Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Cliff Miller's Mount Vernon Farm

As county administrator he had responsibility for the maintenance of the roads.  As a poet he was less inclined to do so.----paraphrased from Julian Barnes


Scene:  A young suburban couple shopping at a grocery store


Shopper A:  Look.  This tea is on sale. 

Shopper B:  Let’s buy it. It’s organic.

Shopper A:  Yes, it must be better than that one.

Shopper B:  That’s right, because it’s organic.


For Cliff Miller “grass” is a metaphor for all that is good about ranching.  While farmers around him break even or lose money selling cattle to grain-finishing feedlots, Cliff’s revenues are up over 20% from last year from the sale of grass-finished beef and lamb and pastured pork that he sells directly to retail customers from his Mount Vernon Farm in Sperryville, Virginia.  His secret lies beneath his feet saying, “This is a grass farm.  What we are really about is growing grass.”


What is wrong with feeding cows grain (corn, oats) instead of grass?  Michael Pollen in “Omnivores Delight” put into print what followers of Alan Nation, editor of “The Stockman Grass Farmer”, and other grass-farming profits like Jo Robinson, author of “Pasture Perfect” have known for years.  Cows, lamb, goats are ruminants designed to eat grass and not corn.  Ruminants have a special 4-chambered stomach which is designed to break down the cellulose fiber found in grass and leaves.  They can consume and in fact thrive from vegetation that other animals would hardly find palatable.  Having digested a meal for the first time ruminants regurgitate it, chew it some more, and then digests it again.  This is where they old expression “chewing the cud” comes from. 

But man, or rather corporations, in their quest for quick profits are impatient with nature.  As the documentary film “The Corporation” makes clear their only interest is “the bottom line” so the morals of what they are doing are not a factor in their design.  So rather than wait two years as Cliff does to grow cattle to slaughter weight—that is, to “finish them off”—90% of farmers pack them off to the misery of the confined feed lot where they are fed grain, a diet which will kill them as it lowers the pH in their stomach and eventually causes their liver to fail.   The feedlot is a downward spiral of discomfort from which they are given antibiotic shots just to keep them alive. 


Jo Robinson in her book writes, “Most of our animals today, including cattle, are being ‘finished’ in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, of CAFOs—corporate owned, highly mechanized, fuel-intensive factory farms where large numbers of animals are confined in a small amount of space.”   Gauchos in the pampas of Argentina--whose vast corn, soybean, and of course cattle production rivals that of the United States—believe the white colored fat of an American grain-fed cow indicates an unhealthy animal preferring their own leaner grass-finished animals.   All of these concerns have been shunted aside in the decades head-long rush toward profits that is the corporate farming model.


Here in rolling bucolic Rappahannock County the mountains of Cliff Miller’s 850 acre Mount Vernon loom above the village of Sperryville surrounding it on three sides.  In addition to owning a forested mountain Cliff is in the enviable position of having over a hundreds acres of flat river bottom land through with the Thornton River glides having tumbled from the rapids of the Shenandoah National Park which lies just beyond the town.  Cliff and his family have been farming this same land for 181 years.   For generations they disked the soil, spread fertilizers, and raised orchards, livestock, and row crops.  But in the 1970s this once profitable local farm, like so many across the nation, began to lose money as the model of local sustainable agriculture was cast aside in favor of much larger farms where profits could be managed only by planting thousands of acres of corn and soybeans instead of hundreds and where one needs thousands of cattle instead of dozens in order to turn a profit.  So Cliff began to look around for a way to make his farm profitable so that his heirs would not have to sell it off to others would could potentially carve it up into smaller lots.


Cliff’s full-time live stock manager, Darren Busét, is a pig farmer from Warren County with years of experience.  With a heavy canvas jacket, range hat, and a pony tail mane, Darren is an experienced veteran rancher to whom Cliff has turned mainly for his knowledge of raising hogs.  Darren’s dawn to dusk job is to maintain the electric fences, keep the water lines drained at night, and most importantly move the herd.  Cliff says, “Darren is a great addition to the farm.  He is the point man as far as the animals are concerned on the farm.”


Mount Vernon Farm practices what is called “management intensive grazing".  This basically means Darren sets up and tears down portable electric fencing to move the cattle from one paddock to another every couple of days or more frequently.  For example in one 40 acre field, 50 cattle are herded together in one small 1/3 acre moveable paddock.  When Darren tears down the paddock the cattle go willingly into the next 1/3 acre enclosure which Darren puts together in about 30 minutes.  What they leave behind is a sheen of cattle manure that fertilizes the field.  Darren will march the animals across the pasture in this fashion all winter.


Most cattle farmers simply turn their cattle loose into large fields and then feed them hay all winter.  Such a wide dispersal of animals does little to fertilize the pasture as their manure is placed haphazardly as they cherry pick the most succulent forage leaving thistles, Johnson grass, and other undesirable weeds in their wake.  If you herd the animals together tightly it not only controls the weeds it also lays down manure fertilizer in proper amounts.  This improves the pasture and lowers the farmers cost of production as well.  Cliff says, “For years this was a traditional farm and we put down whatever [fertilizer] we were told to put down.  And we have not put down chemical fertilizer for 8 years.”  He doesn’t bale hay either saving the cost of diesel fuel and avoiding a practice which he says takes nutrients away from the soil.  He says, “We’re not having to make the hay. We’re not having to feed the hay.  We’re not having to spread the manure.  That is being done by the cows.”   Asked how all this dormant tall fescue grass compares with baled hay he says, “It [the dormant grass] is full of sugar.  It tests better even than the best hay, even in February.”    


