TFWF#42: The night the arks floated

As many of you will know the night of the 19th June was a very wet one for much of New Zealand. Here in the Manawatu we were hit very hard by the run off from the Tararua Ranges. Our farm is split in two by the Waikawa stream, a normally calm babbling brook that you can wade through in gumboots. On the night of the 19th the water level rose to almost 2.5m, breaking the councils measuring system in the process, and the flow peaked at over 200,000 litres per second (on average it is normally around 500l/s). The noise all over the farm was deafening and, it was scary.

The day started early at 5:30am with preparations for Feilding Farmers Market at 8am. At 6:45 I left for the market and whilst the weather was far from enjoyable I had a great day with lots of new and old customers dropping by. We had been warned about the rainfall but standing in the town square it looked like the forecasters had been a little overly cautious, the showers were interspersed with sun and did not feel like flood levels of water.

IMG_3915

The weather forecast for 19th June, watch for flooding they said…

It wasn’t until I left the markets at about 2pm that I started to see the volume of water that was starting to build up in the paddocks and roadways on the journey home from Feilding through Sanson and into Levin. As I drove through the puddles the tension regarding what I would find back on the farm had started to build. Turning into the driveway I could already see the Waikawa stream was high and loud as the water crashed into the banks.

After any market I am tired and frankly want to sit down and have a beer but as always I have a number of food and farm related jobs that have to be carried out. I counted the remaining meat, loaded the fridges, filled in my paperwork and got changed into my farm gear in order to head out to feed the pigs. I filled up the feed buckets and headed out to check on the grower pigs who live in the paddock closest to the Waikawa stream. By now it was about 3:30pm, the rain was still falling hard and the paddocks were very wet, but the stream was no higher than I had seen it before and the water seemed to be draining freely via the drainage ditches that the previous owners of our farm had, poorly, installed. Feeling a little calmer about the situation I went back home to check the forecast, the councils data for the stream and eat some lunch.

The rain continued, hard. My stress levels continued to build. Every couple of hours I headed out into the farm to look at the stream and check on the paddock with the grower pigs. 5pm, 7pm, 8:30pm, the water was rising but seemed manageable. The drainage ditch was now flowing over the track into paddock and would make moving the pigs to higher ground difficult but not impossible. Night had fallen and it was getting hard to see the real situation, at 9:30 I headed out again to look at the paddock and found that the water had risen further, the pigs were not in danger but if this carried on I was in real trouble of endangering life unless i did something.

At times like this the first thing you need is moral support, with my mind racing at a thousand thoughts per second I was running the risk of becoming too overwhelmed to actually do anything. At 10pm Claire asked me to take her down to the paddock so she could see the situation herself. It wasn’t until the next day that I realised that the river had actually peaked at 10:20 and broken the banks at the end of the paddock, as Claire and I arrived we were faced with total carnage as the river made a horseshoe type flow across the paddock cutting it off from the farm. The paddock track was impassable, the drainage ditch had overflowed and the water running over the track was almost waist deep. We could see the pigs in the first section of the paddock, all huddling in their ark shaped house completely surrounded by water, they had no higher ground to get too. It was a terrible sight and both Claire and I had to take a moment to calm ourselves. We decided to go back up to the house and try and call Russell who used to farm all the land around this neighbourhood, we thought he would surely be able to make some suggestions (we later found out he was in Fiji on holiday). Meanwhile I set out in the dark to the DOC campground which backs onto our paddock to see if I could get to the pigs from the other direction.

It was dark so the image is not very clear but at 11pm this 'river' was actually the farm track into the paddock.

It was dark so the image is not very clear but at 11pm this ‘river’ was actually the farm track into the paddock (thats my car parked on higher ground). And those rope like things are the high tensile fences being swept away, the pigs are in the paddock on the right.

