Q: Why we doin’ this again?
OK. Well. OK. Let’s do it this way. Take chickens for example.
Most of the chickens of the world have been mutilated (beaks trimmed) and mistreated. They are crammed into cages or, if cage-free, crammed into houses. They don’t see the sun. They can’t run, hide or scratch for worms. They are not utilized…their design is not appreciated. They are simply fed and mined for 18 months. Mined for eggs. They are given just the right amount of feed to maintain high production, not high quality. Often this is an all-natural, vegetarian diet. What is natural about feeding a vegetarian diet to an omnivore?
I don’t think any of that is right. Any of it. Birds are a tremendous blessing to our farm. They eat bugs and worms and larvae, they put down manure, they spread cow patties to help limit repugnancy zones (livestock don’t want to graze up against their own poop…imagine that. The chickens spread a cow patty out so it decomposes more quickly (think surface to volume ratio)). We work hard to keep them on pasture when it is appropriate, to keep them near to and behind the cattle, to keep them safe from predators, to meet their varied dietary needs and honor their design. Boy golly, let them see the sun!
But you know what? That’s expensive. If I built a confinement facility and crammed birds in by the thousands I would have to amortize the facility over time but chores would be easy. I wouldn’t have to walk sometimes miles each day to give my birds food and water and to collect eggs. I wouldn’t have to sit up at night hoping to catch whatever has been eating my birds. If the birds were indoors I could control light and temperature for optimum egg production. As it stands, my birds go to bed early and get up late because the sun goes down early and gets up late. So egg production has fallen off.
You want to know why our eggs are more expensive than the “cage-free organic” brown eggs at the store? Because it’s a lot of work to maintain a flock of safe chickens living outdoors with access to a wide variety of feed.
But there is more to price than just cost. Customers don’t care what my costs are. Customers don’t care what it cost to raise the chick to point of lay. They don’t care how much I spend per egg box. They don’t care about the hours Julie and the kids and dad and I spend slaving away to make our chickens happy. They care that my eggs are fresh and tasty and that my birds are whole. They want to see pictures of fully-beaked birds running and flapping in the sunshine on green pastures. They know that costs a little more than eggs at the store and they are, apparently, glad to be a part of that story. In fact, I think that’s what initially attracts customers to us. They want to be a part of something. They want to know they are supporting respect. When a customer buys that first dozen eggs they usually ask me a million questions. They want to see pictures of the chickens on my phone and they want to know the story of the farm. There is no story at the grocery store. Well, there is a story at the grocery store but it’s not pretty so nobody talks about it.
But after they try that first dozen they come back again and again. At some point a customer has company for a weekend and runs out of eggs. So they go to the store and buy the most expensive, cage-free organic eggs and put them in the skillet next to mine. Then they make a strange noise…the sound of disappointment. This is usually followed by getting their phone out to take a picture of the eggs, side by side, in the skillet. They then text that picture to me saying, “I can’t believe the difference between your eggs and those from the store!” or they post the picture on instagram or Facebook.
That difference you see? That orange yolk that makes your blueberry pancakes turn out green? That rich flavor that you comment on? Do you know what your are tasting? You are tasting what should be. You are tasting respect.
So to this point I have successfully avoided your question. You asked me why. I told you what.
Now the why.
First because Julie and I couldn’t buy the product we were looking for. We were going bananas doing handstand push-ups and pull-ups and climbing ropes and jumping on boxes but we couldn’t find the quality of food we wanted to fuel our health. So we got a handful of old hens and built a chicken tractor in our back yard. I think only one of those old hens was still laying but that sparked a fire. It was no longer enough to have a big garden. We needed eggs!
But it only takes a few birds to get all the eggs you can eat. Turns out, other people were looking for the same kind of food we were producing. In fact, we vastly underestimated demand. And price. So, economies of scale apply. We increased our production numbers without sacrificing quality. Really, with more birds to absorb our labor and infrastructure costs our quality went up…quality continues to go up each year. In fact, since eggs are only a small portion of our our overall farm revenue we can focus on quality rather than work to maximize egg production per acre. The cows, broilers and pigs help carry the financial load so the birds don’t have to shoulder the burden alone…all while making things better for all parties involved.
Julie and I wanted food of the highest quality to feed our family and yours. We wanted to see animals respected and honored for what they are. Terms like “Organic” and “Cage-Free” just didn’t seem to get the job done. We wanted more. So we just up and made it happen.
That’s why our beef cows don’t get corn. That’s why we try REALLY hard to keep pig noses in fresh greens…not just bare dirt. That’s why our eggs cost a little more than those in the store.
But that’s also why you are a part of our story.
Let’s see if I can give a more concise answer. Why do I farm the way I do? Because I like my animals.
Not that we are crazy. Well, we are. But not that we have school bus bunkers buried in the back 40. (Maybe that’s not so crazy…) But it seems to make sense that from time to time the power is going to go off. And there are things I could do to make that more manageable in the winter like having a wood-burning cook stove and something to eat…just in case.
And I have heard of people who go to work in the morning and come home that afternoon unemployed. Scary! So it seems to make sense to have a lump of cash laying around to help stretch us through lean times. And my resume up to date…just in case.
And sometimes, when you are minding your own business as you drive down the road, a tire on your car will express its mortality. So we maintain a spare tire in our car…just in case.
And when government falls, the dollar fails and we all stretch cow hides across our dune buggies and search the plains for petrol, I’m covered. I can make whiskey for barter in Bartertown. I just hope I have enough hair left to have a cool mohawk.
But did you see the recent pictures of Buffalo, NY? Windows pushed into houses by the weight of snow. Second story windows partially covered by snow.
What would I do? I mean, assuming I had advanced notice.
First things first. My parents would be trapped at their house for who knows how long. I would probably suggest that they come camp out here or at least bring a vehicle up here for easy access to the main road.
I would have the kids start bringing in firewood and lots of it. Not the cool fire, warm day stuff, the dense, hot oak or hedge. Just keep bringing it in. Power goes out we can still cook and we can melt snow for water. We also need to make sure all of the toilet buckets are clean and half-filled with fresh sawdust.
I need to make sure we have plenty of dog food for Reggie. We can manage without it for a few days but I would rather we didn’t have to. I’ll have to add that to a list or have an online retailer deliver it two days from now. Will the storm be here by then?
Otherwise we are ahead of the game here. There is plenty of meat in the freezer and canned goods in the cellar. Maybe a little short on wine…. The car is full of gas. We could just drive South to avoid the storm but we have livestock.
And that’s where I hit a brick wall.
Right now the chickens are in a hoop house. It would be no big deal to put a dozen bags of feed in there along with a barrel of water. Common sense, really. But the tricky part is not knowing how much snow it takes to collapse my hoop structure. What would 6 feet do? 6 feet of wet snow? 6 feet of wet snow and high winds? Will I hear it when the collapse kills my birds?
Same with the cattle. Six feet of snow is too much to graze through and it’s too much for my barn to hold up too. So now what?
Well, I guess I need to get the cows somewhere that is sheltered from the wind. Exposure will kill them faster than starvation. Do they need a roof over their heads or do they just need shelter from wind? I could line up a wall of bales on edge to protect them from wind AND give them feed at the same time And not have to worry that the collapsing barn will crush my cattle. So now I guess it’s just a matter of ensuring the cattle have plenty of bedding material and we can call it a day. Or maybe not. Let’s look at a few examples from around the world:
So now the good news. We don’t get snowfalls like that. A foot of snow is usually the upper limit in a 24 hour period. So this is just an exercise in thought. I really don’t know how we would handle it but I welcome your comments. It only gets worse after the snow gets here. Then it melts and floods the area. Tree limbs down, power outages, soupy ground, culverts washed out of roads and more cold coming. Cows washed away, pigs swimming downstream, dogs and cats living together, Mass Hysteria! Then think of all the babies born 9 months later…
It’s enough to make a guy want to be paranoid in town.
So. Anybody have any experience weathering livestock through a severe winter storm beyond what Pa did in the Little House books? Surely one of you Canadian readers…
I have gotten a lot of things from my father. If memory serves, my first paid roofing job with dad was when I was 8. Like teaching a man to fish, roofing paid for my college education…well, the balance of the loan anyway. Look at the title of this post. Ask my dad to recite “Our Hired Girl” by James Whitcomb Riley. I have an appreciation for that poetry (in fact, any Hoosier colloquial writing I can find) because of my father. The only poem my kids are likely to learn from me is “You Can Call Me Al”. I can’t begin to list the number of ways I have benefited from knowing my father. But it didn’t get me a free tractor. Access to one maybe…
Why did dad buy the tractor? Was it because he knew I was paralyzed into inaction and needed the loader tractor just to get some stuff done around the farm including, but not limited to, moving round bales and bedding his horses? Yup. I’d say that about sums it up.
In fact, I can do better.
I wuz skeered. Bad skeered.
But dad said,
“Clear out o’ my way!They’s time fer work, an’ time fer play!”
So I cleared out of his way. What if I screwed up? I mean, I don’t want to buy some used tractor just to have the clutch go out. But I don’t want the payments on a new $26k loader tractor and what if that one is a mistake? What if I buy that only to find out it’s too small? Before you know it we were staring down the barrel of a new 60 horse red one with a cab or a new 74 horse yellow one with a cab for around $45k. Sheesh! That happened fast!
$40k. 8 years of easy payments and a warranty. But what if I buy the wrong color tractor? What if something happens to me and Julie needs to sell the tractor? What is the resale value of the yellow tractor from Korea with a mechanical self-leveling bucket? I dunno. What if the tractor had green paint? I dunno.
So I went to work. I worked around the farm. I flew off to important meetings in important places. I wrote my ever-pretentious, self-aggrandizing blog. I leaked to my readers and friends that Julie and I were thinking about buying a loader tractor. The reply was universal. “Go forth and get thyself a loader tractor.” But it was like the seventh day or something. I rested.
I just couldn’t pull the trigger.
I looked. I lingered. I dithered. I made loud proclamations.
I did nothing.
So dad did.
Was it pity? Was it grief? I don’t think so. I think it was just something we needed on the farm. Right now I am accumulating cattle. I have a little equipment but not much. Dad has most of the equipment. All of the hay equipment. The big tractors. I have the machine sheds. I have the horse stalls. I would really prefer to think this is a multi-generational cooperative effort. And I hope to have another 30 years of working beside my father as I continue to puzzle him out.
But he seems to know me pretty well.
Now before we finish up today let’s consider one other possibility. One that seems so far-fetched it nearly escaped our notice. An idea brought to us by our friend Kari. Maybe…just maybe…maybe dad wanted a new tractor.