Cliff does not give his animals growth hormones, vaccinations, or dewormers either.  He says, “Everything fits together here”.  The sheep are rotated behind the cattle.  They also naturally kill each other’s worms.  We never deworm our cows. And for the last 8 years haven’t vaccinated any animals.”   As for the pasture Cliff explains, “The sheep and the cows only compete for about 30% of the grasses. “ In other words, “They don’t eat the same thing.”


Cliff says when you rotate the heard the grass is eaten in what he calls its “adolescent” stage where it is neither too young—so that grazing it would damager the plant--nor too old—in which case it could damage the cow especially if it is so-called endophyte infected fescue which is what dominates the landscape here in Virginia.  The result is twofold:  the cattle graze the highest quality forage and the field is fertilized with a large dose of manure which causes a flush of growth in the spring.  The cattle are then moved on the next spot and the cycle repeats itself. 


One problem with all the boutique farms that dot the Virginia landscape is they don’t always have enough inventory on hand.  This is why the big grocery stores prefer to deal with Cisco and other mega distributors who buy their meat from Midwestern cattle producers and produce from California growers.  This is the biggest problem for the local food movement and proponents of local sustainable agriculture.  Cliff wants to avoid these inventory problems so he is expanding into poultry and has tasked Darren with growing the herd of swine.  Cliff says, “It also helps with our sales to have three different meats”.


In prior years Cliff bought 65 pound piglets from a breeder in Gordonsville and finished them off here.  He raised them for about 5 months and then butchered them at 180 pounds.  Now he and Darren plan to breed pigs themselves and raise them year round.  Pigs are profitable.  Darren says old time farmers called pigs “mortgage lifters”.  (Note from author: My father raised everything from cattle to tobacco to catfish and eels making money only on hogs he said.)  Breeding as prolific as rabbits, pigs can have three litters per year but Darren plans to breed them twice saying it takes “3 months, 3 weeks, and 3 days” for a sow to produce a litter.


Darren explains that the Tamworth hogs farmed here are a heritage breed that are known for their ability to thrive on grass pastures.  Pigs are not ruminants like cattle or sheep so Darren says, “You need to supplement with grain.”  He says they get, “Cracked corn and soy meal.  My grandfather added a little bit of wood ash for the potassium”.  Cliff says they also feed them vegetables and fruit from neighboring Roy’s Orchard.  “We get a lot of his stuff that he would normally send to the dump.”


The pigs here are working animals.  Darren explains that, “Every animal on the farm has a job”.  The pig’s job is to reclaim the 4 acres of vines and weeds where they are currently living and turn it into pasture. With their firm snout and keen sense of smell pigs root in the dirt turning it over as they look for grubs.  Cliff says, “They not only eat grass, like a goat they will east honey suckle, poison ivy, and everything else, which is what we have them doing which is denude the soil.”  When they finish cleaning out this area Darren will move them to another and turn their pen into pasture.


As we talk a dozen or so eager reddish brown piglets are munching on grass at our feet and one light colored fellow reaches out so Cliff can pat him on the  head.  The little pigs are supposed to stay inside the electric fence that contains the boar who is their father and one of the three sows who suckles 10 of them at a time with her two rows of teats.  One little fellow is not paying attention and he backs up to the fence with his hind end.  The electric fence cracks audibly and the piglet squeals having learned the lesson to respect the hot wire.  (The fence is not dangerous.  On my farm I am constantly being shocked by the same.)


One reason Cliff’s farm is more profitable while so many area farms are less so is he sells everything retail.  He says, “Primarily we sell by the cut.  We have buyers clubs at 8 different cities.  On the web site in an order form. This past year we did 18 hogs and planning on 30 next year.  We did 163 [lamb] last year and probably [will do] 200 for the coming year.  For the beef we could have sold twice and we did 18 [will grow to 30].”  Asked whether grass-fed beef is tougher than their grain-fed counter parts he says, “ If our meat was tough we wouldn’t sell our filet for $25 per pound.  If our lamb was tough we wouldn’t sell 200 of them per year to 500 to 600 people.”

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Adams Custom Slaughter

I went to Gene Adam’s slaughterhouse early one morning this week to talk to Gene Adams about his business and watch him slaughter a cow.  The state inspector Sean O’Brien and I ducked behind a door as Gene dispatched the first animal with a .22 rifle.  I was worried that the bullet might ricochet.  Mr. Brien told me he was crouching there, “Just in case”.  In the next room Gene’s mother Shirley and his brother David were grounding up patties while his Uncle Warren was sawing a carcass into t-bones. 


It took Gene and his assistant Ernie Holbrook only 35 minutes to slaughter and clean a Charolais Angus crossbred steer and move it into the cooler where the carcass would hang for 10 to 14 days for aging.  Mr. O’Brien, moving with the deliberate speed of a government employee, poked his knife blade into the cows liver and lungs checking for any discoloration which might indicate an unhealthy animal.  He was also on hand to make sure that the animal was handled humanely and killed without pain.  Ernie cleaned up the offal which would be shipped off to Valley Proteins to make dog and cat food, oil for biodiesel, and leather for which they pay $10 per hide.


