Chronicles of Less Urban Living, Fresh from In the Night Farm

In the Night Farm

Rhythm

In the southwest corner of Idaho, there is a broad swath of wilderness known as the Owhyee canyonlands.  It is rough country, parched and hewn, studded with rock, split by canyons, gnarled with sagebrush, swirled by dust, bedded deep in sand.  Brisk dawn gives way to sweaty days.  At night, stars pour across the sky like cream. 

I spent all last week there, riding 50 miles per day on horseback as part of a 5-day endurance ride.  It’s a sport I’ve loved for years, one which never loses its challenge.  Every ride is a test of fitness and horsemanship, and every successful finish a triumph.  Many rides last only a day or a weekend, but this one stretches over enough time to impose its rhythm on us riders.

We rise early, before the sun, to feed and prepare our horses for the day.  Few of us sit again (saddle notwithstanding) until the 50 miles are ridden, the horses cared for with electrolytes and baths and leg poultices and grazing and walks to limber up.  We must also wash hoof boots and tack, make repairs, pack crew bags for the next day.  The only downtime comes at dinner, which we eat in a cheerful group.  Then we concentrate again while the ride manager reviews the next day’s trail.

At last, as the day’s heat leaches away, we crawl into bed, at once exhilirated and exhausted.  It is only 9pm, but the day has worn us thin.  We sleep well, wake naturally, step outside to live and move and breathe and work as bodies were meant to do.  On our best days, we never hurry, never tarry.  All that needs to be done, is done, and nothing more. 

And it is the best feeling in all the world.

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(For those who are interested, I blog in detail about my Barb horses, horse training, and endurance riding at The Barb Wire.)

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Real Work

I started bodybuilding a few years ago, when I saw a possible divorce coming down the pike.  I reckoned that if I was going to have to manage my farm — including stacking 25 tons of hay annually, breaking ice on troughs, repairing fences, rototilling, hauling feed and salt, etc. — singlehanded, I’d better get busy getting strong.

I started out with 6 pushups, no pullups, and only bodyweight to work with.  So I worked with it.  Five days a week.  Hard.  I pushed the pushups to 35 on a decline and pulled the pullups to 9.  I added a backpack full of sand to get me through most of a year before I could afford a barbell set.

By the time hay season rolled around, I was able to stack thathose bales.  And break the ice.  And repair the fences.  And rototill.  And all the rest of it. 

Take yesterday, for instance.  I trimmed all four hooves on each of six horses, one after the other.  If you’ve never trimmed hooves, just trust me — it’s hard work.  It leaves a body sweaty, bruised, and sore.  But it’s real work, my favorite kind.

For all that I love getting under the bar, real work is more satisfying.  Farm labor is the fruit of my gym labor.  The bar is the means; the hooves and hay are the ends, and I can make them meet.  I am farm strong.

I often wonder what city folk do for real work.  There must be options.  What are they?

PBC Day 6

Fuel:  Coffee with heavy cream.  Eggs over easy with grilled tomatillo salsa, bacon, coconut-roasted plantain, and blackberries.  Grilled gassfed beef burger (no bun) with grilled tomatillo salsa, sauteed onions, and cotija; grilled asparagus; sweet potatoes roasted in bacon fat.  Whiskey.

Workout:  Nothing official.  Nothing needed!  Those six sets of hooves were plenty.  Ironman and I also took a short walk after dinner


Growing Pains

I am not Catholic.  I am pissed off.  I am giving up Monsanto for Lent.

This is Day 8.

The food I trust most is the food I grow myself.

This year, I’m more excited than ever to see In the Night Farm’s extensive garden space freshly tilled and waiting for a few more weeks of warmth to replace our frosty, Idaho nights.  Rhubarb and onions have already unfurled from the earth.  My cold-weather annuals — kale and snow peas — can be planted this weekend.  I might even risk half a packet of salad greens in the hope of an early harvest. 

I’m just one of many gardeners and small-time farmers eager to replace supermarket vegetables with homegrown fare.  Hours and sweat are a hefty, but worthy, price to pay for guaranteed organic, non-GMO, Monsanto-free produce.

But is it guaranteed?  Not necessarily. 

