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Grass-fed

 Farmer Matt sees spring in sight

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Farmer Matt sees spring in sight

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It has been a very productive winter for us. We finished our website www.greenbowfarm.com, worked on some grant proposals, but the majority of it was spent planning our next year, talking about what worked and what didn't, and the new things we want to try out and grow into over the next couple of seasons. Last year we were building up our breeding flock of sheep and figuring out if there was a market for our eggs and poultry so we haven't had much to sell this year, but we will have more than double the amount eggs and meat to sell next year at our farmers markets. Last year we tried a little bit of everything and quickly learned what we wanted to put our time and energy into the most but also keeping the key elements that create biodiversity on the farm. EggsInFridgeIn addition, we spent the winter selling at the West Seattle Farmers Market where we sold our late season pasture raised broiler chickens, all our fall lamb, and of course our pastured eggs. One place where we took a risk was investing a large amount of money to send our lamb pelts off to be tanned and turned into lambskins not really knowing if people would want to buy them. Luckily we were overwhelmed by peoples interest in them so much so that we will probably be selling the one that we were going to keep for ourselves. Believe me it's a good problem to have.  We are enormously grateful to all our wonderful customers and all the feedback they've provided us. It's really hard to imagine farming without the community we have found at farmers markets. This spring, we are getting busy on fencing with help from the NRCS and improving our pastures by finalizing our rotational grazing system. It amounts to dividing our  large pasture with two permanent fence lines. From there we will be able to section off smaller pastures using temporary fencing. This style of rotational concentrated grazing improves soil health and there by grass production. It also greatly benefits the animals by moving them to fresh ground regularly and allowing the chickens to follow cleaning up and sanitizing after the ruminants so that when the cattle and sheep return all the manure they left when they were there before has been scratched out by the poultry and returned to the soil, greatly reducing the risk of parasite infection. It is a symbiotic relationship that regularly occurs in nature and with a little help from temporary electric fencing we are able to mimic it. All of these activities builds soil, builds forage production and protects the health of the soil. In effect, we are grass farmers first and the wonderful beef, lamb, chicken and eggs are simply a byproduct.

CalvesAndChicken

Weather wise, winter didn't seem to show up until February. We had some cold spells, but mountain precipitation was absent and the threat of drought was worrying everyone in the northwest. But at the beginning of February, the high pressure ridge off the coast broke up and brought us winter. The mountains began receiving heavy snow fall. Getting over the pass every Sunday morning for market became challenging as it seemed to snow every Saturday night and into Sunday. Once, I even drove from door to door on snow, getting to the market 100 miles away  and shoveling our booth spot free of snow.

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This week our new apprentices arrive on the farm. Ryan and Crystal found us through a social media site and sent us their letter of interest. After a brief discussion, we invited them to come and stay with us for a few days as a get-to-know-you session. We hit it off famously and invited them to be here for the 2014 season. They are very serious about starting a farm of their own and its that desire to learn by doing that feels like it will be a good fit for our farm. We are very excited to have them here and their presence, I suspect will greatly improve our farm. You'll see them at the markets, so please give them a big "Hello".

Our chicks begin arriving soon and with the break in winter weather the workload will begin to increase rapidly. With a couple of nice days in March I already feel behind on all the repairs and building work that needs to be done. With a growing family and growing farm there really isn't a day that goes by that I don't feel behind on projects but we are hoping to get the boys out with us more often and have more projects be a family affair now that they are getting older.  With a toddler though, that won't always be possible so we'll also try to get some family days squeezed in hiking and camping or just exploring our valley. We have been so busy starting our farm there are still many parts of our valley and surrounding mountains we have yet to explore.

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A year in the making

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A year in the making

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First Market day #2 We just reached two milestones, the first is our one year anniversary of moving onto our farm full time, right around summer solstice. The second, which felt like it might never happen, was setting up our very first farmers market stand. This farming venture has been in the works for two years but before we moved here it was mostly reading, researching, planning, dreaming, and doing the most we could with our little backyard garden plot, sassy brood of chickens, and a couple of beehives. Even years before we dared to dream of this giant leap into farming and out of the city it feels like we were taking hundreds of small steps towards this way of life. No matter how much we planned I don't think we could have prepared ourselves for how hard this would be to pull off with three little boys under five. Sometimes it feels like we aren't accomplishing anything but keeping our heads above water and others days like when we actually had dozens of starts, veggies, eggs, and chickens to bring to market it feels like we could accomplish anything we set our minds to.