Gene feeds about 80 cattle per year himself and slaughters many more buying cows and pigs from area farmers and both local livestock auctions:  Front Royal and Marshall.  He buys grain-finished cattle from Dale Welch who formerly managed the Fauquier Livestock Exchange and he buys hogs and cattle from Lindsay Eastham who is the current manager of that exchange.  Gene says there is “strong demand” in Rappahannock County for his beef and pork yet he only wholesales his meats at two area stores which are not much more than gasoline stations:  Mayhugh’s and Settle’s Garage.  Gene’s retail customers drive all the way from Richmond and from across I-95 to his on-site meat market which has no web site, is only open on Saturday’s, and is so far back in the woods you need to know where it is before you go looking for it.


Gene is sort of a burley country fellow who looked askance at this arm-chair intellectual carrying a camera and digital voice recorder when he gave me a tour of his facility.  Gene looks a little like a Black Angus bull standing there in the cooler with his dark hair and steely black eyes without a hint of a smile as I snapped his picture.   Perhaps he has taken on the countenance of the big creatures that he faces down each day.


One of Gene’s customers who I managed to track down is Chancellor’s Rock Farm.  They told me they give their meat to charity.  Let me repeat that:  they GIVE IT AWAY.  This is hardly the model of sustainable agriculture about which people in the local conservation movement are talking.  The environmentalists here worry that the county will turn into one large country club where people keep cattle simply as a way to lower their real estate taxes.


To be fair I did talk to the farm manager there at the 446 acre Chancellor’s Rock farm which, by the way, is for sale.  Karl Hoyle spoke highly of Gene Adam’s slaughterhouse and explained to me that their farm is a “cow-calf operation”.  That means they make money selling calves that have been weaned to feedlot operators.  He said, “That’s the one place that we allow our animals to be slaughtered.  We used to retail ourselves.  The owners of the farm give it to charity or we give it to the staff or themselves.  The owners are very concerned how their animals are going to be treated even after they are slaughtered.”   They gave up on the retail beef business not finding it profitable or worth their time.  Karl also says that the design of the cooler at Adams Customer Slaughter is ideal for aging meat.  He says, “When the beef is hung and aging if the air is not properly circulating around it gets a bad taste. It’s aged perfect.”


Bill Havlik has a farm in Loudoun County where he farms a handful of cattle which he butchers at Adams Customer Slaughter.  He too is not farming for profit.  (Good grief.  Another one.).  Bill says,  “I am a tax farmer.  Bill is well-positioned to comment on Gene Adam’s because Bill is a retired veterinarian with the USDA.  He oversaw a team of 20 scientists who flew to export markets around the world inspecting their slaughterhouse facilities and adherence to the strict standards of USDA import law.  Of Gene’s operation he says, “As far as I am concerned it is a fairly decent slaughterhouse.  They know what they are doing about slaughtering.  He does a good job.  He has a good cooler.”


I phoned up Kenner Love of the Agricultural Extension Service.  I told Kenner that I had gone to Gene’s slaughterhouse but had not come away with a story of any local cattle producer who was having Gene slaughter his beef then retailing their meat at Marshall’s IGA Grocer (they carry products from lots of local farms) or area farmers markets.  This is the whole vision of what community based food systems are all about and what Kenner spends so much time trying to champion. 


Several folks have told me that raising cattle is hardly profitable.  Gene sells sides of beef--slaughtered, wrapped, and packed--for about $2.35 per pound.  He is currently paying about $0.95 per pound for finished cattle.  (Five months ago the price paid to the farmer was $1.20 per pound).  This is called “hoof weight”.  That would mean a 1,110 pound grain-finished steer would bring $1,045 if the farmer sold the whole animal or $912 for the  645 pounds of meat produced by the carcass of an animal of this size.  So it might be profitable on a cash-flow basis but with corn, taxes, fuel, that sort of thing there is not much if any income for the farmer.

His packaged pork and beef patties are much less expensive than what you would find in the grocery store.  His current price for ground beef is $3.99 per pound and pork sausage is $2.99 per pound.


Gene currently sells patties to the Rappahannock school sports association and is looking to sell to the school system itself.  Of Gene’s business Kenner says, “He is proud of what he has done and we need to keep working with him to help him do more.   All the farmers need additional help with marketing.  The primary reason they need help is they don’t have the resources to go out and market.  They need all the help they can to market outside the commodity channels.  We don’t want to depend on those commodity markets because they are not sustainable long term.  It’s very efficient for large farms but we don’t have those large farms in this area.”


Farms that sell livestock for breeding stock instead of for meat are not contributing to local sustainable agriculture if you measure that by the amount food that they produce themselves.  Two other farmers I have talked to recently have found selling breeding stock more profitable.  That is true with Steve Shippa, who is the largest goat producer I know, and Alan Zuschlag who retails lamb and sells breeding stock from his Touchstone Farm.  While both of these guys say they make profits selling meat to consumers (Alan) or wholesalers (Steve) they suggest more money is to be made selling breeding stock.  I find this highly frustrating as I look about for ways to make my goat operation profitable.  The lack of profitability in the livestock business is exactly why Gene’s family started this slaughterhouse in 1994.  Gene’s family had a 1,600 acre cattle farm but “lost it” he says over the years to a subdivision covered in houses.  Of course Gene and his family have figured out how to make a living raising cows but not every farm can set up a slaughter house.  There are a lot of rules and regulations around that and of course you need a government inspector on the premise, gratis of course, paid for by the  US taxpayer.


