Organic Farming from a City Boy's Perspective
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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
We are a humane farm, which means we treat our animals with kindness, care and respect. This philosophy extends to the chickens own community. We think there should be peace and harmony in our chicken flocks. They all grew up together; they are in the same pasture together and roost in the same houses together. We have them living in plenty of space, more than four square feet per bird when housed and much greater than that when out doors. We do keep them in moveable fencing to keep predators out and them safe. Sometimes it works; unfortunately, we have learned that sometimes it does not. Our chickens have plenty of access to food and water and we provide shade and fans during the hottest parts of the season.
If a chicken pulls up lame, everything we have read points to management as the problem. Like excessive pecking is caused by competition for resources such as food, water or space. Soft egg shells indicates there is a calcium deficiency in the food source, which correlates to us not getting the feed mix right; and too cold or too hot and egg production drops and so on. Fortunately, the problems we do create we find quickly and fix, but what we read was right. Most problems we have had with chickens could be traced back to our management or lack of attention. You look for consistency in all facets of their existence. If anything is inconsistent, it usually is an indication of the start of a problem.
Every so often, a fight breaks out or one chicken will start pecking another, which is their nature. There is a pecking order but we discourage this behavior from the time they are chicks. We only have about two hundred birds at any one time. We do not de-beak because that is cruel and it works against the chicken and the goals of raising chicks. A de-beaked bird will spend more energy eating and wasting food than a bird with a full beak, and that energy could be going toward laying eggs or gaining weight. We do not clip their wings either; we let them fly as much as they can. Once they get to a certain weight, their wings cannot sustain them in flight but they try to fly just the same and it is a fun thing to watch when they all get going.
How we deal with pecking and rough housing is to yell. This startles all of them but it is directed at the antagonist, which usually gets her attention, and given the attention span of a chicken is long enough for the tormented one to get away. Seldom is there a prolonged problem. I yell" HEY," usually followed by "WHAT ARE YOU DOING?" with a loud voice, deep timber and baratone measure. They hear the volume, timber, tone and that gets their attention. The combatants, stop briefly enough, look towards the sound and forget what they were doing. They do have chicken brains so, once distracted they go on to something else.
My neighbors on the other hand just hear me yelling. Not knowing what I am yelling at or why but, they too hear the volume and tone. It does not help that we are on the top of knoll and there is an echo. I have never been asked by a neighbor but, I cannot help but speculate that my neighbors must be thinking, "man, they need anger management classes.”
Buy Local: When you do, you help your community and what are we without community?
Posted by Brian
@ 05:53 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
Growing up in the city, I saw and heard some horrific incidents. From car accidents, a friend’s brother touches a live wire on top of a train; a body lays in pieces after a motorcycle accident, to burying my puppy after being struck by a car. All of which make me cringe at the thought of blood shed at my own hands. I have written about this theme often, because it is something that has caused great anguish and emotional pain, which I had hoped by exposing, would allow me to move forward.
I guess in a way I was right, if it was most things, I would like being right. This is not one of them and I have lost more then I bargained for, at least in the end. I do have perspective; I have talked to my nephews who have both served on the frontlines in Afghanistan and Iraq. The things we have talked about and how they conducted themselves while transitioning back into society has been inspiring and made me feel foolish at my own inadequacies.
We have exhausted every possible angle for selling our chickens, legally, without us processing. In the state of Maryland, if you do not process your own chickens, legally, you cannot sell them off the farm, let alone retail. If you want to expand your market to restaurants, wholesale or even farmer’s markets, you need a license. Therefore, I have taken the next step in getting our state certified poultry processor license. First step was taking the processing class and passing the test with at least an 80. We have accomplished the aforementioned.
Since then, I have completed the twenty some page application. The next step is to mail it in and wait for the evaluation of our production, sanitation, safety measures, hazard mitigation, waste disposal and chilling process. After examination, comes the letter announcing the results of our plan. If we succeed in meeting all sanitation, safety and disposal procedures, we move to the inspections phase. We then wait for the inspector to call and setup the inspection of our processing.
This has all come with little cost but a lot of emotional angst. However, I took a step that I thought I would never take, nor did I have confidence that I could ever bring myself to take. It has been years in the making but I have crossed over into the realm of grim reaper. I did not lose my breakfast, lunch or dinner as I thought I would, but I lost something worse. To a certain extent, I lost a piece of something, that I had fought a lifetime trying to keep safe. The idea of me ending the life of an animal, that I had raised and cared for, was not fathomable. I have written here, that it was something I was not able or willing to face.
