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Monday, December 15, 2008

Cows in Heat; Cows in Chill

I love my job.  Taking care of cows, milking cows, selling milk.  It is dynamic, it is a struggle and I may never learn everything I need to know.  This week is an entire new chapter.  It is cold out.
  
Actually it is rather cold out.  Colder than I can remember.  What makes this interesting is not simply that it is a bit uncomfortable to be outside, but rather what happens unexpectedly.  I will take great credit -- deserved or not -- for getting a barn ready for the cows before winter arrived.  The fact that it took four years and therefore four winters is incidental to this discussion.  The cows are not locked into their paddock to keep them barn bound for the week.
  
The most frustrating aspect of chill-milking is the milk hoses.  Made of thick, hard, clear plastic, it has a comfort range.  Twenty degrees and below is not within that comfort zone.  It is now very hard and most inflexibly.  Sadly, flexibility is its great attribute;  it needs the ability to flex over the metal housings of the milking machine and the vacuum lines.  Simply isn't happening on these chilly morns.  
  
As it also happens, any moisture that remains in the vacuum lines most quickly freezes.  With chunks of ice in the lines, the air cannot pass and therefore no vacuum.  No vacuum, and the milk does not flow from the udders of the cows.  Thankfully, the tea kettle is still warm in the kitchen and can assist in melting the lines. 
  
Surround the barn are four three hundred gallon stock tanks filled with water from the roof of the barn.  As it now happens, they are filled each with three hundred gallons of ice.  Great for a cocktail party in August, but most difficult for three very thirsty Jerseys.  I have been breaking the ice on top morning, noon and night trying to keep the small ice bergs from colonizing the entire tank.
  
Little Miss Andi, the youngest cow here came into heat on Saturday morning and Jorge and I walked her down to the neighboring farm to be bred to their Scottish Highland bull.  I have great hope that this will do the trick this time.  As Andi is a young heifer, she is most prone to get bred and should have no problem.  Tomorrow we will return to pick her up and walk her back to her rather confused and lonely sister cows.
  
Those lonely cows are standing in the snow as I write this, staring over at me.  I am most certainly projecting, but they appear to be confused by the snow, confused as to why there is no grass for them to graze.  As their days are generally filled with walking the pastures and grazing, they have a great deal of free time on their hands.  They chomp on the hay in the mangers, chew a little cud, but there is still many hours left for them.  With luck the snow will melt in a few days and they can get back to their cow ways.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

La Vie Simple


I am forty six years old. I thought that I had already learned all the lessons of life.  Today I realized that I am mistaken.  
   
This week has been a difficult one here at the dairy.  The challenges revolve around Dinah, the head cow here at Kurtwood Farms. The cow that started this farm; a lovely cow.  She tested positive for Q fever two months ago during the annual testing of the herd.  (For details on Q fever you will need to go to past blog postings.)
  
I was most frustrated when I got the results back from my veterinarian.  Mistakenly, I called the King County Vet and the State of Washington vet's office to speak of my frustrations and in the hope of gaining some insight into the State's policy.  During those two phone calls I yelled, I screamed and I used that familiar expletive 'fuck' repeatedly.  I truly thought that word was part of our collective language at this point, but sadly, it is not. The worst part was when I said that I would truck this cow down to Olympia myself, chain her to the steps of the Department of Agriculture building and slit her thought there, letting her bleed all over the steps so that the head of food safety could see it.  Both government bureaucrats were not happy with me, gave me little information and were in no way understanding.  Their primary mantra was that it was not their policy, that did not know whose policy it was and they had no explanation for the policy.  Oh, and they knew nothing about the policy as well. 
   
I thought that all was okay after hanging up the phone with both vets.  I now know that I was mistaken.
  
On Tuesday this week I got a call from my Washington State Department of Agriculture inspector.  A sweet man, a foot soldier in the government's war on raw milk, he had a warning for me.  If I did not back off on the Q fever issue, the State would come down on me and would never let up. He repeated this more than once, eluding to a potential campaign of tremendous fortitude and non-ending scope.  The State prosecutors office would be involved he warned.
Although the cow in question is dry -- not producing milk-- and has been dry for the past two years they evidently still worry about Q fever getting into the milk supply.  The cow may be contagious to the other cows here, but the inspector and the two vets had no idea if that was true or not.  
   
The inspector said that I could slaughter the cow myself and that freezing might possible control any Q fever in the meat.  When I let him know that I would send it to auction he was content with that.  By sending the cow to auction, the result is that the meat will enter the food supply.   That is okay.  People are supposed to cook their meat.
   
The end result is that Dinah was put on a large stock truck at three o'clock this afternoon headed for the Chehalis livestock auction.  I expect to be paid twenty cents per pound for this lovely animal that I paid two thousand dollars for four years ago.  With luck, the trucking will cost less than the amount realized from the sale. My local vet was there at the farm this afternoon to check her ear tag with the test results and verify that the animal has been removed.
   
I could be terribly naive and find out that it wasn't the phone calls that elicited this response, but these blog postings.  If I end up in the State Penitentiary for writing this, the story will be even more tragic.


Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Bit of a Mishap Morning

Life at the dairy is fairly predictable.  The cows are milked in the morning, they have breakfast, go up pasture to graze, late in the afternoon they return to the barn to be milked and fed and so on.  Can't exactly set your clock to it, but it rarely changes much.
 
Until this morning.
 
Dinah, I am blaming her, but only because I want to, decided to go a bit out of bounds last night.  Instead of spending the blustery night in the dry barn that was just constructed for such an evening, she decided to venture off of the farm.  Led by Dinah, the others followed suit.
 
This morning, after having coffee and conches for breakfast with Jorge, I proceeded to bring the cows into the milking parlor to milk Lily and Boo.  To my surprise, they were not there.  I marched up to the upper pasture and looked for them there.  Still no cows.  A bit nervously I walked across the pastures looking here and there for the cows.  Still no cows.  Remember we are looking for five cows, each close to a thousand pounds a piece and you might classify them as bright orange.  Usually hard to miss.
  
At this point I called Jorge and he began to look as well.  The option at this point is to walk the fence line looking for a problem.  Alas we found the far north west corner had been breached.  The fence was down and hoof prints were apparent.  We each headed in a different directions looking for the lost bovines.  As there were a great deal of paths with hoofs, it was difficult to find the direct route they took to leave the farm.
  
After another half hour I decided to go back to the house and grab my truck and begin to look far on the other side of the property.  Driving way around on the highway I went up and down driveways until out of the corner of my eye I saw a bit of that caramel colored hide.  Alas, here were my five beasts, lounging in a bit of grass and wind fallen apples looking very content and neither terribly excited nor disappointed to see me.
  
I called Jorge on his cell phone and began the difficult task of describing which way he needed to head through the woods to where I was. Although I know about where the farm was, and I knew where I was, I had not a clue how they were connected.  The cows were not giving up their secrets at this point.
   
Eventually I saw Jorge's bright orange rain slicker pop out of the woods and we began to herd up the cows.  With a dog leash and a rope we grabbed a couple of non-interested cows and marched them down a long driveway towards the farm.  As we approached a seemingly abandoned home out came an elderly Japanese woman who began to scream, fearful that the large beasts were after her.  Apparently she had a different vision of dairy cows and had been quite surprised to find them in her yard the evening prior.  Calls to the police did not avail her worries, nor did my pleasant words with the ladies.
   
We marched on, headed to the woods.  At one point -- did I mention it was pouring down rain at this point?-- Dinah decided that she was not to pleased with the whole project and firmly stepped on my foot.  Although it is an occupational hazard that I am well aware of, it always takes me by surprise.  She was not budging and my screams did not help.  Moments later she decided that her next best option was to turn and bolt back out of the woods.  Unwilling to give up the dog leash that I was holding on to, she proceeded to drag me through the woods, my belly pulled through the wet undergrowth of the woods.  After thirty feet she felt she had made her point and stopped.  Although most un-pleased, I stood up and started to pull her back through the trees, knowing we were close to the far corner of the farm.
  
With a bit more prodding and pleading we got the small herd back to the pasture and they headed back down the hill to the barn, very much expected a nice breakfast of alfalfa hay.  
  
