if you can't explain it with a crayon, it's too complicated

The farm phone line has been ringing off the hook for the past couple of weeks, getting our ducks in a row on everything from a tractor and livestock trailer to getting electricity running properly (we've had to move an electrical pole!) to meeting with architects for the creamery to trying to pin down where all the sheep are coming from in the Spring. In the plus column right now is that our chicks are coming and fencing is starting on Monday. We also got our farm truck, which is very, very exciting because now we can move stuff around! However, despite all of the intense excitement, one thing sent my adrenals into hyperdrive: money. Getting hold of it, and understanding what the heck to do with it is just a massive, essential, pain-in-the-ass. We've been using GoogleSpreadsheet to develop a 4-year cash-flow for the farm. While spreadsheets are a fantabulous tool, we found that sometimes they add too much complexity to the situation. We got to the point, about mid-week last week where neither of us were at all sure anymore of how the farm was going to support itself. Panic ensued. We moved numbers around, tweaked things here and there on the model, only to realize that all of a sudden we had unknowingly increased the number of sheep we needed to be sustainable to 600! We totally exceeded the capacity of our land. In all our projections, we lost sight of the ground itself. We totally lost control.

This red-flag brought Ross to say, "you know, if I can't explain it with a crayon, it's too complicated." So, we had what we dubbed The Crayon Meeting. We closed the computer, grabbed a marker, a white board, and a calculator, and ran our cash-flow.

We both felt better. We know, completely and totally that these numbers are generally very unlikely to be anything close to what is really going to happen, but what it did tell us is that we aren't crazy and that the business can run without dying: it's possible. We always knew this intuitively, but the numbers had to reflect this intuition on some level. They do, and I feel like I can breathe a little easier. It was, however, a big wake-up call to the reality of the potential loss if this doesn't work. It's a terrifying thought, one I can hardly entertain. But for me, that was all the more fire underneath me to see to it that is doesn't. I'm carrying Joel Salatin's words around with me like a talisman: you will never regret self-abandonment. Lines from Wendell Berry's The Wild Geese flow through my mind:

Geese appear high over us, pass and the sky closes. Abandon as in love or sleep holds them to their way clear.

It is abandon that will hold me, that will help me to find the way though this. Abandon, according to my trusty dictionary, in its most literal sense, means to give up control. There is such an element of all of this that is totally out of our control. Project and run numbers though we might, we will be wrong. But that is in no way a reason to panic or a reason to say no. This may be the biggest leap of faith I will ever undertake. I could turn inside out with nerves. But underneath the nerves is this unyielding sense of purpose; a kind of unseen, unknown, totally felt thread that I am following in the dark.

This month's issue of Culture Magazine offers a short little story that calms and soothes me when I'm feeling frayed. It is totally sappy, totally the stuff of a Hallmark Family Movie of the Week, but it works, and I see myself inside of it, and I feel better:

Cindy Callahan: sheep farmer, cheesemaker, employer, mother, grandmother, former attorney, nurse, and co-fonder of Bellwether Farms in Sonoma Co. California.

I live on the ranch. The alarm goes off at 4:45. I get up, get my clothes on, brush my teeth, fill my carafe with coffee, and head down to the milking. I'm not a people person; I'm an animal person. We have 34 acres. We used to live in a very large house in San Francisco. One day my husband saw an ad for a piece of property in Sonoma. So we drove out to see it.

It all started with a crazy idea. People thought we had a business plan, but we didn't. In the beginning, we thought we'd raise steer because we like beef. A livestock advisor came out to visit and said that for every steer you could raise five sheep on the same land. I'd never even seen a sheep, except in pictures. With the ram, nature took its course. I sold lamb to friends until the number got to be too much. I called up Chez Panisse. They were our first commercial customer. . .

People said, "that crazy woman from San Francisco thinks she can milk sheep." They'd come in from the fog –we get a lot of fog down here– and they'd stand in the milking parlor and just watch. "I had to see it to believe it," they'd say.

I used to be a clotheshorse in Manhattan. I was a single nurse, living on the East Side. I spent my days off at Bonwit Teller and Lord & Taylor. . .

I always say I finally figured out what I wanted to be when I grew up. I say if you have a dream, pursue it. . . I was 51 years old when I did this.

(copied with apologies to Culture Magazine and Cindy Callahan of Bellwether Farms, you've inspired me, I've only copied part of the story, please don't sue me)

I say I'm 26. I've been a scholar and a teacher. I've seen lots of sheep live and in person, herded them, worked with them, sent them to slaughter, and sold them. I know what curd is supposed to look like before you cut it. If Cindy Callahan could do all it takes to be in this business at 51 with what experience she had, I'll be damned if I can't do it too.

temple gradin: the movie

This evening, after supper, Ross came running out of the bathroom yelling "oh my god oh my god!" I thought he had broken an arm or something the way he was shouting. Turns out he had been reading the most recent copy of Vanity Fair and came across an add that neither of us ever expected we would in a million years see:


Holy frijoles, folks! The coolness is of the extreme. Temple Grandin is one of the most amazing people I have ever known about. Her writing has deeply influenced my relationship with animals and has grounded me with sound reason in the feeling I have always had about how we ought to treat animals. She is as close to Dr. Doolittle as we have yet gotten, and thousands of times more profound. She is one of a very small number of people who has actually accomplished real good in the difficult path to ease the suffering of animals, especially the animals we eat. She has done so, not through the angry, sometimes violent, or else sappy, paths of arguments based on cuteness, but because she has provided the world with an inescapable rationale for why ending the suffering of animals is important. She has written many books. I highly recommend all of them.

Apart from her amazing work, she has lived quite an amazing life; one I will be glad to get a picture of in this upcoming film. From the trailer, I'm hopeful that they've done her justice.

sheep go to heaven, goats go to hell

The other night I was rifling through the internet, looking for bells for our dairy ewes. We have been considering using bells for some time, largely because they add a magical sound to the already magical sight of sheep in a green field, but also because they are quite practical to help find sheep, especially if one has gone astray. In my search, I ran across the video above. As I sat and watched, transfixed by the tinkling bells, vibrantly green grass, peaceful sheep, and the amazing sight of the waterfall that frames a pastoral landscape that would have made Theocritus weep, my sense of awe came to an abrupt, angry halt. The author of the video addresses the sheep, "hi sheep!" which is, of course, adorable. However, her companion, in the background, innocently inquires, "how can you. . . what is the difference between sheep and goats?" [email protected]!)*&^%$#!

Ok, yes, I accept that not everyone has the same interest in livestock that I do, not everyone has made it their business to gain intimate knowledge of the wonderful world of ruminant creatures. But for the love of god, didn't they go to kindergarten? Are farm animals simply not covered in kindergarten anymore, or only in some schools? I am continually stunned by the way many of the adults I have encountered since beginning this endeavor have collapsed "sheep" and "goat" into one being. At least every other time someone asks me about the farm, they ask, "how are the goats coming along?" when these people, my friends, neighbors, and acquaintances, all very smart, savvy people, all of whom have been told that we raise sheep, can't seem to separate sheep from goat. I find this troubling. Honestly, I have no bias here. I've got nothing against goats. I love goats. I plan to keep a goat or two as a kind of farm ambassador for people who want to visit the farm and pet the critters. Goat milk is lovely. Chevre, a fresh delicious goats milk cheese, is a large part of the reason I want to make cheese at all. The first cheese I ever made was a goat cheese. Goats are great. Sheep are super. I make no distinction between them on merit. I do make a distinction, however, between species. Make no mistake, I would not begrudge someone mistaking a baboon for a mandrill the same way I wouldn't begrudge someone for not knowing the difference between a standard TIE-Fighter for Darth Vader's TIE-Advanced X-1 Starfighter (though, those of you who know me well might argue otherwise!) Given that we live as members of the Western World, not central Africa or a galaxy far far away, these distinctions are pure esoterica. No, what is troubling is how very, very disconnected people have become from the very animals that have assisted us in our pursuit of civilization for a millennia. So clear was the division of sheep and goat in the ancient world that St. Matthew saw fit to use the distinction between the two species as a metaphor for the separation of the blessed and the damned!

