We chose to farm...

We chose to farm livestock. We chose to deal with live & death on a daily basis...most of the time life on the farm is a routine. It's the moments of pure uncertainty that shake us to the core. The feeling of helplessness and the weight of the responsibility of being stewards for these animals can be hard to bear. We had such a moment a few weeks ago. One of our gilts was due to have her piglets. She was settling in to her farrowing pen, she still wasn't terribly keen on being touched even though the group of gilts she was with are friendly. We knew she would get to know us very well once her piglets were born.

Matt was getting ready to go for a Fat Bike ride (a very precious activity to Matt as we don't get away from the farm often.) and our farmhand, Luke was finishing up chores. As Matt was getting into the truck he heard a piglet squeal. Now, we have over 50 piglets of various ages in the barn, you get to know their voices and what sounds mean...this was a "new piglet" sound. Matt rushed into the barn and the young gilt had just birthed her second piglet. There was already one born (it did not make it, unfortunately.) Matt dried off the piglet and got the heat lamp set up (the temps were bitterly cold). He called me, luckily I was still in town and was told to pick up more heat lamps, bulbs, and a box of rags. I got home as quickly as I could. She had had 5 more by this time.

So far the story is pretty doable...okay we didn't have the heat lamps set-up, but we got it taken care of. The sow was rejecting her babies. Okay, sometimes that happens when a gilt has her first litter and she is a little confused and won't let the piglets nurse until she is done with the birthing process. The piglets were warm, but clearly wanting colostrum. This sow was snipping and growling at her babies. Not good...not good at all.

Being a pig farmer is all about patience. Pigs and patience go hand-in-hand. They are smart, large animals that will not just "do" as you ask. They are stubborn and will do things on their own time. So now we wait...we wait for the birthing process to be over so she can feed her babies. She had 3 more for a total of 8 live piglets. She had 3 afterbirths. She was done...and still rejecting her babies.

So it is 11pm and I am in the barn trying to be patient. So why did I wait so long to feed them milk replacer? Feeding milk replacer isn't always a great solution. Babies are designed (all mammals, really) to need that colostrum in their system to grow and thrive. It is a VERY important process. Feeding babies an artificial chemical concoction isn't a great solution. Something had to be done. So I gave them all a small amount of watered down milk replacer. None of them wanted it.

These piglets were feisty! I have NEVER seen such a strong will to survive in piglets before. They had a vigor I couldn't explain. This put a tiny bit of hope in my heart that a solution would be found. That these little guys were still going to be with us in the morning.

Morning came. Matt so bravely volunteered to go out into the barn to see the status of the sow and piglets. My heart just pounded and I prepared myself for the worst news. I got a text saying they were still alive! I got dressed and gave them some more milk replacer. At this point the sow was still rejecting them. Looking back, she was rejecting them, but she could have killed them...but didn't. So there was some motherly instincts deep in there-we just had to create a situation for her to shine.

Matt got on the phone and starting reaching out. That is what you have to do as a farmer when you run into challenges-reach out. We don't have access to a large animal vet, so we rely on each other. The 2 gentlemen were "old-time" pig farmers and Matt knew they probably ran into this problem also. You won't believe what they suggested!

Matt told me the solution. What?!!!! The plan was to get her drunk. So she could relax. Then she would allow the piglets to nurse. And as a last resort we could hold her down and put the piglets on her to increase her oxytocin levels and that in turn would help her relax and bond with her babies.

Not much different than mothers. I could tell she was in pain. She had 9 piglets and a small build. This was her first litter and she was confused. Oxytocin is a wonderful hormone that is like a miracle drug. And normally, it would be injected artificially, but experience with human mothers (I was a Doula for years) told me in order for this to work long term-we needed to have her produce it on her own. Plus, we don't have access to artificial oxytocin.

