Organic Farming from a City Boy's Perspective
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"Find something you
love and you will never work a day in your life". Whoever said that lied right through their
teeth. I work at something I love, but
it is the hardest thing I have ever done, with the exception of having my wife
go through open-heart surgery. I am not
saying that what I do does not bring me joy, satisfaction, self-reliance,
resilience, and the ability to feed those that can afford it and those unable.
However, growing food,
raising animals, fruits, vegetables, herbs and nuts is at times overwhelming. That said, I would encourage anyone that has
a passion for putting a seed in a pot, nurture it until it is ready to be
transplanted, and then care for it while it reaches maturity, only to harvest
and savior that devotion is a feeling I cannot adequately describe with words,
but encourage anyone to try. The
feelings and emotions surrounding the small act of pulling a tomato off the
vine and eating it out in the field brings months of dedication into focus. The intrinsic value of such an act does make
you forget the hardships as much as bring into focus the result of that energy
The grueling days spent
out in the heat, weeding, tying tomato or bean plants, weeding or keeping watch
over the plants for signs of distress or weeding again, are all after thoughts
as the juice from the tomato passes over your taste buds and a little trickle
runs down the side of your lip. The
taste, firmness and freshness are unmatched by anything you have had before,
save last year’s, crop. That bite places
me in a different mental state and emotion.
For me, none of the hard work matters, it is cerebral and the taste,
texture and smell have all the attention.
We started growing
organic in 1990, before there were organic standards in the United States. I was trying to lose weight and I was not a
vegetable eater. For me during the
summer, fried tomatoes and corn on the cob slathered in butter covered in salt
was a meal. I was not very good at
eating vegetables, peas, string beans, spinach or any other for that matter. Then I started to research what vegetables
gave you the most vitamins, minerals and anti-oxidants. My reasoning was if I eat those foods, then I
could at least not have to eat many vegetables just these powerhouses and go
That is when I learned
that chemicals banned in the US where sold to other countries and shipped back
to us on fruits and vegetables in “trace amounts”. To me trace amounts means the existence of;
if it exists, you are ingesting carcinogenic materials. Say what you want about trace amounts, but in
my lifetime, there have been more chemicals proven toxic and cancer causing and
profit has always been the driving force for its use and longevity. I grew up during the great tobacco wars of
misinformation, junk science and the greed of the manufacturers. While at the same time, watching family
members who were smokers get cancer and suffer until their demise.
Like anything, there was
a learning curve or vertical incline as I experienced, now I am in the learning
curve. Back then, I just wanted to eat healthy;
we supported our local farmer to supplement our own food. We bought local meats and chickens and
continued our own education into growing.
Thirteen years later, we took the leap and started to grow
professionally. There have been hard
times and then there have been hard times.
Nevertheless, after seven years, we see the light at the end of the
tunnel and we know it is not a train. This
year is our tipping point; the momentum from this year will carry us into the
next. We already have products sold and
we are not even at the planning stages.
You have to have a
passion, resilience to failure, an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, patience,
fortitude and if you have animals the ability to be the first line veterinarian. Then there is that need to kill, which is
hardly talked about. At some point in
time it will happen, might be a mousetrap or bait, it might be a groundhog or
snake, but there is going to be a time when fending off a nuisance will lead to
lethal methods. That part we were not
prepared for and had to adjust.
It is just something we
love, eating a meal (protein, vegetable, starch and homemade dessert) and know
it is our labor and our love that have brought this bounty to our table.
Buy Local: It is what
is for dinner.
Posted by Brian
@ 04:37 PM EDT
Our operation is small and we have never had an instance or a concern about food safety. Being germ-phobic has not hurt us either. However, we recently received our GAP certification. GAP stands for Good Agricultural Practices. It is all about food safety and cross contamination. Being certified organic I shunned being certified GAP I felt we already exceeded the regulations. I ask people when was the last time you heard of a small farm or local butcher having to recall their products.
Having taken the course I now see the value the information has to all farms, not just small but especially large. I was in the process of writing our GAP plan. One of the documents in the plan is a Hazard Mitigation matrix. The matrix contained all potential hazards, how to identify them, and the mitigation of the hazard once discovered. I am a contingency planner, so I listed all the possible hazards we face from growing, harvesting, shipping and delivery. I was running out of ideas so I put "A human defecates in the field,” Then I addressed the mitigation and actions to be taken if there was an occurrence.
Having exhausted every hazard, I could think of, I felt proud and wanted my wife to review my marvelous work. Upon reading the human defecation hazard, I was chided and I think the comment was "Oh come one, it’s a little overboard, don't ya think?” I admitted it might be but in the realm of possibility, it was possible. No matter it was taken out.
Not long after we got our GAP packet from the Maryland Department of Agriculture, there were forms and signs inside and low and behold one sign shows a person squatting in a field, pants around their knees and the international NO sign covers him. It still brings a smile and little chuckle when I think about it, however, it is real and it is a problem. We are too small but I can imagine on larger operations it happens.
