Notes from the Farm: May 20 2021 ** Busy Season... ------------------------------------------------------------ Well folk's its gonna be a short one. We are off and running and working hard to keep all the balls in the air. I'm headed north for a convening of the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union this evening, and will be delivering a load of compost to two ranches in northern New Mexico that will be participating in the carbon ranching initiative being spearheaded by our friends at the Quivira coalition. Tomorrow we will be participating in a workshop at the Hibner Ranch near Tierra Amarilla and continuing to grow and strengthen the network of farmers anf ranchers working to produce nutrient dense food while combatting climate change and building community and vibrant rural economies. Ethan will be holding down the fort at the Farm Stand in the mean time! The veg is starting to pick up and the freezers are still fully stocked. If you want to support family farming and ranching and sustainable food production in the Southwest you should consider joining both RMFU and/or the Quivira Coalition. An annual associate membership in the Rocky Mountain farmers Union is only $35 and goes to support the vital work of advocating for better policies that help family farms. With the majority of farmers in the country rapidly aging out there has never been a more critical time to push for policies that reverse the damage done over the last several decades that have pushed the family farm to the point of extinction. Likewise the Quivira coalition is doing amazing work in bringing agriculture and conservation together in unique and inspiring ways, and working hard to train the next generation of western agrarians in how to manage land in a responsible and regenerative way to produce healthy food, meaningful livelihoods, and combat the ongoing challenges of climate disruption. You can learn more about these organizations by visiting:
Notes from the Farm: May 28 2021 ** Busy Season... Part 2.. ------------------------------------------------------------ Well folk's its gonna be a short one.. again. Last week's adventure to Chama and Tierra Amarilla was rejuvenating and inspiring. Charlie Hibner has spent his life taking a huge piece of beat down Taos Plateau and transforming it from a mono culture of invasive sage brush into a beautiful and beautifully productive ranch. It's truly inspiring to see what a life time of patient and dedicated effort can do to transform a landscape and take something beat down and bring it back to life. There were over fifty people in attendance, ranging from neighboring ranchers to enviornmentalist and every shade of government bureacrat that works in public land management. The Rocky Mountain Farmers Union meeting was a breath of fresh air. I got to spend a lot of time chatting with the President and learning about what a lifetime of service to family farmers really looks like. It is amazing to be able to connect to such a tenacious and fun group of like minded agricultural producers. The Union meeting predictably ended up with all of the young farmers and ranchers hanging out on the chama river drinking a few beers and solving all the problems of the world. It was simultaneously terrifying and heartening to realize that the problems we struggle with ( like lack of access to processing, competing with giant global corporations, and rapidly depleting water resources) are equally heavy on the minds of producers that have been working the land for longer than I've been alive. It was also deeply satisfying to connect with people that are doing similar things and thinking about ways to address these issues in a similar way. Many of the apprentices from the Quivira Coalitions New Agrarian program came, and it was great to be able to connect and brainstorm about potential collaborations and bounce ideas around about how to move forward. Hopefully some of those conversations will yield some exciting opportunities to purchase grass finished beef shares! I would again encourage everyone to sign up and get involved. You can learn more about these organizations by visiting:
Notes from the Farm (and ranch) July 4 2021 ** HAPPY FOURTH OF JULY! ------------------------------------------------------------ Well folks I spent last night and all morning this morning typing up a long update on all the happenings at the farm and how we were able to get one of our old sows harvested locally and how great that was and all the fun things we are working on and then the computer glitched and it all went away. Haven't had that happen for a decade but it felt just like it did in college when you finished a paper and lost it before you could print it or save it. Ugh. Anyways we are still here, still going hard. I've been having to spend way to much time with dentists and lawyers lately, but being able to chew your food when you get old is important and growing out a small business can be pretty brutally difficult. It's definitely the year of the ox. We made up a mean batch of Red and Green Chile Whole Hog Pork sausage so we can all have CHRISTMAS IN JULY!! We also got back three beeves from Sol Ranch and are fully restocked on all the good beef cuts. The registration for the compost workshop is now live: https://quiviracoalition.org/events/july-edgewood-compost/ We have been getting more and more produce from our friends at Synergia ranch who have expanded their growing operation significantly this year. Really mind bending to see what the compost we are producing can do when its in the right persons hands. They have transformed a quarter acre of high desert shrub land into some of the most incredibly beautiful and productive soil we've seen lately. We are also very excited about getting in the first of the garlic harvest from our friends at FarmShark as as well as some delectable little plums. We passed our seventh health inspection, once again with flying colors. And the county is still refusing to budge on letting us sell our eggs in the store. They finally hired a new director for the Health department and he is even more hostile than the last guy. I think they might be cousins. They sound very similar and have the same infuriating levels of laziness and incompetence. Stay tuned for more information on the coming insurrection against petty corrupt county bureaucrats ;) ** Update from Sol Ranch ------------------------------------------------------------ 10 June 2021 Hi Polk’s Folly readers! Shannon Maes here, Apprentice at Sol Ranch through the Quivira Coalition’s New Agrarian