Rettland Farm

Rettland Farm

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Ethics of Eating Meat

I don't usually feel the need to rebut those who rail against the consumption of meat on grounds of animal cruelty. My general feeling is that we all have our preferences, and if you don't preach to me about yours, I won't preach to you about mine.

This case is really no exception, but last weekend the NY Times carried an Op-Ed (well written, I must admit) by a "strict ethical vegan," and I decided I had a few things to say, after all.

The standard argument against whether or not eating animals is ethical is the co-evolution argument. This says that domesticated animals, as species, found it beneficial to sacrifice individuals over time for the benefit of humans. Humans provided them with shelter, food, protection against (other) predators, etc.

I agree pretty strongly with this justification. While we're on the subject of evolution, though, let's take it a step further. (Aside: Happy Birthday, On the Origin of Species!)

As Homo Sapiens, we have clambered to the top of, and sit defiantly astride, the food chain due to our ability to adapt to a multitude of environmental scenarios. A significant evolutionary adaptation is that which makes us omnivorous, able to eat and survive on a wide variety of foods from both plant an animal sources.

One need look no further than the teeth in our mouths to see that we are predestined, by force of evolution, to eat meat as well as plants--sharp teeth in front for biting and tearing (gasp!) flesh, large grinding teeth in the back for...well, grinding.

Our forward facing eyes are more similar to other predator species than they are to the wall- eyed prey species. That didn't happen just so we'd look groovy in sunglasses.

Finally, consider both the anatomy and physiology of our digestive tracts. Our bodies need fats, amino acids, and vitamins that we are physiologically unable to synthesize, and therefore must consume from sources outside the body. Guess what? Some of those nutrients are only found in other animals.

The other issue that the author of the Op-Ed touches on is that a justification used by meat eaters is that animals aren't capable of abstract thought, and so therefore aren't able to predict or comprehend what is going to happen to them. Probably true. But what I think what the gift of abstract thought really gets humans is moral quandaries like the morality of eating.

Do you think that any other meat eating species on the planet refuses to eat meat because of the suffering of its prey? Does the bear let the salmon go, because the salmon shouldn't be made to suffer? How about the fox in the henhouse? Does he consider the terror he's causing the chickens by chasing them around and then killing them?

No. Both these predators kill, eat, and survive. In the struggle to survive and reproduce, they don't have the luxury of ethical eating. It's only through the abundance and availability of food that we do.

So go ahead and refuse meat on ethical grounds. I certainly admire your self sacrifice, though the air of moral superiority tarnishes it a bit.

As for me, I'll be over here, munching on a pork chop, fulfilling my predetermined biological destiny.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

A Sign of the Times

Recently, Rettland Farm was paid a visit by a member of the editorial staff of a regional newspaper. The subject of the piece was my good friend and loyal customer, Chef Andrew Little, and the relationship that he has with those of us who produce food for The Sheppard Mansion, where he is the Executive Chef. (As an aside folks, remember Chef Andy Little's name--you are going to hear it in some really cool places very soon!)

This wasn't the first such visit from a writer interested in the somewhat unique relationship that exists between Andy and his suppliers. We've been lucky enough to have been a part of several such interviews and visits this year.

What IS remarkable, though, is the type of publication this story was published in. You see, this publication isn't a "foodie" magazine, or a tourist feature, or any other periodical that you would expect to carry a story like this.

No, this was a FARM NEWSPAPER! The Lancaster Farming newspaper is a weekly newspaper with a huge (as a percentage of the target demographic) distribution in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions. Almost every farmer in the region, big or small, subscribes to this newspaper.

So why is our presence in these pages so remarkable?

Because five years ago, this article would have never been published in this newspaper.

Because it demonstrates the shift that is occurring in American agriculture, at least on the east coast, towards more sustainable, locally focused food production. Farmers in the region have apparently reached the point where these types of production and marketing are interesting to them.


Thanks to the author, Tracy Sutton, for a great article, and to Lancaster Farming newspaper for a fantastic publication.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Hail to the Lion! (Part 2)

So, apparently my presence in Happy Valley for the first time in 10 years wasn't the good luck charm that I expected it to be.