There are regulations about how far away a bathroom is from the fieldwork, what a proper hand-washing station is and how long you need to wash your hands and safely disinfect them. There are regulations about hand washing and packaging area's, break rooms, refrigerator temperatures, co-mingling and many others. Five logs require data on a daily basis, from cleaning bathrooms to cleaning the delivery truck all in an effort to make the food supply safe. I cannot find fault with that, no one should die from ingesting spinach, tomatoes or cantaloupes. I am glad we took that extra step to get GAP certified. .
Each season brings a Farm Safety talk and walk through of the medical kits and fire extinguishers. Last year one of the folks pointed out that one of our medical kits was Tim Allen’s’ “Tool Time Safety Kit”. The TV show Tool Time started in 1991. Given that some of the folks we had working for us were not even born at the time, it was decided we needed to purchase a new medical kit. Who knew medical kits expire. Farm safety is the number one priority on our farm and everyone is trained on how to properly and safely operate tools, vehicles and equipment. You must pass my test before you get to use a potentially dangerous object.
We have an extensive medical supply kit in the house. Given my propensity to cut, scrape, bang, twist, burn, jab, stick, and generally wound myself while working that we have accumulated enough medical supplies to handle most types of small injuries.
Now along with farm safety reviews, we have incorporated GAP training with the same emphasis.
Buy Local: You have to search but the journey is worth the destination when you find the right one.
Posted by Brian
@ 06:11 PM EDT
My admiration and adulation goes out to all of those farmers that have big animals and do it humanely. With winter coming their job caring for the animals becomes infinately harder. To me, anything bigger than a chicken is a big animal. Well, maybe except for pigmy goats. Of course, my rule is to not raise an animal that can take me in a fight. Although poultry meets that criterion, I refuse to raise turkeys. Turkeys can get large and are agile, I am just saying.
The knowledge big animal farmers have to possess and shear dedication is daunting, and to do it all humanely amazes me about them. The dedication alone makes me think what I do is just playing. I know I am not but, by comparison, I have it much easier then my counterparts. Do not get me wrong, shoveling five feet of snow around a trailor, so the chickens can get out. is no easy task.
When you choose to be a humane farm, in my opinion, that choice is made from one of two motivations; one is reason the other is emotion. Reason looks at the facts of animal production and takes into account, taste, productivity, health, environmental impact, total cost, rate of return on your investment and workload. Then there is the emotional decision. You take into account the health of all the animals, you anthropomorphize to a certain extent and you want to make their brief existence on this earth as comfortable and enjoyable as possible. No matter the reason an unstressed animal performs and tastes better and they need no or minimal drugs because of the healthy environment they inhabit. No matter what motivation drives the choice, both ultimately benefit, people, animals and the environment.
I think when reason comes into play there is less angst when dealing with mortality. Having talked to colleagues and reading posts here, I know there is grief no matter how slight. I can see it in the words we all use when describing the loss, be it to slaughter, age and illness or shear economics. Even with reason your heart is in it, because with reason comes compassion and with compassion comes some amount of strings attached to the heart that will be tugged when a beloved animal leaves.
I fall squarely into the emotional category. Mortality was and still is my biggest hurtle. I did not want any animals, at all, because I knew that mortality, for whatever reason, was going to fall on my shoulders. I would be the one to bury an expired animal or put one down to relieve its misery or taking the life because of economic reasons. I was against the notion of animals and concentrated on fruits and vegetables. We did eventually get into animal husbandry as has been chronicled in our blog. As I age and mature, in my new role, I can say that my heart is not hardening but that I am getting less unsettled when dealing with mortality. It still takes a toll and I am reminded of Dr. Temple Grandin’s statement that ordinary people “can become sadistic from the dehumanizing work of constant slaughter.” We fall way short of anything close to that but the thought is there.
I will tell you since we have gotten our processors license I have stayed away from processing our layers. I realize this will happen within the next two years and it will not be easy on me. However, knowing they will be going to the soup kitchen to feed the less fortunate makes me feel better. That thought is what got us through the first culling. (See Spent Layers and Humane Farming).
I do find the thought of processing our own layers appalling and hard for me to accept. You see our layers trust us to keep them safe. Yet, this last time their demise will be at my hands not that of someone else. The hens do actually become pets as much as you try to keep a distance. When you deal with them everyday, twice a day, they grow on you. You start to see contrasts and nuances, in each of them. At most we have seventy birds on the property but some seem to have their own little variance from the others. Some walk right up to you and follow you around others mill about.
When we take a tour of kids around the farm, the older layers are my go-to girls. I can walk up to one pick her up and let them see a chicken up close and personal. The hen stays calm without throwing a fuss and lets the children pet or touch her. I will talk about the hen and point out the waddle, comb, beak, nostrils and ears. I skip the vent unless asked, “Where do the eggs come out?” I will then point to the hen’s ear and tell them that is how you can tell what color egg the chicken will lay. I usually get responses from the parents at that point because it is a fascinating tidbit. Education is a big part of our existence and mission.
No matter why a person decides to be a humane farm the practice is good for the animal, the environment and healthy for the consumer. As for the farmer, I think that the practices make us all feel good. Once again, that giving back aspect makes a person feel good. By providing open spaces, natural grazing and comfortable living conditions we benefit from production, the animals thrive and the environment recovers naturally.
