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Jasper & Sage

IMG_6281After the wild success of Christian's post about The $18 Chicken last week, we've been playing catch-up on calls, emails, comments and messages.  If you haven't heard back from us yet, we apologize... we're not ignoring you.  My phone died among some other things, so, ya know, try to get in touch with us again if would! The other, arguably more distracting thing happening here on the farm is the arrival of two very sweet baby goaties.  They were born 5 days apart, and are best friends.  Jasper is the brown w/black stripe buckling, while Sage is his wildly-colored and fuzzy half sister!  I could go out and sit with them forever, just watching them play.  They love to jump on and off of just about anything, including their mamas, the barn, and chickens!  Sage also loves to chase and butt the chickens.  Jasper is more interested in people.

There are few things as adorable as a baby goat, so we're just taking time to sit with them and enjoy it.  Soon they'll be big enough to get into trouble, and they won't be quite as cute.  Well, that might not be true.

Everything is but a hop, skip and a jump away when you're a goat.

Look at that face... <3

 

 

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The 18.00 Chicken

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The 18.00 Chicken

I've been mulling over this post for quite a while now. Whether I should even write it, what the POV should be, is it going to backfire on us, etc. All questions that I've been working through, but after a few recent interactions with folks and some stark realizations after reflecting back on this year's growing season thus far, I felt like I had  to write it. Here is a conversation from a farmer's market interaction not too long ago: " Hi there, thanks for coming to the market." " We're so happy you're here, we've been looking for free range, heritage Chicken. " " Oh that's great. While it's not a heritage breed, it's a different breed that raises out much longer than your standard Cornish Cross and is a far better ranger around the pasture. " " That's great, how much is it a pound? " " $6.00 whole, $6.50 cut up. " " Wait, so one chicken will cost me $18.00? That's outrageous! I am happy to pay $2.00 or even $3.00/lb for chicken, but that is crazy. " " I'm sorry you feel that way, but as I explained, they are far better rangers, take longer to grow and have superior flavor. " " I just can't see how you can charge $6.00/lb. " " Ok, well, have a nice day and thanks for coming. "

Kate and I stared at each other and just started laughing after about 30 seconds of silence and awkward smirking. Our booth partners were also chuckling, as they've been doing this a lot longer than we have and face similar comments about their beef, but apparently not nearly to the degree and frequency that we do with regards to chicken. It made me think though, where is this expectation coming from? Why is it that people seem 'ok' with higher prices for pork and beef, but chicken, regardless of rearing method, is still just a cheap commodity to most. What pricing is not "crazy" and how is it that people seem qualified to evaluate the merits of our pricing? So, lets dive in a bit and I'll reveal just how we calculate pricing.

Determining Factors on Pricing

  1. Growth Time - 14 weeks
  2. Feed conversion ratio (best case) - 4:1  [yes, 4 lbs of food per every 1 lb of carcass weight gained]
  3. Average weight after processing [carcass yield] - 3 lbs

Pricing

  1. Bird Cost - $3.00 per chick
  2. USDA Processing - $5.50 per bird
    • Processing: $4.00
    • Giblets: $1.00
    • Neck & Feet: $0.50
  3. Organic Feed Cost - $0.44/lb [$22.00 for 50 lb. bag]

Summary of costs

  • Total Feed Cost per bird: $5.28
  • Our Total Bird Cost: $13.78
  • Consumer Cost: $18.00
  • Profit per bird: $4.22

* All feed is over 75% locally grown by a 4th generation farmer roughly 30 miles from our farm.

This is the basic formula for how we calculate our pricing, however, here is what we're not charging for, but arguably should be:

  • Our Time
  • Marketing
  • Farmer's market fees
  • Equipment
  • Loss
  • Bookkeeping
  • Misc. Expenses

