I first learned the term “gateway skill” while reading Chris Schwartz, of Lost Art Press. Schwarz wrote several years ago that “sharpening [hand tools] is the gateway skill to a wider world of woodworking.” Once you can sharpen tools effectively, it’s much easier to use them, and use them well. I’ll vouch for Schwarz’s statement from personal experience. Since it worked for me in woodworking, I wondered if the gateway skill concept would translate to other endeavors.
In the years that I worked for the Farmer Veteran Coalition, helping recent veterans transition to farming, I looked for a gateway skill in farming. Was there one thing we could pass on to a beginning farmer that would set him or her up for success? Successfully raising crops and livestock—just the production, not even including the business end—requires such a broad array of skills that I haven't narrow it down to one that would lead to all the others. The skills required for farming remind me of a Robert Heinlein quote:
"A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."
I was headed somewhere else with this post, but I noticed something while re-reading the quote: the skills are a mix of thinking and execution. Now I’m wrapped up in that thought-and-execution idea. I just spent fifteen minutes unpacking a box of books and flipping through Marine Corp Doctrinal Publication (MCDP) 1-3, Tactics. (Yup, I just fell down the rabbit hole).
I’m not thinking about a single skill any more, but there is a framework for understanding the thinking and execution cycle. The framework comes from combat, but it can apply to a whole spectrum of endeavors —including farming.
Hang with me. More to follow.
“Craft must have clothes, but truth loves to go naked.” —Thomas Fuller
If you really want to taste-test a piece of meat, try it naked. (The meat, not you. Don’t dine naked. That’s just weird. I shiver at the thought —my basement office is cold.)
Let me clarify “naked”: No sauces, brines, braising in wine, etc. Your total ingredient list after meat is salt. Add pepper if you want to make your naked fancier. Apply heat. That’s it.
I recently mentioned the “naked test” to Shane Graybeal, the Executive Chef at Sable Kitchen and Bar in Chicago.
“When do you ever see anyone just salt and sear a pork chop?” I asked. He considered the question for a few seconds.
“Man, that only works with top-notch ingredients,” he said. Shane explained that his cooking style has moved in that direction over two decades. Instead of working so hard to find new flavor combinations, he’s making simpler (and better in his implication) dishes but with the best ingredients he can find. High quality ingredients taste great on their own. If you have ever had corn-on-the-cob picked out of the field fifteen minutes before lunch, you know what I mean.
The reason we don’t see a lot of simple pork dishes is that mediocre meat doesn’t fare so well naked. Four-plus decades of CAFO (confined animal feeding operation) pork flooding the market turned pork into “the other white meat” —dry, grainy, flavorless, white meat. An animal’s diet, living conditions, and treatment—up to the moment of slaughter—directly impact the meat’s quality and flavor. Lock a pig in a stall and feed it the same bland corn-and-soy ration and you get grainy, flavorless protein. Since that dry, white meat soaks up any flavor like a sponge, chefs and home cooks found more ways of soaking, smoking, and saucing pork so we can taste something.
I’m guilty of that too. I post certain recipes on the blog because they interested me and we liked the results. A lot of my cooking is bare-bones though: slice a squash and roast it, bake a potato, steam a vegetable, grill the meat. I’ve been cooking like that since college, but now that we are raising much more of our own food, my simple fare fares much better. A couple weeks ago, I pan-seared a naked pork chop for lunch just to test my own product. I enjoyed it so much that I cooked the same lunch again for the next two days.
While looking through cookbooks for this post (see note at bottom), I did find a very simple recipe for “Perfect Pan-Seared Steak” by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt in the Food 52 Genius Recipes by Kristen Miglore. The techniques are similar to something I read in Cooks Illustrated magazine several years ago. What’s below is a simplified adaptation.
Pork Chops at least 3/4 inch thick (It’s hard not to over-cook a thin cut of meat).
A neutral cooking oil or lard.
—Rub chops liberally with salt (and pepper if you must complicate things) and let sit for a few minutes. (The recipe says 40 min and up to 3 days in the refrigerator. The longer it sits with the salt rub, the closer you are getting to brining. I let mine sit for less than 10 minutes because I was hungry for lunch.)
—Heat oil in a heavy skillet (I use cast iron) until it’s almost smoking. (The recipe says “smoking heavily”, which assumes you have an industrial exhaust hood or at least a good one that vents outside. We don’t.)
—Hold the chops with tongs and sear the edges first, which makes the fat crispy and renders some in the pan for the chop to cook in.
—The recipe says to flip the chops with tongs every 15-30 seconds. I haven’t tried that yet (because I saw this recipe after I cooked my chops). This lets each side get a a few rests from the heat and results in a more evens-cooked, tender chop.
