Singleness of Heart. Planted in the Land.

Jeremiah 32:38-41 says:

They will be my people, and I will be their God. I will give them singleness of heart and action, so that they will always fear me and that all will then go well for them and for their children after them. I will make an everlasting covenant with them: I will never stop doing good to them, and I will inspire them to fear me, so that they will never turn away from me. I will rejoice in doing them good and will assuredly plant them in this land with all my heart and soul.

We must remain a family unit. Each of us has a different calling but all of us have one purpose. I am a Steward. Caring for the Earth is not an end…it’s an occupation. I hold my portion, working it to honor my Lord.

What will my children be granted stewardship over? I don’t know. But I do know that I would rather continue my work with my children as they grow than continue my work without them. I do hope and pray that my kids will find meaningful, rewarding work here on the farm when they are grown. Sometime I’ll share the vision we have for our family over the next 65+ years. I hope you have a vision…a preferred future. A dream. A goal you are working toward. It’s not much fun just putting in your time and using oxygen.

With the verse at the top in mind, Julie and I frequently pray, “Father, we honor your name. All that we have is yours and we thank you for the blessings you have entrusted to us. I pray that you will give our family a sense of unity as we live out your purpose, helping us to follow you day by day. Lord, we need your continued blessing. You promise in Jeremiah 32 to never stop doing good to us. Lord, we stand on that promise. Grant us wisdom to fear you and help us to continue doing good for your glory…plant us in this land, Lord.”

What do you dream of? What do you pray for?

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Late Summer Changes

Fall has arrived and things change quickly around here. The barn swallows disappeared a few weeks ago, the other birds started flocking up, huge swarms of migrating dragonflies have come and gone and now hawks are migrating through.

Not much I can do…but there’s not much I want to do about hawks. Dad and I saw a juvenile hawk sitting on a chicken tractor, looking at the broiler chicks beneath.  He was obviously frustrated by the wire. For some reason he was ignoring the layers. Maybe the were just too big for him.  Who knows.  As we went past he spooked and took off. A few minutes later he speared a pigeon off the roof of a nearby silo.

We have reached the point where you can’t take a step in the woods without ducking under a spider web. It is as if we finally reached a critical mass of insects allowing more and spiders and praying mantises…or they have just eaten so many for so long they are all big and fat. And believe me, we have seen some big, big spiders and I swear I saw a 10″ long praying mantis yesterday.

TangledWeb

The sunflowers that were all so pretty in August have drooped over so we cut the heads and set them to dry. I’m glad we could complete that cycle before the cows grazed that area. Hard to believe it took us 4 months to rotate pastures around the farm.

Sunflowers

Sunflowers as of Sep. 1

The cowpeas in the pasture didn’t set a pod all summer until September. Same with the cockleburs. It became increasingly unpleasant to pull cocklebur plants in my pasture over the last month.

Dad keeps a detailed journal of changes, frost dates, etc. I don’t currently do anything formal though I used to track the frost dates and the first time I heard a spring peeper (Pseudacris crucifer) and our toad (Bufo americanus). Do you track the changes around you each year? On this topic, I would like to revisit the book Great Possessions by David Kline. I haven’t read that in years. Less seasonal but just as good is Scratching the Woodchuck.

I Can’t Do This Alone

I got an email from Matron of Husbandry recently in which she wrote:

A lot of it is about the support that family members give you, more than a piece of ground.  Look at Greg Judy, new wife, new attitude, success.  Not saying anyone should get a new wife or husband but Joel says the #1 cause of business failure is spousal disinterest, or disapproval or disagreements.

I have two directions for this post. Maybe three. Rather than tell you what I’m going to tell you, I’ll just tell you.

This farming thing is hard. I know it’s romantic. I know it’s something people sit and dream about…someday. Believe me, I get it. Our “someday” happened 4 years ago. Fortunately our dream is still alive in spite of the reality we crashed into upon arrival. I spend a big chunk of my time on the blog wrestling with reality. Questions like, “How are we going to pay for this?” “Where are the customers?” “How are we going to keep animals alive?” “Can we endure the stress?” “Is it all worthwhile?” These don’t make for my most popular posts but I feel like it would be wrong to avoid the topic.

Obviously I think we’ll get through but I hope you, my reader, understand that it’s a lot of work. I could be living out here alone like Dick Proenneke but Dick didn’t have livestock. He had wildlife. If Dick needed a sick day his stash of firewood might get a little low but he had enough of whatever he needed that he didn’t have to work every dang day. We have livestock. One day in August without water and I won’t have livestock anymore. That requires redundancy…not just in terms of water supply but also in terms of manpower. If the well pump stops working we have a problem the cows can’t solve on their own and I would have a hard time addressing the well pump issue with a broken leg. I rely on my wife to back me up when I am not available…or my father. I am relying more and more on my oldest son to help out too. This wouldn’t happen without them.