Are we so far removed from our agrarian ancestry that our brains no longer see the difference between two similar, but altogether different species? Indeed, two species that have shared our history and have helped to form what we are today. It used to be that everyone knew the difference between a white oak and a red oak. Now you're lucky if a person knows the difference between an oak and a pine. Are our livestock going the same way? Will chickens and ducks soon be collapsed together? To put a very contemporary spin on it, I feel like it's as if Paris Hilton were being constantly confused with Ivanka Trump, only, blonde, celebrity, socialite heiresses are not fundamental to the bedrock of human civilization. Who knows, maybe, at the end of the day, the distinction is just as trivial. Frankly, I'm over it already, but I can't help but wonder if perhaps this indistinct perception between sheep and goats is a larger reflection of how our lives have become ill-defined and uncertain; we can no longer make fundamental distinctions; perhaps lines have crossed and blurred on some greater, cosmic level. Or maybe, just maybe, we all would do well to spend a little more time outside, paying attention, and giving attention to the creatures that give us what we eat. But that is just my totally biased opinion.

manyfold farm

Here are the first photos taken of the farm since it has passed into our hands to become Manyfold Farm. I was out taking soil samples today in this amazing, balmy January sunshine. Ross worked a bit on the well to install a spigot so we can provide water to our soon-to-be-here chickens. Step by step, we're moving along. . .

farm faq

Over the past few weeks I've been working on a Frequently Asked Questions sheet for the farm that will go on our website. I'd love to get y'all's input. Do I address all the questions you might ask about the farm? Are the answers sufficient? Have I left anything out that you're burning to know? Please let us know by leaving a comment. Thanks!

Manyfold Farm FAQ
When are the sheep coming?
Our first sheep are scheduled to come in March of 2010.

When will you have cheese?
If all goes well, we will have our first fresh cheeses by the spring of 2011. Soft aged cheeses will come by the fall of 2012, and hard aged cheeses by winter of 2013. This is totally, and completely subject to change and probably will.

Will you have any goats or cows?
We plan to have a few Nigerian Dwarf goats and a couple of cows or steers. Our main reason for the cows is to assist with pasture management. Cows do a good job maintaining pasture quality and help to break the parasite cycle in sheep. The Nigerian Dwarf goats are just for fun and a bit of fluid goat milk for us on the side.

What about lamb? When will you have some?
We plan to have lamb in the spring and fall of each year. Lamb will be sold directly to individual customers and restauraunts on-the-hoof, primarily, though we are considering selling by the cut if there is enough interest. The earliest we will have lamb will be spring of 2011.

Will you have any other products?
We will have eggs by fall of 2010. We are planning to have pork, chicken, and rabbit within the first five years.

Where will you be selling?
Our plan is to sell both retail and wholesale. Our primary market will be the metro Atlanta area. We plan to have a small store on the farm as well, provided the City allows us. We will branch out to other markets as our business grows. If you are a retail outlet or wholesale distributer that is interested in purchasing local artisan cheese or high-quality pasture-based meats, we’d love know who you are! Drop us a line: [email protected]

Why did you choose sheep?
Antoine de Saint-Exupery (you know, the guy who wrote The Little Prince) said, “If someone wants a sheep, then that means that he exists.” We agree. There is something about them that just feels good and right. Apart from that, there are 5 other reasons:
1) Sheep’s milk has the highest butterfat per litre content of any ruminant. Therefore, sheep efficiently turn grass into the highest quality of the stuff you need to make cheese with the least amount of waste (whey).
2) Because of the high-quality and rich taste of most sheep cheeses, they fetch the highest prices.
3) Lamb, the natural by-product of dairying, is a delicious, high-value item.
4) Sheep are easier to manage than cattle or goats. Sheep flock well, so they are easy to move. They are very complacent animals, unlike goats. And unlike cattle, if one charges you, you’re going to end up with a broken arm or leg, as opposed to dead.
5) Sheep, because of their small body mass, are very beneficial to pasture under management-intensive systems.

What kinds of sheep do you have?
We are planning to use East Freisians and East Fresian/Gulf Coast Native crosses for our dairy flock. We will also maintain an meat flock of Katahdin sheep while we are developing our dairy genetics.

How do you make cheese?
Cheese is made by carefully controlling the decay and spoilage of milk. It is an ancient process of fermentation, much like that of beer, wine, or pickles, that was used to preserve nutrient rich milk over winter and in lean times. The process involves the removal of water from the milk solids through the use of bacteria and the enzyme chymosin (rennet) which is furthered by a process of stirring, cutting, and pressing. Once the water is removed to an appropriate level, the cheese is aged in order to develop flavor.

I’m so excited! Why does everything seem to take so long?
I know. But patience is everything in farming. When you’re working with nature and natural processes, things take time. In addition, we’ve never built a business before, and so we figure slow and steady wins the race.

I love Gruyere! Will you make Gruyere?
No. Unequivocally no. The French make perfect Gruyere, there is nothing we can do to improve upon it. We won’t make Emmental, either, or Gouda, or Pecorino, or any other cheese you may already know and love. We believe that a cheese directly corresponds to the unique flavors and characteristics of a particular region. We would never presume to re-create the unique environment of the French alps in our cheese. What we will do is work to capture new flavors from a place that has never really seen cheese before: West Central Georgia.

Will you make raw cheese or pasteurized cheese?
Both. If we could only make raw cheese and still be able to sell a wide variety of cheeses, we would. However, due to state law and regulations, many of the cheeses we wish to produce must be pasteurized for legal sale. We believe that raw cheeses are superior in terms of nutrition and taste. We also believe they are perfectly safe to eat if they come from a creamery that is clean, that keeps its animals in excellent health, and that feeds its animals very little if any grain and no silage whatsoever.

Are raw cheeses safe to eat?
There is a great deal of controversy about the safety of raw cheeses in government regulatory agencies. Some cheeses, like fresh cheese and yogurt, must be pasteurized to legally sell. Other cheeses that can be aged past 60 days are considered safe by most state regulations when consumed raw. The logic behind this law is that most dangerous bacteria will either make their presence known or will die off before 60 days elapse. However, this does not necessarily guarantee safety. The bacteria listeria monocytogenes produces a lethal toxin in milk that lingers despite pasteurization and despite the number of days the cheese is aged. Its primary vector is through unprocessed milk that is left for too many days at too high a temperature. Pasteurization may kill the bacteria, but the toxin it produces is still present. Milk can also be contaminated with clostridium botulinum if the animal is fed silage or other fermented feeds. Although, after 60 days, cheese with this contamination will usually explode, so it’s safe to say that it gets noticed. Most other vectors for contamination of milk comes from animals that are unhealthy. The best way to ensure that the cheese you want to eat is safe is to buy from farms that process their milk very soon after it comes from the animal, that has a clean facility, and that keeps its animals in excellent health, feeds little or no grain, and that does not feed its milking animals silage or other fermented feeds.

Why won’t you make “vegetarian cheese”?
Two reasons: taste and ethics. Vegetable-based rennets typically yield a slightly bitter note in cheeses we wish to avoid. Vegetable-based rennets are also something of a misnomer. They are actually derived from a genetically-modified bacteria that produces chymosin (the enzyme in rennet that causes the water to separate from the milk solids and for those solids to gel). Therefore, it’s not really a “vegetable-based” product. We are ethically opposed to the use of GMO’s in foods. There are true vegetable rennets that can be derived from thistle and other plants, but they are not currently legal in the US and typically yield a strongly bitter taste in the finished cheese.

Will you be certified organic? What will you feed your animals?
Probably not. Organic certification is a cumbersome process that we feel is not altogether necessary in order to market our products successfully. We are a grass-based farm, which means that all our animals eat grass and other forages on the land. Some animals, like chickens, require more than what the grass alone can provide, so we supplement them with a certified organic feed. Dairy ewes will probably also receive a small grain supplement at milking that will be certified organic.

Will you be certified humane?
Maybe. We’re learning what goes into this certification. We will, without a doubt be a humane facility to the highest degree, but we’re still learning about the positives and negatives of this certification.

Why do you want to be in farming?
Ha! The answer to this question could go on for pages. It’s something we are constantly surprised by. The short answer is that we have cultivated a love of food and a love of land throughout our lives. We love to work with our bodies and minds together, and we are constantly amazed, in awe, and humbled by nature. It makes us happy and we feel good doing it.

