Smokin’ Bacon

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I might have mentioned in a previous post that hubby got a Bradley Smoker for his Father’s Day present back in June.  Well deserved, I might add.  One reason he got it was so that we could try smoking our own pork – hocks, bacon, etc.  but the pigs were still pretty small back in June, and in the meantime, it turned out to be very handy at our larger barbeque gatherings, since it is also an oven – not only did he cook the sausages in it for the barbeque we had on Labor Day weekend, but it is was also great entertainment, because most people thought it was a weird kind of beer fridge and kept opening it and getting a surprise.

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See the guy looking inside the fridge…er, smoker?

I have to tell you, Bradley Smokers are like the microwaves of the smoker world.  You punch buttons on the digital face to set how long you’re smoking your meat, you can set the oven temperature if you want heat with the smoke, you drop a stack of little round wood chip pucks into the wood chip puck holder thingy, fill the bowl that sits inside with water (there’s a little tray at the bottom of the stack that moves the pucks along inside while they’re burning/smoking – they fall of the end of it into the little bowl of water and stop burning). That’s it.  No further involvement required from you, the cook.  On the other hand, you can sit and watch it if you like – it has a digital flame display to liven things up :).  The little pucks look remarkably like small rice cakes, and come in boxes that look much like cracker boxes, not helped by the fact that they also come in flavours – apple wood, cherry, hickory etc – I was tempted to leave them casually lying around at the barbeque, but hubby didn’t want them wasted…

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the inner workings

I poke a lot of fun at this toy of his, but I shouldn’t, because I sure appreciate the wonderful things he’s produced so far:  smoked gouda, smoked cheddar, smoked salmon, salmon candy, and now –  smoked pork hocks and bacon!

Because, yes – our pork is ready at the processor.  We got some belly, a jowl and a couple of hocks fresh last week when they started the cutting, and brought them home to brine or cure ourselves prior to smoking them.  We followed the instructions in “Charcuterie” by Michael Ruhlman, our favourite choice from a wide selection of books on smoking and curing available from our library.

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The pork hocks took about 3 and 4 hours (one was bigger than the other).  The bacon (belly and jowl)took about the same length of time, and he did it on a separate day. He had brined the pork hocks for a week, and the bacon was cured for a week.  We have cut the finished bacon slabs into 1 lb pieces to freeze, and look forward to doing a taste test when the bacon from the processor arrives tomorrow.    I don’t know if I can wait that long!

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Flickering Flames

We’ve been so busy all summer, it’s been hard to fit relaxing moments in, and even harder to fit in time to share with neighbours and friends.  Thank goodness for the changing seasons, allowing us to change our pace, slow it down a little.

Thanks FOR having us over!   Great FIRE… FOOD …and FELLOWSHIP with  FRIENDS on a FALL…FRIDAY nite

That was the message a friend sent after we had a couple of neighbouring families over to share a campfire this weekend.  We cooked most of the food in or on the fire:  baked potatoes, veggie kebabs, corn, baked apples and s’mores.  We also had sausage dogs, hot apple cider and hot chocolate.  Everyone was so stuffed we just sat peacefully around the fire, chatting, telling stories, and flame gazing.

In fact, it was so relaxing, I think one person almost fell asleep.

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Fall Fungi

It seems to be a peak moment in the fungi world, perhaps due to our mild, damp, cool weather just now. Every morning, when I’m out with the dog around sunrise, I am astounded at the variety of mushrooms, toadstools, and other organisms of that ilk that I encounter. I never remember to take my camera with me that early, but fortunately, I was out on the field the other day to put the pasture pens to one side and get them ready for winter, and almost stepped on yet another mushroom I’d never seen. I went back to get my camera and spent a happy hour delaying the work of the afternoon while I traipsed all over the 14 acres looking for elusive mushrooms that seem ubiquitous at dawn, but bashful in mid-afternoon. I don’t know the names or types of any of them, but here’s what I found:

The one picture with no fungi evident is just to show how different the grass is where the broilers were on the field, just a month ago.

Hog Wild

Five months worth of pigs on the farm.  Tons of fun.

Hauling the pigs to the processor went far better than I had dared to hope.  We were helped out by a friend and neighbour who parked his trailer next to the pigs paddock overnight so we could let the pigs load themselves by feeding them dinner in it.  The plan worked like a charm, and we were able to get going first thing in the morning with absolutely no stress for pigs or people.  Thanks to Bryce from Saanichton Farm for hauling them to the processor for us.  We stopped at True Grain Bread Bakery in Cowichan Bay on the way home and tasted some delicious pastries made with wheat from that Bryce had harvested.  Awesome.