But it goes beyond the workload. The work can be discouraging. I have written this before but sometimes things go wrong. Sometimes a lot of things go wrong all at once. Sometimes your fence is working perfectly to keep 4-legged predators out of the chickens and an owl flies in and has dinner. 3 nights in a row. Sometimes the drought ends suddenly and the roof leaks, the creek floods, a branch drifts past dragging the fence with it and you have to round up the cows and take them to higher ground. At night. In the rain. When water is coming into your house. or a big snow load pushes in a shed roof and 8 months later you still haven’t had time to fix it. These kinds of things get tiring. They wear on you emotionally.

Was this what you had in mind sitting in your comfortable suburban home dreaming of a few acres, a few cows and a beautiful sunset? Who are you going to share your troubles with? Well, obviously I talk to my wife and my father. I also share what is appropriate with my children without weighing them down. They need to know that I don’t think it’s easy…and they won’t get it from the blog as they don’t bother reading what they have lived through…lol. But if you’re just dreaming, well that’s no big deal. Anybody can dream. Anybody can talk. Nobody even has to listen. I talk to lots of people…people I never meet read my blog. I guess you read. I don’t know. Heck, maybe you just look at the pictures.

But I don’t go it alone. I am not a rock. That quote from Matron above says it all. The work is hard…but manageable. If Julie was not 100% on board the task would be impossible. She would feel neglected every time I went to look at the cows. Instead I receive affirmation from her as we take on the day’s chores together…even if separately. We are a team.

I couldn’t do this without a helpmate.

And as much as I love my wife (and I do) I also couldn’t do this without my father. Oh my gosh! can I disagree with him at times! but I appreciate that he is coming to the table with ideas and experience of his own. Our mild disagreements are an important part of moving the farm forward. When I say, “Dad, What about this crazy idea?” he’s usually able to help me explore the idea more fully. Not that he talks me out of it necessarily, just to look at it from other angles. Also my children, for their part, are a tremendous help not just with the labor but with forcing me to break our plan down into small steps with few moving parts. If I can explain my vision of the farm to my children in a way that they can express it to others…well, that just makes the whole farm marketing job easier. It also prepares them for the transition…the time when I’m the dad they come to with crazy ideas for their farm.

I couldn’t do this without the support of my family.

There is one other category I feel is essential: Mentors. I have written about Mike and Steve, though you may not realize how much time I spend picking their brains. I think it is obvious that I constantly reference Matron of Husbandry and rely heavily on books by farmers who have actually succeeded at this farming thing. Not only do I need the support of my wife and my family, I need the experience and wisdom of folks who have survived the ups and downs of farming…because the downs can get pretty low. If I had to choose between a recently “successful” farmer and an old farmer I would pick the old farmer. Same with investment advisors.

I couldn’t do this without a mentor.

So, that’s it. If you’re going to fight the odds on your homestead and make a go of it, make sure your spouse is on board, drag your family along and find yourself a mentor. Maybe you are stronger than me but I can’t do this alone.

More Egg Math

Someone brought this to my attention. It’s from a Facebook posting for a farm in Oregon. No names are required. I’m not “telling them off”, just utilizing their example.

Every two months we order a one ton tote of verified GMO free, organic and locally produced chicken feed. It is the most expensive and high quality feed in our area. We believe this feed as a supplement to fresh pasture and organic veggies produces the best eggs possible for our members. Every year we spend about $6,000 on chicken feed. We sell all of our eggs which totals to 850 dozens and we sell them for $6.50 per dozen. That means this year we will lose about $800 on our eggs. So the question becomes, do we raise our prices? or do we buy poorer quality feed resulting in poorer quality eggs? This is a question that the farmer faces everyday but the consumer is the one to answers it.

The detail that they buy “the most expensive and high quality feed in our area” amuses me. You have to pay the most to get the best? Really? Are you sure you are getting the best or are you just paying the most and making an assumption? And I really have a lot to say about “verified” GMO-free feed and the quality of protein available in substitutes. Anyway.

Let’s start with his egg production numbers. He says he gets 850 dozen eggs/year and loses about $800 on eggs (If you do the math he loses $475 on feed but let’s just run with his numbers).  That’s 2.3 dozen/day. Let’s say they raise their prices to $12/dozen ($1 per egg!). That brings egg revenue up from $5,525 to $10,200…which is a good thing because his calculation above doesn’t count land usage, fencing, housing, labor, etc.

But let’s look at his numbers again.

