Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Right to Eat

I opened up the computer this morning, intending to order more packaging shrink bags for our poultry operation, and fell down the Facebook hole. We've all done it. This morning, it was because I found out that Michigan essentially re-wrote their right to farm law to prevent backyard flocks and small livestock.

I'm always confused by the idea that preventing small livestock is a step in protecting public health. Well, less confused and more enraged. I get it, we need to make sure that animal waste isn't getting into the water supply, and not everyone wants to hear the sweet sound of roosters at 4am. But, there has got to be a way to balance the right to produce your own food and maintain a sense of suburban decorum.

There are very few things we all must do every day. But eating is one of them. In much of the world, food access isn't plentiful and there are many people who are forced to go hungry every day, in the US and abroad. So why on earth would we prevent citizens from taking control of one of their most basic needs? Why would we say that they must remove themselves further from the food system? We have kids in schools who can't identify where butter comes from, which veggies are which, and believe that all chicken comes pre-packaged. I can't think of anything more complacent then compulsively throwing food-shaped pieces of corn down your throat without any regard for how it got there.

I have had a few CSA customers over the years who have stopped purchasing from our farm because they moved to a more rural community and started their own home gardens, flocks or small livestock. As a farmer, you'd think I would be bummed out at the lost revenue. But that couldn't be further from the truth. I've sold people starter flocks, answered lengthy emails on chicken nutrition, replied to emails on the best seed sources. I want what we do to inspire or empower people to take control of their food, get really up close and personal with it- and then do it themselves. If I can help with that, great. There are always going to be people who can't provide enough food for themselves by growing it, or don't want to, or do not have the life they feel allows for it. Farming isn't going to suddenly become irrelevant. But a society full of people who have no idea how food is produced- that makes farming- especially on a small scale and using sustainable methods- a hell of a lot harder.

When we as a culture make a decision that everyone isn't eligible to produce their own food, that's a profound method of control. We're forcing them to participate in the existing food system, which privileges mass produced packaged foods- with basically no nutritional value. How could that possibly be better for the public health?

In my fantasy world (oh, the imagination of a farmer!), we would instead be educating our communities on how to safely handle poultry, how to prevent any perceived risk or draw back to a home coop or rabbitry. You don't need a rooster to get eggs. A community that has access to good, clean food is inevitably a healthier, more empowered one. And if more people understood where food came from, they could make more informed decisions about the products that they do need to purchase. I wouldn't have to start from scratch (oh, the humor of a farmer!) explaining that eggs really shouldn't be washed thoroughly and put in the fridge, and that chicken in the meat isle is soaked in bleach.

It's not an organic hippie theory that food matters in health. Nutrition is one of the most standard, accepted preventative measures one can take to prevent disease. But here we are, saying essentially that the minor discomfort of hearing a crowing rooster, or the passing whiff of a chicken coop is more of a problem for good living then convenience stores serving as the only food option.  We're endorsing a population with less regard for what they put in their mouths then what program is starting on the television.

Most people will look at what happened in Michigan and think, "oh well". Maybe they already live in a community that doesn't allow 3-4 hens, or a breeding pair of meat rabbits. But i can't. I just can't. I want to hop in the van and starting passing out chicks, I want to build pallet coops and bring them to schools... and while none of this is possible right now- I really believe it should be.

It's more than "grow food, not lawns" (though it's that too!). It's- Open Your Eyes Before You Open Your Mouth. It's- Feed Your Neighbor. It's- Kids Going Hungry while the Corn (syrup) Grows Higher.

I know, I know- soap box. But think about it.... what decisions do we make every day that support the idea that growing food is best left away from the populations who eat it?

Monday, August 25, 2014

Dreaming Big

Last night was, well, a lesson in humility.

We pride ourselves on our ability to look at our livestock and see a bit about their world view, and act accordingly. I know that the pigs want a place to roll in mud, but also a dry place to sleep. I know that the turkeys can't have square brooding pens. The list goes on... but there is ALWAYS something you miss, or overlook.