I'm no sports analyst, so I won't even try to break down the game for you. All I can say is that a mediocre performance (at best) by one team was beaten by a mediocre performance by another. I'm not sure where they stand right now, but I'm pulling for Iowa to go to the Rose Bowl. They are hands down the best team in the Big 10 this year. Sorry State, but the truth hurts.

Before I move on to other topics, though, I have to throw out a big "Thank You!" to B.B. for her incredible generosity. Even though the performance on the field was disappointing, we had a fantastic view of it!

In my previous post, I had a whole laundry list of things that I wanted to do while in the State College/University Park area. To make a long story short, we were late getting up there (surprise!) so we had to shorten up the tour. A few notes:

1. The Meats Lab is still there, miraculously. I don't know how it hasn't been consumed for some athletic project or another, but it's still there.

2. The new Creamery/Food Science Building is absolutely gigantic. We walked there after the game to get some ice cream, but the line was probably about 2 hours long. We skipped the ice cream. (And also the moral dilemma I would have had about eating Peachy Paterno in November. Truth be told, I would have found some way to rationalize it--it was probably MADE in June, right?)

3. The highlight of the trip was lunch.

I had been tipped off that this place called Otto's Pub had "my kind of food", which I'll leave for you to define. We found Otto's and gave it a try.

I am also not a food critic, so I won't try to be that either. But I was pleasantly surprised at the menu, and impressed at the dedication to local farms. They even list the names of their producers on the menu! It takes a very dedicated restaurant and chef to do that...

My wife is a fan of Mexican food, so we started with nachos (a restaurant cannot exist in a college town without nachos on the menu, no matter how inspired it is). They were served with black beans that were delicious, in addition to all the regular "nacho" goodies. We ate it all.

Then came the main course. I thought about the "drunken free range chicken," or the Smoked Brisket sandwich, but when I saw the words "Pulled Pork Sandwich", I knew my search was over.

The sandwich was completely, utterly, shamelessly good.

It came with cole slaw on top of the sandwich, and a smoky barbecue sauce on the side for dipping, but it really wasn't needed--the meat was moist enough by itself. Through the moans of ecstasy I was making while eating it, I asked the server if the pork was local. She told me that it was, grown about 20 minutes west of State College, but I already knew that. There is no way commodity pork can be made to taste like this pork did.

We enjoyed ourselves so much there that time slipped away. We had to hurry out (which is hard to do with what seemed like 5 lbs of pulled pork in your stomach) and fight our way through at least 25,000 pedestrians (I am not joking) to get to our parking space. I was only called an asshole once (that I heard.)

If you are ever in the State College area, I highly recommend Otto's. It may even be worth a special trip. I promise you won't be disappointed.

I can't make the same promise for the football team.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Hail to the Lion!

I. Am. Stoked.

Tomorrow, my little co-ed and I are venturing to University Park, PA, going back to my old stomping grounds for the first time in about 10 years. No, it's not a romantic getaway for two, considering the 110 THOUSAND other people who are going with us!

That's right. Penn State vs. Ohio State. At home. 60 degree temp and sunny skies forecast. 300th game in Beaver Stadium. The air absolutely humming, almost electrically, almost audibly with excitement. How can it possibly get any better....?

Can you say "LUXURY BOX??!" Thought so. I knew I could.

Yes, thanks to the generosity displayed only between members of the Blue and White Tribe, we are going to watch this game in style. No more ass frozen to an aluminum bench, so damn high that the birds are flying below you and you feel like you are going to start bleeding from the eyes and ears from the lack of atmospheric pressure. No sir. Just this once, we're gonna see how the other half lives.

We're going to head up a little early, though, and take a stroll through town and the campus. Things I'm thinking about doing...

1. Eat: Surprise here. I'm not sure where we'll go, but I hear a few of the old haunts are still open. And also a few new ones.

2. Drink: Yeah, Yuengling Lager tastes better in Centre County, for some reason. (I think they send the best stuff there.)