He’s buying in bulk, getting a one ton tote – 2000 pounds, same as 40 bags – for, apparently $1,000. That’s $25 per bag of feed. High but not entirely out of the question. We pay significantly less but we live where the corn and beans are grown and our customers aren’t demanding non-GMO organic. They’re delighted with fresh, orange-yolked eggs that taste good and come from healthy birds out on healthy pasture. But I digress.

The farmer in question gets 10,200 (850 * 12) eggs each year…or around 27 eggs/day. Let’s say they get 30 eggs and throw away 3 that are checked, cracked, stained or misshapen. A chicken lays 2 eggs every three days. Really good ones lay an egg every 28 hours. Let’s pretend there is no winter. To get 30 eggs you would need (30/.66) 45 birds…as two thirds of the birds are laying each day…right? He’s feeding 2,000 pounds of feed every two months, or 33 pounds of feed every day or 22 pounds of food per chicken per month. My birds don’t eat that much but maybe my chickens are freaks so I did a quick search of the internets and I found that a laying hen (probably in confinement) should eat 10 pounds of feed every month and they tend not to overeat. He’s going through more than twice that amount of feed. So I guess they have at least twice that number of birds and they aren’t laying well…which could either be an indication of bad genetics, age or maybe his high-quality feed isn’t high-quality enough.

Now, I’m skeptical of the 10 pound figure. First because it comes from Nutrena. They don’t use whole grains…it’s like giving your chickens snickers bars. But the article suggests correctly that free-range birds can harvest some portion of feed for themselves…at least, for a portion of the year. We feel that we need to feed our chickens whole grains (even if shattered) rather than processed remainders. We also take our mineralization and pro-biotics seriously. If the chicken itself has unhealthy gut flora she can’t digest and absorb her food efficiently (and we feel this applies to ourselves as well). I don’t want those minerals to just slip right through the bird. With that in mind, with very little searching, I found this quote from a Backyard Chickens member:

I have 61 in my free ranging flock and I go through 200 lbs of feed a month.

UPDATE:
As Craig pointed out in the comments below, that figure is pretty extreme. In fact, it is almost as extreme as 20 pounds of feed per chicken. I apologize. Craig’s numbers, my numbers and several others I have spoken to are more in the 7 pounds/bird range when on pasture. If you are unhappy with my calculations for the number of chickens involved, calculate the pounds of feed per egg. I think that may better illustrate the lack of efficiency the farmer in this example is ignoring.

I don’t know what the revenue picture is for the farm (though Facebook indicates they are building a big new barn) but it looks to me like they could save a little money and, probably, a lot of time if they would stop raising chickens for eggs…or, at least, abandon the chickens they are currently raising. Rather than transport 3 pounds of feed to Oregon maybe he should transport 1 pound of eggs and spend additional time planting, weeding and marketing produce. Do 2 dozen eggs/day really bring in enough customers to justify paying them to take the eggs? As you know, I’m dealing with similar issues here.

Business or Chore List?

I have nearly 3 hours in a car every week day. 3 hours. Sometimes I use that time to just think. Sometimes I need to decompress on my way home from a stressful day. Sometimes I sleep while my carpool buddy drives. A fair portion of the time I listen to podcasts.

I have mentioned the Agricultural Insights podcast previously. The host does a great job of finding informative and interesting guests and this week was no exception. Give a listen to “Ranch Management and Ranching For Profit with Dave Pratt.” Rather than steal Chris’ thunder and give it all away (like I probably did last time) I’ll share one idea that impacted me positively…giving me something to think about in the quiet times of the drive.

Do I have a business or do I have a collection of assets and a chore list?

At this time, probably just a collection and a list. How do I change that? I’ll let you know as I figure it out over the next few decades.

If you are interested in putting your hands in dirt I highly recommend listening to the podcast above and reading up on additional resources Dave Pratt makes available on his site. After listening, if you liked what you heard, go ahead and subscribe to the podcast via RSS or iTunes. Just having more subscribers, even free ones, helps Chris deliver a quality product and makes it available for free for the first two weeks after the release date. You might also consider a paid subscription, something I am weighing myself.

I have never met nor have I any affiliation with Chris Stolzer. I’m just making a recommendation for something I like.

A Moral Obligation

I tend to be both insecure and introspective…utilizing my introspection to analyze my own insecurities…uncertain of my conclusions.

Yup.  I’m a mess.

I spend a large amount of my time evaluating my own decisions, actions and motivations.  For example my recent post about why I have cows?  Grass is a low-input, low-value good.  Converting grass to something of higher value is desirable.  How do you convert acres and acres of low-value forage?  Cows are a pretty good option.