There are two other slaughter houses in the area:  Faquier’s Finest and Blue Ridge Meats.  They do cater to farmers who wish to resell under their own label even producing halaal meats.  (Halaal is to Muslims what kosher is to Jews.).  Of course packaging meat for others to sell is not Gene’s business model and for him business is good.


Definition:  To "finish" a cow means to grow it to slaughter weight.  Most cattle are grazed on pasture grass until they are sold at auction as "feeder" cows at around 700 pounds of weight.  Then they are fed a grain diet which causes them to gain about 5 pounds per weight until they are slaughtered at around 1,100 pounds at which point they become "slaughter" cattle.  A "grass fed" beef is one that has only been fed pasture forage.  



Here is how to get in touch with Adams Customer Slaughter:


Adams Custom Slaughter

27 Shurgen Lane

Amissville, Virginia 20106






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Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Logging the Farm

People who attack logging as being unfriendly to the environment have no idea what they are talking about.  The unenlightened believe to “clear cut” a tract of timber is morally equivalent to committing a crime.  The land will be defoliated, they say, the soil will erode into the watershed.  The trees which wick up the CO2 we exhale will be replaced by a barren and scarred landscape.  Even Wendell Berry, the poet who writes philosophically about farming, attacks clear cutting in one short sentence in “The Unsettling of America”.  He does so without explaining what clear cutting means, simply tossing out those two menacing words “clear” and “cut” as if that were enough to convey his message of evil run amok.  For the shallower thinker those two words would be enough because they are so firmly etched into our psyche that they need no elaboration. But when I asked the Virginia Department of Forestry to survey my farm, clear cutting is exactly what they recommended.  That will probably surprise the laymen but it makes for the best possible forest.


Bill Twarkin is as humble and honest a fellow as you are likely to ever meet.  He hails from Upstate New York and has felled timber in the Pacific Northwest, Colorado, and most recently in Madison County, Virginia and on my farm.  My consulting forester, Kevin Lyle, had surveyed the timber and put out a request for bids but no one had even placed a bid finding my forest of rather low quality.  The bigger local loggers were busy felling trees at The Marriott Ranch and the 8,500 acre Lane farm in Woodville.  So Kevin talked to local lumber mill operators and they recommended Bill.


Bill owns his own logging equipment: a John Deere bulldozer and a single axle logging truck complete with a hydraulic lift and boom.  Like the average working class fellow none of this was paid for in full so Bill owed the bank money on both.  His equipment now sits for sale at a local trucking company Bill having completed the job and deciding that logging is no longer profitable for him.  He says his 1995 model bulldozer is worth perhaps $35,000.  I am not sure what the value of his logging truck is.  The problem with it is its one axle design.  Bill got pulled over by the cops last spring and given a ticket for $5,000 when his rig was found to be many tons overweight.  To haul such a heavy cargo as logs one needs multiple axles to distribute the load and satisfied the policeman’s truck scale when it measures the weight on each tire.


Bill started working on my farm in the fall on 2007 and fell the last tree in the summer of 2008.  He had worked for almost 9 months logging the property but it was not a continuous ordeal.  He designed his schedule to get two loads per week hauled to the lumber Augusta Lumber mill near Amissville by Wednesday because that is when they made their tally for the week and cut their checks .  Bill’s wife had a government job in Washington, D.C. and this was the reason he and his rig had relocated from New York State.  She took lots of vacation time and Bill went with her.  Some times it was too wet to log.  Other days Bill had mechanical trouble.  He needed to replace the water pump on his dozer once and more than one time his truck needed new brakes or to repair a hydraulic line.  And when he got the ticket for being overweight he just sat home and fumed at Kevin the consulting logger because Kevin had talked Bill into taking one load to another mill which required him to travel along the busy highway 29.  That is where he got pulled over.


I am sure Bill lost money logging my farm.  When you consider what he paid for diesel fuel and repairs on his rig and the long commute he had from Fairfax, Virginia I doubt whether his income exceeded his expenses.  Rather than log the property on a contract price we logged it on shares.  I took half and Bill took half with a 10% commission paid to the consulting logger Kevin Kyle.  Each week Bill hauled about two loads of logs to the mill.  His truck held about 4,000 board feet of timber which was from anywhere from 45 to 65 logs depending of course on their diameter.  The mill paid an average of maybe $330 dollars per thousand board feet.  This meant each truck load was worth about $1,000 of which Bill collected $500 and I collected $500 of which $50 went to Kevin.  In total I made about $20,000.  This was far below what Kevin had estimated but I was pleased anyway since I used the money to pay off some debts and to buy a new tractor.  So in my mind this agriculture sale went to fund future agricultural endeavors on my farm.  For Bill I am certain had a net income loss.  He certainly complained a lot about losing money but that was part of his personality.  He said his logging business was a hedge against the taxable income of his wife.  If this agricultural endeavor had been like most he would have had some positive cash flow but no net income.  But when you add in the depreciation on his equipment and his costs for fuel I am sure it was a loss. 