Program. Here at the ranch today it’s hot and windy, so the cows and calves are sprawled taking midday naps or grazing lazily in their new pasture. All the rain in May (3 inches - oh wow!!!) brought out a burst of growth on cool season grasses and a spectacular showing of wildflowers, of which the most recent to bloom are the prickly poppies and Indian paintbrush, two of my very favorites. The three finishers that went to the processor this morning were fine looking cattle, carefully chosen and quite healthy with an average of one hundred extra pounds gained during the past month and a half. Emily’s discerning eye could pick out the slightly rounder, more finished appearance of these three but to my more novice judgement they looked quite similar to the other animals in the herd. The excellent spring growth in the pastures so far has led us to joke that all the steers are finishing themselves on a diet of yucca blossoms (a REALLY popular food around here among grazers both wild and domestic), several species of Lamb’s Quarter or Quelites that have favored the cooler, moister weather lately, and a variety of cool season grasses that have helped make the land a patchwork of shades of green. Besides feeling fortunate whenever we see a rain cloud on the horizon, we’ve also been helping our neighbors at branding and preparing for our own, planning our grazing season, moving cattle, keeping an eye out for unusual birds and as always, fixing fences. Hopefully this spring rain was an added bonus and we still have a monsoon to look forward to. *Update: Since this was written, the ranch received almost 2 inches of rain that came down in a nice slow drizzle over about 5 days at the end of June with more rain in the forecast. Things are really looking and feeling good out on the ranch and everyone is breathing a sigh of relief.
** Notes from the Farm: July 15 2021 ------------------------------------------------------------ Reflections on composting It's a warm day and a faint whiff of ammonia rides a breeze through pinon and juniper along a wash at Polk’s Folly Farm. Trevor (LN) of Reunity Resources stands with one foot on a giant pile of horse manure and wood mulch, wielding a three foot thermometer, explaining to a group of a dozen people how to insert the device into the pile regularly over the coming weeks to make sure the compost gets to 131 degrees and cooks there for a number of days. He explains how appropriate temperatures are key to good compost production hot enough to kill weeds, parasites, and pathogens. He also mentions that the ammonia smell is an indicator of too much nitrogen in the compost mix. This is the second in-person workshop in a series co-hosted by the Quivira Coalition and Reunity Resources as part of a Rural Development Grant focused on diverting waste from rural landfills and repurposing biodegradable materials on farms for compost. The morning session focused on a method known as aerated static pile composting. The small crew of participants got to help construct an aeration system of perforated PVC pipes and a bouncy house blower. Then, our farm team mixed animal manure (a nitrogen source) from the barn and wood mulch from the transfer station (a carbon source) to create a 5 foot tall, 25 foot long pile atop the aerator. We wetted the pile, then covered it with a layer of just wood chips to help keep moisture in the pile. The pile will take 3 to 5 weeks to compost, then can be shared with area farmers, or applied to degraded areas on our own pastures. While we have produced compost on the farm for years now, this particular aerated static pile method is new to us. We typically will create large windrows and turn them periodically to aerate the parts at the bottom of the pile. This system is aerated by the blower, so doesn’t require the extra tractor time. We’re excited to compare the results to previous efforts. Some of you may be familiar with composting, but just so we’re on the same page, I’ll borrow a few quotes from the new technical guide published by Quivira and Reunity Resources (https://quiviracoalition.org/rural-dryland-composting/) about the process. Composting takes advantage of the natural decomposition processes that are performed by microbes and larger organisms like nematodes, worms, mites, sowbugs, springtails, ants, and beetles. Tailored combinations of feedstocks, water, and air help the decomposition process along. While carbon based materials all eventually break down in soil, with composting, we also make the process occur above the soil at an accelerated rate to produce a useful soil amendment quickly and put it where it is needed most! Between 50-75 percent of the carbon in the feedstocks (horse manure and wood chips at the workshop this weekend!) put into the compost pile is lost as carbon dioxide, but all other nutrients remain, making the compost enriched in nutrients compared to the plant and animal material that went into it. This is what makes compost a really good, stable, long-term fertilizer. Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t share ideas about how composting is key to creating climate resilience, reducing emissions from our food systems, and restoring degraded ecosystems. Again, from the new guidebook -- Food production is intimately tied to the carbon cycle and therefore with climate change. For example, in 2009, emissions associated with food production, processing, transport, and disposal accounted for 13 percent of US greenhouse gas emissions. Approximately 42 percent of US greenhouse gas emissions are associated with the energy used to produce, process, transport, and dispose of the food we eat and the goods we use (Opportunities to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions through Materials and Land Management Practices, 2009). Sending organic waste to landfills results in the highest greenhouse gas emissions scenario when compared to composting and anaerobic digestion with gas or heat capture (Nordahl et al., 2020). Moreover, diversion of organic waste to compost and application of that compost to agricultural lands results in the uptake of greenhouse gases because soil health improves. In turn, healthy soil leads to healthier, more productive plants. Specifically, applying compost increases plant productivity due to improved soil structure, improved water availability, and improved nutrient availability. These improvements made through the application of compost can be long-term (Ryals et al., 2014). So, for these reasons, we’re champions of compost, and proud to be the dirtiest farm on the mountain.
