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?
“What are you up to?” a friend asked over the phone on Sunday.
“I’m checking out Viking chicks.”
“O k a a a y— Uh… is that website or something?”
“No. Well, it probably is. But I’m talking about chickens. Our broody hen just hatched five Icelandic chicks.”
When a hen gets broody—the instinct to sit on eggs and hatch them—we try to break the habit since broody hens don’t lay eggs. If you don’t break the broodiness in the first couple days it can last a couple weeks. When one of our Buff Orpington hens got broody, we couldn’t break her. We’d pull her from the nest box several times a day, pull the other eggs out of the box, and even put frozen water bottles under her. Nothing worked.
Failing to redirect her nature, we got the chance to work with it. Friends of ours who keep flock of Icelandic chickens—a resilient, dual-purpose breed brought to Iceland by the Norse over a thousand years ago—gave us six fertilized eggs. We put the eggs under the hen we started calling Broody and waited. Three weeks later, the day I started building a nest box in the chicken tractor, the chicks started hatching.
I'd never been close to a hen with chicks. We wondered if the hen would even be a good mother since she was raised in a brooder and the chicks weren’t from her eggs or even her breed. Three chicks had already hatched when I transferred her from the barn to the much safer chicken tractor. When I carried her nest box to the chicken tractor and picked her up, there were only three eggs beneath her and no chicks.
Shit. Did they get out of the nest already? Did the barn cats get to them?
As I lowered Broody into the chicken tractor nest box and glanced around for smug cats, three chicks dropped from beneath Broody’s feathers -peep, peep, peep. Talk about tucking them in. By evening, five of the six eggs hatched (the sixth turned out to be unfertilized). Within twenty-four hours, they were following Broody around the tractor, pecking, scratching and peeping along with her. I’m liking my Viking chicks.
Wisconsin supposedly drinks more Brandy per capita than any other state. Californians drink more total, but they have seven times more people. And it's not just Brandy, it's Korbel. As of 2004, one-third of Korbel's total production went to the Badger Stage.
I didn't get the brandy thing until we started frequenting Friday night fish fry at local supper clubs and taverns. Bartenders were slinging together brandy old fashioneds by the tray full. I always thought of it as an old-guy's drink, something for people who've been going to the same supper club since the Johnson administration. Then I tried one at Quimby's Grove on the south side of Madison. I like my gin & tonics. I like my Manhattans. But at a fish fry or up north, I now drink old fashioneds.
Yesterday, I decided to make bourbon-brined pork chops. Kneeling in front of the liquor cabinet, I considered my options and tried to decide what would have the best flavor. Then I spotted an almost-empty bottle of Korbel left over from a party (I don't make old fashioneds for myself at home). I poured a shot to sample the flavor and imagine it in a marinade.
Brandy-Brined Pork Chops:
See the recipe for Bourbon-Brined Pork Chops.
I substituted Korbel for bourbon. I also used only one cup of cold water since the chops (which I hand sawed out of a frozen loin roast because we're out of chops) didn't have a lot of room to spare in the pyrex container I used.
I seared them at 500 degrees on the grill and then turned it down to medium low (these were 1-inch chops) and cooked them until the meat thermometer read 140 degrees.
Wow. Try a brandy-brined pork chop and you may just skip the supper club and eat at home.
*Arabic: "Thank You"
Yesterday, while driving down to Albany to have our chickens processed, I spotted an Amish woman leading a dairy cow and thought of Iraq.
I spent most of my second tour in Iraq in rural areas between Fallujah and Ramadi. We lived in the villages, patrolled among the people every day, and glimpsed an entirely different world when we didn't have to look at it through gun sights.
We treated Iraqis with respect and dignity, knowing that the majority weren't the enemy, but that the enemy hid among them. In the counter-intuitive calculus of counterinsurgency, we brought about security by making ourselves vulnerable, by getting close to people, by interacting.
I would never call myself a poet, but a few years ago at a poetry slam during the MOSES Organic Farming Conference, this memory hit me all at once and I scratched out the poem just in time to read it on stage. The poem describes that same memory from Iraq that hit me again yesterday.
We patrolled through pink-petaled orchards
Swept for IEDs in alfalfa fields
When Marines and gun trucks escaped my view
War and Time evaporated.
A hedgerow fringed the Euphrates
Its tangled fingers sweeping the ocean sky
Like the hedgerow on our farm’s bottom pasture
Across the wide, muddy creek.
Squad position reports through my earpiece
Crackled me to the present
Following my order
To not disturb livestock or gardens
The squad skirted wide around a grazing dairy cow
Tied to a stake in the field.
The bony cow still spooked, tore at the rope,
Tangled her hooves and horns
And thrashed on the ground
Her once-gentle brown eyes drawn wide with fright.
I slung my rifle behind my shoulder
and approached her side. “Easy girl, easy”
Bracing her front legs with my knees,
I rubbed her shoulder. “Easy girl, easy.”
And untangled the rope,
Her flesh twitching under my hands.
A burka-clad young woman kneeled at the cow’s head.
Her delicate hand brushed mine across the animal’s leg.
She breathed a startled whisper through her veil,
Her once-gentle brown eyes drawn wide with fright.
Former Marine Infantry Officer. Iraq Vet. Interested in Regenerative Agriculture at any scale.
Odyssey Farm, LLC.
The Odyssey Farm Journal
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