On Friday, November 23rd, the federal government released its report on climate change. You can read the report here. The gist: If you think weather-related events are bad now, it’s only going to get worse –a lot worse.
I’m thinking about the farm and the land itself and the things I need to change. If the eleven inches of rain we got in August is a harbinger of future weather events, I wonder if I’ll still be able to keep raising hogs and the crops to feed them. I wonder if I can build enough resilience in the farm by feeding the “elephants”.
Back in August, I attended a great field day in Dodge County that included a presentation by Dr. Jerry Hatfield, Director of the USDA National Laboratory for Agriculture and The Environment.
Dr. Hatfield charted the deviations in our average rainfall and temperatures over the past century and specifically pointed to the increase heavy precipitation events (this was only a few weeks before the flooding around Dane County). “I'm not talking about [future] climate change,” he declared. "This is what's already happened."
Dr. Hatfield explained that the overwhelming majority of crop insurance claims come from either too little moisture–drought–or too much–flooding. He went on to explain that biologically active soil with a more diverse crop rotation (compared to corn and soybeans) and a diverse mix of cover crops both inter-seeded into cash crops and grown between cash crops (overwintering) will build soil more resilient to climate change’s effects.
Healthy soils have higher organic matter. An increase of 1% organic matter in soil translates to absorbing an additional inch of rain per acre (an acre-inch of rain is about 27,000 gallons). Increase the organic matter in soil and you get water infiltration instead of runoff that turns into flooding. That water-holding capacity–along with cover crops to shade the soil–also helps soil retain life-giving moisture in a drought.
But it’s not just about water.
“Soil needs to breathe,” Dr. Hatfield explained. “The number one limit to crop production in Spring isn’t water, it’s oxygen.” A 1/32” crust on soil will block the oxygen/carbon dioxide exchange between the soil organisms and air. Tillage followed by rain creates that crust on bare soils. Cover crops protect the soil, preventing that crust from forming. Crusted-over or compacted soil “is like a person with COPD,” Dr Hatfield explained. “It can’t breathe.”
Improving soil health will increase soils’ resilience to excess or limited rainfall–conditions we'll see a lot more in the future.
There are five principles to soil health, based on how nature builds soil:
1. Keep soil covered at all times
2. Minimize physical (tillage) and chemical disturbance.
3. Maximize plant diversity.
4. Maintain living roots.
5. Integrate livestock.
I’ve been using cover crops since I started farming a few years ago, but I was doing simple covers like medium red clover and using tillage in the spring to work them in. Now, I try to keep something growing in every field: pasture mixes between harvested rows of corn; sorghum-sudangrass chopped as a mulch with sweet clover planted into it; triticale broadcast on lightly disked and untilled ground; and rye emerging through grass and clover pastures. Except for where the pigs made mudholes in some of the pasture divisions during our eleven inches of rain in August, I feel like I have a good start on following the soil health principles.
Scientists estimate that a teaspoon of healthy soil might have a billion microorganisms in it. I knew that my cover crops were helping feed that soil life, but I didn’t understand the scale until Dr. Hatfield put it in perspective.
“An acre of biologically active soil will have 10,000 lbs of living organisms in it–that’s two African elephants.” Those two “elephants” under a single acre each consume about 500 lbs of material a day. That's a lot of livestock to feed. Knowing that, I'm trying to build plenty of biomass in order to feed the underground "elephants" on the farm.
In addition to feeding the underground “elephants”, those cover crops are also sequestering carbon.
At the end of Dr. Hatfield’s presentation, one attendee mentioned a statistic he’d heard, “… that if all the farmers in the United States planted cover crops, that the land could absorb the C02 produced by all the cars in the U.S. every year.”
“I’m familiar with that data,” Dr. Hatfield responded. “And it’s true.” *
*I couldn’t find the study he referenced, so I did my own scrap-paper calculations. The average car emits about 5 tons of C02 per year. There are 2.13 million private, commercial, and municipal vehicles registered in the state of Wisconsin (not accounting for boats, jet skis, snowmobiles, ATVs, and tractors), which means that Wisconsin vehicles produce at least 10.7 million lbs of C02 emissions a year.