Buy Local: Who is your farmer?
Posted by Brian
@ 08:11 PM EDT
I do not mean to be so negative when describing the difference in lifestyles growing up in a metropolis versus trying to live a life sustainably. There are stark differences when the environments are compared and contrasted. There is a ton written about the minutia of growing, most everything, from seeds to harvest have been studied and documented. Then there is the whole animal side, once again well researched and published. What we found lacking in all that we read was the casual need for euthanasia.
Yes, if you are involved with animals euthanasia is naturally part of the farm cycle. When I say naturally, in the best of production, you will have to deal with mortality and or the decision to end the animal’s life for health reasons or for processing. That is what we thought going into the vegetable side, if you had no animals you do not have to end the life of God’s creatures. That you would not have to kill, anything other than vegetation was law as far as we were aware.
Truth is, if you are on a farm you cannot get away with not killing something. Inevitably, you will someday have to take the life of something, even if it is mice eating your seeds. When you lay poison down you have stepped over the line and become something that you said you would not. Mice are but one in many instances where taking the life out of something fixes your problem. Have all the romantic fantasies you can conjure about living in a rural environment on a farm. Growing up in the city, we were led to believe in the farm where Lassie grew up. Sure Timmy was locked in a fiery barn, but Lassie was able to run and get help.
Why didn't they run an episode where Lassie kills a groundhog because the groundhog is undermining the foundation of the milking shed? At least it would have evened out the perspective of farming. Then there was Oliver Wendell Douglas, they could have shown him chopping the head off a snake he found in his kitchen. Having to take my phone outside and connect to a box on the telephone pole did not phase me in the least. That was because of the legacy of Green Acres. I do not mean to imply that our view of farming was predicated on television broadcasts; but I would be lying if I said they had no influence on our perceptions.
I am a very cautious person, I go into a decision only if I feel I have exhausted what is known and understood about the expected outcomes. We did not buy this farm and go into growing on a whim. We spent thirteen years reading and playing in our small garden before we even started looking for a farm.
In all that time, euthanasia was never brought into the discussion. That is unless animals were discussed. We were vegetable people, not vegetarians; we ate meats from local butchers and purchased fruits and vegetables from Knill's, our local farm. We just settled on growing vegetables instead of animals to get away from our own squeamishness.
We got a rude awakening within the first five days of living on the farm. Nevertheless, if you are thinking about farming and you are like us, do not think you can farm without having to someday take out an animal or reptile. I wish it was not the case but at some point in time, it will happen. Just be aware when planning, you will have to kill. If you have a hard time with it like us, I wish you all the strength in the world.
Buy Local: Help preserve the environment for future generations
Posted by Brian
@ 07:38 PM EST
During the hard times on the farm, I sometimes look back and question how I got here and why didn’t someone in the mental health profession intervene? I grew up in Baltimore City, the thought of trying to make a living by growing a truck garden was not on the radar. I knew what I wanted, at an early age, but it was materialistic. When I finally reached certain life goals, I understood how wrong I had been by chasing goals, which at their base, were shallow.
Don't get me wrong, I worked hard and made sacrifices that other people my age did not. Nevertheless, when I reflect upon my youthful goals to that of today’s youth, I was superficial and frivolous in my pursuits and ideals. Some of today's youth are more altruistic and look upon our society’s thirst for wealth as perversion itself. Think "Occupy Wall Street,". There is no moral high ground anymore. It is not expected or delivered from our political leaders, corporate leaders or others. The bankers are more like Mr. Potter, then George Bailey in "It’s a Wonderful Life". Greed is not good, honesty is rare and public service has turned into ugly words. Today's youth are looking at themselves as anti-materialistic, as if existence in and of itself is all that is needed. I understand that minimalist attitude.
Once I finished with my education, I usually worked two jobs. By the time, I got a very demanding job I was the typical workaholic yuppie. I worked six-day weeks, ten to twelve hour days, all for those goals I had set so long ago. I justified all my actions because I had to achieve. Materialistic as those goals were, I did not think or know it until I was in my forties. What free time I did have I spent cooking and growing vegetables in a small garden.
What I did not realize was early on there were other forces at work pushing me in the direction of growing. With all the years that my wife and I dated added to the years that we were married, my father and father in-law always had gardens going. My in-laws also raised layers for eggs and broilers. Each year it seemed my father-in-law would make his garden bigger. Once he retired, the garden looked huge. During my mid-twenties and some of my thirties, growing a truck garden was still the furthest from my mind. Summer after summer when we visited my in-laws, my wife’s father was always in the garden. He always looked content, no matter the time of day, temperature or humidity. There just seemed to be this Zen-like peace in the man. More than a couple of times, as the house expanded with grandkids and great-grand kids he was in the garden. I came to see this as his oasis in the middle of all the chaos and cacophony.
My wife and I got to a point in our lives when we needed to change our diet toward healthier foods. We started eating healthy and part of that was learning what was beneficial. The more we learned about trace amounts of carcinogenic chemicals in our fruits and vegetables the more we started growing our own food with organic methods, buying from local butchers and farms. We learned that the IFC was importing fruits and vegetables that had trace amounts of chemicals that were banned for use in the US. Growing small eventually led to thirteen years of discussing and planning growing on a larger scale.