All in all a most frustrating morning.  Two hours of plodding through the wet woods, soaked through to the bone, not particularly pleased with Dinah and still curious who that Japanese woman was.  I returned later with a jug of fresh milk as a peace offering for her, but couldn't find her.  In fact I couldn't find the front door of the house, all doors appeared to be grown over with vegetation and to have not been entered for decades.  Somewhere in there I imagine she is sitting, peering out of the dirty windows afraid of another night when the wild cows will return.


Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Tough World of a Dairy

I had no idea having a small dairy would be so difficult.  Really.  No idea.  It seemed like it would be all goodness and fun.  Cows are lovely, beautiful and fresh milk is tasty and good.  Deal, I'm in.
 
I had no idea.
 
It has certainly been challenging for the past four years.  Getting the cows, learning to milk them.  Getting a state Grade A raw dairy license.  Keeping my license.  Today was the topper.
 
A few months ago the State of Washington required all the raw dairies in the State (about 22) to test all their cows for Q fever.  The pasteurized dairies are not required.  Ever heard of Q fever?  Nope, neither had I.  Ever had a long distant cousin come down with Q fever.  Nope, neither had I.
 
My veterinarian came out to do my annual TB testing of all the cows and check on Bruccellosis for all the cows and now do the new Q fever testing.  He called me a couple of hours ago to inform me that Dinah was positive for Q fever.  
 
Dinah is the first cow I got four years ago.  The best cow I have.  She is presently carrying a calf that is four months along that took me 2 years to conceive at great time, expense and effort.  She is bred to a Scottish Highland bull from the Island.  I have kept my dairy going waiting for her to calve in April.  I would be back with ample milk and my favorite cow would be back in the cycle of milking.  All would be good in the spring.  And now she is positive for Q fever.
 
What the hell is Q fever?  I looked it up on the Centers for Disease Control web site.  It is the most highly infectious diseases known to man, one single bacterium can infect a human.  Weird. It is primarily a disease that is transferred to humans by air. Persons primarily at risk are people who work in barn yards, slaughterhouses, tanneries, and veterinarians.  Hmmm.  Sounds bad but what does that have to do with raw milk?  I could find no cases of humans contracting Q fever from milk.  Not sure if anyone ever has.
 
I was raised to believe that government is good. They work for us, help us, protect us. We should always vote, pay taxes and support the government.  I am beginning to think my Mother was wrong.  Cows with Q fever can exist in dairies that pasteurize their milk.  Infected cows can be walking around those dangerous barnyards, their hides can be sent to tanneries, they can be slaughtered, veterinarians can work on them.  Cows in raw dairies must be destroyed.
 
I am required to destroy my favorite cow, my expensive valuable cow.  It is difficult for me to believe anything other than the State of Washington is trying to eliminate the licensed raw dairies of the State by adding more and more regulations.  They will not make raw milk illegal here, they will just make it impossible to do business in the State of Washington.
 
They are doing a good job of it.  I can only think that they are pressured by the large dairy lobby of the State.  Milk is one of the largest agricultural products here. They don't want to compromise that for the sake of a few small dairies such as mine.  
 
On a better note, I picked a large bowl of grapes a few days ago from vines that I planted probably ten years ago and did little or nothing with. I finally took the time to prune them last winter and they produced handsomely this past summer. They are lovely, sweet and full of flavor.  I am picking them off one by one and popping them in my mouth as I rant and rage.  I will not let the fine folks in Olympia ruin my evening

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Eat!

I envisioned this blog to be simply a chat about life here on this calm farm.  Stories about the cows, ramblings about the seasons, even bleak stories on a lamb.  I was inspired though today to add a recipe.  Odd, I am not much of a recipe kind of guy, but I will give it a try.  It may frustrate you more than if I hadn't written anything, but enjoy.
 
First off, I have no pretty, style photo to accompany this recipe.  I ate almost all of the ice cream.  Since that time I finished the last little smidge in the bottom of the pan.  I couldn't help it. I liked it.
 
The ice cream in question is a pear-apple caramel dessert.  I made it on Sunday for dinner.  I never even got around to tasting it till a half hour ago. And then I ate it all. Finished it down to the pan.  
 
The plan for the ice cream base is thus:  12 egg yolks, 4 cups of creamy-milk, one and a quarter cups of sugar.  Warm the cream on the range till it starts to steam a bit but certainly doesn't scald.  While the cream is warming, whisk the sugar and yolks in a large mix bowl.  Mix them well, not whipped till they are pale, but certainly till they are completely incorporated.
 
When the cream has warmed amply, gently pour it in a stream into the egg-sugar mix, whisking all the while.  A towel under the bowl will assist in keeping the whole bowl-eggs-cream-whisk-hot pan from going all over.  Again, no need to go crazy on the mixing, but get all the little bits of sugary eggs into the cream.  
 
Pour the whole custard back into the pan -- don't throw it into the sink just yet.  With a rubber spatula, clean the mixing bowl of its creaminess.  Pull up the heat a bit so that it is gently heating the custard. Mix constantly with the spatula.  It will be thin, thin, thin and then suddenly begin to thicken.  Lower the heat, keep it moving  until the custard has thickened; till it coats a spoon as they say.  Remove from heat.
 
With that rubber spatula transfer the hot thick custard back into the original bowl through a fine sieve.  All the errant bits of whites and any other nasty bits will be stopped.  Cover tightly with plastic wrap and cool for quite a while.
 
While cooling prepare the fruity mix.  One heavy pan pour in a couple of cups of sugar or so and a bit of water -- maybe a quarter cup.  Sorry to sound so vague, but I never measure.  Too strict, too confining.  Bring to a boil and boil and boil until the sugar begins to caramelize.  Might take a while.  Be patient and be safe. Caramelized sugar is oh so hot and quiet dangerous.  When you like the color, pull of the heat and place the pan in a shallow bit of cold water.  Cools it off quickly.  Makes a lot of steam and noise too.
 
Pare and core and chop up a bunch of pears and the odd apple.  Comice pears I had were lovely.  Full of flavor, juicy and a bit too ugly for the table.  Once they are all chopped, throw them into the caramel pot. Place back on the range, add some water and cook.  The idea is to cook the pears and apples; to break them down, not to continue cooking the caramel, so keep a fair amount of liquid in the pot at all times.  Add water as needed, you can always boil it out.
When you like it, it is wet enough and the pears are soft enough, pull it off.  I ended up with a sauce, a fairly thin sauce of half fruit / half caramel. Add more pears if you need, add more water if you need, boil it down if it just is too thin.  When happy, chill it all down completely.
 
Once the custard and the fruit are cooled, chill the custard in a ice cream freezer.  Nothing too unusual here, but don't let it completely freeze.  When it is thick, not frozen, but thick enough to stand up on its own, pull it from the ice cream freezer.  Pile it into a large chilled bowl.  Pour in some of the pear sauce.  Fold it in with a large rubber spatula. Gently, deliberately, but completely.  Swirl is the goal.  Add some more sauce if it needs it, go little by little till you like the color.  When happy,pour it all into a tight freezer pan and freeze solid.
 
I loved this.  Luckily I have some more fruit swirl left to add to custard tomorrow.  

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Cows Move In To Their New Digs

The day finally arrived.  After thinking about getting a barn nearly two years ago, to chatting with Frederic about design ideas, to the actual plans of the barn, the permitting process at County, and finally the building of the barn.  After all those many months, the cows moved in a few days ago.

I got to enjoy the barn for myself for a number of weeks.  The main structure was finished even though the lights weren't up, the gates not installed and the mangers not yet built.  I began to think of it as my barn;  a place for me to seek refuge from the world.  From the main room you can look out onto the pastures and gardens and yet be protected from three sides.  The wall that faces the road is completely solid, shielding you from anyone coming down the driveway.

I found myself often taking my laptop out to the table I set up in the middle of the barn and would write and think and be 'away'.  My wi-fi signal wouldn't reach that far, no electricity was yet installed and it was calm.  Sadly, like the parent that realizes that he has to stop playing with his kids toys late on Christmas Eve and put them under the tree, I had to hand over the barn to its intended residents.