Various studies point to continuous cover crops sequestering about 1,000 lbs of C02 per acre per year at the low end with some sequestering as much as 3,000 lbs of C02 per acre in rich soils. There are 15.2 million acres of farmland in Wisconsin. If every farmer in the state seeded cover crops, they could sequester about 7 million pounds of C02 per year at the low end. If Wisconsin farmers started practicing serious soil health, they might be able to sequester 14 million lbs of C02 per year. It’s one step, but it’s one that copuld collectively make a huge difference.
Over the past few months, I told several new customers that I would be ready in the early Spring to take orders for Fall 2018. The calendar tells me that I need to start nailing down how many hogs I'll raise this year, but it doesn't feel like Spring at all, more like —Apriluary. (The above photo is from this morning)
Late season winter wonderland aside, I am taking orders for the fall. If you are new to the process, here's how it works:
If you intend to order a whole or half hog or 25lb box for the fall, please send your deposit. I don't actually cash the deposits until right before I purchase pigs, but the deposits give me a baseline of demand.
Please make check out to Odyssey Farm and mail to:
Odyssey Farm, LLC
5586 Country Rd N
Sun Prairie, WI 53590
For more details, see the Ordering or Retail Price List pages
Thank You for your support.
Saying NO to Non-GMO
When I started in 2016, I described my feed program as using organic, transitional organic, or Non-GMO feeds. I mentioned Non-GMO feeds just in case I ran out of organic inputs. Sure enough, in 2016, I had to buy Non-GMO feed to finish out the hogs when I couldn’t source any more organic feed. I hated doing that.
Feed is the greatest expense in raising hogs. They eat like pigs. (Yup, had to say that, even if you saw it coming). Higher quality feed is usually more expensive, so a majority of pastured pork producers feed Non-GMO grain. I get that. What drives me batty is when Non-GMO feed gets talked up like a great thing—as if it’s “Organic Lite”. It’s nowhere near it.
Non-GMO production is chemical-intensive, industrial agriculture circa 1993. Non-GMO production still uses glyphosate-based herbicides (Round-Up) and synthetic fertilizers. Glyphosate kills weeds, but it also kills the beneficial soil life that would normally make nutrients available to plants in exchange for root secretions (exudates) that feed the microbes. Instead of building and feeding the soil that would feed the plant, industrial agriculture has farmers feeding the plant directly with synthetic fertilizers such as Anhydrous ammonia. Anhydrous ammonia is made from natural gas, which has become “cheap” again thanks to fracking. You see where all this is going. I want no part of it.
Producers raise what they raise and use the techniques they use because that’s where they are and that’s what pencils out for them. I understand that, but I’m also a consumer. Looking at it from the consumer’s perspective, when I read or hear the proud declaration that someone uses Non-GMO feeds, it sounds like bragging that their overseas sweatshop labor is morally superior because they’re no longer exploiting children.
For 2017, I drew a line in the soil: I only used organic feed or my own transitional-organic corn. I think I raised better pork as a result. I’ll do the same thing for 2018. Sticking to organic and transitional organic grains means I’m giving my animals a healthier product, and thus healthier pork for my customers since, to quote Michael Pollan, “you are what you eat eats”.
I sent the letter below to my customer list yesterday morning. I don't have email addresses for everyone who purchases from Odyssey Farm, so I'm posting it here as well:
Sitting at my desk this morning, I found myself shifting focus between three spreadsheets on my computer and watching an orange-pink sunrise across a snow-dusted pasture. I'm often mentally flickering between the objectivity of numbers and the subjective reasons why I farm the way I do. It’s especially poignant at the end of the year when I can look at the total income, the expenses, and start thinking about next year while glancing out the window at cornstalks and cover crops.
Thank you so much for choosing to buy Odyssey Farm pork to feed your family, and a special thanks to returning customers. Except for some pork chops, a few pounds of braunschweiger, and a couple loin roasts, we are sold out of all the pork we raised for 2017. I’ve had more demand than I could fill this season.
Your support allows me to keep doing this—Odyssey Farm as a business and a way of life.
The farm is both laboratory and sanctuary. It is where I test my convictions though practical (or impractical) application (It is possible to farm 15 acres with a walk-behind machine, but it’s not easy). While the farm takes a tremendous amount of energy, it also gives back when I’m receptive: marveling at the cathedral of oaks in the woods, staring at the stars in a private slice of night sky, discovering a whole soil-building microcosm of fungi beneath thick swards of red clover, watching the kids learn to work calmly with pigs and chickens, eating meals made from several foods that we raised.
