Rule of Thumb

“Never put in a fence post if there’s a full moon – by golly, it will pop right out!”  As farmers, we live our lives by the rule of thumb.  “Plant pumpkins on Memorial Day weekend and corn should be knee high by the Fourth of July”!

Corn “Waist high by the Seventeenth of June!”

The rules can be followed, changed, and broken based on a person’s upbringing, culture, and outside influences.  They’re simply assumptions, experiences, and stereotypes.  My rule book is full of white out in the “when to plant” section, sarcastic comments in the margin about Ball canning recipes and botulism, and Tim’s motivational speech on replay in my head, “Who cares what the rule of thumb is?  Just do it… what’s the worst that can happen?  They eat ya?”

Probably the most interesting stereotype has been the public’s rule of thumb for organic farmers.   They never eat conventional or processed food – only organic and local, they only support local businesses and wouldn’t be caught dead in a place like Walmart, they’re liberal (personally and politically), they don’t drink or smoke (and if they do…. it’s an organic, local, microbrew followed by a joint grown on the farm *editor’s note to the Portage Co. DEA:  I see you fly over weekly, consider this comment a stretch of the truth to humor my readers*), and they’re prepared to chain themselves to a fracking drill rig if it ever tries to poke a hole anywhere near their farm.  So yesterday I went to Walmart to buy a case of Bud Light, two sandwiches from Subway and a Diet Pepsi for the ride home when I ran into one of our better customers.  I approached her to say hello and she darted to guard her shopping cart that had a loaf of Schwebel’s bread and conventional bananas poking out.  She was embarrassed and clearly surprised to see me.  I’m not sure what she was worried about, wasn’t I the one breaking the rules?

A few weeks ago we travelled to Pennsylvania to have our soybeans professionally roasted for our new line of stone ground poultry feed.  When we pulled up, I saw two old guys leaning against an Allis Chalmers tractor.  One was wearing overalls and a John Deere hat (my kindred spirit) and the other was wearing coveralls and a Farm Bureau hat.  I was sure they were large scale conventional farmers and I knew how the conversation was going to go, “so you’re an organic farmer, are ya?…”  He looks to his partner, winks, and says, “I reckon she uses horses to plow her fields……”  I would then passionately rattle off our vision (and extensive equipment list) and then they would figuratively pat me on the head and wish me good luck with my “garden”.   I got out of the truck, introduced myself, asked a few questions and avoided small talk.  One man started roasting our soybeans with Tim and the other man leaned against our truck, staring at me, “So you have an organic farm?”  Here we go.

And this is where the story unexpectedly changes.  As I shared our story, I realized he was engaged.  He was asking poignant questions, listening intently, nodding in agreement and smiling.  It turns out he has a small dairy, he’s been raising his herd naturally and organically for 15 years, and even drinks the ever controversial raw milk.  When I asked him if he has considered organic certification, his response was simple, “No way.”  No way?  “Nope.  I’d lose all my friends.”  Lose all of your friends?  He explained that his conventional buddies that surround his property tolerate his practices, but organic certification would be the tipping point – he was too old to fight it and, “anyways…. I like hanging out and having coffee with them sometimes.”

I often wonder if my infrequent trips to Walmart or the store bought pizza in our freezer will turn off some customers.  We may not follow all the rules of thumb for organic farmers, but we are genuine and there is nothing to hide at Breakneck Acres.  We hope that this will be the reason customers support us and keep coming back.  And the “rule of thumb”?   Some say it used to mean that it was legal to beat your wife with a switch, so long as the switch was no thicker than the husband’s thumb.  Tim’s got some big hands…. so we’ve agreed we really don’t need any “rules of thumb” at the farm!


Lessons from Luther

When I talk about our chickens to friends, family, and customers, I always start by saying, “I promise you..….  I haven’t turned into that woman, but…..”, as I detail the daily antics on the farm.  You know that woman.  When you were a Girl Scout selling cookies door to door, you never wanted to ring her doorbell.  She was harmless and typically a good customer, but attempting to have a conversation about a box of Thin Mints with her and one of her 25 cats dressed as Carmen Miranda was downright ridiculous.

My customers tell me that I should write a book (and as a side bar :: clearly these are the customers that haven’t noticed it has taken me eight months to write a new blog entry).  They laugh when I tell stories about the chickens and find my new-found passion for animal husbandry to be quite entertaining.  Since these stories are my reality, I find myself aggressively trying to explain that I’m not crazy.  Just this week, I was trying to talk over my listeners’ giggles as I rationally defended my purchase of chicken chastity belts on Etsy.  Custom snaps for easy on and off!

“As I rationally defended my purchase of chicken chastity belts on Etsy”!?!?!?!  Oh dearMaybe I have become that woman.