While we usually like to feature one of our vendors or new farmers here, a stupendous number of events have occurred on our home farm and we’d like to catch everyone up. We have been sweating bullets for the last two months as the world of inspected meat processing has been turned upside down.
For those of you that are not familiar with how meat processing works in this country, in order to sell most meats the animal has to be slaughtered at a special facility where it is inspected by the United States Department of Agricultures Food Safety Inspection Services (FSIS). This is theoretically to ensure food safety, though the way the system actually works… well it doesn’t really work. FSIS approves the distribution of over 100 million pounds of contaminated meat every year.
What the system has done very effectively though is put nearly all of the small and mid sized processing plants out of business. As a result, four companies (two of which are foreign owned) control virtually all of the meat in the country. These plants can process thousand of cows, tens of thousands of pigs, or hundreds of thousands of chickens in a single day. They are primarily staffed by immigrant, migrant, and refugee laborers. The pay is generally low, the hours long, and the working conditions pretty dismal. Everything works on an assembly line and the faster the line is moving the closer together the worker have to stand. Instead of slowing the lines down, spacing workers out at a safe distance, and deterring people from coming to work sick, the big meat packing plants opted to give bonuses to people that came into work despite being ill, keep the lines at full speed, and pretend nothing was wrong.
If even one of these plants is closed down or not operating at full capacity it can wreak havoc for farmers and ranchers. So when nearly half of them shut down as a result of over 30% of the workers getting infected with covid-19, it created a huge back up of animals that are ready to process with no where to go. As a result farmers and ranchers have a supply glut which is driving the price of live animals down while the limited supply drives prices at the grocery store up. A few weeks ago our local, 100% grass finished premium beef was more affordable than the commodity beef at the grocery store! Add in the insurance money and the hundred of millions of dollars in federal relief going to the big meat packers, on top of record breaking profit margins, and they are sitting pretty pretty right now. Maybe a bit too pretty in fact, as most of the plants are now mostly back on line but the prices at the sale barn and grocery stores still seem to heavily favor the meat packers at the expense of the farmers and the consumer. The DOJ is actively investigating these companies for prices fixing and has already issued indictments. I digress…
What this means for us is that the extremely small world of small scale inspected meat processing just got even more crowded. A lot of farmers and ranchers decided to try to switch to direct marketing meat instead of getting raked over the coals by the meat packing companies, and plenty of other people saw an opportunity with the price increases to try to make a quick buck.
So in early march, when we called the processor in southern Colorado that we have been taking our hogs too for the last two years, we were dismayed to find that all of the slots for the rest of the year had already been reserved. Same story at every small processing plant in the Southwest. So we got on the phone and started lobbying to try to get more of the small plants in New Mexico inspected so we would have some sort of option and wouldn’t have to shut down the shop.
It took about two months but we were able to hook up with the owner of the grocery store in Mountainair and help her in her efforts to help the small plant in Mountainair come back under inspection. I started working there two days a week to try to help them get up and running. It has been an absolute trip seeing the inner working of an inspected slaughter house. It also looks like the USDA is gunning to shut them down again. Whether that is because the primary operator is native, or the billionaire owner has a ten year history of flaunting all the rules, or the town of Mountainair can’t keep the decaying water system delivering potable water to the plant, or the lack of skilled workers to man the plant, or if it’s just a continuation of the same tendency of the federal government to push big corporate monopolies and discriminate against small rural plants is hard to say.
