Restarting Local Business Begins With Us

The Sunday morning after hurricane Ike struck the gulf coast in 2008, there was minimal flooding here in Hempstead, and no electricity, so I went into town to see if I could find the source of the electrical outage. We had a full freezer and I needed to know if I should crank up the generator. It was about 5:00 am when I drove by the Snowflake Donuts shop operated by an immigrant family, and a young man was standing out front, in the dark, with a sign that said “Open Today, Cash Only”. They were not going to let a little hurricane and no power stop them from cranking up the propane in order to pay the bills. I didn’t stop and feel guilty about that.
Houston has a young population, a large energetic immigrant community and hundreds of thousands of entrepreneurs. Often those assets are all rolled into one person.
If you want to jumpstart this recovery, continue to donate what you can, time and/or money, but the thing that really makes the economy come back is supporting local business. If you buy lunch from a food truck or a mattress from Gallery Furniture, you know that much of that money will be recirculated into the local economy.
It will take government money to get the roads and schools back and rebuilding the homes is a long term project, but each of us has the power to help the local hardware store, the small restaurant, and, of course, the local farms. We can help rebuild lives purchasing the things we need to rebuild our own.
So before you head off to the big box store, or click “add to cart” at Amazon, look around our home turf for it. That money just might come back to you and your friends.

After the storm

The last four days were unbelievable, but we fared well. We had over 40” of rain and finished with no dead livestock and practically no dead plants.
We had just planted a few hundred seedlings of pac choy and broccoli raab and they seem to be happy. We have extremely healthy soils, very permeable, due to years of not tilling and not exposing the microbes to the elements. That, combined with rotational livestock use, means we can absorb more water and hold it for drier days. We also have the advantage of being 270’ above sea level, meaning the water has somewhere to go, but we would rather keep it in the soil.
All our beds are built high with swales on the sides holding the excess water. None of the newer beds are straight, but are curving to maneuver the water and hold it until it can be absorbed.
Straight beds up and down the elevation lead to runoff. Straight beds across the elevation lead to flooding those very same plots.
Also, we leave grass between the beds. Most times you will see soil or mulch in these areas that would become mud under these circumstances. The grass keeps roots in the ground. Those roots stimulate the growth of fungi, bacteria and the rest of the soil microbes as well as prevent erosion. You can walk in the gardens at any time, no matter how wet.
The healthier soils and better root systems also provide more nutrients to the plants.
So a combination of location, lots of luck, reconsidered farming practices, and planning have helped us survive this catastrophe.
We hope our customers will come out and support farmers at the markets and patronize the restaurants that support us. We will not miss a beat and will be back at the market this week and ready to supply our CSA starting Sept. 6. Please consider joining our CSA.

The keys to healthy soil

1. Armor the soil. Never expose the soil directly to the elements. Soil should be covered with plants, mulch or even weeds to enhance the microbial action.
2. Living roots in the ground as much as possible. We leave the roots of plants that we have harvested because michorrizal fungi only grows on roots. Removing the roots would destroy that fungi and the relationships that exist in the soil. Luckily we can have plants growing all year here in the gulf coast.
3. Do not disturb the soil. The relationships in the soil are complex and we want to allow them to grow without destroying them with plowing. We move the soil as little as possible with a hoe.
4. Provide plant diversity. Different root structures and leaf shapes attract a diverse group of microbes and beneficial insects.
5. Integrate livestock. We raise chickens and rotate sheep into the gardens to provide fertility and aerate the soil. After animals and their fresh manure leave, we will not eat vegetables from that garden for 90 days.

Our Diversity is What We Have in Common

Last month two men, who did not speak English, came to my booth at the market. One pointed to the picture of my free range chickens, so I showed him a dozen eggs and a vacuum packed chicken. He pointed to the chicken and then held up 2 fingers. I got another one out and he put his hands close together, so I got a bigger one. I showed him the price, he gave me a credit card, and the transaction was complete.