For me there was a certain satisfaction is having my property logged.  Obviously I had wanted the money but that was not the only reason for logging my stand.  Twice over the past 15 years I had had the state forester come out and make a recommendation on my property.  They divided it into four sections.  The western-facing top of the ridge was 6 acres of chestnut oak averaging 85 years of age.  They recommended leaving this section in tact since it had little commercial value and would be difficult to log the steep terrain.  The bottom of the farm included 6 acres of forest between two pastures.  This area had formerly been pasture so was a fairly young stand of fairly young trees also of undesirable quality.  I paid Bill to bulldoze that flat so make additional pasture for my goats.  The remaining 45 acres of forestlands included 20 acres of large poplar trees that had not been logged in at least 80 years the rest of the property having been logged about 20 years ago.  When the former owners of the property logged the property they cherry-picked the forest taking the largest trees and leaving the less desirable ones.  This is called “high grading” and was the reason why my timber stand was of less that optimal quality.  But they had passed over about 15 acres of large poplar trees mainly because cattle had foraged there.


The highest quality trees are those that can be used to produce veneer.  Veneer is what is used to make the highest quality furniture.   I had no veneer quality timber on my farm.  Rather I had saw timber quality and pulp wood.  No one wanted the pulp wood so we told Bill just to take the saw timber.


The lumber mill too makes demands upon the logger.  They would grudgingly take hickory would but told Bill not to take send over any red maple.  The consulting forestor told me that Virginia is the southern most range of the red maple.  That tree needs cold weather so it produces better logs in Vermont and New Hampshire.  You can see that for yourself if you look at the red maple here.  Many of the trees are badly knotted, twisted, and grow rather crooked. 


Most of the trees Bill hauled from my farm were poplar followed by black, white, and chestnut oak. There were a couple of black walnut and cherry trees.  Walnut is the most valuable of hardwoods and so is cherry.  White oak is used to make wine barrels.  There is a stave mill in Culpeper, Ramoneda Brothers, who does exactly that.  But most oak is used to make flooring and of course furniture.  Poplar trees grow straight and true here but their lumber is mainly used to make pallets and not furniture.  Further it is not suitable for a load bearing beam as would be a heavy piece of oak.  Hickory is used of course to make ax handles.  All those giant hickory trees on my farm sadly did not have much commercial value.  The lumber mill did not want at all sycamore trees, known for their white bark.  They tend to grow along streams so have lots of water content.  I cut one down myself and when I tried to split a log with an axe the axe simplybounced off as if the log was rubber.  Are you beginning to see why my 45 acres of timber was not too valuable?


When you log a property you have to follow the forest service rules.  Several times inspectors came by to make sure that Bill was not fouling the streams and to make sure that he constructed swales so that water would not run down hill digging a furrow into the mountainside and causing soil erosion.  Bill put in temporary bridges which he hauled away when done.  He also refrained from logging along the edge of streams.


Mike Santucci was the area forester for my region when I made the second timber survey.  He is well-known to area environmentalists and farmers who frequent meetings on timber land, watersheds, organic farming, and so forth because Mike is usually there.  He wrote the plan for my farm that called for clear cutting the forest.  But the problem was I could find no logger willing to fell the smaller trees.  To clear cut does not mean you chop every log off down to the ground.  In such a mountainous terrain as my farm that would be impossible.  Rather you cut down everything 4 inches and larger.  Only 15 inch diameter logs can be hauled to the mill.  So the other trees would be left there to rot while new trees take their place.


Mike’s plan also called for something called “crop tree release”.  This means when the crown of two trees are touching you fell one thus leaving the more desirable species.  So if a red maple is crowding a white oak you cut down the red maple leaving room for the oak to crow, dominate the canopy, and shade out any trees that would complete for water and nutrients there.  Mike also called for planting loblolly and white pine in certain areas in order to improve the diversity of trees for wildlife and future timber sales.  The state of Virginia subsidizes the planting of pine forests by paying part of the cost.


All of these practices were meant to enhance the future forest.  If I had been able to find someone to do a proper clear cut then sunlight would have reached the forest floor and the small saplings and poles there would be able to grow into desirable forest.   As it stands now, from the distance you cannot even tell that my forest has been logged even though it was logged quite heavily in some areas.  You have to actually climb up into the forest and look around to find where trees were felled.  The canopy overhead it still covered with shade because all of the many young trees here are 15 to 20 feet tall and reaching for the sky.  And since the forest was once again high graded crooked maples, hickories, and lesser quality chestnut oak dominate the forest.  In 40 years the forest could be logged again but it would be yet another low grade timber sale.  It would have been better to follow the recommendations of the state forester to produce a high quality stand of poplar, white and black oak, and white and loblolly pine.


My forest is covered now with the tree tops  I tried to give this away as firewood and finally found a green house operator who is hauling this away and cutting it up as fuel to fire his boilers.  As for my forest I need to spray Garlon on the alanthus trees that have and will spring up in the areas of disturbed soil.  This is an exotic invasive species that grows along most of the roadsides here in Rappahannock County where power lines and fencing have disturbed the soil.