The absence of the pigs has left a hole in my day – morning and evening chores are practically non-existent now.  I miss the eager greeting “did you bring us something” whenever I go past the back of the barn.  We’ve raked and reseeded their paddocks with a grass mix with clover in it, hoping the soon to come autumn rains soak it right in before the sparrows get all of it.

We’re already making plans for next year’s pigs.  Can’t wait.

It takes two to tango

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I have a quote taped to the inside of one of the kitchen cupboards:  “You cannot walk in your own strength”.

Joel Salatin has commented more than once, including in his book “You Can Farm“, that one of the most common reasons that beginner farmers fail is because their spouse and/or family is not on the same page with them about farming.  Farming is a lifestyle as well as a livelihood, and it is really not for everyone, blood related or not.

My family does not share my deep desire to farm. They are supportive:  they all do chores when I am at work, they cook meals, undertake maintenance projects etc.  My husband in particular has developed his interest in farming over the years, partly through an appreciation of just how much better our eggs and chicken taste compared to what we had been eating, partly because he’s in a “if you can’t beat them, join them” kind of situation with me.

As parents and spouses we have always had to deal with some tension due to our differing levels of passion for farming, careers, children’s activities, etc. and have had to do some give and take about family goals, plans, direction, etc.  One result of that is that the girls have developed non-farming interests.  They are great kids, turning out to be fabulous adults, but not farmers.  And I’m fine with that:  our goals as parents were to raise kids that would be good members of their community, contributing to the welfare of where they live and who they live with, living their values with integrity.  They are capable, responsible, smart, have wide interests and know how to laugh.  What more could we ask for?

I need to be respectful of my family’s different interests, desires, goals.  While they support my desire to farm, I need to support their love of adventure, travel, their goals for financial security etc.  We have to find a balance that allows each of us our thing, while still supporting all the others.  It’s not the way I hoped farming was going to shake out for our family – I had pictured us working together on a common passion.  But it is what it is, for whatever reasons, and so our common passion is being family, supporting each other.  While I still have goals in farming to develop production and diversity, and things I want to do with the land,  my family will always come first.  In return, they will support me when and how they are able (as long as it doesn’t involve manure, apparently!)

With regard to the physical side of farming support – yeah.  That’s an issue too.  Building projects are difficult by yourself.  So much stuff needs to be lifted and/or carried.  Catching loose chickens is faster with an extra person.  Working off farm really requires assistance from someone to be around during the day.   It’s lonely and sometimes scary in the dark, it’s great when someone is out there with you.   We don’t have a lot of equipment, no truck or tractor, nor very many useful skills (like carpentry), and we have relied heavily on neighbours over the years for tractor work, construction work, transporting things/critters and advice.  I’m not good at asking for help, and my husband was raised to value independence. So we’ve had to develop some humility in this regard.

The emotional side? I’m female, I’m middle aged, my tear ducts get a work out.  I can be knocked down pretty easily by small challenges, like weather or broken doors or sick animals…it may be why I was put in this place, to develop some resilience and strength to cope with the curves life throws.  I have a stubborn streak that gets me back on my feet most of the time, but I could not do it without my husband there to pick up the pieces of me at the end of a bad day, dust me off and come help me build an emergency fence in the dark and the rain.

Something not often mentioned when successful farmers speak about their success is that someone is “keeping the home fries burning”. The vast majority of them have someone cooking the meals, keeping the bathroom clean, making sure the mud that gets tracked in also gets swept out.  I’m not saying that has to be gender specific, but it frankly often is.  Especially when there are small children in the picture, there are routines to the day that are kind of relentless:  meals have to happen, and someone has to cook them, baths, story time, bedtime routines.  It is very difficult to make headway on a project when you are only able to give it an hour before naptime ends or you have to pick up kids from school or take them to swimming or…  There is nothing more depressing than coming in tired and dirty on a wet, cold night to the prospect of a cluttered kitchen and no dinner till you figure out what it’s going to be.

I read a lot of farming blogs.  If there is one single thing that successful farmers have in common, I think it would be that none of them are farming alone.  First of all, farmers, especially beginner farmers cannot afford to be independent.  They have to rely on the farming community around them for knowledge, skills, help.  They need customers (what Joel Salatin calls his cheerleaders) – I know from experience that a bad day can be made wonderful when a customer phones to say “I just wanted to tell you that was the BEST chicken we’ve ever had!”.  They might be a couple of partners, they might be spouses, or siblings or a family or a single person with apprentices or employees, but NONE of them do this alone.

