Beginnings and ends
This month has been a month of beginnings and ends.
The beginnings have included a new REKO Ring in Howick. But that is also the end of us setting up REKO Rings! Helping to manage three has been a lot of work but worthwhile. Howick is proving to be popular and gaining interest every week. REKO has been a complete game changer for our business and we enjoy getting to hang out with the other producers every week, and get to know our customers. Check out this article in the Village Talk and The Witness (click pics to view):
Pasture Raised Chicken
We also started up our pasture raised poultry again after a break during Christmas and New Year. It always requires a fair amount of forward planning to make sure that the freezers don’t run empty in the 6 – 8 weeks it takes for chickens to grow, but also to not have too much stock and not enough freezer space. These little guys start off in a warm and cozy brooder until they’re feathered out and then move outside. They moved outside yesterday already!
After many requests, we started selling portioned chicken – skinless breasts, thigh packs and braai packs (wings and drumsticks). Another new beginning.
Starting this meant we needed to up our game in terms of our kitchen facilities. Currently most of our food preparation and baking takes place in our guesthouse kitchen, equipped with higher hygiene standards because we are used to serving food out of it. But dealing with raw meat is another story. We purchased some stainless tables and other equipment to set up a more suitable processing area.
This lead to another change for us, a fairly big one! The start of something new… but that means the end of something else…
We will be moving out of our cozy loft cottage and into the upstairs of the main house. This will enable us to convert our loft kitchen into a farm kitchen where we can do all of the food processing involved in the farm/guesthouse business. The kitchen in the loft is an open plan kitchen/lounge area so it is a big, and undefined space, (except for a sink and one set of cupboards) meaning we can add in stainless steel tables and whatever other equipment we need without changing any built in cupboards etc that one usually finds in a kitchen.
It will also enable us to have a small accessible farm shop for guests and visitors to buy produce from the farm. Our wash station and packing areas are right outside this area so now this will be right beside the farm kitchen and storage areas, close to the laundry and linen store, meaning a better work flow, one area for all business happenings to happen.
This has been a decision in the making for nearly 18 months! The farm kitchen and shop are exciting to us and gave us the final push to make this move. It will probably take us a while still to actually put this into action in between all the other busyness but it is an active work in progress!
Free Range Pork
The last thing we started this month was our second batch of piglets! We bought weaners (recently weaned pigs) from the same guy as before but this time they happened to be much younger and smaller. Too small in fact to go into the electronet so they had to camp out in the broiler pens for three weeks. We moved them several times a day as they just loved the grass and rooting around like mad. They had only ever known concrete flooring and walls (for all of their short little lives so far) but they instantly knew what to do when they were put on grass, munching loudly and running around excitedly. One of the piglets has blue eyes and is rather curious and friendly. We decided within a day that she, named Blu, would take up long term residence at Bramleigh! She is very clever, and quick to escape to play with Elliott, given half a chance!
With the start of the piglets, came a day that we had not really acknowledged. The end of the big pigs.
Pigs were always something that were last on our list of enterprises to try. They are profitable but intelligent and can be difficult to manage. Life has different plans.
About a year ago, we were approached by customers enquiring about us raising pigs for them, based on how we raise our chickens. Tentatively, in October we got 8 pigs. We lost one to illness early on (it may have joined us ill) but the other 7 grew and enjoyed their life at Bramleigh. We grew very fond of them. They interact, are responsive and can be so useful with their mini tilling noses. Everyone warned us not to get attached but, try as we might, they do wiggle into your heart!
Unfortunately (or fortunately – we’ll have to see how it pans out), most of our customers were, in the end, unable to take their pigs. We understand this. Life changes. And especially since it was nearly a year later, situations change. Free range pigs take much longer to grow because they’re active. We were rapidly thrown into a very short time to react – to figure out all the end parts stuff – where to take the pigs, find a butcher, what cuts to get, what parts make what cuts, how to cure, how to package, how to store and how to sell! All the things we were not prepared to do.
We rushed out and bought another freezer and began the steep learning curve. We were very fortunate in that we had many REKO customers stampeding at the thought of free range pork! We have some customers phoning every week to get an update and there is much excitement and interest.
Having to deal with all this ‘end parts’ stuff was a very emotional couple of weeks. I can hear non-pork eaters nodding their heads – this is why we don’t eat pork. We can assure you that that thought crossed our minds more than many times! Yet we know that these pigs had the best life possible. They enjoyed grass, sunshine, forest, running around, playing, tickles, talks, the best organic scraps, daily harvests of chestnuts and acorns, mud baths, milk and lots and lots of love.
And while we have been sad, and will continue to be sad for a while to come, we know we gave those pigs the best life and we will be a whole lot more conscious and grateful about their sacrifice.
This event reminded me of this photo:
Nature doesn’t serve only itself – natural systems serve their own best interest but at the same time provide for those around it. Our pigs, as they grew, always made sure they each had the best share of the milk/chestnuts/scraps – whatever was on offer plus the best forage. Yet this self serving was also beneficial in other ways – their voracious foraging aerated the soil, tilled up weeds, softened the soil and gave the microbial system a boost. Did they have this natural consciousness that they were not only serving themselves? In their foraging they were providing for others, just by their very being. In their growth, were they aware, a natural inborn instinct, that they were going to provide for others too? Maybe.