The good news is that our processor in Colorado called us last week and offered to let us book more spots. I guess some of the big ranchers that booked up all the spots found out selling that much meat is not as easy as it may seem. Consequently we have been able to confirm enough spots through the end of the year and into next year that we will be able to continue operating the shop, though not at the capacity we were hoping to be at. We will continue to support the plant in Mountainair and hope they will be able to address the myriad challenges facing them so we will have another quality local option for processing.
At this point we are extremely grateful just to be in business and not to be facing the prospect of having to either build our own processing plant, finding hundreds of people that wanted to process their own meat, or euthanizing and disposing of our animals. If you would like to support the efforts to restore a free and fair market place so farmers and ranchers can have equitable market access and not be beholden to foreign owned corporations please consider contacting you Congress people and asking them to support the Prime act, The RAMP UP Act, and expanding the Talmadge-Aiken Act. Alternatively you can support our efforts to help address these issues at a state and national level by becoming a member of the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union. https://www.rmfu.org/get-involved/become-a-member/. You don’t have to be a farmer to sign up, and an associate membership is only $45 per year.
At the heart of the solution are more small processing plants serving local communities with valued and skilled meat cutters — the knowledge of both humane slaughter and the craft of meat cutting are disappearing. The images in this essay come primarily from a photo essay published by Edible New Mexico (www.ediblenm.com/meat-matters-photo-essay). We worked with the magazine, the Southwest Grassfed Livestock Alliance, and the Good Meat Project to offer on farm slaughter and butchering workshops. Supporting these organizations can also help get us closer to more resilient meat supply chains.
We let the pigs out to pasture today. They’ve been getting restless plowing up the winter pens getting them ready for spring planting. The north pen behind the house we are fixing up for my older brothers family (and their future yard), was already in need of a mow. After a long few months of scraping by with weeds, buried pinon nuts, malted barley, oats, blue corn beer, alfalfa, fruits and vegetables, bread, pastries, cake, and the occasional romp around in the snow searching for sparse winter grass, our little horde of mobile-fertilizing, tilling, wallowing, jumping and skipping little porkers was back at fresh grass. And oh did they love it.
And they were not the only ones loving all the awesomeness happening underground right now. While turning the mulch around one of our apple trees I found that the gophers had gone full beaver status on the roots, leaving nothing but a bare stem in the middle of deep, dark earth teaming with worms, grubs, bugs, spider eggs and bergillions of tiny, unrecognizable critters coming to life.
What are you going to do? Other of course than continue raging relentless war against the little beasts? Build snake habitats? Train cats? Full blown caddy shack perhaps? I digress.
Luckily we scored some honey crisp trees the other day that will make very suitable replacements for our fallen friend, who has now been chopped and scattered in the little piece of earth he so briefly flourished in to feed the fungi that will nurture and feed the roots of his successor.
The chickens are laying away and three dozen new chicks are finally out of the living room (where they resided in the stock tank next to the fireplace that holds wood during the end of winter).
We did eventually finish the well house, and set up a glass blowing studio and small shop (which occasionally doubles as a green house, silversmithing shop, or cider house). The hole in the laundry room floor lasted a whole year before I got around to relaying the three layers of floor and reinstalling the washer and dryer.
We got the fence in last winter and the county inspector showed up a half hour early, right as we were unloading a horse we borrowed from a friend to demonstrate agricultural use of the land (apparently grazing pigs and chickens doesn’t count). Now we are trudging through the process of getting all of our governmental T’s and Q’s in order and getting waylaid by county bureaucrats that inform us we cannot conduct any business from our farm or allow people to come visit because we are in a ‘residential zone’. Boogers.
Oh well. They pigs don’t seem to notice, so I guess we will just continue as normal. Our new Duroc boar, Gentle Ben, is getting along fine, and Big Mamma should be throwing her first litter of piglets at the beginning of summer. Lord willing and the creek don’t rise we will have half a dozen more hogs ready for market by then, and this year you will be able to find us at the Cedar Crest Farmers Market, Roots Farm Cafe, Beneficial Farms CSA, and of course here on Polk’s Folly.