Can I come visit the farm?
Absolutely! Just give us a call or drop us an email. Come spend the day or just an hour, bring a picnic. Better still, come on a volunteer day and help us weed whack, or build a bridge, or clean chicken houses. . .

whole (half) hog

For Halloween this year we roasted half a hog. It was an amazing experience. We picked it up from the good folks of Riverview Farms, stored it in our upstairs bathtub for two days, and then put it in our caja china. It was awesome.

Here it is in the bathtub . . .

And here, freshly decapitated on my front porch (gawd I'm glad my vegetarian neighbor's kids didn't come wandering over, or their dog)

mmmmmmm, seasonings

Ready for roasting!

Done! (mmmmmmm, crispy skin!)

maximization vs. optimization (or, why I am not a sheep farmer)

Ross and I just returned from the Dairy Sheep Association of North America's annual symposium in Albany, NY. We were really excited about this conference, about the schedule planned, the networking opportunities, the things we would learn. Most of the farming conferences I have been to are charged with excitement: people are learning and exchanging ideas, loudly criticizing or praising speakers, and making new friends. Albeit, this was largely the case here, but to be blunt, I felt like an outsider. I had expected a degree of this feeling, considering the fact that Ross and I are dairy novices, but with that, I also expected that the veterans out there would be excited about bright, new, young farmers working their way into the fold. Unfortunately, this was not the case. There were several reasons for this, first, numbers: there are only some 150 sheep dairies in the United States. Not all of these folks attend conferences, and those who do have known each other for years. Because of the smallness of the group, it felt very hard to make inroads and get to know folks, which I understand, but was disappointed by. The second reason was something of an eye-opener. In the past, I've attended farming conferences that were ideologically driven; folks come because they believe in organic/sustainable/local/insertothermichealpollanesquebuzzwordhere agricultural practices. At the DSANA Symposium, the primary focus is sheep and cheese, not an ideology. As such, the presentations tended to centre around the concepts of maximizing production at lower cost and time inputs. Lectures included discussions of feeding dairy sheep spent brewery grains (including the purchase of a large, expensive, mechanical press to squeeze out moisture and excluding discussion of clostridium and listeria issues linked to these types of feed), the benefits of using a new hormone insert made by Pfizer that sychronizes estrus in ewes (with minimal discussion of how this can be done by simply staggering the introduction of a ram across a fence, which takes more time, but does not require that you purchase a drug), and a lecture on the effects of prepubertal lamb nutrition where lambs were fed huge amounts of grain and TMR in the study. The lecturer, Dr. Dave Thomas, who conducted the research, showed a photo of lambs eating all they wanted of a TMR, so much that they were lying down, eating, and who's distended bellies were, to use the lecturer's words, "tighter than a tick." The audience laughed. I cringed. It was all I could do to not explode with anger and frustration. Here's why.

On the other side of the world from these lectures was one given by Dr. Darrell Emmick, which was sponsored by the good folks at ATTRA. His presentation was terrific. Dr. Emmick is currently conducting research on natural bahvior-based livestock management and the benefits of allowing ruminant animals to have free choice of forages on pasture. In his talk, he outlined how cows and sheep tend to choose the foods in a pasture that optimize their overall health and productivity. The crux of his argument is that the typical animal management systems operate under the assumption that an animal is a machine: it is a known entity that has known and measurable needs in order to maximize performance. TMZ is therefore a perfect food that meets all the health and nutrition requirements for an animal. Emmick then constructs an argument that clearly articulates how this is a flawed assumption. Animals are in fact much more dynamic in their nutritional needs. His argument is that animals are individuals, each one has its own specific genetic make-up and its own specific behaviors, some instinctual, most learned. As with humans, no two sheep, cows, goats, llamas, horses, buffalo, whatever, have the exact same food preferences. Some of these preferences are learned, others are driven by genetic responses, such as allergies. Furthermore, as with people, animals do not typically enjoy eating the same foods day after day. Given the choice, people will stop eating the leftover Turkey from Thanksgiving before it's all gone. The body grows tired of eating the same food; the nutritional requirements that food can serve has been fulfilled, and now the body craves something else. Animals are no different. Dr. Emmick is not simply anthropomorphizing. He spends days at a time sitting with animals, watching them eat pasture, counting chomps, recording what they choose. His research demonstrates that grazing animals do not eat any one kind of food. Instead, animals forage for the foods that balance their needs for energy, protein, and other nutrients. So, for example, if you feed a high-energy grain or other supplement in the barn during milking, the animal will be dis-inclined to consume more energy-rich pasture plants and so will have decreased total dry matter intake, risking malnutrition and increasing the need for further supplementation. On the other hand, if one were to feed a protein-rich feed in the barn, the animal would still intake pasture because it is more energy rich during the milking season (spring and summer), but still contains protein. As a result, the gut of the animal converts excess nitrogen from protein into ammonia that then uses the animal's energy and water consumption to flush-out the ammonia instead of making milk. To further explain this phenomenon of adept animal food choices, I quote directly from materials on Dr. Emmick's website. Farmers know that clover is one of the best foods to have in a pasture: cows love it, sheep love it. The problem arises when ruminants eat too much of it and they get bloat, a sudden and fatal condition when the fermentation processes in the rumen becomes over-active. Turns out, these critters know what to do about it if they have diverse pasture species to choose from:

Looking Over Clover

Sheep in the United Kingdom prefer to eat clover in the morning and grass in the afternoon, even though clover is more digestible and higher in protein than grass. Why? Animals prefer highly digestible foods because the delay between beginning to eat and nutrient reinforcement is short and the amount of reinforcement is high. However, if animals eat too much of a highly digestible food, and rates of fermentation are too high, they become ill and begin eating less
digestible foods. When the immediate positive postingestive effects of nutrients are then followed by mild illness, the pattern of intake becomes cyclic: gradual increases followed by sharp declines. The more familiar an animal is with a food, and the greater the positive feedback from nutrients, the less likely the animal is to acquire a lasting aversion. This response is characteristic of nutritious foods like larkspur, which contains toxic alkaloids, or rapidly fermentable foods like grain (high in carbohydrates) and some pasture forages (high in protein).

This helps explain why sheep in the United Kingdom eat clover in the morning and switch to grass in the afternoon. Hungry sheep initially prefer clover because it is highly digestible compared with grass. As they continue to eat clover, however, sheep satiate—acquire a mild aversion—from the effects of soluble carbohydrates and proteins and from the effects of toxic cyanogenic compounds. The mild aversion causes them to seek the less nutritious grass, which is lower in nutrients and toxins, in the afternoon. During the afternoon and evening, the sheep recuperate from eating clover, and the aversion subsides. By morning, they’re ready for more clover.

Indeed, this is how animals self-regulate against bloat, caused by a diet of foods that are too rich. If Dr. Emmick's observations are correct, and I think they are, then the only reason and animal should bloat from eating too much clover is when there is not enough other stuff too eat. In addition, animals on pasture also know about medicinal plants. Dr. Emmick mentioned in his talk that dandelion has a chemical in it that calms the development of gas in the rumen. He said that he has never heard of a case of bloat in animals where pasture had both clover and dandelions.

Another somewhat alarming example came when Dr. Emmick showed us a photograph of a cow actually consuming a small rabbit which was documented by Dr. Michiel Wallisdevries and first appeared in the Journal of Applied Ecology.

What the heck is going on here?! Cows aren't supposed to eat meat!!! But here it is. Once again, biology shows us that in the natural world there is no such thing as "always" and "never." These cows were deficient in phosphorous due to poor pasture. Mammal bones contain huge amounts of phosphorous. Do you see where this is going yet? The rabbits would die of natural causes, leaving behind their bones. The cows would curiously eat some of the bone while grazing on the homogenous pasture. Post-ingestive feedback inside the cow lead it to gain interest in the rabbits themselves in their attempts to access their bones and the phosphorous within.

Dr. Emmick got me thinking about the prospect that all animals are omnivores to a certain extent. All animals fall on a spectrum of preference that is much more dynamic than the reductionist "these animals eat plants," "these eat meat," and "these eat both." The truth is, we all eat whatever it takes to get what we need. Sure, some animals prefer meat, others plants, but the reality is that life finds a way to get what it needs to perpetuate itself, regardless of human-made, superimposed distinctions. Even within the domain of "plants" there is so much variety and diversity of what any one speicies will eat that reducing herbivores to mere "plant-eaters" seems ludicrous. They are timothy grass, big bluestem, gamma grass, birdsfoot trefoil, white clover, fescue, dandelion, pigweed and about 100 other plant-eaters. What all animals, humans included, have a stake in is diversity. Nature abhors a monoculture. Polyculture, the many, not the one, is the source and sustenance of life.

