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

Farm Life

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


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.


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.

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.


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

Make Way for Ducklings

I let the ducklings out of their nursery on Saturday. They now have the run of the indoor section of the main duck pen (but not the outdoor duck playground, which isn’t cat-safe). The indoor section is about 12′ x 5′, mostly covered, with plenty of shelter from the wind. And, it’s adjacent to the nursery pen so the ducklings can still get under their heat lamp as necessary.

They’re huge already! At only about 2 weeks of age, they have more than quadrupled in size, and the 16 of them plow through over a quart of 20% protein flock-raiser mash daily. I have to play close attention to their water supply, too, as they must have it to keep their bills clear of debris, and they splash and drink plenty.

Here they are exploring the new digs. They particularly enjoyed the few tufts of grass that survived the duck-pen construction project.

Ironman has left town for a few weeks. (He has a cooler job than I do.) By the time he gets home, the first of the Pekin drakes will be nearly ready for slaughter. I’ve never cooked duck before, but understand it must be done properly for good results. Time to start reading up on the subject — I’ll keep you posted.

Sheer Quackery

Are these not the cutest things ever?

They’d better be, because they’re a bloody nuisance! I spent more time last week than I care to admit chasing loose ducklings around my master bathroom. The little buggers may be only a few days old, but they’re quick — and good heavens, can they scream when separated from their buddies!

As you might expect, I have a better reason for raising a flock of ducklings than cooing over their downy wings and teeny, duckbilled yawns, or even the adventure of midnight duckhunts involving reaching around one side of the toilet while attempting to block any escape route with a convenient trash can. No, Ironman and I have decided to raise ducks for eggs and meat.

Duck eggs are slightly larger and higher in cholesterol than chicken eggs, and their shells have a smoother, waxier appearance. (I know this because we bought a dozen from the local co-op to make sure we liked them before investing in duck housing and stock, which totaled about $300.) They taste quite similar — perhaps a touch milder and richer — but the difference is as subtle as that between the eggs of chickens on different diets.

As for the meat, well, I’m all for any option that will spare me conventionally raised products. Unfortunately, for reasons I discussed long ago in this post, our ducks will still eat a fair amount of grain, though I’ll do my best to get some real food down their gullets as well. At least they won’t be pumped full of antibiotics.

After doing some homework on duck husbandry and deciding to go ahead with the project, Ironman and I built a duck shelter and playground next to the chicken coop and chicken yard. (I think it turned out pretty well, myself!)

Next, we stopped by a local hatchery for a box of ducklings. Because ducks are only sold straight run (not sexed), we had to buy extras in order to ensure that we’d get enough females to keep for our breeding flock of 8 or10 ducks and 2 drakes. The extra drakes will make some lovely meals in 9-14 weeks. (Sorry, boys.)

I selected breeds based on the characteristics that were most important to us: egg production, meat quality, and mothering instinct. The yellow ducklings are Pekins. They’ll grow into white-feathered adults that are large, quick-growing meat ducks. The brown ones are Khaki Campbells, which are renowned for their egg laying capacity — up to 300 eggs per duck per year! The ones with striped faces are Rouens, which are good egg layers and reliable setters to boot. They’ll be responsible for raising future broods.

We bought six of each breed, but two of the Rouens didn’t make it. One died within hours of leaving the hatchery; the other held on for a few days but eventually succumbed. I’m not certain whether this is because Rouens are a more delicate breed, or because the Rouens we bought were a day (or even a half-day) younger than the others and couldn’t quite compete. Thankfully, the remaining four are doing swimmingly.

Speaking of swimming, there’s no question that these guys know they’re waterfowl. They certainly love fouling their water! Ducks have no choice in the matter, actually; they require water-sloshing to clear their nostrils and throats of sticky food-mash. Nevertheless, this tendency was a bit of a problem during the few days they lived in (and sometime out of) a blue wading pool in my bathroom. Try as I might, I could not keep their pine-shaving bedding dry for more than an hour at a time.

So, they’re outside now, in a 3×5 foot, cat-proof section of the duck pen. I put them out there yesterday after much internal debate regarding whether they’d be able to handle the lower temperatures and spring winds. They’re only six days old, after all, and haven’t the benefit of Mama’s toasty underbelly to keep them warm.

The 250-watt heat lamp proved sufficient, however. I checked on them this morning, after a windy night in the low 30’s, to find them yawning and preening, stretching their tiny, web-footed legs, and looking sweeter than any chocolate duck that ever found its way into my childhood Easter basket.

Betcha they’ll be just as tasty, too.

(On the subject of tasty poultry… I finally have my desktop computer fixed, which means I can edit photos again, which means that I was able to upload a photo of my Hottie Hen with a Pig Pizza — recipe and photo here.)

A Tale of Oregon Elk: On Food and Gratitude

When I was in high school, my family owned a whitewater rafting company. Our offerings of four- to seven-day expedition trips down wilderness rivers attracted mostly outdoor-types from the West, but we also booked the occasional city slicker.

Mary Jo, a hefty and good-natured soul with glossy, black curls and florid cheeks, was one of the latter. She hailed from Boston and was startled to learn that there really wasn’t any point in packing her alarm clock in her waterproof gear bag. (Nope, not even with an extension cord.)
Along about Day 3 of Mary Jo’s trip, we were floating through open range, where cattle spend the summer feeding on the vast acreage of public lands. Mary Jo, spotting a pair of Herefords drinking along the bank, exclaimed, “Look! Wildlife! What kind of animals are those?”
Sure Mary Jo was kidding, the nearest guide joked, “Oh, those are Oregon elk. They’re very rare!” Imagine his surprise when Mary Jo pulled out her camera and started clicking away. He did some fast talking to spare our guest the embarrassment of hauling out her photo album and showing all her friends back home the elusive “Oregon elk,” which almost anybody would recognize immediately as garden-variety cattle.
That night in camp, we served up an Italian feast of wine, garlic bread, salad, and spaghetti with marinara and meatballs. Mary Jo ate with her usual gusto. Watching her from across the circle of canvas chairs in the fading light, I wondered if she had even a passing thought connecting her “wildlife” sighting with the meal rapidly disappearing from her plate. I was saddened to conclude, probably not.
Saddened, I say, because although Mary Jo may have been an extreme case, she is far from an anomaly. Too many people these days believe that food comes from the grocery store. I once heard of a woman who, listening in on a discussion about the danger a single plant disease could pose to our inadequately-diverse food supply, said “Oh, I’m sure they’ll always have flour at the store.” She, like Mary Jo, clearly had no concept of the sacrificial exchange that fuels our bodies.

We the People, with our fast food joints and deep freezes, are so far separated from farm life that we rarely consider that from the T-bones we gnaw once hung the loin of a cow with a swishing tail and liquid eyes. That neat mound of poultry breast was made to nestle warm about a clutch of eggs. Those egg yolks formed to nourish chicks ’til they grew large enough to hatch.

I’m not saying I have a moral problem with eating meat or eggs, any more than I have one with tearing carrots from the soil and scattering my salad with their precious roots. Zucchini grow to ensure there is seed for the next generation, not to be sauteed in my breakfast hash, but saute them I do. To live is to take other lives. Any farmer knows there’s no escaping the fact, no denying it, no point feeling guilty about it.

But I do believe there is benefit in understanding it — not just believing it intellectually, but experiencing it firsthand — for in understanding there is value, and in value, gratitude.

Those of us who were fortunate enough to be reared in agricultural country should be at least halfway there. We visited U-pick orchards every fall, plucked wild blackberries from their vines, perhaps retrieved eggs from the nests of disgruntled hens. Some of us even fattened stock for slaughter.

I was eight the first time I observed the death our annual beef cow. The man from the packing plant shot her three times, right there in our barn, before her sway turned to a topple and her topple to utter collapse. He hooked a chain to her hind legs and winched her outside to his truck, where he peeled away her chestnut coat and spilled her foul-smelling offal among the weeds.
My mother worried that I, an empathetic child who had bottle fed that animal as a calf, would be put off our daily meals of hamburgers and steak. But I was untroubled. Somehow, with the innate wisdom of the very young, I understood.
Not all children have such opportunities. One of my best friends grew up in the jungles of Chicago. He claims once to have stumbled over a pile of milk bottles and thought he’d found a cow’s nest. Does that mean he shouldn’t be permitted to eat meat, because he hasn’t paid his dues?
Of course not. But I do think those in his position should look for opportunities to connect with the lives and deaths that feed them. From farmers markets to bookstores, there is plenty of recourse for those who wish to understand their meals. A number of authors have addressed the concept of late, all from different perspectives. Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma), Barbara Kingsolver (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle), and most recently, Lierre Keith (The Vegetarian Myth) come readily to mind.


For the most adventurous — and wisest? — more creativity could lead one to a farm on butchering day, to feel the blood from chickens’ throats run hot across trembling fingers, see the feathers float on scalding water and stick like rain soaked leaves to pluckers‘ wrists. To pull the trigger that ploughs a painless path through the brain of a hog, or gut a fish from the neighbor’s pond, or simply gather the bosoms of ripe onions as they press up from the soil, strip peas from their pods, sever the stems of living herbs to rub beneath a turkey’s freshly-denuded skin.
I remember one blustery day in early spring at In the Night Farm. A freshly-slaughtered lamb had hung for several days from the north deck, aging beneath its burlap wrap. Meanwhile, out beyond the horse paddocks, lambing had begun. I spent the entire day running between the kitchen, where I rinsed and packaged chunks of carcass for later meals, and the lambing jugs, where I knelt in the hay to draw colostrum from ewes’ udders and coax it down the silken throats of newborn lambs.
I ate lamb that night, with the smell of sheep’s milk still strong upon my hands. The following winter, I butchered the wooley babies whose lifes I had saved. Come spring, I nurtured several more.
Death. Life. Death feeding life feeding death feeding life. The unbroken circle. Don’t feel guilty. But please, don’t forget. Real food costs more than pennies for pounds.

This post is participating in Fight Back Fridays at Food Renegade. Stop by and see what else is on the menu!