If we were to add in incremental charges for this list, we'd be up in the $7.00/lb - $9.00/lb range easily. Obviously, that's not going to happen, but why shouldn't it?  That is the cost of producing chickens after all.  The answer is simple— no one gives a shit about chicken, or meat chickens for that matter. They are well below other livestock, such as pigs and cows on the totem pole of "care" and marginally above fish when it comes to the meat we consume.   Backyard laying hen keepers name their individual birds and devote swaths of their social media presence to following them around taking pictures, but what about the chicken they eat?  There are blogs devoted to candid pictures of egg-laying chickens with cute homemade Pinteresty coops in the background,  yet the chickens we eat are relegated to wooden suitcases in the middle of fields at best.  I would venture to say that people care more about their vegetable growth practices than they do about how a chicken or fish are raised, caught and processed. If you disagree, look no further than the rabid GMO debates vs. the actual outcry of debate around industrial raised chickens. Anecdotally, a simple search on google reveals far more articles and rhetoric around GMO than it does about industrial chicken production. People will pay $1.00 per lime and $3.00/lb for tomatoes, but a chicken, they want at $2.00.

We decided to humor ourselves with this realization and see if we could drastically change our pricing, and this year we decided to try to get our costs down on birds. We've tried 4 different breeds now, tried different feed amounts and here is what we came up with. If we want to raise a $3.00/lb chicken, you'll be eating Cornish X, raised on Conventional Feed with minimal grazing, as the birds simply don't graze to the same degree. They'll have an abundance of white meat, little flavor and will be the furthest thing from heritage breed chickens you can possibly buy. In short, that won't be happening on our farm, even if it means we don't sell chickens publicly anymore. It's just pointless, lazy and continues to encourage and support Laissez-faire attitudes and inconsiderate behavior by consumers. They will continue to undervalue the life and true cost of a chicken if we change our raising habits and ethics to produce an inferior product simply to compete on price. For us, on our scale, with what we want to do, it's not worth it to change.

If you think this is simply a result of industrial farming, you're flat-out wrong. You need look no further than the god of chicken farming himself, Joel Salatin. (Editors note: That is sarcasm). He will not, and has been very open about it, raise anything other than Cornish X chickens because every other chicken is just not profitable at the per-pound costs his customers are willing to pay. Even more disturbing to us, is that he speaks to the idea of "pastured" and "free range" poultry, however, these chickens never free range. They are confined to 10ft x 10ft boxes, with slightly more than 8" of head clearance, and simply live their entire lives in that box. If you're against confinement farming, tell me how it's ok for 30+ birds to live in a 10ft x 10ft box their entire life, moved or not? I am not delusional, I realize this is a huge level above standard CAFO-raised poultry, but if this is what the community looks to as the standard for small farm chicken production, we're nothing short of fucked.  We will never get to a point where heritage birds are on people's plate because people just won't be willing to pay. Even small farmers will continue to encourage and support the behavior of "Chicken should be cheap".

Joel and the chicken tractor
Joel and the chicken tractor

Note, the argument that people should eat less meat but higher quality meat, we fundamentally agree with, but it's also way beyond unrealistic to expect 280 million people to change their eating habits at this point in the game. We fully support the ideal of that, however, we chose to support the practice of getting better meat to people who want to eat meat than to chastise them for their food consumption decisions.

Here's the rub though, there is a huge difference between saying "that's crazy," and "I can't afford that price." We have, and always will continue, to work with people to find a way to get our food in their hands with a payment method and plan that works for them. We've tailored a CSA share to accommodate a lower food budget than we initially offered. We've provided payment plans to folks who needed to spread out costs. We've cut chickens in halves to make the overall end price more affordable. We've even done home deliveries and looked into accepting food stamps for those who need it.  This isn't meant as a self righteous sharing, but rather to speak to the flexibility that's possible to support and encourage good relationships and understanding between farmers and consumers.

We always have options. We always have ways to get the quality of food we believe in to customers, but those options don't have to include an inferior product. Work with your community to educate and accommodate positive behaviors. But, Consumers, this goes both ways. Work with your farmer, help them understand what your wants and needs are. I promise you, 9 out of 10 farmers will work with you. It's selfishly to our benefit so that we can continue to do what we do, the way we want to do it.

To those of our customers who have supported us and continue to do so, thank you so much. We look forward to your stories of enjoying the meals, surprising your friends with superior flavor and even just the fact that you're willing pay $6.00 a pound for our chickens. We appreciate it and so do the chickens (well, mostly, until you eat them).