Frederic arrived late last week with the mangers; the feeding troughs that the cows would eat their hay out of.  Beautifully designed and built, they are well crafted furniture;  cow furniture.
Pegged construction, simple yet sturdy, I think Frederic took more pride in them than in the barn itself.  I want to bring them into the house and have cushions made for them.  Odd little sofas they would be.

And so the cows marched in minutes after we unloaded the mangers.  Frederic began to giggle as they marched up and began chomping on hay that I had put out for them.  I had never heard cows chewing.  In the pasture, the sounds are lost. In a tight space, five cows crunching their teeth, eating a bale of hay makes a bit of noise.  A great noise.

And then it happened.  Minutes later the first cow added manure to the beautiful space. Oh, and a great stream of urine as well.  It was rather disturbing I must admit at first.  I quickly cleaned it up, only to have another cow follow suit.  By this morning it looks very much like a barn.  A bit of manure here and there, hay thrown around, cows feeling very comfortable.  

I will miss my private space, but now I can sneak in after dark, flip on the lights and put out some hay for the ladies.  They come and join me now, it is now our private space.  The place that is just for the cows and I, a space to find solace.  And hay.


Monday, October 13, 2008

The Ugly Side of it All

I usually write nice, pretty, upbeat things here:  little cow stories, isn't the weather great? gosh, pigs do the darnedest things..  that kind of posts.  Today is a little different.

Last week we moved the sheep and their lambs from the big pasture into a couple of smaller paddocks that had more grass and a weedy spot that we wanted chewed down a bit.  It seemed like a great idea.  They would be nearer the forage plants that we had planted for  them in the spring and there was some grass for them to graze as well. 
 
On Friday of last week after a few days in the weedy paddock, the smallest lamb in the bunch got a bad case of scours, known in the human world as diarrhea.  The problem that I dread in lambs as it can dehydrate them in a few hours with death usually coming quickly.  I did what I could by giving him some Pepto Bismal -- it actually works great on sheep -- and taking him to the water a few times per day to drink and feeding him kale leaves one by one.  I really thought he would make it through.  By this morning, he was still alive and eating greedily, although still too weak to stand.
 
I left him in the field with the others and checked on him every few hours during the day since Friday.  Each morning I expected to find him dead, but was excited to see him still breathing and wanting more water and food.  This morning was the same.
 
A few minutes ago I went back out to the back pasture expecting him to be hungry again and was confident he was going to make it.  What I found was disturbing.

There he was where I left him, laying in the dirt, still breathing, his ears moving a bit.  As I came up to him I looked at his face and saw that his eyes had been pecked at repeatedly, blood running down his small face to the dirt beneath him.  My guess is that the crows, that are the scavengers of the farm, and the world, saw that he was too weak to move away and just sat on his body and pecked at his eyes.
 
I have had animals here for many years.  Not much bothers me.  This pissed me off.  I just stood there for a second and screamed 'fuck!"    
 
I went quickly back to the house, got the rifle, loaded it and returned to put him out of his misery.  He went into a large hole that had been dug for another project and it is all out of sight now.  
 
Farms are great, eating meat is just fine with me and life goes on.  I will still continue raising animals of course, but there are days when this isn't such a pretty picture.  The sweet pastoral days occasionally have a day such this one, with the image of pain on an animal stuck in my head.  
 
Not to worry, tomorrow I will have a pretty story.

Friday, September 26, 2008

The State Steps In, Continued

It has been a couple of weeks since a concerned citizen called the King County Department of Public Health and let them know that raw milk was being served in three coffee shops on Vashon Island. The County reinterpreted the State law that allowed raw milk to be served in food service establishments with proper signage.

The results:

The Vashon Island Beachcomber wrote a lengthy and thorough article on the action. The link to that article is:

http://www.pnwlocalnews.com/vashon/vib/news/28096734.html

Check it out. I was happy with it, although the picture seemed a bit large for my tastes on the hard copy of the paper. It must have been a slow news week on the Island that week.

A lot of my regular customers are angry. Very angry. They see it simply as a choice issue. For the State of Washington and King County to say that an adult person is simply too stupid to comprehend the concept and potential hazards of raw milk is insulting. Evidently the State feels that people are adequately intelligent to read the warning label on the jug of milk in the grocery store but are simply too stupid to read the warning label on the counter of the coffee shop. I simply do not understand the logic here.

The cafes created small take away notices of what the State did and how to contact them to voice an opinion. I am confident that the lovely bureaucrats in Olympia got a lot of angry personal emails from lots of great people on Vashon. I like that.

The result of this issue for me is that I lost three great accounts and lots of great customers. I keep cows and sell milk because I like the milk and I like the people that buy my milk. Luckily it is winter and the volume of milk is slowing down, but the State certainly cost this dairy at its bottom line. When I am feeling angry it is hard not to think that that is the goal: to push me out of business so that they don't have to worry about raw milk any longer. When I am in my right mind, I realize that they are not creative enough to plan such strategies.

What is most annoying is that the smug person who felt it was their responsibility to call in to the State concerning raw milk in cafes on Vashon is feeling even smugger. They got their way. The State has told them that they did a great job, they have saved the good people of Vashon Island and by extension all of Washington from their gross inability to read a milk warning label. The bumbling populace can now go about in their illiterate lives; drinking pasteurized swill from the large five thousand cow manure-laden dairies. The nutrient-poor white water will continue to flow, keeping the huge corporate bottlers in business. Thank you Mrs. Smug, you are saving us.

Monday, September 22, 2008

I Travel To The Other Side

I used to live and work in the city.  I shopped in the city.  I bought a lot of junk and threw it and its packaging in the trash when I was finished with it.  I had no problem with it.  
Costco was fun;  things were cheap, there was lots of it and I shopped there.  I even ate the pizza.

Since then I have seen the error of my ways.  I live on the farm, rarely go into the city and try to buy as little of anything as possible.  I hate packaging.  I can't deal with it. If you want to get me angry, come by for a visit and leave your water bottle on the kitchen table for me to throw away.

I am determined to have no garbage after 2010.  I think I will make it. A few caveats probably, but pretty damn close. Plastic food wrap is the one that is making me crazy right now.  

So, we needed some shelving in a storage room here at the farm.  All the potatoes, corn, canned tomatoes, canned apple sauce, onions, garlic, shallots, winter squash and pickles are starting to be harvested and processed and there is not ample space to store it all.  A shelf was needed in the curing room.  I tried to hire a carpenter to come out and build one from the wood that is stored here from past tree millings, but he was busy and couldn't come out for months.  

I resorted to Costco.  

They sell a shelving unit that I had bought many times for the restaurant in my past life in the city.  They are cheap, well enough made and would fit nicely in the storage room.  

Right now I am assembling these crazy things that were shipped in from China.  I hate it.  Too many little bags, lots of plastic.  With luck I won't throw the shelves out in a decade when I am done with them.  As I am putting the legs together with the shelves with the little plastic connectors I keep thinking "there is someone on the other side of the planet, living in a dreary workers' dorm, who counted out these little baggies and put them in this box..."

My new way of dealing with the Costco experience is to think of it as part of a necessary relationship.  We Americans buy garbage from the Chinese, who in turn buy out Treasury notes.  As we are spending billions and billions of dollars to pay for a war and now to bail out failed banks and insurance companies, we need someone to fund our debt.  Without our buying Chinese junk, we won't have anyone to buy those notes.    

It works for me.  Shelving keeps the war effort going, keeps Washington Mutual in business, and most importantly keeps my winter squash off the floor and safe through the winter.


Friday, September 19, 2008

Harvest Moon


It is the middle of September and Summer appears to be winding down.  The cool evening air has moved in to replace the warmth that lingers long after the sun has set on summer nights. The summer growing season is coming to a close and it is time to harvest.

It always appears to be a simple idea:  when the fruit is ready pick it.  Like so many things, the harvest schedule is just more complicated than that.  Today is a great example.  In the last week of May I planted a fairly large section of corn for grinding.  Seven tight rows each a hundred feet long, give or take.  Not an Iowa corn field, but more than you could eat in an afternoon.
In the past I had grown sweet corn:  big, yellow kernels of sweet hybrid corn to boil up and smear with butter.  This year I have two kinds planted:  an open pollinated dent corn, and the present small patch of flint corn:  Indian Corn.  The dent corn story is a different day's chatter, presently the issue is the Indian Corn.

