Friday, August 26, 2011

Dewberry Hills Farm - Lexington, TX

Greetings from Texas! I just finished two and a half weeks on a chicken farm 50 miles east of Austin. Before reading further, you should know that Dewberry Hills processes their chickens on site, so some of the images I’ve included are a little gory. If you’re eating – especially if you’re having chicken – maybe read this later.

I’ll spare you the gore long enough to take a quick detour to Chicago for Lollapalooza, which happened between leaving New Orleans and coming here. Some of you were there with me – yay! Highlights: Ratatat, Phantogram, My Morning Jacket, Local Natives, and the Art Institute of Chicago.

The weather was perfect until the last part of the last day. But the skies made for good photography.

Afterward, there was a double rainbow all the way across the sky! What does it mean??

This is what my friend Neha thinks I will look like if I keep farming. Or it’s what she thinks I look like now. Either way.

We rocked out pretty hard for three days and then it was time to fly to Austin and find out what chicken farming is all about. Terry, one of my hosts, picked me up and brought me along with him to finish making deliveries before heading out to the farm. He and his wife, Jane, have 20 acres of pasture, on which they raise 2,400 chickens. The chickens live for six to eight weeks before they’re processed and sold to restaurants, a co-op grocery, and at a farmers' market.

Here is the front pasture, with the chicken pens and the nearly full moon.

Here is Jane and Terry’s house, and my trailer on the right.

The model of chicken farming Jane and Terry use is called pastured poultry. The chickens live outside but are kept in 10x10-foot tents, which are moved every morning to keep the pasture beneath the chickens fresh. This helps keep things organized and clean (and fertilizes the soil), but more importantly it helps protect the birds from the Texas heat. This part of east Texas is in the middle of a really severe drought, and has been for the last three summers. The temperature hangs around 105 degrees every day, and Austin just recently broke the record for consecutive 100+ days with 22. That was three weeks ago and I think the streak is still intact.

Here are the tents in the front pasture, full of (relatively) happy little chickens.

Here is what it looks like inside one of the tents. Please imagine the ground lush and green, which it would be if it would rain, just once, ever.

The farm puts out around 350 chickens each week, so everything that happens here happens on a weekly basis. Four days a week, Jane and Terry spend most of the day killing chickens while their employee Earl and I feed and water the others. Every Wednesday, they deliver their chicken to a farm-to-table wholesaler, several restaurants, and the co-op. Every Thursday, they get new feed from a feed mill nearby. Every Friday, they get a new flock of chicks and put another set, the three-week old birds, out in the pasture. Every Saturday, they make more deliveries and sell at a farmers’ market.

The chickens begin their life here after being shipped from a hatchery. This can be traumatizing, and sometimes dozens of birds are lost before they even make it into the brooder pens. When new chicks arrive, we count them and introduce each one to the waterer by dipping their beaks.

Here is a shipment of new chicks ready to be unloaded.

Here is a chick being introduced to its first sip of water in the brooder.

Chickies! Some of them have been overzealous in trying to get a drink.

Om nom nom nom nom nom.

Since Jane and Terry have their operation more or less under control, they decided to share me with a nearby farm that is just getting off the ground. This being Texas, these neighbors are about 40 minutes away. The farm is called Slow Food Farm and is run by another couple, Jen and Harry. They put out 200 chickens a week and are using the exact same model.

Here are Slow Food Farm’s tents. They’re a little smaller than Jane and Terry’s and are made out of metal instead of PVC. There’s a lot of room for innovation in this kind of farming.

Here is the inside of one of Slow Food’s brooder pens. The younger chicks live in here for three weeks before they’re big enough to live in the pasture.

Here is a week-old chickie.

Baby chicks can’t produce enough body heat to survive on their own, even in a Texas drought, so heat lamps (on the underside of the table-like object you saw in the brooder) do the job their mothers normally would.

Then, once they’re out in the pasture, they need to be kept cool. In addition to the shade, irrigation misters are attached to the inside of the tent – if the misters fail, every chicken in the tent can be dead within an hour. This means chicken farming is an exercise in vigilance, and the chickens are given constant attention. Even so, things happen, and during my stay Slow Food lost 75 chickens in one day due to a mister failure. The week before I arrived, they’d lost 90 birds.

