MAY ON THE FARM
Already half of this crazy month has flown by. May is always busy with fertilizing the pastures and bush hogging them to get rid of the unwanted early season weeds, mowing the chicken lots and the farm lane weekly, disking the winter grazed fields and planting summer grazing, and doing the normal chores and tasks that all farms have to do on a daily basis. One thing for sure, there isn’t much resting time during the spring months.
I know that everyone is concerned with the availability of meat. Corporate processing plants are still being affected by Covid-19 with some being temporarily closed and others working with reduced staffs due to the large number of people out sick. I’ve seen reports of some plants with 1,500 or more employees trying to run with 300 or more people out sick. In cases like this there is no way production can run at 100% capacity. In fact many of these plants are running below 50% capacity and expect to do so for several more weeks. In April, nationally, pork processing was running 57% of normal. At that level pork shortages can’t be avoided; the same is holding true for beef processing.
The processing plant that we use for our cows had 5 people out sick about 3 or 4 weeks ago; there are still 3 out as of Friday. Unlike other illnesses, Covid- 19 often has people sick for 14 days or more and several people are still not up to par for 30 days or more. We had 10 steers hanging there and will get 4 back this week. We partner with another farmer so of the 10 steers, only 5 are ours. We expect to continue having issues with our beef inventory for the foreseeable future.
We continue to get phone calls for whole and half beef. At this time, and throughout the rest of 2020, we will not be able to sell any whole or half cows. We are at maximum capacity with the processing plant on beef, and will use that capacity to process beef in market cuts for our family customers.
The processing plant in Kingstree, where we process pork and chickens, is getting behind and can’t seem to get caught up. They have stopped taking any additional hogs except for those being sold to restaurants for 2 weeks. The hope is that by doing so, they can relieve some of the back up and get closer to being current. Restaurant hogs are quickly cut into primal cuts which takes about 15 minutes per animal whereas retail cuts take close to an hour and a half per animal. As of this week, the plant had 100 hogs hanging waiting to be cut up with current lead time being 3 to 4 weeks.
On Wednesday May 20, we took 400 chickens to process and cut into parts, we took another 270 this past Wednesday, May 27. The chicken room at the plant is also running behind and has us out of stock on a good number or items. The plant has hired 2 additional people but it takes time to get new hires trained. We expect to begin getting these chickens back to the farm on Monday June 1st.
I know its troublesome placing orders and not getting everything you ordered. I apologize for the inconvenience but want to assure you everyone here at the farm, as well as at the processing plant, is doing everything in their power to try and keep products in stock here at the farm. This time of year is always a busy time at the plant but more so since the pandemic. The owner and I are friends and have had several conversations over the past weeks regarding these problems and are both unsure how to proceed. Do you hire more people in anticipation of things continuing to be this busy or do you stay with the people you have and work harder to get things accomplished? On the farm we hired a person to fill in for Hunter while she’s out and Pastured Pantry has hired a person to help pack orders but we’re not sure if we should hire additional help at this time. Things normally slow down in late June through August as people travel on vacation and schools open for the fall. We’ll wait to see what’s happening then before making a decision to hire any additional help.
With restaurants opening back up, a lot of our customers are concerned that we will supply our restaurant customers at the expense of our family customers. There is no way we would even consider doing that. The products that are supplied to restaurants differ from what we supply to families. Restaurants purchase whole and half hogs for example while families purchase chops, roasts, bacon, and sausages. Restaurants also purchase whole chickens while most families purchase cuts. We have switched our product mix towards serving our family customers and have increased our on-farm production capacity to handle this demand. We continue to process 250 to 300 chickens weekly and as many hogs as needed. We currently have close to 100 hogs out in the lots and close to 60 pigs in the farrowing house, with 12 or more sows in the hog lots that will farrow within the next 3 months.
In a few weeks I will make a trip out of state to visit a friend of ours that is a pure bred hog breeder. For several years he has provided us with all of our boars and gilts as well as sold us 50 lb feeder pigs when he has excess. When I make this trip I will bring back 2 new boars and 50 feeder pigs. The boars will spend a couple of months segregated from the breeding sows but will eventually be moved to the sow lots and take the place of the 2 boars we currently have in service. We will also begin removing some of our older sows and bring in several young replacement gilts. At this time we are not planning on increasing the number of sows in the breeding herd but are planning to continue running a 24 or 25 sow herd.