Yesterday, I was feeling a bit under the weather, and we needed to move the chickens to a new pasture. It usually gets done in the morning, but we decided to wait until mid-day. This was the first mistake. Herding chickens is really only effective if you can lure them with chicken feed. And, they need all day to re-set their internal GPS to know where their coop is. Chickens have like a homing sense- they orient themselves to their coop, and always return to it. But it's really about location, rather than a coop. The coop is in a specific place, and they know that place (not the structure) means home for the night.

By the time we moved them, not only were they full, as we had already fed them once and they had been foraging all day, but, it was also warm enough where laying underneath the shade of some brush was vastly more appealing then following us to the new section. We tried everything, those damn chickens just wouldn't move. So we left the new fencing open, so they could wander in, left grain in the pen, and assumed they would make their way over before nightfall. SECOND mistake- they did, in fact, eat the feed, but because they weren't forced to stay there, they still didn't re-set the chicken GPS, and instead returned to the old section of pasture.

By the time we went back out there, they were motivated to move for feed, but they were also dedicated to settling down for the night (close to dusk). So they merrily followed me back into the pen, ate their before bed rations, and then promptly and remarkably determined, began forcing their way through the electric fencing back to where they still believed the coop was (despite it being open and closer next to the feed). They would rather get zapped then even think about looking at where the coop had moved to. This was completely our fault. We know how chickens work, but we were so determined to get them to new pasture before the week that we did things out of order. So our punishment was, we had to wait for them all to go to sleep (on an empty plot where the coop used to be) and then carry them over to where the coop was now, which will reset their chicken GPS overnight. Sigh. I'm not sure the punishment fit the crime, but it rarely does, I suppose.

This is just evidence of some bigger plans we have for the farm. We need to have multiple sections of pasture for chickens already fenced in, with really, really good fencing- so you can always move them in the morning, rather then breaking down/setting up the electronet when the birds need to move. If we had the whole pasture fenced, we could have just opened up a new section in the morning no matter how lousy I felt. There is something to be said about the flexibility of equipment we use, but it's time, at this scale- to have a more permanent set up to cut down on the labor headaches.

I'm grateful for these moments though, in a way. I can now visualize clearly exactly the set up we want to have to expand, and make things manageable. It's really good to learn these lessons. Or, at least that's what I tell myself when I'm hauling birds in the dark.

In fall, when we are getting closer to the end of the season, it seems like every year I have a stroke of what else we want to do and how we can get there. Imagine you're looking around seeing this kind of a mess you've made, this glorious haphazard project- and you still see all of the way you have to go. Sometimes it's almost crushingly overwhelming, the vision vs. the reality- but it's also profoundly hopeful. And every time someone comes up to the farmer's market talking about how our chicken really is "the best chicken ever", I keep that close. I have to keep it close, I believe in how we do things, and someday, we'll have it set in a way that I think that vision in my head, with the nice fencing and the tidy pastures will reach its full reality.

There's more too. Sometimes, I think about how we could expand, how we would add more experiences to the farm, invite more people to participate in fun ways. I imagine horse drawn wagons to pumpkin patches, rows of hops...quail dinners. I keep those dreams a little closer, because there is so much still to do to get there. But that's what keeps the passion going. In reality, if my mind didn't wander into those "we could" territories the "we have to" would be too much.

I guess what it comes down to is that every chicken carried is a lesson learned. And every lesson learned is fodder for that ideal vision we keep striving for. There are worse ways to live.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

I Grew Up To Be A Farmer

There is an article in the NYT that has gone fairly viral, especially if you travel in circles where this type of thing is a major topic of conversation. It's about one farmer's fiscal reality, and the challenges of trying to keep oneself afloat with agriculture as the primary source of income. It's a great read, and you should definitely take a minute to read through it. 

The article contains things we have discussed out loud in our home, after a weekend at a Farmer's Market, or when a customer has again failed to pay an invoice or share on time, (or at all). We're both incredibly grateful for our respective college experiences, but we've also thought longingly about a life without a big circle of student debt attached to it. A student debt we don't feel we understood completely when we signed our names to it without a fully formed frontal lobe.

