The State of Farming in Oregon

I was recently asked to answer a series of questions about my farm for a feature article on the Oregon Entrepreneurs Network newsletter/blog.  The full text is here: https://www.oen.org/2018/12/10/rising-star-matt-alford/

It’s been suggested to me that I share my thoughts with state government as to whether I feel that Oregon is a good place to start a business.  I forwarded the article to Governor Kate Brown and Oregon Department of Agriculture Director Alexis Taylor.  I thought I might expand on it a bit here as well.

I’ve been raising hogs commercially for four years now.  I started out selling direct to consumers, then I added restaurant accounts, tried to get into Whole Foods and institutions like OHSU, and now I’ve come full circle and I’m back selling exclusively direct to consumers.  In many ways, my farm is starting over after a four year startup journey.  I’m no longer test driving markets and learning the ropes.  I know what I need to know now.

One thing that has massively changed since I started this journey is the collapse of our slaughter options.  I remember back in the fall of 2014 when my hogs reached market weight, I called around in October looking to book a slaughter appointment and was dismayed that I had to wait three weeks for an appointment.  Now, four years later, the lead time has gone from three weeks to six months for cattle and two months for hogs.  Our slaughterhouses have steadily gone out of business over the last four years, driving up lead times at the ones that are still operating.  One of my former farm employees now works as a meat cutter at a local slaughterhouse and he routinely puts in 12 – 13 hr days.  He tells stories of new employees quitting after just one day because the work is hard and the hours are long.  Every year the slaughterhouses increase their prices and yet their demand keeps going up as facilities close.

This problem is extra acute for my farm, where I sell not only whole and half hogs, but individual cuts of meat as well, which are subject to USDA federal regulations.  Oregon used to have a state inspected meat program, but dropped it when the federal government passed the Wholesome Meat Act in 1967.  In short, beef and pork that is to be sold to the general public (restaurants, grocery stores, individual cuts, and meat that is to be resold as through distribution) must be slaughtered, cut, and wrapped under the watchful eye of a USDA federal inspector.  Recognizing that farmers often raise animals for their own personal consumption, the state allows an exemption: if you raise an animal for personal consumption, it may be slaughtered on the farm by a state-licensed slaughter business and then cut/wrapped in a state-licensed facility under what is knows as the “custom exempt” rule.  It’s this rule that allows me to sell you a whole or half hog, have it dispatched on the farm (rather than trucking the hog to a USDA facility) and then have it cut/wrapped at a non-USDA butcher shop such as The Meating Place in Hillsboro.  But if you want to just buy pork chops from me, that hog has to be slaughtered, cut, and wrapped at a USDA facility.  If I want to sell to Whole Foods or a restaurant or the OHSU cafeteria, that meat has to go through a USDA plant.

USDA slaughterhouses are few and far between.  It costs a lot of money to pay federal inspectors and those costs get passed on to the farmers and consumers in the form of higher slaughter and cut/wrap fees.  USDA slaughter schedules fill up quickly and when the plant breaks down, there aren’t other places to go.  It’s a system that’s breaking and the cracks have been showing up for years.  People who started their slaughter/cut/wrap business back in the 1960’s and 70’s are now retiring and there are few people who can step up and keep those businesses running.  Those who are trying are having a rough go of it.  All of this rolls downhill and impacts small livestock farmers like me.  I could have sold more pork this fall if I could have secured USDA slaughter/cut/wrap services, but the lead time was too long and I couldn’t get on the schedule in time.

Oregon custom exempt slaughter rules are a mess.  If you raise poultry, Oregon allows you to slaughter up to 1,000 chickens per year on the farm without any USDA supervision or state licensing as long as you sell the chickens farm-direct to consumers.  Farmers can sell up to 20,000 birds/year through distribution if the birds are slaughtered at a state-licensed facility.  If you raise over 20,000 birds, then they have to go through federal inspection.  Hogs and cattle have no similar exemptions.  It doesn’t matter how many hogs or cattle the farmer raises, the meat cannot be sold through distribution, farm direct, or at a farmers market as individual cuts of meat unless the animals goes through USDA processing.  Yet bison can be slaughtered at a state-inspected facility and sold at farmers markets.  This patchwork of species-specific exemptions is maddening and makes no sense whatsoever.