3. Maybe head out to the Finest Fraternity and say "Hi" to the current crop of Beta Boys. Maybe see if Room 3 still smells like cow manure.

4. Maybe I'll try to get a picture at the PSU Meat Sciences Lab (or the 'Slab, if you're in the know) before it gets deep sixed for some parking lot, or something. It's just a little nondescript cinder block building in the literal shadow of Beaver Stadium, but that little building probably has something to do with where I am in my profession right now.

5. While I'm thinking about places that had a lasting affect, maybe we'll run out to Haller Farm (PSU's permanent rotational grazing farm). If you ever happen to fly into University Park airport, you can see Haller if you...well...look down and left.

6. Although we'll be long gone before the bar scene gets hoppin', it might be nice to see the Shandygaff again. For those of you who aren't familiar, the entrance to the Gaff is on a back alley. 'Nuff said.

7. It would be nice to see some of the Ag School, since it has apparently changed a lot since I was there. A new creamery? Say it ain't so! And on that topic, would I be a hypocrite if I ate Peachy Paterno or Cherry Quist ice cream in November?

8. Oh yeah. Maybe we'll actually watch a little football, too. It would be nice to see the Lions beat the snot out of the Buckeyes, but you know what? I really don't care who wins right now.

I'll report back with the postgame.

Monday, October 19, 2009

It's All About Priorities...

There was recently an Op-Ed in the New York Times by my old friend, James McWilliams about local food being “elitist”. While I’ll withhold my opinions on Old Jim and his motives (for now), I’d like to address the “elitist” issue.

Like all farmers, I take great pride in the ability to feed people. I also worry about those who go hungry, which I think is a shameful thing to happen in the wealthiest society in the history of the world.

Unfortunately though, access to food is not a right, despite all of our wishes to the contrary. Food, like shelter, freedom, and anything else in life that we treasure, is only attained through sacrifice and work, and the willingness to exchange that work for the other things that we place value in. The only thing that is truly an inalienable right, the only thing that the human species is guaranteed to acquire with absolutely no effort, is death. Hate to be crude, but that's the way it is. You heard it here first.

Buying real, locally and sustainably produced food is not an issue of economics for most people: it is an issue of priority. We as consumers make a choice when we buy a $4000 flat screen TV and the related goodies, and yet feel pinched when the price of milk tops $3.50 per gallon. We make a choice to build status symbol homes that are twice the size of the houses we were raised in, strap ourselves with mortgages and heating costs and property taxes, instead of focusing some of those financial resources on eating well, or more importantly, feeding our children well.

That said, we have an obligation to help those who really truly cannot access local food because of poverty, and not because of poorly chosen priorities. Slowly, we are making progress in that direction through public assistance programs that recognize the value of local food and enable the recipients of that assistance to shop at farmers markets. As farmers markets expand into more communities, the accessibility for these folks will continue to improve.

From my own experience, the typical farmers market patrons in the booming metropolis of Adams County, Pennsylvania share one common thread. That common denominator is NOT the balance in their checkbooks or the zeros on their balance sheets. It's not their age or ethnicity, or the car they drive, or their political beliefs, or any other characteristic used to stereotype the farmers market shopper by folks like Jim McWilliams.

Instead, they share the sense of value in the food they are buying; the feeling of community from being with other like minded people; and the importance of their patronage to the farmer and his desired way of life.

If those feelings and those values make them elitist, then sign me up.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Things to Worry About, Part 1 of many

Welcome to the first installment of the series "Things you should be worrying about, but probably aren't aware of..." Yes, I plan on dumping things on your already overburdened shoulders that will hopefully make you take notice of some issues that probably aren't on the radar for most of you. In many cases, like this one, I won't have a really good solution for the problem, either.

I recently came across the results of the most recent ag census, which you can find here. Although the focus of this particular part of the section of the census was the AGE of US farmers, (which IS increasing dramatically, and which I DO think is alarming) I was most disturbed by some other data listed there.

