Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Full Expression of Pigitas

What is our job as farmers?

I fear that is a question seldom asked these days.

Here at Magdalen Farm it is a question we have dared to ask. I say dared because it is one that often seems to arouse controversy and always seems to amount to interesting looks from 'real' farmers.

What is our job as farmers? Somewhat counter-culturally, we have decided that our job isn't to simply accept the modern ways of raising animals and of growing a garden. Rather, we feel called to ask what an animal is and what a plant is and how we as stewards of creation are called to tend it.

As stewards of a pig, there is no more important question to ask than what is a pig. As Joel Salatin has it, what is a pig's pigitas or pigness? Were pigs created with a high-powered bulldozer of a nose so that they could sit in cages? Were they created with the instinct to run and play and socialize, so that we could be confined shoulder to shoulder and rump to rump?

We have honestly considered the question. It is certainly easier, cheaper and faster to raise pigs in a feedlot operation. Why do you think store-bought pork is relatively cheap? But does the feedlot do justice to the pigs lofty calling of living out its pigness? And, as farmers, does it do justice to our calling to be stewards of creation?

Our answers to these questions have led us to a revolutionary -- revolutionarily old -- method of animal raising: pasture-raised livestock. To watch a pig root around in the dirt, trot around and butt its powerful head into the sides of its peers, and find a shady spot to nap in the heat of the afternoon is to see a pig in full expression of its pigitas.

The system of pasturing our animals that we will be employing is something called rotational grazing (RG). The idea of rotational grazing is that you put larger animals on a paddock of pasture first to eat down the grass and disrupt the ecology and then you send in the chickens to eat down the bugs. All the while all of these animals are depositing a compost-able fertilizer that Monsanto could only dream of creating. Obviously, the danger is to overgraze your pasture, but with our small numbers of animals even our relatively small pasture will be plenty large for four pigs and 30 hens.

Right now the pigs are training on the electric fencing. Without electric fencing rotational grazing would still be known as nomadic swinehearding. We enjoy the stability of a fixed residence, so we went the electric fence route. Plus, the public grazing lands seem to be a bit limited in scope at the moment.

Please visit our Magdalen Farm Facebook page for more pictures and more frequent updates.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Magdalen Farm Visits the Mountains

Greetings friends of Magdalen Farm!

Sunday evening Stephanie and I returned from an epic 10 day trip to the Rocky Mountains, where we visiting Glacier National Park in Northern Montana, Banff and Jasper National Parks in Alberta and Yoho National Park in British Columbia. We travelled with 13 other young Catholics from the Dioceses of Superior, La Crosse, Duluth and St. Paul -- including our diocese's newest priest Fr. Patrick McConnell.

Given the difficulty of posting large quantities of photos on the blog, we set up a Magdalen Farm Facebook account at which I posted 65 pictures this morning. We did do a couple of Magdalen Farm videos as well during the journey which I will endeavor to post both here and at Facebook.

Apparently the 70/35 degree temps we enjoyed in the mountains were a touch cooler than those enjoyed by you all in the midwest while we were gone. The garden exploded with growth due to the heat and humidity. The corn and sunflowers rocketed sunward and are beginning to grow their fruit and all of the other warm weather crops seem to be doing marvelously as well.

An enormous thanks to Mike and Sue (Stephanie's parents) for their generosity in farm-sitting and Don and Arlene (Stephanie's grandparents) for Hildy-sitting!

We hope to have an actual farm update available for you soon!

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Real Life of the Gentleman Farmer

As if emerging from the pages of a Ralph Lauren catalogue, he stepped out of his Audi S.U.V. onto the clean, packed pea gravel of a beautiful 300 acre horse farm. The lush rolling hills encompassed by undulating white fencing, the clear blue skies and the clean air welcomed him. After the fever pitch of life in the city, a little taste of the agrarian life -- the good life -- was just what he needed.

The rich brown leather of his loafers shined brightly beneath the pressed cuff of his designer slacks and, as he pivoted and closed the car door, the gravel made a satisfactory crunch. He set off in the direction of the horse barn to look for Eduardo, his farm manager...

+   +   +

Since we decided to move to the farm two years ago, I have often been told that I was living the life of the age-old 'gentleman farmer.'

