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farming

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Happiness is Hard Work

dam reflection daffodils
dam reflection daffodils

If there’s one thing we’ve learned in three years of farming, it’s that for us happiness is hard work. That is, working hard makes us really really happy.

Happiness doesn’t come in the little indulgences used to tolerate one’s day-to-day life, it comes with rejoicing in daily life. It doesn’t come with so-called leisure time in front of a tv, it comes with making things with bare hands, including dinner made from animals we’ve grown, butchered and prepared for the family meal every night.

What some see as drudgery, we celebrate as small achievements, from weeding the garden (yay more room to grow beautiful food!) to building a fence (yay more paddocks to keep the happy piggehs safe & out of mischief!) to chopping vegetables for an hour (yay more beautiful food!).

Competence is happiness. Relationships are happiness. Kindness and caring for others is happiness. Knowledge is happiness. Food you grow yourself offers a greater quotient of happiness than that bought down the street – though of course thoughtfully-made, fresh, seasonal food brings its own kind of happiness wherever you find it.

I haven’t had a single case of ennui since we rolled up this driveway three years ago today, wheelbarrow on the roof and romantic visions of our new life so bright they made our eyes water. The romance is alive and well, and certainly more mature – there’s happiness in every glorious sunrise, but so there is in the hard-earned strength of this meatsmith’s forearms.

I wasn’t planning to write about happiness today – I was going to write about what we’ve learned in the past three years. But there it is – everything we’ve learned comes back to happiness. Learning new skills and knowledge is joyful. Being competent is gobsmackingly good for one’s self esteem. And focusing on others – be it children, animals in the paddocks, or the many families we help feed with our farming efforts – is utterly more satisfying than focusing overmuch on oneself. Big skies are also really life affirming. :-)

Over a typical Jonai farm brekky of poached eggs & farmstead bacon with Tammindaise this morning I asked Stuart what he’s learned in the past three years, and he offered these nuggets:

  • Community is essential to a farming enterprise – we give thanks for the Ciderhouse Stringband playing at our salami days, for Turk making my butcher’s block and our beautiful dining table, for Morris dragging the farm ute out of the bog with his tractor so many times that first winter, for the stream of hard-working WWOOFers with whom we’ve been blessed, and for the many neighbours, friends and family who have helped us build, fence, garden, and look after animals so we can get away sometimes
  • Relationships are more valuable than economic transactions
  • The quality of life up here cannot be compared with our former urban lives
  • Managing soil and water health and availability across seasons is a tough gig – and critically important to everything
  • Constant work and problem solving is a very creative environment – so many ideas, so little time!
  • Caring for animals is an emotional rollercoaster – such joys and sadnesses in life and death on the farm
  • The best farming texts are all pre-1950s

He also offered some concrete skills he’s learned:

  • Fencing!
  • How to move a shipping container with a 4WD and half a dozen fence posts (TJ - we’re so old school we’re practically Egyptian) ;-)
  • How to fix anything with a pair of pliers, a couple bits of wire, and a knife velcro’d to the back of your iPhone (Stuart calls it his new app)

Then I asked myself what I’ve learned. As well as ticking all the boxes on Stuart’s list (except I leave my knives in the boning room), here’s what I came up with:

  • Practising what I preach is essential for me to offer honest, knowledgeable advocacy for sustainable, ethical agriculture
  • Our rural community has an abundance of smart, kind, creative, hard-working, and helpful people for whom I am deeply grateful – our lives are the richer for all of you
  • WWOOFers are awesome and can teach you as much as you teach them, whether it’s new skills, knowledge or just a brilliant attitude towards life
  • I really really like dogs
  • Big skies and wide horizons are salve for the happiest or the saddest soul
  • Working in a partnership is an excellent way to see each other’s strengths on a daily basis, which helps soften one’s view of the weaknesses – also how to play to each of our strengths & play down the weaknesses
  • Raising kids on the land offers them freedom, responsibility, and daily pleasures that I hope will help them grow up as grounded and appreciative of natural cycles as it did me
  • Farming really is a seven-day-a-week job (though we've introduced Make-a-Day on Sundays...), but the rewards are greater than any 40-hour week I ever worked, and being able to set our own priorities (animals and weather willing…) helps make the workload less onerous
  • Physical work is bone-deep satisfying, and creates an excellent balance for time spent at a computer to run the business and write all the things – everything’s good when there’s not too much of one thing
  • Recipe development out in the boning room for seasonal single-estate and single-region sausages is fun, rewarding, and generally has uncommonly delicious results
  • Giving up a PhD to focus on farming, butchering, and fair food advocacy is one of the best difficult decisions I’ve ever made
  • For some people going for a run is the best way to clear the head – for me it’s putting my hands in soil – weeding, planting, harvesting…
  • Pigs are quite smart, but no, they’re not as smart as a three-year-old child
  • Joel Salatin was right - if you control your supply chain and sell everything directly, you really can run a profitable small farm
  • A lot of things in life are rather daunting – be dauntless!