The number of farm operators under the age of 45 in the United States that work off of the farm stands at a whopping 81%. Based on most farmers I know, they don't work off the farm because they want to, but because they have to out of financial necessity. The same graphic shows that only 22% of farmers in this age group derive more than half of their income from farming.

In what other profession would it be acceptable for those practicing in the profession to do it as a part time endeavor? How about your doctor that also stocks shelves in the grocery store? Maybe a lawyer who moonlights installing carpets? The chef who mows lawns on the side?

Is it right that farmers must find other work in order to pay the bills? Do they have the time and energy left when they come home to really be able to concentrate on the job of growing wholesome, affordable food? As someone who does farm full time, I can honestly tell you that I don't know how they do it.

Should producing the third most essential ingredient for human life really be reduced to a hobby?

I know that there is a group of supposedly "enlightened" people out there who think that this is progress, that having only a negligible percentage of the population "burdened" by food production for everyone else is a really great statistic.

I am, and will remain, one of the unenlightened.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Real Food, Done Right

For the third consecutive year, we've had the good fortune to be invited to attend the annual Harvest Dinner at the Sheppard Mansion Restaurant. Thanks to the generosity of Chef Andy Little and the Sheppard Mansion management, several local farmers and growers are treated to a fantastic meal while having the chance to interact with other guests and explain to them our philosophies and production methods.

This event grows larger every year, and this year was no exception. It's increasing popularity is easy to understand: we enjoyed wonderful company, fantastic wine, and absolutely exquisite food.

I look forward to the Harvest Dinner each October. It's always rewarding to talk to people and to be reminded how important good food is to them. I always leave the Dinner with a renewed sense of purpose, reassured that what I'm doing is worthwhile and important...

Many thanks to Chef Little and his team at the Sheppard Mansion for including us in a truly memorable event. I think it is also fitting to express our sincere appreciation to the other guests for their continued interest in and dedication to real food, done right. Without all of your support and encouragement, our jobs become a whole lot less fun.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Sustainable Food on a Large Scale?

Last weekend I had the distinct pleasure of going to a dinner function at a local organization that has decided, under the leadership of their newly elected social chairpersons, that the club as a whole is going to make a more concerted effort to source their food locally. This dinner was the kick off event to that end. I supplied pastured broilers and Clear Conscience veal for the meal, and then was kindly asked to come for dinner and take part in a panel discussion about local food. (Side note: a sincere thank you to the members of MCC and especially G.O. for requesting my attendance there!)

At the very end of the panel discussion, a member asked, "How do we make our food production systems more sustainable as a nation?" She directed the question more to the other members present instead of the panel, and the question was left largely unanswered.
I've spent the last week or so thinking about the answers to that question, and here's what I've come up with...

1. Buy American: To me, this is the absolute first step in any effort towards sustainable, local food production, and it should be non negotiable.

Recently, after years of stalling and ignoring it, the food industry has finally begun to comply with federal law requiring Country of Origin Labeling (COOL). When you go to the supermarket, almost everything is now required to have the country where that food was produced listed on the label, which makes "buying American" easier.

The meat department gets tricky though. You will see labels like "Origin: USA, Mexico, and Canada." That doesn't cut it folks. Leave the meat in the case, and head out to your local farmer, where you can see the animals in a field that is mere miles from your home, and buy your meat from them.

In the produce section, I'd take it one step further--try to buy produce grown on the same side of the Mississippi river as where you are. Nothing infuriates me more to be standing in a supermarket in the number one apple producing county in the number 4 apple producing state and pick up an apple that has "Washington State" on the label, while our local fruit growers push out orchards to grow row crops, or simply sell them for development, out of financial necessity.

In both cases, on your way out the door, be sure to tell the supermarket manager that you are not buying these things, and why. Fruit and meat are high profit items to a supermarket, and it won't take too many people leaving the store without these things in their carts before somebody starts to take notice.

As you learn where different foods come from, start to buy items that are grown closer to you geographically. It may be difficult to figure out what state this lettuce or that radish came from, and in that case, opt for ultra local (see numbers 2 and 3).

