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Good questions to ask your farmer, with answers for our farm

This is by far the most read post on our website. We get thousands of hits on it. This post was originally written in 2014. I’ve gone through and updated it to be current in 2017 and reposted it.

I talk to a lot of people who are overwhelmed by all they’ve learned about processed food, local food, organic food, etc.  They arrive at our farm trying to find food they are comfortable with but they aren’t even sure what questions to ask. Luckily CFSA has posted a list of questions to ask your farmer that should help you narrow down your search for real food.

In addition to posting the link, I thought I’d answer for our farm here for anyone who discovers us.

BASIC: 

1.   Why do you farm? Good Lord! That’s a doozy, and the first question too. Because I’m dumb/crazy enough to? People ask what we produce here on our farm, and my answer is, “losses.” I grew up on this farm. I moved here when I was seven. My father had grown up on the family farm in Flat River, NC, near Roxboro and he wanted to return to his roots. In researching my lineage, I found that our family has been farming in Flat River since 1793. I guess it’s in my blood.

Beyond that, I enjoy farming, especially since we don’t do it conventionally. We live on our farm, and we eat what we produce, often more than we sell. Like many of our customers who have young children and decided they wanted to have healthy food for them, we did the same. As our kids came along, we got into producing a product that we were happy feeding them. As a byproduct, we produce healthy, sustainable product that we are happy to feed to your kids too. The best thing I can say about our product is that you’re eating out of our freezer. My number one customer is still my wife.

2.   How do you decide which products to grow? We base it off of demand, and what we can grow sustainably on our farm. I’ve been offered sheep for free which I refused because we didn’t have the carrying capacity on our farm for them and the cows. I’ve been questioned about goats, which are verboten on our farm. I’ve had goats before, never again.

Currently we raise cows, because I like cows and that’s really our main product. We also raise pigs because they do well in the woods and about half of our farm is wooded. Otherwise half of our farm would go unused or we’d have to log it. Plus we can turn pigs in about 8 months, vs. 2 years for cows so it’s a quicker turn around on our investment. Lastly for pigs, I REALLY love our pork so even if we went 100% to cows, I’d still keep a few pigs on the farm for our family.

3.   What kind of fertilizers do you use? We use no commercial fertilizers, nor organic ones. Our program is all about building soil health, not about applying a band-aid to resolve a problem. If we build the soil health, we don’t need fertilizer. We are into our fifth year of building soil and have over 3″ of topsoil, which is up from the 1/8″ when we started.

Topsoil picture in pasture.
About 2″ of topsoil, from 2014, in an area that has underperformed other areas of the pasture.

We feed produce daily (from the farmers market) and much of that produce goes back into the soil either through a byproduct of ingestion by our animals (poop) or by direct contact with the soil (biodegradation). Fresh produce is the only thing we add to our farm and we bring variable amounts in every day, depending on the season. Since 2014 we’ve brought in over 19 million pounds of produce to our farm! That means we diverted from the landfill 19 million pounds of organic material where it instead goes into our soil every year.  Obviously much of it is water in the produce but we are still adding quite a bit of actual organic matter to our soil.

4.   How do you deal with your weeds? insects? diseases? We encourage insects. We do not deworm our cattle or pigs unless they are showing signs of distress. We will then do a fecal analysis and see if worming is warranted and if so, we will then deworm.

Dewormers cause cow poop to be toxic to bugs which means we have poop that stays on the ground as dried up patties rather than being turned back into the soil by the big and little critters. We rotate our cows with daily paddock moves. It takes about 30 days for the cows to make a lap of the farm. By the time they make a lap, the poop from last time is gone. When we wormed cattle, those patties would stay for months.

For weeds, when we have an area that is growing something we don’t like (thistle, bitter weed, etc.) we make sure that is the area where we drop off our produce for the day. This causes a few things. One, the soil is disturbed by the high impact of cattle as they feed. As the cattle do their thing, they poop, pee, and spill a lot of produce which is then trampled into the ground. The end result is a bare patch that has high concentrations of manure, urine, and organic matter. We’ve just changed the soil biology in that spot, which will result in a more favorable plant growing there.

We do not seed an area like that, we let nature decide what is optimized to grow there. Most often, it’s the grass that we want. If it’s not, then we wash, rinse, repeat till it is. If weeds are what comes back up, then we needed more soil health in that patch of soil. Not better grass seed.

For diseases, you can look at what we did with Benjamin when he was sick. There are multiple posts about what we did to treat him, including showing what drugs we gave him. If our animals are sick, we will treat them with whatever medical science says can make them better. If they survive their illness, we will most likely cull them from our herd and not use them for future needs. Not because we have an issue with medications, but because we don’t want their genetics in our herd. Had Benjamin lived, we would have sold him to someone else.

5.   Do you grow all the products that you sell? I’m proud to say that we do not.

Many small farms try to be all things in the beginning. You get some chickens (the gateway drug to farming), then add a farm dog to ride in the farm truck of course. Then a miniature milk cow, or milking goats. Then a couple of pigs, then meat goats. Then a donkey because somebody heard a coyote, then some alpaca, or turkeys, or geese, or ducks. You get the idea. When I go to a farm and see that there are two of everything, I see a farmer who is running a zoo, not a farm. There’s nothing wrong with that but as time passes, most farmers will find the animals they work best with and focus on that.

We’ve had goats, different breeds of cattle, meat chickens, etc. We’ve returned to our roots with our current cattle and we’ve added pigs. Everything else is gone or going away.

We can focus like this because we’ve instead partnered with over 40 other small family farms (as of 2017) like us who are really good at what they do. For our poultry and rabbit, we work with Brittany Ridge Farm (who supplies The Chef and the Farmer and has been on the show). Buck Naked Farm handles our bees on our farm. They provide our honey, candles, soaps, jams, lotions, and whatever else they craft up. She’s always tinkering with a new product. Jennifer from Buck Naked is also my master marketer and helps me set up our store so it looks presentable.  We also have lamb farmers, dairy farmers, goat farmers, etc. Most of the products we sell are detailed on the links at our product page. However some of the stuff comes and goes so fast it doesn’t make it to the page, so stopping in the store to browse is the best idea.

We are always looking to add new farms to our store because it gives our customers more choice, and more reason to come see us. The requirements are that they be sustainable, small family farms, and something that compliments our existing products and farmers.

6.   Do you have any recipe recommendations/suggestions? We have an entire recipe page full of recipes. My favorite to share is our recipe for cooking steaks. 

LIVESTOCK: 

1.   What type of livestock do you manage? Cattle, pigs, chickens, and bees. The cattle are baldy Angus. The pigs are various heritage breeds, mostly Large Black and Chester Whites. We do have Berkshire as well. The bees are Italian honey bees.

2.   How do you feed them? What do you feed them? Do you use organic feed? We feed everyone except the chickens grass, produce, sunshine, and water. The bees pretty much feed themselves. We do give them honey/supplement in the winter.

3.   Do you use hormones? antibiotics? Nope! Unless we have a sick animal, but that was addressed previously.

4.   Do you provide them with access to the outdoors? Are they pasture based, free range, or confined? The real question is do we allow them indoors? For the chickens, yes we do. They have a coop where they come and go as they please. Everybody else spends all their time outdoors. Our barns don’t have areas for animals, everyone stays on pasture or in the woods.

5.   How do you process your animals? Do you do it or does someone else? We process some pigs for our own use and we did process a cow once. If you are buying from us, your product was processed in a USDA inspected facility. If it’s beef, it will be Chaudhry’s in Siler City. If it’s pork it will be Dean Street Processing in Bailey.

 

How we choose what to carry in the store

I’ve mentioned that with the store expansion, we are looking at new products for the store. Lots of new products. It may surprise you to find out that there has been quite some conversation about what to carry. It’s not as simple as all of the previous 11 farmers we’ve carried before.

In the past, I’ve reached out to farmers directly. They were always small family farms. Someone who was doing what we do, but with a different product than we carry. For instance, our poultry farmer, Brittany Ridge Farm (Hi Kevin and Christy!) supplies our chicken, turkey, pheasant, rabbit and eggs. At the time we partnered with them, we had our own chickens and eggs but with the quality of their product I was able to get out of the chicken business and let the experts do it. Yes, Lucy has chickens again and we have eggs from our farm. But you don’t see me bent over a processing table cutting up chickens once a week, and I tell Christy every time I see her how much I appreciate all her and Kevin’s hard work. We have 11 stories like that. A farmer doing a great job, who we develop a personal relationship with. We go to the farm or meet half way and pick up their products once a week, twice a month, once a month, etc.

But at some point, you can only do so much. I can’t continue to add products and go pick them up from the individual farms every week. I’d need a full time truck driver just going up and down the road. That adds cost of time and money, both in short supply on a farm. So we started looking for farmers and producers who had products we could deliver, or get delivered UPS, or who work through a distributor, or who have employees who live near us, or a customer already in Raleigh where we can meet them to pick up our order. I hoped we’d find 4-5. So far we are sitting at around 40! Not all will survive taste testing and final selection but right now it’s looking awesome for what is to come.

As we have discovered and evaluated different products, it’s called into question just what is our goal? What is our criteria? What is our, God I hate to say it, our mission statement? What kind of store are we going to be? Is it farmer direct only? Are we a farmer’s market? Is it eco, hippie, natural only? After much discussing, some arguments both heated and most simply debated, we’ve arrived at this conclusion.

The store is first and foremost, a reflection of our family. What that means is, if you find it in the store, you find it in our pantry. Period. As I’ve said many times before, my number 1 customer sleeps beside me every night.

So what does that mean to our selection process? It means that almost everything will be natural. It will almost always be from North Carolina, or at least from the South if not. It means if we can help out a small operator, we will do it over purchasing from a larger, more established operator, even if it costs more. It means if we know the people and like them, vs ordering out of a catalog, we are more likely to carry their product. It means if the label is risque or vulgar, we won’t carry it. It means if the label is funny, especially darkly funny, it will have a good chance of making it to the shelf. It means if it’s something we buy routinely, we’ll stock it in the store. Mustard? Pickles? Salsa? Hot sauce? Yep, we buy all of those all the time. It means that we may stock something that you can find at Lowes Foods or Whole Foods. Are we trying to compete with them? Nope. We’re trying to make it convenient, first to SWMBO, but also to you our customer. When you buy a pork chop from us and we hand you a recipe to go along with it, the ingredients are in the store to make that recipe. That means no additional stops on the way home.

But most importantly to all of the above. If we really like the product. We really like the people. We really like the story. We will break all of the rules above in order to carry it. I’m on the hunt for olive oil right now. I don’t think I’ll find a local, NC based, olive oil farmer with distribution to Raleigh. But we use olive oil literally by the gallon in our kitchen. When I find one I like, it’s going in the store. Will that fit in with our “theme?” That has been the source of the debate. Our theme, nay, our mission statement is:

We are foodies, parents, and farmers. We cook 2.75 meals per day on average, 365 days per year. We want the best food we can get that is wholesome, flavorful, local, and practical. Usually in that order but not always. It may not be the cheapest, it may not be the greenest, but given all variables, it is the best we can do.  If you are in our store, then you are standing in our home and in our pantry. Enjoy.

Why that sounds like it should be crafted into a poster. Hmm, give me a minute. Ninja Cow Farm store mission statement

How much meat you are actually getting from a whole pig?

Understanding how an animal breaks down is confusing, even for farmers. Live weight vs hot hanging weight vs cut weight. We buy a pound of pork chops, but we sell a whole hog by the hanging weight, but we deliver a live animal to the processor. One animal, three different weights and three different prices.

And not everyone wants a cut price. Some people want half of an animal, but they want to buy it at the live weight price and receive the cut weight, not understanding the differences between them. How to explain it?

Once again, Walter at Sugar Mountain Farms does an excellent job of explaining something and making it make sense. Better than I ever could. To see how to understand all these different weights, read his short article here. 

Then call me and tell me what you want. I’ll back my way into the pricing based on what you are asking for.

Why our pork is different

If you’ve been here before, you know that produce is what makes our pigs different. We don’t feed commercial bag feed to our animals.

Pig eating corn from a self feeder
This is how a pig is typically fed, even on a hippie or Organic farm

Above you see a normal way to feed pigs. Once a week, once a month, whatever, you dump bags of feed into the top of the feeder and then you basically walk away from the pigs and ignore them.  If you are certified Organic, the only difference is that you dump Organic feed in instead of Tractor Supply feed. No really, that’s what Organic means. Different feed. The pigs generally eat what you see in this picture, corn. If they are Organic then its Organic corn. Corn is the animal equivalent of this.

Hostess Ho hos
Not the healthiest of options

Corn is calorie dense, but nutrient deficient. Of course people may feed a grain mix, or a prepared pellet like this.

Pig pellet food
Yummy, yummy pellets. Looks tasty does it not?

The grain companies will tell you all the nutrition the pig needs is in this pellet. Probably is. Of course they are telling you that your pig will gain at a maximum rate for the minimum cost to produce the biggest pig possible in the shortest amount of time possible. They aren’t promising the pig will live a long healthy life since that pig will be slaughtered at 6 months of age. It is not like the pig will get heart disease, joint problems, etc in only 6 months. But the pig will get the results of this kind of diet in the meat in 6 months. The same meat you will be putting into your body. I’m assuming you’re planning on living longer than 6 months.

Fed with a self feeder, when pigs want to eat, they walk over to the feeder, nose it open, and munch on the grain inside. After they eat their fill, they go lay back down and don’t do much else the rest of the day. We’ve bought pigs fed this way before. They are extremely fat and lazy to the point of it being funny. I actually loaded some large pigs one time from a farmer. Usually loading pigs is kinda upsetting to them. They are going into a strange new place and are locked in. The doors slam and people yell and poke. They can get upset. We closed the trailer door behind them and started chatting for a minute while I wrote the check. About 2 minutes after loading, I heard snoring and looked in to see one of the pigs passed out asleep and already snoring. Folks, that’s not calm, that’s fat and lazy!

When those pigs would get to our farm (we no longer buy pigs), we would melt about 25% of their body weight off in a couple on months. It was like starting a gym membership and weight loss program all at once. Suddenly they had to work to get their food, and their food wasn’t high calorie, nutrient poor corn. The pigs became active and spent their days rooting and looking for additional food besides the produce we fed them. Once they lost their blubber, they grew at a normal pace and finished out nicely. What they weren’t able to be anymore was this.

Couch potato
What your typical pig is on a grain diet

So what do think makes for a healthier meat for you and your family, the couch potato above, or this?

Man feeding adult pig produce
Michael giving one of our expectant mothers some breakfast

Oh, and did I mention there is NO COMPARISON in the taste? Try our pork chops or Boston butts and see what real pork tastes like. There is no comparison.

Cooking matters

Nobody has cooked, or eaten, as much of our product as we have. We’ve grilled, baked, broiled, sauteed, and crock potted our meats. Heck, we’ve even eaten it raw (steak tartare anyone?) Having had our products every way that you can, I can say that cooking method definitely matter. I usually try and catch new customers before they leave and explain to them how they should cook their new purchase, especially the beef. Grass fed, grass finished beef cooks differently than store bought beef. (I don’t subscribe to all the tips on that link, btw. But most are good). Since I can’t catch everyone, I thought I’d type up my suggestions.

The first thing to know is what kind of meat are you buying. With only so many ribeyes to go around, odds are you’ll be buying a cut of meat you don’t normally get. You need to understand that “eating high on the hog” means that you’re getting the more tender cuts of meat. It also means they are less flavorful. That’s why tenderloin, an expensive and almost flavorless cut of tender meat, is always wrapped in bacon, or marinated in Italian dressing. Recipes are trying to add flavor to the flavorless, tender meat. On the other side of the tenderness scale, the French have perfected the art of taking the cheap cuts of meat and turning them into delicacies. And finding, along of the way, that these less expensive cuts of meat hold the best potential for amazing flavor. Shanks, jowls, brisket. These are all cuts that many American cooks fear but as any Texan will tell you about brisket, they are often the best part of the animal.

Beef cut chart
Where all the cuts of beef come from

Basically, the higher up the animal, the more expensive and the more tender the cut. That’s because the less the animal uses the muscle, the more tender and the more bland. That’s part of the reason that feedlot beef is more tender. The animals sit around and eat and do little else. By knowing where on the animal your cut comes from, you can have an idea of how to cook it. Tough cuts need a braise (like a crock pot) or some other method of preserving tenderness.

For steaks, I recommend hot and fast, just like our pork chop recipe. Just delete the sauce at the end of the recipe for beef. Or another way to cook them is Alton Brown’s method, which he uses for skirt steak. Notice he only cooks the entire steak 30-45 seconds per side TOTAL. I cook every steak, from ribeyes to chuck steaks the same way, hot and fast. They all come out awesome.

I don’t actually cook on coals like Alton. I very rarely grill anything. However, for our bratwurst and kielbasa sausage, the grill is the best place. You actually “cook” the sausages on the cooktop, in a pan filled with water for kielbasa or beer for bratwurst. All you are doing on the grill is browning them and adding flavor via the mallaird reaction. You can brown them on the stove if you want, but it’s not as good as when they are grilled.

For roasts, generally the crock pot is my friend. SWMBO does most of the cooking and she uses our various roasts interchangeably from one recipe to the next. If it’s a big four pound roast, she has no qualms about trimming it down or cutting it up to make it into what she wants. Not the most cost effective method but the meals are awesome so I’m not complaining. For roasts, just follow your usual recipe. If you are cooking them in the oven, remember that grass fed, grass finished beef is going to cook faster than you expect.

Osso Bucco is one of my favorite cuts. Technically it’s beef shank, sliced into 1″ thick slices. It costs the same as hamburger per pound and it’s wonderful in the crock pot. All that connective tissue breaks down and makes beef broth, which your vegetables soak up as it percolates all day in the crock pot. Just sear the osso bucco on both sides before you start, (remember the mallaird reaction from earlier, it’s your friend.) The meat shreds after cooking easily because of the way the cut is made. You pop out the one bone for Fido and serve. A $10 meal including vegetables that feeds the entire family.

For hamburger, I have to give a nod to our resident chef Drew. His hamburger recipe makes for a stellar hamburger. If you don’t want to do all that he suggests, make patties with room temperature burger meat. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, and garlic and grill. Simple burgers that taste awesome.

For Boston Butt, I again turn to Drew’s recipe. If you are in our store, you can also pick up SWMBO’s crock pot recipe to accomplish the same thing. Her BBQ is no muss, no fuss, and tastes awesome.

Lastly, I need to tell you about sous vide cooking. Drew turned me onto it after about a year of harassing me to try it, finally just loaning me his unit and shooing me away to go cook. After one meal, I had one on order from Amazon. It’s pretty much impossible to overcook using sous vide and I can really dial in the doneness that I want, down to the single degree.

Sous vide cooking
Our meat aquarium

After a swim in our meat aquarium (what we call it) I simply sear the meat (mallaird again) and serve. Cook times can vary by hours with no change in doneness which really makes this more like crock pot cooking. This means that I can still get my work done and pop into the kitchen at the end of the day to finish up and serve a great meal, looking every bit the hero that I am.

What do you mean you don’t have ribeye steaks?!

A lot of times new customers come in the store and they have one thing on their mind.

“Blah, blah, whatever. Where are the ribeye steaks?”

When we tell them we are sold out, they sometimes seem incredulous that we could be out of something as basic as ribeye steaks. Sometimes they even seem offended that we’d be so poorly managed that we’d run out of ribeyes. I think they view the cut chart of a cow, you know, this one.

Beef cut chart
Where all the cuts of beef come from

The way Texans view a map of the US.

Texan's view of the US
Texan’s view of the US

Except they think that ribeyes are the part that is Texas in this map. I guess hamburger and cube steak are the other bits?

What people think a cow is made of
What people think a cow is made of.

I don’t blame them for not knowing the break down of an animal but despite what they may think, the reality is quite different.

The last cow we took to the processor weighed about 1050 pounds when he left the farm.

Once he was processed, he weighed 636 pounds. That’s the hot hanging weight. Out of that 636 pounds of beef, this is what we get in ribeye steaks.

12 packs of ribeye steaks
Ribeye steaks, an entire cows worth

Twelve packages of ribeyes, two per pack. Twenty four ribeye steaks total. That’s about 21 pounds of ribeyes out of 636 pounds of beef or about 3% of the total beef.

We aren’t a grocery store that orders our beef in by the truckload. We are a small farm that truly does this nose to tail. That means we utilize the bones, the liver, the lesser known steaks, the ribs, the roasts, all of it. And before we can restock with another cow, we need to utilize all of this animal we cared for for over two years and that gave its life for us.

We do get ribeyes in, every single time. But they are generally spoken for by our regulars before they ever show up. We’d love for you to be a regular too and get your ribeye steaks. In the meantime, maybe you could try a cut of beef that you don’t normally get, like osso bucco, or bottom round roast. You might find that it’s better than you realized.

Is beef bad for you, or is it corn-fed beef?

I ran across this post on, of all places, a financial website. I haven’t verified the data myself but a large chunk of it aligns with the data I heard from Dr. Anibal Pordomingo when I was at a grazers school years ago. The Omega 3 vs 6 ratio is real, documentable, and repeatable. You can measure the health decline in the cattle as they are fed a non-natural diet. You can also recover the animals health by putting them back on pasture where they are supposed to be. An unhealthy animal being consumed cannot result in a healthy person.

Link to the post on grass vs. corn-fed cattle.

Cows barely visible in the grass

I think there is a misstatement in the beginning about cattle going from 4-5 years to finish down to 13 months. What is actually correct is that cattle used to be raised to that age before slaughter as they were fully fleshed out and the meat had a more robust quality to it. But they weighed 1100 pounds at 24 months and 1200 pounds at 48 months. They aren’t much bigger years later. Now cows can finish in as little as 13 months in aggressive programs like he references but 24 months is plenty long for our American palate without any outside additions or weird genetics. We routinely finish cattle at 24 months on our farm with no issues and 100% natural. We certainly don’t have any special genetics. Also, after the mad cow BS of years past, we now cannot normally process cattle older than 30 months due to federal regulations so 24 months is going to be the norm regardless.

The post I’m promoting is not an overly long post and it has some good data in it. It’s not a peer reviewed publication, but they aren’t all they are cracked up to be either. To see what I mean, take a listen to this NPR Planet Money podcast about peer reviewed science. I have a distrust of science anyway, especially nutritional science, but wow! I didn’t know it was this bad.

Make sure you pay attention to the last line in the article. What is true for corn-fed cows is true for any corn-fed animal. Are you having tilapia tonight?