It has looked great all summer, growing nicely, tall, verdant and flowering well.  As it is not a hybrid, each stalk is a little different, one ear here, two there, three small ones on the next.  A week ago I began picking one and checking it out.  The kernels appeared to be large, full of color and the silks were drying.  I wanted to keep it on as long as possible in the field.
The goal with this corn is to dry the ears whole, rub the corn off of the cobs and then in the winter, cook it up as polenta, or corn bread or masa for tortillas.  If the corn doesn't dry properly then I end up with a stack of moldy, rancid cobs with no value.

This afternoon I wandered into the corn rows to check them out. The skies are showing the great chance of rain soon and I wanted to check them out prior.  What I found was a bigger problem than weather:  the ears had been chomped on by critters.  Most likely raccoons had found their way into the garden and begun feasting on the sweet, high protein snack.  They had chewed through maybe a dozen ears, pulling the sheaths down to get at the milky kernels.
The raccoons told me a couple of things: that the corn was ripe.  Pest, sadly, have a better gauge of the readiness of a crop than I.  Squirrels want the nuts when they are just about ready to pick, the aphids grab at the best looking broccoli, and the raccoons are not interested in undeveloped corn.  Secondly, I decided that it was time to bring in the corn.

I quickly began to pick as much corn as I could.  I found that they had nibbled on more ears than I thought, but there is still plenty for us for the coming cooler months when polenta will be the perfect warming dish for the table.  The corn is beautiful as I pull back the green from a few.  Bright red and white and blue and yellow corn.  The red is like blood, dying my hands as I rub the dried silks away.  It is nothing like the corn I am used to.  It feels real, genuine and of this earth;  it isn't trying to look like the neat rows in the grocery store.  Each ear is different, some thick, some skinny, short stubby ears and delicate lengthy grains.

The raccoons will have gotten a taste, but with luck I will have it all picked this afternoon.  We will it dry a bit and then began to process it when there is more time in a couple of weeks.  The tomatoes are also ready now, the apples falling off the trees, the shell beans coming on soon. The potatoes need to be dug while the ground is dry and so on.   

Back to the field.


Monday, September 8, 2008

The State Steps In


For the past two plus years this dairy has had a Grade 'A' dairy license. Issued by the Washington State Department of Agriculture, it gives me the right to sell milk, raw milk, to the public. The dairy is inspected, the milk tested, and product deemed fit for human consumption.

Raw milk is legal in only a limited number of states in the Union. Although the Pasteurized Milk Ordinance is a federal document (it also addresses raw milk laws) the states have the right to allow or not allow raw milk within their states. Raw milk is not eligible for interstate commerce. The state of Washington allows raw milk to be sold to the public and I am very fortunate for that law as are my customers.

I sell milk to many private people directly and also in a small general store here on Vashon Island where people can pick up a jug of raw milk where I deliver a few times a week a few blocks from the Farm.

In addition to selling jugs of milk, small cafes on the Island wanted to buy it to use it to make espresso drinks with. Their idea was that people wanted to drink high quality coffee drinks and an excellent local milk would contribute to their fine coffees. As these coffee shops took the milk seriously I agreed to sell it to them. They kept it cold at all times, kept low inventories, had a warning label on the counter where their customers could read it, offered it special to customers not automatically and they only steamed what they needed for that one drink ordered: they didn't keep large pitchers of warm milk around ever.

The customers loved it. They had the opportunity to read the warning label on the counter, understood it and wanted high quality local milk. They were not interested in low quality milk from large factory farms. They trusted me and my practices.

The King County Department of Public Health inspected these cafes over the past two years and did not see a problem. In one case they did ask for the warning label to be a bit larger so that there was no question that it was raw milk that was being freely offered and that it had a warning associated with it.
Last week one person called the Department of Public Health and informed them that my raw milk was offered for sale at all three cafes. The Department of Health revisited the issue, checked with the State Department of Public Health and required the three cafes pull the milk from their menus.

The State's opinion is that they are benevolent is allowing the people of the State of Washington to sell and buy raw milk in any form. They believe that the law says that raw milk must be only sold to the end consumer in a sealed container that is sealed at the dairy with a warning label on it. (I do conform to the law -- the cafes were selling it not in its original container).

I had looked up the issue in the Public Health statues on line months ago and had found this guideline:

(E) Whenever unpasteurized milk and FOODS containing unpasteurized milk are offered for sale at a FOOD
ESTABLISHMENT, except hard or semi-soft raw milk cheeses properly fermented and aged for a minimum
of sixty days in compliance with 21 CFR Part 133, the PERMIT HOLDER and PERSON IN CHARGE must
ensure that:
(1) The product is conspicuously labeled "RAW MILK" or "CONTAINS RAW MILK"; and
(2) A sign is posted in a conspicuous manner near the product stating: "WARNING: RAW MILK
OR FOODS PREPARED FROM RAW MILK MAY BE CONTAMINATED WITH DANGEROUS
BACTERIA CAPABLE OF CAUSING SEVERE ILLNESS. CONTACT YOUR LOCAL
HEALTH AGENCY FOR ADVICE OR TO REPORT A SUSPECTED ILLNESS." [Amended by
WAC 246-215-051(1)]

I am not a lawyer, but rather just a guy that milks cows every day but this seemed to me to say that you could serve raw milk in restaurants in the State of Washington with proper notification. I must admit as I read this that maybe the Amended part at the end means that this is in the law but we changed it and forgot to take it out.

I am happy to pull my milk from three great small businesses on Vashon. I will have no problem selling my milk directly to consumers, I never have enough as it is. What is sad to me is a couple of things.

First, people really like this milk. It is tasty, local and a good product. People should have the opportunity to drink it if they understand the risks and still want it.

Secondly, I am rather disappointed that someone took the route of calling the health department to deal with their issue. The only way that someone would know that I sold milk at these three cafes was by reading my website. Would it be so tough for you to send me an email and at least chat with me or the cafe owners about it? It just seems so cowardly of this person to take their concerns anonymously to the State. Stand up to the people in line at Cafe Luna and tell them how you feel. The person who did this obviously is very well informed with the intricacies of the health system and knew they could hide behind an email.

The odd thing to me is that the State feels that this product is healthy enough for humans to drink. What is odd is that it is healthy for you to drink in your home, but not in a cafe. Pick one: it is healthy, or it isn't. If it shouldn't be consumed by humans, shut me down; pull my license. If it can be consumed by humans, let them buy it already.

Okay, I will get off my soap box and stop ranting.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Order is Restored

Dinah has returned.  After seven weeks away from the Farm, she has come back to her home.  In early July I walked Dinah across the Island to a farm that raised Scottish Highland cows and where there was a bull.  I had been trying unsuccessfully for months to get her bred by using artificial insemination.  The timing may have been off and at one point she had ovarian cysts which prevented her from ovulating.  The veterinarian eventually took care of her cysts but she still was not conceiving.  He suggested that I use a 'clean up bull'.  I had never heard this term, but I love it.  The clean up bull is the guy brought in at the end of the game to breed the cows at the dairy that couldn't be bred artificially.  He gets the job done.  
Dinah needed his help and so I found a beautiful Scottish Highland cow nearby.  She lived there through two cycles, the first time spending a lot of time with said bull, when there would have been a second cycle, she paid him no attention:  she had 'settled'.  It is not guaranteed that she was bred, but a good chance of it.  I won't make her pee into a cup, but rather the vet will be out in another month or so to check her out.  
But this isn't really the story here.  The great thing is that she has returned.  Dinah was my first cow and is therefore the Head Cow.  She has the most seniority and rules the herd.  During her absence it was a bit chaotic.  The other bovines seemed aimless, looking for direction and wandering off by themselves. Dinah, a very head strong cow who takes her role seriously, has brought order back to the herd.  She is on top, the rest below her.  When she comes down the pasture to the milking parlor, the rest follow, no stragglers.  I couldn't be happier.  
In a few weeks we will know if she is bred and in mid April, with luck, she will calve.  The good news would be she would come into milk again and be a part of the milking here again after a long absence, the bad news, if her calf is a heiffer, the chance of  it being raised up to be a milker is small.  The young female would be half Jersey and half Scottish Highland -- a odd combination for a milker.  A young bull calf, however, would be ideal:  the best of meat and dairy to be slaughtered after a year for meat for the Farm.  We shall see.