2. Grow your own: Take a greater role in your own nourishment. You don't have to produce 100% of the food you eat, or 50%, or even 1%. Just grow something with as few chemical inputs as possible, and then eat it. Tomatoes in a pot on your apartment balcony or herbs in a window box would be a good place to start. For those with larger residential lots, maybe you can go a little further and plant a few rows of beans or some cucumbers. You could get really serious and even try to raise a few pastured broilers, or maybe some meat rabbits.

The point is, anything you grow in your own personal space will be that much less that needs to be transported to you from elsewhere.

3. Shop Farmers Markets: And farm stands. And CSAs. And Farm Members Clubs. Farmers markets, in all their various forms, are popping up everywhere. The food you buy there will be unequaled by anything you buy at any supermarket, in both freshness and sustainability. The more people that buy their food from these sources, the more diverse and stable the market will become. However, without solid, continuous customer support even the best market will fail.

4. Eat in Season: Learn to pass up asparagus in December, and watermelons in April. Forgo the tomatoes when there is still snow on the ground, and the ears of corn on Valentines Day. By learning when certain foods are in season in your area, and buying them only during that window of time, you will almost guarantee that that food is grown somewhere close by.

5. Learn to Cook: Starting with one night per week, cook a meal. From scratch. Open a cookbook, find a recipe for something that sounds tasty, assemble the ingredients, and COOK IT. Make a whole meal without opening a cardboard box and stirring in a "seasoning mix" or "cheese packet".

After you've done this for awhile, move on to using some ingredient that you've never used before, preferably one that is not derived from corn, soybeans, rice, wheat, or potatoes. Make your children turn off the TV and the video games and come help you. By doing so, you will begin to influence their food preferences that will not only have a positive effect on their health in the future, but will create future consumers of sustainably produced food.

6. Make Food a Priority: I know all of these things take more time and effort than many busy families think they can afford, but in order to improve the sustainability of our food systems on a large scale, we must all take action as individuals.

Yes, it's inconvenient to have to buy your meat and produce from somewhere other than the supermarket, but take the extra 5 minutes and hit the farmers market on the way home.

No, it's just not innate for most of us to know what to do with parsnips, or swiss chard, or beef tongue, or smoked ham hocks, but buy them anyway, and research a way to prepare them. By doing so, you'll be making positive, incremental changes in food production systems encouraging people to continue growing these things the right way. As an added bonus, they will be absolutely delicious.

Take the time to research different foods, the farmers who produce them, and their methods of doing so. Develop your own philosophy about what issues are important to you, whether it is carbon footprint, pasture based, animal welfare, water quality, chemical use, etc. Once you have made these decisions, start to seek out food sources that meet your priorities, and reward them with regular purchases.

The Bottom Line: As consumers, we wield the most powerful tool in the struggle to change our food systems: the purse strings. By voting for our food preferences with dollars, we will do more to alter the way our food is produced than we ever will with hot air and spilled ink.

Changing our current food system to more sustainable models will not be either easy or quick, but it is critically important that we try.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Where does your feeder stock come from?

This question was recently emailed to me, and I thought that it was worth answering in this forum.

"We just had your pork tenderloin for dinner and everybody is raving about it. Someone asked where your feeder stock comes from? Is that an appropriate question? Anyway, everyone said it was the best pork they ever had." --A Loyal Customer, Hanover, PA

My response:

It is an absolutely appropriate question.

My feedstock comes from one of two places:

First, I produce most of the baby pigs here on the farm, using breeding stock that I own. By doing so, I have absolute control of (and responsibility for) the diet and management of the parents and then the resulting pigs that will eventually end up on your table. As you can see, I don't use farrowing crates, but instead give the sow (the momma pig) a large, clean, well bedded pen to nurture her young pigs.

Second, I do occasionally purchase baby pigs from a small pig farmer in York county who specializes in the breed I prefer, Berkshire. I purchase from him only when I don't have baby pigs of my own. I have seen this farm's facilities and I have spent many hours talking with them about their practices, and I am comfortable with the animals that they produce.