With the passing of my wife's father, came cleaning out his library. He was a very stoic man; he could have played poker for a living if he wanted, his behavior and expression rarely changing. He laughed and enjoyed humor but for the most part, he was a quiet, reserved individual. When we obtained organic certification, he was the most animated I had ever seen. I thought it uncharacteristic but there was a lot I did not know about the man at that time.
Going through his library we got all the books, papers, articles, magazines and any other literature dealing with organic growing. He had original books from J.R. Rodale and some of the first extension articles from the University of Maryland on growing organically. The material dated back to the sixties, fifties and in some cases the forties. It was not until then that I realized how truly proud he was of our certified status. We had achieved what he had studied for years and we were doing it professionally.
I can still see his face when he came into the house and we had our "Certified Organic" sign hanging up on the wall. We were proud of it, but he took a sense of pride that escaped us all. That is until we found his organic material and realized just how knowledgeable he was. In talking to him over the years, since we purchased the farm, it always struck me how in-depth his questions were about growing. Not a year went by without my father-in-law coming up during the growing season, taking a tour of the garden and checking on the progress of our free-range organic layers. He would have loved the fact that we started raising organic broilers. We would walk the entire garden, the vegetables, the fruits and the resting areas the whole time discussing our land use practices, infestations, viral and bacterial problems and weeding. He was one of the biggest proponents of fire weeding. He hated weeds with a passion and I admired that greatly in him.
I must have spent about twenty-five summers watching this man tend his garden. I was able to make some very fresh salsa and other dishes from that garden. I remember mostly the look of satisfaction and contentedness on his face as he made his way back to the house, soaked in sweat and covered in dirt, carrying whatever tool it was he had used or the largess he harvested.
Without really knowing I think all those years watching him toil but loving every minute of what he was doing had a profound affect on me. I still question my sanity and skills but with every bad thing that comes along something good usually follows. God never closes a door without opening a window. We knew it was going to be hard, that failure was more likely than success but there is something about what we do that makes us continue, for now. Perhaps it is in our heredity.
Buy Local: Have you ever heard of a vegetable, fruit or meat recall for your local farmer or butcher?
P.S. Please help http://www.savenicksorganicfarm.org/
Posted by Brian
@ 06:34 PM EDT
Growing really is a rollercoaster ride, except prolonged, the thrills are unexpected and exhilarating, but the twists and turns visible and unavoidable. The end of the ride might be in years instead of minutes or seconds but there is an end. By the end of the seventies, farm foreclosures were commonplace. I saw a PBS documentary about the desolation of a generational family farm. The patriarch, whose family owned the farm for a century, was turning the operation over to his son. At the same time however, the son was realizing how these huge mono-farms subsidized by the federal government, because of the size of the factory farm acreage, had surpassed his ability to get what was needed to stay afloat. His wife worked at an office job to bring home income. Off farm income if that rings a bell.
Corporate farms are what is ruining the ecology and making consumers sick. Story after story of fruit, vegetable and animal product recalls are as commonplace today as never before in the history of food. Okay, early homosapien might have had more recalls but the record keeping back then is sketchy. Corporations are the future of the United States and the one percent of the population that holds the greatest amount of wealth is associated with those corporations. Who do you think owns Monsanto, Haliburton, Wal-Mart, IBM, Cargill, ADM the list goes and goes. But, the constant is the one percent, sure you and I might have stock in a company, therefore we are owners but not like the large stockholders, the board of directors, the CEO’s and VP’s and all the other titles that generate seven and eight figure incomes, we are not included in that one percent.
I was giving a tour this past weekend during which, I talk about how the cost of ecological sustainability is in our prices and that the prices you pay for food from the industrial food complex (IFC) does not. You do however subsidize the IFC because ultimately the taxpayer picks up the tab for policing and cleaning up the ecological ills caused by the IFC. We had ambled over to the layers and I pointed to Amazing and told the crowd of her story, how she survived a bear attack to live out in the woods for three weeks before Coadee found her.
Whenever we go over to where the layer pen is, most of them come running. Rhode Island Reds are a very curious group. When Amazing got near I reached over the fence and she hunkered down for me to pick her up, I then went on to explain to the group how to tell the color of egg by the chickens ear. I put Amazing back in the pen and continued to talk about soil resting and rejuvenation when out of no where Amazing jumps up and flies onto my shoulder. She steadied herself and perched on my shoulder. “Well we do call her Amazing,” I told the group. Thinking back, I was not even startled, on my periphery I could see she was getting ready to jump, when she did and landed on my shoulder I stretched my arm out so she would get a better purchase and I continued to talk. Everyone’s eyes were popping at the sight, of what this chicken just did.
When it was time to move away I leaned over the fence, dipped my shoulder down and she flew off into the pen. I had never experienced anything like that. One of our staff saw what had happened and mentioned it at quitting time. To me it was a sign that points to the benefits of our work and unknown simple pleasures. The look on people’s faces when that happened was electrifying. It was crazy, unpredictable and simply amazing from everyone’s perspective. The first question was “How did you train her to do that?” well I wish I could say I did, but this is the first time this happened. That made it significantly special for the group because it was not staged as originally thought. Talk of humane farming and proper treatment of animals creates an environment where something this odd has the potential to happen. It also enabled me to talk about the difference between humane farms and those of CAFO’s.
