plants!  No pictures yet, but be assured that our plants are exceedingly happy.
  • Vegetables...  The vegetable scene is a mixed bag at the moment.  We have the first round of all of our late summer vegetables in.  Moving and getting everything set up this spring didn't allow us to get the summer crop in as early as we normally would, but thanks to North Carolina's long growing season, we were still able to get some things in the ground to be ready for the end of summer.  The onions and potatoes that we planted earlier in the spring are growing great.  We actually pulled a few red and yellow onions earlier this week and snaked a few red skin potatoes out of the ground today.  Several weeks back, we and our friend Adam (pictured to the left, along with his infectiously exuberant transplanting spirit) transplanted 280 healthy, green, lush tomato plants.  However, today only about 90 remain.  Within days of transplanting, many of the tomatoes wilted and died.  We think that our soil harbors an abundance of the fungi that cause early blight and/or collar rot in tomatoes.  We're trying to cull the ones that look diseased and encourage the ones that still look healthy, so hopefully we'll still have at least a modest tomato harvest.  Some of the peppers and eggplant are doing well, others are not.  Those problems are on me for some seed-starting and greenhouse issues which I will resolve next year.  We have several varieties of beans growing well.  We had poor germination on some of the corn, squash, and cucumbers that we planted, but we're replanting and should have a good stand coming on soon.   
  • Chickens!  The chickens are as happy as can be in their new home.  We were able to finish up the mobile coop last week and they wasted no time in making themselves at home.  I'm sure that everyone has been bubbling over with anticipation at the winner of the "Name Our Mobile Coop" contest.  It's been a hard decision.  I'm not even sure we've officially made one yet.  There were many, many great suggestions, and we whittled the field down to the best three, with those that proposed it in parentheses:  "Cluck Wagon" (our idea, inspired in part by a suggestion from Don Wellons), "Coop de Ville" (Andrew Lang, Dane Anderson), and "Mercedes Henz" (Thomas Taloe).  My immediate joy and laughter at hearing the suggestion of "Mercedes Henz" has kept it as my personal favorite, but the others are certainly worthy as well.  Upon hearing "Mercedes Henz", I also immediately thought of Janis Joplin's acapella "Mercedes Benz", which just about sealed it.  If anyone has a spare Mercedes hood ornament laying around, let us know.  Unless we change our mind before we paint the name on the side of the coop, Thomas, you can claim your prize of a dozen eggs from happy LIG chickens the next time we see you.

Upcoming events in the Let It Grow world:

  • Vegetables - We should have potatoes for sale by early- or mid-July, with tomatoes, beans, and squash soon to follow.  Once we have produce for sale, I will be sending out a weekly email with the availability for that week.  We will take orders and make plans for pick-ups and drop-offs on a case-by-case basis at first.  Once we have a decent amount of things available, we will also be starting a roadside stand at the house.  Depending on supply and demand, we may also show up at one of the small local farmers markets.  
  • Fence-raising - In the not-too-distant future, we will be building a perimeter fence around the farm, in order to keep in our animals and keep out other animals that might find our vegetables and animals as attractive and delicious as we do.  More updates on that soon...

I'm determined to post once a week now that I'm off work for the summer, so you'll hear from me again soon.

Take care,

Michael