And, we're fairly fortunate in that our business has grown quickly, and has proven to be more often than not-- solvent. We have the privilege of having the education to write a business plan, being white, young, able-bodied and that Kim's career has allowed us to get the business up and running. We had the opportunity to lease land, I was able to do an apprenticeship. We have sought counsel, we have done online courses, we have read for days. These things have given us even the option of pursuing agriculture. Not everyone even can look at agriculture as an option, even if it's their dream.

Still, those moments, those deeply dark moments, where you know there is no way to deal with the budget shortfall other than just wait until the next opportunity to sell more product, be it an online promotion, or a market, or a CSA season. That's when you look at whether anything at all can be cut, if it's time to get another job (on top of the 60 hour min. you're doing on farm) or if you need to liquidate an asset like an unused set of tires or something. And the reality sets in that you don't know if you'll ever own land to run the business, and to live on. You don't know if you can make it through one more explanation of how your prices are fair, that the cost of food isn't so simple, and that you aren't just out to 'make money'.

And I also whole heartedly agree with friend and fellow farmer, Jenna, when she talks about the absolute, soul lifting, rewarding experience that farming is in her latest blog post in response to that same article.

In fifth grade, we all sat in a circle and our teacher went around and asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up. When it got to me, I proudly announced "Farmer" and was a shade of magenta when the circle erupted into laughter and some "ewwws". I was honestly, shocked. I still can feel the eyes staring at me, I can feel my hands looking for something to do- pulling at my sleeves. I, in my socially awkward mind, hadn't realized that this was something to be ashamed of. And my aspirations remained shameful through high school, in pursuit of college, and, even in some of my romantic relationships.

I can't tell you how many people have shamed my agriculture passions, or assumed some kind of intellectual default in my chosen profession. I thankfully no longer shrink. I'm no longer a shy 5th grader. I'm intensely proud of the work we do, and perfectly capable of telling anyone that if they think farming is something to turn up one's nose at- perhaps they should quit eating.

And as aware of the benefits of farming as I am, my own schedule, the smell of fresh air- the freedom of my own destiny- I don't think that's enough. And I don't think it's solely my responsibility to take on all of the risk of farming, because that's what I 'chose' to do for a living. We all must hold responsibility for what we value in our food choices. If you are buying from our farm, you're our partner. We will work tirelessly for you, we will forgo years of vacations, we will be up late, we will get totally soaked and frozen. We will shovel shit. Actual Shit. But your end of the bargain is- you make sure we can pay the bills, you say that our kind of small farming is valuable and worth support. 

I don't want to live in a country where it's farmers vs. consumers locked up in a battle over prices. I don't want to live in a country where only the biggest farmers get to live comfortably. I don't really want to participate in a financial economy that says that we deserve to suffer because we grow food. I do want to feel all of the beautiful, wonderful things that Jenna describes in her post, and I do feel those things. That's not where the story stops for me but it is often solace, and a job perk unmatched by many. I do want, desperately, for children to grow up to farmers. I want little 5th graders dreaming of mud and chickens to be supported in their quest.

I grew up to a be a farmer, perhaps significantly because I can't imagine anything else to be and feel whole. And I'm willing to sacrifice for that end. But, I guess I'm asking, why should farming in an ethical, small scale way have to be synonymous with sacrifice? What would it take for a conversation so broad and changing to happen in this country that we would lift up our small farmers, nurture them and ensure our own food security? When we will as a country decide that real food matters, for everyone? Not just for the wealthy, not just for the savvy, but for each person. That we all should push our plates away from us and sigh, bodies nourished and taste buds elated.

I'm not sure what it will take to change the perception of agriculture, and to really shift minds about food access for all. But I hope we'll be here when it does change, we'll still standing at the farmer's market, waiting to sell you a meal. And that somehow, we're helping create that change we want to see.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Complicated truths of a 3rd season farm

In our third season of this farm business, there are a few things we know to be true, almost all of the time. Farming never allows for absolutes, so we won't say these things are ALWAYS the case, but it's a safe bet.

