“Whomperjawed”

We closed on our 5+ acre “farmette,” somewhat disconcertingly noted by our bank’s appraiser as being a “suburban” home (by rural standards), this morning. We’re officially terrified. All our pretty plans on how much we need to spend to get so much revenue from so many square feet of some specific vegetable or chicken species seem suddenly very ethereal when juxtaposed with our actual expenses.

I have been in Madison County, VA for 4+ days now, for the purpose of attending a couple of small-farm related events in these parts, one of them being a conference held at Graves Mountain Lodge on the Local Food Economy, the other an all-day “hands-on” fencing workshop. No, not as in the skills of Medieval knights or some such, but as in building structures to keep livestock in and predators out.

On Tuesday, I hung out with other active and aspiring small farmers and listened attentively as the inspector from the VDACS spelled out the requirements for processed products from non-inspected kitchens as I scratched off a number of potential revenue sources from our list.

We heard from “local food” entrepreneurs on how to find customers and markets. The organic farmer with 9 acres in production based his success on whether he and his family were able to gather ‘round the dinner table by 6pm each night. I wanted to hug him.

Molly, the large-hearted food distributor from Fresh Link who works directly with local farmers to cultivate produce wanted by local chefs of DC restaurants stressed that her company shared the risk with the farmer, by buying produce that they thought would sell. If they couldn’t sell what they bought….ooops. Lesson learned.

Then there was the hipster distributor from Arganica who said he would buy virtually any amount of anything and pick it up to boot… if he had an order. They bought over $10 million in local produce last year. What his cut was we could only imagine.

Then there was the big guy from familyfarmed.org out of Illinois who talked in terms of pallets of produce, and represented Blue Ridge Produce, the big boys distributor opening up in Virginia that would be operational by the end of May.

Pallets of produce aren’t in our horizon, but it was cool to have an arena to hand out business cards and meet my neighbors. The woman seated next to me lived just down the road from our new place! And the man who bought the 14+ acres with the doublewide we had had our eye on was there, too…small world indeed.

Wednesday was a flurry of meetings with insurance companies and emails, phone calls, and faxes to mortgage brokers and lawyers. I spent two hours with my Farm Bureau insurance agent while he explained that Farm Bureau had been heavily trying to engage the local food movement by offering insurance to small producers, until they found out that there was a real demand for insurance for small poultry operations. Game off. No way to get insurance for our on-farm poultry slaughter operation. No one will touch it. The USA is too litigious a society. We want fresh, nutritious, tasty, local chicken. But we want to sue the small producer if we think it might be the chicken that may have made us sick. Even if on our way home to DC we stopped at the county fair to ride the Ferris wheel with our chicken in the trunk on a hot day in August.

Alas. We believe in providing nutritious, humanely-raised food for our community regardless of the litigious tendencies of a small percentage of our potential customers. So we forge on with our plans to convert the shed into a brooder and build modified Salatin chicken tractors for our “back-four” pasture and put a chicken in our logo.

Thursday I raced to our Realtor’s office first thing in the morning to prepare a fax for our bank, then raced back to the Ruritan Club in Brightwood to attend that workshop on building fences. I may be a deliriously happily married woman, but I couldn’t help but pay extra attention to the young man from Gallagher Electric Fencing with his pressed jeans and 2×4 belt buckle who clearly knew more about everything that made land ownership valuable than l’il ol’ me.

“You don’t want your fencing all whomperjawed,” he told us, referring to amateur attempts at running electric fence.

“Whomperjawed,” I diligently wrote down in my notebook. Now that is a word that clearly belongs in the general vernacular.

During lunch, I was courted by the Ruritans after inquiring as to who they were and what they did. (They are a rural service organization and do things like provide scholarships for local kids and clean up roadsides and have pancake breakfasts.) After lunch, we made our way down to a farm for a hands-on demo where about thirty of us stood around and watched fencing professionals drive poles into the ground with, well, pole drivers, twist high tensile wire off, ratchet galvanized wire to insulators, and wire a flood gate over a creek.

The owner of the farm, Carl, who had generously put up his property as a demonstration for laying professional fence, was apparently an open target for derision based upon his frugalness. Rewards were offered for volunteers who could tighten the fence fabric properly. “Yeah, Carl here’ll dig up a hundred dollar bill from his back forty!” offered one of the instructors.

“Guffaw!” went the crowd.