—Pull the chops while the meat still yields easily to the touch or a meat thermometer reads 145 degrees F. This is critical. One of the longtime abuses of pork has been overcooking. See Bourbon Brined Pork chops for an explanation.
—Let the meat rest under foil for at least 5 minutes before serving.
Cooked this way (and not over-cooked), great meat, like great whiskey served neat, will reveal its rewarding flavors.
I grabbed a few cookbooks off the shelf to compare the amount of space dedicated to meat recipes:
The 1959 Farm Journal Cookbook is 420 pages. Only 39 of those pages (9%) covered beef, poultry, and pork combined. I’m guessing they assumed that their audience knew how to fry stuff, because it’s barely mentioned. Most of the pork recipes focus on glazed hams and ham leftover recipes.
Cooking with Julia is 512 pages. 132 pages (25.7%) cover recipes for beef, pork, and poultry.
Essential Peppin is 684 pages. 156 pages (22.8%) are dedicated to meat, including offal.
Food 52 Genius Recipes is 251 pages. 44 of those (17.5%) are for meat.
My ten minutes of research doesn’t prove anything, but I wonder what the breakdown of meat recipes is for other older cookbooks? If you have some pre-1960’s cookbooks, let me know what you find.
Time-saving movements pay off immediately, but time-saving devices always seem to be an investment equation—pay up front to save later. Think about every computer program you’ve ever learned. They take a ton of time to learn before you become proficient with them. It’s the same with building labor-saving devices (I know, “labor-saving” is a relative term for a guy whose work style could be described as “horseless-Amish”.)
I decided that I’d try to save some time this year by making it easier to drag my shelters, feeder, and watering deck by putting tow hooks on them. All my portable hog infrastructure is on wood skids (oak or cedar). Last year, I made deep-throat clevises that pin onto the skids of the shelters, feeder, or watering deck. When I need to move everything longer distances or uphill (and use the BCS), I have to pin the clevises on, hook up the tow chains from the BCS, move the item, and then unhook and unpin the clevises to go to the next item. The clevises were easy to make and I only needed one set for everything, but I got sick of fighting mud sometimes to pin and unpin them.
Working in my dad’s shop earlier this week, I made several sets of tow hooks for my shelters, feeder, and water deck. Having hooks on everything will save me a couple minutes every time I move all the infrastructure with the BCS, not to mention that I won’t have to keep track of my hand-forged clevises and the easily-lost 6-inch bolts I use as hitch pins.
The materials for my hooks were free. The rod-stock came from grates over the windows in my barn’s horse stalls. I cut the mounting plates out of larger mounting plates from a scrapped harrow. But free isn’t really free. You need clean metal to make good welds. Using scrap metal means burning time busting rust with a cup-brush on a 4” hand-held grinder—about as gratifying as trimming your toenails while wearing a dust mask and earplugs.
Ever after material prep, it's on to more boring stuff—literally. I laid out and drilled holes in all the plates where they would bolt to skids. All that prep for the faster, fun parts.
I love shaping hot steel between a hammer and anvil, but I found a much better way to make curves. Two pipes clamped in a vise make quick bending jig that gives you easily repeatable results. I could heat the rod with a torch and make shepherd’s-crook bend in under a minute and a half with most of that time going to heating steel. Then I cut off the hook and repeated the process nine more times before I welded ten hooks to their plates. I felt like I was getting pretty fast at fabricating, but the clock disagreed.
All that brushing, cutting, grinding, drilling, bending, and welding took about four hours—more time than the hooks will save this coming season. But it’s a project I won’t have to repeat for several years. The hooks will pay off eventually—in time saved and education.
I’ve had two people ask me lately, “What do you do with pork hocks?”
Short answer —you savor them.
Hocks come from just above the first joint of the leg, front and back. They look like the end of a tiny ham because that’s exactly what they are. I think hocks fell in popularity with the rise of confinement-raised pork and the demise of local butcher shops throughout the 70’s and 80’s. One of my customer’s grandparents were thrilled when he gave them smoked hocks from one of my pigs for Christmas. They hadn’t been able to find good smoked hocks for years.
With the bone, connective tissue, and rich muscle fibers, smoked hocks pack an intense flavor. Uncured, they are milder but still delicious. I’ve also brined them at home and smoked them on a charcoal grill. Too rich to eat by themselves.
We use hocks mostly in lentil or bean dishes. I know one person who loves them in chili. I haven't tried that yet., but it's on my list now. The ham-and-beans dish that I grew up with is even better as smoked-hocks-and-beans. We always ate our ham and beans with cornbread. Not surprisingly, cornbread made from freshly-ground, open pollinated corn also has a much stronger flavor that compliments the smoked hocks. You can’t buy cornmeal like that. However, if you buy some hocks or any other pork (or you’ve purchased in the past) , I know a guy who could get you some cornmeal, just for the asking.