Here’s Monsanto’s list of seed brands.  Unless you live in agricultural country, most of the names are likely unfamiliar.  But look under “vegetable seed brands.”  See Seminis?  They provide seed to some very familiar vendors:  Burpee, Park Seed, J.W. Jung Seed, Germania, and many others that are making their way from garden centers to neighborhoods as we speak.

Fortunately, the internet is full of lists like this one, and a brief search will put you in touch with scores of sources for organic, heirloom seed.  My favorite is Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, a company with a conscience, a massive selection, rapid shipping, reasonable prices, excellent customer service, and a free seed packet with every order.

Unfortunately, even buying from a reputable  company may not be enough.  Consider contamination.  Can you be sure the heirloom seed you saved from last year wasn’t cross-pollinated by your neighbor’s Burpee bounty?  It may not be GMO (yet), but it’s still Monsanto.  You have to wonder.

As for GMO cross-contamination, there’s no question that mutant crops have infected the globe.  Ask Percy Schmeiser.

Extra Credit: The Global Spread of GMO Crops by Peter Montague and Organic Seeds Increasingly in Danger of GMO Contamination from Nutrition Business Journal.

Read all posts in the Monsanto Project Series.


Monsanto. In the Pet Store. With the Debit Card.

I am not Catholic.  I am pissed off.  I am giving up Monsanto for Lent.

This is Day 7.

Me: 5 – Monsanto: 1 

It was going so well, yesterday’s shopping trip.  Produce section?  All organic.  Fish counter?  Wild-caught, please.  Toiletries?  No thanks, got all  natural ones from Tropical Traditions. 

Then came the pet store.  I’d been dreading buying dog food because I knew that, caught between markups and Monsanto, my pocketbook would cower in abject horror.

Remember when I switched my own diet to organic?  This was worse:

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To avoid Monsanto, I needed an organic product.  To get the best bark for my buck, nutritionally speaking, I needed it to be grain-free.  As it turns out, I couldn’t have both.  Organic was available (1 option).  Grain-free was available (4+ options).  One brand even featured wild venison (with a side of rice).

Nothing organic and grain-free.  Worse, nothing in my price range. 

I do not have teacup pomeranians.  I have greyhounds.  Ironman has a large,  black lab.  Among them, they eat 2.25 pounds of dry food daily.  The only organic option, canned Organix, would run at least $300/month — and that’s using the sale price.

And so, I am ashamed to report that I stuck with my usual non-organic, not-grain-free brand, for less than 1/3 the price.  At least it’s local.  Sigh.

For my cat, who doesn’t eat as much, I made the same decision I’d make for myself if I had to:  grain-free, but not organic.  I hope (but can’t verify) that Blue Buffalo cat food contains no GMOs.

AND, I just now realized that I also bought athletic socks.  Made with cotton.

Excuse me while I drown myself in a bucket of Round-up.

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Read all posts in the Monsanto Project Series.


In the Night Gym: Winter Edition

Winter has arrived at In the Night Farm.  She roared in last weekend astride sixty mile-per-hour winds.  Nighttime lows plummeted from the mid-thirties to single digits.  Snow fell, only to be whisked eastward across the frozen ground.

I rushed to get de-icers into the horses’ water tanks.  Wednesday morning was so cold that ice layered on the surface anyway.  The horses blinked inquisitively at me, noses buried in hay, as I re-checked circuits and shattered the ice with a metal rod. 

Ah, winter.

I laugh when city people, upon hearing of the long hours of riding, rototilling, and stacking hay that fill my summers, comment that the dark months must provide a lovely rest.  Anyone who has lived on a farm knows better.  Winter brings her own set of problems — and they tend to be harder ones to solve.

If the hose isn’t properly drained, you’re looking at a couple hours’ worth of work to drag it indoors for thawing (all 120 meters of it).  Meanwhile, the horses need water, so you’ll be filling their tubs by hand.  With buckets.

Did I mention the 120 meters?  It’s about that far from spigot to the most distant sheep pens and horse paddocks.  That’s a long way to carry buckets of water, at 8.34 pounds per gallon, when each horse can be relied upon to drink at least 10 gallons per day…and you have 9 horses…

But I rather enjoy it.  In fact, I actually prefer carrying water to bothering with the hose.  Several days per week, when the horse tubs need topping off but aren’t more than half-empty, I get an extra workout during chore time.