When I go to work off the farm, I interact with people of different ages, races, countries of origin, religions, politics, sexual orientation, income, and culinary skills. In Houston, one of the most vibrant and diverse cities in America, I sell at the vibrant and diverse Eastside Farmers Market on Saturday mornings. Everyone is welcome to shop and join in the civil discourse about life, farming, and food policy. A conversation about the herb rau ram, with a woman from Vietnam, leads to a new recipe to try at home. A Romanian customer and I share sauerkraut recipes. The Indian couple and I discuss the difference between tulsi and African blue basil. Later a young woman tells me she has never cooked a chicken and asks for a simple recipe. I am learning the Spanish words for cuts of lamb but am not so adventurous as to learn any of the other 145 languages that are spoken in Houston.

The vendors at the farmers markets, and all small farmers, are independent beacons of capitalism. While industrial, corporate giants control most of the food chain, we are entrepreneurs running family businesses. The organic product that you so love at the supermarket is probably owned by a corporation whose web site will tell you that their mission is to “maximize shareholder value”. Most of the farmers I work around would agree that our mission is to provide the best, freshest food we can deliver and hope to make a living doing so. We represent the closest thing to free market capitalism in America.

As small independent businesses, including farms, close year after year, we need the support of everyone, and we will, in return, support the community. Much of our money (that was your money before you bought from us) stays in the community supporting local processing facilities, butchers, and restaurants. We owe our farm’s existence to the loyal, single family customers.

While the number of butchers, bakeries, fishermen and cheese makers dwindle, and most Americans cannot tell the difference between the taste of chicken or armadillo, because salt, flavoring, and sweeteners cover the fact that there is no flavor in much of the industrial foods, our customers go out of their way to get the perfect chicken, egg, chèvre, kale, or bread, because they can tell the difference.

We are stewards of the environment, we preserve heritage breeds and seeds, we risk our own capital to do these businesses, and we seldom get the subsidies that support our wealthy and politically influential competitors. Of course, they are not really competitors because they make something completely different. There is a reason our products are called food, and theirs are called commodities.

The greater Houston area eats, or wastes, about a million pounds of food an hour. We local farmers will provide only the prime part of that to anyone who wants to visit a farmers market or a farm and support real food and real farmers.

We are a diverse group of farmers. We love our diverse group of customers and welcome the refugees and immigrants.

P.S. I was told a story about a man that was buying trapped armadillos and selling the meat as chicken with no complaints.

Hugelkultur at the farm

In the past few years we have had flooded gardens dozens of times. The most recent rain totaled 13″ over two and a half days, making for the third double digit rain event this year. But we have also had a few 3″ to 6″ rains that can do their share of damage as well. We have lots of dead wood dating back to the drought of 2011 and we are using that to build hugelkultur mounds in the garden. Combining these mounds with more swales to hold and move the water, will help us work better with our little ecosystem.
This combination of sticks, soil, hay and yes even dirty paper egg cartons, will turn into rich organic matter. Then we can raise a few chickens on and around the mounds, continue to add compost and soon we will be selling produce from our new and improved gardens.
So do not throw away your leaves, dead wood, grass clippings and newspapers–put them to use building a permaculture garden, rich in organic matter. Or you can drop them off at the farm.

Eating Meat, Helping the Soil. No Shipping, No Handling

Laughing Frog Farm's Freedom Ranger Chickens
Laughing Frog Farm’s Freedom Ranger Chickens

