Real Family Farming in Tionesta, PA
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It's another beautiful fall day here. As always, it's been yet another busy week on the farm. I've got some fresh horseradish roots, dug from the herb garden today, that I'll be processing as soon as I'm done blogging. Then tonight Dan and I will finish the sausage making process we started yesterday so we will have fresh hot and mild Italian sausage for sale on Saturday. The roasts and pork chops were wrapped up last night. It's been a busy week for meat, as we also sent 3 lambs for processing. Our processor, Hirsch's Meats, cuts and wraps them for us, so it's a bit of a break in work compared to the other meats after the animals are loaded onto the trailer. We're fully stocked on more lamb chops, ground lamb, and stew meat, plus we'll be offering small shoulder roasts as well this time.
The main job today, however, will be processing chicken. We do this entirely by hand here at the farm. We joke that my title in this department is "Head Chicken Plucker & Quality Control." Dan does the knife work and I pull the feathers by hand after the birds are scalded in 160 degree water. It's a labor intensive job. Some day, we've talked about investing in a plucking machine that would speed up the process and allow us to sell more birds over the course of the year. But today, our Friday night will be spend covered in wet, smelly feathers. (Can you tell it's not my favorite job on the farm?)
We charge $2.25/lb for our birds. Even at that price, they are definitely not our most profitable meat product. We use the Cornish-Rock crosses, and can't breed them ourselves, so we purchase the chicks. Unlike our beef and lamb, you need to supplement the pasture diet with quite a bit of high protein feed, which we purchase. It may be surprising, but we could cut that feed bill significantly by feeding antibiotics to our birds for their entire lives. We pay MORE for feed without added medicine. It comes as a surprise to some of our
farm stand's visitors that we charge the price we do per pound for our chicken.
Eye-rolling or an exasperated “Why so much?” aren't unheard of.
When a grocery store can run a special for $.79 a pound, it might
seem to some like price gouging. However, we make less money on
chicken than any of our other meat products and most of the price is
a reflection of what you aren't getting.
You aren't getting corporate
America. Four big companies are responsible for 95% of the chicken
produced in America today. Four. While they subcontract the daily
dirty work to smaller farms, watch the movie Food Inc. and you'll get an
idea of what that is like...many of those family farms are going into
debt to keep up with company regulations while the corporate CEO's
make money hand over fist. The companies like to call it “vertical
integration” and proclaim it as a model of efficiency. Other
points of view compare it to indentured servitude. And that also
doesn't take into consideration how your tax dollars subsidize cheap
corn and oil, creating an artificially low price for a finished
product like chicken.
You aren't getting growth
enhancing chemicals and harmful additives. Organic chicken feed isn't
cheap. Apparently arsenic is. While arsenic is known as a deadly
poison, our government allows big chicken plants to feed it to their
birds. At low levels, it gives the meat a nicer, healthier
appearance. (Ironic, huh?) While lots of packages of commercial
chicken claim to be hormone-free, look at the fine print and you'll
see the only reason why is because the FDA prohibits it.
You also aren't getting
antibiotics from our birds. This is necessary at Concentrated Animal
Feeding Operations since in close confinement conditions, a sick bird
can spread its disease to literally hundreds of other birds before
anyone can see symptoms. It spreads so fast because of the
overcrowded conditions the birds live in- the axiom of CAFO's is that
“room to turn around is room enough” for the animals. We prefer
to give our birds room to run, scratch, peck and spread their wings.
We also prefer to give our birds fresh air and sunlight. A
commercially-raised bird literally never sees the light of the sun
its entire life. Not once. This is also true for most so called
“free range” birds- the doors to the outside runs are generally
kept locked until the last 2 weeks or so of the birds' lives. By
that time, they are slow and have difficulty moving around, not to
mention no incentive to move very far from the feeders. Many of those runs are also small balconies, with no access to the soil, and only enough room for about 1/10th of the birds to be on them. Big "organic" corporations have even been known to skirt the mandatory outside access part of federal law by finding a sympathetic vet to issue a written statement that outdoor access would be harmful to the health of the flock. This allows them to keep the birds enclosed without losing USDA organic certification, and they can charge you accordingly. Raising small flocks and moving them on the soil daily also eliminates the horrendous manure problem factory farms produce. The runoff of this industrial bird sewage is known to kill every living thing in streams downhill from CAFOs. We move our chickens around the garden areas, where the garden benefits from the bugs the chickens eat and the manageable quantities of manure which serve to enrich the soil, not destroy it.
Tyson or Cargill don't care if they
make $.05 profit on each bird they sell, they sell literally billions
every year, so they can afford to sell cheap. If I'm only making a
few cents more than the cost of feed, I wouldn't be selling chicken.