Ever heard of farmer’s carries?  It’s a classic strongman event that involves carrying a couple heavy objects (kettlebells, dumbbells, modified barbells, or any of a variety of makeshift “buckets”) over distance. 

Barbells are all well and good, folks, but I have the real deal!  This kind of exercise is fabulous for strengthinging the grip, obviously, but carrying those buckets over hill and dale also works the forearms, upper back, abdominals, and legs like nothing else.

I’ve also discovered the fun of throwing tires.  All that hay I stacked last summer needs to stay well covered under heavy tarps.  Unfortunately, the tarps — no matter how well I tie or pin them down — aren’t always a match for the wind.  After storms, I have to climb atop the 12-foot haystack and rearrange the tarps and tires that help hold them down.

Now, these aren’t tractor tires.  They’re just leftovers off my old Dodge 4×4.  But at 5’3″ and 115 pounds, I find them a challenging but managable (read: satisfying!) object to toss around.  I’m thinking of inventing some kind of workout game that involves hefting them over fenceposts or somesuch.

I also want a tractor tire…maybe for Christmas!

In the meantime, it’s snowing again.  I can just make out the vast, white blanket, stitched with fences, spread across the valley in frigid pre-dawn.  Snow always means extra work on the farm.

Bring it on.


Thanksgiving on the Farm

Ah, Thanksgiving.  I’m in the make-smart-compromises camp on how best to handle this food-centered holiday.  The guidelines are simple:

  • Lean toward paleo, but don’t obsess.
  • Enjoy the food, and enjoy the company even more.
  • Eat what’s important for your own emotions’ and others, and skip the “treats” that aren’t really special.

Ironman and I are hosting an early Thanksgiving today at In the Night Farm.  It’s storming outside — whipping wind and temperature ticking down toward zero, while snowclouds twist overhead — but inside we have music and warm, spiced air.  Here’s our menu:

Roast turkey.  It’s a conventional Butterball, I’m afraid.  That pastured, heirloom bird just wasn’t in the budget this year.

Wild Rice, Sausage, & Fennel Stuffing.  Wild rice is a grass seed, which makes it only somewhat better than grain.  It isn’t make it a perfect choice, but it beats the heck out of gluten-filled bread stuffing.

Mashed potatoes and gravy.  Again, not ideal due to carbohydrate content (regardless of how you feel about white potatoes, a topic of much debate in the paleo community), but certainly not the worst food on the planet.  I’ll make them the old-fashioned way, with plenty of butter and cream.  We could argue all day about whether this does more harm (dairy, and the fat-carb combo effect on insulin and bodyfat) or good (lowered GI to mute blood-sugar spike) — but how about we just enjoy them instead?  The gravy will require some starch for thickening, but at least I’m not afraid of fat anymore!  Food is such a pleasure.

Sweet & Spicy Roasted Sweet Potatoes.  I’ll put plenty of these on my plate.  They’re perfectly paleo — just cubed sweet potatoes roasted in coconut oil and sprinkled with red pepper flakes.  Nobody in their right mind will miss the marshmallows.

Sweet & Sour Green Beans.  Not in the Chinese sense of sweet & sour!  This is an old, family recipe that I used to consider terribly unhealthful, though delicious, because it contains bacon (including the grease) and a substantial quantity of vegetable oil.  By replacing the vegetable oil with a more healthful fat, I’ll update the recipe to nearly paleo — though it will still require a couple tablespoons of sugar.

Whole 9 Cranberry Sauce:  Sweetened with apple juice and figs, this sauce looks and smells far more beautiful — and paleo — than the red-sugar-in-a-can variety.  I’m excited to share it.

Cranberry Waldorf Salad:  “Pink Stuff” wasn’t a staple on my childhood holiday table, but we did always have a salad of canned fruit cocktail swimming in whipped cream.  I think this paleo waldorf, which features chilled coconut milk in place of dairy, will be a spectacular upgrade.

Buttermilk Butterhorns:  When it comes to gluten, I have the magic touch.  That “smooth and elastic dough” is putty in my hands.  Indeed, baking is one of the few foodie pleasures I miss since going paleo.  I’m taking advantage of this rare opportunity to make a batch of traditional, golden dinner rolls to serve smothered in pastured butter.

For drinks, we’ll serve spiced cider, whiskey, and wine.