My parents farmed with a network of support around them, from the hippies next door, to the dairy farmer down the road, to my grandmother coming every Monday to vacuum and dust so my Mum could get stuff done outside.  In the 15 years since we’ve moved back to the farm where I grew up, it’s probably taken me a decade to realize that this farming thing of mine – it cannot be mine alone.  If I’m going to make it work, I’m going to have to get better at engaging in the network of support that is all around me. Change that me to we.  Somehow.

Eggs in one basket

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I’m no math whiz.  Totting up feed receipts is one of the many things I procrastinate about at the end of every season.  But I go through the hassle every year anyway.  Partly because of the tax man, partly because I want to make sure my income exceeds my outgo.  This seems pretty basic math even to me.

Only once in 5 years has this not worked, and that was last year with the broilers we sold.  I set the price in the spring, there was a family miscommunication which meant that some customers got chicken at the previous year’s price (lucky them), and while the broilers were on the field in the summer, the cost of feed went up almost $2/bag (20kg), which I had not allowed enough room for in the price.  So we did not get paid for our labour on the broilers last year.

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The thing is though, that overall, the farm didn’t lose money.  The one enterprise did, but not the farm overall.  Eggs did particularly well, thanks partly due to the fact that the new pullets (the ones I’m cursing now, but was excited about last fall) had come into lay, and I’d put my egg price up when that happened.  So we were getting better than average egg production at the new price (which did include the new feed prices).  Hay sales also did fine, about the same as the previous year.  We sold some apple cider, not much – maybe a few litres, but it was money not anticipated, and that’s always a good thing.

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This year, we doubled the number of broilers, were very careful about the price, about communicating it, and we sold out – paying ourselves a bit for labour as well as covering the costs of our expenses, and the cost of the chicken we kept for our own freezer (22 birds).  A good year for broilers.  On the other hand, egg production has been down a bit the last few months – there was a bit of trouble with hens egg eating in the heat of the summer, and now I’ve got some fence issues which means that a few birds are laying in hiding places.  I haven’t seen the invoices yet, but I think hay was good this year again.  In addition, we have pre-sold three sides of the two pigs, an enterprise that has not entered the equation until this year.  As usual, in calculating the price to our customers, we have striven to have the meat we sell pay for the meat we keep for ourselves, plus cover the expenses of raising all of it. We had poor pollination with the apple trees this year; I’m not sure why – maybe we pruned too late (like end of February late), maybe the wet spring held the bees back, I just don’t know.  So no surplus apple juice to sell.  The shortage of wonderful apple juice is sad for us, perhaps, and the layers are being far too independent to be good egg producers, but the point is that overall our farm income will come out ahead once again – something we obviously plan for.  Not that I won’t be doing something about those hens, and you can bet that I’ll be on the phone in January to get in line for pruning early next year, but I’ve learned to accept that some things will always do better than I expect, and some not so much, And the key to that acceptance is not having all your eggs in one basket.

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We do not earn enough with our farm enterprises to pay one of us a living wage.   We do have a freezer full of meat, however, which we basically get for free, since the cost of raising that meat is covered by the meat we sell.  We have a couple of barter arrangements: meat for veggies and meat for tree service (pruning mostly) which I count as sales for tax purposes, though they do not put cash in anyone’s pocket.  In addition, our farming income is more than sufficient to qualify us for farm tax status with regard to property taxes – which saves us literally thousands of dollars, as agricultural land locally is hugely overvalued (in terms of dollars/acre), making non-farm property taxes very high for a property this size.

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Are we happy with our level of farming?  Not entirely.  We wrangle amicably about increasing this or that enterprise, starting or dropping another one, hiring someone, buying a truck, a trailer, a tractor, and on bad days – just selling the whole thing and travelling around the world on the proceeds.    Mostly, we are realistic about where we are with farming.  The original goal was to maintain farm tax status.  That proved so easy that we changed the goal – we wanted to raise our own meat, and sell enough surplus to pay for it.  We do that.  We’re thinking about bees and honey.  We have begun researching fencing suppliers for sheep.  We could raise 50 more broilers and still sell out. We love raising pigs, and it will become a regular enterprise for us – two people have already put their names down for sides next year. More baskets of eggs.  The balance we have to find now is not just with diversity, but also scale.  If we add too many baskets to our work load and available time, we’ll end up dropping some.  Not only that, if a basket gets too heavy..,you know.  Ever dropped a basket of eggs?  It’s not good.