The citizens of Rappahannock County have protested in the past when landowners have announced plans to clear cut their property.  Fortunately no permit is required for logging so we don't have to explain what we are doing to people who would not listen anyway.  If anyone wants to see what a logged forest looks like I will be glad to show them mine.  They will be surprised to see that logged or not the forest pretty much tooks the same.  Only a trained observer can tell the difference.

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Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Planting the Grape Vines at Rosewood Hill Vineyard

This morning it was 21 degrees.  I need to wait for a few more weeks of cold weather before I start the winter vineyard pruning.  I have to prune 120 vines at Rosewood Hill Vineyard, 330 vines at Castleton Lakes Vineyard, and then I am going to help Bill Gadino prune several thousand vines at Gadino Cellars.  So today I am looking back to when I planted Rosewood Hill vineyard almost 7 years ago.

Spring 2003



Last weekend two friends came to the farm to help me plant grape vines.  I had carefully planned to plant grape vines one weekend, walnut trees the weekend after that, and then Leyland cypress trees on the third weekend.  But my carefully laid out plans were waylaid when UPS brought both the Walnut trees and the grape vines at the same time.  There was no way I had time to get both planted so I took all the food out of my refrigerator and crammed 50 walnut trees inside.  My girlfriend at the time took a photograph because she considered that such an odd site.


The idea was I would start with a small hobby vineyard and then when I got some experience plant a commercial one.  I have since learned that I can make more money farming wine grapes for someone else.  Large vineyards and small wineries are profitable but a small vineyard usually is not.  In Virginia the rule-of-thumb is you need to plant 25 acres to have a profitable vineyard.  For that you would need probably 10 employees and maybe a $500K investment.  


My 65 acre farm has a couple of sites well-suited to growing grapes.  Here in Virginia where it gets cold in winter the idea is to plant your vines on a slope above the late frosts of spring or the early frosts of fall.  An early fall frost kills the leaves, which stops the grapes from ripening and a late frost in spring kills buds which have just begun to grow thus cutting in half or maybe more thar year’s yield of grapes.  


The top part of my farm rises to 1,000 feet while at the bottom it is 565 feet elevation.  I am grateful to Steve Critzer who talked me out of clearing off a vineyard site high up on the mountain where I had planned a commercial vineyard.  He had already brought his bulldozer to the farm when we cancelled this job.  The 15 degree slope up there would have been financially ruinous to work not to mention dangerous in the case of a tractor rollover.  There are so many rocks up there I would have had to haul dirt up from the bottom or from construction sites.  And in a drought vineyards need water, especially young vineyards.  To have piped water up that hill would have cost thousands.  And a vineyard surrounded by several thousand acres of uninhabited forest would have been devastated by deer, turkey, bear, birds, raccoon, in short every kind of predator.  It would have been better to place such a vineyard in a frost pocket in some suburb in Fauquier County surrounded by a monoculture of pasture grass and cul-de-sac neighborhoods.


Any farm is an ongoing operation which each year requires some capital improvements.  At that time I had neither tractor nor auger so the only way to plant these vines was by hand.  The soil in Virginia is not like other parts of the nation—here it is hard as a rock.  When I augur fence posts with my tractor I wait until it rains because even with diesel power the posts won’t go into the ground.  So I dreaded the idea of digging 140 holes for grapevines by hand, so I did what Tow Sawyer would have done:  I enlisted help.


In California you can order live plants to plant in your vineyard but here in Virginia we order dormant root stock from nurseries in California or New York.  These are grown for a season in a vineyard there and then grafted and tossed in the refrigerator for the winter.  Then you take them out in the spring and plant them.  The nursery starts by taking a dormant shoot from a native American grapevine, sticks that in the ground, and then it sprouts roots.  This forms the bottom part of the new grape vine.  Then they take a dormant bud from a European variety like chardonnay and graft that onto the American roots.  Together this is called a “rootstock”.  The idea is the bottom part of the plant is native to North America so it can withstand the attack of phyloxxera ad nematodes that would otherwise eat the roots causing the vine to die.  Also you can obtain rootstock which tolerates high levels of sodium in the soil (as in parts of California) or rootstock which grows slowly so that your vine grows slowly developing a proper balance of fruit and foliage instead of some overgrown jungle canopy which takes much work to wrestle under control. 


The grafted rootstock arrived in a UPS-delivered box from American and Lake County Grapevine Nursery.  The owner, Joachim Hollerith. lives most of the year here in Madison County and had been for many years the vineyard manager at Prince Michel Vineyards.  The graft union was dipped in paraffin wax so that it would not dry out and the whole affair was packed in damp saw dust.


The vines I had selected to plant were cabernet franc on 3309 rootstock, traminette on 3309, and viognier on 101-14.  I didn’t know much about rootstock at the time so Joachim picked them for me.  I had picked cabernet franc because it does well here in Virginia requiring less sunshine and heat to ripen that other red grape varieties.   Viognier is the white wine grape having brought Virginia international recognition when Chrysalis Vineyards won the San Diego wine show and when a noted Napa Valley restaurant run by a former White House sommelier carried Horton’s 1993 viognier proclaiming it the best he had every had.  Traminette I planted because I liked its European cousin the perfumed, highly aromatic gewürztraminer, but gewürztraminer does not do well in the heavy, humidity, and heavy rains of Virginia


The way you plant grape vines is you dig a hole about 2 feet deep taking care to dig out all the rocks and then you position the plant where the graft union is a few inches above the soil.  One hapless farmer in Virginia had planted his vines too low and when the soil settled the vines sank to the level of the dirt.  When that happens the top part of the vine, called the “scion”, sprouted roots thus bypassing the American rootstock.  His vineyard was thus subject to destruction from root-eating pests.  The vines I planted already had had their roots neatly trimmed with scissors so I didn’t need to do that.  You don’t want to cram too many roots into one small spot.