OK. Listen.  When you’re an extrovert working alone on a farm, you will naturally find social stimulation when caring for animals.  They have personalities and methods of communicating with me and their peers that I find fascinating.  I enjoy observing them while keeping them comfortable, stress free, and healthy.  Tim and I truly believe that you are what you eat.

So……here are a few lessons I’ve learned from Luther, our prize rooster, in the past ten months:

STRANGER DANGER – Luther is the protector of the flock.  If a stranger approaches or an unknown bird flies over the farm, he immediately calls the hens to seek shelter.  I am amazed by how quickly he choreographs their disappearance while I’m still trying to figure out what spooked him.  A few weeks ago, I was working alone in the shop when I heard Luther give the “stranger danger” call.  I didn’t think much of it and continued working.  He immediately gave the call again – louder – and he had my attention.  I opened the door and found a man standing there.  He was looking to buy a dozen eggs and I’d like to think Luther was looking to protect me.

SHARING – I enjoy giving treats to the chickens, but the scene can become a little intense.  Typically the hens highest on the pecking order take control and grab the lion’s share of the bounty.  The hens lower on the pecking order wait in the background or forage below for bits that were missed or dropped.  Interestingly enough, Luther would always stand back and simply watch.  I assumed that he didn’t really want the human contact and the extrovert in me wanted him to be involved.  When I would hand feed him treats, I noticed that he would usually drop them on the ground.  I initially thought he was just plain stupid – maybe he didn’t understand that it was food?  Closer observation taught me this; he would take the treat from me, step back, make a very specific low clucking noise getting the attention of the hens lower on the pecking order, and share the treat with them.  I would give him another treat and he would repeat the process of sharing – often times only consuming one or two bites for himself.

BIRDS N’ BEES – If you have a teenage daughter, go get her.  Luther teaches a very important lesson when it comes to promiscuity.  Every morning I let the flock out of the bus.  The hens scamper in various directions to forage for worms and greens.  Luther comes out of the bus and he has one thing on his mind – sex.  He spins in circles and mounts the most willing.   If a hen runs and dodges him, he won’t bother with the chase since there’s always one standing on the corner waiting.  And when they all run and hide, I’ve caught him humping the ground.  And that –  is about all I can say  – about that.

DIETING – Chickens are fine tuned machines when it comes to calorie consumption.  Instinctually, they eat what they need and how much they need.  They enjoy treats in moderation, but will typically not eat processed food or things that will make them sick.  Last Halloween my dad came to visit and brought a bag of candy corn for the chickens.   I tried to explain that we probably shouldn’t feed candy to them, but he insisted, saying, “it’s made out of corn, right?”  He marched outside, tossed them candy corn bits, and they didn’t eat them. They continued eating greens and foraging for bugs.  The irony?  He and I went in the house and ate the entire bag.

SIESTA – Luther works hard.  He has a harem of 40+ hens that require leadership, protection, and attention all day.  I’ve estimated that they can easily work a five acre area throughout the day exploring and foraging.  I’ve recently noticed that every day the flock disappears for a few hours.  Initially I assumed they were exploring in areas out of eyesight, but I realized that Luther takes the majority of the flock to a protected area for a nap.  I’ve always been a big fan of the siesta to refresh the day, but never found it to be an appropriate habit in the corporate environment.  Now that I’m full time at the farm, I just might have Tim put up that hammock and join the girls……

STYLE– Luther has strong opinions when it comes to footwear.  Animals will typically sniff their way through introductions, but Luther gets to know you by your shoes.  He expects black or brown boots at the farm.  He has zero tolerance for fashion and will share his opinion by pecking at your feet or running head first into you.   Hunter rain boots in glossy pink?  Nope.  Glitter flair on your Crocks?  You’re screwed.    Flip flops and blue toe nail polish?  Just stay in the car.  And honestly, Luther is right – I am always amazed when people come for a tour and they aren’t prepared for sun, rain, bugs, and mud.   Do us a favor, when you visit a working farm…. leave the couture at home.

So…… if these stories made you question my sanity and confirm that I’ve become that woman – stop reading now.  If these stories gave you a belly laugh while appreciating what we can learn from animals, consider stopping over on a Wednesday afternoon to help me make a fruit headdress for Luther and Jackie-O.

Breakneck Value Meal

I need to come clean about something before you support Breakneck Acres any further;  I was 50 lbs overweight, pre-hypertensive, and eating a McDonald’s value meal as I wrote Breakneck Acres’s mission and vision statements two years ago.  It was a beautiful day on the coast in NorCal, locals and tourist were outside biking and hiking, and I was laying on the couch, popping french fries in my mouth, and brainstorming a list of key words, “healthy, organic, local, fresh, pride, honesty…..”  Honesty?   Hmmmm.

After a large slice of wedding cake, I shared my Breakneck mission and vision with family.

