Each seed has a story. Some seeds have been passed down relatively unchanged for generations. Others have been breed for certain characteristics and traits. And others have been adapted for climates like North Dakota.
At our farm, we tend towards open-pollinated, heirloom varieties of seed, for reasons practical, sentimental and political. We are suckers for the poetry of seed catalogues and the promise of hopeful January orders. Our seed shelves spell out the history of our journey to this place- corn and shell beans from Oregon, garlic and dry beans from Vashon, pumpkins and sunflowers from Washington, tomatoes from a friend in Spain, greens from California. Carried along like treasures, these things have sustained our farm, and each row seeded has been a remembrance of past labors and their ultimate fulfillment. Similarly, I hope for our animals to grow with us- to carry our farm through their generations as the farm grows with them. Many have spoken passionately and eloquently in recent years about the value and necessity of seed and breed preservation, especially in the face of industry consolidation and economic monopolization. I have little to add; I believe the strongest argument to be made for saving seed, for breeding animals, and for choosing wisely and carefully for your place is an argument of sentiment- these animals and seeds carry us and our history with them, and all the complicated emotions of planting, hatching, kidding, harvesting and slaughter alongside. That lends a power to the relationship we have with each crop and flock and herd.
This is all grade-A small-farm propaganda right here, folks. Easy stuff, tugs at the heartstrings, etc. But let’s tackle the critter that supports our farm and accounts for most of our income— the Cornish Cross chicken. The Chicken Everyone Loves To Hate.
The Cornish are easy to obtain, easy to raise to a predictable finishing weight in a predictable amount of time, and easy to slaughter and butcher. They do well in a pasture-based operation using daily-moved chicken tractors. They finish faster than any other meat-breed. When fully dressed out, their meat is flavorful, well balanced between dark and white to the taste of our customers, and they are neither too lean nor too fatty. If raised competently and with care, they will have no more health issues than any other breed of chicken. For a small operation such as ours, with limited land and a market that demands fresh birds delivered weekly, they are the best option available.
Other options would include dual-purpose or heritage meat breeds, and hybridized breeds like Freedom Rangers. The downside, for us, to these breeds rests in a simple fact: they take longer to raise than the Cornish. This means we must keep more birds on our property at any given time. With limited pasture space, this is difficult, and additional time to reach finishing weight means more feed, (which already accounts for the bulk of our costs) more manure on fields, and more daily labor expended on chicken care. All this balances out to make the Cornish more or less our only practical option for serious commercial meat production, especially as we seek to limit how expensive our birds are for our customers. The Cornish help us be financially sustainable in the short-term so that we can pursue elements of breed preservation, seed saving, and ecological stewardship in other aspects of our farming.
With proper management and care, the Cornish are healthy, alert animals, but they are not laying hens; they will not act like them. They are not innately inclined to poor health any more than any other chicken. The more we speak of them as ugly, unfortunate creatures, the more we delegitimize them as living animals on par with other critters on the farm, and excuse ourselves when they develop health problems or seem uncomfortable. Ultimately, a farm’s animals reflect most of all the quality and care of the farmer.
We speak often of the importance of heritage breeds -of what is old and passed down. It is harder to come to love and recognize the importance of a breed that in its most common form represents all the abuses of industrial agriculture. Harder, but no less essential, for in doing so we strip the industrial system of its tools, and of the arguments for their maintenance and abuse- we provide a living, viable alternative. If such an alternative is to become commonplace, however, it must in the short-term exist on the same field as that of the industrial model, or exist solely in a niche, easily isolated and unthreatening. The question for us as farmers is one of assessing which breed of meat chicken will do this best- which breed will grow quickly, reliably, and healthily, and will allow us to produce meat whose real cost is represented, but whose price and availability is not so limited as to restrict access to the conspicuous moral consumption of the wealthy.
So sing the praises of the Cornish Cross. Honor them, raise them well, and give them their rightful place as part of farming for a sustainable future and a well-fed community.
We wanted to be able to sing “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” when we walk around our fields. Think about the standard farm animals that are on those singing kids’ toys where the arrow spins around and selects an animal and then you hear the sound they make.
But we wanted to be able to support healthy animals and pay our bills, so we tabled our desire for a menagerie – at least for now. We considered our 13-acre field that has been row-cropped for 30 years. Instead of running the farm, we decided to let the farm do the planning.
Our soil test revealed 1.5% organic matter in our field, so our focus became growing the health of our soil. Since renovating the pasture was the goal, we didn’t want to rely heavily on the pasture as a sole food source. Our solution, then, was to steer clear of ruminants for the time being.
We wanted the intensely managed nutrient application that chicken tractors provide. We wanted the soil tilling capabilities of pigs. We wanted the customer exposure that turkeys provide (Thanksgiving is just the best). This year we are fertilizing our field with Cornish Cross chickens, Hereford-Large Black pigs, and White Broad-breasted turkeys.
To spare you the suspense I can reveal that the only breed we picked was the Cornish Cross. We missed the window for readily available feeder pigs, and deciding on the Hereford-Large Black was largely based on our feeling that these pigs were our best (and close to only) option. And the hatchery I have experience with only had White Broad-Breasted in the numbers and time frame we needed.
Still, we think a lot about breeds. When it comes to raising meat birds, this year marks my fourth in a row of raising Cornish Cross chickens. We waffled a bit on whether to raise Freedom Rangers or Cornish Cross, and here are the reasons we went Cornish Cross.
Our first and foremost reason for raising Cornish Cross is our market. We won’t be selling pieces and parts, so I think having big breasts on a whole bird increases our chance of a sale.