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Goodbyes and Bones

Winter waiting "My only complaint about the Old Spot breed of pigs we raise is that their amazingness and personable personalities make it even harder for me to take them to the processor. I say harder because regardless of the species of animal it will always be hard to transport them to the their end. The Old Spots have always made it too easy to love them with their playfulness and desire for human affection. These were my thoughts as I walked down the hill after having coaxed the group of pigs I am taking in tomorrow onto the trailer and closing the door behind them. The drive is beautiful on the back roads yet quite difficult emotionally."  —Donald M. Arrant, Jr., livestock manager at Glynwood Center

One of the best and worst things about having a small farm is your personal relationship with each animal.  Many people ask us, how can you name the animals you're going to eat?  We have so few animals here on the farm that, even without names, they would have names.  Whether we gave each pig a number, assigned each chicken a letter, or referred to each duck by their defining qualities, coloration, size... that would become a name.

"Oh, you wouldn't believe what Seven did today!"

If we didn't want to have these relationships with the animals, we wouldn't have them here.  But that doesn't detract from their ultimate purpose: meat providers, nourishment purveyors.  In their time here, they work for us in other ways, too.  Our pigs get to spend their days doing what they love best... destroying just about everything in their path.  We brought them here because of the untamed, poison ivy-riddled, burdock- and garlic mustard-filled, tanglewood old gardens left from 30 years ago when this place was a working farm.  Thirty years of untended gardens mean soft, fast-growing trees and weeds take over fertile soils.  One year of pigs means overturned earth, slowly girdled trees, and new beginnings.

Historically, pigs were kept by households as meat-producing garbage disposals.  Take them your kitchen scraps and garden waste, and they will create for you fertile garden beds and a winter's worth of meat preserves.  The onset of industrial agriculture meant more and more pigs, kept in IMG_4413smaller spaces, fed grain instead of scraps because what farmer can produce so many scraps for dozens or hundreds or thousands of animals day after day?

Despite efforts to turn pigs into "The Other White Meat," subsisting only in concrete barns, the instincts of a pig are incredibly strong.  A domestic pig, once escaped or turned loose, will revert to its wild roots in mere months.  Our boar Orson, who had never seen sunlight or dirt before coming home to our farm at the age of a year and a half, is an efficient rooter and joyful wallower.  He didn't need to be taught to root or wallow, he just needed to have the dirt in front of him.  At first, our plans were to let Orson do his boar duty [aka make babies] and then process him, but we enjoy watching him out in the world so much that he will probably be here to stay.

Kate & GoosieSuch is the nature of small farms.  Our decisions aren't always based in sound financial logic, but as a former boss told me once, "Sometimes you just have to give yourself that special animal."  Not every animal gets to stay for life, but every so often an extraordinary animal comes along to challenge your heart strings.  Our chicken Mother Goose is one of those.  She follows us around while we do chores, and even when I am working in the garden she is close by.  She will let you hold her, and eat swatted mosquitoes deftly yet gently from your hand, and maybe even snooze in your lap for a while.

On the other hand, we raised a batch of Freedom Ranger meat chickens this summer who were the most savage beasts we've ever had here at Ham Sweet Farm.  They pecked your arms with intent if you reached down for anything in their pasture, tore bits from my Muck boots as I waded through the flock, and refused to be contained in any sense of the word.  One actually met an early death after I removed it from Gnocchi's pen and it jumped back in while she was eating.  Gnocchi doesn't share, so when this chicken tried to sneak grain from in front of her, she swatted it away Chik'n DInnerwith her head, and caught it in the brain with a tooth.  Not exactly a USDA-approved means to an end, but we did eat it for dinner the next day.

For the animals who don't stay here forever, it's nothing personal.  But it is sad [with the exception of the Freedom Rangers, who we were happy to escort into our freezer].  You get to know the personalities of individuals as well as groups.  When a group of ducks reaches the age to be processed, you don't get to see them each morning dash out of their coop and beeline for the little duck pond.  No longer will they waddle around with wings folded across their backs like old Italian men in a piazza.  Maybe each duck didn't have a name, but "The Ducks" are their own character here.  They have a place, and when they leave that spot is open, empty.