I knew that I was “a little” overweight and that there was clear room for improvement, but I had no idea that the stress of my new career and my (not so healthy) habits were leading me to be a statistic.  I decided to dust off my copy of the Ominvore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, and my mother’s copy of Richard Simmons’ Never Say Diet from 1980.  I also scheduled a Wellness Exam.  My physician was thin, athletic, and positively spunky.  She smiled, patted my knee, and said, “Ami…. you’re easily 50 lbs over weight, your blood pressure is 160/100 and you’re pre-diabetic.  So what’s the plan?”  The plan?  I was laying there in an ill-fitting paper dress trying to come up with the perfect answer, but all I could muster was, “I guess it’s time for a change.”

It was time for a change and it was time to start walking the walk if I was going to be talking the talk.  So that is exactly what I did.  I headed four blocks to the Pacific Ocean and started walking – walking on the beach to clear my mind, walking to the farmers market to replace fries with kale chips, and walking on the job to complete safety and operational inspections.  After a few pounds lost and a new-found motivation, I also leaned on the perks of my corporate job and signed up for weekly weight loss coaching.  My coach made the equation simple; calories in = calories out.  “Ami, I know you have the tools to do this….. Just follow the Breakneck mission statement – slow down, eat healthy, act locally – and incorporate exercise into your day to day activities.” 

There was no fasting, elimination of a major food group, or expensive gym memberships – it was just a lifestyle change.  I never went on a diet and I never did something I wasn’t comfortable doing for the rest of my life.  For example, I started eating a healthy breakfast every morning, I used portion control while entertaining customers at well known San Francisco eateries, and made exercise a new addition to my schedule.  It was easy since it wasn’t extreme – and trust – there were “naughty” moments, but overall the healthy habits were leading to weight loss.

But I was still stressed.  My corporate career was stressful – as many are – and I finally was honest with myself and questioned my desire to manage it.  I had spent 12 years working for an international construction materials company after graduating from the Colorado School of Mines with a degree in Mining Engineering.  I loved the industry and my peers, but the pressures of  executing the Corporate strategy were leaving me feeling drained, depressed, and indifferent.  My weight loss coach had suggested stress management through exercise, meditation, and counseling – I suggested a career change.  It would be the final step to truly being honest with myself to manage my health.

Ami, 65 lbs lighter, with her new company vehicle.

So…… I write this today from the comfort of my couch (some things never change) at Breakneck Acres in Ravenna, OH – I have lost 66 lbs, my blood pressure is a healthy 117/80, I exercise regularly (on the job!) and we prepare a Breakneck Value Meal every night (last night was taco night – grass fed beef from across the street, spices, and cilantro, onion, and tomato from Breakneck) I also followed my heart and left my corporate career for full-time small scale farming.   I would love to brag that all these changes have left me stress free, but they haven’t.  Life at Breakneck can be stressful at times – but it’s healthy, honest stress…….. that I WANT to manage!

Be sure to check out our fresh picked, certified organic produce in Kent, OH at Haymaker’s Farmers’ Market on Saturdays from 9-1pm or at our farm stand (2743 Summit Rd., Ravenna, OH) on Wednesdays from 4-8pm.  I’ll be sure to share what will be in our Value Meal that night!

16 & Pregnant

My dad called me when I lived in California and said, “Have you ever watched 16 & Pregnant?  Well [insert scholarly tone]….it’s this show on VH1 or something where they follow high school girls that are pregnant and not married….. it’s fascinating…..”  I had heard of the reality show, but never watched it and enjoyed hearing my dad explain the premiss.  But fascinating?  Now if you know Big Joe, you know that you can expect moments of exaggeration and I doubted it was worth my time…. but I took the bait since I had also received a Facebook invite explaining that one of my closest friends, “likes 16 & Pregnant and you should too!”

I can tell you that I only watched a few minutes, never gave them a thumbs up on Facebook and wasn’t all that fascinated.  I was overwhelmed.  Overwhelmed with the idea of taking on such a huge responsibility at such a young and tender age and overwhelmed by the girls’ lack of urgency and concern.  I am not a mother, but I was lucky enough to care for Tim’s grand-daughter for one week.  I now speak from my short window of experience – caring for toddlers is serious business.  There were moments of joy watching Tim play with her as she squealed and ran through the house, moments of stress as I tried to juggle personal luxuries like showering and eating, and moments of terror when I thought she might cry from discomfort/annoyance/boredom.  In the end she managed brilliantly and I managed to overreact (multiple times.)  But the experience made me wonder if maybe it would have been easier for me if I had children at a younger age.  Clearly the girls on this reality show weren’t showing the immediate signs of stress I felt when Miss P arrived and I was deemed her sole caretaker.  You don’t know, what you don’t know…. right?

Two weeks ago, I had a conversation with Tim that went something like this;

Tim:  Whatcha doin’ tomorrow?

Me:  Going to the Kent Winter Market and then to Gray Fox Farms.

