Perspectives from the garden

I have been gardening in earnest for about 10 years. My early garden attempts largely consisted of a few raised beds and a row or two of corn.  Our previous property was 1/2 acre including the house and buildings.  Despite the limited acreage, I managed to fit a great deal of food into that garden space.

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Backyard garden 2012

I learned a TON about gardening mostly by trial and error, but I also read a lot. I bought heirloom seeds, killed a lot of plants by accident, and managed to fed the family really well. I learned about companion planting and then permaculture. My early efforts paid off and I was able to grow and preserve nearly all of the vegetables that our small family needed for the winter.

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Winter greens 2015

One of the goals of our Ohio farm is to produce the majority of our calories for the year. That’s quite a daunting challenge. Last year at this time, tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, and field peas were plentiful. This year everything is later- those same vegetables are nearly a month behind from last year.  We’ve not yet had the opportunity to indulge in fresh tomato sandwiches on homemade bread, and previously made plans to sell at local markets have proven to be a bust.

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As we turn our attention to planting our fall garden in 90 degree heat, I’ll just have to be grateful for the small bounty we have and patiently wait for the late harvest of plenty.

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Zucchini 2017

 

 

The Case for Testing

When purchasing meat from the local grocery store, consumers don’t think twice about the health of the animals before they were butchered. Most people think that the USDA and other state and local agencies involved in the meat industry ensure that our food supply is 100% free from disease. This is largely true, as meat cannot be sold to the public without state and federal inspections of carcasses.

There is a missing link, one that doesn’t necessarily put the public in danger but does speak the the ethical dilemma that producers face, one that speaks to animal health and quality of life.

Recently I purchased sheep from a breeder in Northern Ohio. We spoke several times over the phone over the course of several weeks and I inquired about the health of the animals for sale and the overall health history of his flock. Herd health is very important to me–  we are growing our flock with the goal of creating a closed, disease-free flock. I purchased 4 ewes from the breeder. As I left his farm, I observed an animal with an abscess on her jaw. When I got them home to the farm, I quarantined them and promptly made arrangements to test them for CL (Caseous lymphadenitis), OPP, and Johnes. All four tested negative to all 3 conditions,  and they were promptly removed from quarantine and introduced to the flock.

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Healthy sheep are happy sheep!

Of all the conditions small ruminants may contract, CL is of particular concern.  CL is endemic in commercial goat and sheep herds. It is difficult to eradicate from a farm once it is present. It is a bacterial infection that causes abscesses (either internal or external), which may result in the condemnation of the animal when it is processed. )USDA regulations prevent animals with obvious signs of diseases from being processed for human consumption.) While there is a myriad of reasons why sheep develop abscesses, CL is the most likely culprit. Most disturbingly, there is strong evidence that indicates that CL is a zoonotic bacteria– humans have been known to become infected, and the treatment is both expensive and painful. CL positive animals should be euthanized in my opinion, but that feeling is not universally shared.

A conversation with a local vet spoke to how diseases such as CL become so common: many producers simply accept them as a part of doing business. Although CL causes abscesses that are both debilitating to the animal and causes the meat to be condemned, most commercial livestock producers don’t purchase disease free stock when starting their herd. They don’t vaccinate their animals against viruses that are already present on their farm, further spreading it to the non-infected animals. And lastly, most do not test for the presence of the viruses or diseases. Many animal diseases allow animals to remain outwardly free from symptoms while they  quietly spread disease around the farm. Such farmers are simply passing those silent but debilitating viruses and diseases to someone else.  When a conscientious farmer finally realizes he/she has a problem, it is  often financially debilitating and labor intensive to eliminate it.

We at Tarheelbilly Farm test our breeding stock for Johnes, CL, CAE, and OPP and maintain breeding stock that is 100% disease free. We fully intend to extend this disease free status to our future cattle herd. Although we are small producers, we deeply believe that if everyone did their part to help eliminate diseases from their farm, all livestock producers (and the animals!) will benefit. When you buy from our farm, rest assured that the breeding stock and meat that you eat is disease free and humanely raised.

 

 

Small scale sorghum

Coming up in the 80s and 90s in Central NC, there were still a few old timers around who raised and processed sorghum. Before the onset of cold weather and well before hog-killing weather set in, if you were out driving in the countryside you’d likely see mules or horses tethered to poles, turning cane mills.

(photo:  Tennessee Dept. of Ag)

Unfortunately this once common tradition is now relegated to living history museums, heritage festivals, and old black and white photos.