It’s kind of funny to think about all the things we do to keep these animals alive just so we can kill them later. Dewberry Hills is licensed to process their chickens on site instead of having to send them to a slaughterhouse, so eventually every bird that survives the heat and the predators – feral pigs are a $400 million problem in Texas right now, and dogs, hawks, and raccoons can all cause thousands of dollars of damage – winds up in the processing shed. I didn’t take any photos of the actual moment of death because that seemed undignified, but even so a few of the photos that follow might be upsetting.

First the chickens have to be weighed. For a 3.5-pound processed chicken, Jane and Terry pull 5-pound live birds.

The birds are secured by their feet in the white containers on the right, with their heads sticking out of the bottom. The blood rushing to their heads calms them down, and their throats are cut. Once they’ve bled out, they’re put into the hot water bath on the left, which loosens their feathers for plucking.

Here is Terry using the automatic plucker. It takes less than a minute to pluck each bird.

Terry gives the plucked chickens to Jane, who cuts their heads and feet off and eviscerates them (saving the livers, of course), then puts them into an ice bath to keep them clean and cold.

The finished product is kept on ice until deliveries or market.

Don’t go in that room!

This is considered one of the most humane ways to kill a chicken, and combined with the way they’re raised, it’s a much, much better existence than what the average, factory-farmed chicken experiences. Still, I’ve concluded that there really isn’t such a thing as a “humane” way to raise and kill animals for food on any kind of scale. The two concepts – giving an animal a decent life on the one hand and getting it fat and tender enough to kill and eat it on the other – seem inherently mutually exclusive. Eating meat simply requires a certain amount of suffering.

Which is sad, so here is a picture of a chickie:

And here are some photos of life on the farm that didn’t fit into my narrative:

Here is the truck loaded with coolers for delivery. I’ve never driven such a large vehicle. It’s hard not to barrel.

Here is Jane at the farmers’ market. Their marketing slogan is pretty straightforward.

Here are the obligatory farm dog photos. From left: Eugene Howard/Buster, Newton, and Dixie, who is actually technically the neighbor’s dog but abandoned them years ago because it’s more fun over here – all the chicken heads you can eat!

Here is Dixie, thinking she’s coming to help with deliveries.

Here is one of the brooders, which is actually an old World War II-era mobile army machine shop. Making a profit from a chicken farm requires a lot of upcycling.

Here is a mutant chickie with an extra wing! His name is Charles.

Here is the organic feed mill Slow Food Farm uses. Dewberry Hills prefers to support a local farmer (it’s cheaper and Terry uses his own formula for the feed), but it’s not organic. That’s often the trade-off in alternative farming.

Did I mention that Jen and Harry also keep pigs? This is the “small” one.

Alright, that’ll do, I think. There’s always more to add, especially since this is the first animal farm I’ve stayed on, but if I told you everything I’ve learned here you’d stop reading. So instead I’ll close with some shots from Austin, the coolest town in Texas:

I tried to make the same face as this longhorn. I actually nailed it in another photo, but the photographer was laughing so it’s blurry…

Here is Barton Springs pool, a natural-bottomed, spring-fed swimming pool in Austin.

Here is the Texas statehouse, built four feet taller than the Capitol because everything's bigger in Texas.
This isn’t in Austin, obviously. I hadn’t been horseback-riding in over a decade; it turns out boat shoes and cutoff jeans aren’t the best riding gear.

Austin is home to the largest urban bat colony in the world. They all fly out in one huge ribbon at dusk.

Almost forgot: the link for the Lamanche Urban Farm’s Kickstarter campaign is now in the sidebar, so please check that out when you get a chance. There are also many, many more photos (and stories!) on Flickr. My journey continues with another northern detour to see my friend Lea in Montana and road trip through Wyoming. From there, I’m flying to New Mexico to work on a farm near Santa Fe and hopefully after that I’ll be on an alpaca farm in Arizona. Somewhere in between, I’ll send another update.


Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Greenleaf Farms / detours /

In the last few weeks since my first post I’ve been in four different states and a lot has happened. The first thing: there actually is a midnight train to Georgia, and I took it from Greensboro to Atlanta.

It was actually the 12:22 am train to Georgia, but “He’s leavin’ on that 12:22 am train to Georgia” doesn’t flow very well.

From Atlanta, I got a ride from my host, Greg, to his farm in Barnesville, about an hour south of the city. Greenleaf Farms isn’t certified organic, but it is certified naturally grown, and Greg is certified awesome at farming. The farm is small – about five acres – but he’s cleared and cultivated all of it completely on his own. When he bought the land no one had been on it for about 10 years, so I find that pretty impressive.