Laying Hens

I now fully understand why most farms have several generations living together to make it all work. It takes a village to raise a child but it takes even more than that to not only get a farm off the ground, but keep it running from day to day. It's just us and the boys living here but we have been fortunate to have many friends, neighbors, and strangers lend a helping over the last year. Right now we have a regular volunteer who has been helping with animal care, gardening, and with bottle feeding the calves.

Kohlrabi and Radishes

There has been a couple days off here and there to go visit other farms and run farm errands. We are going to celebrate Independence day with a trip to the Gingko Petrified Forest, which we have been meaning to get around to for two years. So we are squeezing in some family time where we can. Our visit to Jubilee Farm in Carnation, Washington was a chance to take part in their discussion on Holistic Cattle Management but it was also nice to go back to one of the farms that inspired us on this path. It was really seeing a farm do it all, both animal husbandry and growing vegetables, on a large scale and how rich that relationship can be that made everything click for us. When you see the animals give back to the farm creating healthy soil and the soil giving back to the animals growing grass and veggies for them to eat it, you start to feel as if there really is no other way to farm.

Boys at Jubilee

That being said we need to slow down, take a beat this winter and really go over everything we learned and figure out what we are good at, what we can let go of, and what we want to try to push even further for the next season. We may never be as big as Jubilee Farm or some of the other farms we love so we need to figure out how best to use our time to be sustainable long term. Who knows, we might spend the winter remodeling what was once a hair salon on the farm into a commercial kitchen and come up with yet another farm/food dream that we just can't not try and take on.

Love #2

We brought a heifer calf home that we got from one of our favorite local farms and our son has decided to name her Love. It will be two years in the making before we see any gorgeous grass fed raw milk from her so Love seems just about right. This is a labor of love, not wealth or status, or even success in the short term. If half of what we do this year is successful and we can learn even a little bit from the other half we can finally breath a sigh of relief, sit back and enjoy the short days of winter.

Sheering day

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Chicken Palace

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Chicken Palace

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What once was a vintage hay trailer has been turned into a mobile chicken tractor for our 150 Golden Sex Link laying hens. We liked the simplicity of our old chicken tractors ( City Chicken, Country Chicken) but we quickly learned that they didn't move easily over our rolling and rocky pastures. We wanted more eggs to sell to our community, so we were going to need a larger chicken tractor. Why do we bother moving the chickens around so often? Access to fresh grass and bugs makes deliciously rich deep orange yolks, and a more nutrient dense food. I would also like to think it makes for happier chickens and ultimately a more sustainable farm not being as dependent on feed. So the better question is why don't all chickens have access to fresh grass and bugs? Photo Feb 18, 4 39 34 PM

The first day of work Farmer Matt had some help from a couple of our favorite farm boys, but he was quickly abandoned for a  more interesting pasttime on the farm like making and jumping in mud puddles. Using the Hay Trailer as a foundation will really make a huge difference in where we can bring the tractor but also how much labor we will have to put into constantly moving them around to new pastures. The current chicken tractor has to be moved slowly and carefully in order to not crush any chickens and if you hit a patch of rocks everything has to stop in order to lift the tractor over the rocks or to physically remove the rocks in some cases.

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Another thing we wanted to improve upon for ease of use were nesting boxes that you could access them from outside the chicken tractor. This will make collecting eggs that much easier, and when you are collecting over a 100 eggs a day every little bit counts.

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One thing that Farmer Matt added (that I love) is folding roosting racks that hook onto the ceiling. This is especially handy when you are ready to clean the chicken tractor. One of the designs we looked at had an open floor so that the chicken manure would go directly onto the ground but it wouldn't work with the hay trailer we had found and we were worried about predators having easy access at night.

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Photo Mar 08, 12 20 34 PM

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The last couple of details were two sets of doors, one for the chickens and one for humans. Of course we provided a nice little removable ramp for the chickens to have access to all the green grass and bugs. We  close the chicken door at night in order to keep them in the tractor for moving the next morning. We're pretty happy with the results, so are these two little future farmers who did quality control inspections on every inch of the tractor. We are going to be moving the chicks into their new home very soon because they are quickly out growing their enclosure in the hoop house. We need to take advantage of the warm temps in the hoop house and get some vegetable starts going pronto!