Image Courtesy of The Great Smoky Mountains National Park Archives

Today even an enterprising family would have difficulty processing their cane should they decide to grow it– there is only one company in the US that currently makes mills. (GrainMaker in Montana.) Vintage mills are still around though, and there are sorghum enthusiasts around the country who keep the tradition alive.

(FYI– molasses is made from the sugar cane plant, grown in tropical climates. Sorghum molasses is made from sorghum, a grain plant that grows similar to corn. Tennessee and Kentucky currently lead the nation in sorghum production.)

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(Sugar Drip Sorghum June 2, 2017)

This year we planted a small 10x 20 ft experimental plot of an heirloom sorghum called Sugar Drip. The seed is somewhat expensive and a bit difficult to find. Southern Exposure Seed Exchange in Virginia is my go-to source for open pollinated heritage seed. Many varieties of old-time seeds sell out early in the season, so it’s necessary to order early to get the best selection.

I have fond memories of Grandpa Gaddy routinely lathering sorghum molasses on his biscuits each morning before he headed off to work. Hopefully we’ll have a jar or two bless our table this fall.

-Charis

 

 

 

 

 

 

Growing for market, growing for self

Even after farmers left the farm after WWII,  farmers made up a fairly substantial part of the labor force. Many urban dwellers were connected to the farm through family. It was common to know a farmer; they were cousins, grandparents, or other relatives, who more often than not lived within a day’s drive of a city. Farms were diversified; they raised several animals that provided meat and milk for the family. The farms raised a bit of produce during the summer months, further diversifying the income stream as well as providing the sustenance for the family. Food was canned or preserved for the family. Excess was sold at tailgate or framers markets.

Tarheelbilly Farm doesn’t grow a ton of food for the local farmer’s market and community. We decided that it wasn’t financially workable to attempt to do so, and have focused on growing for our family and will sell the excess only after we’ve fed ourselves first. Why not feed the world? With so many going hungry in our community, why won’t we jump in and work voraciously to feed all of Southern Ohio? Why not compete?

The truth is, if we tried, we’d go broke trying to do so. An alarming small number of people who make their living as farmers (roughly 1% of the population of the US).  Most farms are no longer able to support families as the sole source of income.

Sources of household income for beginning and established family farms, 2012

Source: USDA. Note: this information is compiled based upon US Census data. 2012 is the lastest date of compilation.

Farmers who grow for the commodity market face an even more difficult series of impossible choices in order to be profitable. (Commodity farms produce products that make up the backbone of the American food supply. Corn, soybeans, and wheat are some of the major commodity crops that the US produces. Beef, pork, etc. are also considered commodities.) The profit margins are so small that many farmers, even large ones, LOSE money or barely break even. Just three companies control over two-thirds of US soybean processing. Five control 85 percent of it. The picture isn’t much better in corn. With so few options for farmers to sell their products, they are at the mercy of tightly controlled market forces and are marginalized at every phase of the production process.

From “Ag Cycles: A Crop Marketing Perspective,” by Chad Hart of Iowa State University
What does this mean in real terms? Well, it means that most farms are NOT profitable, and many of those who are remain marginally so. Efforts to recruitment will remain fruitless as long as farmers must work two jobs in order to afford to farm.
We at Tarheelbilly Farm feel the pressure, too. We pay retail prices and taxes for all costs of production– feed, fuel, tools, jars, labels– the list is endless. We sell our free range eggs for $3.00 per dozen when others sell theirs for $2.00. We have seen them for as low as $0.50 per dozen on sale at the grocery store. As it stands, we lose money on each dozen. The true cost of production is closer to $4.00 per dozen, but few around here are willing to pay that. (I won’t say ABLE– there are rivers of Mountain Dew and islands of pizza here in the Tristate, so I do believe that it comes down to a matter of personal priorities.)
There are too many broken parts to our food supply chain that they cannot possibly be covered in a blog post. Suffice to say, we hope that better policy making at the state and federal level will make it easier for farms to get good food into the hands of people who seek it. Until then, we’ll continue to be a small, diversified farm with small, artisan level goals. We’ll raise a few things well, and sell directly to those who seek quality and appreciate the care that we give the plants, animals, and land that we’ve been blessed to steward. We’ll leave feeding the world to the big boys.
-Charis

Price List/Product Availability

  • Prices effective 4/30/2017
  • Pastured chickens will be available for pickup on June 6th and June 13th. Our chickens have been fed organic or non-GMO feed since hatching. Chickens are priced at $4.50 per pound. If 10+ are purchased, the price is $4.25 per pound. A deposit will hold your birds, with the balance due at pickup. Check, money order, PayPal, and cash are accepted. Please email with your preferred pickup date. Delivery to Ashland, KY or Huntington, WV are possible with prior arrangement.
  • Free range eggs from happy chickens: $3.00 per dozen
  • Coming soon: heirloom and chemical free produce and honey!
  • Fall 2017: lamb
  • Sold out: maple syrup

Feeding pastured poultry–organic feed in Southern Ohio?