Pulling into the campground the sitting water was everywhere. I got out the car and made my way to the fence line, it looked like I could get through and get to the pigs, my plan was to cut some fences and let the pigs get to slightly higher ground in other sections of the paddock. As I walked towards the paddock a quad bike pulled into the campground, thinking it was Russell and at the same time finding the whole darkness, headlamp and roaring river thing a little creepy I headed back to my car. The quad was being driver by Brad, another neighbour, he offered to take me over to the fence line on the quad, I jumped on. We both climbed over the fence and went to look at the pigs. Water was everywhere, at least 12″ deep, but much of the paddock was above the waterline and most of the pigs were at no risk, we kept walking over to the first section that Claire and I had seen underwater about half an hour ago. It looked like the water had receded a little but you couldn’t tell what was likely to happen. Having spent weeks putting electric fences all over the paddock splitting the land into smaller sections for rotation of the pigs I now knew that the only thing I could do was cut the fences and hope the pigs worked out the best places to be. Soaking wet Brad and I jumped back onto the quad and headed for my car.

Back at home Claire had been unable to get hold of Russell and I simply didn’t know if the water was rising or falling, it was now about midnight and we had no option than to call around and get help. Our friends in Otaki couldn’t get through, the highway was cut off just outside Otaki by a stream crossing the road and the Waikawa had actually washed away the highway just north of Manakau meaning that we were also cut off from Levin, isolated in both directions. Our only option was the neighbours and what followed was nothing short of a miracle of logistics by Claire. Whilst the names will mean nothing to you just marvel at the organisation as we rallied the neighbours at midnight

  • Doug was home alone as Julie was stuck in Levin, he couldn’t leave his children who were asleep
  • Claire offered to babysit Doug’s kids but then we needed someone to babysit Fred, also asleep.
  • Denise came around to babysit Fred
  • Brad came back to help, sporting what I think was a wetsuit
  • Chris got our of bed to come and give a hand
  • Doug arrived in his Land Rover

We had a team and we set to work trying to grab as many pigs as possible and get them to higher ground or, thanks to Doug and his amazing trailer towing skills, into the stock trailer. What followed was a torchlit version of a black and white slapstick movie as one by one we dived at black pigs, missed, landed face down in the mud and tried again. We soon got a rhythm and by the time my grip gave out, from the power of grabbing the pigs by their fast kicking legs, we had caught and re-homed about 30 pigs of all shapes and sizes. It was about 2:30am.

As we returned to our respective homes everyone looked drained and ready to sleep, except Brad who I think could have carried on all night wrestling pigs. After a well needed warm shower I sat down at the computer and informed all our Facebook followers that it was looking very unlikely we would be at the Thorndon Farmers Market that day, despite having a trailer full of fresh meat. It was now 3am and I had been awake for 22 hours, tomorrow the clean up had to start and the pigs needed somewhere to live other than the back of a trailer.

From the bottom of my heart I would like to thank all those people that came out to help that night, some of you might be reading this. Apart from simply being a really nice thing to do I suspect that you probably saved a life and definitely saved my business. Thank you so much.

TFWF#37: keeping the Wolf at the door

The last few weeks have been a blur to me. It is only when I look back at the photos on my phone, or the notes I have made,  that I remember what I have been up too. Like most people I sometimes get home at night and wonder what I did that day and was it useful and did I enjoy it?  Luckily even though I don’t get chance to write that often I do make little notes about what is going on and that helps me when I come to properly write it down.

THE FARM

Spring has brought with it two things, grass and wind. The grass is great and when we come to bail it and graze it I am sure it will bring in some welcome capital. The wind is not so welcome. In the last month we have had (in the same day) severe gales from the SW and the NE. On one occasion, as I was feeding the pigs in the breeding paddock, a plume of smoke appeared from nowhere. Thinking that somehow a farrowing hut had caught fire I rushed to the paddock only to find that the source of the smoke was not fire but dust and the dust had come from the hut as it was picked up by the wind and flung upside down. With the rain and the wind so unrelenting the prospect of leaving the pigs (in this case Delia and Hugh) without a hut was impossible so I opened the gate backed up the Land Rover and started the long process of turning the hut over the right way.

Isn't that door supposed to be the other way up?

Isn’t that door supposed to be the other way up?