I'm thrilled that the pork was a success! Thanks for your support!

Have a question you'd like to see answered here? Shoot me an email.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Summer Squash

Don't worry, I'm not about to take up food blogging. I'll leave that to those infinitely more qualified. ('Sup Little?)

But I've gotta say, after the third consecutive day of stuffing myself to gut-fill with fresh-out-of-the garden summer squash, I felt like I needed to voice my loyal support for the humble cucurbit. Some people salivate at the thought of the seasons' first sweet corn, or that first tomato, but not me. Squash is the King of Summertime Favorites with me. (And OK, truth be told, tomatoes are probably the Queen...)

And the delicious simplicity of squash makes it that much easier for those of us challenged in the culinary skills (and time) department. Salt, butter (if you're so inclined, but not absolutely necessary), and fresh ground pepper on top just before you fling it down your pie hole, and you're in business. Simple and sinful.

It's hard to beat, folks.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

An Open Letter to James McWilliams, Texas State University

Recently, a guy named James McWilliams has made it his business to criticize pastured pork in this online opinion column, among other high profile places. I took exception to a few of the points he made in this latest installment, so I sent him the following response. I also sent it to the online magazine who published the Op-Ed, but they apparently weren't interested. So, I present it for your consideration here...Enjoy!

An open letter to James McWilliams, History Professor from Texas State University.

Dear Mr. McWilliams,
Since you have done another literary drive-by on the pastured pork business, it seems only fair to address a few statements that you've made in your latest Op-Ed piece (, June 29,2009).

I thought that I might provide some perspective from someone who actually raises pigs on pasture, since you apparently did not feel the need to interview a pastured pork farmer for your story. I'm sure that this rather glaring omission was just an oversight on your part, and not intentionally done to avoid clouding the waters in this latest installment of your indictment of pastured pork.

Let's talk about nose ringing first. It so happens that I agree with you that ringing pigs inhibits their natural foraging behaviors, and for that reason, I do not use rings on my pigs. On my farm, I have developed a management system that tolerates the inevitable rooting done by pigs in their natural environment and quickly repairs that damage to the pasture. I feel that this system is superior to a system that uses the ring to prevent rooting.

However, I do take issue with the fact that you reach the conclusion that "Ringing is nearly universal on free-range pig farms in the United States." Based on what data? Do you reach that conclusion because the most well known pastured pork farm in the country, Niman Ranch, allows it? Perhaps a citation of some quantitative measure of the use of nose rings on pastured pig farms would be in order here, instead of misleading your reader with relative terms like "nearly universal." I suspect that such data is very limited or nonexistent, and because of that I would challenge you, as an apparent academic, to take it upon yourself to design and execute a study to determine the actual prevalence of this practice.

Your second criticism deals with castration and spaying. Until now, I have never heard of anyone spaying a female pig for commercial purposes. I suspect that the mortality rate of such an invasive surgery performed by a layman would be very high, and the cost to have it performed by a veterinarian would be prohibitive. For these reasons, I don't think spaying would be commercially viable in the United States.

However, castration is an absolute necessity for all male pigs, regardless of production system or philosophy. Meat from an intact (uncastrated) male is inedible, due to the overpowering muskiness that is present in it.

If pain management in the animal is necessary, then what boundaries do we set for pain in the animal? If we are to use anesthesia, how should that be administered? If it is injected, is the pain caused by the needle acceptable? Would the pain of the needle be greater than the actual castration? You may answer no, but are you aware that dentists in the U.S. now fill cavities in children's teeth without anesthesia for this very reason?

On another level, many consumers who seek out and purchase pastured pork do so because of their desire to have meat free from chemical contamination. Would the use of anesthetics be acceptable to these people? How about analgesics (pain killers) after the procedure? Where is the line between the administration of adequate pain medication and overuse of drugs that pervades the commercial pork industry? This becomes a matter of individual choice to the consumer.