Monday, August 11, 2008

My Three Daughters

I am presently milking three cows here at the Farm:  Francesca, Boo and Lily.  They are my three daughters.  I don't expect to have children at this point in my life, so these three will have to suffice as my progeny at least for the summer.  
They are all very different.  Francesca is the first to be milked every morning and every afternoon.  The most senior cow in milk while Dinah is dry.  Once Dinah calves next spring and comes back into milk, she will take over as the first cow to be milked.

Francesca is strong, opinionated and confident.  She is aware of her status here and does not question it in any way;  she knows that she deserves to be most senior cow.

Boo is the prettiest cow in the bunch.  Beautiful thin legs with black markings, a slender youthful body, and a graceful if slightly lopsided utter.  She rarely mixes with the other bovines
but rather leads her life solo.  I hate to admit it, but I think she is not the brightest one of the herd, but her looks carry her far.

Lily is the newest addition to the herd. A bit older and a bit more tired, but an amazing producer of lovely milk.  She is truly confused each morning and afternoon that she is not the first cow out of the gate and into the milking parlor. Truly confused.  Each time.  Wise, presumptive, bossy, bright.

The point here is not that the cows of Kurtwood Farms are different, but that they have personalities;  unique personalities.  The fact that I can even call it a personality confirms to me that they have a presence.  Can we call them sentient creatures?  As they are at this point in their lives milking cows, I embrace their personalities.  When their careers as milkers ends and they are slaughtered for their meat,  are their personalities reasons for not slaughtering them?

As most of the ground beef sold in the U.S. at large restaurants comes from former milking cows, most if not all of us have participated in this question.  

Something to ponder today;  no answer for you as yet.

Friday, August 1, 2008

A New Look at a Farm Boy

I sat down during lunch today to read over the New York Times. I tend to cheat quite a bit at reading the Times. What the paper chooses as its highlighted articles I read and then I tend to always hit the most emailed articles. This is always an odd selection: never about the war in Iraq, but rather personal health, money management and the home decorating story. This is what America reads, or at least what readers of the New York Times read.

The article that hit me today was Nicholas D. Kristof ' A Farm Boy Reflects'.

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/31/opinion/31kristof.html?em

The title intrigued me enough to check it out. Essentially he writes that animal rights in the form of improved conditions for farm animals is gaining ground around the world. His experience growing up on a farm taught him that animals have personalities and are closer to humans than we think. Even so, he continues to enjoy eating meat.

On the surface this sounds nice. It tends to make everyone feel good about themselves. You still get to eat meat. You can enjoy it and take pleasure in it. Legislation around the country advancing the living conditions of farm animals is a good thing. Everyone is happy.

I have a distinct problem with it. Kristof talks about how his family raised geese, would slaughter them one by one and how it was a sad thing as the remaining goose-mate would cry and holler as its mate was being decapitated. This lead his family to donate the remaining geese to the local park because they were incapable of continuing this practice.

The problem is that he has fallen into the classic city view of farm animals: that they are pets that are murdered. In no way was this man a 'farm boy' as a child. The geese are not humans and should not be given charactoristics that are more aplicable to your aunt Lois. We have entered into a social contract -- we slaughter meat for our nutrition, the animals loose in this deal, we benefit. The animals in question certainly have a presence; they look at us and come to us when we feed them, but to put emotions on them, to me is ludicrous.

If our only contact with animals is our house pets -- dogs and cats, than we would naturally assume cows, pigs, sheep and geese to be similar. The contract is, however, different. Household pets live with us, there have been domesticated and there is no untimely slaughter for them. We keep them for their companionship and not for their protein. We develop an emotional bond with our dogs and cats.

Kristof has confused these two contracts; he and his family created a bond with the family geese. It was admirable, but they ceased to be farm animals at that point. His family realized it and released them from their bonds.

My recommendation is to treat farm animals as such. They should of course be well raised: properly housed, properly fed and properly slaughtered. There is no expectation that they will not be slaughtered for their meat. To think of them as large pets that live on farms is folly, especially while one is chewing on a big hunk of steak as they pontificate about the rights of animals.




Friday, July 25, 2008

The Real Deal

Work is progressing on the cow barn every day.  The main structure is fully erected, the rafters are up and now they are starting on the skip sheathing.  It is exciting to watch, but what is most interesting is not the building itself but the man who is building it.  I want to share him with people.
The carpenter who designed and is building this barn is Frederic Brillant.  He is a Frenchman who has lived on the Island for twenty years.  Trained in France he now works on Vashon.  When I asked him how he got here, his answer was: "she had red hair."   You have to read that with a really heavy French accent to get the full weight of it.
I often think that I have a simple life;  the calm country life that you dream of while slogging away at the office. And then I come to my senses.  I write a blog, I never have my iPhone more than a foot away from me, and I read the New York Times on line daily.  It is really rather difficult to resist modern life.  Once you begin to take part in the the trappings of being a citizen of the 21st century, you are hooked into the whole culture.
Frederic, however, has managed to resist.  I truly don't know how he does it.  He has no cell phone, no computer that I have ever seen.  He draws his building plans with a pencil and paper, no CAD.  Most of his wood working tools he made by hand and are non-electric.  I did see him out one night in a Hawaiian shirt, but I think that was an aberration.
He constructs buildings very very close to the way they were built in France three hundred years ago.  He seems to live that life as well.  He has a small electric stove, but I have seen him cooking more often over a wood stove at his large wood shop on the Island.  If it was a schtick I would discount it entirely, but it is genuine.  He sees the integrity and the beauty in the old ways and hold true to those ideals.
The result for me is an amazing barn.  It is made by hand, held together with locust pegs and a few spikes on the roof rafters.  It will stand far longer than myself.  I have spent hours walking around it, staring at each piece, handling the posts and beams and purloins and rafters.  I try to imagine this farm in a hundred years time, the modern world getting closer and closer each decade, but this barn remaining.
I wish I could take credit for this structure, but it is all Frederic's doing.  He designed it and built it, my only task is to steward it through my time here at the farm.    

Monday, July 21, 2008

Nouveau Riches

Yesterday afternoon I went out to the berry patch and began to pick some alpine strawberries for dessert last night.  The alpines are small berries, both white and red, that are very tasty, yet very, very small.  I enjoy them immensely.  It took not all afternoon by any means, but certainly quite a few minutes to pick a tight little bowl of the fragrant berries. 

As I was hunched down trying to concentrate on the small jewels, I thought back to the day I bought the plants.  The nursery-woman remarked that Thomas Jefferson enjoyed a bowl full of them for breakfast often.  As I have never seen alpine strawberries sold in the farmers markets much less in the grocery store, growing them yourself and having someone pick them for you is your best option.  This makes them all the more precious.
As it took very little of my brain to pick I had quite a bit of capacity left to ponder the present state of our culture.  What I came up with was a great sadness, that the sign of great success and great wealth in our country is no longer a bowl of alpine strawberries grown for you and picked for you and placed before you in a lovely bowl at your breakfast table, but rather a fast car.  
This is sad to me as a bowl of fresh berries is the ultimate luxury; the ne plus ultra that few could attain, yet all would desire.  Possibly our present housing slump / recession / banking crisis could have been avoided had the Thomas Jeffersons of our day been planting berries on their estates and not sowing the seeds of financial largesse. 
The best part of the  alpine luxury vision is that the mere mortals of the world such as ourselves could cheat a bit up the social ladder by planting such berries and picking them ourselves.   Not the same as having the manservant bring them to us on a silver salver, but enjoyable for sure.

