Newfangled Farmer

Women in Farming

Wendy BoeI was recently asked by my local news station to conduct an interview about women in farming. The reporter asked why I thought women farmers are growing in the United States. I answered because farming as an industry is changing.

This isn’t your grandmother’s farm, this is your great-grandmother’s farm! Small, backyard farms are on the rise. Farming is no longer just “big agriculture,” where they have huge equipment doing all the work and the animals are confined to small spaces. That, to me, is “man” type farming. I picture a little boy playing with a big Tonka Truck and John Deere Tractor, dreaming about the day he is able to drive the life-sized models through corn and soy fields. Although technology has advanced so much in industrial farming, even the tractors and equipment are all now automated — no human element is needed; they are all controlled by GPS systems.    

Women play a key role in modern farming. We are connecting with the earth and our food — just like great-grandma’s farm. Back then, it wasn’t called organic farming, it was simply "farming". The monocropping of soy and corn has depleted our land so that nothing grows naturally on it anymore. We are spraying more and more pesticides and herbicides on genetically altered seeds to create “fake food” that does not regenerate. Is this farming? I think not.

Smaller farms such as mine seek to build soil and leave the land in much better condition than how it was found. Our farm is home to small groups of heritage breed animals that all play a synergistic and holistic role — the pigs rototill the soil so it can be cover cropped, lush vegetation and grasses grow, then the cows and the sheep graze (on different grasses), and we finish with the chickens spreading around the fertilizer to make the soil nutrient-dense in order to plant a market garden. The result? Healthy, happy livestock, living outside with nature, working together to provide the cleanest, nutrient-dense, real food.

I just read an article that by the year 2025, 1 out of 2 children will be born with autism, and they are tracing the rise of autism and autoimmune disease to our food chain — industrial farming. I really encourage everyone to start growing their own food. Urban community gardens and backyard chickens are going to save the world and the human race!

Woman with basket of veggies
Photo by Fotolia/NOBU

Bipolar Farming

Wendy BoeWe started farming due to health reasons. Almost ten years ago our local food supply all contained GMOs and soy. So, on a mission to find clean food, we felt we had no choice but to do it ourselves. We don’t come from farming backgrounds. We had no clue what we were up against — all we knew is we wanted delicious, nutrient-dense food!

There is never a “typical” day for us. For example, let me tell you about our Tuesday:

It started off the same as always. Egg production seemed to be down — not anything out of the ordinary considering the heat; a few CSA customers will substitute eggs for a different farm product. We made sure all the animals were fed and watered and safe. We noticed a raccoon had found its way into a chicken tractor during the night (resulting in 2 dead chickens), so we set a live trap for him. Awesome. Felt everything was good — off we went to our food deliveries (we love making our customers happy and hearing their glowing feedback about how good our food makes them feel) and “day jobs.” We got back hours later to find a turkey brooder on fire. John feverishly did all he could to stop the fire from spreading. Unfortunately, the damage was already done. We lost 30 one-month old turkeys. The same day, while we were out, one of our guinea hogs farrowed five piglets. As we were enjoying them, we heard a hawk attack one of our ducks that was laying on her nest of eggs. We ran to scare it away, but, again, she couldn’t be saved.  

To me, this is the worst part of farming. No one talks about the emotional roller coaster one faces each and every day raising animals. Taking them to market is one thing — we know they had a great life and that we are responsible for that. It is the constant unexpected that gets tough to handle. To be a farmer, one needs to be able to balance the devastation along with the joy, which could happen all within 5 minutes. You need to be resourceful and be able to think on your feet. And, the most important trait — BE FLEXIBLE. No type “A” personalities in this industry. No matter how “organized” you are, it never matters. So much is out of your control, and really nothing can prepare you for the daily heartbreak. Yet we find it in ourselves to pick up the pieces and do it all again tomorrow. Wednesday will be better. 

Chickens
Photo by Fotolia/monticellllo

The Lard Pig: Bringing It Back

Wendy BoeWe chose to raise American Guinea Hogs due to their docile nature, amazing foraging skills, and their excellent meat flavor like no other pork! American Guinea Hogs were once in critical extinction — but now they are the homesteaders’ choice of lard pig.