Tim:  What do they do there?

Me:  They have a CSA for the Hudson community and they have chickens.

Tim:  Chickens… hmm…. we should get chickens.

Me:  Whatever.  I’m taking my friend from Two-Putt Produce & Pumpkins  since SHE is getting chickens.

I left the conversation at that point knowing I can’t stop his wheels from spinning, but I learned from experience it’s best to not grease them.  He has big ideas all the time and I simply attempt to shine the light of financial and management realities – sometimes we go for it and other times we put the idea on the back burner.  The next day we were running errands, Tim spotted a chicken coop for sale, and pulled into the lot.  All I could think was, “give him an inch Ami, he’ll take a mile…. don’t act interested”.  He investigated it and was totally disgusted by the $2,000 price tag.  Perfect.

The next day I catch him sneaking around on the computer.  I use the term “sneaking” since he ALWAYS has me man the computer UNLESS he’s doing something he doesn’t want me to know about (minds out of the gutter, please).  A few minutes later I hear him on the phone, “ah…. yeah…. I’m looking for a school bus, preferably with no seats or engine.  I’d like to use it as a mobile chicken coop.”

I gave him the, “are you flippin’ kidding me?” look and he just said, “we’re doin’ this – you’ll love it.”

And within two days we purchased a school bus and within ten days we picked up 36 chicks (Barred Rocks, New Hampshire Reds, and Delawares) from Myer Hatchery with another 39 chicks scheduled for pick up in May.  I will give him credit – a school bus is really a brilliant alternative to a traditional coop.  We’ll move the bus around the property to offer free (and exciting!) range and then they will be locked up at night from the threat of predators.  

Free Range Rover - Stay tuned for paint job!

Bus (sans seats, engine and transmission), 20 nest boxes and brooder, perching, feeding and watering supplies totalled less than $1,000.  And we can fit a heck of a lot more hens than the little coop we checked out!  Follow our construction and transformation photos on our Facebook page.

This happened so quickly, I was left feeling a bit 16 & Pregnant.  I truly did not know, what I did not know – and I think it might have made the whole thing a bit simpler.  There was no time for research, internet chicken community Q&A, or friendly advice.  It just kinda happened – Clear Blue Easy is positive and oh, by the way, what are you wearing to prom?

Phase I: Back of the bus brooder & nest box install

They are officially one week old today and I still have no idea what I’m doing!  I have spent some time attempting to better understand the basics through quick Google searches, but the internet has to proved to be a mine of conflicting opinions.  Tim has been cool about the whole thing, advising, “they’ll eat when they need to eat, sleep when they need to sleep, and poop when they need to poop.  Just keep them clean, warm, fed, and watered.  Period.”  Funny- I remember similar advice when his grand-daughter was here, but there were a few more points (including, “give her an M&M every time she goes on the big girl potty- works great”).  No M&Ms for the chicks, but I might just dig up a few worms next week.

"1 lb bag of peanut M&M's please!"

Leave it to Beaver

Tim came in yesterday and proclaimed, “it’s time to cut the payroll!  We need to downsize!”  Now I’m all about cost reduction and improving the return on our precious investments through pastoral economics, but cut the payroll?  Tim and I are the only two working Breakneck Acres …. so this isn’t looking good for me.  I’ll admit I’m not the best at updating our blog and in the winter months I have been known to “sleep in” until 7:00am, but fire me?  Seriously?

I grabbed two beers and asked him what was on his mind, “Do you see all that water out there?  The creek is overflowing and the back field is flooded!  I don’t know why we bother…. maybe you should change your business model and plant yourself a rice patty!”  One of the things I love about our relationship is that Tim typically doesn’t need to explain himself to me.  With very few words, I know what he feels, needs, and even fears.   I wouldn’t call it mind reading, but we seem to just float along in life supporting each other through the ups and downs without the emotionally detailed conversations that are often times required in relationships.  This one left me scratching my head and forced a big swig of beer, “so why are you firing ME?  I can’t control Mother Nature!?!?!”

I’m not firing you Shug…. I’m gonna fire the beavers or AT LEAST cut their overtime!  Now let’s take a walk……”

I grabbed another beer, a camera and a pair of muck boots.  As we walked to the backside of the property, I surveyed the water damage and was relieved to see that I wouldn’t be working in a rice patty just yet.  The creek was racing and there were a few wet spots in the field, but nothing that we couldn’t overcome in the next few weeks, right?  I was enjoying the warm sun, cool breeze, and the frogs singing in excitement as Tim pushed ahead with determination past our field into the trees.  He suddenly stopped, squatted down, and quietly observed while shaking his head.  As I approached, I suddenly understood – we had a beaver lodge – a 20′ diameter and 4′ high dome beautifully constructed from limbs, debris, and mud.  I silently stood next to him listening to the quaint trickle of water slowly running over the dam they had worked endlessly all winter to construct and thought about the huge culvert pouring endless gallons of water from Lake Hodgson into our creek. 