Raising food in a way that’s good for the environment, good for the animals, and good for the eater isn’t just a tag line, it’s the core of how I believe I need to interact with the ecosystem and our community. Moving the animals often, giving them the time and space to minimize their stress, and using only organic or transitional organic feeds all require either more labor or more costs than just producing something we could call “pastured pork.” I also think they result in a better product. My standards are admittedly strict, and I’m grateful for discerning customers who appreciate our pork and the values behind it. I’ve enjoyed meeting many of you who have visited the farm to see the animals and land first hand.
I plan on raising pigs again next year, refining my system so I can keep producing high quality pork in a way that’s both environmentally sustainable and financially viable. I’d like to raise more animals if demand continues. If you enjoy the pork, please tell your friends about us.
Thank you for a good year and I hope to see you again in 2018.
Dress Up and Party
We were issued these mesh vests that were supposed to allow air to circulate under the flak jackets, but they didn't work. One of my Marines decided that the vests resembled chain mail armor.
"Captain Erisman, Look. I'm Sir Galahad."
These guys lived in houses in Iraqi villages, ate better food from the locals than what came in resupplies, crapped in holes, showered once a month, got shot at and blown up. They also had my trust and confidence to make their own decisions to accomplish the mission. Morale was not a problem.
We will have 25lb variety boxes available again around the week of Thanksgiving.
Many of you already reserved a box earlier this year. If you requested a box and we haven't been in contact recently, please call or email to confirm your request.
If you are interested in a 25lb box and haven't placed an order, please call or email today. There will be a few boxes remaining after we fill our early requests but those are going quickly.
Details about the 25lb box on the Retail Price List page.
Once they have access to the woods, the hogs spend most of their time there. They rarely use their shelter, preferring instead to make a nest protected from the wind and sleep in a pile.
They explore their environment more, snuffling along with their snouts below the leaf litter, rooting for acorns. They roll rotten logs, chew on sticks, and excavate nests. I love seeing them living as true to their nature as I can let them be. I'm enjoying it now and there's still the delayed gratification to come —bacon.
See our Facebook page for a video of them rooting for acorns.
I have a thing for organizing my tools. Maybe it comes from those years of wearing a flak jacket and knowing by feel exactly where everything was that I needed. I won't even disagree if you say it's OCD. I'll just argue that it stands for Organized, Customized, and Designed.
After a few trips to the woods last year to clear fence lines and fell invasives, I got tired of needing one more thing that I didn't bring. So I came up with the Saw Pack.
Companies make saw packs for western firefighters and loggers, but their packs are expensive and carry the saw in a comfortable but unhandy position with the powerhead down. I wanted something inexpensive, easy to make, and allowed me to work from the upright pack like a toolbox. Stealing an idea from a friend who uses a similar rig to carry elk meat out of the mountains, I based my design around a $25 pack frame I found on Craigslist.
My pack carries the saw with its 18" bar slid down in a scabbard. I store a spare bar -up to 25"— in a parallel scabbard. Another scabbard carries an axe and modified prybar/felling bar/cant hook. A one gallon gas can sits on a shelf below the saw, held in place with a bungee cord. Everything else —1 qt of bar oil, sharpening gear, spare chains, folding saw, spare scrench, water bottle, etc.— rides in a pair 1-gallon olive oil cans with the tops cut out. Half-inch conduit clamps attach all the brackets and scabbards to the frame.
It's not the easiest pack to carry. Its 58 lbs rides high due to the design. But I don't have to carry it more than 600 yards, so I can manage. Wearing my safety gear —steel toe boots, saw chaps, and helmet—I can strap on the pack and have everything I need for several hours of chainsawing. I prop the pack against a tree and go to work, sliding gear and tools in and out of cans and scabbards as needed.
It's OCD —just for me.
Call it a wagon wheel, spoke-and-wheel, or a pie. It’s a system of grazing a pasture by moving the animals around a fixed center point. After trying this system with cattle a few years ago, I adapted it to pigs. I call it the pig-star.