Our sows just farrowed on mother’s day — we started with 5 sisters, a brother, and we purchased a registered boar from a local farm recommended by the American Guinea Hog Association. They traced back his heritage to make sure we were getting the traits we wanted. AGHs can have blue or red hues mixed in their black hair — I’ve noticed with ours that the ones with the blueish hues have straight hair. We do not have any with red. Some have white tips on their feet and nose — any more white than that is undesirable.

The gestation period of the AGH is the same as any pig — 3 months, 3 weeks, and 3 days (some say 3 hours as well). I could tell the girls were ready to “pop” 3 days before as their bellies hung low to the ground, getting up and moving around was very difficult for them, and their clitoral hoods were sticking straight out. They like to be isolated while giving birth. We rotate them on four acres of pasture/forest land, and we did not separate the boars before farrowing, and, no they did not eat their young. We set up all sorts of “fancy” area for them with Quonset huts and an old huge chicken tractor with heat lamps, but none of them used any of these areas to give birth. They preferred to make “nests” out of hay to keep their babies in to stay warm.

AGHs have smaller litters (6 being average) than regular hogs, and the babies are tiny (about 1 pound — they fit in the palm of my hand). We ended up with 15 total — a few were stillborn, a couple of them needed the embryonic sack removed, but were not present during their birth, so they died. The biggest sow, accidentally rolled on top of one of the babies while it was nursing, even though she had plenty of room. AGHs are very intelligent — before the mommas lay down, they “root” the whole area to make sure that there are no babies to sit on. In this isolated case, however; I think she accidentally rolled on top of the baby. They also knew not to mate with the brother. However; if this would happen, the litters would just be smaller unless one of the hogs had existing birth defects.

There were two “runts” that only lived for a month. They were not eating, and the mothers rejected them as though they knew they were going to die anyway. We did take them in and bottle fed them cow’s milk, but, it did not help. The AGHs are great mothers. They look after each other’s babies. If the gilts do not breed within 2 years of age, it is highly unlikely that they will. AGHs are very self-sufficient and require little inputs from us (each time we try to interject, it is unneeded). Due to being slow-growing, they have become more of our “pets” than our food. I highly recommend this breed!!

Hogs

Photo by Fotolia/7parkers

Pregnant American Guinea Hogs

Wendy BoeWe moved five 250-pound very pregnant American Guinea Hogs today. In case you ever find yourselves in such a situation, there is really not much you can do other than herd them in the right direction and hope for the best. John lassoed them, which was quite humorous to watch as they “walked” him like big dogs would walk their owners. It took both of us about an hour to get them to cooperate. By the sounds they were making, one would have thought we were trying to hurt them. All of our hogs were all in the same paddock over the winter months. We weren’t quite sure which ones were pregnant until today. Their bellies are practically dragging on the ground, and their clitoral hoods are sticking out, kind of drooping. 48 hours before they are ready to give birth, there will be a milky “line” that forms underneath their tail. 

We felt it best to separate them from the Berkshires and other Hogs to give them more room. If there is not enough space for the babies and the mommies (they need separate areas), they tend to sit on the piglets — squishing them to death. I did not want that to happen. Plus, I am not sure how the Berkshires will be as they are not as docile as the American Guinea Hogs. We now have classified our hogs into two groups — the teenagers and adults. The Berkshires are our juvenile “delinquents” (sometimes they like to find trouble). They chase each other and the chickens around all day. They are very active! They never hurt one another (or the chickens for that matter); I just didn’t know how all that activity would be for momma and the babies — better to be safe. Too many other things could go wrong with farrowing and the piglets, I don’t want to add any more possibilities into the equation. The AGHs are about 18 months old now, so they aren’t as adventurous. They will come out and follow the tractor around for food, but they don’t run around as much as they used to.

This will be the girls’ first litters, and ours as well as we purchased the gilts from a small farm at four months of age. I really don’t know what to expect. From what I’ve learned, they are great mothers, very attentive and caring, and our roles should be more of an emergency response only versus doing a lot of unneeded work and “meddling”. As long as we provide them with what they need to be comfortable, it should go smoothly.

They now have plenty of pasture, and hay (they are making nests) and they have occupied a few chicken tractors for shelter, which they stayed in all winter and they worked out great! It was fun today; once we got them moved to the new 2-acre paddock, all they did was find a little bit of space to fall asleep in. I will write more about the birthing experience! I am excited as to what we will learn.         