But why do I have cows?  Wouldn’t it be easier to park my tookus on the couch with a book in hand?  Wouldn’t it be easier to order a pizza or to buy peaches already canned?

I could live as if there were no tomorrow.  I could eat whatever I wanted, smoke, drive like a maniac, money wouldn’t matter…remember this in Groundhog Day?  I wouldn’t have to concern myself with my children’s future…there is no future.  No future? no concern about consequences of my actions…no moral consequences.  Like Bill Murray’s character, I wouldn’t even have to floss.

Well, that doesn’t sit well with me and it all boils down to this: I believe this is a moral issue.

We could, as residents of this world, simply consume as much as we can as fast as we can…living to have fun.  Unfortunately, the sun is very likely to rise in the morning.  Then what?  There is only so much leftover pizza within reach of the couch.  At some point I have to walk to the kitchen for more (ugh, work).  But there is only so much pizza in the freezer.  Then I either have to go to the store to buy pizza or I have to dial my phone (work, work, work) and ask someone to cook and deliver a pizza to me…and they will expect payment.  Ugh!  There is only so much money in my wallet, in my checking account or available on my credit card.  Now I either have to wait for someone to give me money, I have to take someone else’s money by force or I have to trade some portion of time I would normally spend on my couch for money doing any number of things I may not want to do. Worst of all, that cuts into my pizza-eating couch time!

Beyond simply meeting my own needs for MOAR! pizza, I work to contribute positively to the world around me. To some extent, I’m seeking to increase my surplus so I can buy better-tasting pizza but I’m also working to ease the pizza burden of current and future generations. And I feel this is something we are obligated to do. Whose planet is this? Does the planet belong to some long-dead pharaoh? How about George Washington? Should I preserve Illinois in the memory of Abraham Lincoln (lol)? How about my father? Do I want to prevent Illinois from turning into a desert or a chemical monoculture (same thing really) for my still-living father’s sake? Maybe…but that’s really not enough. I seek to enhance the soil ecology for the sake of generations yet to come, not to impress my wife.

I’m not going to own this land forever. In the light of that truth I have two options. I could, if I desired, strip the land of all wealth taking every dollar of value from the soil then abandoning the victimized soil to time. No big deal, it happens every day. Instead, I could seek to increase the water-holding capacity of my soil, improve my timber, solidify my fences and repair my buildings…not seeking peer approval, not seeking a higher resale value, (though both would be a natural result) but to hand the next owner something better than what I was handed. It’s not easy to build value into some things but farmland…that’s something else. It requires that I enable the farm to produce more than is consumed and that I return surplus to the land…cycling nutrients through. Distilled down to its essence, farming is the business of catching and holding sunlight and rain…then cycling surplus sunshine and rain back through the system. This could be done on a balcony in a 5-gallon bucket.

It strikes me as immoral to consume more than I contribute. I feel we have a moral obligation to produce.  That means seeking to increase and make the best use of all resources under my control. Everything from kittens to eggs to dollars and especially my children’s childhood.

How can you apply this to your own stewardship?

To My Children

Kids, The Survival Podcast has quoted something twice recently, both times it resonated with me.  Both times it is referenced as an old indian proverb but I’m not concerned with the source of the quote.  I’m concerned with the substance.

We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.

As you know, I am the 7th or 8th generation on the farm. (I lose track because there were several men named William Chism and my eyes glaze over when my sister tries to explain the family history to me. If you want, you can read some family history here.) Unlike my grandfather, however, I didn’t inherit the farm. I bought it. But what I paid for wasn’t just land…I could pay less and get more elsewhere. Beyond living near my parents (which I think is important), I paid for the privilege of giving you, my children, the same memories I have. I played under grandpa tree. I have always wondered how long the chain has been growing into the limb of the big walnut and who put it there. I swam in the creek, played in the mud and looked at the animal tracks. When cleaning the yellow house we found drawings under the wall covering…drawings my sister made when we were small. You get the same memories and experiences but on a 25-30 year delay. We even make the same cookies Grandma used to make in her own kitchen. I know, roughly, who built what fence. What role my father, my cousin, Barney Gillespie (ask me about Barney sometime) and others played in laying out the current infrastructure of the farm. What sheds were built and by who (whom?)…and when. I know the last time there were pigs on the hog floor and who they belonged to (cause I was paid to keep the floor clean). Your great, great, great uncle Dick built our house. Your great-grandparents lived here and your grandmother was raised here…your grandma and grandpa had their wedding reception in the family room when it was nearly new. Great-Grandpa Tom’s cousin Chick Chism built the kitchen, bathroom and family room onto the house in the ’60s. Your grandpa built another addition in the last 10 years. The bottom is full of walnut trees. Those trees have regrown since your great-grandparents were married at Christmas in ’46 when great-grandpa Tom had them logged and sawn as a wedding present. There is walnut lumber in projects all over the farm, including furniture my grandma built. You with me here?  We have roots in this place! This is home.