It’s time for Oregon to reinstate its state-inspected meat program.  All meat that is slaughtered, and cut/wrapped in state-inspected facilities should be allowed to be resold at farmers markets, grocery stores, and public restaurants/cafeterias within Oregon.  Get rid of the volume limits, species-specific rules, and the sale restrictions.  The program could be fully funded by user fees (the same way farmers fund the ODA inspections today through meat license sales).  Not only would this be better for business, but it would be better for animal welfare.  Transporting livestock is stressful for the animals and the handlers.  On-farm slaughter is more humane and a state-inspected meat program would make this option more readily available.

I’ve heard rumors that a state inspected meat program has been discussed at the state capital, but I am not aware of any plans or progress toward making it a reality.  If you’re a believer in humanely raised, local meat, this legislation is “must have” and the longer it takes to get enacted, the more farms will cease to exist.  If you care about this, please write our governor and ODA director.  I’m just one voice, but if you add yours, maybe someone will finally listen.

Oregon Governor Kate Brown: https://www.oregon.gov/gov/Pages/share-your-opinion.aspx

ODA Director Alexis Taylor: ataylor@oda.state.or.us

Thanks.

–MATT

Porchetta di Testa

I’m always looking for ways to utilize more parts of the pig so I have more eating and less waste. Porchetta di Testa is a bold step in that direction and I’m looking forward to trying it. When you’re ready to give it a go yourself, contact Elkhorn for a pig head and we’ll get you hooked up. Bon appetite!

eating is the hard part

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I want to say that I’ve been thinking a lot about this post. As I started sharing my adventure into this hands-on, shaving-a-pig kind of cooking, it got people talking. Some of it was good talk and some of it was bad. Don’t get me wrong, I love this kind of conversation. I want people to talk about food. I want people to share in stomach filling moments. If you do, you will always have a place at the table in my life. Just let me say that as someone who promotes offal, eats offal, cooks offal, and seriously believes in the ethics on the topic, I’ve never ever felt more demonized after preparing a dish than this one. Demonized sounds like a hard word, but I was told considerably more disgusting things than compliments – “it’s sick” “why do you do this” “that’s gross” “animals have feeling too” and…

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Prosciutto with Proletariat Butchery

Yesterday I stopped at Proletariat Butchery up on Fremont Street in Portland to visit with owner and artisan butcher, Zeph Shepard.  Zeph’s shop is the epitome of small batch, service-oriented butchery.  He takes pride in knowing his customers and helping them get the most out of their eating experience.

I took a hands-on pig butchery class from Zeph last year and it was really helpful to see how a butcher views a half pig and the options it contains.  With knife-in-hand, we cut up the carcass ourselves and it was educational and fun.

One great thing about working with Zeph is he’ll teach and do as much or as little as you want.  If you want to learn how to cut up your pig yourself, he’ll teach you.  If you just want to have him do it, he’ll cut it up for you.  But no matter what you have in mind, he starts with a conversation about what you like to eat and how you can make the most out of your meat.

Proscuitto: ham cured with salt, air, and plenty of patience

Proscuitto: ham cured with salt, air, and plenty of patience

Yesterday, I took Zeph a whole rear leg of pork to be cured into Prosciutto.  I took the photo above in his shop and these are hams that have been salted, coated with leaf fat, and are now aging.  Over time, the salt works its way into the meat while the water slowly exits the meat.  Capillary action pulls the salt in as the water escapes and the meat slowly cures and becomes firm.  A leg this size will take about a year to get to where I can start eating it and maybe another six to twelve months after that to develop its full potential of rich flavors.

This type of charcuterie is all about patience.  I’m looking forward to sharpening my knife and taking the first thin slices off my Elkhorn prosciutto a year from now.

If you’d like to learn how to do charcuterie or maybe have Zeph get it going for you, Elkhorn can provide the primal cuts of pork you need to get started and Zeph can help you get it finished.  Let us know when you’re ready and we’ll get you on the road to great eating!

 

Forging on the Farm

It used to be that every farm had at least a small forge and an anvil so the farmer could repair his equipment and make his own tools and hardware. We continue that tradition here at Elkhorn with a small “smithy” (blacksmith shop) in the barn and it comes in very handy, especially for repairs.

Last week, I had a critical mass of items that needed fixing on the farm, so I fired up the forge and set to fixing the things I’d broken.

Broken Hay Hook

Broken Hay Hook

Repaired Hay Hook

Repaired Hay Hook

The first item was a broken hay hook. I’d forged the hook some months earlier out of mild steel, but I was in a hurry and didn’t temper it, leaving the metal hard, but also brittle. Tempering is a heat  treatment that involves slowly reheating the metal and then quickly cooling it by quenching in liquid.  We think of tempering as adding toughness to the metal. In this case, I just forged the hay hook and cooled it by plunging it into water. Over time, the hook bent repeatedly and finally broke off. Instead of running to the feed store and shelling out $10+ for a new one, I heated and reshaped the broken hook with a hammer and anvil. It’s a little shorter than it started out, but works just fine. And of course, I was in a hurry again and didn’t temper it, but that’s okay. Tempering can happen any time and doesn’t have to occur when the object is forged.