IMG_3204I eat meat. Kenan and I decided that if we were going to eat meat we needed to either raise it ourselves or get it from a farmer that we knew, one that raised the animals with care for the environment, the soils, and the animals themselves. We respect those that have chosen a different diet, but believe that moderate meat consumption is more ecological sound and sustainable. We raise chickens and lamb in a humane, responsible manner.
The industrial model of raising animals, in confined animal feed operations (CAFO), is not ethical nor sustainable. This meat accounts for almost 99% of all meat. It is cruel to the animal, produces a meat that is not healthy and is antibiotic dependent, and is an environmental travesty with the concentrated waste produced, and the chemically dependent grain used as a feed.
Pasture raised, grassfed meat is high in omega-3 fatty acids, beta carotene and vitamins E and low in saturated fat. Livestock raised in an ethical environment must have access to their natural foods, clean water, shelter, protection from predators and room to move in a natural habitat. For pigs it might mean mud, for chickens they need to scratch in the soil. Sheep, cows and goats need a variety of forage eaten while roaming, usually from rotational grazing.
The earth’s ecosystem is supposed to have plant and animal impact with the soil. The animal manure feeds the microbes in the soil that develop the fertility needed for plants to grow nutrient dense food. The impact of the hooves or chicken feet aerates the soil and the grazing animals can turn grass and forbs, inedible to humans, into food. Few inputs are necessary for this type of animal husbandry. We do not have to buy and truck in fertilizer and herbicides. Many of the ethically raised animals are raised on land unsuitable for raising vegetables and many others are used in a rotation with vegetable plantings, like we do at Laughing Frog Farm. Ruminates have a unique ability, with the help of sunlight and water, to turn hundreds of different naturally growing plants into protein while monoculture crops need tractors, fuel and fertilization, to produce their nutrients.
Many vegetables and grains are raised using environmentally destructive methods. In order to grow vegetables we need to add fertility to the soil. The use of manure has traditionally been the farmers go to solution, but with the advent of chemical fertilizers, animals became unnecessary because the farmer can now purchase the fertility. Heavy use of these chemicals is causing polluted water, interrupting the soil food web, and creating dead zones in our oceans. There is evidence that these chemicals are chelating the nutrients in the soil and consequently reducing the nutrient levels in our food.
Compost can add some fertility, but it alone will not provide the nitrogen needed for healthy crops. Many organic farmers turn to cottonseed and alfalfa meals that have been produced, usually, with chemical fertilizer. Furthermore, most of them are now genetically modified, meaning large doses of chemical herbicides have been used, further robbing our soil of its nutrition. Fish emulsion is used extensively in organic farming to raise nitrogen levels. Those fish were often fed GMO corn and soy and, of course, dead fish are not a particularly good vegan option. These amendments are trucked across the country powered by fossil fuels.
Most alternatives to manure, for fertility, have limited availability and high costs in the developing world.
Nitrogen fixing cover crops, vermicastings, mulches and compost tea all are alternative fertility solutions that we use, but most require energy, and labor.
Most of the farm animals would become extinct if farmers quit raising them. These animals have been developed over centuries to provide meat, milk, wool, leather and eggs to humans. Goats, sheep, chickens and cows are not prepared to live in the wild. Pigs have proven they are prepared and have become a nuisance in many parts of the country.
Eating requires taking a life. People just choose where to draw the line. A cabbage is alive. We kill cockroaches and mice. “Vegetarians” often tell me they eat fish or shellfish. Modern vegetable agricultural methods eliminate earthworms, starve monarch butterflies and interrupt the migration of birds.
We know that plants communicate with one another through the soil and that plants have a survival instinct as they struggle to stay alive in bad soil or weather conditions.
Animals are truly an integral part of sustainable agricultural systems worldwide. Of course, we can always raise animals just for their manure and not their meat. Many aquaponics operations utilize goldfish and horse manure is an alternative, as are zoos, though not part of a sustainable agricultural system. Some farmers use animal power as an alternative to tractors but a two oxen will not fertilize a whole farm.
If all animals are to be raised in a pastured, humane way we have to eat less meat and seek out the best places to purchase it. At this point humanely raised, pastured meat is seldom available in a supermarket or a restaurant. Organic, cage free and natural do not mean responsibly raised or humane.
You are what you eat and you are what you eat eats. If your chicken was fed pesticide ridden corn or your farm raised fish was eating GMO soy it will affect the quality of the meat and the quality of the manure we use as fertilizer. Also if your soil was fed chemicals that limit a plant’s nutrient uptake it will affect your health as well.
I honor people who make moral and ethical decisions about how they eat, whether they chose vegan, vegetarian or omnivore.
Remember that the food that nourishes your body is a precious investment in your future.
Don’t eat the cheap, fast and easy American diet.
Don’t be cheap, fast and easy.
Glen Miracle

Putting permaculture to work

ram key.001

chick key.001

We are trying to mimic nature as much as possible here at the farm. It improves the biology of the soil, saves a bit of labor and saves on the purchased organic fertilizers. Nature never pulls out the chemicals or a rototiller or a tractor and everything grows like crazy.
We are working our gardens without tilling. We only plant one of our three gardens at a time and run sheep and chickens in the other gardens or plant cover crops during their off season. It means hoeing, mulching and tolerating some weeds. After the animals leave the garden we do not eat vegetables out of that garden for 120 days, as per organic guidelines, to give the manure time to break down.
Last winter’s garden was very successful but the spring brought in weed competition. That was after the 60 inches of rain from mid April to early June. The rain also made it impossible to bring in loads of mulch.
As you can see below, the winter squash is growing in the company of weeds, but the soil is so fertile that it can feed them both.
After another year, lots more mulch, another cover crop, and 200 more chickens, I hope I can report that it is running smoothly again.