El Nino is not messing about this year and its chill cuts deep. The snow is packed and the road is shot, but the birds are still out and about and we are slowly plugging away at the endless amount of projects that have been stacking up for the last 40 years. The day after Thanksgiving the temperature plummeted into the teens while we were all away at a friends house enjoying a BBQ and some ‘friendsgiving’. We returned to find the water pipes had frozen, setting off a chain reaction of failures that left us dry for several days. After the sun had come out the following day and the temperatures ruled out the possibility of frozen pipes, we set about investigating the water system housed in a 200 sq ft shack in the middle of the property, the well house. 40 years of junk, some of it quite valuable, had accumulated a thick layer of dust, and the clutter was so thick it it felt like doing ballet just to get to the back corner where the electric panel hung loosely on the metal sheet walls, and the exposed wires crudely connect to the switch that activates the well pump, which in turn fills two pressurized water tanks that feed the entire property.
We discovered that the sudden deep freeze had sealed a line coming into the well house, which in turn caused the switch to continually self activate, burning out both the switch and the electric panel. The tanks in turn drained out, froze, and failed. Guess it was about time for a new water system anyways…
And while we were at it we figured the lines under the house could probably use some new heat tape and insulation, and the well house could definitely use a little touch up. If your gonna do a job you may as well do it right, no? So I bought a gas mask and some goggles, layered on the protection, and jumped right into it, figured we could have it banged out in a few days =)
Crawled under the house, braving the brutal goat heads layering the floor and the millions of spiders, peeled off the old insulation, started lining the water lines with electric heat tapes, prayed every minute that I wouldn’t find any leaks, and made it almost all the way to the end when I reached a cross beam I couldn’t crawl under.
Oh well. Crawled back out and switched back to the well house. We started pulling everything out. Eleven cans of wood stain, 50 lb box of the little clips you use to secure suspenders, a pottery kiln, antique paint spray gun, enough chemicals of various sorts to kill a small village, on and on.
And once it was empty we figured if we came this far we might as well keep going. So we started pulling what was left of the drywall down and the little bit of insulation that had been mostly converted into rats nests as well. Patched up the giant gapping holes in the metal, sheared up a few of the wooden supports, took down all the old electrical conduit and random crap and and swept out mounds and mounds of dust and rat shit and even some disintegrated rodent poison bags that they probably don’t sell anymore for safety reasons.
Mean while my parents bought themselves a new washing machine and offered to let us take the old one, and seeing as how every day we were coming away covered in the accumulated dust of decades it seemed like a good idea. So we pulled the old washer, which barely worked, and deposited it in rust’n’piece. But when we went to bring the new one in we noticed that the floor was slanting pretty hard to the outside wall and seemed a bit too flexible for our liking. So we thought we would just take a peek, see what the trouble seemed to be….
We discovered that the slight slant was due to the fact that the foundation of the house was sinking into the dirt. To be fair ‘foundation’ is probably too generous. It was just one 4×4. This part of the house must have been added on later, as you can see the original siding of the house on one side. And whoever did this addition must have been practicing some marijuana mechanics, because its pretty janky. Worse yet, when the foundation started to sink years ago, instead of fixing the problem someone layered some 2×4 and 1×4 down and just laid a new floor over it that at least looked flat. So now we have a huge hole in our floor. Oops. The bright side is it gave us access to the last bit of water pipe I couldn’t reach before, and even better we discovered that there is a septic line running right by their, so we can add in some drains for a proper wash room! Squirrel…
Back to the well house. Seeing as how we had put so much effort into gutting the thing, we thought it would be wise to take the opportunity to convert it into some sort of useable space. So we packed in the insulation, got our resident electrician (our brother Hambone) to wire up the whole building for 110 and 220, new breaker box to control all of the power in all the out buildings, hardwired light fixtures, the works. Then we took a crack at hanging drywall and started finishing it out. Its not quite there yet but we are getting close.
Now back to the house, and the giant gapping hole in the floor. First we cut out some siding so we could get under the wall, jacked up the entire wall until it was almost even, dug out some holes, stacked cinderblock underneath the walls, and poured cement into the blocks to create a solid foundation. Unfortunately while we were waiting for the cement to cure (takes a suprisingly long time when you are getting hit with snow storms every few days), the wall started to peel off of the building. So we made an attempt to lag the wall back to the building, but the wood is so ancient it won’t hold the bolts. And seeing as there are no solid foundation blocks to anchor off of we find ourselves at an impasse. TBC…
In other news the county has informed us that we have till the 3rd week of January to have out property completely fenced in and have either animals on the property or a signed contract saying we will be buying animals or we will be rezoned as residential, which would mean up to 1000% increase in our property taxes. So the first batch of pigs will be coming soon.. Hopefully quickly followed by chickens. If anyone wants to help run fence this weekend Ill buy the beer…