The second item I needed to fix was a tow hook. I forged a bunch of these and attached them to feeders, waterers, and shelters with deck screws so I can tow them around the farm. This one got torn off when a shelter decided it didn’t want to move after all. This is an example of a hand-forged item that is easy to make, but would be difficult to buy. You won’t find this at Home Depot. Rather than throw it away, I reheated it, and hammered it back into shape.

Bent Tow Hook

Bent Tow Hook

Repaired Tow Hook

Repaired Tow Hook

The last item that needed fixing was a homemade bracket that screws onto a board that I use as a loading ramp for my ATV. The bracket was originally flat, but I decided it needed a slight bend. Since the forge was already hot, I heated up the bracket and added a bend using a simple bending jig in a vice. Fast and easy.

Ramp Bracket

Ramp Bracket

Having a forge on the farm is very handy and a lot of fun. I get to mess with fire and beat on metal with a hammer, how could I not love it?

Building a Better Hog Feeder

New and Improved Hog Feeder

New and Improved Hog Feeder


 

 

 

Ag Extension-type Hog Feeder

Typical two-door feeder design

After much trial, error, and bad reviews from my pigs, I have finally come up with a hog feeder design that makes both me and the pigs happy.  When I raised my first two pigs, I didn’t want to go down to the farm store and pay $150 or more for a feeder with flimsy metal feed covers and a leaky top.  I searched around the ag extension office websites on the internet and found plans for one basic type of feeder that I could make out of wood.  I built one of those and found that it had a lot of undesirable traits.  For instance, the doors were made of wood and my pigs loved to go over to the feeder at midnight, stick their snouts under the lid, and then slam it open against the side of the feeder.  They must have really enjoyed that hammer-on-wood sound, because they slammed the lids over and over until I got out of bed and went outside to see what all the racket was about. I tried all sorts of modifications, from putting tennis balls on the side of the feeder to dampen the sound, to adding foam under the lid, so it wouldn’t slam when they pulled their head out.  Night after night I was out there fiddling with the feeder with bleary eyes and a headlamp while the pigs snorted and laughed.

Wrecked FeederAnother not-so-wonderful trait of that feeder design was the fact that the pigs liked to shovel their feed out of the feeder and onto the dirt.  Boo!  Feed isn’t cheap and when the feeder was empty, they thought it was a good idea to tip over, throw, and break the feeder to express their displeasure.

Lots of spilled feed and repairs later, I set out to build a better feeder.  I’m a big fan of making things out of easily-obtained, standard components and as little hardware as possible.  My components of choice are pallets, scrap wood, deck screws, and barrels.  Black drywall screws are too light for livestock duty: the screws easily snap and the heads twist off.  I spend the extra money on deck screws and build everything on the farm with them using a cordless impact screw gun.

Brower Bulk Hog Feeder

Bulk Feeder

Bull Mineral Feeder

Bull Mineral Feeder

In my quest for a new feeder design, I took a look at what was available commercially and found two items of interest. The first is this bulk hog feeder
for a measly $1,278 + shipping.  The second is this delightfully simple mineral feeder for cattle .  I mashed the two concepts together and using my standard components, came up with my new feeder design, which holds up to 300 lbs of feed and costs about $100 if you have to buy everything and considerably less if you have scrap plywood and lumber lying around.

20150819_093122

Elkhorn Hog Feeder

To build this feeder, I start with a food-grade plastic barrel with a removable top ($40) and then cut the bottom out the barrel with a reciprocating saw.  Then I cut a sheet of plywood in half for the base (4′ x 4′) and screw on sides made out of 2″ x 6″ lumber.  I add 2″ x 6″ cross pieces at the corners to keep the feeder area more or less round and prevent feed from getting trapped in the corners.  Then I add four upright braces.
20150730_094611 The real key to this feeder is that you need to put riser blocks under the barrel so there’s a gap between the plywood base and bottom of the barrel.  The gap should be between 1.5″ and 2″ high.  No higher and no lower.  Too low and the feed won’t come out.  Too high and too much feed comes out.  You want the feed to just trickle out as the pigs are feeding.  Too much feed leads to snout shoveling.  Once the riser blocks are in place, I screw the upright braces to the barrel.