I did not launder the money to import sheep from China. :)


On Tuesday we were scheduled to pickup some Gulf Coast Native Sheep from Sassy Sheep in China, Tx. We are always trying to diversify our flocks and necessarily have to sell a few breeding sheep and buy a few replacements to prevent inbreeding.
I headed to the bank and picked up cash, the most trusted form of payment, on Monday afternoon.
When I got home we had an emergency. One of our ram lambs had been hurt and we had to do a daring rescue. I picked the little 40 pound boy up to take him back to his mother. He peed down my left leg. He peed a lot. That is no big deal, I have been a parent. We reunited him with his mother and I went to change clothes. I reached my hand in my left pocket and pulled out a roll of soaked paper money. We laid the bills out to dry.
On Tuesday we purchased 18 beautiful sheep and paid in the marked, but dry money. By the time we had loaded the sheep we all smelled like money–that money.
When your mother tells you to wash you hands after handling money, remember—-wash them.
The ram lamb is fine and we love the additions to our flock. Thank you Sassy Sheep and Beau-tanicals.

Flooding again

IMG_5121We did not suffer much damage from this Monday’s 10″ rainfall other than a lack of sleep. The sheep finally called out at 4:00 am and demanded to find higher ground. None of our land was dry, but some of it was draining water, not ponding. It is better to be in a 2″ deep mini-rapid than in a 2″ deep pond, I suppose. I just let them out to go wherever they might find a better spot. The result was a group of well fed, tired sheep when the rain finally stopped.
About noon I penned them into a beautiful, wet pasture and got onto a conference phone call. While on the call, I heard a worried sheep baa coming from some woods. I put the phone on mute and wandered into the woods to find a just born ewe lamb lying in wet ground while the rain continued coming down. I hung up the phone and decided it was time for me to take action. I was afraid the lamb would drown. Of course, my action was not needed because this Gulf Coast mama had everything under control. Kenan and I simply moved them in with the other sheep. Why do lambs always have to be born in bad weather?
We then went for a walk and found a bluegill fish in the back pasture, hundreds of feet from any pond. Fertilizer?
The gardens are draining, the sheep are drying, and the ewe lamb is doing those crazy lambkin pirouettes around her weary mama. We did not get many eggs today.
I know many people suffered great loss today.
Our hearts are with those whose lambs and lives are not pirouetting out of this flood.

I Do Not Eat Industrial Chicken


Laughing Frog Farm's pastured, organically fed  Freedom Ranger chickens
Laughing Frog Farm’s pastured, organically fed Freedom Ranger chickens