Without a tractor on the farm, I needed a pasturing system that let me move pigs easily. Otherwise, if I left them in place too long, they would tear up a pasture beyond easy repair. When you only have pitchforks, shovels, and a tiller, pasture renovation isn’t easy.
Pigs need water, shelter, and feed. The hardest thing for me to move is the watering system, so I built the pig-star with my watering system—what I call the water-deck—in the center.
I fenced in eight acres of pasture this year with two-strand steel electric fence. I don’t need that much fenced in but it’s easier to build big and not need it than to have to fence in more pasture in mid season (Experience, thou art a tough teacher). I lay out one to three-acre paddocks depending on the pasture constraints and the size of the pigs —larger animals need more space. A mapping app on my phone helps me find the center of the paddock and get the most even divisions. Then I make a fifteen by fifteen foot box in the middle of the paddock for the water deck and set steel electric fence posts at the box corners. I mow lines from every dividing point on the outside perimeter to two of the posts around the water deck; some of the divisions require me to change the fence opening to the water deck and some do not. The resulting layout looks like star (see photo above).
I divide the paddocks with single strand of poly wire (synthetic twine with stainless wire in the strands —lightweight but still carries a shock) and fiberglass posts. I use separate wires for each leg of the star and and always have the next leg set up as well. When I need to move pigs, I unplug the fence, unroll the wire between the old and new divisions, move the feeder and shelter, and put the wire back up. Then I take the outside wire of the previous division and set it up for the next new division. I can move pigs in less than ten minutes this way. It takes a couple minutes longer if I change which side of square is open to the water deck or rotate the water deck itself.
I’ve been told several times that once pigs are trained to electric wire, they won’t cross where a wire has been. A lot of farmers recommend putting up hog panels where you change paddocks so the pigs will cross easily when you take down the pannel. I used to do that and decided it was too much labor. Though they were hesitant the first few times I moved them, my pigs quickly learned to cross into new pasture as soon as I rolled up the dividing wire. I also feed them ear corn (and now acorns) from a bucket every day. They run to the sound of me banging on a plastic bucket.
I fill the feeder every other day and time it so that it’s empty when I need to move them. Then I tilt the feeder on its side and roll it to the new division. I put old cultivator gauge wheels on one end of their shelter so I can pick up one end and move it more easily. Both have tow hooks on skids underneath so I can drag them with my BCS for longer moves.
I’ve had people tell me that I need a four wheeler or UTV for all of this. I’ve watched farmers get off and on a machine to open and close gates, off and on to cross wires, off and on to fill the feeder, etc. At this scale, I can carry two bags of feed straight from barn to feeder and step over fences faster than I could do it with any machine. If you go through a ton of feed per week though, that’s a different situation.
That’s the pig star. They are in their third “star” for the summer. I only use the BCS when I move them to a new star, about once a month. So I can go a month at a time without firing up an engine to move or feed pigs. When you look at the labor/overhead/environmental factors equation, it’s not a bad way to rotate pigs through pasture.
A customer who dropped by the farm for the “nickel tour” saw my tool tote and thought it was wonderful that I was using “that old toolbox”. I used to think that carpenter’s totes like the one above were quaint relics best used as planters and country decor. Then, a couple years ago, I made one as one-hour hand tool project using barn wood from our farm in Watertown.
I can get 50 lbs of tools in a Bucket Boss, but it’s not handy to carry. The classic tote, with a tool racks along the inside, lets me carry plenty of tools more comfortably than a bucket. The narrow cross-section puts the weight closer to my body, making it feel lighter.
Though lidded tool boxes with drawers keep dirt out, and they’re great for mechanic’s tools, they’re much slower to access. For taking a few tools to the task, the tote rocks. Everything stands up in a tote so it’s easy to grab a tool, use it, and put it back in it’s slot. I use this tote for chainsaw gear when I’m milling logs, for carrying axe, maul, and wedges when I’m splitting wood, and for fencing tools. It’s easy to slip stuff in and out of it as seasonal tasks change.
Sometimes the only way to understand why people did things a certain way is to try it. Who knew that an 19th Century styled carpenter’s tote could still be so handy?
Former Marine Infantry Officer. Iraq Vet. Interested in Regenerative Agriculture at any scale.
Odyssey Farm, LLC.
The Odyssey Farm Journal
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