I couldn’t raise pastured pork without electric fence. At least I couldn’t move pigs so frequently to fresh paddocks, which is healthier for the land and the pigs. I get the environmental benefit letting my animals graze and forage in rapid rotations without the overwhelming expense and labor of building permanent fence.
A New Zealand inventor developed the first electric fence for livestock in the 1930’s, but it wasn’t until almost the 1970’s when more reliable energizers and adjustable post insulators came along that American farmers started using electric fences with any frequency. My earliest truck driving experience came thanks to electric fencing. When I was about eight, dad had me drive the truck as wire spooled off the back while he and a hired man walked along pulling posts off the bed and pounding them into the ground.
For my own hogs, I started out using polywire—twisted nylon line with strands of stainless steel wire wrapped in it. Polywire’s light weight—6 lbs for 1/4 mile— makes it idea for subdividing paddocks for rotational grazing since the operator can easily roll up and pay out several hundred feet on small spools in a few minutes. Easy fence moving makes for easier pasture rotations, reducing the likelihood and negative effects of leaving pigs in one place too long. Good polywire (the cheap stuff barely works) costs about four times as much as 14 gauge steel wire per foot. When I realized that I needed more acres inside one perimeter—4 acres of pasture and 3 acres of woods—I switched to steel wire. Steel wire gives several more years of service life than poly wire and it’s recyclable in the end. It’ s just not as easy to handle.
Setting up the fence itself wasn’t that hard, especially with another person helping. A simple wooden carrier made it fairly easy to string the wire. (Go Here for a picture of the carrier). I’m glad I put it up, but I didn’t look forward to taking it down.
All the handling systems I’d seen for steel wire were vehicle-mounted and powered: gas-engine rigs on trailers behind 4-wheelers, power-take-off or hydraulic rollers mounted on tractors. I briefly toyed with the idea of making a powered wire roller for the BCS, but that would be far more effort and construction cost than the problem required. I needed to be able to roll wire back on to the plastic spools in 45lb, half-mile lengths. Spools any larger are a pain to carry in one hand. I Googled “wire roller,” “hand crank wire roller,” and “manual wire roller” for ideas. Most of the contraptions that came up were powered rollers or flimsy hand cranked rollers for polywire. And this packable, hand-cranked, barbed-wire roller for a mere $2,750.
So I built my own. I have a lot more woodworking tools and wood on hand than I have metal fabrication tools and steel, so wood seemed like the better material choice. Before I got into hand-tool woodworking and interested in the devices people used before the internal combustion engine ruled agriculture, I viewed wooden mechanical contraptions as quaint and primitive. My roller is quaint and primitive, and that's just fine.
The base needed to be wide enough to float over mud and snow. It’s a pine 2 x 12 offcut. The the rest of the parts came from one billet of oak. I do have some machines. I turned the shaft and handle on a 100 year old Oliver lathe that belonged to my wife’s grandfather. Making a wooden shaft meant that I could match the hole in the spools exactly. A steel rod threaded through the shaft and then bent parallel to it, fits though holes in the spool, making the spool turn with the shaft.
I cut the crank arm out on a bandsaw. All the splitting, squaring, and cutting on the oak uprights was done with hand tools. The uprights join the base with a wedged mortise and tenon. No nails, no screws, no angle bracing needed.
I finished rolling up wire yesterday. Before the ground was frozen, I pulled all my posts up a few inches so I’d be able to get them out later. For me, working on the snow is an advantage. I can haul a couple hundred pounds of posts, wire, and tools in an ice-fishing sled across smooth snow much more easily than I can move that same load over rough ground with a cart.
The roller can pull 1/2 mile of wire around two corners. I don’t have to pull straight lines form post to post. I unhook the wire from the end post, pull it off all the insulators along the way, and make sure the wire passes around the outsides of corner posts so it stays in the path and doesn’t get hung up coming across the field or in the woods. I tie an 18” length of heavy chain to the far end of the wire so it stays tensioned instead of curling up and kinking while I pull it. The drag of the chain keeps the resistance even in the cranking but doesn’t get snagged on things. I pulled a mile of wire around the pastures and 3/4 of a mile through the woods. Good tool. Easy to make.
I texted a picture of it to another hog farmer. “That’s awesome. You should patent that thing.”
“You can’t patent Roman technology,” I sent back.
But it still works pretty well.
Former Marine Infantry Officer. Iraq Vet. Interested in Regenerative Agriculture at any scale.
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