Monday, August 31, 2009

A day in the life

Written to Led Zeppelin IV by Led Zeppelin

You've got a lot of choices. If getting out of bed in the morning is a chore and you're not smiling on a regular basis, try another choice.
- Steven D. Woodhull

In last week's blog post, Holy holon, Batman!, I wrote that Lone and I had settled on our initial business plan. We have also recently established a schedule of chores, and subsequently fallen into a daily work routine. In brief, the day is divided into four parts, driven by the requirements of our ever-growing menagerie:

  • Let the chickens out of their houses and feed them. First we feed the smaller birds crushed organic corn, then whole kernels to the larger birds. The sequencing is important: the larger birds have to be kept in their house until the smaller birds have had their fill...after all, the larger birds are higher in the food chain.
  • Feed the dogs and cats.
  • Feed the hogs. In addition to the vegetation that they consume inside their pens, we supplement their diet with approx. 1.8 kg of organic corn per hog per day, again whole kernels. By soaking the kernels in a 50%/50% mix of organic milk and ent water, we improve nutrient uptake without having to go to the trouble of crushing large quantities of corn. It is not long ago that we changed from feeding the hogs twice daily, at 10:00 and 16:00, to feeding them once daily, at 12:00. This seems to work much better; hogs generally like to sleep later than other farm animals, and this practice also forces the hogs to forage prior to receiving their first meal. As feeding the hogs is without doubt the most physically demanding farm animal activity at Alfheim, it is extra nice to have it done and dusted before lunch, after which ones energy level drops noticeably. The piglets are treated somewhat differently: we feed them at 10:00 as their tiny tummies and hyper-metabolisms do not seem to lend themselves as well to a single, midday feeding. This, however, is only a temporary measure while they are growing most rapidly. While our hogs' growth rates are currently probably somewhat slower, I expect that by the time we fully implement our plan to supplement their ration of organic corn with copious quantities of organic milk and eggs, we will achieve similar or more rapid growth rates to those described below:
After three to five weeks, pigs are weaned (removed from their mother). After reaching an age of eight or nine weeks, by which time the pigs weigh an average of 23 kg (50 pounds), the pigs are moved to another area for growing until they reach roughly 54 kg (120 pounds); finally, they are finished (fattened or fed in preparation for slaughter) until they've reached the marketable weight of 100 - 113 kg (220 - 250 pounds) -at between five and six months. On average, then, hogs gain almost one kg per day every day of their existence. Remarkable!
Also of hogworthy note, we sold three of our largest shoats on Sunday to the individual who we hope will be coming to work for us in mid-October...7-9-13. He has agreed to join us in principle, but my many years of hiring people has taught me that the period of greatest risk of buyer's remorse occurs between signature and the start of a new job. Moreover, given the fact that the individual in question will be the second employee, Clair was the first, to leave the local patrão to work at Alfheim, a reaction of some sort is to be expected. That said, he brought six family members with him to choose the shoats, a very positive sign, and Lone, not surprisingly, bonded instantly with his mother, another plus.

It was also a plus that he purchased our two largest male shoats because we have not yet castrated any of our piglets...preferring to wait until after the full moon on September 4th. This is done to reduce the bleeding. While a generally accepted principle in biodynamic farming, it surprised us to no end when Clair rather than Lone or me insisted on waiting for the moon to wane. The general wisdom of our decision has been reinforced by everyone with whom we spoke about castration in Vargem Grande -noteworthy that the alternative and the traditional views dovetail so clearly.

Late afternoons
  • By changing the hogs' feeding time, our late afternoons now involve nothing more than moving the cattle, which we do every day at 16:00. I am already convinced that I can see a difference in the pastures from this daily rotation, though, to be fair, Lone is less certain. She chalks it up to the coming of spring. What is indisputable is the fact that the cattle are now as easy to move as checkers...a gentle nudge and they move where they are supposed to. In most cases it is possible to migrate them from pasture x to pasture y solo.
On a related note, I began mixing soja perene into the mineral salt, together with a little organic corn, and the next day the salt trough looked like it had been cleaned by the D.I.R.T., the magical cleaning machine from Dr. Seuss' The Cat in the Hat (2003). Can't wait to see how long it takes before soja perene begins appearing in our pastures.