Back in 1950 whole chickens sold for an average of $0.43 per pound. Indexed for inflation that would come to $4.23 a pound today. That would be the cost for a non-organic, farm raised chicken, usually fed farm raised corn, grain and garden scraps.
They no longer offer this type of farm raised chickens in grocery stores.
The industry has developed a bird that grows unusually fast, the cornish cross. This hybrid will reach 6 to 7 pounds in just 45 days being fed only 12 to 14 pounds of feed.
In America we raise 8.9 billion of these meat chickens per year in windowless, dusty, ammonia and feces ridden buildings, similar to the ones egg laying chicken live in. Chickens are exempted from the federal animal protection laws. The broilers pens are never cleaned in the 45 days the broiler lives. Each one has less space than a 8.5” x 11” piece of paper. One typical operation houses 25,000 birds in a 500’ x 40’ building that is inaccessible to anyone but the owner of the facility. Water and feed are automated and the main job for the owner is to go in and pick up and record the dead birds.
Many “ag gag” laws make it illegal to take pictures of these chickens and their conditions.
These chickens have never seen the sunlight, the grass or an edible bug.
Cancer (mareks) is common, even though all these chickens are vaccinated for it. Skeletal deformities, lung infections, heart, and liver disease and developmental disorders make the chicken unable to live much past about 45 days. By then they are so obese they can no longer walk (not that there is any room to walk but they do need to stand up to drink. Many die because they cannot.)
The result is a 4 pound dressed bird with a huge breast for as little as a dollar a pound. Man has developed the efficient, industrial chicken.
GE soy and corn with antibiotics, vitamin D (remember they never see the sunshine) and other additives, make up their limited diet.
29.9 million pounds of antibiotics were used in 2011 on industrial livestock farms. That is four times the amount people were prescribed. American industrial farms use 300 milligrams of antibiotics (a standard dose for a human to prevent infection) to produce one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of meat.
In 1991 the Atlanta Constitution did a special report on the poultry industry. 81 federal poultry inspectors interviewed said that thousands of birds tainted or stained with feces, which a decade ago (1981) would have been condemned, are rinsed in chlorinated water and sold daily. Poultry plants salvage meat, cutting away visibly diseased or contaminated sections, and selling the rest as packaged wings, legs or breasts.
Richard Simmons, inspector at a ConAgra plant said “Practically every bird now, no matter how bad, is salvaged… I would not want to eat it. I would never, in my wildest dreams, buy cut-up parts at a store today.”
USDA Inspector Ronnie Sarratt: “I’ve had birds that had yellow pus visibly coming out of their insides, and I was told to save the breast meat off them and even save the second joint of the wing. You might get those breasts today at a store in a package of breast fillets. And you might get the other in a pack of buffalo wings”
Inspectors used to condemn all birds with air sacculitus, a disease that causes yellow fluids and mucus to break up into the lungs. In an 1989 article in Southern Exposure, USDA inspector Estes Philpott of Arkansas estimated that he was pressured to approve 40 percent of air sac birds that would have been condemned 10 years before.
The industry has greatly lowered the cost, but at what price to our health, our environment, and our morality. Growers tend to be concentrated in areas near the processing plants putting environmental and tax burdens on large areas to deal with huge concentrations of waste and pollution to the community and the waterways. The corporations are not responsible for the waste cleanup. A typical poultry house produces 250 tons of manure per year plus the dead chicken bodies.
The abuse does not stop with the chicken or the environment.
A 2001 study found that among commercial chicken growers, 71% live below the poverty line. They are contractors, meaning the corporations do not offer any guarantees or pay into social security and insurance.
The grower signs a contract with large corporations like Tyson or Pilgrim’s. The Farm Service Administration make loans available at a low interest rate. The initial investment, according to a University of Georgia report, is typically $500,000 to $800,000. Periodically the corporation makes the grower purchase new upgraded equipment, that is added to the previous debt. The company can cancel the contract due to many reasons, such as not putting enough weight on the birds, or refusing to borrow more money to upgrade, usually leaving the grower with no other purchaser/processor available in that area. The grower typically makes less than $20,000 profit annually.
The corporations own the birds, feed mills, packaging operations and transportation. The only thing the grower owns are the buildings, the equipment and the debt.
Processing the chickens is a highly automated operation, but human employees are required. Recently the USDA decided to allow poultry be processed in China. They also wish to reduce the number of inspectors from four per factory scale plant to one. These plants are processing 175 birds per minute. They have removed the country of origin labels.
All this is to say that $1.29 a pound chicken is not a great deal for us, for our children, or for the planet. I sell my chicken for $7.00 per pound and make a modest profit. They are fed greens, bugs, and fresh, organic feed from Coyote Creek Organic Feed in Elgin, Texas. Laughing Frog Farm chickens spend a lot of time being chickens–scratching, hunting and roaming. These Freedom Ranger chickens could not survive indoor living nor the conditions that go with it.
It is important to note that purchasing “organic” chicken only changes the feed and the fact they have “access” to the outdoors. It does not mean they go outdoors.
In 1950 there were 1,636,705 farms that sold 581,038,865 chickens = 355 per farm.
In 2007 we had 27091 farms sell 8,914,828,122 chickens = 329,070 per farm
I don’t think I was included in that total because I would bring the average way down.
To read more about the industry Pew Trusts has a good study:

Click to access businessofbroilersreportthepewcharitabletrustspdf.pdf

Farmer stories:
youtube of a discontent chicken grower: