Farm Journal: finding all these animals a winter home

Piggies! Photo: Courtney Grimes-Sutton

Piggies! Photo: Courtney Grimes-Sutton

This is part of a series of farmers writing about life on the farm , week to week, through the season. Courtney Grimes-Sutton is co-owner of Mace Chasm Farm in Keeseville. Read all of Courtney’s journal entries here.

November 10, 2013

Water lines have been drained for the season, though we’ve yet to coil them up and haul them in to the barn for storage.  That means that we’re either hauling water to fill troughs for the animals groups out there on pasture, or have situated the animals so that they rely on the stream that winds down through the middle of this farm, like a main artery, along a field that we call the Duckeye.

“This,” my friend Sam said when we arrived in the Duckeye during a farm walk, “is the heart of the farm.” He’s right. The field is in the center of the farm, feels protected by the trees that grow along the stream, and gazes over and across the valley we’re in to the mountains beyond – the ski trails on Whiteface, across the Jay Range, to Lyon Mountain and the twinkling lights of the prison in Dannemora.

Sam set up a bee yard there in the Duckeye. Some of the hives blew over last winter, and were cold and lifeless when we found them. The surviving hives have thrived. We’ll build a fence around the hives, as we did last year, for the mutual protection of both Bee Yard & Beef Herd, as the cows will spend their winter in the Duckeye, drinking from the stream, eating hay, and thus seeding and fertilizing the pasture there.

For now, the cows are still grazing. I don’t know how long our grass will keep them going. The longer, the better! Chickens are still sourcing bugs & nipping at grass. The pigs are still rooting – I’m happy for them, as the eventual ground freeze will put an end to that most joyful of piggy activities.  Or rather, I should say that I’m happy for their joyful rooting so long as they stay within their fence lines!! Porcine escape artists can really do a number on lawn and hay ground alike, and that always bums me out.

(To put in perspective that little bummer that I just noted, I’ll mention here that I was just looking though photos of the fresh havoc in the Philippines post-195 mph winds, with gusts up to 235 mph. Like so many of the monsters that I read about in the news, it is incomprehensible to me, and so scary.)

The singing workhorse needs to find a winter home, too. Photo: Coutnry Grimes-Sutton.

The singing workhorse needs to find a winter home, too. Photo: Coutnry Grimes-Sutton.

Once the winter freeze has denied the piggies their diet of roots and soil, so too have we farmers missed our chance to efficiently set fence posts, anchor greenhouses, and smooth the edges of recent pig paddocks. Priorities must be well-ordered and our actions measured these days, as daylight hours are waning and winter is oblivious to our scramble.

I respect those hard lines. I appreciate them. They give us structure – they force us inside to enjoy warm dinners, the company of friends, and quiet time. Daylight hours are filled with expectation, while the night is for our spontaneity.  This week, I cooked a lot, and we ate a lot. It seems that at this time of year, as we adjust to the cold and work hard to beat it, that it is imperative that our reward be a really good, hot meal, and the company of friends. Gravies, roasts, steaks, pot pies, apple pies, roasted potatoes, soup, fresh bread – we haven’t eaten like this all summer, and we’re going to have to watch our figures.

In the summer, it was unfathomable to spend these hours cooking. In the summer, we were paid in cash for our work, as the busy markets bought everything we could produce for them, and the long daylight hours kept us going. Now we’re paid by these meals & this time, and the cash component that pays our bills has halved, along with the work hours, and the new season offers a different puzzle to put together – how to make a winter living? This winter, Asa will find an off farm job, and I will stay on the farm full-time, continuing the butchery & fresh production, expanding our product line through trial and error & the paperwork and testing required to approve new products, like salamis, whole muscle cures, rendered fats, stock, and pate. I’ll also head up the work on the butcher shop, write grant applications, research & plan for farm improvements for the Spring, work on our website, create a budget for next season, and sell our goods at our winter weekend markets in Saranac Lake & Keene Valley.