That night I was telling the story to my wife, she was skeptical at first then realized I was not joking. She asked what I did. how did it feel? Moreover, did it scare me? “I stood there and helped her get a purchase,” I said, I saw that she was getting ready to jump I just thought it was going to be out of the pen. It was one of those ah ha moments, when you seem connected to nature more than you really are but still connected. It was a good feeling and affirmation that humane farming does make a difference. It was as bizarre as unexpected, yet thrilling all in one. When she landed on my shoulder and settled in, my first thought was “do not look at her, she will peck your eye out,” and was followed by oh I hope she does not relieve herself on my back. None of which happened, "So how did it feel?" my wife asked again. The only thought I had was its like popcorn exploding inside me.
Buy Local and help save nick's organic farm. Go to http://www.savenicksorganicfarm.org/ to help.
Posted by Brian
@ 07:53 PM EDT
Farming for profit, has there ever been a greater oxymoron? Okay, maybe humane slaughter is bigger but let us not split hairs. At least from the small farmer's stand point, when more than seventy-five percent of all small farms in the nation, bring in fewer than ten-thousand dollars a year, of farm income, is there true economic sustainability in small farming. Of course, these are USDA 2008 census numbers. We could have improved since then but it would be, marginally if at all.
This year we changed our business model in that we are concentrating our selling on farm only. The first three years growing, we sold at the bottom of the driveway and we made a modest profit. We abandon the farm for, what we thought were lucrative spots at farmer's markets. We stopped selling at farmer’s markets because we only sell what we grow. Because of our size, we cannot grow, as much so consequently we do not have a large variety. I want to be a successful grower, not a successful vendor. Selling only what we grow is hard because we do not have a bevy of different fruits and vegetables.
This year we decided to break our luck and go back to the farm. We set up signs pointing people up the drive to the house. We got six signs printed up and placed them throughout the neighborhood only to have two signs stolen, the first time we used them. Volume was not as great as hoped for, so we decided to move the veggies down to the street. We are taking the tractor and the wagon loaded with what we have and set up shop at the end of the driveway. It takes extra salesmanship and education but it feels right, lonely at times but at least not ALL day.
Knowing I can tell you the exact history of the fruit, vegetable, egg or chicken should be a valued commodity. The problem is we as consumers, do not ask the questions we should. Next time you are at a market, ask what the name of the fruit or vegetable is. The grower should be able to tell you the common name (lets face it, who can pronounce the Latin names?). Which type of basil or tomato? The point is the grower should be able to give you the characteristic or history of the plant. Another question to ask yourself is the fruit or vegetable in season where you are, in Maryland tomatoes are just starting to come in. Around here people selling sweet corn, before July 4th, are not selling what they grew.
As consumers, we sometimes fall short when sourcing our food, which is why the Maryland Department of Agriculture just came out with language and policies for selling “Local” produce at farmers markets. It goes to show you how widespread hucksterism has become, and how fed up consumers and real growers are becoming. This regulation would not have come about if there were not a large outcry from educated consumers and people that really sell what they grow. That is why it is called a “Farmer’s Market” not a Flea market
Being a small enterprise has great disadvantages, especially, when we go up against the bigger growers and grower associations. We did not take on this farm with star struck eyes but with the realization that failure was more likely then success. We are going back to the model that first made us money and that is by going down front.
That brings its own challenges. We are trying to figure out what is the least costly way to staff the cart. My suggestion bent towards the most logical and cost effective conclusion. The person that makes the least amount, on an hourly basis, should be the person to sit down at the end of the road and read his bug book.
So far, there has been some opposition to that plan from a member of the management team. I do not want to alienate anyone on the management team so I will leave my wife out of this. Seems even though I am not a paid employee (which makes me the lowest earner); I was informed, I have the most responsibility when it comes to overseeing safety, productivity and workforce harmony. The idea is still in debate.
I tried to unionize the workforce a couple of weeks ago but the vote was overwhelmingly defeated. Somebody made the stupid comment that management was good therefore no reason to unionize. I knew then, I was not working them as hard as I should. I have to juggle my roles. We will come up with a mix that allows some of our longest employees the ability to sit down at the stand and talk to customers, while I work in the blazing sun. Let us face it we are not a conventional business using conventional business models. Even though they are young and can work in the heat, it is important to us, to expose them to as many aspects of the operation as we can. in our minds we are molding future growers.
This past weekend we brought in more money then the previous weekend and I think this trend will just continue upward the longer we are down there. In the mean time:
BUY LOCAL: Do your family justice, find a local farm, ask questions and then support it if it feels right. If you do not get straight answers, it is probably because they are hucksters not growers.
Posted by Brian
@ 04:40 PM EDT
I know that we are not alone but, I do not know why it is everything we do seems easy until put into practice only to find it to be incredibly hard? Take our latest foray into meat birds. We went to a State sponsored poultry and rabbit processing class. We took the test, passed and made sure the processing facility we would use was USDA inspected. We then submitted our registration along with the fee.