Evidence of our "ecosystem engineers" working overtime.

 I find beavers fascinating.  It seems that building a dam and lodge is the rite of passage for a new family.  They work together to cut limbs and branches and drag/float them to a specially picked site (in our case, just a few feet down from Breakneck Acres).  I have a vision that their lodge is cozy and warm.  Momma beaver is lounging around watching her baby kits splashing around and rubbing noses with their siblings.  In reality, momma beaver is probably training her kits to collect oils from their anal glands to waterproof their coats while she tail slaps the water to warn of approaching predators….. but I digress.

Beavers spend 80% of their lives under water and can stay submerged for almost 15 minutes. It's clear that Tim will wait all day (beer inventory permitting).

Tim likes to pull the trigger quickly when a decision needs to be made while I like to step back, assess the situation, and consider our options.  I tried to collect my thoughts as we raced back to the shop.  I explained that we needed to find a way to peacefully coexist as Tim rummaged through boxes looking for left over fireworks from July.  Thankfully he didn’t find any and I was able to give my “let the beavers be beavers” speech.  He heard me and we brainstormed ideas to lower the water level while maintaining their habitat.  I just hope they don’t strike for more overtime and benefits – that is one picket line they will not want Tim to cross.

Brooklyn Salt Lick

Tim has no interest in fashion, celebrity gossip, or the latest trends.  When we first met, I casually mentioned that Britney Spears was getting a divorce.  He looked up from reading his Farm & Dairy as he lounged on his favorite leather Lazy Boy and asked if she was an old friend from high school or co-worker.   “Seriously!?!?  You have no idea who Brittney Spears is – do you?”  “Nope, but I wish the best for her and let me know if we can do anything to help…. by the way, wouldn’t it be really cool if we started raising heritage turkeys….”

Now for the record, Tim’s head isn’t completely in the sand.  He has picked up on some long lingering trends and is always quick to proudly comment.  Summer drives through the Kent State University Campus with Tim would go something like this;  hot summer heat, 20 – something girl wearing ear buds, a tank top, short shorts and Uggs headed into Starbucks for an extra hot grande skinny latte, we would pass her, Tim would take a drag of his cigarette, look in the rear view mirror at her and say, “You know why they’re called Uggs?…… cuz they’re UGG-LY!”   

Tim is content with his simplicity and I often attempt to take a page from the book of his life, but I am keenly aware that Breakneck Acres will need to understand and be one step ahead of the latest food/marketing trends to be successful.  Yeah…. I’ve read Blue Ocean Strategy and I maintain my school of hard knocks MBA reading list, but nothing compares to real life experience, networking with like-minded folk, and observing the successes (and failures) of others.  My trip to Brooklyn, NY to sell Presto! Pesto at the Brooklyn Flea was a whirlwind tour of the latest food trends, packaging, branding, and customer service. 

Olivia and I were honored to share a booth with McClure’s Pickles.  I knew nothing about them, but quickly assumed it was time to start paying attention after watching customer after customer pay $10 a jar.  The strategy is simple – McClure’s Pickles are cool.  The company is owned by two young hipsters living in Detroit and Brooklyn, the logo has the latest look, the packaging is simple, they’re sold in all the right places (including Williams Sonoma), and they’re awfully tasty.  Young and old were stumbling over themselves to buy, “those pickles we saw on Martha Stewart!!!” (insert middle-aged woman wearing reading glasses dangling from a multi color beaded security chain with a NYC accent).  Hmmmm….

by the end of the day, customers were licking the free sample tray....

Tim and I are well beyond being hipsters……. we’re too old, too busy, and our fashion priorities are all mixed up (ie.  Tim bought me Carhart coveralls at Tractor Supply for my birthday this year and I was kinda excited about the fit and color).  Tim will never don a three piece suit as per the Dandies of Williamsburg and I will never bring back the awful prescription glasses I wore in the 80’s.  But there’s still hope for Breakneck Acres and our products….. Breakneck Acres can be cool?  Right?

And with that said, I’m going to work this winter on our branding, logo, website, and packaging for our Heirloom Dry Beans.  Beans are boring – I know this, but my goal is to motivate people to eat our beans like they’re the last McClure’s Pickle on the sample tray! 

And a final note:  What the heck is going on with the holy high blood pressure, thirst triggering, water retaining salt trend in NYC!?!?!?  I get the salt/sugar fascination we Americans have (bring on a Coke and McDonald’s french fries), but artesian chocolate and salt?  a Himalyan salt block as a cutting/serving board for meats and cheeses?  brining our Thanksgiving turkey?  I don’t get it…. but I did enjoy a bite of a chocolate cupcake sprinkled with rock sea salt Saturday night.