Our family has been here for a while.  I see and honor the contributions our ancestors made and, though I have to deal with the consequences of their actions, I am not enslaved by their work nor by the memories of their contribution.  William Chism did not work for his father.  The first Chism off the boat didn’t leave Scotland for his father.  They did it for their children. As the current steward of this farm, my obligation is not to my grandfather.  He had his own ideas of how things should be done…his own dreams. When the time came, grandpa embraced change.  I’m going to suggest that the shape of the farm changed more under my grandpa’s stewardship than ever before that, largely because he had modern machinery.  He didn’t embrace or avoid change for the sake of his father or grandfather.  He sold the horses and did what he did seeking immediate and long-term impact on the land, in his wallet and for the sake of his children…as in my mom.  As in me.  As in you.  He was working for us.

A good man leaves an inheritance for their children’s children… Proverbs 13:22

So now it’s my turn. It’s my job. I don’t want to simply restore the farm to its former glory. The fences need to be replaced, the buildings need to be repaired, there are 3 rotten posts in the big barn, the timber needs to be managed, the pastures are weedy, thorny and brushy and the ponds have gotten shallow. I’ll do the work but the goal is not to restore the farm to 1965 condition (though that would be an improvement).  I feel that my real calling is to put the farm into 2050 condition. What is the farm of the future? Kit Pharo advertises solar bulls. I agree with that thinking. We need a solar-powered herd. We also need rich, living, drought-tolerant and erosion-proof soils growing a wide variety of native forages. I need perennial tree crops. I need to store large amounts of water in case there aren’t any rainy days. I need to assemble a war chest to get us through lean times. I need to do a lot of work…some of it building on my grandfather’s vision, some of it leaning on my father’s advice, some of it remembering what Barney would say, most of it going my own direction. It’s not that the choices grandpa made were wrong, it’s that many of those choices are not valid in the current economy. If I hand the next generation a farm worthy of 1965 I will have failed in my calling as steward. I have to anticipate what the farm of the future will look like and build it now. Not only do I have to do the work, I have to pay for it all.

Kids, I love you. Each of you. I hope I can shape you as you each decide how best to steward the resources God blesses you with…how best to fulfill your own calling. Everything I have will be yours someday. Not only do I have to train you to be ready to accept it, I have to prepare it to accept you. The farm is just one of many things I am using that I hope will be yours someday. Please note the uncertainty in that sentence. I hold my blessings with an open hand and I am teaching you to do the same. The farm is ours to steward until it isn’t anymore. It is first for God then for you, not for my parents, not for my grandparents, not for great, great Uncle Dick that your mother and I are working. When you assume stewardship, continue moving forward with your own vision. Don’t be limited by my goals. You are not slave labor on the farm. Your mother and I are. We work for you. I love you.

Better Because it Costs More?

What is a car supposed to do?  Why do we need them?  From a utilitarian perspective, we simply need them to help us get from A to B.  Do leather seats help us get from A to B?  No, but somehow a car with leather seats is normally considered better than one without. In fact, the less utilitarian a car is the better it is, up to a certain point.  I mean, I would probably enjoy driving a Lamborghini but not when grocery shopping. So there are two things there, Price has little to do with function and every paradigm has its limits. This applies to cows, land and money equally.

The price of money is particularly interesting (pun intended).  Money today is worth more than money tomorrow.  That’s why we pay more for it.  In part, this is also true because our central bank is targeting inflation, destroying the value of currency over time but even with a stable currency, money today costs more than money tomorrow. We want it NOW! I have to INTEREST you in deferring consumption today so I can use your money now…so I offer to pay you back more than you loan me. Similarly, if I borrow your cow I can’t repay you in 5 years with the same or equal cow.  You have lost 5 years of calves from that cow and, potentially, additional calves from heifers those calves would have birthed. I would have to INTEREST you in loaning me a cow…or herd…or even just a bull for stud service. I recently borrowed a bull and I am expected to repay the same bull plus $20 for each cow covered. How is that different than interest on money? Everybody involved is participating voluntarily so everybody believes they are better off in some way at the end of the day. Well, that’s how it should work but we have this central bank thing that dictates what borrowed money should cost today which really gums up the works for everybody unless you’re borrowing in terms of cattle and they butt out). That’s a topic for somebody else’s blog though.

Bull2

Back to the point. Money today is more expensive than money tomorrow…but is it better? And, if it is better are there any limits to the “better-ness”?

