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Archive for the ‘Why We Farm Series’ Category

Giveaway! Farmstead Chef Cookbook

Friday, November 11th, 2011

First, we kissed off corporate America as twenty-somethings, pledging to never again let dysfunctional executives walk all over us while greed runs wild. You might say our premature mid-life crisis may have been caused by indigestion. That’s way before we realized an inconvenient truth or the dark side of Food, Inc. Back then, we overdosed on lattes … and chowed down on fast food.

Then we did the unthinkable at age 30, freaking out our parents. We became farmers… 

Sound familiar? Lisa Kivirist and John Ivanko are living our dream.  In Green County, Wisconsin, the couple now runs the notable Inn Serendipity Bed and Breakfast, where they share their homegrown food with their guests.  Now, they’ve created a cookbook with some of their favorite garden-inspired recipes.  As I flipped through Farmstead Chef, I felt like I was sitting in my very own farmhouse kitchen.  Simple, rustic, and comforting, farm-loving foodies will want to cook every single showcased recipe. I know I do.  So!  Let’s make that happen for a Dissertation to Dirt reader! 


Last time I gave a book away, we did a New Yorker style caption contest. It went over so well (and by “well” I mean I was clutching my sides in hysterical laughter), I think we should do it again!  If you’re not familiar with New Yorker cartoon caption contests, here’s how it works.  The New Yorker provides a picture like this:


Then the readers submit captions to fit the picture, like this one submitted by Roger Ebert:

“I’m not going to say the word I’m thinking of”

Now it’s your turn! Caption the photo below of backyard chickens (and one peacock!).  Leave your entry in the comments, or you can tweet me @farmerneysa.  Make me laugh because I’ll choose my favorite at the end of the day Sunday, November 13, and a winner will be announced Monday!


Good luck! See previous caption contest entries here and the winner here!

Thanks to Lisa Kivirist for supplying a copy of her book, The Farmstead Chef, for this giveaway!

(See more entries over at Dissertation to Dirt)

Working with Joel Salatin: An Intern from Polyface Farm

Friday, November 4th, 2011
This summer, Scott Price completed a four-month internship at what may be the most well-known and well-respected organic farm operation in the country: Polyface Farm in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, run by Joel Salatin.  An accountant by education, Scott  cut his teeth farming in this internship, and he hopes to make farming a lifelong career.  Below, Scott tells us about a typical day at Polyface, his hopes for the future, and what it was like working with Joel.  Although he had a unique and coveted experience among young farmers, Scott emphasizes that his internship was just that: an introduction to farming from a respected mentor.  It does not define him as a farmer, nor does it guarantee he’ll find success in the field.  Scott’s internship at Polyface did, however, provide him a sturdy jumping off point to continue what he hopes is a flourishing career. He is now in Oregon continuing to farm on a start up poultry operation. 

Lacking motivation in college, I spent plenty of time wandering from one interest to another. I started with Mechanical Engineering, and graduated in Finance, but along the way I decided I wanted to do something fundamentally valuable for people.  Having made that decision, I saw two options open up for me: teaching or farming.

Farming held several attractive possibilities. Healthy food, working outdoors, exercise, no commute, meals and time with family. Hulu assisted by showing me a movie called “The Future of Food”. That movie showed me farming was more than a career possibility, but also an important cause. I wanted to educate people about the evils of Monsanto and the value of healthy farming practices.

So I was interested in farming, but did I believe I could make a living? No, I found it too risky. Instead, my plan was to use my Finance degree to work and save up, and then I would take the plunge. A friend helped me get a job as an accountant, but I quickly became unhappy.  I commuted an hour to work in a cubicle. I was expected to give 60 hours a week to a job that sucked the life out of me, and only gave me money in return.

Nearly nine months after starting my accounting job, I housesat for a young family at church who had five egg-laying hens. At that house, I read my first bit of Wendell Berry, and discovered Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm through the Polyface DVD. I read more about Polyface online, and I was impressed. In August 2010 I left my job, and by the end of the month I applied to be an apprentice at Polyface. Five months after applying, I was hired as an intern, the four-month version of the twelve-month apprentice.

