New Agrarian VoicesLearn about the impressions and experiences of each year's cohort of apprentices in their own words.
Dave LeFevre, APPRENTICE, Indian Ridge Farm, CO
REFLECTIONS AFTER THE FIRST MONTH
Even though it has only been 3 weeks at Indian Ridge Farm it definitely feels like it’s been easily over a month! Every day has been filled with perfectly amazing sights and sounds, experiences of the kind that exhaust me while simultaneously charging my imagination of the endless possibilities of the utmost fulfilling life on the farm. Everyday is a challenge, and I wonder when I will feel I have reached an equilibrium, a sustainable level of engagement. I yearn to feel a strong grasp and a thriving in the ritual, routine and rhythms (a Daranyi mantra) required at the farm that will inspire me to continue bravely year after year, if I am to continue? But this is why I continue, to answer those very questions by the only means I know and have implemented throughout my life. I want to continue down my path because it is the path before me, not because it is always easy or only exactly what I want to be doing.
Farming and living in a farming community is the only way to fully know my food sources. Intimately knowing my food sources is quite important to me and inspires me on a very fundamental and grounding level so because of this I want to farm. To live a honest, healthy and fulfilling life. Farming is hard work and this type of hard work makes for a calmly satisfied mind and body at the end of the day. My body’s healthy response is a reflection of this work. Furthermore, anyone that has ever sponsored a farm through CSA membership also knows how good it feels to eat food for a season that you can trust for freshness, variety and high nutrient value, to name only a few. It is highly inspiring and deeply satisfying when I think of also being a supplier to my community of this type of essential service. Working with Tony and Barclay I see a desirable looking gleam in their eye when they talk about where their food goes. It’s amazing to hear where and to whom Anne’s produce will be distributed to. It is with great pride I work my hardest to help these awesome people do what they do. And it is with much gratitude to the universe I have and also support a loving partner to share this journey with.
In my apprenticeship at Indian Ridge Farm I hope to aid in accomplishing a most productive and maximally lucrative season for the interests of the farm. I seek to gain the vision of what my future farm homestead might look like. Also this season I hope to better understand the web of channels in this community that are traversed by food producers and consumers, how I can help to support and further interconnect this web, and what unique role I might play or beneficial staple I could supply in the future. And so, to the future.
The time spent on the farm this summer was of course unforgettable. Challenging. Rewarding. Even fulfilling. I am very thankful for my family that lives there and for the support that they provided throughout my many hardships this past season. A season past. It’s hard to believe it’s already come to an end. Starting the season I never imagined the trials and tribulations I might endure. Sure I knew it was to be no walk in the park, but I perhaps ever so slightly underrated the level to which I would be worked, physically and mentally. Farming is no old person’s profession, in my opinion, and there are surely facets to farming that any age or demographic can undertake. However, to run a poultry operation and a vegetable garden is neither for the weak of mental fortitude or any who lack pure physical strength. Add to that the dynamic nature of personal relationships and character, shall we say, qualities, and the result may well be an equation that would lead to certain group dynamic breakdown and collapse. Much intentional thought and energy goes into keeping the proverbial train on the tracks in a productive farm earning its keep. A cool head and steady hand are the prerequisites for group farming. I think anyone who has tried to farm or raise animals in an even quasi-industrial sense is very familiar with these tenants. My experience at Indian Ridge Farm has reinforced this personally, in a very real and meaningful way.
The summer was meant to start as any other would, days getting longer and warmer, the promise of fulfilling work in the great outdoors with our hands and minds loomed. After the summer previous spent traveling the western United States aboard my trusty steel chariot, all my needed belongings bagged and strapped, at times gregariously, to all points of my two wheeled dream machine, we knew it was going to be different. A change it was going to be! Which is fine by me. I thrive on change, the only constant I have come to embrace thus far in my life. Well! Little did any of us realize just how different this summer would be. Ending the early spring months in Sedona came the jolt of our generation, the pandemic called Covid-19. I soon realized that stocking up the essentials would be key for many people. Soon after everyone else realized this and thus began the epic bathroom tissue free-for-all that swept the nation. I knew that this pandemic would have stark effects in my life, as everyones, and somehow I was at peace with it. At least in the short term. I knew I had my pandemic sanctuary waiting- what a gift. Housing security, job security, and at the time, the biggest assumption, food security. It was more than my partner and I could hope for, albeit we did not exactly see eye to eye about that. I knew we were extremely fortunate to have this sort of safety net secured for this crazy summer we all were about to experience. No one knew what to expect and admittedly us the least. But we had each other, as partners, as well as a working unit on the farm, so we were locked in. We only had to begin.