She was fed beer. Several cans. First we poured it over left-over veggie scraps from the kitchen, then we poured it over her feed. Then we wait...and we did. She wasn't relaxing. So we had to do the part none of us wanted to do...forcibly hold her down. This was not fun. Making an animal do something it does not want to do. Making her feel more confused. Making her angry. Thankfully, our farmhand Luke was there and between him and Matt they were able to wrangle her down. It was stressful for all of us! One by one, the piglets were put on her. They instantly nursed. They were so hungry and so anxious to get their mothers milk.

The sow started to settle down. The hormones were kicking in and we heard the most glorious sound! Her nursing song! She was grunting! She was relaxing! Her babies were eating! We all stepped back and watched this sow go from confused and angry to being a mother. Like she didn't skip a beat! Will we have to do this every time? We all gave her space. The piglets eventually got full and we kept the barn as quiet as we could. Now we wait...again.

Aren't these spots just irresitable?!

Aren't these spots just irresitable?!

The nursing song! We heard it again! She was so loud like she was announcing to this world that SHE did it! She has this "mothering-thing"'down pat! You go girl!!!!

We both let out a huge sigh of relief and I got tears in my eyes. Wow...it worked! Then the reality of the stress and exhaustion set in. It was New Years Eve Day and what a way to end 2016. I know we chose this. We wouldn't trade it for the world, but damn! Days like this are hard. Plain and simple. This is not a job for the faint-of-heart. This is a job of physical, financial, and emotional challenges.

So as we celebrate the first month of 2017 we know we will have obstacles, but we will also have moments of pure success due to our love and knowledge of farming.

So to all you fellow farmers out there...we have the best job in the world, don't we! Thank you for all you do and thank you for all those lovely people that support us! Happy New Beginnings!

A heritage breed sow singing her nursing song while feeding her piglets.

Farm Fest 2016 was Fantastic!

On these short January days, I like to dream about summer. The birds are singing, the sun is shinning, and there is green everywhere! I especially like to think about Farm Fest 2017 and all the wonderful things we can do at the event. I wanted to share with you what a great success Farm Fest 2016 in August was. We had such great contributions from local business that care deeply about local food in their community and supporting it. How lucky are we?

Free Range Film Festival Barn in Wrenshall MN, where Farm Fest 2016 was held. This barn recently turned 100 years old!

Free Range Film Festival Barn in Wrenshall MN, where Farm Fest 2016 was held. This barn recently turned 100 years old!

Not only did restaurants provide the event with scrumptious food, but also amazing cocktails! We also had some dedicated local musicians that sung their hearts out! Most of all, to those of you that attended. There was laughter, great conversation, and happy folks with full bellies and full minds.

Preparing Yker Acres Pork for the main course. We had the honor of having Mike and Zack from Red Table Meats Co help prepare the final touches to the roasted pork.

Preparing Yker Acres Pork for the main course. We had the honor of having Mike and Zack from Red Table Meats Co help prepare the final touches to the roasted pork.

Ben Fisher-Merritt tending to the pig all day. Taking great care that the pork would taste delicious...and it did!

Ben Fisher-Merritt tending to the pig all day. Taking great care that the pork would taste delicious...and it did!

With the proceeds from Farm Fest, Yker Acres and Food Farm were able to purchase a combine. This combine will allow us to grow and harvest local grains that benefit both farms and you! Yker Acres will be able to grow our own grains to feed to our pigs. This allows for a smaller carbon footprint because we are not having grains shipped to us. Feeding local grains also supports a healthier pig with even higher quality meat as an end product. Sure does add to making our pigs happier!

Vikre Distillery provided cocktails along with a vareity of Bent Paddle beer.

Vikre Distillery provided cocktails along with a vareity of Bent Paddle beer.

The Food Farm will also continue to grow grains for local businesses to create even higher quality products to be consumed by people like you. Both farms want to strive for providing local food to our community. We want you to benefit from all our hard work.

We had 3 local bands play at the event. Dan Dresser, Jessica Lydia, and Amy Abts.

We had 3 local bands play at the event. Dan Dresser, Jessica Lydia, and Amy Abts.

So as we dream of summer we hope to see you at the second annual Farm Fest in 2017!