I ate and slept on the farm, in an old portable classroom called “The Roost”. Four other guys lived there also. The Roost was positioned against black walnut trees for shade, with a creek running alongside. It had one bathroom with a composting toilet, shower, and sink, a kitchen/living area, and one bedroom with 5 beds (4 bunk style). The Roost was where all the interns went to cook and eat breakfast and lunch. It was a bit crowded for 8 interns, and we had limited cooking supplies, but we made the best of it. I really enjoyed our meal times, partly because I was so tired and hungry, but also because the more I worked with the other interns, the more I enjoyed hanging out with them.

On a typical day, we started morning chores shortly after daybreak. Morning chores involved moving forty 10’X12’X2’ chicken pens with a dolly to a new patch of grass, feeding each pen’s feed tray, and filling each pen’s 5 gallon water bucket. Each pen holds 75 Cornish Cross broilers. Before the turkeys outgrew the chickens, they were also mixed in with the broilers, but no more than 75 birds were ever in one pen. On chicken processing days, we also put them in crates, loaded them on a trailer, and cleaned the processing facility.

Interns working on a turkey roost, Joel hangs on the right

While the chicken chores were being done, 2 groups of older turkeys were fed and every other day they were moved. Each group of turkeys had a large roost built onto an axle connected to a large feed box on another axle (if the roost isn’t sturdy enough, you’ll find out when 150 twenty pound turkeys collapse it.). A tractor was used to move the feed and roost combo trailer into a new paddock.

On some days pigs needed to be moved into a new paddock. This involved moving their 1 ton feeder into the next paddock with a tractor, filling it with a PTO driven feed buggy, herding the pigs in, dumping the 30 gallon float valve waterer, carrying it to the new paddock and turning the water back on. Each pig paddock is surrounded by two strands of electrified aluminum wire. The pigs are trained to the electrified wire, so they want to stay away from it, but pigs have great curiosity and are very stubborn. We had to test the voltage of different areas of the fence to make sure it would contain the pigs. Chasing around loose pigs can really eat up some time especially if you’re in a heavily wooded area or you don’t have enough help.

On other days, the mornings involved sorting cows and pigs to bring them to the slaughterhouse. To do this we had to move the cows into the corral by running a few “bluffs” that resembled their fence along the desired path, and then calling them in the right direction. A couple of us always tailed the cows to keep stragglers like young calves from falling behind. In the corral we just ushered them where we wanted them and opened and closed doors.

We took an hour for breakfast after morning chores. After breakfast we checked in to see what was next. Some days we worked on hay before and after lunch until afternoon chores (or dark). Some days we worked on fencing, hauled wood from the new pond site, or set up a new pig paddock in the woods. Twice a week we pulled buying club orders for Polyface meat from freezers, loaded them in coolers, and stored them in a freezer to wait for the next morning’s pre-chores delivery load up. Some days we built a new turkey roost, a new feed box trailer, or a new eggmobile. Almost everything was built with wood milled by Polyface from trees at Polyface.

We processed an average of 350 chickens every Wednesday and also on Friday every other week. Our best rate was about 19 birds per person per hour from kill to the ice bath. Super efficient. Each turkey took a little more time, but the bird weight was more per hour. We each got experience on every station, including killing, scalding-plucking-legging, eviscerating, lunging, and quality control. We started processing after breakfast and when the birds were all in ice baths, we took lunch (45 minutes) while they got down to the right temperature. After lunch we’d return to bag and box them for the freezer. Around 100 birds were always kept unfrozen in the cooler for restaurant orders, and for the occasional “fresh bird pick up” that Joel talks about in his Pastured Poultry Profits book.

Afternoon chores involved feeding and watering chickens and turkeys and collecting and washing eggs. Every three days we moved a large egglayer nestbox structure called the “Millennium Feathernet” that held one thousand egglayers. At the Millennium, the chickens foraged on grass within an electrified netting fence. We set up a new paddock for them to roam then moved the Millennium with a tractor.

The work was hard, of course, but the food lifted my spirits throughout the summer. We devoured delicious, conveniently located mulberries between chores throughout June. When we drove up the mountain to the highest pond and pig paddock in June and July, we ate the wild blueberries.  Wild blackberries lined much of the road that led up the mountain, and in addition to scavenging during breaks in July and August, we picked several quarts that we enjoyed in pies made by fellow intern Leanna, or in my raw milk and granola. In August the apples ripened, and we snacked on them on our way to chores or saved some for breakfast. In late August and September, Autumn Olives began ripening. Autumn Olives are tart little berries that offer a refreshing bite. I found some that were actually really sweet. Also in August and September, the wild mushrooms were in full flush. I’ve always enjoyed mushrooms/fungi in food, and one of the interns, with a degree in horticulture, had some experience picking and eating wild mushrooms. I looked at his mushroom identification books and he taught me to find chanterelles. I had never heard of them, but they were plentiful at Polyface. I harvested a hat-full on two occasions and found they are delicious. The chef/gardener sautéed my chanterelles in butter for us as a side one night. Now I’m in Oregon for the foreseeable future, and I’d like to find morels here.

Scott, right, enjoys lunch on the farm

Farming internships are under scrutiny right now, but I don’t feel cheated by Polyface. I now have job skills related to poultry, cattle, and pig farming. I came out with a little bit of money in my pocket instead of  thousands of dollars of debt I may have racked up in school. I’m also happy to have only spent four months on focused, hands-on learning instead of four years of “well-rounded education.” Thanks to the internship, I came across job opportunities and quickly found a new job on a farm. I am confident enough to start my own chicken business when I have the money. The experience was definitely good overall, and I recommend it to anyone who wants to farm.

I often get the question of whether I actually got to work with Joel.  Joel travels a lot and has off-farm work to do, but all the interns got to work with him plenty.His usual morning on the farm involved moving the eggmobile and/or moving cows. All the interns got their turns helping him move the cows by taking up and running single-strand electric fence paddocks. We occasionally had to scramble to herd the cows back in (almost always because of someone’s mistake), but it didn’t happen often. The interns agreed that we definitely heard about it when we did something wrong, but we were praised when we did something right.

With Joel, I remember we tore down 2 fences and put new ones up. One fence took eight of us about 4 days to tear down and replace, and the other took 1 full day. The fence work involved pulling fencing staples, rolling up barbed wire, rolling up field fence, pulling posts with the tractor, pounding posts with the tractor, stretching and stapling new field fence, and stapling new barbed wire. Joel showed lots of excitement by hooting and hollering when we finished a fence.

Joel showed the same excitement when we finished making and stacking hay after about 4 weeks of hay work, and I shared that excitement since I have hay allergies and asthma. The Polyface team did all the hay work except baling the large bales. We cut, raked, tetted, stacked on a trailer, then stacked by hand in a barn, and stacked large bales in the field with tractor forks to later cover with giant tarps. To show the fertility that Polyface builds in the land they use, the man who baled for us, who has baled for decades, had never seen so much hay come out of such small acreage. Polyface’s pasture has been under their care for over 50 years, and it supports 4 times as many cow-days per acre than the average in the county. In other words, with the way they farm, they’re not taking away from the land—they’re adding to it.

One smaller job I worked with Joel on was laying a water line from a well pump to a cistern. That work can take days of breaking your back and tearing up the ground. Fortunately, Polyface has a subsoil hose laying device—an SSHLD. It’s a tractor implement that buries pipe as you drive along.