I recommend a bowl when you can find them.  Few things in life can match them for flavor and for the unmatched scent of fresh berries.  A fast car is pretty fun too though.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Trip to Stud Town

Dinah is on a great vacation.  She is the Head Cow here at Kurtwood Farms;  most senior milker.  She came in service four years ago this coming September, the beginning of the dairy business.
A beautiful cow, full of personality and one who takes her role and responsibility as Head Cow terribly seriously, she has always been my favorite.  Unfortunately she has had a health problem for the past year.  She was dried up to give her a break, and at the time she was not yet bred.  I anticipated breeding her soon after she stopped milking and she would calve nine months later.  After numerous failed attempts, I had her checked out by the large animal veteranian on the Island, who diagnosed her with ovarian cysts.  
Numerous hormone treatments were tried, some succesful, others not so much. I still was unable to get her pregnent.  The vet recommended a bull to breed her instead of the aritificial insemination I had been using.  A friend nearby had a bull and offered to have her stay there for the month.  And so, Dinah is on a vacation of sorts.
Harm Cord zum Spreckel's farm is not that far from Kurtwood Farms, but it is a trek -- maybe a couple of miles.  Originally I had planned to hire a truck and trailer to transport her there, but came to my senses and decided to walk her their myself.  
Together Dinah and I set off from the farm on our journey.  She was quite excited to be headed out and pulled me along as we headed to the road.  A bold bovine, she found the road exciting.
We marched along with cars slowing down all along the way.  I am by nature a shy guy in public, so people gawking at me is not truely in my comfort zone, but Dinah is a natural crowd pleasure and I rose to the occasion.
A short ways into the trek a trucked pulled over and as luck would have it a great friend hopped out and joined me for the journey.  It was a great time to chat and catch up, Dinah turning heads the whole way.  The fun thing was that for the people of Vashon Island, a stunning Jersey cow walking down the highway was a great sight to see.  It made everyone happy; a little extra treat that they could tell their families when they got home.  I was pleased to be a part of that.
Dinah made it to her destination:  a beautiful farm with Scottish Highland cows and a very eager bull. With a bit of luck, the deed will be done and we will have a calf next year.  The best part of it is that I get to go and fetch her in two weeks and walk her back to Kurtwood, meeting people along the way; making people smile as they drive past.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Barn Raising

The barn raising has begun.  This project was started months ago with the idea that the cows needed a place to go during the winter months and that better storage was needed for the hay and grain.  This morning the timbers were raised for the most beautiful cow barn on the Island.
Frederic Brillant is building the barn;  he also built the roof of the kitchen building and the roof over the wood fired oven.  It is a timber frame barn made entirely of Douglas fir held together with locust wood pegs.  
Frederic creates the structure in his wood shop on the west side of the Island and then loads up the sticks and drives them over to the farm.  In the space one day he will erect the main part of the barn.  I expect the roof beams will go up tomorrow.  It is so quick and precise that it appears to be very simple.  Upon closer examination each stick is complicated, different mortises, different tenons on each.  Unusual markings identify the different sticks.  Although I have spent three years looking at the marks on the kitchen roof, I still haven't deciphered them.  I could ask him to explain them, but fear it is actually rather simple.  I enjoy the mystery.
The timelessness of this project excites me.  Although a large cement truck arrived a couple of weeks ago to pour the footings, the process of building this barn probably hasn't changed much in a couple of hundred years.  Some of Frederic's tools in his shop are electrically driven, but many are beautiful hand tools.  If I squint just so on this beautiful sunny day it is the nineteenth century in rural France.  I have also have had fantasies today of what this farm will look like one hundred years hence when the world around it has changed dramatically, but where it is possible that this barn stands, exactly as it was built.
I have had other construction projects over the years.  Most follow a fairly similar pattern.  The crew is usually young guys, ClassicRock blaring from their trucks;  they throw their garbage by the side of the job site and find any question from me an affront.  Here today are two Frenchmen, yammering on in their native tongue.  They are well dressed and concentrate on the task at hand.  No music blares, no refuse remains and my questions provide them with the seed of an interesting story on the history of French building.  
Soon the barn will be finished and the cows will move in.  Seems a bit odd for these gentle bovines to get the best spot on the farm, but they tend to work harder than I, day in and day out.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Kurtwood Farms: An Update

    Last week I was away from the farm for a short vacation.  My first extended time off since the first cow arrived here four years ago.  As much as I love it here, cherish my animals and never want to leave, it was great to be away.   
    It is also great to be back.
    The seasons have flipped while I was off the Island. When I left the cows were grazing on verdant, albeit short pasture, the warm weather vegetables were in the ground but just relaxing and the raspberries were small, rigid lumps.  All has changed.  The pastures really cannot be termed pastures at this time. Maybe dusty weed patches with the odd green patch.  The cows have switched to alfalfa hay brought in from Eastern Washington now and will continue till the rains return in a few weeks.
The tomatoes, squash, beans and corn have all shot up miraculously.  Little starts a couple of weeks ago are now full fledged plants, ready to fruit.  The raspberries are ripe for the picking and delightful.
    It is odd that I spend most of my time in the trees rarely seeing the forest.  I really thought nothing was growing; that the pigs were permanently small, the hens stuck in adolescence. After a week of absence you come back and see the forest for what it is:  a dynamic place, full of change and growth.
    This is also the time of year when I start to cut my losses and focuses on my best bets.  In the winter and spring everything in possible.  Grandiose plans of cultivating every inch of ground for a variety of crops make perfect sense in May.  The ground is moist, the weeds haven't come up and the weather is blissfully mild.  By this time of year, late July, everything has changed. Weeds have taken over some sections so entirely that they must be abandoned.  What was easy to manage when it is 65' out is a chore and impossible when it is 90'.  I would love to chat about how everything is perfect, but the reality is that sometimes the weeds win, the heat of the day wilts the fragile plants.  
    
    The good news is that work on the cow barn continues.  The foundation has been poured, the footings set.  The sidewalks connecting the milking parlor and the barn ready to go.  Soon Frederic will arrive and begin the process of assembling the timber frame that will make up the structure of the barn.  
    
   

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Equinox

    The summer equinox has arrived here at Kurtwood Farms.  Actually it has arrived everywhere in this hemisphere, but I am enjoying it here at the farm. The weather is perfect, sun shining, warm yet not too hot and there is the distinct feeling that the sunlight will never ebb.  
    The contractors have finished for the day, the workmen gone home.  The animals have been fed and watered, the cows milked.  The milking parlor has been scrubbed down and the evening milk is cooling is the chiller. Surprisingly no neighbors are running lawnmowers to disturb the calm. All is right with the world.  
    Dinner this evening was divine and of this place, this terroir.  A tranche off a beef rib eye, with a bit of fat on the edge, aged for two weeks.  This was from the last calf slaughtered:  Bruno, a beautiful calf, the son of Dinah, head cow at Kurtwood Farms.  The meat had hung for 14 days before being frozen to dry a bit and concentrate its flavors.  I savor those flavors this evening, weeks later.
    The steak was sauted on a hot steel pan with a bit of pork fat.  It sputtered and popped and browned to the surface of the steel.  I flipped it, seared the other side and left it to finish cooking on the heat.  The smell of the beef filled the smokey room.
   When the steak had the feel and give of a medium rare steak --  saignant, I moved it to my waiting plate to rest.  None of that cover it with a sheet of foil stuff, I wanted to see it as I finished the sauce.  A few onions went onto the steel pan to add a bit of bite and then a splash of red wine to deglaze and pull those crunchy bits form the pan.  A big lump of beef jelly from the cooler sputtered as it melted on the heat.  The onions cooked, the stock melted and the sauce began to reduce.  A lump of golden Jersey butter finished out the sauce giving it a shine and a luxury that the steak deserved.
    The juices from the waiting steak went back into the pan, a final swirl and the sauce graced the large white plate.  Cracks of black pepper added some bite to the pretty plate.  No prissy garnish, no chopped herbs to mess it, just the brown earthy sauce and the crusty brown beef.
    The sun had begun its slow descent by this time to the horizon.  The dogs huddled at my feet expecting a piece of beef that would never come.  Each bite was savored.  Nothing was wasted, all was enjoyed, a scrap of bread licking the sauce left on the plate.
    A bowl of rhubarb finished the meal, sweetened a bit but holding onto its sour roots.  The red color was disarming, nothing cherry like about this rhubarb.  Its classification as a vegetable got me off the hook for not having a salad or a branch of broccoli in sight in spite of a garden filled with greenery a few steps from the kitchen door.
    Not a very summery meal on this high holiday of summer.  But is was a great meal, one to savor bite by bite while reflecting on the year that has been as we peak and slide down the other side of June.  