Here’s the farm early in the morning, before the fog has fully lifted.

I found it even more impressive once I started helping Greg do the work. Unlike Old Oak, Greenleaf is a proper farm – it produces enough for Greg to sell at multiple farmers’ markets and a CSA. So for one person, or even two of us, to keep the whole place growing is an almost impossible amount of work.

I helped with the heavy lifting – mainly shoveling compost onto new beds and then raking and evening them out. There was much more of a routine than at Old Oak, and most days we were outside working by 6 am and inside by noon, then back out again for a few hours in the afternoon. The rest of the time we stayed inside to avoid the heat, watched the U.S. women’s soccer team almost win the World Cup, and enjoyed delicious meals prepared by Greg’s wife, Maeda. A tour of the farm:

Here is the house, which was built in 1825. John Quincy Adams was president.

Here is half the garden, with the barn and hoop house, which were damaged by a tornado in April. A tornado!

Here is the other half of the garden, with the old milking house. Greenleaf used to be a dairy farm.

I wish I could tell you what all these are. Greg grows some pretty obscure crops. I see carrots…

Hey, a dog! This is Greg and Maeda’s “puggle-box” (a cross between a puggle, which is a pug and a beagle, and a boxer). His name is Blue. He is awesome.

Here is what’s left of Greg’s hoop house. It looks like someone stepped on it. Tornadoes are scary.

This is Greg, tilling a new bed. Horray for rototillers!

One of the downsides of the way I’m moving across the country, farming in different places for only a week or two at a time, is that I don’t get to see anything I do come to fruition – literally. If I plant something, I’m lucky if it sprouts before I’m on to the next place. On the other hand, on a farm everything is happening at once; some crops are just sprouting, others are just being planted, and others are ready to harvest. At the end of my week at Greenleaf, we harvested a bunch of radishes, kohlrabi (one of Greg’s obscure crops), green beans, cherry tomatoes, Swiss chard, and herbs, then sold them at a farmers’ market in Atlanta.

Three different types of eggplant!

Washing radishes and herbs.

Here are some kohlrabi, being bunched. They taste kind of like water chestnuts.

Here is our stand at the farmers’ market. From the top: cinnamon basil, green beans, Swiss chard, sun gold and rainbow cherry tomatoes, rosemary, figs, lime basil (totally wild, you should try it), Mexican thyme, and eggplants. We sold out of everything.

I left Georgia for a detour – all the way back up the east coast to Lake Newfound in New Hampshire, where I met up with a couple of friends and basically just relaxed for about a week. The lake is one of my favorite places in the world.

We grew moustaches.

Rob’s was the best.

Sam just looked creepy.

We also climbed a mountain.

Oh yeah, the lake was there too.

After the All Male Retreat, I flew to New Orleans to attend Tales of the Cocktail, which is kind of like a conference or festival for bartenders, booze industry types, and cocktail nerds like myself. There are a bunch of seminars, competitions, an award ceremony, and other events. But really, it’s just a big party.

While I was at Tales, I stayed at an apartment in the Tremé neighborhood of New Orleans that I’d found through the website AirBnB. Really highly recommend that site. This is my block.

Here are some houses in the Tremé.

Here is a house in the Marigny.

Free St. Germain cocktails! Outside the Hotel Monteleone, where Tales took place.

I went to a seminar on barrel-aged cocktails, which is more or less what it sounds like – large batches of a single cocktail, like a Manhattan, aged in old oak barrels. Each spot on the placemat was for a sample of a different drink, both aged and unaged. If you ever have a chance to try a barrel-aged cocktail, do it.

I was lucky enough to come into a free ticket to the midnight Bartenders’ Breakfast, which is kind of like the final party of the festival. Every year, the bartenders at Tales choose a drink they hate (or hate making) and declare it dead, then give it a New Orleans jazz funeral through the city that ends with a giant party. This year the dearly departed was the Long Island Iced Tea.

Here is an eerie photo of an ice luge in the shape of a boat.

Here is the Kinfolk Brass Band. They led the funeral, which transformed into a second line parade by the time it reached the party.

Here is Ron Jeremy, for some reason. It doesn’t look like it, but he let me take this photo of him.

Here is me with a gigantic shaker. Ron Jeremy took this photo. Just kidding. But seriously.