It’s always difficult seeing your breeding stock go. Unlike other animals on the farm, some of the breeding stock has names and you’ve worked closely with each of them. It’s a lot different loading animals from the grow lots onto the trailer than it is a sow that you’ve sat up with when she was giving birth.
By now many of you have seen the new items we have begun offering. The smoked sausage, sugar cured hams, and bacon all use our meat and are smoked in an old fashion country smoke house that we were fortunate enough to find after an almost 2 year search. The first batch we made turned out pretty good and is getting some very positive feedback. The quantity we had produced was small to insure we liked the quality before we went in head first. At this time a second trip has been made to bring them more hams and bellies to cure and smoke. In late June we will go back and pick up more sliced ham, whole hams, smoked pork sausage, and bacon. We are also making a small batch of Boudin for those that like Cajon foods. We are excited about these items and are hoping to be able to offer sugar cured hams as an alternative to our Holiday turkey offerings this year. If things are better next year we hope to once again raise turkeys for Thanksgiving and offer hams for Christmas.
In March, when the pandemic hit and the restaurants closed, we stopped all hatchery orders for baby chicks. Two weeks later, thanks to family purchases, we resumed hatchery orders and are getting 300 chicks in weekly. Demand has been so high for our chicken that we could actually increase our hatchery orders to 400 chicks a week but can’t do it because of the lack of available processing. We will reevaluate things in the fall when the farms that only produce for the farmers markets stop processing for the season; this normally occurs in November.
We’ve begun experiencing some hot days already this year. We’ve moved some of the chicken feeders into the houses to provide feed for the birds all day long and will soon have to start cutting on the misters mid-morning. During the summer months the chickens will feed early morning and late evening, the coolest parts of the day, and move back into the houses when it gets hot. We are talking about putting fans in all of the chicken houses to help cool the air a little more. We’ve contacted an electrician and Coastal Electric about running power out into the field. Before running hard wire in the field, we’ve decided to buy a solar powered fan and try it in one of the houses. The fan doesn’t need to run at night so a battery won’t be needed and we don’t want enough air to blow the birds away, just enough to add additional cooling to the mist. If the test fan works we can purchase enough solar fans to put one in all the remaining houses. We’re really hoping the solar fans work; it would be great not adding to an already high electric bill or running more wires. Another plus is that the solar fans are plug and play and can be easily installed by us saving us the cost of an electrician.
Jesse completed our last winter project this week when he finished the newest hog grow lot. Originally we had planned to build 4 or 5 more during the winter but time got away from us and we decided to stop when the second was completed. Summers are busy and it’s just too hot to do these projects during the summer months.
We have a couple of other things in the works like putting in an a/c unit and getting a better Wi-Fi signal out to the market. The market isn’t insulated and the sliding doors make it inefficient to cool and heat but will have to work for now. Later maybe we can consider changing things up a bit and installing doors.
Pastured Pantry has been extremely busy this month. Dairy weeks have had Amy and Jesse making 100 or more stops while non-dairy weeks are close to 80 stops. Packing for this number of stops, and the Port Royal Farmers Market pre-orders and meat shares, has been taking 2 to 3 people, and sometimes 4 people, 4 days a week to complete. Delivery days were expanded to 3 days on dairy weeks and 2 days on non-dairy to insure all deliveries could be made. None of us could have imagined that this service would be in such high demand. We thank you for the continued support.
Back in March we applied for a USDA value added grant. The grant is designed to help farms like ours grow and expand in a variety of ways. The grant we applied for is targeted to our pork products and getting additional revenues out of the less desirable cuts of pork. By developing new products and finding additional markets for those products, the ultimate goal is to allow us to increase our pork production and grow the farm. Even without the grant we have moved on to providing cured and smoked meats which was one of the areas we identified in the grant. We were informed last week that our grant passed the first major hurdle and has been sent on for scoring. The first hurdle was the one that we were most concerned with. We have been told that we should know if our grant was successful by the end of July. Please keep your fingers crossed for us.
We hope this newsletter finds all of you in good health. Please stay safe and be considerate of others. We know masks are troublesome but remember that you’re wearing them to keep others safe.
Have a great June. Enjoy the weather and some quality time with your family.
Annie, Marc, Amy, & Jesse