While doing further research on the regulations we found that although our Department of Agriculture would allow us to sell our birds to retailers and restaurants our Health Department does not allow us to do so. We have already gotten our feet wet with two flocks and sold most of them to a retailer. I had to call the vendor and tell them until we got clarification from the State that I could not sell him any more birds.
We have one hundred more broilers in the pipeline and we are having problems selling the last of the third flock. We can sell them from the farm; we just do not have the foot traffic to sell all of them. We have canceled our peep order and will be getting no more for the season. We did not expect to be an over-night sensation. We did however over-estimate how quickly we could get rid of the birds on the farm.
At first, we priced them to cover our expenses. The first two batches were somewhat of a disaster (see Learning Curves). Therefore, cost per bird was high and we still lost money. No matter were you are reading this, chances are you know the heat wave that is engulfing most of the country. It is not fit for man, beast or vegetation right now. We learned from the previous mistake and purchased shade tents (that lasted one day).
We are still loosing birds to the heat despite reducing the number of birds per pen; we have fifteen in an eighty square foot pen. Salatin recommended fifty, but we kept knocking that number down until we felt there was plenty of space and no competition. It is just heartbreaking to walk out there after work and find ten birds expired. The heat index hit one-hundred and twelve. We were able to revive three of the injured but ended up having to put one of those down because he was to far gone and we could not let it suffer more than he already had. That process did not go as planned either. I will spare you the details but suffice it to say it was not a clean, pain free experience for the bird or I.
As I have said before when anything goes wrong with a chicken most times it can be traced back to management and I cannot help but feel the suffering they must have gone through before their demise. It was my fault and my guilt that has put a heavy burden on me. Am I humane when I loose as many birds as I have? I cannot even beat industry averages, and that kills me the most. I know I am better then that and it is frustrating to see otherwise.
In this field, you cannot dodge the responsibility and blame others as we see all around us at the State and Federal governance levels. We cannot sit back and say well it was your fault for not telling us in time or bring up some other lame excuse to deflect our culpability. You take it on the chin, pick yourself up, learn as best you can to not make the same mistake twice and move on. Yet the measures we have taken have failed. The tents blew away twisting the cheap metals that bore the structure. We got replacement parts from the manufacturer replaced them and put the tents up again to only last one day. Yes, they were the least expensive and yes, I did get what I paid for.
We are exceeding the national average for percentage of birds lost and that fact alone does the most damage to the evaluation of my animal husbandry skills. It is not for a lack of trying we purchased shade tents, as mentioned, and fans for cooling. The tents sit in rumpled heaps because they were in fact cheap pieces of animal fertilizer. We are making ten by ten-square frames for the roof and creating lean-to for shade. As with most everything, this is taking time that we do not have and adding work we do not need.
The fans help the most. Once they were installed things changed drastically. However, these are indoor fans not outdoors. If we are home and it starts raining, we can get the fans to protect them. If we are at work and it rains well, I am not an electrician but my guess would be they are not going to make it. It is a temporary risk until we can purchase outdoor fans.
So far, the week before processing has been the worst week for losses. It has happened this way for the first three flocks. Yes, that is a clue to when our vigilance should be most acute with this next batch and we will take heed. Nevertheless, it also shows you that we have sunk the most cost you can into raising a bird before processing. They have been eating feed, drinking water and consuming labor for most of their brief stay on earth. To lose them at this critical time is adding insult to injury.
I have read about the perils of heat and made allowances, such as, reducing the numbers of birds per pen, keeping them in the shade and close to shade as much as possible and providing plenty of access to water. We exceed all requirements for feeding, watering and space. We are now looking into outdoor fans. That will be an additional cost but we hope to keep more birds alive so that we can recoup those costs. It is all a money game and that is why we fail. To us it is a matter of comfort and doing what is right for the animal not the bottom line. Do not get me wrong, I graduated with an undergraduate and graduate degree in business, so I know the bottom line, I know profit and I know sustainability. They are not mutually exclusive but I wonder if they are achievable given our history. I just wonder at times like these..
Buy Local: Do it now before you lose the chance, not all of us are able to do it without you.
Posted by Brian
@ 07:51 PM EDT
I saw my obituary the other day on-line. The obituary was for a person with the exact same name, born 4 days before me but lived in a different state. I thought it was par for the course given what we have gone through this past season. What a difference a year makes. I look at what I wrote last year at this time and it could not be polar opposites.
I face this spring with the lowest energy level I have ever had. I know in part because of how bad things were last year with the stinkbug. However, that was just the start, the list continues from there. The grass mower will not start, we have lost four more layers bringing the total since December to ten, the wood splitter engine gave up, the snow thrower picked up a large rock and bent the fly wheel, oh yeah, and a week before we were to plant in the high tunnel it collapsed into itself. Those were just the most costly of things to go wrong.
I am trying to pull myself out and get that sparkle back. I know I am supposed to take the hits and keep going. That is the thought I cling to as I face the coming spring. It just bothers me though. My instinct is to get right back up when knocked down. I do that, but it seems that it is taking me longer and that I am slower when doing so.