There will be another group of ducks, more poultry, and other animals who might even live in the same place the ducks did when they were here.  It's the nature of farming, and necessary when you and your family, friends and customers eat meat.  It's the reason we save all of our bones, from every meal and every animal, and make stock and remouillage before the bones reach their final resting place, in our compost pile and then, once again, out on pasture.

 

 

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Piggy Fever

Sage in Bloom Wow.  So we meet again, blog space.  It's been a while!

Umm... so... we have piglets!!  They're 4 weeks old, robustly healthy and wildly polka-dotted.  Gnocchi has been a wonderful mother to them, and we couldn't be happier.  She was 5 days late so we did some major sweating and all-nighters while she remained cool, calm and collected and built a snug straw nest for them as she waited.

We will keep 4 of the piggies... one gilt, to breed, and 3 barrows to raise out for our next generation of pork.  Another gilt will be headed to Napoleon Ridge Farm near Cincinnati.  Two gilts will be headed Up North to live with fellow Grrls Meat Camp member Chef Lori Swonder.  The only boar we didn't castrate will be going to another local farm, Frosty Acres.  Looks like Gnocchi & Orson's babies will be taking over the world!

Gnocchi and newborn piggies

Mucca, 3 minutes old  <3

Piggie Butts!

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In Bloom

Last weekend we spent a rare weekend away, wining and dining our way through some of Chicago's best restaurants and bars, though there are many from which to choose— the storied Alinea, Nico Osteria, EL Ideas, Three Dots and a Dash, Billy Sunday, Avec.   You know, pretty much the exact opposite of our everyday farm lives.  It was wonderful to be there with my mom and brother, strolling along the city streets without many cares in the world.

But it is strange, too, to be away from the farm.  There's a feeling of being lost, when you realize in the hotel room that there's no dogs underfoot, no roosters crowing outside your window, no goats screaming for their dinner [even though it may only be 3 pm].  I couldn't help but watch people meandering as aimlessly as we were, wondering— what do they do with their time?  We've been making our dreams a reality at Ham Sweet Farm for a little over a year now, and I already can't remember what it feels like to wake up with nothing to do.  Even on our do-nothing days, chores are still happening in the morning and evening.  And when we're away, the desire to constant check in at home is almost obsessive-compulsive.  Oh, it's been 20 minutes, do you think so-and-so is ok or that goat jumped out the fence again?  Are the dogs behaving?  Did the basement flood?

When we left, buds on our fruit trees had been threatening to open, but weren't quite ready to commit yet given this year's wild weather patterns.  Nothing was really blooming, although the grass had started to green up.  But, oh, after 3 days absence...

Edible flowers everywhere!

It was a wonderful gift to come home to.  We will have apples and pears and maybe even peaches this year!  I guess life really does go on.  Mother Nature adapts far better than we ever could.  And on that note... we are officially on piglet watch!  Our beautiful gilt Gnocchi is due next Monday.  She has started to show the final signs of impending birth.  To say we are excited would be a vast understatement!  As a first-time mama, we will be watching closely to make sure things go as well as possible.  We'll be sure to keep you posted!

Gnocchi looking plump... beginning to bag up!

 

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Strong Fences Make Good Neighbors

2013 Ice Storm damage

The pigs spent most of this bitterly cold winter in their huts, buried in a deep bed of slowly decomposing straw.  But now that Spring has decided to grace us with her presence, it was time to move the fences that, at 12 to 18 inches high, spent most of the winter under snow cover.

First things first... we had to make a serious dent in the downed trees, broken and twisted branches, and upended root systems that were bowled over by the ice storm that hit us just before Christmas.  We were incredibly lucky to keep power through the ordeal, but the damage done to dozens of trees around our property was impressive.  Somehow we managed to avoid any structures or animals being hit at the time, but the fences did not fare so well.