I'm going to start a new BP cuff fashion trend

Are You Really Available?

I was at Breezewood today getting gas when a trucker approached me and said, “are you available for a date?” (using air quotes when he stressed “date”).  I hesitated, looked down at myself and simply said, “seriously dude?!?!?”  He quickly realized the answer was no and moved on to the next victim.  Now let me give you a visual…. I have not showered in a few days due to (our free, but not working) gas issues, I’m wearing cowboy boots, jeans, a Carhart, and a Tractor Supply baseball cap, pumping gas into a farm truck. 

Me being all sexy at Tractor Supply.

I was speechless…. for a moment….. but it made me think about the “dress for success” speech in college and the polyester black suit I would wear to job interviews (ironically I was better known for wearing overalls and Birkenstocks).  I would trudge through campus wearing my $59.99 suit from JC Penny’s and pointy high heels that hurt my feet (with nylons – of course) in hopes of landing the perfect job.  The interviewer was typically a man and he would give me the “woman working in a man’s world” speech as he winked at me and checked out my legs.  I would internally roll my eyes thinking, “if you only knew brother…. this skirt (and my bra) will be burned after you offer me $50K a year”.  OK…. so back to the truck stop incident.  Maybe he found the “farm girl look” sexy?  Or maybe when I bent over to investigate the new muffler put on the truck, I was sending some sort of unknown message?  Whatever the case…. his perception became my reality in that instant.

Since returning from NorCal to Ohio in August, I’ve been reminded that one’s perception is the reality.  And at times, much to my chagrin.  I landed at the farm ready to clear my head after a challenging adventure and harvest produce to sell at our farm stand.  Tim would pump me up with, “If we could just get $1.00 from every car that drives by, we would be ga-billionaires!” or “Shuggy… if we grow it, they will come…. you watch”.  I can confirm that we are not ga-billionaires (but manged to pay for all the seed we bought in the spring) and… well…. they didn’t really come. 

The perception in the community is that the Breakneck Acres farm stand was never open.  I would argue that I spent many days sitting at the stand waiting for customers, only to be disappointed when only one or two would stop.  But the problem; I wasn’t consistent.  I never posted set hours and only opened when it “felt right” (for multiple reasons), I assumed people would stop – at that moment, and I wasn’t always prepared.  Lessons learned and I’m going to change our tactics in 2011.  Either we’ll be open set days and times or we’ll totally shut the stand down and shift to selling at Farmer’s Markets.  Period.

I also got feedback that our produce was, “small and oddly shaped.”  The customers that stopped at the stand expected big, red, round tomatoes – and heirloom tomatoes are not.  We grew an heirloom bell pepper known as a sheepnose that was passed down over the years by the family of Nick Rini.  The pepper is extremely flavorful, but is only 3″ deep and 4″ in diameter.  Customers would pick them up and say, “is this a pepper?” and I would respond by explaining that they are organic, an heirloom variety and very yummy.  Some people would nod and put the pepper down and others would simply suggest Miracle Grow.   The perception is the reality…. clearly the perception is that big and consistent = good and small odd shapes = bad/creepy (for some people).

So what does it all mean?  Well for Breakneck Acres, we’re going to keep inspiring you to slow down and eat healthy while educating our community to embrace organic and heirloom vegetables.  We’ll also make our products more readily available to the public…. but I won’t be wearing a polyester suit.  Expect to see me proudly wearing my overalls and cowboy boots.  Perception is reality, right?

ps.  I guess I should also address the obvious perception…. that I’ve quit blogging.  Well the reality is that I’m not gone yet.  Just a little overwhelmed with the transition from California, all the new responsibilities, and managing time.  I’ll find my groove and I promise some sort of blogging consistency…..

Mumbo Jumbo Salsa

Our neighbor Thurl Malcom Nicholas, better know as Nick “The Knife”, brought me a jar yesterday while I was sitting at our farm stand.  The contents reminded me of a high school biology experiment.  He explained that the jar didn’t contain a fetal pig, it was a cold packed chicken.  I slowly rotated the jar as clumps of lard and skin maintained my line of sight.  I was smiling and nodding as he explained that he learned to “cold pack” chickens as a boy in West Virginia,  “wa -wait…. cold pack means you didn’t COOK the chicken before you put it in this VERY clear jar….and now I can just eat it?”  I just kept rotating as he explained the process and recipe recommendations.  I could only respond with, “uh huh…. uh huh…. uh huh…..”.  He winked at Tim and said, “she sure is a city girl…..”

My Inspiration....