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Barn Begins

    Here at Kurtwood Farms, the landscape is changing.  Today the contractor began work on the foundation for the new cow barn.  Months ago I decided that a barn for the cows would be a good thing and mentioned it to Frederic Brillant, the local Island French timber framer.  After many discussions about bovine needs and characteristics he came up with a plan.  A simple open barn just to keep the ladies out of the rain during the winter and a room for hay and grain and a simple stall for calving.  
The plans were routed through an assortment of King County offices, making a lot of beaurocrats happy to put their stamp of approval on them.  I am pleased to announce that it will not be built on a septic system, nor on a wetland, nor on th e property line, nor compromise my historic home.  
For the past four years my cows have spent their winters outside in the weather.  In the worst nights of storm and rain they would move to the woods and point their heads into the bushes. It made me crazy.  I would spend the night worrying about them, yet never knowing really what to do.  Or even really knowing if it bothered them.  They would get wet certainly, but was that okay?  They never really seemed sick or upset and always marched into the milking partlor the next morning and gave a respectable amount of milk.
I asked a friend of mine who had grown up on a dairy farm what he thought -- did I really need a barn for them?  His reply was perfect:  'the barn is for you;  if it makes you worry less then build it, the cows will be fine.'  
And so it has begun.  The foundation will be poured later in the week and then Frederic will begin to assemble the timbers that will be the structure of the barn.  Updates to follow.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Stray Voltage -- Who Knew?


For four years now I have had dairy cows here at the farm.  Over the course of tending to them and milking them twice daily during those many seasons, I feel that I have amassed a  fair amount of bovine experience.  I certainly am aware of my shortcomings but at least I knew where they were.  I was humbled this week by a bizarre cow problem.
The dairy building is a small concrete building that I had built three years ago to chill the milk, store it, bottle it and to hold the dairy equipment.  On one side of it is a small portico that the cows pass through on their way to the milking parlor adjacent to the dairy.  It is a concrete slab that is integral to the milk house and covered by a metal roof.
This past wet, rainy week one of the cows came up to the porch, had two of her hoofs on the muddy ground and two on the concrete slab.  Immediately she began to buckle and writhe.  I thought she had something stuck in one of her hoofs at first and proceeded to encourage her to continue through the porch so I could check it out. She continued to dance across the concrete appearing at this point to be having a heart attack if cows can have such a condition.  
It was frightening and fascinating all at the same time.  Once she passed over the concrete and onto the sidewalk leading into the milking parlor it appeared to cease.  The next cow, however, appeared to have the same problem minutes later.  At this point it was apparent that it was not a condition that one cows was afflicted by, but rather an environmental issue.
At the same time as the bovine-concrete revulsion, the large blast chiller that cools the milk began having odd problems;  blowing circuits and shutting down at the end of its cycle.  I surmised an electrical problem in the milk house.
My local friendly electrician Jason was called and informed of this bizarre occurrence. I expected him to tell me that he felt I was insane, but even if he felt that way, he kept it to himself and arrived that afternoon to investigate.  As there are few dairies on this suburban island, his expertise was more in wiring media rooms for the latest flat screen TV than in hooking up dairy barns. Luckily he is a curious guy and made some calls, brought out a voltage meter and began poking around.
As it happens there is an entire part of the Electrical Code that deals with dairy barns.  Cows, I know now, are extremely sensitive to, among other things, stray voltage.  They have the ability to pick up a half of a volt of electricity as it flows through a slab of concrete.  At one stray volt cows can get so disturbed as to dry up and cease producing milk.  We were getting readings of as much as two volts off of the metal roof and galvanized downspouts that connect to the concrete pad.  Maybe it was my thick rubber boots, but on my hands and knees I was unable to detect anything on this seemingly dull, un-pulsing concrete slab.  
Jason hooked up a few grounding wires, made plans to sink a few deep grounding rods, but mostly we just looked for ways to keep the cows away from the building.  Luckily cows other great qualities are the ability to never forget anything and to revel in routine.  The next morning after the great shocking trek to milking, neither Boo nor Francesca had any interest in coming near the milk house.  They appear very docile and loving, but 850 pounds of bovine anchored into the ground with pointed hoofs is no match for my slender frame attempting to pull them.
The cows have found a new path to milking that they are happy with, Jason is reading up on the electrical dairy protocol and I have another notch on my dairyman's belt.  

Monday, June 16, 2008

Chicken Tractor De Luxe


Kurtwood Farms has a new addition: a shiny new chicken tractor.  Shipped in from points east and assembled at great frustration over a number of hours on Saturday, it is now home to 25 content hens.

The basic concept of the Chicken Tractor is thus:  a secure bottomless box, filled with chickens, is moved daily to a new patch of pasture.  In the process the birds feast on the bugs and detritus of the pastures cow manure and fresh grass.  As the community moves often, there is never the build up of chicken manure or the problems associated with such deposits and 
only the benefits of fertilizing the pastures.

Joel Salatin of PolyFace farm in Virginia coined this term and probably the concept as well.  The problem has always been trying to make a box that is secure from racoons on the ground and hawks in the air that together can decimate a flock of birds in a matter of days.  A home made tractor tends to be top heavy and just plain too heavy to move daily. High winds will blow the contraption over sending birds scurrying in all directions in the middle of a storm.

The solution here is a commercially produced chicken tractor.  Made of sheet aluminum and quite well designed.  Heavy from the insane number of little nuts and bolts and washers, yet low enough to the ground the keep it tight in spite of potentially inclimate weather. 

By day two I am still quite optimistic.  The cows were most curious of the shiny foreign object in their pasture but moved on after a few minutes of sniffing it out.  Large slicks of cow slobber dulled it up a bit however.

My nightmare was of coming back in the afternoon to find the grass littered with twisted bits of aluminum sheets, chickens all asunder and some very smug bovines.  As it happened, the first day went off without a problem.   Racoons may still find some clever way to reach under and grab the docile birds sleeping through the night, but I am hopeful they will give up quickly and move on to other options of feeding themselves.

This tractor is filled with young egg laying hens.  If successful another chick coop on wheels will be ordered and inhabited with meat birds.  The idea of a pan of golden brown roasted birds pulled out of the wood fired oven on a rainy winter evening makes me able to tackle another box of many nuts, bolts, washers and oddly written assembly directions.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Eating Crow


I am generally not an angry man.  Lately, however, my emotions have been pushed to great sadness, anger and frustration.  Not for any great interpersonal relationship I might have, but rather towards the crows that cohabit this farm with me.

At the end of Winter I decided to till up one of the larger paddocks that I had kept sheep in lately and turn it into a field to plant Winter food for the livestock.  Seeds from England, Scotland and the east coast of the U.S. were ordered and shipped in.  Giant rape, thousand headed kale, field corn, chicories and mangels were bought and readied to be planted.

The field was cleared and tilled and prepared.  Some of the seeds were planted in flats in the greenhouse and readied for Spring.  The corn planter was found in the old shed and dusted off, in anticipation of warm weather.

As the soil warmed up I began planting out forage starts and seeding the corn in long parallel rows, dreaming of the day when I could just squeeze down the rows, high stalks on either side of me and hidden from anyones view.  

The corn germinated nicely and begin to grow, producing a field of verdant ribbons visible from the hill above.  The starts were set out and began to take root in the freshly tilled field.  And then the problems began.

Every morning I would walk through the field on my way to feed the sheep nearby.  At first just a little damage was done:  the odd plant would be laying on its side, its root drying in the sun. By the end of the first week, the paths were littered with plants, pulled out by their yet anchoring roots.  The corn rows were plagued by the same problems.  Small corn stalks, two inches tall, laying on their sides, dead.

Each morning I would try replanting what I could.  Then when certain death awaited the starts I would bring in new starts from the greenhouse to take the vacant spot.  I began replanting corn in the odd hole were there had once been a hearty sprout.  