Hog

Photo by Fotolia/shishiga

Anti Soy

Wendy BoeSoy is probably the most destructive monocrop (and one of the largest) in the United States. The crop steals the nutrients from the soil, as it is also one of the most heavily-pesticide ridden crops and mostly all of it is genetically modified. According to a Farmers Weekly report, nearly 70% of the United States’ soy bean crops are subsidized by tax payers. Our tax money goes to fund Industrial farms to “grow” these crops that are fed to their animals (who get ill from it) and sold back to the tax payers by way of meat and processed foods found in the grocery stores. 

In addition to the glyphosate sprayed on the crop, soy contains high levels of lectin, phytates, and goitrogens. Lectins will trick your brain into thinking you are hungry and disrupt the hormone leptin (secreted into the blood stream via fat tissue), which increases with food intake. This could cause low energy and obesity, and sometimes contribute to an insulin resistance. 

Phytates can prevent the body from absorbing needed nutrients. Some people call them the “anti-nutrient” for this reason. Phytates bind with the minerals, therefore, inhibiting their absorbtion.

Goitrogens are compounds that resist the thyroid’s ability to utilize iodine; which could lead to thyroid problems. Goitrogens are also found in broccoli and cauliflower. If you have thyroid issues, you should avoid these foods. 

Plant estrogens in the form of isoflavones are also found in soy. Isoflavones raise estrogen levels and lowers testosterone levels. High levels of estrogen could cause breast and endometrial cancers in women, infertility and erectile dysfunction in men. They also cause premature puberty and disrupt brain development in children. 

Soy is inexpensive and easy to grow, that is why it is the chosen crop. We were tired of eating inferior food that was making us ill. I developed thyroid issues, and John’s allergies were out of control. This is why we started our farming endeavors. Six years ago, we set out on a mission to raise superior, nutrient dense food that does not contain chemicals, including soy.  

The downside of all of this for us farmers who refuse to feed our animals soy is that we have to get our feed custom made, which needs to be ordered by the pallet, and the closest mill is hours away from us. This customized feed costs three times more than the traditional that uses soy. To provide protein for our livestock, we mix flax seed, fish meal, and crab meal in addition to our hydroponically-grown sprouted fodder that contains sunflower seeds and snow peas. 

We feel a million times better than what we did before we started eating our nutrient dense food. We eat less, get full faster, and the food provides us with needed energy. I do not regret spending more for our food because I know if we didn’t, we would end up paying a lot more to the doctors. So, how do you put a price on your health? 

Soybeans

Photo by Fotolia/Maksud

Our Little Houdinis

Wendy BoeOur land can’t sustain cows and pregnant hogs during the winter months. We’ve tried. Our escape artists, American Guinea Hogs, have become quite fond of the cow’s hay to nest in — even though they have their own. Arnold and Alf (our Scottish Highlanders) have rendered the pigs as welfare recipients, and quite annoying, so they migrate elsewhere to get away from them — which leads them miles away from home. What a funny thing. Animals don’t care what time of day it is or what is going on in a person’s life or what the temperature outside is. No matter that it’s my birthday, and we are towns away at a farmer’s market — that was the first time they had had enough of the hog’s shenanigans. The AGHs don’t leave the property like the cows do (and in case you were wondering, cows run fast and can go quite far in a short period of time — unlike hogs). We have built, rebuilt, and triple secured the fencing and housing for our Houdinis, who manage to still find ways to wander freely. So, now we just let them. The only real “harm” they do is to bother the cows.

We spent hours, in the dark, tracking Arnold and Alf to the middle of a field (good thing they leave distinguishing hoof prints in the snow). Thankfully, we live in such a small community, and the neighbors were out helping and one gal said, “Wow, I chose an exciting weekend to come home from college!” When we finally got them home safe, we had to fix the fence they broke through. Mind you, it is -40 degrees outside in the tundra we call home, and it is my birthday, I am spending the night trying to drill the frozen ground to get the fencing secured so our cows don’t decide to take another midnight stroll. Yes, this is now our life. Our friends are nice and toasty indoors on a Saturday night, drinking beers and playing card games, laughing it up, as we chase cows back home.