Folks enjoying food donated by Lake Avenue Restaurant, The Duluth Grill, At Sara's Table, and the Whole Foods Coop.

Folks enjoying food donated by Lake Avenue Restaurant, The Duluth Grill, At Sara's Table, and the Whole Foods Coop.

Momma Pig

(Written by Sara Weik. Farmer Sara is essentially the "Momma Pig" of Yker Acres. Sara is a nature lover, enjoys riding her fat bike, loves being a pig farmer, is constantly barefoot, and finds gardening very relaxing.)

Petunia likes to feed her piglets for an EXTENDED period of time...

Petunia likes to feed her piglets for an EXTENDED period of time...

Momma pigs are my favorite. Over the years we have had many litters of piglets on the farm. I remember our first litter, the infamous Daisy and Petunia. They were a Red Wattle cross and best friends. (Later they had many litters together) It was a cold day in January and we had been impatiently waiting for one of them to go into labor. No such luck...it seems like we waited for weeks, when I think it was only 4 or 5 days. Matt called me at work and told me I had to come home NOW! Luckily, I had great employers that let me take an extended lunch and I cruised home. (Mind you I was in “office attire” which consisted of a skirt and clogs) I quickly ran into the barn and Petunia had 3 piglets already. Matt was quickly trying to move them into the farrowing pen. He had them stuffed into his jacket and was directing me to grab a heat lamp and an extension cord. While I got that hooked up Matt was drying off and keeping the little piglets warm. Petunia was pretty confused as to why we were moving the piglets and didn't follow us at first. Once she figured out we were trying to get her settled in she came right in and started building her nest. Her buddy Daisy was settling in, too. They were snug-as-a-bug-in-a-rug on one of the coldest days in January. I came back into work with a BIG smile on my face! We just had our first litter on the farm and Petunia went form “Gilt” status to “Sow” status. (Once a gilt has a litter she is officially called a sow). Daisy had her piglets the next day. We were such rookies!

Daisy keeping a watchful eye on her piglets and allowing Josey to take a peek.

Daisy keeping a watchful eye on her piglets and allowing Josey to take a peek.

We have learned so much since then. We no longer plan to have piglets for the month of January, it is just too darn cold. We also keep better records on when they were bred. Of course, since we breed the old fashioned way and do not artificially inseminate it is a general time period and sometimes the breeding takes place the next cycle. Needless to say, our boars are very happy and have plenty of fun!

We are also better at recognizing the early labor signs. The more we get to know the sow and how she farrows (birthing) the easier it is to predict events. Each sow has a personality and each sow farrows a little different. Gilts (first time Mommas) can be unpredictable, but we have learned to roll with the punches. We rarely have to interfere. When we do we need to be diligent, careful, and quick.

Sows build "nests" to help keep their piglets close.

Sows build "nests" to help keep their piglets close.

Pigs laboring and birthing is raw, hard work, and incredibly beautiful. They go through the process with grace, confidence, and strength. They are these HUGE animals that have these little, itty-bitty piglets hanging out around them. They are truly gentle giants.

Sows are gentle giants...

Sows are gentle giants...

Then you have sows like Blueberry. She is a Mangalitsa and they are notorious for their babies being covered in hair (and stripes, so cute!). The piglets can withstand colder temps without added heat. Also, the sows bellies are covered in hair so the piglets can snuggle right up next to Momma and stay toasty warm. Blueberry had her first litter overnight without us knowing. We got to wake up to these feisty piglets already running around and keeping close to mom. Blueberry didn't want us to get close to her babies and that was okay with us. It was her 2nd litter, but first litter with us and she didn't know us very well. We were able to get close when her piglets were about 2 weeks old. Blueberry is one of our more experienced sows and now we can get close to her babies with no problems. She has not needed any assistance to date.

We try and keep sows in groups. The sows farrow very well together and will often share mothering duties like feeding and keeping watch for any danger. Nothing is cuter than seeing a bunch of sows laying in a circle with all their babies piled in the middle for protection. It truly takes a village to raise piglets!