The demand for poultry raised humanely and with non-GMO or organic feed is rising. Many folks inquire about our feeding or handing practices, and are rightly concerned about how their food is raised. Recent outbreaks of avian flu (Tennessee, China) continue to fuel concerns about domestic poultry production.

We have raised pastured poultry off and on for 8 years. We raised several small batches of the most common commercial breed of chickens, the Cornish Cross, but ultimately decided that those birds were not for us. They grow rapidly and are able to convert feed to meat incredibly efficiently, reaching slaughter weight in 6-8 weeks, but their growth rate always seemed unnatural to us. Due to their rapid growth, the breed was prone to debilitating leg problems, and heart attacks. They also lacked the foraging qualities we prized, and were unable to reproduce naturally.

Apparently we weren’t the only small producers who had concerns about the Cornish Cross. Due to the growth of the pastured poultry movement, hatcheries began to develop slower growing varieties of meat birds that were still capable of reaching slaughter size in 10-12 weeks. The last 2 batches of meat chickens that we’ve raised have been Red Rangers and Freedom Rangers, and we’ve been pleased with the results.

Sourcing organic or non-GMO feed has proven to be quite a challenge in Southern Ohio. While there are many sources for local corn and soybeans, there doesn’t seem to be the same availability of organic feed. Producers with the acreage and ability raise non-GMO feed for their own animals, but the lack of availability of open-pollinated seed combined with the perceived convenience of glyphosate-ready corn compels farmers to simply raise what seed is available, using the same methods their neighbors use. Swimming against the tide is neither encouraged nor discouraged– it’s simply harder to find what is needed.

The difficulty in sourcing feed directly impacts the consumer, since feed represents the largest factor in the price of meat. If the farmer is able to source feed inexpensively, the meat is less expensive. If the feed is expensive, meat is in turn, expensive. (Compounding the issue is the lack of organic certified processors, a requirement for USDA organic certification, but that’s a post for another time.)

In keeping with our goals for a more Biodynamic™ farming model, we plan to raise heirloom, open-pollinated field corn, sunflower seeds, and grain for our chickens. In the interim, we feed USDA certified Nutrena NatureWise™ Organic starter/broiler feed. We will transition to RK Non-GMO feed, which is slightly lower in protein, for the last 4 weeks before processing. They will be out on pasture 100% of the time; insects and worms provide the requisite balance of protein necessary for their continued growth.

Although there are challenges to raising pasture raised chickens organically, farmers who are committed to these practices will find a way to provide it for the community.

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Maple: From tap to jar

Making maple syrup is a major enterprise at THB Farm. Like many agriculture enterprises, making maple syrup depends on the weather. A successful maple season requires cold nights and warm days. This February, the warmest in many years in Southern Ohio, shortened the season dramatically. The syrup season in Ohio generally starts in late January/early February and lasts until the weather is too warm.

Ben spent many hours this fall mapping and setting up the sugar bush at THB Farm. The maple trees are connected by a system of tubing that allows the sap to travel from the individual trees to a bulk collection tank in the barn.  The taps do not hurt the trees but do allow the clear sap to be collected without hanging buckets on the trees.

 

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tree tap

Each tree receives one tap, which is connected to the clear tubing that takes the sap to the main (blue) line.

 

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main line

The sap then flows from the blue tubing into a bulk collection tank.

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collection tank

When a sufficient amount of sap is collected, it is pumped from the collection tank to an overhead tank, referred to as a head tank, positioned so that the sap can be pumped directly into the stove.

 

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head tank

From the head tank, the sap gravity fed into a reservoir on the side of the stove.

 

 

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 Maple stove

 

 

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feeding the stove

The boiling process is as much of an art as it is a science– knowing when the sap has fully cooked to syrup requires careful attention to detail and watching the process to prevent the syrup from scorching.