“Um, if the chains hanging down from that fence into the creek are hot (electrified) and I wade across that creek near the floodgate, what will happen to me?” I asked Mr. Electric Fence, hoping I wouldn’t sound too citified.

“Good question. Thanks for paying attention. That water is moving so fast, you won’t notice anything,” he said.

Awesome. Surprises of the electrified kind I can do without. Seen it, done it (don’t climb over electric fences), been there.

I am officially in the market for a fence that can keep out ground-hogs, rabbits, foxes, coyotes, and deer. None of the professional fencers there had a one-stop solution. “Get a dog? And keep him out of your garden beds,” my friendly extension agent, Brad, offered. “Actually,” he continued, “Use a bit of everything. It doesn’t take long for them to figure out something and get used to it.”

Meanwhile, when not hobnobbing with my new colleagues in the farming community, I filled out a wire transfer form which involved transferring six figures out of our bank account to another bank account which was not ours. I pressed “submit” on a three-figure seed catalog order. My completely awesome husband turned down a perfectly decent and lucrative office job in favor of farming for a subsistence income. And around this time next week, I will be responsible for the life and wellbeing and happiness of about 100 fluffy day-old chicks and about 500 seedlings of various vegetables.

My previously placid blood vessels are screaming at me with a pressure unbeknownst. What is this throbbing in my cheekbone?

I’m uploading this from the counter in the kitchen of our new home, with our new cellular mobile network wifi, since DSL and cable internet doesn’t exist in these parts. Welcome to the country. I think I am officially, sanctimoniously, sacrificially, institutionally, thankfully, certifiably, “whomperjawed.”

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11 Responses to “Whomperjawed”

  1. How to stay out of harm’s way?
    You’ve brought the farm to say.
    “We’ll find the joy we dream of,
    As we touch the earth we love
    With gratitude each day.”

    KANSHA. DAD

  2. Victoria says:

    Bein’ from Texas I coulda told ya that whomperjawed is just another way of saying catty whompus. Girlfriend you a such an inspiration. Looking forward to hearing how you get your goods outa the ground and into the market. Such a mad adventure! We know you can do it.

  3. Ash says:

    Ah, Doodi, another fabulous post on your intro to farm life! And the best blog post title ever! “Whomperjawed” is a new one for me, and I’ve been around a lot of “country” so don’t feel bad about never having heard it.
    If you can swing the investment, high tensile electric would be the fencing of choice in my experience. You just have to have the bottom wires spaced really closely together & everything super tight.

    An alternate choice would be woven wire (NOT welded wire) with “regular” electric on the inside or outside – if you’re mostly trying to keep critters out, then the outside. The benefit of that is that the physical fence (woven wire) slows them down long enough for the critters to get shocked. With “just” HT electric they will learn it’s a short, temporary “pain” to go through the wire, and then they have free rein on the inside. And will hesitate to leave. Plus, regular electric is much, much easier to run than HT.

    A thought – back in the day when I was small farming, I sold chickens directly to the public at our farmer’s market. In Ohio, at least, you can process up to a certain number of poultry at your own place for direct sale. One thing we learned was that the market for chicken feet, especially black skinned chicken feet, was unexpectedly huge with the Asian customers. Many expressed that black skinned chickens always tasted better than the usual white skinned chicken. We could sometimes make as much on a black chickens feet as we could on a whole white-skinned bird!

    Of course, most broilers & fryers are white skinned to make them more presentable after plucking.

    We also developed a large following amongst mostly Asian customers for our Khaki Campbell duck eggs. (and I will come get a dozen from you anytime!) They are almost as prolific as regular laying hens.

    If you aren’t already a regular, you should check out the Jeffer’s catalog. They have a pet one, and a farm version. They sell vet supplies but also fencing supplies at better than local pricing.

    Best of luck!

  4. marion tratnyek says:

    so far our apple trees have been pruned. A flat of pansies waits for the wind to die down, so I can enjoy the planting. A young woman with 3 young children raises chickens in Sudbury. she offered a dozen eggs every week times 52 weeks at our AUCTION. Don’t know what they sold for. Cash and Carry .

  5. I’m such a fan of this blog and of your courageous spirits! Congrats on taking the plunge, doing what is good for the soul, the Earth, your neighbors and beyond. I spent a summer pulling Salatin-style chicken tractors around and it strengthened not only my legs and arms, but my Spirit.

    Many blessings as you head into the great unknown! We hope to visit the farm when we screen our film later this year.
    -Mandy

  6. Ash says:

    Diana, I just had another “thought” pop up (they do it so rarely…).
    The key to any business is to find a “niche” market – something in demand but for which there is small supply.