Things on the farm started slowly, quietly. We were quarantined in our Hogan, our one room escape pod from the outside world, for two weeks, before we could begin to work with our mentors. Ok, I thought, just a formality in this new landscape of paranoia and overabundance of caution. We were told in no jesting manner that if we got sick, everyone would get sick and the whole farm entity would come crashing down; without farmers to tend to the flock, they would surely die. No if’s and’s or but’s. We started to get the sense that we were not aside nor immune to the influence of the ills of the outside world. Changes would have to be made to the status quo. Immediately cracks started to appear. Would we be able to sell directly to the general public as in the past? How? How could we mitigate person to person contact previously intrinsic with the farm operation? Would there even be farmers markets in our region this season? How would we manage people wanting to come see the farm? People wanting to pick up our goods in person? Many tough questions loomed and few answers were easily found. Supply chain shortages were already becoming apparent. Would we even be able to get chicks in the mail, for instance? Everyone’s future was blurry, if even slightly lit. Alas, these were not our problems, directly. Our mentors had the first and final say in operational logistics as these and decisions were made above our heads and beyond our pay-scale that shaped our season. There would be a farmers market in Telluride. We would not go. Our CSA membership doubled when it was announced that we were not going to be setting up shop for business as usual at the yearly market. No shock there, this was already becoming the future of commerce. Less in-person shopping and more virtual, on-line purchasing. A natural orientation for our new landscape. People were seamlessly transitioned to communal coolers in a few locations for contactless order pickups. We started new relationships with other like-kind businesses and operations. Everyone saw an uptick in home delivery orders and contactless purchases and our stalwart partners remained steadfast in support of our services. Eggs and chickens. Our bread and butter. Our mission. And so we were off, our practice refined and our operation-business as usual. So we thought.
In many ways it was business as usual for the summer. As we were told it. The farm creature count ramped up in a normal way. The laying hens were put out on the various pastures around the parcel, in their modified two horse trailers, equipped with roosting bars for the evening and closeable laying boxes to accommodate their constitutionals. Outside the trailers we erected movable electrified fences to allow them to forage during the day in relative safety. As we would discover, relative is the key word. There is little guaranteed safety in mother nature even as a highly evolved, relatively intelligent food producer. We would regularly adjust the position of the fences to allow the ground to be evenly grazed and fertilized. Every so often we would move the whole trailer when it’s surrounding land was too grazed to be viable for further meaningful support to the chickens. The greenhouses where they had spent the winter was a virtual wasteland of manure- too hot to plant in, so we scraped the surface and amended it with wood chips. Unfortunately still too hot to grow in, we lost several rounds of plantings to root burn from soil too rich from the chickens fertilizer. A lesson to be learned at every turn, to those who are paying attention.
In our new world of the broilers, the excitement had not yet started. We had a few batches of chicks come in, growing in the brooder and getting big enough to be able to survive the elements outdoors. Every week we received shipments of tiny chirping cuteness, mere cardboard boxes divided into four compartments each containing around 20 chicks, ideally 3 days old, having never eaten or drank, from across the country! I’m still amazed that they would make it at all. Early in the season when it was still cold, we would in fact lose some number of birds to the elements. Four weeks in the brooder and then four to five more weeks under their rebar, chicken wire and tarp domes. At five weeks the birds have morphed significantly. No longer downy soft and tiny and fragile. These birds were more akin in shape to bowling balls, sometimes almost half of a cage could be roosters. The double breasted Cornish cross breed are what Americans want to see on their rotisserie, I learned, so that is what we raised. For 14 weeks this summer we had somewhere around 1200 birds in all stages of their growth. 21 batches of birds total, the chore times would be 45 minutes to an hour per cycle.