Conveniently though, the small, family operated, direct-to-consumer, pastured pork farm offers just that--individual choice. The relationship built between the farmer and the consumer allows the consumer to relay their feelings on these issues directly to the farmer. If enough of a farm's customers want the practice (non-anesthetized castration, for example) to change, it will. Quickly. In no other production or marketing system is this possible. I would highly recommend that you find a farmer of your own, and cultivate a relationship with him or her. You will be amazed at how powerful that connection is.

I hope that in the future you will include a farmer's perspective in your criticisms of pastured pork. I hope that you will do more investigating than the apparent cursory internet search that you based this story on. Finally, I hope you find a conscientious farmer of your own, and that you are able to build that relationship and experience pastured pork to the point that you can rethink your position that managing pigs on pasture is "far from the ideal that most people imagine it to be." Granted, producing pork on grass, like any human endeavor, is not a perfect system. But it is as close as we can get.

Beau Ramsburg
Rettland Farm
Gettysburg, PA

Sunday, May 31, 2009


For those of you who live in a fantasy world where small, fuzzy...vicious...destructive little creatures don't need to die under any circumstances, please click the little "X" at the top right corner of your screen, and go watch Homeward Bound or something. Check back in a week or two for some other topic, because this post isn't going to be for you.

All the rest of you, let's talk about vengeance.

First, some history. For those that don't know, one of the foods we produce here on the farm are eggs. And due to my feelings on the subject, our laying hens are 100% free range. Let me put this another way: they can go absolutely wherever they want to go, whenever they want to go there. For reasons of biology and instinctive behavior, they don't stray very far, so it isn't the absolute economic trainwreck that it may sound like. They generally stick around.

Since chickens have horrible night vision, they do seek shelter at dusk. For this purpose, I have an old, straight-out-of-the-50's chicken house that most of them spend their nights in, as well as lay their eggs in. (Most meaning about 75%. The rest roost in the barn, trees, and I-don't-know where-the-hell. Ditto for the eggs. Every day is an Easter Egg hunt around this place.)

I have learned that the best way to deal with predators is to simply exclude them, so the chicken house has been made predator proof with wire mesh over the windows. The doors are closed every night after all the birds who want to be in are in. I check them out every night around midnight just to be sure everything is quiet. And it always is. Always.

So imagine my surprise when I stroll into the chicken house on a recent morning, and walk into a scene right out of a poultry horror movie. The entire floor of this building (I'd ballpark it at about 300 square feet) is covered, literally, with feathers. And strewn among this sea of feathers like so many macabre icebergs, are the carcasses of about 25% of my laying flock.

Now, I have come to accept and even tolerate a certain number of lost birds due to depredation. When they are managed in a totally free range system like mine, predators are going to be inevitable. Until this point, I have really only used exclusion and Darwinism as a remedy to the problem. But this was an entirely different situation. This massacre went down inside the birds' "safe haven". (I found that a very small corner of the wire mesh in one window had been pushed in to give the culprit access.) That fact was infuriating by itself.

But here is the real kicker: only one bird had been eaten. The rest had simply been killed for pleasure. They weren't eaten, or even really dismembered. Just dead. This is what drove me to the point of revenge.

I did some research on the internet and found a great website from Cornell about predators and how to (a) identify their crimes, and (b) stop them. From this, I figured that I was dealing with either a fox or a raccoon. I also know that once a predator hits the jackpot once, he will return to the same location to feed on subsequent nights. That little fact proved to be invaluable. The second night after the attack, he came back, and I got even.

I'll spare you the details, but the culprit turned out to be a fox.
I kept a trophy.

I take no pleasure in killing animals. I only do it so that myself and others may eat. This time though, I savored the feeling of justice. I liked the feeling of avenging not only my economic loss, but also the loss of those birds that had been killed merely for the sake of killing. An eye for and eye, and all that.

I have since fixed the damaged window, added a few more pieces of wire mesh to others, and have begun to search for new birds to replace the ones that I lost, which is not as easy as it may sound--You can't just stroll into Walmart and pick up laying hens. But I'll find them soon, and we'll get our egg numbers back up to where they need to be, and the egg customers who are now being deprived of eggs will have them again.