And my concrete learnings:

  • Pigs build enormous nests like a bird when they’re due to farrow (give birth) – it’s a natural instinct to keep their piglets safe from weather and squashing
  • Raising pigs (or poultry or any animal) intensively, especially indoors, is truly, utterly unnecessary and in my view cruel. We’ve now raised our animals outdoors for three years and have been inside an intensive piggery and cannot under any circumstances agree with the justifications for those systems – the stench alone is almost unbearable for both humans and the pigs. Our pigs are healthy (free of respiratory ailments and infections from chewing each other’s tails common in intensive piggeries), farrow well outdoors year round with constant access to huts, and never show signs of stress or aggression such as tail biting.
  • If you don’t strain a fence properly with well-braced wooden posts it will sag & taunt you with a day’s wasted efforts – as my dad always said, ‘if a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well’
  • There’s a season for everything, including fencing – once the ground dries up it’s all over rover, so get your fencing done by springtime
  • Insulated gum boots are amazing
  • You can indeed have a wooden butcher’s block in a licensed butcher’s shop
  • I can transform an entire pig carcass into an array of excellent cuts in an hour and a half. A side of beef takes me about five hours now (remember the first steer that took me three days?!)
  • If you do meat workshops in your shed, you cannot legally let anybody take any of the meat home – doesn’t matter whether you’re a licensed butcher or not, if the shed isn’t licensed, it’s illegal. But it’s legal to eat anything you make onsite
  • You cannot cryovac ham (or any other ready-to-eat product) unless you have in place a Listeria Management Plan, which in Victoria involves monthly swab testing and quarterly product testing (after an initial three months of fortnightly testing)
  • The longer you slow cook muscle meat (pork shoulder, beef blade, chuck, brisket…) the better. If the recipe says at least two hours aim for at least four.
  • Curing meat is not in fact a dark art, and once you crack the code, you can cure anything. It’s just meat, salt & time.
  • Patience tastes delicious.

There really are opportunities to live a great life farming, and I encourage anyone considering the move to go for it. We need more farmers, not less – lots of small farmers like us out here on the land maintaining and creating vibrant rural communities and growing food that’s fair from soil to stomach.

I salute my fellow farmers across Australia and the world – you’re amazing, and I’m honoured (and ecstatic!) to be one of you. Here’s to the next three years of hard-working happiness!

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On rhythms & making days

On the 1st of September we’ll celebrate three years at Jonai Farms & Meatsmiths. Yep, just three years ago we landed on our own little volcano to both savour and save the world, and we are gobsmacked at just how much has happened in that short time! Remember when I got fed up with being called a farmer’s wife and wrote about being a farmer, and how my husband is too? Little did I know then that I would also become a butcher…

As we dance to new rhythms and settle into our new, more comfortable and weathered skins, we’ve emerged as The Farmer & the Butcher. Stuart is Chief Farmer and I am Chief Butcher, though of course we both work out in the paddocks and in the boning room… (cue smirk).

The patterns are fortnightly, with butchering weeks associated with abs runs and deliveries, and non-butchering weeks that allow for more Jonai power to catch up on fencing jobs, but also the accounts, vehicle maintenance, communicating with our lovely community, the plethora of odd jobs typical around any farm, a bit of writing, and plenty of activism in the fair food movement.

It’s an incredibly full life, and we slipped all too easily into working seven days a week – not that hard to do when you love your work. But it was taking its toll, and on our recent trip overseas we took time to reflect before returning to the hamster wheel… and came up with Make a Day.

We’ve said for years that we just need one more day in the week, so we made one. It’s commonly known as Sunday. We’re not that interested in a day of actual rest, so our Sundays really are Make a Days – each family member works on something creative that day. It might be cooking, sewing, designing a house, brewing beer, writing, drawing, painting… anything that you feel like working on, and wherever possible projects we can work on together.