Ironically, many of the trees damaged were the much-maligned Box Elder trees, a quick-growing, shallow-rooted piece-of-garbage specimen that resides on our short list of things to remove in the coming years on the farm.  We had planned to remove them at a slower pace, but hey, no time like the present!  Christian and our friend John Beng fired up their chainsaws and we started making piles of wood as it was cut.  The pyres soon towered over us.  As everything leafs out in the next few weeks, I'm very curious to see what our former Forest looks like.  I'm guessing we could put

Now you see it... now you don't.

a full-sun garden out back this year if we wanted to!  We spread a mix of seeds in its stead, and will be watching to see what grows well in the coming months.

Christian and I have gotten rather proficient at pig-fence building.  It's a simple process:  1) pick your size, 2) unwire old fence, 3) place insulator posts and corner t-posts as desired and string with wire... and you can't forget the most important part!  Once your new fence is up and taut, tie your "flags"— plastic orange tape that alerts the pigs to the fence's location.  Pigs aren't known for their sense of sight, so the more you can help them avoid the fence, the better!  In the photo to the right, you can make out the wire in the foreground... but other than the insulator posts, as your eye travels down the line, there's no telling whether or not a wire is there.  In the background, you can see where I had stopped tying flags to take this photo.  The bright orange is hard to miss.  Once our pigs have been trained to these fences, they stay reliably inside of them even on a single strand of wire!

IMG_4478Once your fence is stranded and flagged and free of any snags, you're ready to hook it back up to the solar charger.  That, besides the flags, is the most important part.  And really, without the voltage, the flags won't do much good.  We keep the fence hot, around 12,000 Volts or so, and the pigs know it.

Voila!  Pigs in the woods.  So far they've been turning over rotting logs, digging up raspberry roots, and hopefully rooting up any remnants of last year's garlic mustard and burdock.  They love their freedom to explore, and we love watching them work.  Not to mention, it makes for some delicious pork.  Just don't tell them that.

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Spring is In the Air...

IMG_4452The chorus of birds has reached fever-pitch each morning as the sun breaks.  Not just our local songbirds, but the turkeys, and chickens, and ducks seem to awake just before dawn to start their daily warbling, crowing, quacking, gobbling, cooing and clucking. Long gone are the mornings when our alarm clocks would sound in what felt like the middle of the night, and we would rouse in pitch blackness, prying the dogs out of their cozy beds to venture outside for chores before winter's bleak dawn.  While that was our reality for eternity this winter, it has all been forgiven now that tulips are starting to peek out under mulch, and tree buds grow fatter by the day.  Wispy, watercolored clouds usher summer closer as the sunshine banishes all traces of Winter 2013-2014... We'll forgive but never forget!

IMG_4337There is a marked difference in the behavior of all the animals since even just a few weeks ago.  The chickens, who had barely set foot outside their coop since December, have been ranging all over our yard and the woods surrounding.  They're finding tender new shoots, sprouted seeds, worms and newly hatched bugs.  The color of their yolks has deepened already to a rich golden hue, and they just look healthier.  They even venture into the pig pasture sometimes, scrounging for spilled grain or grubs that the pigs have turned up while rooting around.

Everyone feels playful, too.  Finally, it's been warm enough for our chicks and ducklings to spend time outside.  When they haven't grown their adult feathers, even a chilly draft can be enough to sicken or kill them.  But in the sunshine, they strut and flutter and preen while learning to scratch around in the grass and dirt.

[click on a photo to view gallery]IMG_4344

There is a certain sense of serenity among the frenetic energy of spring.  We have so many projects to do, both inside and out of the house.  But just as our ducks are busy building nests in which to lay their eggs, just as the bees are slowly circling the property in search of those first blooms that will carry nectar to rejuvenate their hive, just as the grass reclaims its green luster from high summer, so, too, do we feel the need to build and create and maintain.

"A high windy day, with sunshine and the blue jays calling.  Snowdrops in bloom, first of all, and the bees active, finding something, I think, among the chickweed buds.  But the year has not yet come alive. . . . Blessed quiet, thinking and working." — David Grayson, A Countryman's Year

IMG_4346 IMG_4362 IMG_4366

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Word of the Day

IMG_4305exhaustion |igˈzôsCHən|   noun  1 a state of extreme physical or mental fatigue: he was pale with exhaustion.

satisfaction |ˌsatisˈfakSHən|

noun;  fulfillment of one's wishes, expectations, or needs, or the pleasure derived from this: he smiled with satisfaction | managing directors seeking greater job satisfaction.