These examples are only the tip of the iceberg when one stops to consider how many variables there are to consider in working with an animal to optimize its nutrition. The moment feed is introduced to the animal, pasture intake is affected. One woman asked, "how is this information useful unless we are constantly taking protein and energy samples from our pasture? How are we to know what to feed them in the barn or if the pasture itself is giving them enough?" It's a good question, but one that is ultimately confined to the realm of working to control for the sake of maximization. To her, the animal was still a machine, just an infinitely more complex one, too complex to continue managing like a machine. There is something else in order here. The beauty of grass-based systems is that as the animals eat and move on, never destroying the whole plant and always leaving behind rich fertilizer, they prune for stronger regrowth of existing plants and prime the soil for new plants to take root. Therefore, the plants your animals like best (the only ones they are given time to eat) get pruned and become more robust, pushing out less desirable foods, while new foods are finding their way to the well-fertilized soil. Biodiversity, more forage choices, yield healthy, strong animals that need few, if any, inputs. The farmer, need only manage, not micro-manage, what nature already does.

The biggest issue here is the distinction between two schools of thought: maximization and optimization. Many of the folks at the DSANA conference come from the maximization perspective. It's what they were taught, what they know best, what they trust. More in equals more out. While that's true, it is only true to a point. Scale becomes a confounding factor. If you are an industrial-scale farmer, with thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of animals, you're always going to get a lot of meat, milk, or whatever you're producing. As a result, you can afford the equipment, medication, and infrastructure it takes to be successful. Indeed, you need them to function at all. However, if you are a small-scale farmer, with maybe a few hundred animals at most, industrial systems of management and care, though they may maximize production, cost more, and ignore resources that are already plentiful and free. Perhaps the animals will not maximize their capacities for meat or milk, but odds are, they will optimize them, minimizing cost and work for the small farmer. A simple chart illustrates the point:

In this chart, we see that the animals that had free choice ate less, cost considerably less to feed, and gained the same weight in the same number of days as the TMR fed animals. Why would a small farm, highly concerned with cost inputs and completely capable of managing pasture because of its small-scale, ever want to feed out TMR?

It was hard for me to believe, but as I spoke with Dr. Emmick, he told me that there were people at the conference there who hated him; thought he was batty, and who couldn't understand what he was on about. His thinking is the minority viewpoint. I was stunned. My eyes were totally opened. It made me sad to a certain extent. Most of these dairy farmers do what they do because they love these animals. They really, emotionally care about them, give them names, pet them, and take amusement in their quirky, individual behaviors. Yet, these sheep lovers ask their animals to behave in ways that aren't in their nature, that are more likely to make them unhealthy, and that harm the economic viability of the farm, making maintaining it more of a struggle than it should be. It's a delicate issue. Folks on either side don't take kindly to criticism. But ultimately, it is a fundamental issue of perspective. On the one hand and one we have a point of view that revolves around an adherence to a philosophy of which the animals are a part, and on the other, a straightforward love and enjoyment of the animals for themselves. The question that puts you on one side or the other is, are you farming because you love sheep with their wool, meat, and milk; or do you love nature, natural processes, and see the sheep as a way of caring for nature and the land? In the end, this is why I have had a lot more fun at other conferences: I am an ideological farmer, a grass farmer, not a sheep farmer.

workday 11.22.09

Come on out to the farm for a workday this weekend! We'll be cleaning up the old barns and sheds and letting folks take a look at the place. We're starting up around 10:00am and we'll finish by 3:00pm. We'll supply gloves, beer, and homemade chili and cornbread. Send me an email if you can make it and I'll reply with directions.

See you there!

Closing. Opening.

Yesterday, at 8:30 am, we closed on our farm. We have land. We really, really do. Pictures are on the way. We went out after we closed and walked the pastures. Just walked, looked, and began the process of getting grounded. Ross and I sat down and made a huge list of everything that needs to be done before the stock can arrive. We itemized and put dates by everything. We let our friends and families know: this is real, this is happening. We have solid ground on which to work. Real, tangible ground. I thought it would all hit my like a ton of bricks, but the truth is, it's sinking in, slowly, like a weight, the weight of responsibility. It is not at all harsh or crushing, it just feels like enough weight to hold me to the ground.

I've been fairly absent in writing or really doing anything farm-related for several weeks now. Everything has just felt so up-in-the-air; everything felt like possibility, it was an uncomfortable feeling of limbo, the neither-here-nor-thereness of the past weeks was debilitating for me. Too much potential was riding on the potential of land; it was so hard to be sure of anything other than the wanting and the waiting that I could hardly put my mind on anything else for fear that it would slip away if the land didn't happen. But it did. It really, for sure did.

Farmer Paige, who runs the vegetable farm behind my house brought over a jar of her home-made melome (a kind of fermented blueberry drink, rather like mead) in celebration. It warmed my heart so deeply. I just sat there grinning, drinking some by the fire, feeling unbelievably grateful for my life, for being here, and for the unbelievably kind, open, and generous people that surround me.

I've come back to earth. My feet are on the ground. I'm ready to go.

what cheese am I eating no. 4 Bossa

Tim my cheesemonger recently returned from judging at the American Cheese Society (where he sat next to master cheese maker and one of my teachers from VIAC, Marc Druart! Small world, no?). Tim's been bringing in some of the better things he found there, one of which is a beautiful washed rind, sheep's milk cheese, Bossa, from Green Dirt Farm in Missouri that won first prize in its category. When Tim said Green Dirt Farm, I immediately lit up with curiosity. We have been in contact with them about the possibility of purchasing livestock from them. They are a small farm that is very similar to what we want our own to be and they work with the two breeds we are most interested in (Gulf Coast Native and East Friesian). Tim had nothing but good things to say about the cheese. I tasted all he had, but I especially liked Bossa and took a wheel home.

First off, I really like the packaging: clean, simple, with a nicely designed sticker (plus the ASC winner sticker is always a marketing bonus) and appropriate, breathable cheese paper. The pretty, orange rind had some streaks of blue and white mould that I'm not sure were intentional, but frankly, were irrelevant to the taste which was phenomenal.

I immediately jotted down this: strong grassy manure notes in the rind, only the mildest hints of ammonia; fruit, smells EXACTLY like a milking parlor in the rind; tastes like a pasture smells, sweet, only mildly grassy, earthy and softly picante (if that's not too much of an oxymoron). These notes sum up my initial reaction to the flavors. As for texture, it was pleasantly rubbery and creamy, like a washed-rind cheese ought to be. The rind had a bit of a gritty texture to it, which is my only real complaint about the cheese. Overall, I give it a 5.

A "True Fact" of Management and a theory of how it can work on a farm

As many of you out there know, Ross and I are in the throes of building our business plan for our farm. The one topic that keeps coming up in every advisory conversation I have with farmers is the issue of management. Not management of crops or land use, no, that's the easy stuff. It is the management of people that is tricky: employees and interns. This issue seems to be the biggest bone of contention on small farms right now: how to manage interns, how is that different from managing employees, should a farm have employees or interns, how much structure should be used, what kinds of structures, how much responsibility should be given and when, should there be rewards, how do you deal with inevitable mistakes? The list goes on and no one seems to be providing satisfactory solutions. I've been spending a lot of time thinking about how I have been managed, both on farms and in other "city" jobs. I honestly feel that I have never been well-managed. As I've considered my previous management experiences from the receiving end, I have come to the conclusion that there is one main issue that has tainted each experience: persistent failure to communicate, which in at least three instances lead directly to a passive aggressive relationship between myself, my employer, and co-workers. A secondary issue has been that I have failed to demand, as well as failed to be given employment and internship opportunities that were sufficiently challenging and mentally engaging to keep me there. It is from these experiential threads that I hope to put together a theory of management.

