Friday, July 23, 2010

Happy birthday whales!

We live on several thousand acres at the end of a gravel road, not exactly where you would expect to find trash and pollution. Of course we have our own dump with over 100 years of trash and you can still find bits and pieces of homesteader belongings sprinkled about but overall, the ranch is a pretty natural place. No beer cans, diapers or cigarette butts littering the roads but we do find one very specific kind of trash out here: mylar balloons.

Likely they come from the valley and are forced up and over the Cascades and eventually lose enough air and altitude and end up out here at the ranch: caught in trees, in the bottom of canyons, stuck on barb wire fences or just caught on dirt clods. It's not just one or two balloon either, we find and dispose of between 10 and 15 balloons a year.

When we first moved out here it was novel to find one, a reminder that a much bigger world is not really that far away. Many balloons later we now have a phrase for when we spot a balloon, "Happy Birthday Whales!" So the next time you are picking out a special gift to say "happy birthday", "get well" or "with sympathy", think of me at the ranch untangling that airborne message from the sagebrush and reach for a heartfelt card or potted plant. The whales will thank you.

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Caught on a dirt clod in a field plowed only yesterday, another balloon comes to a deflated end at the ranch.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Raspberries

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Raspberry season is here. To ensure that we get our share of the bounty, I head out early each morning and pick a half flat of the sweet, juicy berries before the birds and wasps come out in force. I like picking berries; such a calming experience in the cool morning air. I try to not think about stories of rattlers hanging out in the thicket though.

My least favorite part of berry picking is what to do with them once I bring them inside. I very much enjoy seeing all the little cartons lined up and piled high with berries. They have such a short shelf life that you have to do something with them in a day or so of being picked or they turn to mush: pies, tarts, cakes, cookies, cobblers, iced tea, vinaigrette, jams, jellies. No matter how uncreative I feel about making something with them, I can't stand watching the birds take them all so I dutifully go out and pick. Unfortunately, the raspberry season falls between CSA deliveries or I could bring the excess along as for sale with the other farm products. For now, many of these babies will find their way to the freezer until another day when I have a plan for them.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Natural foods lingo lesson 1

With a wide variety of "green" food products available on shelves or at markets it is easy to get lost in the meaning of these marketing terms. We have had many visitors of the ranch ask us for clarification on what exactly these terms mean. Personally, I am not a fan of marketing buzzwords, many of them have no legal definition so it can be confusing when producer and consumer are not speaking the same language. Here is a list of general explanations for each term. This is by no means intended to be an exhaustive list but merely a tool for the consumer to be able to better navigate the market.

There are terms that refer to the product itself as well as terms that refer to the production methods. Let's focus on terms surrounding chicken and eggs for today.

Brown Eggs/ White Eggs - No nutritional difference at all between the two, just come from different breeds. Commercially, white eggs are laid by white leghorn hens while brown eggs mostly come from red or black sex link hybrids. Other breeds lay white and brown (and green) eggs but not at the powerhouse rate of these breeds or hybrids. I'm not sure where the "brown eggs are better for you" mentality started but it in the early days of commercial scale egg production, white leghorns were used primarily because they are a smaller bird that eats less feed. Back in those days, brown eggs likely came from small flocks (which probably tasted better) and commanded a higher price at the store. When producers figured they could charge more for the brown eggs (which would help cover the added costs of feed), brown eggs became more widely available commercially.

Antibiotic Free - Means that the animals were not fed sub-therapeutic antibiotics to prevent disease and encourage the animals to grow in spite of stress. This practice is different from treating a sick animal with a round of antibiotics to cure an infection but both are a big no-no in organic production methods. Our cattle eat grass and we mix our own ration for the hogs and chickens but we feed chick starter to the chicks when they are in the brooder before they develop feathers and can go outside. Sourcing non-medicated feed is quite difficult in our small town but we found a place in Redmond that sells non-medicated starter milled locally at Hillsboro Feed near Portland.