Photo Mar 11, 5 30 47 PM

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What moves us

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What moves us

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Or what keeps us moving might be the better question to ask. When starting a farm was just a small glimmer of an idea, we had a friend over for dinner that had just started working on a farm for the first time. She said her favorite thing about farm work was all the real problems that need to be solved throughout the day. There is no busy work on a farm, it all serves a purpose. We thought we understood at the time and it sounded appealing but we didn't really grasp how much of our days would be filled with problem solving. This has partly to do with us learning how to farm at a rapid pace while at the same time building infrastructure on the farm, but it also seems like it will soon feel like the normal state of our lives as farmers, whether it be five or fifteen years from now. Applewood

I'm not complaining because I love a challenge, especially one that involves research.  Matthew (or Farmer Matt as I sometimes call him) is more motivated by learning through trial and error after some research. He has more practical knowledge than I do from years of teaching himself and learning on the job a huge array of skills. Useful skills like carpentry and mechanics all the way to the other end of the spectrum, things like how to procure taxidermy mountain goats on a deadline. So he can start a project with a basic idea of how he thinks he wants it to go and improvise. I on the other hand will want to research all problems or projects before we make a move, finding multiple resources and narrowing down which way is the best or at least what I think fits our farm the best. Having these two very different approaches makes for a ridiculous amount of talking and compromising but ultimately I think this dialog keeps us moving forward. I try to learn from his practical knowledge and admire his willingness to fail and try again until he gets something just right. While he is open to my research and opinion even if it's partly based on intuition.

Chicken Shadows

I get the same questions all the time "Do you guys have any farming experience or did you go to school for farming?"- The answer is no, no we did not. We met in art school and we have spent the last 12 years remodeling two houses, starting a small business, and obsessed with cooking from scratch and growing our own food. We felt confident we could handle the challenges of starting a farm because this is not the first challenge we have faced together. Our first challenge many years ago was Matthew teaching me how to drive stick, and I admit I was surprised he still wanted to marry me after all the weeks we spent in empty parking lots . One challenge that we still haven't figured out is our need for more hands on the farm. With three small boys under five there is just not enough time in the day. We are lucky to have found an intern for our first season who is interested in starting his own farm, so the fact that most of this first season will be all about building and learning is something of a plus. We also will have to learn to just let go of some of the more house related chores and learn to live with a fine layer of dust and dirt on everything. Luckily the boys don't seem to mind.

ChickensInGarden

It's amazing how many resources are out there for new farmers, from blogs and YouTube videos to more traditional forms like books, small publications, county conservation districts and state extension offices. One of our favorite publications right now is The Stockman Grass Farmer monthly newspaper. It has regular articles written by farming iconoclasts like Joel Salatin and Allan Nation, and they work hard to stay at the forefront of current farming issues and finding practical solutions for small farmers. They don't have an online subscription which is refreshing but we also find the many online resources a huge source of inspiration and amusement. So if on a whim you are contemplating growing your own grains and threshing them by hand like we were, there are hundreds of YouTube videos out there that show you the process in excessive detail. A couple years ago I would have told you YouTube was just a place for cat videos and performance artists who need an audience, but today I am in awe of what you can learn from it.

Treasures

Then there is just the beauty of what surrounds us. The small bits of natural treasure that the boys collect and bring to us or being dumbstruck by the enormity of the night sky. It keeps us moving forward on those days the hoop house is being battered by the wind and Lulu has gotten into the hoop house and eaten all the eggs.

FarmHouseAtNight

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Why Grass-fed?

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Why Grass-fed?