I happen to believe my time is worth something too. Every day, we
need to feed the birds, make sure they have fresh clean water and
move the pen to fresh grass, making sure they have a healthy,
sanitary environment. While not terribly time-consuming in terms of
farm work, it still must be done every day, morning and evening
without fail. That means every morning, regardless of where else you
have to be or what else you have to do. What would you pay to be
able to hit the snooze on the alarm just once all summer long? (or
shut it off completely for just one day, Sundays included?) Another
aspect is processing. We do it here, by hand. An afternoon and
evening covered in wet chicken feathers and worse really isn't my
idea of a fun Friday night. You're paying me for that time, too.
So, the next time you see a price at your local farm stand that seems completely out of line with what a conventional store charges, don't be afraid to ask why. Your local farmer wants you to understand the true cost of your food. We take questions like these as a learning opportunity, and a chance to talk about what we do. (Which we love and believe in or we wouldn't be doing it!)
Posted by Emily
@ 02:24 PM EDT
The trailer from our local meat processor just left with some of our pigs on board. By law, we're required to send them to a USDA-inspected slaughtering facility. We are able to process the sides of meat here at the farm, which means a busy week next week. I'm usually in charge of the wrapping & labeling of our pork products, as well as mixing up the herbs & spices for our multiple sausage varieties. Some of the pigs that left today will go towards filling last fall's freezer pork orders, and the rest will be frozen for sale at the stand when we open at the end of the month. We'll have fresh pork as well, but we like to have some frozen on hand too, and this allows the necessary time for the smoking & curing of the hams and bacons so we'll be able to have those as well. It was nice to have a break from meat processing over the winter, but it's that time of the year again. It really takes a lot of planning to get everything scheduled properly!
We moved our broiler chickens to a larger pen today. We want to get them out on pasture as soon as possible, but it actually snowed here today and these birds just don't handle cold & wet weather well. To keep them healthy without pumping them full of antibiotics, we decided it was best to put them in another indoor pen with a raised floor, but we'll be watching the weather to get them out on grass as soon as possible. Unlike the pork, we are able to process our chicken start to finish here at the farm, so that will take place just a couple of days before our opening day. Not only will we have some chicken available at the reopening of the stand, we also have a new batch of broiler birds arriving this week. They will be able to be out on grass for a longer period of time, as we hope the weather will cooperate when they no longer need their heat lamps in a few weeks.
The cold continues tonight, with frost forecasted. We're a bit concerned about some of the crops, like sweet corn and blueberries, but the majority of what's in the ground, like lettuce and onions, won't be damaged if it gets nipped by frost. It's so exciting to actually see veggies up, and I even have some early radishes to incorporate into our dinner tonight.
I was delighted with the new bottles that arrived this week and have been in the process of filling them with flavored vinegars. Our Thai Sweet & Hot dipping sauce will be in them as well, so be sure to check them out when you stop to see us!
Posted by Emily
@ 06:44 PM EDT
The summer-like sun is still shining here, making it hard to be inside blogging when there is so much going on outside! We covered the rhubarb with floating row cover, a white, gauzy fabric that lets light through but helps keep the temperatures above freezing during frosty nights. It's like a little greenhouse for the beds, with the added benefit that the free ranging chickens won't be able to scratch the new shoots when they're searching for bugs in the compost. We also broke out the rototiller in a small patch of garden over the weekend and got some cold-hardy seeds into the ground. Peas, lettuce, spinach, chard, beets & radishes will all survive a light frost or snow, as will the onion sets we planted Saturday. We covered that bed with floating row cover as well, so if you're driving by, I didn't lose bed sheets from the line on a windy day, we're just keeping our sprouts warm!I'm looking to having the first green treats from the garden, and hoping for good initial harvests. We're opening the farm stand for the summer on Memorial Day weekend, so it's time to get things in the ground so the tables won't be bare! We did decide that the weather is sure to turn colder yet this month, so we held off on planting my much anticipated strawberries. I suppose the wait will seem worth it later when I have productive plants instead of frost-killed nubs.
We've been hatching and selling our own chicks for a couple of weeks now, and it is going very well. However, we don't hatch the meat birds we raise. Our first batch is expected to arrive this Friday, and so that also puts us on schedule to have fresh, farm-raised chicken for opening day. It takes a lot of planning to time things like that, and it's exciting to move from the winter planning stages into the spring doing stages. Also on the week's agenda is castrating the male piglets and shearing the sheep (this weather has been extremely hot if you're still wearing a wool coat!). We're happy to have some extra help for these tasks, as Dan's father, Tom, is visiting. He knew well in advance that this would be a working vacation here at the farm, but we try to at least feed him well with good home-raised food. Depending on the amount of rain we get, we're also hoping to be breaking ground with the horses this week. We're giving last year's garden and some of the other fields a rest by using cover crops, but they still need to be plowed, as will this year's garden and corn fields.