I feel no sense of accomplishment, there is not a speck of satisfaction or any positive feeling having faced one of the hardest tests of my life when I stepped up for the sake of the farm. I am not relieved, if anything I am saddened that I have had to take this step after so many years of fighting against our raising and processing of animals.
Temple Grandin said that constant processing of animals makes people sadistic. I can see why and I have only done it twice. I think it is a defense mechanism used to reconcile what you are doing on a daily basis. I am not saying it is right, it is not, there is no justification for the mistreatment of animals no matter the situation. However, there are emotions involved, we are humans and emotions come with the package. Some of us are better able to handle situational emotions then others and I am trying.
Humane slaughter is an oxymoron but as Temple and Joel Salatin illustrate the end of an animal's life, although permanent, should and can be done with the least stress possible to the animal. I know our birds are raised in the most humane, comfortable and invigorating environment possible, that they lived free and outside with plenty of room and were protected from predatory ills. I try to joke that they live better then I do, what with their organic diet, freedom, fresh grass and a stress-less environment.
However, it does not lessen the fact that my attempt to be a successful vegetable grower is in great peril. It is a bitter pill to swallow given what we now must do in order to keep the operation viable. This is just the beginning, eventually I will need to process one weekend every month. Michael Pollan in "Ominvores Dilemma" pointed out, how far removed people are from their food source. This makes it harder for consumers to see what small farms go through in order to survive and provide safe, fresh food. That is why education is important, the more people learn the more they understand the earnest effort that small sustainable farmers put fourth for their health and the environments.
On a farm, you face difficulties frequently and you do what is warranted within guidelines, humane treatment, regulations, and social mores, ethical and sustainable practices and sometimes by doing so, you just find yourself over the edge and there is no chance of return.
Buy Local: Become part of a greater good, help build your local community food chain.
Posted by Brian
@ 05:00 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
We are a humane farm; our animals almost run the place. However, sometimes there is mortality. With each loss we've had on the farm it has been hard on me and I take them all personally even though I know I shouldn't. You don't take responsibility for the health and welfare of an animal and not take it personally when it dies. At least I don't. We learn and make sure if it’s controllable it doesn't happen again, we try our best to be good stewards and shepherds. This is one thing that coming from the city actually works against me. If I grew up on a farm my bet is I'd have a better handle on the whole mortality thing. I have to get over this though; if we are going to succeed I am going to have to get over this hurdle. Think and say what you will about my manliness and machismo, it’s just how I'm wired. If you are going to raise an animal organically you are going to spend a lot of time looking out for its well being. This equates to spending a lot of time with the animal, observing them and watching for signs of illness, distress, infestation, injury and overall environmental health.
As we thought over twenty years ago death on a farm is inevitable and it is a hard burden for us to bare. I guess that’s why it took us so long before we added chickens to the mix. I'm ok with vegetables passing away; it seems natural to me. This is the first time that I found growing up in the city was an impediment to what we do here. I'm not naive I saw horrible violent things by accident living in the city. I worked in a hospital for over ten years; I saw the grief people went through. I saw more than one person die in front of my eyes. Within the last two years both of my parents have passed. I've had more loved ones than I care to count leave this earth. I am just not good with death, as natural as it is and as much as it is part of the whole life cycle I am not good with mortality.
I have no problem going to the local butcher and getting my meat and pork. I see the cows, pigs and chickens in the field. I know where my meat comes from, how it is raised and processed. I've had numerous blind taste tests with family, friends, clients and students. More than 90 percent pick the local product, whether it is eggs, bacon, steak, hamburger, cucumbers, tomatoes or whatever. I know that we are getting the safest, tastiest, freshest products anywhere.
Does this mean I will be vegetarian or vegan? No, this is the paradox that is my life. I love to cook and grow vegetables. Now, we have our potential role in providing fresh poultry to our community as part of the sustainability model. It is one of the more profitable functions on a farm.
Free range, organic poultry is in great demand and it is a low cost, low maintenance activity. You get day old chicks, raise them for sixteen weeks and process them. Raise them humanely, free of stress and in an open environment and you’ve given them the best life that can be hoped for. Add to that we would use Rhode Island Reds because they are a recovering species and we are furthering sustainable agriculture.
Seven years we've been talking about this, 2555 days. Seven years we've been deciding not to raise poultry for meat. We are not making enough money to be profitable. Five out of the seven years we have shown a loss and this is with out expensing our time as labor. Meat chickens add a degree of stability and profitability that we have not achieved yet from vegetables, berries, jams, bread and cooking classes. It is that simple, yet for us there has been nothing simple about the decision. As natural as death is on a farm it is still creates a paradox for me.
Buy Local - from a farmer not a chain that advertises "Local"
Posted by Brian
@ 06:25 PM EDT
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