I takes much labor to plant 120 grape vines in one day especially when you are doing this by hand.  I should have hired some hard-working migrant workers to help me but I resolved to do this work myself.  So my friend Paul and I dug holes all day long while my girlfriend passed us vines while Paul’s 3 year old son played around the newly-erected trellises.  Paul was overweight while I was merely out of shape.  He worked as hard or harder than me in the heat and I worried he would fall over with a heart attack.  Some holes were fairly easy to dig while in others we found rock or even hard-pan (i.e. impenetrable subsoil) that I hacked at with a heavy pike.  We planted 105 vines in one day leaving me 15 to plant the next.  I tossed them into the refrigerator with the walnut trees and reviewed my vineyard budget.  


If you look at my actual expenses (graphic at the top of this posting, click on it so you can easily read it) for the first two year of my vineyard—not including the winemaking equipment I bought---you can get an idea of what is in store for you were you to decide to plant your own vines.  I spent $3,500 not including the chemicals I bought to spray the vineyard, the lime, the fertilizer, and other stuff I did not include in my budget.


If you are a hobbyist contemplating a backyard vineyard I would say, “Don’t do it”.  My work was the result of many years of going to seminars, working at vineyards in Virginia and Chile, and studying books.  I took the pesticide applicator certification test and spent countless hours pouring over the labels of pesticides and fungicides.  You cannot plant wine-quality grapes and forget about them.  Every in agricultural paradises like Chile or California that are free of mildew-inducing rain you still have to worry about maladies like botrytis and sour rot.  This is why you must spray grape vines constantly.  Even organic vineyards do this.  Because if you don’t your fruit will rot and the vines defoliate.  More than disease there is the problems of the aforementioned pests.  Twice I have lost most of my vineyard to raccoon that I have trapped and killed by the dozen and birds which of course are protected by law.  About the only thing I don’t have to worry about is nosy neighbors eating my fruit because the nearest is a couple of hundred yards away.


Looking at some of my purchases the first year you can see that I started with the most fundamental:  grape vines.  These were $2.95 apiece while currently ENTAV certified vines cost $3.95.  You need to buy grape vines from a reputable nursery because you don’t want them to arrive already infected with leaf roll virus or other problems.  


If you plan to put in a vineyard plan on buying lots of trellis wire and pressure-treated posts.  Take my advice and invest in a wire jenny.  You use this to hold the wire so you can unroll it in an orderly fashion.  When I cut the bands from the first of these very heavy rolls of wire it opened up line an accordion and tangled.  I spent countless hours cursing as I untangled this mess one misery foot at a time.  Had I to do it all over again I would have tossed out that wire and simply bought the wire jenny.  But even the landfill would not take this wire saying it would foul their equipment.


Any vineyard in Virginia is going to need a deer exclusion fence of some kind.  I started with an electric one with 3 zinc ground wires and a $105 electric solar powered charger.  Put an electric fence requires constant maintenance.  Now that I am farming goats maintenance is no problem.  At the time I got rid of the electric fence after a couple of years because I got frustrated that the fence kept shorting out.  I replaced it with a $400 plastic deer exclusion fence which works much better.


Vineyards in New Zealand put up bird netting because they have such a huge bird problem.  In Virginia large vineyards just sacrifice part of their fruit to the birds or put up noise makers or balloons that look like an enormous eye.  I bought $385 worth of bird netting which is still working after 5 years.  I read an account of one grape grower who says he and his wife almost divorce each other every year as they install and take down the bird netting.  Putting it up is tough enough.  But taking it down is worse because the vines will have grown into the netting somewhat when you take them off.  Veritas Vineyards uses netting which they install by tractor only in the fruit zone.  But for a small vineyard you need to enclose the whole canopy as those greedy little starlings will push their way into any small hole.


I also bought a German-built gasoline-powered backpack sprayer.  In Germany vineyards are planted on steep slopes of riverbanks to avoid frost.  It’s too steep to operate a tractor there.  I still use this $814 machine but need a tractor mounted new one because I am planning to plant 3,200 vines at Castleton Lake Vineyards and certainly cannot spray those on foot.


The rest of the items listed below are other equipment needed to build the trellis and prune the vines.  I have not included the cost of any fertilizer but in the acidic soils of Virginia you always want to start with putting down limestone and getting a soil report.  You can read details about the soil report here.


The sun is coming up here now on this frosty morning so I have to go outside and break the ice from the goats watering pale and give them a bale of hay to eat.  I am driving off the farm today so I won’t turn them loose into the forest.  Fortunately they have not bothered the vineyard yet but I have thought that setting sheep lose there would be a good idea to keep the weeds and grass under control under the vines.  You can’t do that with goats because they will stand on their hind legs to devour anything they can reach.

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Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Grass-Fed Sheep at Touchstone Farm

Alan Zuschlag, owner of Touchstone Farm in Rappahannock County, doesn’t specifically target kabob-eating, halaal-consuming immigrant customers for his grass-fed lamb saying, “Most of my customers are yuppies from the D.C. metro area, double income sort of gourmet type people.”  Urban yuppie is the sort of person Alan was himself before he rolled up his sleeves and turned his weekend retreat into a working sheep farm.  He says before he got into farming sheep, “[All] I wanted was a nice lawn that I wouldn’t have to mow.”  His initial “lawn” of 25 acres has blossomed into a 108 acre farm that he purchased in sections from his neighbors and carved from a tangle of brambles, vines, and assorted brush that he brush hogged back to civility, fenced, and then grazed.


Alan says, “I had 25 acres and this was going to be a weekend place.  I had no intention to farm at all.”  But Alan is not the sort of fellow to sit idly around gazing at this rolling pastoral vista of fields and forest.  In addition to serving on the board of directors of a local environmental group he is brimming with ideas for how to grow his farm and local sustainable farming in general by creating cooperatives of farmers and getting others to raise sheep.  His business is such that he has grown from a one man operation to having recently hired a farm manager Jeremy Christopher who is well-know to area farmers having formerly worked at the Rappahannock Farmers Cooperative.

Alan makes money from his sheep farm selling breeding stock to farmers from as far away as Canada and selling frozen, packaged portions of lamb to buyers in Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C.  He explains, “I sell to anyone who wants to try it.  We sell whole and half lambs cut to their specifications.”  Taking orders by web site, telephone, and returning customers he arranges processing of the animals at the slaughterhouse and pick up on the farm or delivery to the customers.


Standing in a pasture with a farm cat tagging along and a wild turkey walking along the edge of the woods Alan explains how he has turned beaten down, overgrown old pastures into newly rehabilitated grassland.  He explains that, ‘Orchard grass is our workhorse grass here.”  In this particular field he disked the soil to rip out roots which had grown up in this formerly neglected pasture whose former owner had grown too old to care for it.  He adds lime to correct the acidity of the soil and then drills in a custom mixture of orchard grass, perennial rye grass, and white clover.  Alan says, “Overseeding is going to change the composition of the grass.  It will help thicken the grass. “


The experts would say that Alan practices “grass-based rotational grazing”.  Basically this means his sheep are fed nothing but grass and they are moved from one paddock to another so that the pastures are not overgrazed and the forage quality is kept at its highest level.  Using a cleverly constructed system of permanent fences with a moveable electric fence cutting the pasture into sections he moves his sheep from one square to another where they, “Graze 4 days at a time and only 4 days.  Then they get moved to the next paddock over.  After 4 days you start to get regrowth and they go back to the regrowth.  They don’t come back to where they grazed until another 30 days.  And that’s the rule.”


You can see this as you stand on the gravel driveway above one of the pastures where the ewes (females) are fenced in a square area guarded by a loud and somewhat pushy donkey.  The grass to their left is several inches taller that the grass in the paddock on the right.  When they graze this down Alan moves them to the next paddock rotating the whole affair through the grazing season and winter until they end up next to the barn when they are ready for lambing (i.e. giving birth to the little ones).


To say that your farm animals are grass-fed and naturally raised is very much in vogue today with all this talk of local sustainable agriculture.  Alan explains what this means while touting the merits of his lamb.   He says, “It’s not organic because my hay field has been fertilized.  They get nothing but good old Rappahannock County grass and spring fed water and that it is.  They are all natural.  We are a member of the American grass fed association.”


With a hint of irritation at the uninitiated who don’t understand he says his sheep are, “Not organic because they have been wormed.  That automatically disqualifies them because they have been fed medicine.” Of the rigid organic standards that cause many farmers to not even consider the government-monitored program he says, “I think it’s inhumane.  It doesn’t make any sense but that is how strict the organic people are.  It’s one thing to pick bugs off vegetables it’s another to let you sheep get full of insects or worms.”  With one effective sound byte he sums up saying, “Do you raise your kids organically?”


Always thinking of ways to grow and improve his business Alan says he is ready to give up on delivery lamb to his customers and have them come to him instead.  He says, “There is an organic market in Alexandria, for example, which wants me to have a drop off point there.   It works for them because it gets customers into their shop. What we are looking to do is to have a place like Sunnyside Farms or E-Cow [local grocer] have the customer come in and pick it up there.  Sunnyside is interested.  Our customer can pick up their lamb while they are there.”  Echoing Kenner Love, the local Department of Agriculture cooperative extension agent, Alan says the county needs a place for farmers to store their meat and produce for sale.  If the county had that he says, “We would be all over that.”  Industrial freezer space is USDA regulated and a significant cost for small farmers.  Cliff Miller of Mount Vernon Farms, another local sheep farmer, has that, but his business is different.  He sells individual cuts of lamb instead of whole, half, or quarter sections.


Turning to chase after a skunk who is threatening his penned-up chickens Alan says, “I am an economist by training and I do I cost/benefit analyst of everything.  And basically this farm is run in a way that input costs are as low as possible.  We retail directly to the end customer.  It is the only way you can make any money.  The farm pays for itself.  I have to prime the pump by buying additional land but any farm improvements come out of the farm checking account.  So any new fencing that comes out of farm profits.  The farm pays for everything.”  It’s a model that appears to be working for this thriving little business.


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