For hors d’oeurves, a Fig & Walnut Cheeseball with crackers and crudites, summer sausage, kale chips, beautiful Sugared Cranberries, stuffed olives, and pickles.

And for dessert, my speciality, a citrus-scented cheesecake, plus pies graciously baked by our guests.  And whipped cream.  And did I mention the whiskey?

After the holiday, it’s back to paleo…right where I want to be.


Growing Costs: The Value of Food

I’m going grass-fed. I promised.

My freezer is nearly empty of conventional meats. A pound or two of bacon remains. And some organic ground beef from Costco, which is New Zealand grassfed mixed with American organic grainfed. After that’s gone, I’m all in.

I’ve found a vendor of quality, local, grassfed meats just one town over. They sell beef tenderloin for around $20/lb, but I’ll be ordering the ground beef, stew beef, and mixed cuts of pork that average $5.50/lb.

I may have to close my eyes while entering my credit card number. I will try very hard not to think about conventional prices of $1.98 for ground round or pork shoulder at $1.79 or whole roaster chickens under $3.00 on sale.

This, after all, is simply how much food ought to cost. Unsubsidized, allowed to mature at a natural rate without being poisoned by a grain diet that would kill them in months despite heavy antibiotic loads, if they didn’t go to the slaughterhouse first, livestock is not cheap to raise.

In fact, given the dinner I enjoyed last night, $5.50/lb for local, grassfed beef looks downright reasonable. Yesterday evening, I cooked up two, broiled lamb chops with mint pesto and side of sauteed summer squash and onions with thyme.

Simple, right?

Sure, if you picked it all up from the grocery. But I didn’t. Those chops came from lambs born here at In the Night Farm. I grew the herbs and onion. The squash came from a co-worker’s garden.

Cheap, right?

Hardly. Not even if you picked it all up from the grocery. Which I didn’t.

Those chops came from lambs born here at In the Night Farm, remember? They were grass (actually, mostly hay) fed, which meant they took their time maturing to slaughtering size. Quite aside from the daily labor of caring for livestock, the monetary cost can’t be ignored. Care to have a look?

Quality alfalfa/grass mix hay runs $125 a ton around here. That’s about $0.0625 per pound. A sheep eats 5 pounds a day, for a daily feed cost of $.32. The sheep in question was 450 days old when slaughtered, and therefore consumed $144.00 worth of hay.

Well. That’s not too bad!

But wait. I also had to feed my breeding stock — one ewe and one ram. I’ll only add in the price of one parent, since the lamb I’m calculating was a twin.

So, $144 in lamb feed plus $144 for its mama’s feed (and that’s assuming I didn’t have to feed mama during gestation, which of course isn’t true), for a total of $288 in feed.

Now, add butchering costs. I paid $207 for both lambs, so let’s call it $103.50 for one.

$288 in feed plus $103.50 butchering = $391.50 for one lamb.

How much meat is in a lamb? About 40 pounds.

$391.50 / 40 pounds = $9.79 / pound.

Oh, my.

Is it worth it? To eat a healthy animal? A healthful animal? An animal I raised from birth, cared for daily through winter’s snow and summer’s blaze? An animal that, well-nourished, can provide real nourishment in return?

An animal that gave its life for mine?

$9.79 per pound.

That’s value.
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You might also like
A Tale of Oregon Elk: On Food and Gratitude
Practically Impossible: The Challenge of Sustainable Living
The Organic Pocketbook: A Struggle Survived


Rubber, Meet Road.

I don’t work out to stay lean, or look hot, or even for the undeniable health benefits. Those are perks. The real reason I work out is so I can run my farm.

There’s a 55-foot flatbed parked on my upper driveway. It towers with 6 rows of tightly packed bales of Oregon hay. The bales average 98 pounds — 17 pounds under my own bodyweight — and the load totals 16.2 tons.

My mission is to unload the bales from the trailer and re-stack them, 6 to 10 high, for winter storage. This must be done by early next week, so the trailer can make another trip across the border and return with another 9 tons.

It’s a hell of a workout. Wrestling those bales into place takes me, singlehanded, about an hour per ton. I try to move about 3 tons in a day. The effort compares to the same time spent on a heavy lifting workout — a bit more variety, no breaks between sets — but it’s similar. Plenty of real-life deadlifts, bent-over rows, front squats, and lunges. Throw in some sled dragging. And do it all in an enclosed space so full of dust and pollen that you have to wear a mask to keep your throat from closing up.