  • Feed the dogs and close the chicken houses, preferably with the chickens inside. For the most part this latter task is pretty simple...the chickens begin roosting at dusk. Dan, the drake, and the other two ducks, on the other hand, loiter outside the hen house as long as possible, like smokers congregating outside an office building...probably because as the lone floor dwellers in the hen house, their early arrival only increases their chances of being shit on.
  • Feeding the dogs is also pretty certainly requires no reminder: Muninn usually begins chewing on the metal kitchen door in such a demonstrative fashion as to leave little doubt about what our priorities should be, and Negão does his part, too, whipping both Muninn and Layla into a frenzy. Once fed, though, all three dogs instantly quiet down.
Finally, onset of spring or no onset of spring, the rainy season has not entirely left Fazenda Alfheim behind: on Tuesday we received 57 mm of rain, turning our fruit orchard into a shallow pond. While Lone worried about her ability to drop Pelle off at the airport for his Wednesday flight back to UK, the ducks celebrated à la Gene Kelly.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Holy holon, Batman!

Written to Genius of Modern Music, Vol. 1 by T.s.monk and Thelonious Monk

Thank God, I have my work, but instead of earning money by it, I need money to be able to work; that is the difficulty. I think there are no signs in my work that indicate that I shall fail. And I am not a person who works slowly or tamely. Drawing becomes a passion with me, and I throw myself into it more and more. I do not have great plans for the future; if for a moment I feel rising within me the desire for a life without care, for prosperity, each time I go fondly back to the trouble and the cares, to a life full of hardship, and think: It is better so; I learn more from it, and make progress. This is not the road on which one perishes. I only hope the trouble and the cares will not become unbearable, and I have confidence I shall succeed in earning enough to keep myself, not in luxury, but as one who eats his bread in the sweat of his brow.
- Vincent van Gogh quotes

After much study and discussion, Lone and I have settled on our initial business plan, or perhaps more accurately our proposed revenue streams. This is a process that has evolved significantly since we purchased Fazenda Alfheim in May 2008. We, too, feel that there are no signs in our work that indicate that we shall fail, but we are also clear that the path will not be without trouble.

In order to achieve our goals, financial and other, we have borrowed heavily from the revolutionary work done at Polyface Farms, Joel Salatin's beyond organic farm in Virginia. Specifically, we have recently been focusing on the following two principles, in particular:
GRASS-BASED: Pastured livestock and poultry, moved frequently to new "salad bars," offer landscape healing and nutritional superiority.

INDIVIDUALITY: Plants and animals should be provided a habitat that allows them to express their physiological distinctiveness. Respecting and honoring the pigness of the pig is a foundation for societal health.
As regards GRASS-BASED, we recently purchased a cocktail of capim-tanzânia (Panicum maximum cv. Tanzânia) and soja perene to sow in our existing pastures in order to enhance their carrying capacity. This cocktail consists of three parts capim-tanzânia and one part soja perene. The method of application is interesting, too: we will mix the cocktail into the mineral salt that our cattle consume, and they will do the work of distributing the seeds via their feces. As mentioned in Alfheim au naturale, we have already begun the process of moving our cattle frequently, though there is still much work to be done before we can say that we are offering them a salad bar.

In terms of INDIVIDUALITY, hopefully we have already established a pattern of honoring the pigness of the pig etc.

Additionally, we have developed our own holons, derived from the Greek word holos, meaning whole, and the suffix on, suggesting a particle. As defined by Michael Pollan, a holon is:
an entity that from one perspective appears a self-contained whole, and from another a dependant part. A body organ like the liver is a holon …
Our holons will consist of milk cattle and egg laying hens, which produce milk and eggs for the hogs as well as broiler chickens, which help to clean up parasites in the hog areas.