So that was Tales of the Cocktail. After two nights in the Tremé, I moved to a house in the Marigny, which is where a lot of the music happens. This was about the time that I started to realize that I’m in love with New Orleans. It’s hard to explain, but at some point on my third night in the city I found myself planning on moving there and trying to figure out how I would do it. Sometimes you just feel a connection to a place, I guess.

Here is To Be Continued Brass Band at the Blue Nile on Frenchmen Street. This was taken right about the time I had my epiphany.

You’re probably wondering what happened to the whole farming thing! After my night in the Marigny, I packed up and made my way through the rain (perpetual rain) to the lower ninth ward. A rebuild organization there,, has planted a small urban farm and community garden on a couple of empty lots. I signed up with them as a WWOOFer and spent about a week and a half living in their volunteer house and trying to reclaim their veggie gardens from the weeds that had taken hold during the weeks and weeks of rain New Orleans was having. We also harvested watermelon, okra, cucumbers, mustard greens, squash, and basil; pruned; cleaned up and replanted beds; and put down mulch.

When I wasn’t farming, I was helping out with a project to survey the entire lower ninth ward and assess how much progress is or isn’t being made. They call it blight mapping, and it’s a tedious process – essentially you just go lot by lot, taking photos of what’s there and recording what condition the neighborhood is in.

Here is the volunteer house at For some reason everyone in there was foreign – we were overrun with French and Belgian volunteers.

Here is my crowded room, which I shared with two South Koreans, a Swede, and a Brit. I was one of two Americans in the house.

Here is the overgrown half of the farm, which sits on the corner of North Galvez and Lamanche streets in the heart of the lower ninth.

Here is a ton of okra. I guess it does well in the rain, and plus we’d mulched the rows so it was harder for weeds to come up.

Here is the back of the farm, with the unfinished hoop house and the compost bins.

Here is our shed, and that’s my friend and fellow WWOOFer Andrew pretending to work. The concrete slab the shed is built on is all that’s left of the houses that used to stand there.

Here is a map of the farm, on the wall of the shed. Very organized!

Nature is reclaiming the ninth ward. Since I was one of the only Americans, I was also one of the only volunteers who felt comfortable driving around, and so I got to take a lot of photos of the area. I’m not trying to proselytize, but I do want to show you what the neighborhood looks like six years after Katrina. There are a lot of debates about what should be done with much of the abandoned and still destroyed places in New Orleans, and there’s no way to have that debate without seeing what it looks like. It was endlessly fascinating to look around what used to be a neighborhood and feel like I was back in the middle of North Carolina farmland. Sometimes I heard a rooster and forgot I was in the middle of a city. Feral animals run amok.

Here is a typical block. If there are houses, they can be anywhere on the spectrum: half-destroyed, abandoned, gutted, rebuilt, or sometimes brand new. But there is rarely a block with more than five or six houses on it.

This looks almost like an overgrown public park, but it’s not. There are some intersections where every corner looks like this, and you can’t even see a house.

A common sight in neighborhoods with lots of abandoned buildings is the marking seen here. Each quadrant of the X stands for something: on top, the date the house was visited by a rescue team; on the right, the codename or designation of the team; on the left, a coded indication of any animals or hazards found in the house; and on the bottom, the number of bodies, if any, found inside.

On one of my last days driving around, I found a house with the number one in the bottom quadrant.

I also found this gas station. The prices haven’t been changed since August 2005.

On a lighter note, there are some blocks where some really cool, modern houses are being built. Some people object to this, others welcome it.

People around here don’t like FEMA very much. They’re in the doghouse – get it?

Another common sight – handmade road signs to replace those washed away by the storm.

Almost forgot: one of the things I got to work on at lowernine was a video for a Kickstarter campaign benefiting the farm. For those who aren’t familiar, Kickstarter is a site that allows people working on creative projects to raise money in order to get them off the ground. Each project has an introductory video on their site, and we had about two days to shoot footage and interviews and then edit ours together. It has a couple of awkward cutaways and a few jumpy edits, but I think it turned out well. The link will be posted in the sidebar – please consider contributing!

I left New Orleans for another detour, to go to Lollapalooza in Chicago, but that will have to wait until my next post. Right now I’m in Austin, and tomorrow I’ll be on a chicken farm about an hour east of here. A timelier update will follow.

As always, thanks for reading! Questions and comments are welcome and appreciated.