Tim and I started canning last year, so I wouldn’t consider myself a beginner.  I read a few books and did lots of web surfing to dive head first into canning salsa, but I’ll admit that I’m still treading water in the “need to understand the complete science behind the process” deep end so that I can tweak the recipe.  When I ask questions, Tim and Nick “The Knife” try to simplify the process by sharing stories about kin down south.   I desperately try to get something from the story, but typically I get lost in the banjo playing in my head.   When I ask what the pH is of a fetal pig (I mean chicken) the response is lots of head shaking back and forth and comments like, “don’t you worry yourself with all that mumbo jumbo….”   So the last time I checked, the definition of Botulism, salmonella, and fuzzy mold was not mumbo jumbo. 

Understand that I share this story with the kindest of heart.  Nick is a wonderful neighbor and I am thankful that he shares the past and present with me.  He is a good soul and I always smile when I see him pull in at the farm.  I have learned a great deal from him and I love to hear stories from his past.  Our difference is simple – Nick “The Knife” has been around for a long time and can just do it because, “that’s just how we always did it….”  Call me young, a city girl, an over analyzer…. whatever….. but sometimes I still need reasearch and advice to teach me something is safe and right.

So today we canned salsa (those darn hot peppers continue to multiply!) and I poured over Ball’s Complete Book of Home Preserving to confirm that I understand cold packing, boiling water heat processing, pressure cooking, high acid foods, low acid foods and creating the perfect balance.  When you can salsa, the mixture relies on the addition of an acid (typically vinegar or citrus juice) to raise the acidity of the ingredients so that you can safely preserve in a boiling water canner.  We used cider vinegar today and made three types of salsa – hot (using all Wenk’s Yellow Hots), really hot (using Wenk’s Yellow Hots and Georgia Flames) and bust the doors off the barn hot (using Wenk’s Yellow Hot, Georgia Flame, and jalapeno).  Needless to say – this salsa is for adults only.

We look forward to you trying a batch!  And I can tell you with 100% confidence, that anything canned at Breakneck will be straight up safe – without any of that “mumbo jumbo”.  And for the record – we won’t be canning fetal pigs any time soon.  I’m going to leave that recipe with Nick…..

Is Motorola Hiring?

When we created our seed list for our two acre produce test plot, the list was two pages long.  “Make sure you order blueberries – I’d like a few bushes on the back hill where people can PYO, and brussel sprouts – you like eating them right? and asparagus – we should have asparagus for dinner tonight actually, and… about Japanese turnips? That guy from the OEFFA conference said they can’t grow enough Japanese Turnips…..”  What the heck is a Japanese turnip and how do you grow it?  “I have no idea…. Twitter it or something…… just buy the seed and we’ll figure it out.”  Tim was lounging in his Lazy Boy rattling off a list as I frantically entered his thoughts into an Excel spreadsheet while simultaneously Googling Japanese turnips and the number of gourmet lettuce seeds per pound.  Tim peaked at me over his reading glasses, smiled and said, “Well…. I think we have our list.”  I sighed realizing paralysis of analysis was setting in, powered off the computer and was at peace knowing it would all work out if we work hard – 80% is just showing up, right? 

We finally agreed on a condensed grow list that fit all of our needs and priorities; every ingredient for our salsa, basil and garlic for Presto! Pesto, heirloom dry beans to continue my reign as the Bean Lady (or the Queen of Dry Beans as the organic inspector has agreed to call me), a little lettuce, kale and swiss chard, green beans, sweet peas….. and a few pumpkin plants for the fall.   What we never agreed on was the amount of seed or how to market it, “Tim…. I’m thinking we should just get a few packs of Kentucky Wonder Pole green beans to try them out…. OK?”  And as expected, quite the opposite happened.  We ordered 1/4 lb of green bean seed and spent 3 full days staking over 400 plants.  I also insisted on planting all of the savory ingredients for my salsa (heirloom paste tomatoes, bell peppers, mild peppers, medium hot peppers, jalapeno, garlic, onion and cilantro), ignoring the fact that the general public doesn’t eat hot peppers by the pound.  Tonight I walked along the Wink’s Yellow Hot pepper row and counted no less than 500 peppers charging full steam ahead and begging to be harvested.  For reference; I’ve managed to sell 6 in the past week.  Tim simply said, “We better call that Guca-Mole’s Mexican joint tomorrow.  Maybe they need some hot peppers.”  The reality is that I’ve been cold calling grocery stores and produce distributors to dump 50 lbs of peppers NOW with little success.  Lots of, “we love the vision, name of the farm is great, try growing bigger and more consistent tomatoes – our customers love BIG PERFECT tomatoes, keep us mind when you’re a little bigger and good luck…..”  

Wenk's Yellow Hot Peppers

The Breakneck Experience is all about trying something new, learning through collaboration, brainstorming ways to improve, and dreaming about the next big thing.  Mistakes are expected and contingency plans are required.  We wanted to grow new things this year and we did – it’s as simple as that.  We are now in the learning and brainstorming stage – we ordered a few too many speciality seeds and assumed the little wonders would market themselves.  