The last piece is the rain cover made from 3/8″ rubber mat.  A 4′ x 4′ piece costs about $40.  Using a razor knife, I cut out a circle in the middle, careful to make it smaller than the diameter of the barrel because the rubber mat will stretch and I don’t want gaps between the barrel and the skirt.  I work the rubber skirt down over the barrel and it rests on top of the upright braces.  The feeder is now good enough for three-season use.  For winter use, the rain skirt should have any gaps between the skirt and the barrel sealed up.  Duct tape works if you don’t mind replacing it every year.  I am now experimenting with metal flashing to see how that holds up and keeps the rain out of the gap.

20150819_093132So far, I’m really happy with this design.  The rain skirt keeps the birds and rain out of the feed.  There are no lids to slam and the wide base makes the feeder more difficult for the pigs to tip over (in fact, my pigs haven’t ever tipped this design over).  With the 1.5″ to 2″ riser blocks under the barrel, the pigs eat the feed as it trickles out and there’s no waste on the ground.

For weaner pigs, I make a slightly smaller version that uses 1/4″ rubber mat, a 30 gallon barrel, and a base that’s 36″ square with 2″ x 4″ sides.  Same concept, just smaller and a little easier for the little porkers to use.

If you build one of these for your pigs and come up with improvements, I’d love to hear what you did that’s working better.  Thx!

–MATT

Follow-up 1/18/2017: How have these feeders held up and what would I do differently now?

I’ve received some email lately asking questions about the Elkhorn hog feeder design and I realized it’s time to post some follow-up information on materials and design changes.  Firstly, let me say that I still think this low-cost feeder design is good for hogs up to 250 lbs.  When hogs get any bigger than that, they have difficulty getting their snouts close to the feed, so they push on the barrel and rip the screws out that hold the barrel to the triangle supports.  The feeder could be made more resistant to this by replacing the deck screws with through-bolts where the support triangles connect to the feeder.  The downside would be that the stress would then be transferred to the screws that hold the triangle supports to the base and the hogs would likely rip the feeder apart at that point instead.  To avoid that stress failure, the triangles could be replaced entirely with metal straps that are bent into an L-shape.  The straps could be through-bolted to the base and through-bolted to the barrel.  I think this would hold up to the hogs pushing on the barrel. Having said that, I haven’t tried it.  If you do, please let me know how it goes.

I’ve been asked by several people about the rubber mat rain skirt.  When I first came up with this idea, I bought rubber mat material that was made from shredded rubber.  These are normally used as floor coverings in gyms and horse stalls.  They work fine on the floor, but on a hog feeder, they are subjected to the stress of flexing back and forth as the hogs push them up and down to get underneath to the feed.  Eventually all of these cracked and fell off the feeders.  Then I switched to using used conveyor belt material, which is much more resilient.  To find it, I Googled “used conveyor belt Oregon” and found a local supplier who cut the pieces to length for me and sold them to me at very low cost.  When I got it home, I drilled a hole in it and then used a jigsaw to cut out the center.

The other thing about the rain skirt is that it was impossible to seal the gap between the skirt and the barrel.  Duct tape didn’t hold up.  I tried various types of caulking and that didn’t hold up either. Eventually, I tried making the hole in the skirt smaller so it would be a tighter fit around the barrel. That sort of worked and sort of didn’t.  As the fit got tighter, the rain skirt shape distorted and wouldn’t sit flat.  It ended up in an inverted U-shape. u-rain-skirt The effect of that was that the pigs could really only access the feed on two sides.  Not terrible, but not ideal either.  About the time I reached this point in my feeder experiments, winter was upon me and I had to do something to keep the water out of the feeder.  I resorted to t-posts and a tarp over the feeder.  I didn’t want to go there because tarps don’t last, especially in high wind.  If you go this route, you really need to attach every tarp grommet to a t-post else the wind will rip out the grommets that are attached.  I ended up using bungee cords to attached the tarp to the posts, attaching one end of the bungee to a grommet, wrapping the cord around a post, then attaching the other end to the next grommet (one bungee covers two grommets).  That worked out well, allowing the tarp to flex in the wind, but not rip.

Eventually, I got tired of repairing and modifying these feeders.  One thing that happened was that I switched from a pelleted feed to a feed that was ground in a hammermill.  The hammered feed had much smaller particles and that meant that more feed flowed out the bottom of the feeder vs filling the feeder with pellets.  To remedy that problem, I had to take the barrel off the feeder and replace the riser blocks with lower ones.  Remember, the original problem where the large hogs couldn’t get their snout close enough to the feed?  These lower riser blocks only made that problem worse and it resulted in even more feeder damage.  It got to the point where I was repairing about feeder every week.