With these anecdotal experiences in mind, I would posit a list of attributes a good pair of hands on a farm must have:

1) a good pair of hands, strong, stalwart, and willing in all cases to work 2) a good mind, one that can make decisions, problem solve, and can process mistakes 3) a good spirit, a person who can learn to use the mind to inform the hands so the mundane can become profound and so that each task can become a joyful one

Never hire someone you don't pay to also think. If you need a lot of menial tasks done, hire a day-laborer or a good kid from the neighborhood. Smart people who have these three attributes in abundance can make outstanding employees. However, in return for their good qualities, an employer must be willing to create an atmosphere where these attributes can fully express themselves. So, in order to attract and keep a good pair of hands, an employer must maintain:

1) clear and consistent lines of communication 2) clear and consistent expectations 3) clear and consistent space for free thought in balance with boundaries

This last guideline needs a bit of explanation. If you want smart people on your farm or at your business, then what they do every day must be mentally engaging, must require them to think hard and think in genuinely creative ways. This creativity can only come from idleness, time and space to sit and think. When we visited Polyface, one of the best things Joel said to me was that the reason Southern farmers are so backwards is that they don't have a winter to sit and think. It's about disturbance and rest all over again, only for the mind as well as for the land. Folks need to do, but then they need time to stop and consider what it is they've done. Without that time and space, we just keep cogging forward while any improvements are either slow to come or accidental; left more to chance than ingenuity and craft, the very things that, as I understand it, are what much of farming is about. But there's a balance. Farmers, I think, would benefit from giving this space, but I think they would also benefit from being hard-line defenders of boundaries. In every business, there are boundaries, indeed, in any relationship: there are structures and lines that do not get crossed without serious consequences. These boundaries on a farm should be wide to encourage creativity and learning, but clearly articulated and fiercely guarded so as to prevent a lack of understanding about one's place.

If you're in the business of growing food, then just grow food: hire labor, manage them conventionally, get what needs getting done done. But with that simplicity comes the burden of being the person who is singularly responsible for the oversight of just about everything, something much too complex for one person to handle well. One can start walking that fine line of micromanaging, and that's really more work than I think anybody really wants to do. Traditional management is great if you want compliance with standards of how you want things done, but if you want a worker who is engaged with the farm (which is what I think most interns crave), self-direction works better. I am in the business of growing food, yes, but also educating: the cultivation of minds goes hand-in-hand with the cultivation of crops. That means being both farmer and teacher, and not a kindergarden teacher, either. Though some interns or employees may have a kindergarden-level knowledge of farming (since that seems to be the first and last time kids get exposure to farms and farm life), they need not be hand-held. Smart people can figure stuff out when asked to; it's the teacher's job to ask. Of course, this gets us no closer to answering the questions of what do we ask our workers to do and more importantly, how do we ask it.

To address these questions head-on as well as to provide evidence for my thinking that goes beyond the anecdotal, I present a "true fact" about management brought to my attention, as with many good, thought-provoking things, by the good people of TED. If you are not familiar with this organization, you should be. In its most distilled version, TED is an organization that gets a bunch of terrific thinkers together to give an 18 minute speech about their work. In this particular talk, Dan Pink gives some real insight into progressive management strategies that I think, both from his "true fact" and my experience, are very worth pursuing as a core to a management strategy:

Mr. Pink deals with the problem of functional fixedness, that is, we see things and define things based on what we immediately know the thing is for. If you are given a box of tacks, then the box is for the tacks and nothing else; it has been predefined. But seeing a box and tacks, where both are tools to help solve a problem takes a certain openness about the task at hand; indeed, as Mr. Pink says, an ability to see the periphery as well as what's right in front of you. Incidentally, the brilliant animal behaviorist Temple Grandin writes at length about how animals do not seem to have issues with functional fixedness; they tend to see things just as they are, exactly what is actually there, whereas we tend to skim the details out through a kind of mental clumping based on a pre-existing definition of the object. An example of this phenomenon is the Gorilla Suit trick. In this video, put together by the University of Illinois Visual Cognition Lab, the viewer is asked to count the number of times the team in the white shirt passes the ball. In the viewer's careful attempt to get the right answer, he or she focuses intently on the white team's movements to the exclusion of everything else that is going on. Try it yourself. Aiming for total accuracy, count the number of passes the white team makes. Then, watch the video a second time, but this time, don't count, just watch. And here's the clincher, once you have seen the whole picture, you can't ever again fail to see it. Don't believe me? Try it. Once you've done the first part of the trick, try to only focus on counting the white team's passes without seeing everything else. You can't do it. The implication of this little example is that once you start to see the whole, you can't ever not see it as a whole: the periphery is as much in focus as anything else. This phenomenon is exactly what Mr. Pink is referring to in his talk. If we give a person a specific task with a specific goal, that person's understanding and ability to work within the whole system is crippled. Sure, we get the correct number of passes, but what is the cost of what we miss in the process?

The point is, we tend to see what we expect to see rather than what is actually there. To echo Mr. Pink, this is not a feeling, this is not an idea, this is a fact. This is exactly what the overwhelming majority of human beings do and it is exactly this tendency that we must fight as we seek to find new and better ways of doing things.

Consider the application of these facts on a farm. Most farms manage interns by teaching a skill, say harvesting beets, and then are asked to repeat that skill in the future ad nauseum. Later in the day, they are asked to plant seeds in the same way they were taught ad nauseum. They are told to then repair a fence, make a delivery, etc. All are straightforward, menial tasks. The problem with these tasks for interns is simple: so often the reward is not great enough for this kind of work to be done correctly, efficiently, and happily. Furthermore, if you were to ask the intern in this situation to manage the whole farm for even a day, six months in, she or he would be likely to have huge difficulties keeping everything in mind. When all the operations of a farm are rote, that is, memorized and repeated, understood only insofar as direct instruction, then that person's total knowledge may be considerable, but it is also fragmented; rendered unstable because it has yet to begin to engage the mind beyond what is a very narrow cognitive scope. The intern in this situation can count the number of passes and can melt the wax of a candle to stick it to the wall, what I disparagingly refer to as the "git-er-done" method of running a business, but at the end of the day, it's not enough. The question you have to ask as that person's manager is "what are they missing?", and more importantly, "am I presenting the information they need to know in such a way that I am setting them up to miss the big picture? Am I inadvertently creating an atmosphere where thinking through something is actually inhibited rather than encouraged?" Interns seem to be constantly taught what to look at, but not how to look. In a nutshell, that is the difference between an intern and an employee. You can give an employee lots of rote farm tasks because you pay them a real wage that directly corresponds to how well they complete tasks. Employees who do more than rote, such as managers, get paid substantially more in kind because you are asking them to both work and think. But based on what I have learned from Mr. Pink, I would posit that you in fact don't have to pay your interns more to get better results. Indeed, you don't even have to have employees who are rewarded with a more substantial monetary gains for work. What I am suggesting is that interns can be more productive at less cost if you engage them in creative decision making processes in tandem with rote tasks. Punishment and reward does not work in an intern situation. You're rarely going to find that gem of an intern who does rote work consistently well without substantial reward. I find, purely anecdotally, that this is especially true the smarter and more educated the intern is.

So, for all these smart, well-educated willing workers coming onto farms, I would suggest using Mr. Pink's three tools for management:

1) Autonomy Allow your employees and interns the freedom to manage themselves. This does not mean give them free reign to go nuts, one of the features of freedom is clear awareness of boundaries.

2) Mastery Give employees and interns especially the opportunity to gain mastery over one or more aspects of the operation. Give them responsibilities from the very beginning with guidelines and deadlines for aspects of mastery. Most importantly, give them room to fail. Understand that mastery comes from failures. Mitigate the consequences for failure for the business by scaffolding the task for the intern.

3) Purpose Purpose is everything. Most people work best when they clearly understand the purpose of the task, both in the immediate sense and in a larger sense. Make sure your interns and employees always, always, always understand the purpose of what they are doing on both the immediate and mundane levels, as well as how it serves something greater that is meaningful to them.

Put these three words up on the wall of your office and meditate on the ways you can leverage these tools with the people who work for you. I am keen to try a results-only work environment, or a variant thereof. I am definitely going to work to have 20% time or more for autonomous work. My interest in trying these ideas is not just because they are the product of good science and good reasoning; my interest comes from the fact that these are things that, when I have been least well-managed, I have wanted the most. I think there is something in that intuitive pull worth bringing out into the open. I'll let you know how it goes.

pollan and politics

I talk about Michael Pollan a lot in this blog. I should mention that it is not that I mean to. I don't rally behind him, I don't think he has any kind of new, special understanding of or insight to our food systems and the ways we eat. Why I reference him so often is simple: he is our mouthpiece. He is the necessary, singular voice that carries the voice of thousands alongside it. He reports about the doings of this our movement and desire for better ways of eating and living. He's a journalist, and a damn good one, who has generously and happily devoted his journalistic eye to us and helped the general public to at last, take an interest in the wild and weird world of farmers and foodies. His most recent contributions have been largely of a political nature. A common theme among food activists since President Obama was elected is our need to show this president, who has a sympathetic ear to our cause, our movement: make him look and listen. That is the American way, after all, democracy in action. Pollan has turned this need into a rallying cry, one that has most recently gained traction in the form of a farm to school movement.