 

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checking the syrup’s progress
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100% Ohio Maple Syrup

After several hours of boiling, the sap is cooked down to the thickness of syrup. To ensure consistency, the conversion of sap to syrup is determined by a hydrometer. If necessary,  the syrup is finished on a the precise heat of a gas stove and then bottled.

When the weather begins to warm, the season must end. The taps are removed from the trees, which will heal over several weeks. While we maple lovers don’t think of maple syrup as a seasonal item or enterprise, it very much is. Enjoy your syrup in season and while you can. When it’s gone, it’s gone!

-C

 

Big goat, small goat, medium goat: Dwarfs, minis, and standard sized goats

Goats are probably the most spirited animal that we keep here at Tarheelbilly Farm. We maintain a small herd of registered goats, and have experimented with several breeds over the past several years. Currently we have mini-Nubians, a standard Nubian, a Saanen, and Nigerian Dwarfs. When we started keeping goats 8 or so years ago, Nigerians were on the ALBC’s list of threatened livestock.  Given our interest in preserving breeds along with our desire to have a backyard milking source, we started with Nigerian doelings and grew from there.

 

Over the years, we’ve secured great genetic pedigrees for our Nigerians, but have not been enthusiastic about their ability to produce the amount of milk we need for our family. Their milk is creamy and sweet, and they have great personalities. We did acquire a standard Nubian and a Saanen to provide enough milk for cheesemaking.

 

Two years ago we decided to use our Nigerian Dwarf bucks with our full sized does to see whether minis more milk than Nigerians. This year we finally have a doe in milk to compare our Nigerians to, and the difference is amazing.IMG_2213

 

My first freshener Dwarfs typically produced a pint to a pint and a half per day. My mini-Nubian is producing a quart to a quart and a half per day. The Dwarf stands 21 inches at the shoulder; the mini-Nubian is 23 inches at the shoulder. (For comparison, the Nubian and Saanen are roughly 27 inches at their shoulders.)

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So, what does this mean? If you are considering a goat for backyard milk production, a standard-Dwarf  (mini-Nubian/mini-Saanen) cross may work well for you. Nigerian Dwarfs are wonderful animals with great temperaments and good milk capacity for people who don’t use a ton of milk. High production strains are out there (THB Dwarfs all came from * milking lines and creameries), but they may require great feed or high inputs to produce what an average mini will produce.

And then there is this

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Underneath all of this water is our hay field/pasture. The creek that runs along the front of our property. Seasonal flooding is a real obstacle to maintaining consistent pasture for year round grazing…

Soil health, or will anything grow here?

I read a lot. I majored in Russian literature in college, a fact that has had zero to do with the various occupations that I’ve had as an adult, but it did prepare me to read and retain lots of details. Though I still occasionally read fiction, most of my spare time is used reading technical manuals and farming related texts. Since moving to the farm, I’ve spent a lot of time reading various agronomy texts (soil science for the uninitiated). You would be surprised how much animal (and people) health is related to soil  health.

Back in November, I took a dozen or so soil samples to our local Soil and Conservation office to be analyzed by a local agronomy lab. The results give a pretty good indication of soil health– levels for organic matter, ph, and micronutrients are contained on the report, along with recommended levels for each.

Now that you have the information about your pasture or field, what do you do with it?!! According to most old timers and farming professionals that I’ve spoken to, most fields can use more lime. What does lime do– well, lots of things, most of which are complicated and beyond the scope of a blog post. Suffice to say, lime changes the ph of the soil and can make certain nutrients more bioavailable for plants to grow. In our case, the soils here in Southern Ohio are mostly clay, which tends to be more alkaline.

What to plant? Well, that depends. I have small ruminants, goats and sheep. Sheep thrive on pastures with legumes and clover. Some species of clover dies out and must be reseeded, either manually or just through pasture management. In Joel Salatin’s “Salad Bar Beef,” he offered that he has been able to rejuvenate pastures solely through intensive grazing, saying that seed remains viable and dormant for many years and proliferate when soil conditions are right. I do not doubt such claims, but I don’t own cattle, so I’ll have to bite the bullet and purchase seed to get started. Besides, there are a few species that I would like to have in the pasture for bees/pollination in addition to feed for the sheep.

I am not ignoring the goats, but they are browsers and not grazers. Though we purchase hay for them and purchase feed, I plan to seed lespedeza as a natural parasite inhibitor. We’ll have to see whether it works.