We are often asked lots of questions about the type of farming we do, how we do it, and why we do it that way. We have decided to update our website to reflect this information in the coming weeks, but I wanted to take this opportunity to answer a few of those questions and give some insight into what we do.
At Northwoods Ranch & Retreat, we have established a farming environment mimicking nature wherever possible with some human morality and ethical considerations mixed in. We believe our fruits and vegetables should be as free from human chemicals as possible, we accept some cosmetic blemishes and losses to pests in order to allow this to be the case. Our fertilizer is the composted vegetation waste and droppings from our various animals; this is the way nature and our ancestors have done it for thousands of years, chemical fertilizers have never touched our soil, or ended up on our plates.
The Fruits and Vegetables:
Our farming and gardening is diverse. We focus on fruits and vegetables that we eat, not items for bulk sale, therefore just like many of the meals we eat, we like to see different food items.
We have approximately 100 pear trees, a less common fruit in the northeast. Mixed into our pear orchard is an amalgam of other fruits which become ripe at different times of the year, including apples, cherries, and plums. Other perennials around the farm include rhubarb, horseradish, and raspberries. In the future we intend to expand our perennial vegetables to include blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, and asparagus.
Our Annuals vary from year to year, but generally include nearly every vegetable you find in the vegetable isle in your local grocery store, as well as some exotic plants we experiment with every year.
Our hoop house allows for season extension. In Maine our official growing season can be as short as 55 days, which limits the production of warm climate plants such as peppers and tomatoes. Our solution to this is our 50’ hoop house, which protects the plants from early and late season frost which will kill the fragile warm climate plants prematurely.
We preserve as much of our harvest as possible, this is done in a variety of time tested ways such as drying, freezing, and canning. We generally end up with a pantry/larder full of jars of various fruits and vegetables, several freezers full of frozen vegetables to be later used in cooking along with our frozen meats.
Our Animals are treated with the utmost respect. That being said, the majority of us in our society are not vegetarians. The vast majority of people in our society are also very much removed from the animals they eat every day. At Northwoods, we believe in having a connection with our food, this includes ensuring that our animals have “the best life possible, and one bad day”. Our sheep and chickens are rotationally grazed so they always have fresh air and grass as well as shelter. Our pigs are pastured in an acre or more of forest, mimicking the conditions they would choose in nature but affording them human oversight for protection from disease and predation. Our animals eat what they would choose to eat in nature. As grazers and browsers, our sheep only eat plant matter they choose to eat like grass and leaves from trees, in the winter they eat hay, we take the term “grass fed” seriously, because that’s what nature does. Our omnivores, including chickens and pigs, eat healthy grains, but also have unlimited access to bugs, grass, roots, and other critters they would eat in nature.
Our breed of sheep are Navajo-Churro sheep. Still considered an endangered breed according to the ALBC (American Livestock Breeds Conservancy) The Navajo-Churro breed was nearly extinct in the 1970’s, with an estimated 200 remaining in the world! This breed is considered an “old breed” containing approximately 50% of its DNA from an extinct breed known as the Iberian Churra, a Spanish breed originally brought to North America by the Conquistadors. The Navajo-Churro represents one of many breeds that requires human protection due to the industrial food system eliminating diversity. A “Tri-Purpose” sheep, the Navajo-Churro can be a milk sheep, often produces twins, so although the carcass is small, produces two per year for meat lambs, and excels at what is now the dying industry of fiber, producing two large fiber harvests of wool per year. The Navajo-Churro is also known for its ability to survive with little intervention in climates ranging from arctic to desert, and its mothering instinct, requiring little input from humans to survive and thrive in nearly any environment. However, with this list of benefits, it does not produce the most milk for a sheep breed, its wool is multicolored, and does not produce very large lambs for the industry that prefers uniformity and quantity over quality.
We are continuing to grow the size of our flock. We continue to keep our females born, and our males are either traded for genetics from other farms, or harvested before the next winter for pastured meat.
During the spring, summer, and fall months, our flock is given access to forest and grassland, often moved daily, mimicking their flock movements in nature. In the winter months they are provided a barn for shelter, but are given free access to acres of fenced in pasture, giving them the choice to be in the fresh air of the outdoors, or the protection of barn. Lambing season brings many cute arrivals to our farm, and is done in a way that balances production/protection, with the way it is done in nature. Our ewes are allowed to lamb on open pasture if they choose to, intervention is only provided if we identify a problem (such as an exceptionally cold and rainy day which endangers the lambs).
Our meat chickens are a spring, summer, and early fall enterprise for us. We use a Cornish-Cross breed, which we get delivered as chicks from a hatchery (we don’t breed these on site) We use this breed for its production value. Although this is the same breed that much of the “industry” uses, we choose to raise them drastically different than them. Our chickens spend their first 10 days to 14 days in a “brooder” which provides them warmth of a heat lamp until they acclimate to the outside environment, then they are moved into our “chicken tractors” which are mobile cages that house no more than 35 chickens each. The chicken tractors provide the safety of a cage, protecting them from rain, wind, aerial and ground predators, but allows them access to the ground, grass, bugs, and fresh air. We move these 2-3 times daily, which creates a nutrient cycle that happens in nature. The nitrogen rich droppings of the chickens are left behind on the grass, providing it with the ability to grow back healthier and faster for the next animal to graze here. We harvest our chickens on site in a humane and clean process. Freezing them completes the process, allowing us to know when we eat our chickens they truly lived a happy and healthy life.
Our piglets come from a local breeder we have known for years, once weaned from their mothers, we put the piglets immediately on pasture and train them to respect an electric fence while getting them used to human involvement in their life. They are fed a diet of corn and soybean based grain for nutritional purposes, and are allowed access to their one-acre sized paddock complete with a water wallow, shelter, and woods and field for their destructive pleasure. We typically send these pigs off to the butcher in November, yielding nearly a 200-pound carcass. They live a laid back and fun lifestyle, getting lots of garden treats and hanging out in their mud holes or laying in the sun or shade, whichever they prefer.
Typically, Rhode Island Red’s, our laying flock is allowed to have full access to the farm, with the exception of when they will be exceedingly naughty and destructive with the garden, both during harvest and planting seasons. They have access to the “Egg Mobile” which is a variation of a chicken tractor, complete with roosts for sleeping at night, and nests for laying their amazing eggs. They are provided grain for nutrition, and oyster shells for calcium, but largely collect the bulk of their food from the farm, eating fly larvae, worms, pests, and even small snakes and snails, this is evidenced by their bright orange yolks when you eat one of their eggs, drastically different from the pale store bought eggs, you can taste the love when you eat them!