Hoo boy. Well, I guess it can be…or can be perceived as such. I mean, I borrowed money to buy the farm because I thought I was better off with the farm today than I would be if I waited till I was 60 and had the cash. Plus, the farm I want is available today.  Would it be available in another 25 years? Further, farming is a young man’s game…especially the getting started part. If I don’t get started I’ll never get going. So we borrowed…but not without reservations. Reservations you’re probably tired of reading about.

Borrowing can be a really bad idea too. We don’t borrow for consumption.  We don’t use credit to buy hamburgers, t-shirts or even cars (which means we take care of our cars…they last a long, long time). We even buy our livestock with cash…forcing us to grow slowly and deliberately. I could see a time when I would want to grow the herd quickly, forcing me to borrow tomorrow’s calves today but I would hate to explain to my banker that the cow I bought with his money died. I would also hate to make payments on a dead cow. 

Further, because future money is available for buyers today, prices today tend to go up. If everyone had to pay cash for cars and houses we would have fewer dollars chasing after scarce goods…prices would have to fall (which is great if you are poor or have savings but horrible if you owe money on depreciating assets). But we live in the opposite world. In the current economy we can borrow money for houses, educations (lol), cars, farms, cows, hog buildings, tractors…you name it. Every loan puts more and more money in competition for the same number of goods…driving prices higher (which is horrible if you have savings or are poor but helps out borrowers). If our economy lacked available credit, the perceived currency value of my farm would have to fall (see 2008)…and my lender would get nervous. But that’s part of the deal. My banker is betting that my farm will retain value and that I will be able to repay…otherwise he wouldn’t voluntarily loan me money.

So because of easy credit, prices are higher. Does that higher price make my farm better than it was when my great, great, great….grandpa paid tens of dollars for it? No. The work that went into the farm over the generations makes it better. The lack of work that went into maintenance in the last 20 years makes it worse. Price has nothing to do with “better”. The “better” of the thing has to do with the work we accomplish with it. Farmers vary in skill level. A skilled farmer is going to do a better job with the land. I have to be more skilled than the farmers who came before me or I will have wasted the land, money and time.

Family

Maybe you disagree. Maybe you are happier when you pay more for the same thing. I dunno. I tend to look for sales or buy things second hand…or third hand.  But the cost of the thing has nothing to do with the “better” of the thing. If I need it, I need it. If I need it immediately I’m going to have to pay more for it. As we farm we try to limit our immediate needs. We try to plan years in advance. Years. Decades. Lifetimes. What will my great-grandchildren do with their inheritance? Can I influence that now? How much do I have to pay now to make things better for my grandchildren? Do I pay the future by not having a second vehicle? Do I pay the future by enslaving myself to the farm and to an off-farm job? Do I pay the future by avoiding eating meals out or by not going to see a movie? If the goal is to build better futures for my children’s children I have to pay a lot now. Does the future get better as I pay more for it? It might if I’m thoughtful about how I use my resources in the present. When does that paradigm run out? I doubt I’ll ever know.

So what if you don’t have kids? Does this matter to you? It most certainly does! The money part of the farm has nothing to do with the better part of the farm. You, as a steward (the dirt will outlast you), should be working and investing in future generations, even if they aren’t your kids. There are consequences to your actions. You don’t live in a bubble. Make choices that positively impact the community around you. Yes, it will cost you something; time, energy, cash. But that’s just part of the deal. You can’t simply consume your way through life. That is, I feel, immoral. Make a positive impact. Go out and “better” something. Do it cheaply if possible.

Eggs: Cheaper By the Dozen (Updated)

So, how do we make money on the farm? Well, we really don’t make much but opportunities abound. Today I’m going to talk about eggs and my answer is decidedly nonlinear. Further, the numbers I use may not apply to you at all but the process involved will at least provide you with the base questions to ask to determine profitability. Remember, price is determined by customers. It’s harder to find customers for $10 eggs than for $1 eggs. It’s hard to find chickens that lay eggs you can sell for $1/dozen. We currently sell $4 eggs. The money we make helps us move the farm forward, even if slowly. I’m happy to offer this transparency to our customers and readers. You should know what you are buying…what you are supporting…and what you are getting into. I have to make money to continue farming. If you think I’m making too much money (lol!) you can pursue other options.

I always enjoy talking to new customers after they have tried their first dozen eggs. Quite often they go on and on about taste, texture and color. Based on customer feedback and my own experience, we make the best egg in the world. However, no matter how good our eggs are, I won’t stay in business if I don’t count the cost. We have to figure out what it costs to sell eggs. Again, I won’t work for free. I need to make good use of my time. If eggs aren’t worth doing, we’ll make soup. This was originally posted on The Survival Podcast Forum but I have revised the numbers slightly.