In the morning, first thing, we would feed and water chicks in the brooder. We inspected each batch for signs of sickness, thirst, warmth. Chicks are extremely fragile at this point in their life cycle. They must not be overfed, especially when young and at altitude or their freak genetics would allow their bodies and muscles to grow faster than their hearts could, resulting in cardiac failure. Next, out to the pasture to move the pens of maturing birds. Every pen gets fresh ground to forage for breakfast. Once in the pasture the birds are rationed feed at a steady and controlled rate. Twice a day these birds were fed, at noon and at 4pm. Every day at noon we would check how the chicks ate in the brooder, then feed pasture. Every day at four, the brooder was fed as was the pasture. Every Tuesday afternoon we would catch the oldest birds for the following days butchering. These birds would spend the night in smaller cages of 10-12 birds directly in front of the “kill side” of the processing plant. The plant has two distinct sides, the kill side, where the bleeding out, scalding and coarse plucking would occur, and the evisceration side, where the fine plucking happened along with disemboweling and a cold bath to begin the chilling for packaging. All of the offal is composted on site with a mixture of compost and reused wood shavings from the floor of the brooder. Nothing is wasted or flushed away. Even the water used in the plant is settled for a week and sprayed onto the newer manure and compost pile, it’s a beautiful thing. Our average carcass weight was over 4 pounds and we processed over a TON of meat. That is an astonishing factoid to me this year. It’s easy to glaze over the fact that we were processing almost 130 birds a week from mid June to the first week in October when every week I was either killing the birds or eviscerating them. This was not often easy for me to do, it’s a lot of killing and nothing like we had ever experienced. DeAnne and I would alternate in two week shifts from layer duty to broiler duty, changing with these tasks, which side of the processing plant we were on. Unforgettable.
Our gardening duties were our escape from the ugly realities of the chickens. I plowed and forked and hoed. I felt my body get stronger and become more accustomed to this work. By far the hardest on my hands and my back was weeding. Weeding for hours, I spent some afternoons. Farming like this is very taxing. I do not envy folks who choose this as their occupation. Noble as it may be, it beats me down, and I could not do it solely year after year. The rewards from the garden are the icing on the farm cake however. No other time in my life have I eaten so well, so fresh of a diet, for so long. The boarding that comes with the apprenticeship agreement is worth the price of admission, and made the work this summer savory good. Add that to my wonderful partner, who just so happens to take great pleasure from cooking and creating delicious baked goods for others to enjoy, and you can start to see what a wholesome and fulfilling experience this summer was for me.
A deep gratitude and appreciation is due to Tony and Barclay who mentored us this summer. Taking on a couple of green backs, and mentoring for, like, their twentieth year in a row is an unimaginable role to me. The housing provided, a hogan, is a quite ideal space to have when apprenticing. Imagine a yurt with wooden sides and a real roof. The outdoor kitchen and shower, while rustic, adds a distinct feeling of the outdoor life, a life connected to our surroundings and the land we lived on. The overarching ideal that I looked to embrace was one of connectivity. Connecting to the people. Connecting to the places our food comes from. Connecting and engaging the places we get our food. Connecting to our food, directly. It is unfortunate to say the least, in this country especially, that we are not more closely connected to the sources and the actual processing of the meat that is consumed by us. It is a huge detriment to our civilization and our society that the over industrialization of our food chain has gotten to the level it has. I am truly afraid for the future of all of mankind if this continues to be the path we take to get over processed, under nourishing franken-foods. This summer has been immensely rewarding in showing me that I am capable of engaging with amazing local producers to get and produce wonderful food from extremely close by. I feel incredibly fortunate to have spent my summer on Indian Ridge Farm, current pandemic notwithstanding. This game changing opportunity will continue to shape the way I engage in my own consumption and the way I view food for the rest of my life. A huge thank you is also due to Jill at the Quivera Coalition for mentoring DeAnne and myself, albeit from afar and indirectly. Your presence in my apprenticeship was appreciated as it was helpful, the tools that Quivera/NAP provided were priceless and ever so insightful, and thank you to everyone “behind the scenes” there.
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