Hormone Free - I hate this claim. It is misleading by exclusion. If farm A advertises "free range, naturally nested eggs with no hormones administered" and farm B advertises "free range, naturally nested eggs", which one are you going to choose? Of course you will choose farm A because the claim they make that their eggs are hormone free gives the implication that the eggs from other farms are not. The reality is that, in the US it is illegal to use any form of growth stimulating hormones ever in poultry (chicken, turkey and other fowl) or pork production and has been since 1959. Yet, a portion of the public still worries that all non-organic meats are chock full of hormones and antibiotics. The perpetuation of this claim just exaggerates this fear. I will admit that I have used this term in reference to our products before but now realize that if I say our pastured meats are not administered hormones, I know that I am just talking about the beef (where the practice is legal but but mostly found on dairies and feedlots not small farms) but the customer may not. Here's to breaking the cycle! I will no longer make any references to our products being hormone-free, if customers question the lack of such a claim, they can just talk to me about our practices.

High Omega 3 - This one has become quite popular in recent years. Eggs high in omega 3 fatty acids come from chickens that have a diet high in those same acids. Pastured or free range chickens have naturally high levels of omega 3 because the eat a lot of plant material but most "Omega" eggs at the store were fed either flax seeds or fish meal from menhaden.

Vegetarian Fed - Chickens are fed a plant based ration. Most of the time the bulk of the ration consists of corn (for carbohydrate energy) and soy (for protein). No meat byproducts are used (though I have heard the argument before that fish are sometimes not classified as meat but I can't back that claim up). Chickens are naturally omnivorous and as silly as it sounds to eat a vegetarian diet, I'm not sure where the "meat byproducts' or "protein derived from animal sources" fit into a natural diet either.

Fertile - The eggs in the carton are not necessarily fertile (though in recent years some folks have had success hatching eggs from Trader Joe's) but the hens have had contact with roosters, so were most likely not kept in cages.

Fresh - With meats, the term fresh means that the meat was never frozen. With eggs, the USDA grading system relates the interior quality of the egg with freshness. USDA grade AA eggs are the "freshest" in quality and will have a thick yolk and firm white. As eggs age, their quality degrades so if you buy AA eggs but don't eat them for three weeks you will have A or B grade eggs. They still taste the same but the whites thin and the yolk flattens. Eggs can be stored for a long while, especially farm eggs (which keep up to two months in the refrigerator). Another interesting thing of note when it comes to buying eggs is that the cartons are labeled with the date the eggs were packed, not the date they were laid. Eggs are usually packed within a week of being laid. When you are at the market, take a look at the code on the side of the carton to get the freshest eggs. Cartons must be labeled with the number of the day of the year that the eggs were packed (001 to 365). On the carton below, the eggs were packed on January 19th (day 019) and have a sell by date of February 28th. To get the freshest eggs, pick the highest three digit number (unless of course it is the first of the year).

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Cage Free - Hens are not confined to small cages where they are unable to stand up or spread their wings. Most often the birds stocked at high densities in free roaming or free ranging barns.

Naturally Nested - Not a defined term but mostly refers to hens that live in high density barns with long rows of nest boxes. Another way of saying cage free.

Free Roaming - Slightly different, but sometimes used interchangeably with free-range, this term refers to management practices. Hens are not kept in battery cages but live with thousands of other birds on the floors of large poultry barns.

Free Range - This term is only defined by the USDA for poultry (for beef or pork, it is an unregulated term) and means that the birds roam about freely in high density poultry barns but must be allowed access to the outdoors. There is no stipulation for how large the outdoor yard must be, the quality of the range or amount of time the doors are open, just that the birds are allowed access. In the small farmers circle, the definition of free range generally refers to birds that are allowed to roam outside without restrictions or barriers. Some farmers fence off large sections of pasture with electrified poultry netting and move the flock every few days, some just open the door and let the birds scatter to the four winds. Again, the industry standard's definition is very different from the small farmer so free range does not necessarily mean that the birds ever went outside or it could mean that they lived their whole lives outside, all depends on the grower.