Another reason that played a big role in our selection is processing. Liz and I both worked in a state inspected poultry processing plant last year, and that experience really skewed me toward the Cornish Cross and away from the Freedom Ranger. The Cornish Cross has bigger cavities and accommodates my hand more easily. The Freedom Rangers generally has a larger layer of fat – not a bad thing from a culinary standpoint but did make our equipment greasy and slippery.
Our last factor we weighed was foraging behavior. Freedom Rangers tend to enjoy the reputation of better foragers than Cornish Cross. That may be true, but I’ve always enjoyed the Cornish Cross rushing to the new grass as the tractor is advanced and I think they do a good job.
I have less to say about the pigs and turkeys. We get the pigs next week and I am excited to get to know them. Since I don’t yet have stories about them, I can say that we liked that the cross should do well on our pasture, we liked the farmer, and the timing allowed us to drill our field into a pasture mix.
On the turkeys, we quite like the heritage breed Bourbon Reds and I can see them in our future. We raised them one year and they are energetic, curious, good-looking, and in my experience, delicious. But they are also more expensive, and our budget looked a lot better with a Broad-Breasted.
I think the White Broad-Breasted turkeys are also curious birds and I enjoyed raising them last year. Also, when Liz is hefting them into the cones on processing day and their wings are spread, I like to make jokes about her killing angels. It’s the little things.
When we start looking ahead to next season and beyond, I’m not sure if we will adhere to breed loyalty, if we will be stuck with limited options again, or if we will expand our animal groups. I like that flexibility. Next year we will again listen to the influence of the field, but we will also have the customer feedback that we have been missing this year. And if the off-season goes well, the barn will be ready to accommodate over-wintering and breeding pigs. But shoot, that might be a whole other blog.
Our farming livelihood rests on the success of seeds. But how strange to hold something so small in the palm of my hand and realize I’m investing a lion’s share of days, dollars, and ideas in a speck of organic matter that appears so lifeless. And yet, time and time again, the seemingly powerless soon pushes through soil, and the seemingly lifeless yields fruit in its season. If we wish to finish well, we must begin well. If we desire good fruit, we must plant good seeds.
Our farming season begins with seeds. Ordered when the soil lies locked in ice and snow, we wrap ourselves in layers of wool sweaters and dream of August evenings when thousands of seeds planted in February, March, April and May will grace our dinner table with crisp greens in clay bowls, sliced tomatoes on maple cutting boards, purple eggplants, roasted cauliflower, mashed sweet potatoes, and all manner of bounty. In large measure, we choose the seeds and the varieties we, ourselves, will enjoy eating and preparing, because when we are excited about our vegetables, how much easier is it to excite eager market-goers when lines queue up Saturday mornings in Fox Point or Whitefish Bay or Tuesday mornings in Thiensville?
Flavor, however, cannot be our only consideration. With over 75 CSA members already invested in Wild Ridge Farm before even our first head of lettuce matures, we need to know the seeds we plant will deliver the beautiful produce everybody expects. Thus, many of the varieties which have become our mainstays, were first the mainstays of the farmers who taught us. The seeds which we rely on year after year, were first the seeds our mentors relied on year after year. With so many aspects of farming dictated by forces out of human control—rainfall, field conditions, temperatures, disease pressures—we strive to eliminate as many variables as possible; thus, if we know Carmen peppers are consistently beautiful and delicious, Carmen peppers are the peppers we plant.
We source almost all our seeds from either High Mowing Organic Seeds or Johnny’s Selected Seeds. These two companies have been reliable and timely and carry the varieties we like to grow. Since we are not a certified organic farm, we are not strictly limited to organic seeds, but both High Mowing and Johnny’s carry organic seeds and this is our preference. Close to 90% of the varieties we grow are hybrids. We choose to grow hybrids for their reliable germination rates, consistent maturation rates, and dependable yields—in order to serve our CSA customers, our market customers, and our restaurant customers our timing must be impeccable, ensuring weekly quality and quantity of harvests remains sufficient from week to week.
Produce farmers are constantly balancing the scales of quantity and quality, hoping always to have an abundance of both. With this goal in mind, Wild Ridge has the privilege this season of collaborating with several local farmers, chefs, and plant breeders under the direction of Julie Dawson of UW Madison’s Horticulture Department in a project to develop vegetable breeds which optimize both flavor and productivity—seeds which thrive in the growing conditions unique to our Wisconsin landscape. At Julie’s invitation, we’ve selected several varieties of lettuce, carrots, and winter squash seeds to grow specifically for taste trials conducted by a panel of Madison chefs led by Tory Miller of L’Etoile and Graze.
We believe the collaboration of regional farmers, chefs, and plant breeders has great potential to elevate local food cultures and local economies, eliminating over-reliance on long-distance shipping, reducing fuel and energy spent in transport and refrigeration, and enhancing the vitality of our existence on each singular corner of the earth where we’ve planted these tiny seeds and daily work for their growth.
Wild Ridge Farm – Waubeka, Wisconsin
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Wild Ridge Farm is the convergence of three highly-skilled and passionate individuals: Anna Metscher, Alissa Moore and Joseph Dittman. Anna and Alissa have a combined farming experience of eleven years and between the two of them have worked on or managed seven different highly diversified farms. Joseph has spent time gardening and volunteering on sustainable farms, and his skills as a carpenter, designer, and builder round out the crew. They approach their business partnership cooperatively and collaboratively: distributing the workload equally, listening to each other’s ideas, and allowing one another’s skills to shine. (more…)