Similarly, the broiler chickens will rotate through our pastures with our cattle and sheep (still in planning), cleaning up parasites and fertilizing the pasture with their high-nitrogen droppings. They will also get 10-20% of their diet from the grass.

The milk cattle will produce approx. 200-300 liters of milk daily, a plan that seems somewhat counter-intuitive when one considers that 'The price of raw milk paid to farmers has dropped to its lowest level in 40 years.' While this is not the case in Brazil, it is still worrying that in US 4,600 dairy farms that have been closing each year for the past two decades and that the number of dairy farmers has declined from 648,000 in 1970 to 60,000 today. Lone and I tend to look at this trend somewhat differently: initially, milk is an easy way to pay our fixed costs and represents a raw material which can be transformed into a number of value-added products as we evolve as farmers. A similar logic applies to our hogs: initially we will sell live piglets, low value-add, but over time we have the option of choosing to develop more niche products, e.g. Prosciutto di Parma or Parma ham.

Lone's capim limão, which we hope to productize at a later date, will be used to demarcate all of the hog areas and act as a natural repellent.

Finally, Flora the sow has recovered so well that she will shortly be returned to the hog area, where we have recently removed the last of the piglets. During her R&R in our makeshift MASH unit, Flora formed a real bond with Chica, another of the smallish piglets that has been at hospital to bulk up.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Close to home and on top of the world

Written to Electric Ladyland by Jimi Hendrix

In the mountains, the shortest way is from peak to peak: but for that you must have long legs.
- Friedrich Nietzsche

This week at Fazenda Alfheim was characterized by more of the same: more fence posts dug down, more construction on the new house, more clearing of the lake etc. As regards the latter, Clair and Pelle braved nature's wrath -or at the very least the wrath of some very ornery wasps- in an effort to tame definitively our emerging lake...with an assist of sorts from Muninn.

Under the heading of taking advantage of that which is close to home, our good friend, Emmanuel Rengade, invited me to trek the Trilha do Corcovado in the Parque Estadual da Serra do Mar - Núcleo Santa Virgínia, 2.5 km from Vargem Grande and 9.5 km from Fazenda Alfheim, together with his friend, Nando (Fernando). When I left Berkeley, California, many, many years ago, I always regretted the fact that I never visited the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, which was located across the street from campus. Similarly, I wish I had taken a flight on the the London Eye during the five plus years we lived just outside of London. I am not entirely sure why it is that we are generally so poor at taking advantage of the riches closest to home, but this seems to be a fairly universal failing.

In an effort to redress this failing, I resolved to accept Emmanuel's invite and get to know one of the most stunning 18 km in all of Brazil. And stunning it is, but also with a grau de dificuldade alto -as clearly evidenced by the spent faces (1, 2) of my partners in crime. Three hours to the top, where the views are figuratively and literally heavenly (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6), and three hours back to the base...broken up by a lunch that, for my part, consisted of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and fresh fruit, followed by a one plus hour nap. The trail is incredibly well-maintained, passing alongside the crystalline Rio Grande river for approx. 16 of the 18 km. Our guide, João, was most competent. Worth checking out the 33 pics on the Paraitinga Tourismo website. It is also worth noting that the Núcleo Santa Virgínia offers two other trekking options: the 5.6 km Trilha da Piraptinga and the 8 km Trilha do Poço do Pito, both of which are classified as grau de dificuldade leve.

Finally, on our return to Alfheim, Lone had prepared a wonderful dinner consisting of copious quantities of organic fraldinha (bottom sirloin), my all-time favorite red meat, Alfheim's own garden-fresh, mixed green salad with a mustard dressing (using an exquisite mustard from Provence Pousada & Restaurante) and Lone's freshly baked havrebrød or oat bread and goibada or guava-based variation on Jamie Oliver's apple pie. All in all a pretty incredible Saturday.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Lone's no longer latent lake

Written to Recapturing the Banjo by Otis Taylor

I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore. . . .
I hear it in the deep heart's core.”
- William Butler Yeats

In last week's blog post, I neglected to mention that Gtec Topografia e Geoprocessamento completed the first draft of the topographical survey of Fazenda Alfheim that we commissioned back in June. The survey, a requirement of the organic certification process, is essentially a resource mapping of our property, outlining its borders and elevations and the location of key natural resources, e.g. forests, pastures, orchards, lakes, rivers and streams. All in all, a terrific planning resource...and the quality of the Gtech team's work has been top-notch. I mentioned that this was the first draft, and indeed the Gtech team will visit Fazenda Alfheim a second time in a month or so to finalize the mapping exercise, including mapping all of the pastures and digitalizing their locations. As well as making it easier for us to visualize and plan our work, this last touch will allow us to size all of the pastures, helping us to determine their carrying capacity.

In addition to facilitating our planning, the mapping exercise uncovered an unexpected treasure: a lake on our property, located just behind the fruit orchard. As it has been officially registered on an earlier, official aerial photo, we are free to clear the reeds etc. (Pelle seen here doing his best Matthew McConaughey impersonation) and utilize this newly discovered pearl for either leisure or fish farming, a common practice in the region. Not sure what the final outcome will be, but this decision represents what is known as a luxury problem: to swim or to fish or to swim. Sweet!

An equally festive discovery was made by an army of leaf-cutter ants, as they uncovered the corn flour in our kitchen. They even cut small 'leaves' out of the flour's plastic bag. As frustrating as this is, one cannot help but marvel at their drive and work ethic.

Equally admirable is the progress that Marcos and his crew continue to make week in and week out on the new house. With the exception of the porch, the roof has been raised. This will allow the team to begin other tasks at Alfheim and to return to the house whenever -without the fear of being interrupted by the rains.

Some of you may have noticed that over the past several weeks the blog photos have tended to be somewhat washed out. This is a combination of the winter light, which is extremely sharp (most of the photos are taken before 09:00), and my dropping our Nikon D80 from a highish altitude. I will probably have to purchase a replacement while Lone delivers it to a dealer in UK, when she travels back to visit the boys and her family and friends in Denmark for a month in late September. If anyone knows of a dealer here in Brazil, give me a holler. 7-9-13 that what ails our camera can be fixed.

With the construction of the new house taking shape so nicely, Rosana and Lone have agreed to a color scheme for all of the houses, yellow for the outside walls and gray for the windows and doors. The two of them began repainting Clair's and Rosana's house this week. While the initial results are quite nice, a second coat will undeniably be required.

Homem-Aranha or Spiderman man returned to Alfheim with Marcos this week to construct the septic tank and a gray-water filtering system for the new house, a gray-water filtering system for Clair's and Rosana's house and three water troughs for Hogwood. In order to avoid using a pump, Spidey had to tap the spring that Lone and Clair recently discovered -to raise its level to a point higher than that of the new house, the same spring which forced us to move the fencing for Hogwood and subsequently the location of the new worker's house. Quite an engineering feat.

On the hog front, we appear to have found buyers for all of the piglets that we do not want to keep. Going price, R$55.00 - R$65.00 (€21.09 - €24.92 or $29.82 - $35.24), somewhat cheaper for the smaller piglets (< 11 kg) and/or buyers from Vargem Grande, the latter in an effort to try and build a local market. At R$50.00 a piglet, our net profit margin is 49%, so no complaints, but we will need to sell a certain volume, at least 50 piglets per month, to make an absolute dent in our monthly expenses. Our target is to reach this initial level of critical mass by Q2 2010, at which time we should have eggs and milk enough to provide all of the hogs' protein requirements, approx. 10-15 liters of cow's milk and 40-80 eggs per day.

Prior to signing off, I wanted to send a shout-out to our very good friends, John Tomizuka and Paula Zandomeni, the newly-proud parents of beautiful twins. Should one or both of you become overwhelmed at any point, take a look at what this mother has to deal with on a daily basis.