For example, if you are trying to rush through chores, it will be at least 90 degrees and a sweat lodge, or you will need to fix a fence and chase pigs, or you will need to refill every water trough.

If the barn is dirty, someone will want to tour your operation. If you need the tractor for all of the days tasks, it will not start properly in the morning. If you are down to the wire on finances, you will run out of feed on the same day because someone broke out and ate a bag, or you accidentally spilled a bucket of water into the feed bin, or you just misjudged supply. If you are counting on a good crop, something will go wrong. It can be produce, or livestock, something will go wrong and your crop with be half. Maybe.

It doesn't sound fun, really, does it?

It guess, it's really not. But it is a lesson. We control absolutely nothing, really. Our roll is to just mitigate risk, to plan for most eventualities, and to exhibit self control when it all hits the fan. It's a lesson in being resourceful, problem solving and anger management.

Farming has forced more emotional growth out of me then anything else. I don't allow myself to get riled up, I just try to figure out what the plan is. Sometimes, the plan kinda sucks. Sometimes, it means we don't get a rest, or we are scrambling to figure out where the extra cash is going to come from. And it can wear a person out.

This isn't to say I ever don't want to go to work in the morning. Even when I'm standing, shaking my head as 100 chickens break free through a hole in the fence while 2 goats scream at me from behind and I'm bleeding from my shin because I slid in a patch of mud, I am satisfied with my work. I know my place in the world, I'm grounded. It's honest work. It's work we all need. Food never goes out of style, we're all going to need to keep eating. I know what I'm meant to be doing, and this is it. We can't always do things in the ideal way, but we don't compromise on the care with which we do things, and I think that matters most.

We've built this business from nothing. We have had help and breaks on the way, but it's mostly been our backs, no big loans, no heavy equipment, just hands and sheer determination. (Though the tractor has certainly save our backs, it's also tested our patience) We are so grateful for the helping hands we have had. But it is a labor of love, and it continues to be a scrappier version of what we envisioned. It's sunsets and quail hatching, it's selling out of farmer's markets. It's delicious dinners. It's sweat, and sore muscles, and running constantly behind. It's tight finances. It's blood, and death, and gore. It's the smell of decay. It's birth. It's making mistakes.

In our third season, we have found ourselves on the cusp of where we are, and where we want to be. The farm is growing, it's stretching tight against our limits, and we're just digging our heels in until we break through the other side. We've hit the point where we really need to streamline our operation, without sacrificing the quality of our products. It's a terrifying, lose sleep point, and also profoundly exciting and inspiring. I don't know if this is how it is for all small, first generation farmers. Maybe it is. But I know that we are getting there. It's not always how we planned, and it's never easy.

One of our New Year's resolutions this year was to become Resource Full over resourceful. And that has meant making some big decisions, most of which we will be talking about soon enough. One of those decisions involves doubling down on the farm work load for me, while Kim goes back to work off farm for a really great organization so we can fill the coffers high enough to make some big investments, rather than exploring taking out loans for those things. It feels more self sufficient to pay outright, rather than relying on some outside funds, and long term- it's more inline with what we want. It's a hard transition for us, a wonderful opportunity, but an adjustment from our routine of solid companionship and team work. But now, more than ever, it's the time to look at the farm as it is now, and envisioning it in the future. And it's also about changing our quality of life too, practicing self care (even farmers like the idea of a vacation maybe once a year, in the dead of winter), and making sure we feel secure. We rolled the dice to start this farm, and are coming out ahead, now it's time to double up.

The messiest truth is that that vision for the farm will continue to change, and so will we. But I think that's amazing--that you can transform so completely, even when the routines stay mostly the same. All the animals need to eat, have water, get cleaned up. The daily list is fairly regular, but each day it molds me into something different. Somehow simultaneously stronger and more flexible. Physically, and mentally. There is something so transformative about the mundane.

So yes, being a third season, first generation farm is not always what you want, but is more often than not- it is exactly what you need to become a fourth season farm-- and that's enough.