Our estimates were reasonable when it came to the Genovese Basil seed.  The creator of Presto! Pesto drove down from Brooklyn with a sausage stuffer, a jar of hog rings, 6 lbs of parmesan cheese, 3 lbs of walnuts, and a few tins of EVOO tightly packed in her Volkswagon Golf.  We supplied the garlic and heirloom basil and by the end of her stay, we had drunk two bottles of wine and produced over 40 lbs of pesto!   We became quite efficient and perfected the six sigma of pesto manufacturing (as a side note; don’t play the Surius Bluegrass channel when under pressure – it makes you a bit excited – we found the Coffee House channel to be much more comforting).  If you’re interested in what role the sausage maker plays…..CLICK HERE

To be completely transparent, the Breakneck Experience can be a little scary for me – there are times when trying new things, making mistakes, and realizing the price of the next big dream isn’t always easy to swallow.  I could easily argue that there is comfort in a steady job that clearly follows a vision created by that other guy.  But when I successfully execute a corporate vision, I don’t typically dance around the room, squealing and hugging my co-worker…… 

And you better believe that is exactly what happened as Olivia and I finished our first batch!  Tim was beaming with pride, brainstorming ideas to streamline the packaging process and challenging us to take the concept further while dreaming up the perfect Breakneck test kitchen.  I was excited, I was energized….. and for that minute….. not all that worried about where my next paycheck would come from or selling those darn peppers.   

Olivia Barry & Ami Gignac

I encourage you to try out the Breakneck Experience (just don’t grow a bunch of ugly tomatoes) and remember to slow down, eat healthy and act locally.  And I figure if this doesn’t work out….. I can always apply for a job at Motorola – they’d be pretty impressed with my pesto six sigma skills and I’m sure Tim would write me a decent letter of reference…..

Bat vs. Broom – Bat 1, Broom 0

Every night as the sun goes down after a very long day of hard work, Tim and I discuss what we’ve done, what we should do (soon), and what we dream about doing.  The conversation typically spins from a laundry list of farm tasks to sailing this winter in the BVI to how many brews are left in the frig to “wouldn’t it be cool if we had chickens and cattle?  We should run down to the auction tomorrow morning, maybe they have those mini cows you read about from the 1600’s…..”  If you just go with it (and not allow the vision of a rooster strutting around the yard with a 38″ high Jersey cow increase your blood pressure), the conversation typically helps celebrate the success of the day, plan out the next 48 hours, and plant one more seed in future dreams.

Tim and his favorite crew (TJ & Gene Hand) blessed me with their help this week since they were between jobs.  It was a whirlwind at Breakneck Acres – they brought our boat down from Catawba Island for a quick cleaning and safety check before launching tomorrow in Cleveland (TJ & Gene amazed us with their buffing skills), some Amish dudes poured concrete in the shop (Tim offered them beers and cigarettes and I avoided wearing a low-cut tank top), a gem from Youngstown, OH replaced 1200′ of gas line for us after getting “stuck” in Put-in-Bay Monday (if you live in northeast Ohio, you’ve probably also been “stuck” in Put-in-Bay after a long weekend of partying…..), we finished the construction of our farm stand for the grand opening this weekend, we staked over 400 pole beans (they were desperately climbing rag weed in the past few days), and did lots and lots of hand weeding (thanks to the National Organic Program standards).

Needless to say….. we’re tired by the end of the day.  So tired – that I sometimes wonder if we should just order a pizza from the local college town.  I typically doubt that I have the energy and patience to cook dinner, but last night a simple walk through the field to collect fresh greens, peppers, tomatoes, and basil invigorated me.  Within 30 minutes, we had created a perfect vegetarian meal that satisfied us for the night – and I must admit, much better than a Hungry Howie supreme pizza.  We finished the night (like most nights) with a few minutes of TV to check in on local news and the weather report for the next day.

So last night I was in a deep sleep to prepare myself for the activities of today, when I woke up to a frantic bat flying around our bedroom.  And let me tell you- when you have a ceiling fan, a situation like this can get hairy.  He’s trying to get out of the room while his chaotic flight into the fan projects him directly at the bed, I’m squealing and squirming to hide under the covers, and Tim is running around in his birthday suit with a broom trying to “gently relocate” our mosquito eating buddy.  We turned on a light to better locate our furry friend, and as expected, he disappeared.  Tim simply said, “well…. he probably found the hole in came in through and left….” and then promptly fell back asleep.  I, on the other hand, patiently waited for his return in the darkness while imagining bat poo on my clean laundry.  When we woke up in the morning, Tim started on his list, “we need to weed the dry beans, caulk the ports, plant clover, go to Tractor Supply…..”  I just nodded my head as I cleaned bat excrement off the wall – about 2 ft. from where I slept.  I’m adding; “purchase night vision goggles and a butterfly net” to the list today.  Stay tuned.