Finally, under the heading of 57 channels and nothing on, TV has come to Fazenda Alfheim via Sky. Lone and I had mixed feelings about this decision, but ultimately decided that in the absence of Internet connectivity on our fazenda, for now at any rate, we needed to avoid mimicking the characters from The Throwback, by Tom Sharpe, which you should read if you haven't, but only if you are prepared to laugh until you cry. A marvelous author, the funniest writing IMHO. Whatever our misgivings, I will be only too glad to stay up late watching NBA basketball come November. Go Lakers!

Monday, August 3, 2009

Alfheim au naturale

Written to Led Zeppelin 1 by Led Zeppelin

Do, or do not. There is no 'try'.
- Yoda (from The Empire Strikes Back)

It's official: Fazenda Alfheim has been certified IBD/IFOAM Accredited.

Almost a year to the date of the first visit (July 25th, 2008) by Rui Manuel Marques Martins Martins, a consultant from Associação Brasileira de Agricultura Biodinâmica, we received word of our organic certification.

It has been a hard -and at times frustrating- road, but for the moment our arrival feels terrific. We can now sell our piglets in Brazil as organic, and all of our crop fields, minus one (not including our fruit orchards, which will be certified in January 2010), have been certified. There are still a handful of minor non-conformities that have to be addressed during the second inspection by IBD later this year, but nothing that should derail us.

A similar characterization could be applied to the construction of the new house at Fazenda Alfheim...nothing seems to be able to stop its relentless forward march. After three weeks, comprising a total of only 12 work days, Marcos and his crew are ready to raise the roof this week. There is, of course, still much work to do, but it seems reasonable to assume that Marcos will meet his initial estimate of a ten-week build.

In hog-related news, our piglet count increased to approx. 69 with the addition of another nine piglets from gilt 14. Moreover, Chico, the piglet with the head trauma, is recovering nicely together with Chiquina in the auxiliary garden next to the kitchen. The two seem to enjoy one another's company, and Chico is back on his feet and moving without any impediment whatsoever. Interestingly, on close examination, it is possible to discern a slightly higher percentage of Duroc in Chico, who is redder, than in Chiquina. Rounding out the latest in hog news, Clair sold his hog, Miss Massey, and her 10 piglets to the owner of one of the two local supermarkets, so he is a happy man.

On the cattle front, we lost two more heifers, bringing our total losses to five, one to Cascavel, commonly known as the South American rattlesnake, two more to either poisonous plants or Cascavel and two to pneumonia. The remaining 15 look healthy, so 7-9-13. In hindsight: I was penny wise and pound foolish, i.e. I bought the cattle too cheaply. Unlike the 20 F1 gilts, the cattle were probably not the best of stock to begin with...clearly a shame, but live and learn. On a positive note, we officially inaugurated our pasture rotation on August 1st. Initially we will rotate the cattle every day after acclimatize them to the new routine, and also to begin adhering to the law of the second bite, a key tenet of management-intensive grazing (MiG).
Basically in a nutshell, to graze your stock rotationally you need to only allot what they will eat in a 24 hour period. The key to building soil, and good grass/forage, and having healthy livestock is the rest period. To achieve this rest period you have to contain your animals, and portable electric fencing is what helps you do this. Just as important as moving the cows forward to fresh grass, you need to keep them from going back to the grazed area that needs to recover from the animal impact. In grazing lingo, that is called the law of the second bite. If the stock is allowed to regraze the tender young growth, you will set back that plant about 40%. The plant needs to recover before being grazed again. And when you have to start buying feed, 40% adds up quick! Much easier to keep that back fence in place, than it is to buy hay or grain.
Finally, Esben and Brian returned to UK on Friday, after spending four wonderful days in Rio de Janeiro, where they stayed with our very good friends, Artur and Alessandra. Thankfully, Pelle returned to Alfheim today from a week plus in São Paulo visiting friends, so things won't be too quiet.