I have one like this except the doors are plastic instead of metal

I have one like this except the doors are plastic instead of metal

About that time,  I found a local guy with three used commercial metal

I have two feeders similar to this design.  The doors keep the water out.

I have two feeders similar to this design. The doors keep the water out.

hog feeders for sale ($300 each).  They were made of galvanized metal and had doors covering the feed.  The feeders were old and had holes rusted through the bottom, but they were quickly and easily patched with bondo.  I fixed them up, put them in service, and I haven’t had to repair a single one.

I still use the barrel feeders for hogs under 250 lbs and I just use a tarp/t-post cover and don’t mess with the rubber rain skirts any more.  One nice thing about the tarp setup is that I attach one side of the tarp to the roof on my hog shelter and then extend the tarp out in front of the shelter as a vestibule.  This keeps more rain out of the shelter and provides the hogs with more dry space.  I put the barrel feeder under the tarp; the feed stays dry, the hogs stay dry, and everyone is happy.

I’ve also been asked how many hogs can use a barrel feeder like this.  If the feed is available free-choice (where you fill up the feeder and let the hogs eat whenever they want), I’ve fed up to 12 hogs off of one of these with no problem.  There’s really only room for four hogs to eat at a time, so if you feed hogs once/day instead of free choice, there’s going to be fighting at the feeder if you have more than four hogs on it.

Good luck with your own feeders and let me know how it goes.

 

Pig Tales: Must Read

Pig Tales by Barry Estabrook is a “must read” book for eaters, farmers, and anyone who even remotely cares about sustainability.  Estabrook covers the very best and worst in the lives of modern day pigs and the farms that raise them.
Pig TalesMy hat is off to Mr. Estabrook for telling this important story and not flipping out in the process.  There’s no way I could visit a factory hog “farm” and tolerate seeing 8,000 sows in gestation crates so small that the sows cannot move.  I hope that in my lifetime, practices like these will be outlawed.

There used to be a sacred pact between the farmer and the animals he raised.  The farmer had to earn a living, but he also did whatever he could to give his animals a good life.  The farmer respected his livestock.  I raise my pigs that way and thankfully, there is a small, but growing population of farmers who raise their pigs “the old way”.  Estabrook covers both sides of the story, but clearly sides with the pigs and the alternatives to our American factory farms.

This book reminds me that humans often discount and underestimate what they don’t understand and yet, there is so little effort put forth to even try and understand the unknown.  I learned a lot about pigs while reading this book and was completely fascinated with the stories of lab research that probed the intelligence and capabilities of pigs.

Pig Tales is an easy read and a book that I looked forward to picking up every day.  I hope you give it a chance too.

Great For The Pigs

I tell people that we raise pigs using methods that are great for the pigs and great for the table.  It’s no accident that “great for the pigs” comes first in that phrase.  I want my pigs to live happy, healthy lives.  Yes, it makes for better tasting pork, but pigs are smart, fun creatures and they deserve at least the same care and respect we afford our dogs and cats.

Grass Paddock

Pigs are very adaptable and can live almost anywhere, even in small, confined spaces but that’s not how they would choose to live.  Roughly 100 million pigs are raised in the United States every year and about 97% of those are raised inside industrial confinement warehouses.  Of the 3% that are grown outside on what we picture in our minds when we think of the word “farm”, the vast majority of those pigs are raised in small dirt confinement areas. The butcher who comes to my farm says that roughly 9 out of 10 pigs he slaughters are raised in small feedlot conditions where the pigs are in a dirt pen without a blade of grass anywhere.

These pigs made themselves a dirt wallow under some trees to escape the heat.

These pigs made themselves a dirt wallow under some trees to escape the heat.

We don’t raise our pigs that way.  Our pigs are free to roam and root in grass and forest and they make good use of the variety, browsing on green grass, shrubs, and rooting up goodies from the earth.  Their diverse diet provides great flavor to the meat, but more than that, it lets pigs be pigs.  They get to decide what to eat and whether they want to rest in the grass, under trees, or in the shelter we built for them.  They chase each other around and roam free.  When they’ve sufficiently beat up the grass in one area, we move them to a new area and let the last grass rest and recover.  It takes a lot more land and effort to raise pigs this way, but it’s better for the land and better for the pigs so we put in the extra effort.  We respect the carrying capacity of the land and let our pigs be pigs.  It really is great for the pigs and it tastes great too.