I've spent the last few weeks assisting our local Slow Food Convivium in putting together an eat-in for the national Time for Lunch Campaign. I cannot stress enough how important it is to provide children with healthy, nutritious foods, so I am going to let Mr. Pollan take a stab at it for me through his outstanding New York Times Op-Ed piece that came out this week:

Big Food vs. Big Insurance
By MICHAEL POLLAN
Published: September 9, 2009

TO listen to President Obama’s speech on Wednesday night, or to just about anyone else in the health care debate, you would think that the biggest problem with health care in America is the system itself — perverse incentives, inefficiencies, unnecessary tests and procedures, lack of competition, and greed.

No one disputes that the $2.3 trillion we devote to the health care industry is often spent unwisely, but the fact that the United States spends twice as much per person as most European countries on health care can be substantially explained, as a study released last month says, by our being fatter. Even the most efficient health care system that the administration could hope to devise would still confront a rising tide of chronic disease linked to diet.

That’s why our success in bringing health care costs under control ultimately depends on whether Washington can summon the political will to take on and reform a second, even more powerful industry: the food industry. Read more. . .

what cheese am I eating now, No. 3 Shahat

Recently, I stopped by my "other" cheesemonger (not Tim) at Alon's just to take a peak at what was new. Now, I'm not a huge lover of Alon's cheese counter; the folks who run it are polite and reasonably knowledgeable, but the selection and presentation of the cheeses is less interesting and less discriminating than Star's. I've come to the understanding that if it's a cheese I already know, I can get it from Alon's without too much risk, but as of my most recent purchase I have decided that if it's new and different, or if it's a delicate cheese that requires special handling, I stay away. When I was last there, I picked up an intruiging-looking cheese, Shahat. I was drawn by the unusual packaging: an octagonal cardboard box with a minimalist typeface. I was further drawn to it by its mixture of sheep and goat milk, and even further interested by the fact that it is an Israeli cheese; not something one sees everyday, to be sure. From the sturdy packaging, I assumed that these cheesemakers took the handling of their cheese very seriously. Indeed, the back of the box has specific handling and temperature instructions (think the packaging of VB&C's Bonne Bouche). When I got home and opened the box, I found to my great surprise, that the cheese was tightly wrapped in plastic. It had also been in the plastic long enough for the p. candidium to grow into the folds and crevices of the plastic, giving it odd little fins (not a good sign).

Here is is after I took the plastic off, notice the fins on the bottom and how it looks like the plastic is still on.

At this point, I knew that the odds for disappointment were getting pretty high. Cutting it open confirmed my bad feeling:

Something crazy happened to this poor cheese. It had about four different textures going on inside, none of which were consistent. In some places it was a dense, dry paste, in others it had an open structure, and in others it looked like it was trying to become creamy, but ended up looking greasy, like the fat was separating from the protein. It was bad. One corner of the cheese looked like the rind had completely died off and the inside of the cheese in that area was discolored and slightly foul to taste. Pretty much all I got out of the cheese was sourness, slight bitterness, and strong ammonia. It was edible, but not altogether pleasant. Interestingly, I opened it back up a couple of weeks later, just to see what, if anything might have happened to it. Indeed it had changed:

Look at that pretty, soft new p. candidium growth! I mean, the cheese is not any good anymore at all, but it shows very clearly that the rind was being killed by the stifling conditions of plastic wrap.

This experience is a case-in-point for the critical importance of good packaging and storing. Cheese is a living food. As such, it respirates, i.e. it breathes. If someone wrapped plastic all over your body, you would eventually die. Even if you could still breathe through your nose and mouth, your skin would eventually rot from trapped moisture. This is exactly what happens to cheese, especially high-moisture bloomy and washed-rind cheeses. Gross. I have to wonder whose fault this really was, though. Was it an issue with customs? Is it a regulation that imported cheeses must be wrapped in cellophane? Did Alon's wrap these cheese when it arrived? Why was special "breathable" wrap not used? Who knows? All I know is that this was a sad circumstance for what could have been a lovely cheese. I give it a 2, though it's unfair, really to rate a cheese that has been so abused.

so, apparently, we're living the dream

At least according to the Huffington Post:

Is Becoming a Farmer the New American Dream?
by Makenna Goodman

In the post-Omnivore's Dilemma reality, where farmer Joel Salatin is known far outside his county, it doesn't take a genius to say it: farming has totally blown up.
What I mean is, alongside the cultural idolization of growing your own, there has been a notable increase in college graduates who opt to spend their first year out of college on a farm. These, mind you, tend to include (but are not limited to) folks who could otherwise get jobs in the film, art, banking, engineering, psychology, academic, etc. worlds--if they need a job at all. But more than just recent graduates; there is a growing number of young people opting out of school altogether, or on the flip side, actually up and leaving the corporate world after years to start farms, collectives, co-operatives, and even communes. There are kids quitting their high-level jobs in the city, moving to small-scale farms or homesteads in Vermont, and haying their butts off for no pay other than a roof and food (like my friend who worked at the #1 restaurant in NYC, and now picks squash blossoms in South Royalton, VT). And there are a number of flush youths who are cashing in their trust funds--in some cases--for cows. But why? Because unless you invest in a big-organic company that sells to WalMart, there's not much money in farming. It's a touch-and-go kind of life, incumbent on the weather, commitment, responsibility, and hard work. In this economic climate, especially--look at all the dairy farms going under--why is farming becoming a desirable life for young people who have the luxury of choice?
Some might say it's a passing trend, like flannel shirts in Williamsburg. Some might say it's because there's a dearth of "real" jobs, and farming is a good interim experience until the economy perks up. But perhaps it's something more profound: you know, a deeper desire to get back to the agrarian life. Or, a more emotional reaction--a re-establishment of home values, a switch in the long-term goals of the entitled, and a deepening need for connection to one's food, and work ethic. Perhaps we're looking at a new world of homesteading, manual labor, and life on the land. A life of farming, in other words.
But are these kids real farmers? Because alongside manual labor, some of them might also be writers. Or painters. Or teachers. Some of them might not even sell their food; they're just into living off the earth's bounty.
According to Gene Logsdon--to whom Wendell Berry refers as "the most experienced and best observer of agriculture we have"--the answer is yes, they're real farmers. If they're serious about it. If they love it. If they work hard. In his book Living at Nature's Pace: Farming and the American Dream, he talks about this very issue:
It seems to me that, living at nature's pace on our little farm, I come closer to making my living from farming in a literal sense than "real" farmers. Carol and I raise most of our food including our meat, and some for other family members, keep a garden almost an acre in size, produce half of our home heating fuel from our own wood, derive most of our recreation and satisfaction from our farm, grow corn, oats, hay, and pasture, keep a cow and calf, two hogs, twenty ewes and their lambs, a flock of hens and broilers, and sell a few lambs and eggs. I'm sure I spend more time living on our farm than any industrial farmer in our county does. When they are not golfing in Florida or fishing in Canada, they spend a lot of time in the coffee shop or in my office telling me how farming is going down the drain....But urban people are also bringing agrarianism back to the cities. Developers build subdivisions that look and function like yesterday's villages or neighborhoods. Gardens and home businesses are planned into the landscape, as are nearby retail and service shops. Some communities even utter the almost forbidden words, "neighborhood schools" again. New neighborhood houses of worship in the ghettoes, small and humble and unassuming, return in the shadow of the abandoned cathedral-like churches. A surge of market gardening and farmers' markets recalls those years not so long ago when thousands of tiny truck farms, using horse manure for compost in their hotbeds and coldframes, supplied their cities with vegetables and fruits nearly year-round. The term "urban farming" turns out not to be an oxymoron. Chicago is even encouraging animal husbandry as part of its urban farming projects. In the heart of Cleveland, in the shadow of skyscrapers, horses plow garden plots. And with the returning agrarian spirit comes its wonderful offspring, agrarian ingenuity
[....]
I think I hear a faint rustle under the blacktop of shopping center parking lots, under the abandoned animal factories of yesterday and those yet to be abandoned tomorrow. Not only are the weeds pushing up through the cracking pavements, making way for the trees, but the irrepressible agrarian impulse is pushing through too. As long as humans are free to follow their hearts, there is hope.

I've already spoken at length about my feelings about this trend-cum-movement among the young, educated, and well-resourced. Yes, there are some who aren't cut out for farming and who are in it for the "romance" or the desire for a meaningful, post-college "experience." These folks will either become disappointed and move on to other things, or they will fall in love and spend their lives in the service of that love, no matter the hardness of the work. I'll say it again, current farmers must be willing to teach their craft and engage the young and talented. To quote Joel Salatin, "if we don't romance the next generation into farming, no one is going to do it." We as farmers must be receptive to the wooing of our many suiters.


what cheese am I eating now No. 2


A couple of weeks ago, one of my favorite splurges arrived in the mail. Culture Magazine enticed me with a sexy, sexy photo of Jasper Hill's Winnimere and I was won over. I joined their Centerfold Club (a.k.a. the cheese porn club). So now, every few months, a beautiful and often hard-to-find cheese arrives at my doorstep. The last go-round was Dafne, a superb goat's milk cheese from Goat's Leap creamery in sunny California. It is a seriously pretty cheese. Packaging had done some damage to it, however: the bottom of the cheese had some blue mould spore contamination and some of the downy coating of penicillium camemberti had died off, either as a result of improper packaging, or just an imperfect balance of geotrichum to penicillium ratios. Regardless, it was a stately cheese, decorated by a simple olive leaf (I think it was olive), broken in half and crossed over the surface of the round. As a bloomy-rind cheese, I expected the typical oooey-gooey center. Instead, I was surprised to see a dense, moist, friable paste; velvety really is the word for it. It was consistient throughout, as opposed to having several layers of maturation within, typical of many bloomy-rinds. It was very, very pretty.


I cut a wedge out and smelled it, expecting to detect at least some of that musky, super-earthy goatiness, but there was hardly any. When I first tasted it it was disappointingly neutral, too "clean" as some cheesemakers call it, referring to the extreme hygiene in dairies and especially problematic in pasteurized cheeses. Of course, it could also have been a bit too young, since as I enjoyed it over the next week or so, the flavors continued to develop and increase in complexity, but subtly. This cheese is subtly complex. Controlled, might be a good word. As I continued to taste it, it was clear that the rind was doing its job, as that's where all the flavor was coming from. It was lovely: floral with only the mildest hint of earthy goatiness; mildly sour and sweetly lactic. There is complexity in this cheese, but you have to wait for it. As it got a bit older, I sprinkled some over a plate of sliced tomatoes with basil and my best balsamic vinegar. It was fantastic this way. The cheese had strengthened in flavor, but was subtle enough to compliment the tomatoes and vinegar without being either overpowering or absent, as is the case with most goat cheeses. Overall, I give it a 4.


Disturbance and Rest: a Weekend with Joel Salatin (or Death for Breakfast, Sex for Supper)

I don't even really know where to begin as I write this. Perhaps the beginning is best. In March, Ross and I attended the Georgia Organics annual conference. It was an amazing event filled with workshops, networking sessions, fantastic food, and Michael Pollan as the keynote speaker. All and all it was a very stimulating weekend, however, the most important information I got while there was a bit of advice from Dennis Stoltzfoos of Full Circle Farm in Live Oak, Florida. In his session on disaster-proofing your farm via mob-grazing to stimulate the creation and proliferation of organic matter on your field, he said simply, "take the time and the money and go see the master, it's worth the investment," the master being Joel Salatin. Some of you are thinking "what the heck is she talking about here? Mob-grazing, organic matter, Joel Salatin? What is all this?"

What it is, is everything.

Soil. Black, dirty, dirt. Organic matter is the thing Stoltzfoos kept coming back to in his talk. Every question he seemed able to answer with the magic words "organic matter." I watched farmer's eyes widen as they shook their heads. The answer to so many of their problems was just so simple and staring them in the face. Common modes of raising livestock typically include spraying herbicides to keep weeds at bay. Farmers pay to deworm their animals. They buy fertilizer to keep the grass growing. In times of drought, they sell off every last steer to a feedlot. But through the proliferation of organic matter on a field, a farmer will see higher yields and fewer gray hairs. Organic matter will hold water like a sponge, virtually drought-proofing your fields, improved nutrient cation exchange capacity, no tillage is needed to maintain it, it maintains the nutrient content of grass at a high level, it can keep you from buying hay, from buying fertilizer, from getting sick animals, the laundry list can go on and on. The question is, how do you get this good stuff and, more importantly, how do you get it where it needs to go.

Poop. Poop is perhaps the most prolific source of organic matter we have, and yet all we seem to do is throw it away. Farms have tons of the stuff. A cow sheds around 50 pounds of poop per day, nearly all of which sits on the ground, dries out, and washes away with a couple of rains (or else washes into a toxic lagoon near the feedlot). Meanwhile, a farmer might spend $15,000 or more on fertilizer in a year. So you see the conundrum. Farms would benefit from organic matter, they have plenty of access to it, but are unable to incorporate it into existing soil so that the nutrients don't disappear. So, they buy-in fertilizer because they can think of no better way to keep the grass growing and the cows fed.

Not Joel Salatin.

Salatin solves the problem of the need for fertility and organic matter through two simple and yet ingenious ideas: mob-grazing and chickens. Imagine for a moment that you are watching the Discovery Channel. You are watching a program about the sub-saharan plains, there are images of lions, elephants, giraffes, and wildebeest, or perhaps water buffalo. Now the herbivores in this scene, the wildebeest and water buffalo in particular, have another creature that likes to hang out with them: birds. What are those birds doing there? They're eating. They're eating all the bugs and grubs and worms that love to live in poop. How do they get to these tasty morsels? They take the poop and rifle through it, scattering it about until they've found every last little larvae therein. Now imagine the vast landscape of the African plain. Imagine the herds of wildebeest, of water buffalo, of zebras and antelope moving across that plain. How are they moving? Are they scattered all about? No. They stick together. Do they wander back over to the grass they've just eaten when there's plenty of fresh right in front of them? No. They always move forward, never returning to where they've just eaten. What we have observed in our imagined Discovery Channel documentary is the very thing that is the secret to healthy soil, prolific grasses, and in short a sustainable, zero-input system that actually enhances fertility and regenerates life. Joel Salatin has made to mirror this exact system with domesticated cattle and chickens.

Now, the concept of rotational (keeping animals from eating the same grass twice at the same time) and mob-grazing (giving animals many small sections at a time) has been around for a while. Really, the credit for the idea goes to a Frenchman, Andre Voisin who cooked up the concept of rotational grazing, and South-African farmer Ian Mitchell-Innes, who expanded Voisin's idea into mob-grazing. I also have to give credit to the New Zealanders, who took these ideas and ran with them, creating a wealth of models and equipment for these techniques. Salatin (along with the amazing Greg Judy, Allan Nation, and others) has taken these ideas one step further. Salatin does not let his cows have the entire pasture in one go. Instead, he gives them small sections at a time (with the use of temporary fencing) and moves them onto a fresh section every day. The cows do not return to that section for several weeks to several months. Then, three days later, the chickens roll in. Literally. Eggmobiles, filled with a couple hundred chickens pour out onto the field and start clawing and scratching and pecking their way through the cornucopia of cowpies. These birds kill parasites and flies, fertilize (both in spreading cow manure and in depositing fresh chicken manure), and create another low-input means of income: eggs, which come from chickens who eat 70% of their diet from the goodies in the field. All this is accomplished in one fell swoop.

(eggmobiles in action)

Now you can begin to see why Stoltzfoos called Salatin "the master". But it doesn't stop there. Every enterprise on Salatin's farm is set up to mimic natural processes, or to use his term, halons, conveying the idea of interlinked, stacked circles. I can go on and on about the awesomeness of what he does and has created. I highly recommend reading up on his website, and anything he has ever written is well worth reading. Indeed, most folks have heard of him in Michael Pollan's book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, where you can get a terrific description of what Salatin does and a sample of the deep philosophy and political resonances of his work.

(Joel's herd) So, long story short, we took Mr. Stoltzfoos' advice we went for a visit. Acres USA puts on two intensive workshops with Joel each summer. Early on a Friday morning, around thirty people came rolling up to the farm, ourselves included, ready to meet the man, myth, and legend. Now, I had heard a lot about Joel through the grapevine, not only about his ingenious practices, but a lot about his personality. I was beginning to get the impression that he was some kind of religious zealot with unwavering opinions about pretty much everything, who, despite being a great farmer, was arrogant and backwards in his social attitudes. This estimation could not be farther from the truth. Now I can see if all you've ever known about Joel Salatin is from his books and articles, you could begin to develop a negative view of him. He's strong-minded, doesn't namby-pamby around, and speaks authoritatively; as if he's absolutely convinced he's right. Apparently, some folks find that tone off-putting, but the fact of the matter is that he's passionate, he's blunt, and he is usually right. Joel is someone who has to be taken as a complete package. When you hear him speak, he speaks his mind and he speaks his truth; his tone is passionate, and with that passion comes an authority of opinion. One sees upon meeting him, however, that surrounding that fire is a pure kindness. Joel Salatin is far and away one of the kindest souls I have ever met. His family and the folks that work with him are equally kind. Never had I experienced such hospitality, especially in a group: smiles, favors, and a general sense of absolute ease. I think that part of the kindness that exudes from Joel and everyone around him is a genuine respect for all living things. Joel calls himself a "caretaker of creation" and he takes that role unbelievably seriously. Joel understands the place of every blade of grass, flower, worm, maggot, bacteria, fungi, chicken, cow, tree, newt, dog, rabbit, corn, bean, bee, pig, and person on his land and therefore respects each one in kind. He knows that no one thing can function without the other: without the maggots, the chickens would have one less thing to eat, without the chickens, his cows would get sick, without the cows, the fields would suffer and plants would die, worms couldn't eat without the cows or chickens and so they could not enrich the soil that feeds the cows and chickens, and then people couldn't eat either, and without the people who would do all this important work? Who would create these systems that mend the land, and without these 30 visitors, who would there be to continue the work? He sees humans as co-creators with God, who work not only to sustain the land and the life it supports, but to improve it, to regenerate it.

Joel says that he is "in the business of redemption." He really is. He spoke about ponds and how they "build forgiveness into the land." He's right. Nature is a hard and harsh place. Nature sends droughts and things wither and die as a result. But having ponds tides you, and all the wildlife and wild plants, over. Ponds soften the blows of nature, as does an abundance of organic matter in the soil, as does maintaining polycultures. Joel said that if we had invested the same resources we used to transform the plains into corn and soybeans into building thousands of ponds, we would have Eden. I think he might have a point.

I worry for those who shun the religious and spiritual language of Joel Salatin and farmers like him. I don't think there's a farmer out there who is doing good work and healing the land who is not moved to feel that he or she is somehow doing work that is connected to a higher order, that somehow sustains and redeems the spirit. In whatever guise you cast it, there is a something there when you do this work. Joel is bold enough to call it by its name.

I overheard him at supper one of the nights we were there say to someone ". . . the ecstasy of an angry farmer." I don't know what the context was, but that's Joel: his anger is a powerful, inflamed manifestation of absolute love; love so passionate that it transcends into ecstasy. And it is infectious love. You get a taste and suddenly it's all you can think about: getting more. For a week after I left Polyface I dreamed every night about Joel and his farm. I completely re-envisioned my own farm, adding new ideas into the mix, struggling with new understandings of what this work means, personally, politically, socially, ecologically, and everything else under the sun it touches. I felt that I could do so much more than I initially set out to do, that it was my responsibility to do more. I told Joel that the most important thing I learned with him was that it is okay to be bold. I think we live in a world that is too concerned with breaking the rules, especially when those rules don't make any sense. I think that as a girl I was taught, wittingly or unwittingly, too often to stand back, do as I was told, and to put my own thoughts aside; to abandon myself and my convictions. But such behavior does not benefit me or anyone else. Such thinking only ever allows things to stay the same. After I cam back from Polyface, I was moved to pick up my copy of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. The line, "do I dare disturb the universe" washed over me again and again. Prufrock, who is the epitome of inertia and the embodiment of inert creature that is the modern man can't bring himself to do anything for fear of it all. He is afraid of changing, of having any effect, of touching anything in the world around him and so he fails to do anything at all. It is the absolute opposite of Thoreau's plea "to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life."

(freshly killed chickens, served up for supper the following night) Joel began the session with the slaughter of some 20 chickens that would be our supper the following night. Will such an act disturb the universe? I think so, but isn't that the point? I think he started there on purpose; to shake us, to wake us up to what this business of farming is really about, in case we had any doubts. Indeed, the day ended with a demonstration of rabbit breeding. In that blink of an eye, as the buck fell dramatically from the doe, I thought to myself, this is what we're here for: to protect, nurture, sustain, and participate in life (i.e. sex) and its destruction (i.e. death) which somehow sustains life. Joel knew we needed to be unabashedly disturbed into this realization: we are here for the express purpose of disturbing the universe. Anything else would be a wasted life.

(rabbits and chickens symbiotically cohabiting in the Ricken House) Joel furthered this idea in more ways. Up in his woods, we sat and listened among his pigs, who roamed around paddocks tearing habitatingup brush and lolling in dirt: hog heaven. Joel showed us a 5-acre wood where he lets his pigs roam in the fall to hunt for acorns and root for tubers. He spoke of how in the old days, before Europeans came and the wild herds declined, animals would run through the woods, stamping out brush and scrap leaving room for the healthy trees and low grasses to take firm hold. He said how there were more forest fires then that furthered this cleaning out. He told us about how his pigs mimic this ancient process and that their disturbance of the woods one month of the year helped them to heal the other eleven. He told us that the idea that humans ought to keep their hands off nature was junk. It's true, he readily admits, that humans have done too much to disturb the natural order, but that we are an inherent part of the landscape, and how when we take up our rightful place, we can be not only be disturbers, but we can learn to use that disturbance, coupled with rest, to heal. Disturbance and rest could be Joel's motto, indeed it should be the motto of all grass farmers. That's the very principle of the thing: livestock eat the grass down a bit, tearing things up, and so long as they are not allowed to return to the same spot before it has recovered, the land, well, recovers. The rest the grass gets after being disturbed makes it grow back stronger, fuller, and healthier than before. You can take this idea and apply it to all kinds of things, not just farming. Joel, to the justifiably derisive laughter of a few women in the group, likened it to childbirth. He said, "what is childbirth if not a really big disturbance?!" one that brings about new life.

New life is what Joel Salatin is about: creating life on his farm, breathing new life into the art and practice of farming, and he is a happy, happy man for it. The last thing Joel said to me before I left was this: "You will never regret self-abandonment." It shook me. I had just learned from Joel that one ought to be bold, that I should not ever stand back, do as I was told, or put my own thoughts aside; I must not abandon myself or my convictions. And yet, here was this assertion, this advice, this wisdom: "You will never regret self-abandonment." Self-abandonment is to do just that, to abandon one's self, one's power, position, rights, desires, ambitions; to give up to the control or discretion of another; to leave to one's disposal or mercy; to yield, cede, or surrender absolutely a thing to a person or agent. Surrender. Lines from Eliot's The Waste Land rolled through me: "The awful daring of a moment’s surrender." "You will never regret self-abandonment." It brought me to tears as I rode home.

Then spoke the thunder D A Datta: what have we given? My friend, blood shaking my heart The awful daring of a moment's surrender Which an age of prudence can never retract By this, and this only, we have existed Which is not to be found in our obituaries Or in memories draped by the beneficent spider Or under seals broken by the lean solicitor In our empty rooms D A Dayadhvam: I have heard the key Turn in the door once and turn once only We think of the key, each in his prison Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison Only at nightfall, aetherial rumours Revive for a moment a broken Coriolanus D A Damyata: The boat responded Gaily, to the hand expert with sail and oar The sea was calm, your heart would have responded Gaily, when invited, beating obedient To controlling hands. . .

(A hillside with pastured poultry houses fanning up it. Notice the fence line between Joel's property and his neighbor's. The grass is indeed greener on this side.)