Friday, March 16, 2012

March Madness (and I am not talking basketball!)

Springing into early Spring

March is usually the most depressing month of the year because we are plagued with all weather - ice, snow, rain, sleet, damp, cold, mud and high winds. This year March came in like a lamb and remains a lamb. We have high hopes that the lamb won’t morph into a lion by the end of the month. Kidding season began two weeks ago. Normally the freezing temperatures create challenges for just born kids. The 50 degree temperatures are good for us and good for the kids. We bred 20 ewes this year so we would have lamb for the farmers markets in May and June. The lambs and kids have commandeered the barn. In early morning the kids race up and down the hillside, the lambs gambol out to the sun. They run, leap, prong and then stop and cry for their moms. Their moms answer back. Each baby finds their mom, take a mid morning bump at the udder and then bellies full, crash. Some of the does are milk bars – they don’t care who nurses from them so some of the kid entrepreneurs run around nursing from every mom before they nap. Their favorite snuggle spots are the door outside the barn in the sun and the alleyway.

Kid Sunning in the Barnyard

Hey I've got Hay

Kid Cache
Too early to Plant the Peas?
The warm weather lures us outside to clean up the pastures, yards and barns. We are discovering right handed gloves, pocket knives, piles of baling twine, haylage wrap, turkey slaughter debris, garbage and whatever the melted snow left behind. I want to start the gardens but the soil is too wet. And I don’t want to uncover all of the perennial herbs because they may need protection if the March Lion visits. I planted peas in June last year and my family told me I was wasting my time. But I had spent so much time building a stick and twine fence that I was determined to use it for peas. And they were right; the peas grew three or four inches and then wilted in the heat. Tom ripped down the stick fence in the fall and is putting up a traditional chicken wire fence with stakes for the peas. Yuk.

Last Year's Pea Fence
The Geography of Convenience

We are planning our summer season which includes applying for urban farmers markets. We attended a Community Markets mandatory farmers market meeting this week in Rhinecliff. The venue had a wonderful view of the Hudson River so when I wasn’t interested in the discussion, I enjoyed watching the tug boats bring barges up and down the river. We currently do one winter market in Mamaroneck on Saturdays. We get up at 4 am and head four hours to Westchester. My favorite part of the trip is the Tappan Zee Bridge and the view of the Hudson River from midbridge. We may be doing a summer market in Westchester and in Brooklyn because sales at our local farmers markets have been disappointing over the past two years. Do we sell at city based markets, make three times as much money but incur three times as much time and expenses doing them? Or do we stick with our local markets and hope they improve? The bottom line is that the opportunities are greater downstate. The downstate markets offer more customers in a higher income bracket and more customers who are willing to allocate a larger percentage of their hard earned money on good food. Over the past two years, many local markets have popped up. The increase in farmers markets is convenient for customers but bad for vendors. There is a limited customer base, and it is not growing. There are 15 farmer's markets in the Delaware County/Otsego county area. Ten years ago there were three. This proliferation has diluted attendance at the larger markets. These markets are just splitting a finite customer base into smaller and smaller pieces. In fact, we could argue that if we sold at two local farmers markets on a Saturday we would be competing against ourselves. We understand the geography of convenience, especially as gas prices sky rocket, but we hope that consumers will drive out of the way to shop at the farmers markets, even if it is not enroute to their children’s soccer game or the dry cleaners. So the challenge for farmers market managers is to secure many vendors selling a wide variety of products or it is not worth the customers trip “out of the way”. Not an easy task. There are many challenges for small farmers who want to sell their products at a market – all having to do with regulations that are hard to understand and expensive – labeling, insurance, compliance, etc. Gone are the days when grandma could sell her peaches and peach jam at a stall at a farmers market.

As more small farmers conquer the ag and markets regulations and make their way into the farmers markets, consumers have more choices. Unlike the grocery store, the farmers market features a farmer behind the table. We don’t have to get all of the information we need from the label; we can have a conversation with the farmer. And the farmer has the responsibility of communicating truthfully and candidly with the customer. For example, our chickens are more expensive than other chickens at the farmers market. Why are our chickens better? How do we communicate that our broiler chickens are better for us and the environment because they roam pastures and woods without slamming the farmer down the aisle who raises his chickens in large indoor sunless houses? Signs, photos and conversations. But ultimately taste. Once the customer eats one of our chickens, he is a loyal customer, even at a higher price. We enjoy doing farmers markets because of the relationships we establish with our customers. When a customer tells us that the pork chops we sold them last week was the best they ever had, the four hour drive seems worth it.

Why No Lamb at Easter?

A week or two before Passover or Easter our farm phone rings incessantly with customers inquiring about lamb for the holiday. We lamb in February and again in May so unless you are interested in eating a new spring, 15 lb lamb and roasting it whole (as many of our Italian and Greek customers do) retail cuts of lamb, such as a leg of lamb, won’t be available for Easter. In the grocery stores, there is plenty of lamb for Easter and Passover because it comes from New Zealand. It is autumn in New Zealand and lamb is plentiful after a six-month growing season on summer pastures. I thought that the New Zealand and Australian Agricultural Council was behind the American tradition of lamb at Easter but discovered that the tradition relates to the first Passover of the Jews. The sacrificial lamb was roasted and eaten, together with unleavened bread and bitter herbs in hopes that the angel of God would pass over their homes and bring no harm. As Hebrews converted to Christianity, they may have brought their traditions with them. The Christians often refer to Jesus as The Lamb of God. The traditions merged.

Smoked ham is also a traditional Easter food. In the early days, meat was slaughtered in the fall. There was no refrigeration, and the fresh pork that wasn't consumed during the winter months before Lent, was cured for spring. The curing process took a long time, and the first hams were ready around the time Easter rolled around. Thus, ham was a natural choice for the celebratory Easter dinner. We have plenty of smoked hams. So pass on the New Zealand lamb and go for a smoked ham this Easter.

Newborn lamb
March Madness

Because it has been so warm, we bred all of the female rabbits this week. I used a new young buck and he seemed to do his job but the proof is in the kits. The gestation period is 30 or so days so if the buck successfully bred them, we will have kits by early April. If the weather is still warm by then we won’t have too much of a problem. One or two of the does are young so we will have to see what kind of moms they are. We culled the doe last year who refused to feed her kits or did not have enough milk. I gave her two chances but she managed to neglect the litters both times. I replaced her with a doe who is very skittish. I pet her everyday when I feed her fresh hay but she remains terrified of me and her surroundings. I make sure that she has lots of hay in her hutch and she spends most of the day buried in it. Of course, the border collies don’t help the situation. Every morning when they are let out of their kennels, they immediately run under the rabbit hutches and stalk the rabbits. The other rabbits ignore their probing noses but this young doe hasn’t figured out that the dogs can’t hurt her through the wire cage. Yelling at the border collies does not work – they are transfixed by the rabbits. They would spend all day watching rabbit TV if we let them. What’s truly madness in March is that the temperature is supposed to top 80 degrees next week!

Iron Rabbit with Tulips

Iron Rabbit