Introducing Make a Day gave us a new appreciation for rhythms and knowing when to switch off. I look forward to Sundays with the orsmkids, and in turn I also look forward to butchering and delivery weeks without that slight sense of hysteria that we will never keep up with everything to be done.

So this blog that was The Hedonist Life is now The Farmer & the Butcher. The stories and learnings come from the same heartsongs, but we’ve worn in our boots and can take you on some deeper journeys now. Thanks for your part in sharing this wonderful life with us – we couldn’t do it without you. x

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Why and How to Do On-Farm Butchery

As I’ve already detailed here on The Hedonist Life, last year we crowdfunded and built our own butcher’s shop here on the farm. Once again, can I just thank the wonderful community of ethical omnivores (& vegetarians!) who supported our efforts, and who have been duly rewarded with uncommonly delicious pork & Jonai Farms calendars. ☺

In the interest of supporting Australia’s fair food movement and the other small livestock farmers who would like to move to on-farm processing, it’s time we gave you some more details about our budget and actuals on the project, and on how we went with our local council and the state regulator PrimeSafe.

Rationale & Profitability Before I give you the nitty gritty I’d love to share the rationale and real financial benefit to our farm.

Based on the final four months of having our meat butchered (Sept-Dec) and the first four of doing our own butchering on farm (Jan-Apr), our butchering direct costs went from 43% to 30% of total direct costs. More dramatically, it went from 22% to 11% of our total costs (including overheads).

While running a coolroom & other associated infrastructure took our energy costs up some, it was in truth only a 3% increase (from 2-5%) in overheads, or a 2% (from 1-3%) in total costs.

This change in costs came at the time we increased our supply from 5-7 pigs per month to 8-12 pigs per month (which would have increased our butchering costs a great deal), and introduced our CSA model (we now have 28 members!).

We went immediately from making a loss on the farm (subsidised by my off-farm income, which I gave up in December with some trepidation…) to turning a profit. Huzzah!

Now onto the details of building the boning room…

Construction In my earlier post on the meatsmith, I recounted the process we went through to build it from a 40-foot refrigerated container, so have a look at that for timelines, materials and construction challenges.

Council We were initially informed we would need a planning permit, but due to changes to the planning scheme in Victoria 1 September 2014, that proved not to be the case for us. The new scheme allows for primary produce sales & rural industry without permits. Clearly if you have overlays on your property they could trigger the need for a planning permit, so you'd need to check those.

So that just left us with PrimeSafe.

Regulation We were really uncertain about how we’d go with our regulator as we’d heard stories that they could be difficult to deal with. Also, many said we were crazy and they’d never approve a butcher’s shop on a farm. As there are other butcher’s shops on farms, that’s clearly not true… and now we’re here as another example!

Understanding the Victorian Standard for Hygienic Production of Meat at Retail Premises is slightly daunting when you’ve come from outside the industry, and working out how to operationalize standards is tricky without advice. Now that I’m a butcher I have to say they make perfect sense…

I won’t go into great detail here though except to say that the Standards are for the most part quite reasonable and relatively common sense (eg non-porous materials for benches & floors for obvious reasons of hygiene). I will also note that there is an entire sub-clause for wooden butcher’s blocks under section 4.1.3:

(d) wooden chopping blocks (“Butchers Blocks”) shall be free of splits, cracks and holes; and shall be maintained in a hygienic condition;

That is, wooden blocks are legal, and simply must be kept in good condition.

If you want more insight into how to build something legal, we found it very worthwhile to join the Australian Meat Industry Council (AMIC). They not only have been great at providing advice and making visits to check out our facility before the inspectors came, your membership fee pays your year’s audit fees, so is a great value proposition.

Butchering qualifications There is no legal requirement to have a certificate to be a butcher. But there is very good reason to ensure you are trained by one! Butchering is hard, skilled work, and should be approached seriously as such. I apprenticed informally with our butcher for six months, butchering between two and four pigs per fortnight over that period. It was invaluable, and I’d strongly recommend you do similarly if you can find someone as accommodating as Sal was.