Piglets in a pile protected by their Mommas!

Piglets in a pile protected by their Mommas!

If we can't do a group, we at least pair them up with a buddy. There are some constants like Old Timer and Rivera, Velma and Tulip, Lollipop and Jellybean, Sage and Turnip, Rhea and Juno...I could go on and on!

Lollipop and Jellybean with their piglets.

Lollipop and Jellybean with their piglets.

Some may know this, some may not...I did birthwork for many years as a Doula to lots and lots of (human) Mommas. I retired last year and I miss it so, but being a Doula to pigs is filling a part of my life that I am good at, helping Mommas of all kinds!

Blueberry checking in with her weaned piglet.

Blueberry checking in with her weaned piglet.

Being a Farmhand at Yker Acres is a Blessing

(A blogpost from our trusted Farmhand, Tiffany Edholm. Tiffany has been with Yker Acres a full wonderful year. She is a recent graduate from the Environment Sustainibility Program at UMD. She has many talents: a rad mountain biker, an avid artist, and a companion to our son Josey)

Tiffany with Big Bear

Being a farmhand at YKer Acres is a blessing. I met Matt, Sara, and Josey last summer when I helped out on the farm while Matt and Josey were away at a bike race. I did chores with Sara in the morning at 6AM then went to the Food Farm at 8:30AM to do chores and farm work till 6PM. That summer I interned on the Food Farm. Janaki Fisher-Merrit and the rest of the Food Farm crew showed me how wonderful farming can be. How farming can make your days feel so rewarding and joyous, but it wasn’t until I was introduced to the many beautiful faces of YKer Acres that I really found my happy place.

Mangalitsa piglets

Don’t get me wrong vegetables are awesome. I still get giddy thinking about harvesting carrots and cabbage. But every farmer has to find their niche, the thing that pulls on their heartstrings. I found that little bit of wonderful at YKer Acres.

Mangalitsa with straw on nose

It is difficult to explain to anyone who hasn’t been to a pig farm. But to me there are so many great and wonderful reasons to love being a pig farmer. The way Large Blacks wiggle when you scratch their backs just right. Or when we call the names of our breeding stock and their ears perk up because they know their name. The special little moments when you can sit and watch piglets bounce around like little jumping beans running off an endless amount of energy. Pigs have huge personalities and affectionate hearts.

Selfie with Tiff and piglet

Being a farmhand at YKer Acres is challenging and rewarding. It’s not a 9-5-desk job that’s for certain. Weather-depending can make some days more difficult than others. The spring mud season taught me to enjoy being dirty all the time and taught me to be patient because things don’t always go right when there is mud everywhere. Starting and completing a big project such as putting up a lot of fencing or laying concrete can seem overwhelming at times and insurmountable, but the feeling of accomplishment when its completed makes the tough work totally worth it.

Chores involve feeding and watering all our pigs. Feeder pigs have feeders which get re-filled weekly or so. I give out buckets of food to our breeding stock and clean out and re-fill water containers. On hot days I’ll have to water twice or even three times depending on how much mischief the pigs get into to stay cool. Many of our pigs think their water container double as personal pools. When water containers are filling I use my time to checkout the pigs. I make sure they look healthy, watch out for injuries, and give out lots of back rubs. Pigs enjoy being scratched on their backs and behind their ears. Once chores are done my day could go one of three directions: do a couple small projects such like fix fencing, or I could work on a big project with Matt like moving pigs around, or I could call it a day and go biking.

Tiff and Big Bear with tounge out

I stumbled upon this career path by chance, but ended up loving it. The most important part about being a farmhand is remembering that I care for pigs. I’m not just out there to feed and water pigs so they grow. My job is to keep these pigs happy and relaxed because happy pigs are the best kind of pigs. I am proud of the effort I put into this farm. Doing chores doesn’t really feel like work to me because I’m having so much fun. My days are filled with laughter and oinks, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.