Here’s what my numbers look like with additional detail below. Keep in mind we’re small potatoes so economy of scale works against us. Also realize I have been known to make errors in my math.
Costs (per day):
Chicks – $0.005
Feed – $6.72
Fencing: $0.27
Housing – $0.34
Egg handling – $1.89
Those costs total $9.265/day or $0.154/sellable egg (60 eggs/day annual average)…$1.85 per dozen before labor. I usually just say $2.

We retail eggs for $4/dozen and seasonally wholesale a portion of our eggs so we’re really looking at a gross of $19.50 and a net of $10.25/day, again, before labor. Labor includes moving chicken houses, feeding, watering, collecting the eggs then cleaning and sorting the eggs. This is unskilled labor and is valued on the market at less than $8/hour. (Probably much less than $8/hour.) That means I have to make darned I wrap up my work quickly or the farm is losing money.
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Now the boring details. My feed is not organic. It is not non-GMO (Sorry for the double negative). I use the Fertrell poultry rations and grind my own.

Last year’s pullets cost me an average of $1.80 each. I bought 350 then sold 225 of them for $5 each at 8 weeks…basically covering the costs of all birds up to 8 weeks. This covers electricity, water, brooders, shipping and feed. So I’m starting at 2 months from zero. 3 months to go before the first egg.

I raised my pullets on the alfalfa field. The cost per day of using the alfalfa field is a wash against the benefit of the manure they put down and the minerals from their feed. I feed them broiler mash until 2 weeks before onset of lay. Last year broiler mash cost me $26.92/hundred to grind myself. 125 birds ate an average of 15# of feed per day for that period of time so we’re looking at $4/day to feed 125 birds until their first egg. Again, the bird was free for the first two months. I have 75 days of feeding at $4/day spread across 125 birds in the flock. Let’s say 120 birds in the flock because at some point last spring a raccoon ate 5 of them. (Dad and I took turns sitting out all night every night for a week and never saw him.) So, at point of lay, each bird cost me $2.46. That has to be recuperated over the remaining 18 months of productive chicken life…or an additional half cent per day.

As adults, the birds get a slightly different ration that costs $27.14/hundred for me to grind. During the winter they tend to eat more than summer but the flock averages 20 pounds of mash and 5-7 pounds of oats each day. Oats cost me $20/hundred so let’s say $1.20 worth of oats each day and $5.42 of layer mash totaling $6.62/day for chicken feed plus $0.10 per day for the range feeder (assuming it lasts 10 years). We get 80-90 eggs/day from those same now 110 birds (predation is an issue) and to make the math easier, I’ll suggest to you we get a yearly average 60 eggs/day that are grade AA Large. The balance are cracked, stained, misshapen or small. 5 dozen eggs are salable. With me so far?

The birds spend their lives (2 years) surrounded by four lengths of PermaNet. That’s a $660 investment plus a solar energizer that cost $350. The fencing and charger, spread over 10 years, divided out to a per-day cost takes us to $0.27 cents/day.

The birds live in two simple hoop structures that also should last 10 years. Each hoop costs $200 to build plus two nest boxes for $180 each, again spread over 10 years adds another $0.21 per day. If we winter in a high tunnel the cost of the tunnel is spread between the livestock we keep there and the produce we grow the rest of the year. Since we bought the tunnel used the cost per day is pretty low. If we apply the entire cost directly to the chickens we need to add $0.13 to the cost every day.

I pay $0.31 for unprinted paper egg cartons. I sell 5 dozen eggs/day so that’s $1.86/day. We collect our eggs in baskets or plastic egg trays daily. For sake of completion I’ll add those in at $0.03 per day.

Now, labor. For months we moved our pullets every day, never getting a dime (beyond manure value which we washed against alfalfa field usage). Now, every day we move the layer houses (1 minute each), feed, water and gather eggs (15 minute round trip from the house). Then we wash, grade, sort and pack eggs (1 minute/dozen). 23 minutes of time against $10.25. Really the margin isn’t very good but that’s why it is not a primary enterprise. Salatin says a layer should make you $12 over the course of her life. I’d say that’s about right. But having eggs to sell puts our label in a family’s kitchen every day of the week. Once we get our eggs in the kitchen we go ahead and sell a chicken. Then half a hog. Each of these operations is increasingly profitable.