Budget & Actuals I’ll finish with our budget, target and actuals. As with most things at Jonai Farms & Meatsmiths, we buy secondhand materials as often as possible. Virtually everything in the butcher’s shop is secondhand (excepting the bandsaw, MGO & expoxy flooring, and my beautiful red gum butcher’s block made by our mate Turk). So while we budgeted for possibly having to pay the price of new equipment, we typically found secondhand due to Stuart’s excellent commitment to spend time trawling the internet & back laneways for others’ disused or discarded items. That’s why the ‘target’ column is lower than the ‘budget’.

Note that the actuals column includes items we hadn’t foreseen, and yet we still came in under budget (*high fives to Stuart*).

At the bottom we’ve costed in how much we think labour would have cost if Stuart hadn’t done it all himself – based on paying a qualified builder full time for one month to do the full conversion. Happy to take feedback on whether we’ve got that right or not.

Budget Jonai Farms Boning Room

Component

Est Unit $

Target $

Actual $

Difference

HACCP QA Manual

$700

$700

0

-$700

Design/spec consult

$500

$0

0

-$500

First inspection

$300

$300

340

$40

Aust Meat Indust Council

$1,000

$1,000

1200

$200

40' Reefer

$6,000

$4,000

4500

-$1,500

Delivery

$1,500

$1,500

700

-$800

Footings

$160

$50

40

-$120

Rust treat

$100

$50

50

-$50

Floor level - MGO

$1,000

$1,000

300

-$700

Floor epoxy

$1,000

$1,000

1050

$50

Drains + grease trap

$800

$600

200

-$600

Window

$600

$400

70

-$530

Door

$2,000

$400

110

-$1,890

Frame

70

$70

Rework frame

185

$185

Plumbing

$1,500

$1,200

700

-$800

Hot Water

$4,500

$500

1200

-$3,300

UV filter

$1,300

$1,300

600

-$700

Water pump

$300

$50

100

-$200

Electrical + Lighting

$1,500

$1,300

3706

$2,206

AC Unit

$3,000

$400

600

-$2,400

Cool rm chiller

$2,000

$2,000

3000

$1,000

Hand sink

$500

$100

100

-$400

Equip sink

$1,000

$500

355

-$645

Chop boards

$600

$300

120

-$480

Mincer

$250

$250

150

-$100

Benches

$2,000

$1,400

1800

-$200

Slicer

$300

$150

1500

$1,200

Band saw

$2,000

$400

2164

$164

Shelves

$1,000

$500

390

-$610

Rail

600

$600

Smoker

3250

$3,250

Display fridge

2500

$2,500

Freezer

300

$300

Consumable set up

1500

$1,500

Butcher block

$0

$0

Incidentals

$2,000

$1,000

1600

-$400

$0

TOTAL

$39,410

$22,350

$35,050

-$4,360

Labour

 $6,400.00

The work and cost involved in taking control of our supply chain has had enormous benefits to us, which we sum up as an ‘ethically viable no-growth model’.

Most importantly, we can provide total transparency to our customers (e.g. there’s really no gluten in any of our sausages, just meat, fat, salt, pepper, spices & herbs from the garden!), and can respond flexibly to their orders just like a regular butcher’s shop, instead of being locked into particular sized cuts, number of chops per package, etc.

We also have control of the reliability of our butchering – only we can let ourselves down if we can’t cut for some reason. This is an enormous relief as most small producers will attest.

We don’t need to grow our herd to make ends meet – we’re fully viable at a size that respects what Salatin calls the ‘ecological umbilical’. We have no need (let alone desire, but who does?) to tax our land beyond its capacity.

We hope this information is all useful to lots of other passionate fair food farmers out there! We take Joel Salatin’s advice to ‘hold your innovations lightly’ very seriously, and intend to keep sharing what works (and what doesn’t!).

Viva la revolucion!

* * *

If you’re keen for more information, we now offer producers’ workshops on our ethically viable no-growth model, which we’re keeping intentionally affordable as we are here to help grow this movement, not just our own wallets. The next one is on 16 August 2014 and right now has plenty of room, but the last one filled up so don’t leave it too late to book.

* * *

Our next step in taking control of that chain and making more delicious things for our wonderful community is to build a curing room and commercial kitchen, where we’ll be able to cure salami, prosciutto, coppa, and pancetta, and cook a range of charcuterie such as rillettes, pate de tete, and other things that make the most of the rich potential of the pig.

You can check out our latest crowdfunding campaign to do just that over on Pozible, where we’re asking people to let us feed you instead of the banks!