 

When eating dinner or taking a shower sound like more work than they're worth, it might be springtime on a farm.  I have nothing much more worthwhile to say, other than that it is past my bedtime.

"A remarkable springlike day, full of sunshine and running water— and a soft blue haze in the south— and a hungry unrest of the spirit.  I could not think of work, but of the sap running in maple trees, and the meadows coming bare, and the young things of the woods peeping out to see if winter is over and gone.  I think I never saw the sky so high and clear, or ever knew the wind so sweet."   — David Grayson, A Countryman's Year, c. 1936

 

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Delusional Optimism

Dogs and their bones This is not another post about the woes of winter, I promise, but it is about a little about the mindset of our animals and that of farming.  It's a mindset that's foreign to a lot of people and quite honestly, shouldn't be.  If there's one thing that Advertising has taught me, it's that you have to be delusionally optimistic.  No matter what people tell you or how tough a pitch may be, you have to believe that you're going to sell work.

While on a farm you don't face "rejection" per se, but you do have to be optimistic about every aspect of it.  It's the one area of "business" that, regardless of the the state of the economy and the market prices, it doesn't dictate riches or success.  It all could go to hell in a day with farming.  Hell, it could be fine on your neighbors' property and terrible on yours.

Walk About

All this is a way to say, being optimistic is a requirement. You have to just plan on the fact that things are going to go right. One way to gain inspiration is through your animals.  They seem to always know something you don't, especially when it comes to the weather. They accept what is, as opposed to continually trying to change things.  Our ducks play in every newly-formed melt pond. Our chickens are back to journeying around the yard, the pigs found their pasture again and the dogs are enjoying chewing smoked pig knucklebones in the grass.  Their optimisim is infectious and we are truly looking forward to the coming year.  There are a lot of good things on the horizon, babies scheduled, a meat csa and most importantly, the end of our first year of farming with the label of "success" aptly applied.  Here we come 2014...

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Start of March... Start of the Season!

Oh look.  More snow.

A tantalizing whisper of a change in season started a few days ago.

Last week, as I was headed to work in a whiteout blizzard after finishing morning chores, I cried. Because WINTER.  It was the snowflake that broke the farmer's back, I suppose you could say.  That day, Christian and I were talking about my melancholy and he confided that he, too, felt that winter had finally broken him.  The good news?  That's how every Michigander feels at the end of February.  The bad news?  A common saying about March is, "In like a lion, out like a lamb."

"So what does that mean?" a weatherbeaten Christian asked me.  It means we're not in the clear yet.  There are likely still freak snowstorms in store for us, and plenty of wet, cold, icy, muddy, unpredictable weather in our future.  But it does mean we're in the home stretch!  It means green grass will replace the two feet of snow and ice that has been here since Thanksgiving.  It means the front porch is open for business again.

 

Front Porch Snoozin'

 

The sun has put everyone in a good mood.  The dogs no longer jostle to get back into the house as soon as they've done their business.  The chickens have actually ventured out across the yard to forage in the newly-bared patches of earth and grass still nestled in between snow drifts.  The pigs have been sunning themselves on the edges of their huts, while the ducks have delighted in the puddles and mud everywhere.  Our tom turkey, Phil Collins, has been strutting around for days trying to impress his harem of hens despite breaking through the melting snow crust with his feet.  Our little soccer ball-shaped goat, Bootsie, couldn't be persuaded to get off her new lawn chair...

Things will be changing quickly around here in the upcoming months... baby animals, harvest dates, sowing, planting, reaping, weekend projects and Monday exhaustion.  All tenets of farm life.  We were able to devote half of the weekend to relaxation and the other half to outdoor projects, which felt so good after the bone-chilling winter weekends that have made even the most simple tasks burdensome in the last few months.  Sometimes the greatest reward for a day's work is a sore back and tired hands.

And, just one week after winter's wrath brought defeated tears to my eyes, I cried the other day because IT WAS JUST SO GODDAMN BEAUTIFUL OUT.  Michigan, you always make Spring worth the wait.

 

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