Among the many things I was able to complete this weekend was the next installment of our farm's monthly e-Newsletter. If you'd like to be added to that list, feel free to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Posted by Emily
@ 05:44 PM EDT
As promised, the results are in on our heritage chicken experiment! Normally, our Cornish-Rock hybrid chickens are processed at 7 or 8 weeks of age, but our Delaware rooster was about 7 months old. Because of this, we wanted a cooking method to keep the meat nice & tender, so grilling was out! Dan had been looking to try poaching a chicken, so we decided that a big pot of water could only help keep our bird from getting tough. The water came to a boil, and in went our chicken along with a variety of garden vegetables and homegrown herbs. After chores were finished we settled down to a feast. I'm always excited when most or all of the food on the table is produced right here at the farm. In this case, the only non-farm products were the salt & pepper, the butter for the sweet corn, and the sour cream used on the potatoes. Not 100% farm raised, but pretty darn close! So we dig in to the chicken, and I noticed that the dark meat was super tough, but with an awesome chicken flavor. The legs were even tougher than expected, but these guys were truly free range, running all over the garden and backyard for months. Note to self: if we do this again, a smaller pen may be in order! However, dipped in my homemade Lemon-Sage Wine Mustard, it was still great. Then we tried the breat meat, and the texture was totally different. I have never tasted such tender, flavorful meat. Growing up on store bought and fast food chicken, I never really understood what real chicken flavor was, and although our broilers do taste like real chicken, the Delaware did even more so. My father-in-law always said that his stewing hens (old layers no longer profitable to keep on the farm) got their flavor from "years of contented living under their wings". My Delaware must have had a content life because he was full of that flavor too! It was a great chicken dinner, complete with potatoes, the absolute last of this year's fresh sweet corn, along with some zucchini, cabbage and green beans. I was stuffed and wanted nothing more than a nap, but it was off to the local county Extension Office as I'm serving on the Board of Directors (as well as the secretary of the group) and it was meeting night.
The final verdict on my experiment was this: while he was delicious, he was also a little too tough to market for more than stew or dumplings for the most part. Unfortunately, it's not going to be economically possible for us to offer them for sale. This year we raised over 200 meat chickens, but had no more than 90 at any given the due to the (much) shorter time frame of raising the hybrids. I don't think we would have had the space for that many Delawares for that many months. Also, a longer life span means more total feed for each bird, and just to cover our costs of feed alone would make for one pricey chicken. But we are still looking to support heritage breeds. We plan on raising turkeys again next year, and I am very interested in the Burbon Red and Dan would like to try the Royal Palm variety. So perhaps that will be next year's adventure.
Posted by Emily
@ 12:52 PM EDT
Today was another day of processing chickens. While it's not my favorite job, I feel ok about it as our chickens, living a life on grass and in the sun, have a far more comfortable existence than those in factory farms. I feel better about selling & eating it too, as store bought chicken is injected with 20% of its weight consisting of nothing more than salt water. So not only are you getting more salt from an unexpected source, $1 of every $5 you spend is nothing but salt water! So I've gotten used to the idea of butchering. We have until this point been using Cornish-Rock hybrids, the same bird the commercial places use. They are bred to basically do nothing more than eat and grow at an accelerated rate, mostly in the breast since Americans are so fond of white meat. They are usually no more than 8 weeks old when processed, a very short life. They grow so fast that they would literally outgrow what their legs and heart can support and would die before reaching breeding age.
As I've learned a lot in the past few years about farming, I was shocked to discover many breeds of livestock are just as endangered as wild creatures. Other kinds of chickens once raised for meat birds have gone by the wayside in favor of hybrids or other fast growing breeds that can stand up to the confinement of industrial agriculture. One of the breeds we use here for laying hens is the Delaware. They are nearly white, with black barring on the neck and tail feathers. For a time they were the #1 meat chicken in the country, but they don't grow at nearly the rate of the hybrids and have fallen out of favor. The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, an organization devoted to saving these endangered breeds, puts them at the critical rating, estimating that there may be as few as 500 of these birds left. Total. I feel so fortunate to have a small flock, and this spring decided to keep a few roosters as an expirement, to see how they rate as a meat bird. The ALBC recognizes that to bring these animals back in larger numbers, they have to be economically viable. So that means in order to save them, we need to get people to eat them! We butchered one this morning, and I was suprised that it bothered me far more than the usual broilers. He seemed too pretty to be put to such a fate, even though I have too many roosters and they are starting to beat up my hens a bit, as well as fight with each other. I was afraid that plucking would be hard because the broilers are bred to grow less feathers, both for easier processing but also so their bodies can devote more energy into making meat. Although so thick that the feathers were dry near the skin, even after being dunked repeatedly in hot water, they came off with no problem. (We do this by hand and it's my job, so it's something I noticed readily.) While a much leggier bird, there was not nearly the amount of breast meat. It was definately an obviously different bird, even once the whole process was finished and all the birds were in the fridge. I plan to cook him up soon, and I'll share with you the final result of this experiment!
Posted by Emily
@ 02:38 PM EDT
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