The idea of exercising the aristocratic craft of writing for a (very modest) living and spending my leisure time in raising animals, cutting and stacking wood, and tending to the garden do indeed sound vaguely like that noble, agrarian ideal -- think Thomas Jefferson -- and, believe me, my imagination often strives to see it as such, but reality is quite another story.

An instance:

Last Friday was the appointed end of the line for our meat chickens, who had reached the requisite weight and were ready for butchering.

The day began early with reveille tooting around 6 a.m.

Dressed in a grimy and torn pair of work pants and a holy (gaps in the fabric, not sanctity) t-shirt, I joined my wife out at the basketball court where the assemblage of bleeder, scalder, plucker and butchering table signified a "don't worry about breakfast" warning. By 7 a.m. we had carried a tub with our first eight conscripts up from their lush, green pasture and were ready to begin.

I'll spare you the remainder of the details from that morning, but suffice it to say that when we were finished around 11:30 a.m. (thanks in very large part to the generous nature and skilled hands of my mother-in-law), I looked and felt even less gentlemanly than I did a few hours earlier.

After a short lunch with Sue, Stephanie, and our friend Charlie, who had also come to lend a hand, I got washed up and headed into the office to spend the afternoon writing. Five hours later, having written an article about a Homebound Ministry for a parish in California and another about a devout, elderly couple in Nebraska the day was done.

By 7 p.m. we freely enjoying drinks at our favorite, lakeside restaurant and discussing the dichotomy, which some (including us) take to be symphonic harmony, between the menial and liberal arts at which I had labored throughout the day.

Two other anecdotes:

About three weeks ago we attended a benefit concert for a local charity. During the evening I happened to look at one of my loafers -- brown and leather, like those of my fictitious 'farmer' above. Noticing something underneath the arch of one of them, I wrenching my ankle slightly to see what it was. It turned out that the entire gap between heal and toe was packed with chicken droppings.

Further, during a recent weekend trip to Hillsdale, a friend mentioned that in his history classes he always encourages his students toward agrarian lifestyles, admitting that he couldn't tell any of them the first thing about raising livestock or growing crops. Rather, he knew the joy and beauty that generations have known from experience by reading Virgil and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Perhaps it is in the combining of the experience and the poetry that the elusive 'good life' might exist.

Whether the ideal of the gentleman farmer is truly at hand I'm not sure, but I do know that, regardless, I need to do a better job of keeping my loafers clean.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Death on the Farm; Or, What Happens When Baby Chicks Arrive With Hernias

To date, in writing these posts Stephanie and I have for the most part confined ourselves to the happy, even idyllic, side of life as hobby farmers in Northwest Wisconsin.

However, in the name of journalistic integrity, sometimes the reader needs to know the full story.

As I sat at my desk writing the other day -- yesterday, I believe -- Stephanie came in with a sad gait and an expression suggesting something was amiss. The last I'd seen her just a few hours earlier she was still basking in the delight that accompanies the arrival of a batch of new baby chicks. These chicks, 50 cornish cross, are perhaps the cutest of all neo-natal farm life we have yet encountered. So the delight bordered on euphoria.

You probably know where this is headed...

"I don't like death," she announced.

"Neither do I," I added, happy to have established unanimity on so elemental a human subject.

"One of our chicks -- the one with the funny butt -- is going to die. And, I don't want to find it..."

"Hmmmm. I suppose I don't want to find it either."

"In fact, I don't much like being a farmer today," she added before leaving to go back to her desk.

...On the farm, death is quite truly a part of life. I'm not talking about the sort of death that our sadistic culture is obsessed with, namely Halo and the Poltergeist. No, I'm talking about the simple and terrible fact that all creatures die.

The sickly chick with the mysterious protuberance was a tiny example of creaturely finitude and of the fact that life is not only finite, but fleeting. Our heartfelt dismay at the loss of so insignificant a creature as a three ounce baby chick displays the bird's significance and the fact that even so small a life is indeed precious.

Almost every religion and philosophy has concurred on this basic, anthropological fact: life is hard and often terrible and we all have a deep and abiding sense that it ought not be so. Indeed, the various rituals that have always accompanied death in every culture in human history point to the fact that dying is something quite unnatural.

Nevertheless, we all die.

We like to fixate on the death of the animals that provide us food, but I suppose that death constitutes a sort of photographic negative to the less often observed fact that the creature in question was alive. One of the things that I'm most grateful for in the opportunity to live at the farm is that I now understand what meat is and what it isn't. It isn't a product -- after all, it wasn't produced. It comes from a creature; a creature that was born, lived a short while, and died.