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On milk, farming, and life

Everyone's crying over spilt milk, or rather the calves who are sacrificed so that we may drink milk. Dairy farmers are crying over the reputational damage to their livelihood – and it's not exactly a cushy job commanding six-figure salaries. And it seems to me that everyone is a little bit right, and a little bit wrong, but that there is a clear way forward.

To backtrack, this Animals Australia video which depicts the short life of a 'bobby calf' in a manner designed to evoke the most emotion possible managed to upset consumers and farmers equally, from what I can tell. According to the dairy farmers who are commenting on thoughtful blogs such as @milkmaidmarian's, they don't send their calves straight to the abattoir, and are acutely conscious of the value of each life they nurture and take on their farms. They frequently make the point that it is the city-based consumers who are too often utterly unaware (and uncaring?) of the conditions under which their food is grown.

I think it's fantastic that animal welfare groups apply pressure to the livestock industry for humane treatment during an animal's life and at its death. As an omnivore, I'm frankly not that interested (but also not really fussed) in being told I shouldn't eat meat – I've made my choices thoughtfully and I'm happy with that – but I do want my meat ethically produced.

I also think it's fantastic that farmers like Marian speak up about their practices, which are different from those displayed in the Animals Australia video. I know the dairy farmer near us has a similar practice – he raises the bull calves to 2 years then sells them for beef (and not for a lot of money, remember, as Friesians are not considered great eating for primal cuts) and the heifers are grown to be more milkers on the farm. I applaud farmers like Marian joining in pressuring for ethical treatment of animals – people like her can help by demonstrating alternatives.

But of course the reason the video exists is because there are apparently 700,000 bobby calves going to slaughter at around five days old – they are 'waste products' – and their few days of life entail an existence with which most people are deeply uncomfortable, both for its apparent brutality but also its brevity. I know I'm uncomfortable with the system, and grateful to be in a position to choose organic milk from a farm whose practices I know and trust.

I'm very conscious of the sensitivities in these debates – nobody wants to be 'that guy who abuses animals', and 'abuse' is far more relative than any of us care to admit. People running intensive animal operations (or CAFOs, aka 'factory farms') claim that the animals in their care are 'happy', 'fine', 'safe', or 'healthy', but by my definition that's simply impossible, because I believe in respecting the 'pigness of the pig', as Joel Salatin says. So for me, farm animals should be able to graze, dig, forage, scratch and wander in a manner as close to how they would if we weren't constraining them with some fences and the like as possible. But every time a consumer is happy to buy intensively-farmed chicken (or pork, or beef...), s/he is complicit in the system, and I have been too at times.

But when consumers (or the media or government) cry out in horror over the treatment of animals, they should think long and hard about the precarious position most farmers are in. Farms are at the mercy of the elements, which in this age of climate change has seen Australian farmers cope with constant rounds of drought and floods. Add to this an ever-narrowing range of distribution and retail outlets who control farm gate prices, which have plateaued for years in the face of rising costs of production.

As my limited experience as a producer grows and my interactions with other farmers deepens, I am keenly aware of how difficult it is to simply make a living producing food. And if all the farmers like us are forced out by low prices, consumers will be left with only intensive farms, the same ones where bobby calves are waste products, and pigs and chickens are raised in sheds.

So my thoughts are this: we farmers need to be transparent in our practices and let consumers judge for themselves whether they're happy with how we treat our animals and the land. The internet is our friend – we can show pictures and tell the stories of our animals (well, slowly slowly until there's a National Broadband Network, but that's another post), so long as we are happy with what we're doing. Those who won't show us their animals certainly seem to be hiding something, though they protest they're not. As @greenvalefarm said recently, 'transparency is the best certification'.

And as consumers, we need to ask questions and listen to farmers. We need to value the people producing our food, both socially and economically. We need to better understand that the reason that farm gate prices may not have been immediately impacted by Coles dropping its price to $1 per litre for milk is because farmers have been getting around 50 cents per litre for over a decade anyway – any extra cash goes into the pockets of processors and retailers (that is, Coles and Woolworths, who have 80% market share in Australia).

I'm happy to pay a lot more than $1 per litre for my milk, but I want the extra to go back to farmers, not to those who would 'value add' to a product that I think is best straight from the cow! If you want that too, @flavourcrusader has an excellent alt.milk list on her wonderful blog.

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