Pastured - (not to be confused with pasteurized for the salmonella wary consumer) This is not a regulated term. In general, it refers to a style of raising chickens popularized by Joel Salatin where the birds live in bottomless pasture pens that are moved daily to new pasture. The chickens get a fresh patch of forage and ground to search for bugs while being moved off of their manure which fertilizes the field. They aren't allowed to roam freely about the farm but get the benefits of a diet supplemented with pasture. Unless you shop at the farmer's market, pastured poultry is not widely available on a commercial scale and comes almost exclusively from small farms.

Natural - This term is unregulated. It does not refer to any standard agreed upon practices. However, as a small farmer, this is one of the terms that I feel best reflects my product. When I say that our poultry and eggs (and beef and pork) are natural, I mean that they get to live their lives as close to the way that nature intended. They live outside, they don't receive hormones (the cattle that is, remember no hormones are used in pork or poultry production in the US) or antibiotics, they eat what they would eat as part of their natural diet, and go about their days expressing themselves by doing things that a chicken (or other animal) would do: they dig for worms, they take dust baths, they play, they nap, they bicker, they cause mischief. But, since this term is unregulated you have no guarantee what the producer classifies as natural as part of the management practices.

Certified Humane - This term is actually regulated. It means that the eggs come from hens that were fed a diet free of antibiotics (no hormones though because that is illegal anyways right?) and that they have enough space to engage in chicken-like behaviors. The term isn't perfect and the hens may not necessarily be allowed outside or may have their beaks trimmed, but it attempts to encourage some sort of animal welfare.

Organic - This is the big "green" term that sets standards for feed (non-GMO, organic ingredients only that are produced with no synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides that contains no antibiotics (or for cattle, hormones)) as well as husbandry guidelines. Producers can not legally use the term 'organic' if they are not certified by a certification agency hence the use of terms like "natural" for small farmers. "Certified Naturally Grown" is a grass roots labeling certification that caters to small farms that sell locally or direct to consumers and tries to remove some of the hassle of the mountains of paperwork required by organic certification agencies. Of course there are many, many small farms that follow organic management practices but choose to forgo the certification process, so just because the farm down the road is not certified, does not mean that they could not sell you a product just as good (if not better because it is local) as one labeled organic in the store.


Monday, July 12, 2010

Jake

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Little bro and honorary ranch hand Jake spent the last few weeks helping out at the ranch. In the summer months where there are never enough hours in the day and the "To Do" list grows faster than we can check projects off, having Jake around has been immensely helpful. He has spent enough time out here to know the daily chore routine and as well as big picture things like where the cows are not allowed. So when he arrives at the ranch and sees the cows on the wrong side of the fence, instead of driving down to the house to get us, he hops out of his car and spends the next 20 minutes herding them back into the pasture.

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From hard, dirty ranch chores like chopping hay, bucking bales and cleaning grain bins to day to day stuff like like feeding the livestock, moving irrigation or chasing down a rattler in the garden, as long as we keep him supplied with ibuprofen, hearty meals and homebrewed beer, he never complains and works his butt off.

The free labor is nice of course but he is also hilarious, always in a good mood and just plain good company. We always wish we could spend more time doing "fun stuff" like hiking or target shooting when he comes to visit but he is very understanding that the ranch is a super busy place and that "the hay needs a'cuttin, the bales need a'stackin and the cows need a'movin!".

Friday, July 9, 2010

Update... finally!

Indeed it has been a while since I have updated. Astute blog visitors will note that in busy times the posting slows down but, fresh from our second CSA delivery in Portland yesterday, I am reinspired to share life out here on the ranch. So stay tuned for a long posts on such enlighting topics as: haying, chicken waterers, planting potatoes and our ongoing war with rodents in the garden.

But for now, enjoy a few of my excess photos of the lovely bitterroot displays this spring:

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