In the past, I could tell you what we grew good versus what did not grow so well. I could take orders and know in spring that we would be able to fill those orders; it is the same with the summer months. Before last year, we were known for Roma tomatoes. We would sell over a thousand pounds a year. I know it is not much but we expand the amount we grow every year. We lost ninety percent of our tomatoes.
I had just gotten growing organic sweet corn down when our entire crop fell to the BMSB. The year before (read Corn Battles), we celebrated the fact that I had finally been successful. With perseverance, everything fell into place and we produced the sweetest corn we had ever had.
So, I soldier on, I hold my little pity parties and boo-who meetings then I go do something and try to make sure I do not break anything. Everything I have touched over this past winter has broken. I am not exaggerating. You read the list and it was not even complete.
I know I will come out of this. The minute I start turning the earth and planting cover crops the sooner I will get back into the rhythm of nature, growing food and providing my community the best I can. James Carvel once said, “Next to love the greatest gift someone can give is their labor” and I truly believe that.
This is a low point but that is how growing and farming is. You have ups and downs, but you try to even things out. Besides, “nothing in this world is impossible to a willing heart”. I tell myself this is just a low point and to even it out and keep going. We are making changes due to the BMSB to counter-act their damage. Hard choices and decisions are required in order to turn that corner. We have plans to change our business model. Plans that should help us turn the corner and avoid the cliff. Time will tell. In the mean time,
Buy Local: Do not under-estimate the difference you can make.
Posted by Brian
@ 04:21 PM EST
Raising Rhode Island Red hens has had its ups and downs for us. We've had to euthanize for illness and we've brought injured hens back to a laying state from a dog attack. The question of what to do when they stop laying has weighed heavy on us. I have written of the heartache, guilt and anguish that we face due to the outcome of this decision.
One day I had a tour for a group of city folks who are environmentally sensitive and wanted to learn about sustainable practises. For the most part it went well until we got to the hens. “What do you do with your hens once they are past their useful egg laying life?” My first thought was to say go to LocalHarvest.org and read our blog. But instead, I said, “I don’t know, our first flock is still laying and we are into their fourth year.” Actually we get about six eggs in a week from the five residents. Without blinking an eye the man says “It’s horrible the way hens are used for laying then disposed of, denying them a full life,” I wanted to ask if he ate chicken but I didn’t. He’d freak to learn meat birds are processed as early as thirteen weeks. He wants the hens to live out their life even though they do not produce. And that is a growing school of thought even though hens can live up to thirteen years. I had written about this and I wondered if I was being tested. I’ve learned that less is more so I didn’t say much on the topic.
I did relate some of my dismay with having to make economic decisions for the health of the organization that have the opposite effect for the hens. I explained feed costs and so forth and h elooked like he was genuinely interested in the plight.
When we got to the end of the tour I showed them the difference between a real free range organic egg and one purchased from the local supermarket. I also talked about the Mother Earth News article that pointed out the benefits of true “free range” eggs. True free range eggs are high in omega 3’s, lower in cholesterol and saturated fats and have seven times the amount of beta carotene. I then talked about the difference in price and how our eggs were basically three times higher than in a grocery store and I saw some heads shake.
The tour ended and we were selling vegetables and fruits but the eggs were not moving. Having extolled the virtues of free range eggs I asked did anyone want any eggs. “No, we are vegans” was the reply. My next thought was to ask if anyone wanted to adopt a hen. And, being the kind of person that has a dysfunctional "brain to mouth" evaluation system, I blurted the thought out. I got quizzical looks after the question until I started to explain.
We need help paying for the food; we’d take care of the birds but feed for them costs money. I’ve been worrying for a couple years about this. We can not take a chick, raise it from a day old and then dispatch it because they don’t lay enough to pay for their own food. But we can not stay in business if we keep hemorrhaging money. But in that instant in front of the group the idea just flashed. Adopt a hen or the bird gets it. A similiar threat was used before, on-line, by a young entrepreneur, why not now? Besides, a person bought pet rocks before, surely adopting a hen so it could live their life out was a beneficial way to spend.
I felt good about that idea but after everyone left I had time to think about how things would work. When you look at this world and in particular the US and know that people go to bed hungry every day the idea just pales. Why would people spend money on keeping a hen a live, so they can live their life out, versus giving to a food bank to feed the poor and less fortunate? I volunteered in a soup kitchen for about a year. I saw first hand the faces and families of poverty, bad decisions and working poor.
It was then that peace and clarity came to my mind. We can process the hens and give them to the local soup kitchens. A sense of warmth came over me when my thought was that the hen’s final purpose was for humanity and we could stay true to our values. It doesn’t lesson the pain we will feel and the associated guilt but at least we can hold on to the fact that the hen’s last act is helping feed the poorest and less fortunate among us.
The hens' demise has been on my mind since before we purchased the first flock. We are a humane farm and we have given our hens the best life they could live. I too believe that a hen should live a natural life but when you start to accumulate the amount of hens we have either we need to charge ten dollars a dozen for eggs, or we can process them or we can go out of business.
