Rettland Farm

Rettland Farm

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.