My frustration grew daily.  I stood to loose all the plants needed to feed my animals in the fall and early winter and would have to buy in grains to keep the pigs happy.  I then remembered a remedy published in some odd farming book.  If you could kill one of the crows and hang it in the field, the others would take the hint and stay away.  Crows are smart and quite perceptive of the situation around them.  I surmise that they have chosen this field to torment as it is a long way from the house and rarely visited by humans.

I planned to pull the shot gun out of the closet, load it with bird shot and hide in the hedgerows early the next morning to take out one of the black demons.  I really didn't want to. I would really prefer to be sitting in the kitchen with a cup of hot coffee and the latest cookbook enjoying the time before milking rather than laying on my belly in the grass ready to ambush a raven.  I also didn't think I was a good enough shot to pull it off.

And then my luck changed.  Driving around in the afternoon, doing my errands I came across a dead crow in the middle of the park and ride lot.  Just lying there.  Already dead.  No apparent trauma, no sign of violence.  Almost as if it had died of old age while flying and gently fell to the ground.  I quickly pulled over, grabbed it and put it in the back of my truck.

I marched out to the field with string, the crow and a couple of fence posts.  Between the two posts the crow was hung so that it would twist with the breeze, making it very visible from anywhere near the field.  Minutes later as I walked down the hill to the house, I heard the tell-tale sign of angry crows.  Not just the  basic craw-craw but a more emotional, mad craw-craw. 
When I went back to continue filling in the empty patches where there had once been corn seedlings, I saw the black birds circling around and around the field.  

Not sure if I will be given peace from the crows by the sight of the dead edifice in the center of the field, but it quells my anger at least for the day.  Only time will tell if the newly reseeded corn is safe. 


Thursday, May 1, 2008

Hard Questions

I tend to want life to be black and white; simple, concise and unchanging. Unfortunately adult life is much more gray. Here is a story that made me see a bit of the gray this week.

For years I have had help maintaining the farm. George originally worked for me as a cook at the restaurant in Seattle and now works here on the farm helping out with the animals, the fences and the fruit trees. He was born in Mexico and raised on a farm. He dropped out of school by junior high school to work in the fields. Although he left Mexico many years ago he still has a better understanding of cows than I could ever have. I value his opinions and innate sense of animals.

This Saturday he brought two of his young sons out to the farm. They love to come out and help him, ride their bikes up and down the sidewalks and play with the dogs. They are amazing kids. The older one is in Kindergarten and I was helping him with writing words and letters. He is smart and articulate and charming. I asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. I suggested to him that he should strive to be a lawyer, a doctor, a professor. I want him to be successful and utilize his intelligence and have a life great, rich and full for himself and his family.

I did not ever suggest to him that he follow in his father's footsteps and become a farmer. I must admit that I would not make that suggestion.

My hard line is usually that the answer to many of our societal challenges is to have more small farms; farms closer to us, healthier food, a better understanding of our food culture. I love what I do here: raising animals, vegetables and fruit and feeding people. It is a great life.

The moral of this story? Can't say I have one, just that there is a lot of gray in the discussion. Do we want a nation where the best and brightest slop pigs, weed carrots and milk cows or is it more efficient for that work to be done in large scale operations many miles away?

Monday, April 28, 2008

Creating Your Community


I am a great optimist. To grow food, you just have to be. Even though I can remember the disappointments - read failures - of last year, I have blind faith that every seed put in the ground this Spring will grow into perfect, beautiful vegetables; that every cow breed early this year will give birth to stunning prize winning heifers in the Fall.

I want to move from just eating locally to living life and doing business locally with a vision to what I want my community to look like. Whole Foods has some great products, but it is a large company, centered in Texas. The idea is every dollar spent is a vote for the businesses you believe in.

This brings me to my friend Stephen. He owns the Vashon Wine Shop a few blocks from my farm. You drive by his store when you come to dinner. All the wine for Sunday dinners comes from his shop. He provides a great service to Cookhouse and I want my community to have small businesses owned by real people working in their stores.

The odd thing is, great people, people that believe in local food, drive to Costco to buy wine. Drive to HomeDepot to buy hardware. All to save a few dollars. Every time the dollar-vote goes to the Big Boxes, the small local store gets a little bit less viable. I was at HomeDepot just this week, but I need to stop.

So, from my soap box here, I recommend stopping by Stephen's Vashon Wine Shop if you are on the Island. He has great wines, not as many as Costco, but certainly what you are looking for. If you live are in Seattle, stop by the small stores near you. Again, I am a great optimist who can see great communities not just maintained but communities that can thrive.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Mea Culpa

I must confess that I have been guilty of acute smugness.

For the past three years, I have stood before you and preached the benefits of eating locally; of growing your own food, of living off the industrial food grid.

Transportation costs are high, global climate change is a huge worry, eating the best possible food you can grow is essential to great health -- these have been my mantras.

The fatal flaw was that on Monday mornings, after giving my homily, I would whip out my cell phone, call my grain supplier in Canada and order pallets of grain for my animals. Pallets. Driven down from Canada. Yes, pallets full.

Surprisingly I was just fine with this for years. The irony never struck me until very recently. I had read years ago about English farming methods of growing fodder crops for livestock. An email a few weeks ago reminded me of this idea -- growing your own food for your animals. What a novel concept. One would think that this would have occurred to me earlier.

So, with the benefit of Google, I managed to locate seed. We have lost this farming tradition here in this country, but Great Britain has not. I found a supplier of large leafy fodder kale in Scotland and a seed company in Dorset that mailed over seeds for mangels (large beets), turnips, chicory for pigs and large cabbages. Open pollinated dent corn was still available in this country and trucked in from Vermont. Tomorrow the field will be plowed and tilled to plant the new crops, with luck by fall there will be a store room filled with food -- local food --- for the animals here.

Accept my apologies. We are all always learning new tricks.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Seasons In The Sun

I went out to the sheep paddock this morning to check on the new lambs and take a picture for today's email. A couple of lambs were born the first week of February, then another 8 were born the first two weeks of March, and now there were twins two days ago. A couple of ewes are still to lamb. It is the first few days of Spring, the grass should start growing soon and the deep cold of Winter has passed us. It is the time that lambs should be born.

By the time they are old enough to graze, the grass will have grown high enough. They will feed through the warm summer months and then as the weather winds down again and the grass ceases to grow, we will slaughter them for roast lamb.

It is a great system, one that follows the seasons and just makes sense. I wish that I could take credit for it, but I think that sheep have been working on this concept for quite some time now.

All has been well and good for centuries until enterprising business came into it all. The problem is that if you sell lambs, you want to sell them more than just for a few weeks a year, you want to sell them as early as possible to get the highest prices and sell before your competitors do.

The answer is to ship in frozen lamb from New Zealand, breed your ewes very early in the late summer and push the baby lambs with grain to fatten them up quickly. It works, people love it but it just seems wrong to me. I like following the seasons; it is easier and makes for tastier food.

Friday, February 8, 2008

The Beauty That Is Winter

It has been bitterly cold this past week in the mornings and gloriously sunny throughout the days. Daylight has returned to the late afternoons after an absence of a few weeks. It is possible to see Spring time on the horizon.

I have come to revel in the beauty that is Winter. The bleakness of the landscape, the chill in the air and the stillness that I never feel in the summer months; it is all so alluring. When I walk through the upper pasture in the early morning to fetch the cows, I watch the sun come up through the trees and I feel as though I was the last man on the planet. I can hear nothing except the cows hoofs, crunching through the ice and breaking twigs as the cows come towards me.

But then it again it is just damn cold out.

The other thing that I have been thinking about it is the precariousness of growing food. Weather is obviously a big part of the growth of vegetables. I was out Friday afternoon checking on the vegetable garden and came across the fava beans. Generally I like to plant fava beans in the fall in order to get a head start on the Spring. They had germinated and grown nicely over the past four months; 4 inches high. When I went to them today, however, they had frozen to the ground, doubled over and wilted. I will plant another batch in another couple of months when I can work the soil and get them to germinate, but we will have fava beans to eat a few weeks later than if they had made it through this week's harsh weather.

It is hard to imagine growing food for survival in times past before the luxury of knowing that the Thriftway Store is just blocks away stocked with produce year around.