A while back, I wrote that fitness is choices. And it is.

But fitness is also the ability to do the job that needs doing, brutal though it may be. And I have it.

If friends stop by to help, it’ll be much appreciated. The job will be done faster, and I can get back to training horses. But they probably won’t, and that’s okay. I can handle it. It’ll work out because I work out.

And that, my friends, feels pretty damn good.


Duck Hunt! (Hoo boy, do we know how to have fun!)

Remember when Duck Hunt was just an Nintendo game? It’s your lucky day! Duck Hunt is now available in real life, right here at In the Night Farm.

[No animals were harmed in the making of this game.]

You see, when Ironman and I brought home our box of fuzzy ducklings, there were a couple things we didn’t know. First, ducklings eat three times their own weight every 24 hours (or at least they seem to, judging by the feed bill). Second, Khaki Campbells and Rouens are not flightless. The breeder pamphlets say they are, but I assure you, it’s a lie.

Just ask me how I know.

What’s that?

Okay, I’ll tell you: Because I’ve seen them do it!

A couple weeks ago, when I went to Chicago and left Ironman in charge of the farm, he came around the corner to the fenced (but not roofed) duck yard and startled up a couple of Rouens. One lingered nearby and he nabbed it, but the other was last seen on a wobbly flightpath into an oncoming thunderstorm.

Tonight, I did the same thing. Came around the corner, and up went a Khaki Campbell. She flew northward over the horse paddocks and disappeared. Well crap, I thought. Those buggers are worth their weight in gold, after all they’ve eaten! Better keep them locked in their indoor pen until we can get a roof on the yard.

I resigned myself to the loss of yet another member of the poultry brigade (it’s been a rough year for chickens, too), collected the eggs and mail, paused to inspect the garden, and climbed wearily up the to the main level of my farmhouse.

…and I heard a duck. Quacking. From beyond the horse pens.

Well, what did I have to lose? I trotted back down the stairs and through the pasture, circling around behind a patch of weeds at which all the horses were staring curiously. Sure enough, there was little Khaki, a female, panting and obviously distressed by the unintended separation from her flock.

I approached slowly, sure my chances of catching her were close to nil, and was surprised to get within 6 feet before she panicked. She blundered against a nearby fence, flapping and squawking, the managed to slip through.

Dang it! I hurried around to the sheep pens, where there’s a spot of fence strong enough to climb over without tearing down the wire or getting zapped with electricity, and caught up with Khaki near the stallion paddocks. She didn’t seem to want to fly, but watched me warily, waddling away and occasionally skimming along with her wings outstretched and flapping if I got too close.

Right then. Nice and easy does the trick. Feeling like a large and unwieldy sheepdog, I herded her carefully up the path toward the gate, wondering what on earth I’d do if I managed to get her through. The fences seemed to guide her, but a long stretch of open land lies between the paddocks and the poultry housing.

As it turned out, that was one bridge I didn’t need to cross. Khaki waddled right past the gate and into the round corral I use for training horses. I managed to direct her to the uphill side, where the panels are set into the hill and the earth shored back with planks to make a solid wall about as high as Khaki’s upraised head.

Still unwilling — or too unfit? — to do so, Khaki scrambled back and forth as I weaved to stay ahead of her, repeatedly blocking her path as though she were a fractious filly. In the back of my mind, I couldn’t help wondering how hard the neighbors were laughing.

Slowly, slowly I crept nearer. Near enough to…

GRAB!

Missed. Blast! Khaki slipped through my hands and scuttled away — but blessedly, she didn’t fly.

On my second try, I got her. Pinned her wings right to her sides and gathered her against my chest, where she rested without a struggle, peering up at me with a shiny, button eye. She sleeps safely now amid her flock.

Maybe I should add duck wrangling to my resume. I think I will. Who wants to work for an employer without a sense of humor?

Besides, cool I am not, but if you’re in the market for a renaissance woman, I’ve gotcha covered.


Prowl

As the cat lapses into savagery by night, and barbarously explores the dark,
so primal and titanic is a woman with love madness.

~ Frank Gelett Burgess