The debt's been paid. It's time to move on.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Pastured Pigs--Part 1

So let's talk about pigs on pasture...

I know, I know, not exactly the hard hitting commentary that you would expect on a blog with such a pretentious title, but hey, I need to start somewhere. I thought that I would write about something neutral before I clamber up on my soapbox and start hurling down profound, unshakeable opinion that stimulates national discussion and shapes public policy...but stay tuned. We'll get there soon.

Today it's about pasture. And yes, I know those aren't pigs. Read on.

Really, since at least part of the vision of this blog is to explain the production practices I use at Rettland Farm and the thought processes behind them, we're right on track here.

Getting pigs on pasture has been on my mind since I started raising pigs for direct sale. I think the desire to get them out of the barn and into a more natural setting comes from a couple of different places.

First, pigs on pasture is 180 degrees from where the conventional pork industry is today, with gestation crates, concrete slatted floors and totally enclosed steel buildings. So doing the exact opposite of the Big Boys has an incredible appeal to me, given their image problems and lackluster product appeal.

Second, I have become intrigued with the concept of terroir, the effect that the conditions in which a food is produced have upon it's taste. Terroir is usually associated with wine, and it has recently been proposed by a local culinary expert that artisanal cheeses showcase the phenomena of terroir more than any other food, besides wine. Sounds good to me--I'll accept his well informed opinion as my own.

But how about meat? Does a pork chop from a pig who ate green grass and plants for the majority of his lifetime taste different (better?) than one derived from a pig raised on grains? I'm thinking it probably does. (Stay tuned for future posts on this very subject.)

Third, the evidence is pretty solid that meat and dairy products from animals whose diets are firmly based in pastures are very different from their conventional counterparts in the nutrient content of their meat, both in good stuff and bad stuff. Things like CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), a proven cancer fighter, and Omega-3 fatty acids, shown to improve everything from hearts to cognitive abilities, are both found at higher levels in grass fed animal products. So why wouldn't animal agriculture benefit from growing products packed with more of these desirables? Could pork from pastured pigs lose some of the negative stereotypes that commercial pork has received with regards to "healthy eating"? Maybe.

But probably the biggest reason for wanting to get pigs on pasture is the satisfaction it gives me. It's a rush folks, plain and simple. I can't describe what it feels like to see a group of animals (pigs or otherwise) moving across a green pasture en masse, heads down, grazing. I can't describe how it feels to look at a grazing animal and know that you are doing the absolute best job you can to care for that animal by letting it display natural behaviors and instincts on green grass. I can't describe the confidence I feel about my chosen profession when I get to experience these simple scenes. Honestly, there are some days when observing these things, if only for just a minute, is all it takes to make the day seem worthwhile.

This officially concludes the touchy-feely portion of today's post.

So now you know some of the "why" regarding pastured pigs. In future posts, I'll start to explain the "how" of our specific grazing system for pigs. Check back often!

Sunday, May 3, 2009

The first post...

Welcome to the first post of my blogging career! Please make yourself at home.

The blog is titled "Farmgate Philosopher" because the farmgate was historically the boundary between the farm and the rest of the world. Everything the farmer knew and owned existed inside that fence, with the only way in or out was through the gate. I envision the farmer of an earlier age standing at those gates, contemplating everything that happened on both sides. In these strange, uncertain, and yet exciting times for the American farmer, I share that feeling. I hope to communicate those feelings here in the weeks and months to come.

I hope that this forum will first serve to keep you informed about what is going on at Rettland Farm, as we go about our daily work of making food that people can feel good about eating. It is another way for you (the eater) and I (the farmer) to build and develop a mutual respect and rapport with each other.

In addition, I would like to discuss and debate current events that are happening outside my figurative farmgate (I don't really have a farmgate; in fact, even my fences are a little austere...) Most of them will relate to farms and food systems, but many of them probably won't. The only promise I can make is to give an honest opinion, and to try to stimulate some conversation. Please visit often, and feel free to contribute.