You can see from that, once you calculate the value of your time, eggs are a hard way to make a living. Without paying a dime for labor we are in the neighborhood of $3,000 from egg sales this year and we only worked for 23 minutes each day…not counting time spent sourcing and grinding feed, checking water extra times on hot days, sleeping in the pasture to deal with whatever has been hunting my birds or just marketing product. My true labor average may be more like an hour per day. Also, the layers don’t lay steadily year round. At some point production will drop below 3 doz/day but costs will remain relatively the same. Finally, as my friend Matron of Husbandry would point out, those chickens are eating bugs and dropping manure…that’s worth something. I also left off a charge for land use which varies between $50 and $200 per acre (though that is likely an expense shared by additional enterprises). All of that is the nonlinear part of this equation. Too many things vary. I didn’t even account for the possibility of a tornado blowing the birds away or a mink killing them all in one night. Adjusting vaguely for those missed values, we can begin to see Salatin’s argument more clearly. Once we pay our labor, each layer may only be making us $12 over the course of her life (and I suspect that includes selling her as a stewing hen).

Obviously economies of scale apply but I really don’t believe moving to 3,000 hens would boost annual farm income (before labor costs) to $72,000. I would have a heck of a time retailing 144 dozen eggs each day. Wholesale numbers would have to go up so margins would drop but, sticking with the $12/bird notion, spread over two years, after labor your 3,000 laying hen operation could bring in $14,000-$18,000 each year to the farm keeping someone very, very busy for 4-6 hours each day.

We prefer to keep the laying flock between 100 and 150 birds as a sideline business. Though marginally profitable, we don’t see it as a mainline enterprise. Just a part of the whole.  Remember what a cow costs? Individually, these enterprises won’t sustain us. Taken together, we have a chance.

UPDATE:
I had some offline correspondence with Matron of Husbandry who sent me a couple of links. I particularly appreciated the breakdown listed in this post. I came to $1.85 before labor because I didn’t count brooder costs, having supported that phase by selling pullets. That author comes to something on the order of $2.61 before labor, though the post lists something on the order of $5/dozen including labor and includes chick and brooder costs each year of production. Do the math any way you like as my math may be wrong and your numbers will be different. Selling eggs is a hard way to make a living.

Should I raise my prices? Probably. Should I just stop keeping layers? Maybe. But how boring would that be?

In Appreciation of Pigs

We went 6 long months without pigs. With our current poor boy setup, I don’t feel we can do a good job of managing the heat in July and August. Rather than stress both pigs and farmers we held off on raising pigs until September, in spite of a waiting list for our pastured pork. BTW, if you don’t already have your order for pork in, you better act fast!

Why did I describe those as 6 long months? Because I love pigs. I just do. I love having them. I love watching them romp, explore and play. I love watching them grow. I love the noises they make. I love their greedy but appreciative grunts as I bring them a handful of hickory nuts. I also love it when they are ground and stuffed into a casing and served with sauerkraut. I love them cured with salt and smoke or roasted and smothered with apple pie filling! You getting the picture here?

Pigs

For 6 long months we composted our garden and kitchen scrap. There is nothing wrong with composting our scrap but I would rather turn it into bacon.  We’re talking everything from cantaloupe rinds, starchy green beans and carrot peelings to stewed, softened chicken bones. Pigs get it all. The weeds we pull from the garden? Pigs. They especially like lambsquarters but will greedily enjoy any of the grasses and weeds I can provide them. I pulled out the biggest crabgrass plant I have ever seen from the compost pile. Each stem must have been 3/8 of an inch in diameter. The pigs loved it. What they don’t eat becomes future compost.

Right now 8 pigs are in a 20×20 pen on top of last winter’s cow bedding pack. They aren’t digging into the bedding as much as I would like but I didn’t put down the whole grains that Salatin suggests.  I just piled wood chips and straw on manure and waste hay. They are happy here and could live happily all the way to their shipping date. They COULD but that would mean more work for me to keep them happy.

NapTime

Pigs tend to manure in one specific area of their enclosure. Each day I just cover their manure with some fresh bedding and we’re done. The rest of the pen gives room for the pigs to romp, play, dig or sleep. But as I said earlier, pigs like to eat their greens. By keeping them on bedding, not only do I have to refresh the bedding on a regular basis, I have to cut and haul greens for them as well as picking up a few tree nuts or apple drops. As long as we keep that routine up, we’ll have happy, healthy pigs. But we can do better. I can have happy, healthy pigs AND lighten my workload. We need to get the pigs out on pasture so they can harvest their own greens and spread their own manure.

When the pigs gain a few pounds we’ll move them under the shelter of the hickory and oak grove surrounding the cemetery. Salatin says not to put pigs behind single-wire electric until they are 150 pounds. Until then we’ll have them either penned up as they are now or behind electric netting. Keeping them penned up works well for now.

Like everything else we do, our pig operation is going to have to grow. It’s really just a matter of repeating the motions enough that each action becomes efficient and natural. Practice. I know we need to expand but the pigs still have a lot to teach us.