The vitality of a barnyard full of creatures provides a beautiful and lovely setting in which to live. Sadly, those creatures die; but their lives are all precious.

The sickly chick is gone, having lived a meager life of three days. But the tender care given it by my gentle wife was a unique gift not enjoyed by many animals in this world.

Monday, April 30, 2012

No Such Things As Free.... Mulch?

I give you: free mulch:

Granted, the cost of a thing is not merely calculated in dollars and cents. But, as far as dollars and cents go, apart from the gasoline -- which is admittedly expensive these days -- this mulch was free. 

Surely the rhetorical hook has been set and you are wondering, "how did our clever hobby-farming friends get such a gorgeous pile of free mulch?" 

As with most things that are 'free' in this world, you have to 'know someone'. For us, generally speaking, that someone is Grandpa Don. Stephanie's maternal grandfather, Grandpa Don has been featured in several Magdalen Farm blog posts in the past. He is a character and a half: an 80 year old that can chain saw and split heavy maple tree trunks and do snow mobile tricks all day, provided he has access to enough of Grandma Arlene's cookies and homemade jams. Grandpa Don is also a 'collector'. He has buildings full of everything you could ever want or need. In this case, he has a mulcher.

Let's backtrack for a moment: As Stephanie and I discussed ways to improve our farm over the long, snowy winter -- er, fairly short and rather mild winter -- I stated that putting mulch between our raised beds and in a few other areas would really spruce up the joint. But thinking back to my days of lawn mowing and landscaping with Gaffer's Lawn Care I remembered that one actually needs a great deal of mulch to cover any sizable section of ground and that one seldom gets a great deal on such a great deal of mulch. Amidst these bleak midwinter ponderings I recalled aloud, "doesn't Grandpa Don have a mulcher?"

"I think he might...," added Stephanie, (known to Grandpa Don as Stephers). "Does he? It's so hard to keep track of such things."

Well, in fact, Grandpa Don does have a mulcher and about a week ago he dropped it off for us.

"That's all good and well," you're probably chuckling to yourself, "but a mulcher doesn't get you mulch without some branches to feed it."

But piles of old branches, my friend, is something of which we have nary a shortage. 

Since we moved in we've done a great deal of tree trimming and have also cut down a number of scrub trees that had grown up close to buildings and had begun to wreak havoc on the foundations. These piles had made for some charming, decorative landscape ornamentation... I can't even type that with a straight face. These piles needed to be gotten rid of and we were planning on burning them all this spring, but instead we've been mulching them. So far we have made somewhere around four cubic yards of mulch.

With that bounty of free mulch on hand (and plenty more yet to be had), we've had to decide how best to employ the woody fruits of our labor. The Mulch-Use Priority Rankings (MUPR) currently stand as follows:
  1. Vegetable Garden Paths
  2. Flower Beds Around the House
  3. Main Flower Garden Paths and Beds
  4. Raspberry Beds Along the Pine Stand

The great thing about our free mulch is that the actual creating of the mulch has been a lot of fun, too. It is a wondrous process to take something that was an eyesore, run it through a loud, vibrating contraption and have it shoot out into a lovely pile of garden-beautifying goodness!

I figure in the end we'll probably create around nine yards of mulch this spring. So for those 729 cubic foot of eye-pleasing, weed-blocking goodness we extend another hearty 'thank you' to our kindly benefactors: Grandpa Don and Grandma Arlene!

Monday, April 23, 2012

Belated Chicken Post

The six weeks between March 1st and April 15 have been some of the busiest for Chris and I, and virtually none of what kept us occupied was farm related.  Thus this very belated post:

A Barred Rock, considered "dual purpose" because they are
good egg layers and large enough to be used for meat.

A Leghorn hen.  These white egg layers are the breed used in
large-scale egg factories.  In their prime they lay an egg a day.
A young Red Star - the brow egg layer
equivalent to the leghorn.
A curious Sussex 

The molting Barred Rock.  Hens go into
their first molt between 12 and 20 months.
Over the course of 2 weeks they will replace
the majority of their feathers and egg
production will almost completely stop.

Two Buff Bramas snoozing in the sun

Thursday, March 8, 2012


No seriously, rats.

Truly, a rodent of unusual size

Stephanie proudly displays her largest victim yet