Another job we did with Joel was clear trees from a huge, new pond site. We loaded and unloaded a couple dozen loads of fire wood, and chipped a couple dozen trailer loads of smaller branches. Tractor forks were used to load logs onto a log buggy, and I got to use the forks to move the logs once. That was cool, but the strongest I felt was when 2 strong guys and I loaded six, 20 foot logs onto a trailer by hand that we were originally going to move with the tractor forks. To be fair, one of those guys had bodybuilding experience, and the other is just a natural beast. I was the scrawny one.

Scott with the pigs

Daniel, Joel’s son, is known as the Range Boss. He manages the Polyface team and trains the apprentices and interns. We worked with him every day. Daniel’s wife, Sheri, and Joel’s wife, Teresa, are both vital in the farm business as well. Joel likes to tease that behind every great man is an amazed woman, but what he means is that Polyface couldn’t be what it is without his family.

Text by Scott Price

Photos credited to Dustin Pinion, Ian Hensel, Brian Nelson, and Brie Aronson.

Read more about young farmers at Dissertation to Dirt.

Why We Farm: The FSA Beginning Farmer’s Loan

Friday, October 28th, 2011

I’ve found that a distinguishing attribute of a young farmer’s life is the perpetual state of flux. Internships, seasonal work, searching for opportunities to farm on your own–it often leads young farmers not only into various, questionable living arrangements, but we also find ourselves traveling around the country, just to work on farms with the hope of finding something permanent. All this movement is ironic considering what a landed job farming actually is. Many of us got into farming because we wanted to find a place and stay there.

It’s that kind of uncertainty that makes any hint of stability almost irresistible to a young farmer. I know, because last week Travis and I learned that our local Farm Service Agency would consider us for a beginning farmer loan! The beginning farmer loan is specifically designed to help farmers start up a new operation and purchase land. The loan will fund up to $300,000 for a piece of land.

On paper, the FSA loan says that to qualify, you must show that you have been running a farm for three years (you have to show your receipts). So it was a surprise to us when the loan officer told us she would take our experience managing farms (making someone else’s receipts) as sufficient. I guess it goes to show you never know until you ask.

So Travis and I have begun our first online searches for land. Once we get a good list going, we’ll narrow it down and then start paying visits to sites. How will we narrow it down? Well, there’s a range of factors that make a piece of land a good piece of land:

1. Water, as always. The state of the well on the property, or the potential to dig one, is THE make or break issue for a piece of land. Learning about well structure, depth, and pumping capability is never something I thought I’d be doing. But there you have it. Texas farming.

2. Infrastructure. Fencing, barns, sheds…anything that’s standing and usable is something we don’t have to spend money to build later. How about a house? Travis and I have lived in barns and barn-like structures before. Hopefully we can leave that behind us now.

3. Distance from the city. It would be great to get something right in the city, but we’re more likely to get more bang for our buck if we head an hour or so out. Still, we can’t go too far out, no matter how tempting $1,500/acre is.

4. History of the Land and Soil Type. What the land was used for before is going to determine our first moves. Hay fields will need a lot of work getting rid of the hay before it’s ready to plant. Otherwise, we may plant cucumbers but we’ll be growing hay. Also, most soil in Texas is not the lush, life-filled loam I remember from New York. So its a whole new ballgame looking up soil types and figuring out what would be good for vegetables. According to quick searches online, if Travis and I only wanted to grow wheat and sorghum, we’d be in farm heaven.

We’re looking at anything over 10 acres. We don’t plan on doing more than 5 or so in vegetables; instead, we would like to diversify our operation in the future–and farm animals need space. Travis, ever organized, has put all of the properties with potential into an excel sheet with their respective pros and cons. What would I do without him? I’d probably just scribble random ideas on sundry pieces of paper. Which I would then proceed to lose.

How long will this process take? A year? Two or three? We don’t know right now. But it is nice to have something concrete to work with.  Is anyone else looking for farmalnd? What resources do you have to purchase or lease it? How about urban farming – how is the process different when you’re looking for a small plot within the city center?

Neysa King and her husband Travis Czerw have been farming for three years. You can read more about their journey at Dissertation to Dirt.