Courtney at the Saranac Lake market. Photo: David Sommerstein

Courtney at the Saranac Lake market. Photo: David Sommerstein

But enough about the months ahead. It is right now – before the ground freezes & before we begin to feed hay – where our focus lies. We’re building winter housing – today we’ll be working on setting up the clear span greenhouse that I bought on Craigslist, which will house the sows for the winter, on a cozy bedding pack, near a frost-free hydrant for water, and near the barn for easy attending to when farrowing time rolls around. Stubbs, our stubby-tailed sow, is due in eight weeks or so. The other girls won’t be bred until December for a late Winter farrowing. Once their new house is set up, they’ll head in there and their piglets will move on to join the older litter in a paddock further south, where we’ll build them a run-in suitable for warm, dry, winter pig piles.

We have two boars and must sell one, now that Stubbs is showing her pregnancy and thus Scar has earned the title ‘proven boar’.  Asa & I disagree a bit here – he wants to sell Ricky, the huge Berkshire boar we bred with this year, and breed with Scar. I’d like to see Scar’s litter before I make that commitment – will they grow as well as Ricky’s offspring have? Maintaining two boars, however, is a pain, since they must be separated. Jesse recounts a morning when he headed out to do chores & found that Scar had escaped his paddock, and was standing facing Ricky through his fence, both of them planted firmly & wearing big beards of froth from their mouths, as though that was stage one of their show down – who can drum up a bigger beard of froth. Gross. Anyway, the stronger will kill the other, supposedly – or at least it’s a possibility, so they need their own homes where they can be blissfully unaware of their competition – and that means hauling water out to yet another location.

Laying hens will move into the greenhouse, and horses will need a winter paddock. Onions need to be cleaned, bagged & delivered to storage. Our little equipment line can be thinned, as we’ve decided to get out of big tillage & veggie production. With the grandiose bills yet to be paid this year, I figure anything that doesn’t have a job here already ought to be sold. Thankfully, I sold the bean picker, which will pay back most of the bean loan, and means that we didn’t lose any capital in trying that crop this year, despite all the plantings lost to the rain.

Where the beans and onions were this year, a young crop of rye is up, and some garlic went into the ground this week for next year’s sausages. I wish we had spread manure there before planting, but we didn’t. Depending on what the spring skies offer up, we’ll either graze the rye, or combine it off. Then the field will be sown back to pasture.

The rye peeking up in the field. Photo: Courtney Grimes-Sutton

The rye peeking up in the field. Photo: Courtney Grimes-Sutton

Our greatest trouble at the moment, is the cost of organic grains. It constantly attempts to sink our ship, and we stay busy bailing it out. Why? Well, I don’t want atrazine or round up on anything I pay for or anything I eat – ideally. I’m not a purist – no way. But your money needs to go where your mouth does, right, where your mind wants to? That’s a tall order. We’re pretty broke. My litmus test is that I want to feel good about my answer to any question that I or anyone else might ask about the choices we make. So these days, I’m asking a lot of questions in search of a feed program for pigs that could meet our needs. There are a lot of ideas to draw on, and I’m looking forward to putting in the time.

“This time of year is the hardest on our hands.” That was the last thing Asa said before he fell asleep on the couch last night near the wood stove, with his hands coated in salve and soaking in warm water. Like little plants coming out of the greenhouse in the spring that need to be hardened off outside before being planted to the fields, so are we toughening up for the cold months ahead; remembering how to take care of ourselves this time of year, finding our warm clothes & our winter gloves. Remembering how to move around in all those layers and marshmallow boots. I’m going to head out now for practice.

Over & out at 35 degrees.

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One Comment

  1. It's heartwarming to see young farmers like you, Asa and your cohorts building your farms and markets. Keep it up, you are making the future of agriculture in the north country much brighter.
    We served your sausage to quests twice this summer and they were a hit. We had your delicious pork chops for dinner last night.