In the extreme weather the task of tying a strap to the skids and using the car to put the 500kg hut up the right way is frustrating to say the least, but as I started to right the hut another plume of smoke arose from the dusty ground in the distance. That morning I watched three half tonne houses being flipped by the unusual SW wind and as the rains poured down I battled the inquisitive 200kg sows as I righted them. Farming is a complicated career, a career that really needs you to be prepared for anything, a jack of all trades. You may think that today you will just feed the pigs and undertake some general tasks but the weather, the electrics, the water or maybe the animals will have different ideas.

THE PRODUCTS

With the weather battering the farm I took the opportunity to investigate some new products. Ever since I started my journey to farming I wanted to produce specialist meats like long cured hams, prosciutto and pancetta but with the MPI rules I am not able to do this myself so I had been looking for a like minded producer who could do it for me. After just a few conversations with Gabriel at Big Bad Wolf I knew I had found the right partner. Big Bad Wolf is a gourmet charcuterie based in Wellington and they were excited to work on some projects with Woody’s meat. Our first project was the ultimate in paleo, tasty and efficient snacks – the pork scratchings (or crackling to those who don’t know). Pork crackling is simple to make, just take pork skin (with a little bit of fat) and slow cook it under the expert supervision of Big Bad Wolf, the results are these bags of salty goodness (nicely displayed in a case created from the off-cuts of a pig ark):

Pork, pork scratchings, woody's free range farm, bacon, crackling

‘Woody’s by the Wolf, paleo pork scratchings’

Our second ‘Woody’s by the Wolf’ project will be dry cured pancetta. This slow dried cut of Berkshire belly has been marinating for over a month in a mixture of fresh herbs including juniper and bay and is sliced extra thin. It can be eaten raw but we recommend you either gently fry (without extra oil) and simply serve as a crunchy snack or use as an ingredient in any meal from a pasta dish to an wrapped chicken breast. More on this delicacy in a few weeks when we have sliced and packaged it.

Collaborations with other like minded companies are not only enjoyable they also help to make the most of our limited stock by producing extra special artisan products and also help with cash flow as our meat stocks fluctuate month by month. In addition to working with Big Bad Wolf we have also started working with a local boutique company to produce a range of Woody’s marinades made from organically grown NZ fresh fruit specifically to enhance the flavour of our meats and create instant meals. Pork is a diverse meat and it works well with fruit, we have all experienced pork chops with apple sauce but what about belly slices in plum marinade or adding a citrus glaze to a scotch pork roast. If you have any fruity ideas why not drop me a line and in the meantime I hope to be able to share with you our product range in a month.

THE SUPPORTERS

I realise that I spend most of my time apologising for not having enough stock and I am also aware that unless we grow the farm quickly we will not be able to run a sustainable business. Its one thing to sell out but another to let good customers down. However I have been very pleased by the support and interest that we have received from our customers at the markets and various restaurants/cafes and butchers. One such restaurant that has chosen to help support us is La Boca Loca. Lucas is ‘el jefe’ at La Boca Loca and has a stall next to me at Hill St Farmers Market every other Saturday and was on the hunt for some pigs heads for cooking up some genuine pozole. Its great to be able to sell parts of the pig that people don’t normally eat so we were able to supply him with two heads and a whole bunch of trotters for the feast. I never got to try the pozole but I’m told it was excellent

Another restaurant that we welcomed to take advantage of our open door policy was The Whitehouse who are opening up a new restaurant soon and wanted true free range on the menu. We had a great tour of the farm and I showed them the whole process so they could get a feel for the lives of the pigs. It was really good to have them here and hopefully one day you will be able to taste some of Woody’s meat in one of their restaurants.

THE PRESS

I can’t finish this blog without mentioning our latest bit of fame in the Manawatu Farming Lifestyle paper. It came out last month so you have probably missed out on a hard copy but the web version is still available here: http://issuu.com/nsmm/docs/mfl_sep_2014. Not only did we get a double page spread but also the front page, exciting times and much more to come from our marketing department (me).

Do you like my cover page pose?

Do you like my cover page pose?