Sometimes I think the lifestyle we chose is too much. John and I both work as much as we possibly can — which still is never enough. Plus, we also work full-time jobs off of the farm. We started all this for a better quality of food, to be able to eat meat again without feeling ill. Our clean food gives us energy and we have really never felt better. I think about all the healthy changes we’ve made over our six year journey. The irony is that our stress levels are higher than they have ever been. Farming is supposed to be fun! On the other hand, I wonder how bad we would be if we weren’t taking care of ourselves. What if we were still like our friends who spend their free time eating processed foods and drinking alcoholic beverages? We have been there. We were tired of feeling sluggish, worn out and zombie-ish. I do love our chaotic life, even though it is supposed to be simple. We won’t be getting more cows anytime in the near future though.

Hog

Photo by Fotolia/Manuel Findeis

Homestead New Year Planning and Budgeting

Wendy BoeSnow held out this winter for us here in Wisconsin — lending us a little more time to wrap up needed projects around the farm. We still did not get enough done — I don’t believe there will ever be a year where we are complacent in regards to our accomplishments — that’s good and bad. On one side, we are always trying to better ourselves and the situation, on the other hand, we forget how much we have learned and have achieved. There is always so much to do. This year, we thought we were done raising meat birds. Well, at the 11th hour, we signed a contract with a deli that needs 600 or so birds a year. Very exciting, and I welcome the new business, but we didn’t raise enough this year — so, what do you do?? You raise birds during the winter months! Wintering birds come with a whole set of risks: if they do not stay warm, they die. This week, we had a waterer break, and the wet birds couldn’t get dry fast enough and many died. Planning and Budgeting have now become my priority! We have a new farm, and it’s slowly growing so it has been a challenge of knowing how much to produce and when. Poor planning wastes money and time. If expenses are not planned out and have a designated purpose, the money disappears — fast! My farm’s New Year’s Planning Tips:

- Figure out a budget and stick to it:This has to be the largest obstacle for us. We put everything we had into our farm—while still experimenting with the correct feed mixes and infrastructure. We had some devastating losses this year — a raccoon got into a couple of our chicken tractors and devoured, for sport, 200 of our chickens all in one night. We made a bad choice on where to receive our Berkshire pigs from, so we lost 4 of those. The power went out on the farm during a storm, and we lost all the poultry in our brooders. Losses will happen, I know that. We need to budget and plan for them as well and don’t forget fuel, insurance, farmers markets, licensing and fees, marketing costs, emergency and maintenance expenses. Now that our farm has a “baseline” and most of the infrastructure is up, this year should be easier to make a budget — I hope.

- Scaling Up: We pasture raise all of our livestock. We only have 10 acres, so our growth is limited. On a “good” year, that means we have six months of green. We do not want to stress out the land. Cows take an acre each of pasture on our system. 10 hogs will happily graze on one acre of paddock. After the “raccoon incident” as previously mentioned, we decided to let the meat birds run around freely all day and close up the chicken tractors (now surrounded by electric fencing) at night. My plan for the 2016 season is to not accept beef this year, but grow out the two we have and, in their pasture place, raise twenty hogs instead. Hogs take eight months to get to size, versus the 20 months for beef. It costs us $4000 to grow one — I don’t think our market is ready to pay $5 plus a pound live weight for us to recoup that expense — unless we sell them strictly retail, no bulk sales. I know from this year that we need, at the very minimum, 1000 meat birds and 15 hogs — no growth rate factored in. That alone is $2500 of our budget — not including feed. Our hogs eat 8 pounds a day which equates to about $400 a hog for feed for eight months. We still have to feed to two highlanders which costs $2800. Plus, our laying bird costs need to be factored in all year round.

- Reverse the numbers to make sure it is profitable: This is where Excel becomes my best friend. I am not a CPA, nor do I have any magical formula. Excel determines how much per animal we have invested, not including our time and labor. In any other industry, consumers are okay with paying labor costs per hour. We need to make sure we are getting paid a fair wage as well!

Unforeseen occurrences will still happen. You can at least count on that! Having a good plan and budget will help minimize these risks and expenses.

Chickens

Photo by Fotolia/monticellllo