Yet if we reflect on our role – what did we do to provide for them? For the other systems? Are we just takers and not reciprocating this giving/paying forward? A deep challenge in all that we do.
If we truly seek to mimic nature, can we ensure that while we care for our own needs, in doing so we are also caring for the needs to natural systems around us?
We were also faced with the challenge of marketing this product appropriately. It is a fine balance, as we have learnt with our chickens and eggs. Most of what we do involves educating customers about the product. Pasture raised chicken and eggs are not the same in quality as free range eggs. Pasture raised chicken and eggs contain far higher levels of vitamins, omega 3s and other essential nutrients because they have the ability to self select on pasture, fresh pasture every day. It is thus a far more labour intensive venture, requiring a lot more time and infrastructure than standard backyard free range chickens (and industrial free range chickens and eggs are not free range! Read here). . This is a heavy responsibility and requires a lot of thought, planning and consciousness.
The same with the pigs. It is far more time and labour intensive but that is what makes it a premium product. Our per kg price is R8 more than a supermarket. A supermarket where you will get a pig that has never been outside and lived its entire life on concrete. Yet others have been over the moon at getting free range, forest raised pork at the price we are selling it.
It is amazing how just the right people cross your path when you need it – a podcast in a series that we listen to, friends, colleagues and a number of people in the last week have all given the same message – don’t produce something and try to convince others that your product/service is worth paying for. Produce something and then find the right people who are willing to buy it. This relates to any goods or services. The right people are out there. Growing a tough skin and letting those who don’t agree wash off your back is easier said than done though!
Besides for all these beginnings and ends, life carried on as usual:
We are still trying to pick up the pieces after the dry spell and then all the rain. We’ve planted most of our late summer and autumn crops now. We were lucky to find a pile of rich organic matter from our local sawmill. Off cuts, wood chips and other bits are chucked onto a big pile that is turned regularly and starts producing a great planting medium. While slightly acidic, we are growing crops that enjoy this type of soil. It is freely available and we can literally collect by the bakkie load, or get it delivered! A couple loads later and we are building up our last set of beds. We are planning to try run these beds with the slope instead of across it. We’ll have to see…
Pasture Raised Eggs
Our chickens are still living the high life in their egg mobile. They’re moved every couple of days to new areas. We have been totally blown away at the improvement in the grass from just one lap of the egg mobile along our precious flat areas! It has been exactly a year since we started our first batch of broilers. We have run all the batches but one in the area around the workshop. We have seen the grass explode where the broilers have been (which the piglets are now thoroughly enjoying!). The variety of grass species and quality of grass is mind blowing. We can’t keep up with the growth. Currently we have to mow it because we don’t have herbivores to graze it (and it is a small area) but it just shows what is possible. We can’t wait to try out a leader follower system – although this requires some planning since pigs and chickens are all omnivores.
The geese have been added again to the chicken flock. They can be a bit of a pest to the chickens, chase them, challenge the rooster and eat the layer feed. But they are good for protecting the flock from predators and helping graze the grass. The plan is to slowly adapt the geese to a free ranging life at the dam. Our geese have become very timid and territorial after the caracal attacks last year. They don’t like moving house but they enjoy being with the chickens. If they get used to living out of the garden and around the dam, they might take the opportunity to be free range geese. By sleeping on the water, they will be safe at night. We had one goose attempt it a few nights ago and she just looked so beautiful and peaceful as she paddled quietly on the dam in the dusk mist.
We have excitedly hosted a number of farm tours recently too. Some to friends, guests or people we know. Others have been online enquiries! We find this encouraging. Being willing to open your farm to visitors is daunting. While we balance the ethical and economics, generally with more weighting on the former, not everyone may agree with raising animals at all. However, welcoming potential customers onto the farm is an essential part of being transparent.
March and April are usually very busy months with it being ‘wedding season’ in the Midlands! The added stress was that of loadshedding for the better part of the last two weeks. While we are extremely fortunate to have a solar power system and back up, it cannot carry the entire load during loadshedding if we are full house. It has been a challenge to balance energy needs of our essential loads, and those of guests, and making breakfasts with our limited back up. Most holidaymakers assume that problems like loadsheddding don’t seem to affect holiday places! We had far too many comments of “oh so you also have loadshedding here?”. And the most popular time for loadshedding was in the early morning when everyone wanted a hot shower, boil the kettle for coffee … and … we were trying to make breakfast! But we are so grateful that we could still achieve all of these things. Andre spent most of the two weeks flipping switches in the DB at such a rate that he could put a DJ to shame!
These are the things that keep life interesting!
And we keep learning. We are so incredibly grateful to every person who buys anything from us because they support our dream and vision. We are grateful for the beginnings and ends, and for the lessons in between.
And the last thing to end now is this blog post!