Going out of business is just what the Industrial Food Complex (IFC) counts on for the small farmer. They can not compete with local small farmers when it comes to safe, fresh and tasty foods that have a small carbon foot print and benefit the local economy. This movement is growing, more people are learning of the perils of our industrial food supply and thousands of people like us are doing extraordinarily hard work to provide safe, tasty alternative choices. We have found a way to use our spent layers as part of being a humane farm and that feels good.
Buy Local: From an actual local grower not a chain saying they do
Posted by Brian
@ 06:48 PM EDT
Farming seems like an innocuous occupation, I think most people are surprised to hear how dangerous farming really can be. USDA census reports point out just how bad the percentages are per capita and it is not good. ABC did a study and found farming was the 5th dangerous job to have in the US. I’ve experienced the dangers first hand.
At the beginning of the growing season we spend most of orientation day on farm safety and personal safety. The staff learns about hydration and sun protection, as well as, the obvious dangers inherited with the equipment we use. They must learn and are tested on the symptoms of heat stress and heat stroke. Then there are the daily reminders, before each task begins, of what dangers they face doing that task.
Knowing how we feel when we lose an animal, having one of our workers get hurt would simply be devastating. When I had to take my wife to the hospital last year to get her ear sewed up I was sick for days. I didn’t eat, had trouble sleeping and was just miserable (see Dangers of Farming).
Injury is just not worth the price even though what we do is good for the earth, people and animals. Someone getting hurt over this activity is unacceptable. Growing vegetables should not be a life or death activity. Yet, the specter is always there and we try to be aware as much as possible.
This year I learned that danger comes in unknown forms and in an instant. You might think you know how to safely operate heavy equipment, or chain saws or any number of other deadly mechanized tools but sometimes danger comes from a completely different realm that was not anticipated or counted on.
We are very safe when people are on the grounds; we had a Daisy Scout troop visit the other day. They were young and excited about being on a farm and learning about the chickens and bees and good bugs versus bad bugs. We were prepared for their arrival; we had honey so they could see and taste what the bees produce and we would show them the hens and the eggs. With all those plans we forgot one issue.
It was a dark drizzly day when they arrived. We had to wait for one of the moms to get there so we hadn’t yet established control of the group. Much to my horror I see ten of the girls heading towards one of the hen houses and close to the electrified fence. Of course the fence was on and ready to shock any little wet hand that would come in contact with it.
A couple of days prior to the Daisy Scouts, our bee guy, Mike, was there to do maintenance on the bees. He has to move the hives in order for us to put up a high-tunnel. I went out to give him some locations to consider when moving the hives. I was about thirty yards from him when he looked up and saw me. “You must be brave,” Mike said to me. Some bees had already landed on my face but I wasn’t moving and I had my eyes shut and head down. “Or stupid,” I said in return and then all hell broke lose. Just the words were enough to set the bees off. I was stung at least six times in the right eye lid, five times on the left side of the neck and six times on the right side of my neck behind my ear. I took off running for my life, as I rounded the barn, my wife seeing what was going on, started putting up the window in the car.
We were going out to eat and I was only going to be a minute so she was waiting for me. I jumped in and didn’t bring any bees with me. We sat there. I pulled a group of four stingers out of my eye lid. There was a dark blue spot where the stingers landed. My wife got another two from the same eye lid and some from my neck behind the ears. Mike came over apologizing because that’s the kind of guy he is, it wasn’t his fault but he felt bad. I shook it off and said we can discuss locations later.
Then I made the second mistake of the night. Instead of going in the house, icing the stings and pulling the remaining stingers we went out to eat. As a male I have this gene that doesn’t allow me to seek medical attention unless something is hanging off or I am not strong enough to get out of bed. The gene is called something like avoidprofessionalattention chromosome or something close to that, I don’t know. I just know males are afflicted with it.
We are eating dinner and my right eye is swelling shut. By the time we finished dinner my eye, the top part of my cheek and the skin behind my ears were swollen. I don’t have movie star looks by any measure and these new features weren't getting me any closer. When we got home I put ice on my eye and neck.
The Daisy Scouts were coming in a few days and the local paper was coming the next day to take my photograph, for a story on the new farmer’s market opening. Sun glasses were the order of the day. The picture for the paper turned out fine and by the time the Girl Scouts arrived for there educational tour I had only discoloration around the eye, with most of the swelling gone.
They arrived in drizzling weather with gray skies. The Scouts were excited about the hens and wanted to get a closer look. I don’t remember what I was doing but I turned and saw them standing by the fence. “WAIT, DO NOT TOUCH THE FENCE,” I yelled in as stern a voice I could muster. I kept repeating the phrase as I ran to turn the battery off.
No one touched the fence and when the last Scout arrived everyone learned about worms, bees, lady bugs and what a vegetable farm grows. The baby hens and honey were a big hit as was the mesclun mix. Yes mesclun mix.
On a farm, danger is all around and in many forms. Sometimes something as simple as bee other times the slope of a hill. The work is hard enough and fatigue plays a big factor in safety. So we are ever mindful of the gift we have been given and make sure safety comes first. We just want to make sure everyone is around to work hard the next day.
Buy Local – From a farmer you know and trust. Your effort to visit is well worth their effort to grow.
Posted by Brian
@ 04:41 PM EDT
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