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As a family we came to appreciate the health benefits (and taste) of eating grass-fed or pasture raised meat, eggs, and dairy products but now that we are trying to produce these foods ourselves we are learning and seeing even more reasons of why animals foraging for their food on grass makes more sense than grain-fed animals. If you are unfamiliar with the health benefits of eating pasture raised eggs, meat, and dairy there is a lot of great information out there but the most concise piece I found is from Eat Wild. There are many compelling health benefits like the meat having lower and healthier fat content and there being no need for antibiotics because the animals are not crammed into feed-lots but the most significant one to me is the higher levels of Omega-3s.  Having worked in a natural food store for years I saw a dramatic increase in people being told by their doctors to take a fish oil supplements to make up for a poor diet lacking in essential fatty acids or therapeutic doses for people suffering from things like cardiovascular disease or high blood pressure. With the population growing so quickly its hard to imagine that everyone taking fish oil supplements to make up for this deficiency will be sustainable long term. Not to mention all the processing they have to do to the fish oil to take the heavy metals out. Eating grass-fed food would probably not be considered a therapeutic dose of essential fatty acids for people suffering from chronic diseases but if everyone was eating more grass-fed foods to begin with maybe we would see fewer of these diseases in the future? This is just speculation, I have no credentials to back this up but after years of reading about nutrition, talking to nutritionists, and people seeking a healthier lifestyle it all seems to lead to people going back to more traditional ways of growing and preserving foods. More grass-fed, less processed, more fermented, and less pasteurized foods leading the way to better health.

I have used the term "intensive rotational grazing" several times on the blog and realized I never really explained what it is or why it's important. Being grass-fed is important for us but the way we do it through land management is as important for the health of the animals and the health of the soil. With a "intensive rotational grazing" system your are moving you're animals to new grass more often, rotating what types of animals you have on that grass, and putting a limit to how many animals you have on any given piece of land. It's more labor intensive than traditional farming practices but you see the benefits in the health of the animals and the soil. The healthier the soil, the healthier the grass will be, the healthier the animals are, the healthier your food will be. Eggs are a perfect example. When we moved our city chickens to the country we started rotating them to new grass every week and we saw a huge improvement in the color, taste, and quality of their eggs. Even some local pasture raised eggs we bought didn't come close to the deep color and quality we started getting in our eggs after starting our rotational system. Here is a photo of two store bought egg's, the first one on the top left is a conventional egg, the one on the top right is a cage-free grain-fed with omega-3 supplementation egg, and then there is our grass-fed rotational grazing egg on the bottom.

So we have seen first hand the difference grass-fed rotational farming has on our eggs and all the lush green grass that grows once we rotate animals onto it but we keep learning even more. One of the best benefits of what some call "holistic grazing" is that it puts carbon back into the soil increasing the soils health and building topsoil. The argument that grass-fed farming could save the planet is made more persuasively at Small Footprint Family but I will leave you with one quote from the article because the claim is so amazing its hard to believe- "Converting just half the U.S. corn and soy acreage back to pasture(for holistic grazing) might cut carbon emissions by as much as 144 trillion pounds—and that’s not even counting the reduced use of fossil fuels for vehicles, machinery, fertilizers and pesticides that would also result." It's astonishing that such a simple idea like letting animals forage on the foods that they were meant to eat and live a more humane lifestyle could result in reversing the damage we have done to the planet. The more we read and learn through experience we are convinced that the path we are on is best for the health of our family, our farm, and the environment.

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Icelandic Sheep

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Icelandic Sheep

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We recently took a trip to Alderwood Ranch on Whidbey Island, run by Katie and Randy, to meet their flock of Icelandic Sheep and see if its the breed for us. We have been researching the Icelandic sheep for awhile because it is one of the oldest breeds of Sheep and has many traits that we are interested in. Its a hardy breed that can withstand colder weather which we were worried about with our lack of windbreak or buildings on the farm right now. They are good mothers, also known for prolificacy, typically having twins and triplets. The main reason we are interested in them is that they are tri-purpose which means that you can get milk, meat, and fiber from them. We don't have much infrastructure on the farm yet, besides a couple of horse shelters, so we won't milk them right away but that is an adventure we can save for the future. I don't know how long we will be able to resist having fresh milk to make our own butter and cheese with. The first ones to greet us upon our arrival were Toto and Piglet, the Wether Rams (castrated males), they are used as another form of protection on the property besides the two Llamas and the Icelandic Sheep dogs that the Alderwood Ranch breeds. Randy said they sometimes put the Wethers in with the isolated Rams to keep them in check and calm them down a bit. They loved hanging out near us while we chatted about our plans but most of the Sheep kept their distance with their lambs in tow.

We learned a lot about the breed and ended up rethinking our whole plan on how to fence the farm. Which we better get started on pronto because we have 8 Icelandic Ewes coming to the farm in less than a month! The plan is to bring in a Ram this fall, so hopefully by spring we could have a dozen or more little lambs frolicking around the farm.

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