    I just remembered about 20 years ago being “whomperjawed” when I heard of a small-farmer in the midst of WV (where I lived at the time) who was paying all his bills with 5 acres of burdock. Burdock is normally considered a weed – it makes the cockleburrs that I used to have to pick out of my sheep’s fleece. It’s incredibly difficult to get rid of since it’s biennial and puts down deep roots and liberally self-seeding. But it was very “in” at the time at the giant Greenbriar Hotel & Resort Center (the kind of place the president goes) for use in salad – the young greens, and also the roots.

    As I recall the story, this young man (who was the offspring of hippies who had bought a huge chunk of land & settled down there in the 70’s) had tried all kinds of things, just barely scraping by, and had then met the chef of the Greenbriar somewhere and just asked him: what do you wish you had but can’t find a source for? And the answer, from the Japanese chef, was burdock. Organic, of course. So the young man went from struggling to get a living out of 40 acres of cattle & typical crops, to making a tidy living out of 5 acres of burdock, which takes very little in the way of labor, comparatively speaking. They had a contract, and the Greenbriar agreed to buy all he could produce.

    Now I’m certainly not suggesting you plant 5 acres of burdock, but am encouraging you to “think outside the box.” Just like when we discovered there was a thriving market for chicken feet, but not until customers asked for it! I’ve tried all sorts of things to bring in enough to live on, but the biggest lesson I learned was to hunt for the “niche market” and then supply it. Example: lamb. Lots of huge agri-business farms raising lambs makes it hard to make a living growing lambs for market as a small-holder. But, there is a “niche market” of people willing to pay top dollar, really top dollar, for wool from the breeds of sheep that have the best wool for hand spinning, especially if it’s naturally colored (there are sheep that are brown, silver, black, spotted. etc.) . To get top dollar you have to keep your fleece super clean, by making the silly beasts wear coats that are easily hand made. But it’s possible, and I met some folks doing it. The other benefit of this was that the wool breeds are not usually bred anymore, it’s all big-ag black-face crosses for fast growing lambs, so the breeding stock goes for top dollar.

    Heritage breeds, even if we’re talking heritage types of tomatoes – the one that’s green with purple stripes was a huge seller for me – are where the money is.

    Hope this helps a little – these days it’s much easier than when I started as a a pup just out of high school. Then all we had was the gold ol’ Mother Earth News.

    I have a post up on my blog right now that gives you an overview of sorts of some of what I dabbled in, fyi.

    Blessings!

    Ash

  7. Ash says:

    Sorry, had another “thought.”
    One thing about chickens I seem to recall is that you can only butcher & sell so many a year without a certified facility. You can also not sell any larger livestock that you’ve butchered yourself (like lamb, etc).

    One way to get around this, however, is to sell the critters live, and have the purchasers come to the farm & participate in the slaughter. There’s a subset of consumers who really want to know where their food comes from, sometimes they want to show their kids that a chicken was once a living being and steak was once a cow. They are willing to pay extra to not only buy your product but help you process it.

    We had people come out & buy chickens from us this way, as well as a lamb. They paid the price on the hoof, they shot it (in the case of the lamb, although that wasn’t required) then with a large table laid the critters out & we all worked together on getting them a freezer full.

    With larger critters like cattle, they are often sold on percentage basis – you sell shares in the cow, a quarter to this family, a quarter to another, etc. The farmer then transports it to a licensed facility for butchering & packaging, and everyone picks up their share.

    And while I’m brainstorming for you, did you know there are chickens who lay blue & green eggs instead of white or brown? Those always were a hot seller at the farmer’s market. Another “niche.”

    Best of luck!

  8. John Hayden says:

    Look forward to hearing how those day-old chicks and 500 seedlings grow. I wish you great success.

  9. Pingback: “Whomperjawed” (via The Clueless Farmer) | Dispatches from ConsterNation

  10. Beth Burnam says:

    Diana,

    I’m sorry I missed meeting you at Graves the other day; your descriptions are dead on. As a fellow Madisonian, I’m rooting for you! This is simply great news–real chicken in the county. Let me know if I can do anything to help.

    Beth

  11. La Chapstick Fanatique says:

    Hello!

    It’s Morgan from PRMC. Amir gave me your blog! I really want to start growing my own vegetables but right now I only have the space for containers. I guess that will have to do for now.

    http://lachapstickfanatique.blogspot.com

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