As I followed my new farmer path, I decided I really liked and would grow my small CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) share program. The plan was a monthly share of 2 dozen eggs and 2 bars of soap, from April-November. I had 15 people sign up, but at $100 each, that was not enough to pay my personal bills, but it did help cover my farm expenses though, and that was something. I approached some restaurants who specialized in local and seasonal foods and snagged a few accounts. No one restaurant took more than a few dozen eggs a week however, so again, my day job was essential. I was learning how important scale is to be a financially successful farm.
Between the CSA and the restaurants, I was selling most of the eggs produced by my flock. The small surplus I had was used in a swap group some coworkers and I started. I had read about Bartering Clubs in this book by Sandor Katz called “The Revolution will not be Microwaved.” We called our get togethers the Swap-Luck, and we got together every other week to trade homemade goods, produce, baked goods, services, etc. The concept was to provide an outlet to encourage people to do something, make something and share these goods and talents. I could trade my homemade cheese for someone’s homemade bread, or my duck eggs for a used but sturdy pair of boots. It was very successful and very fun.
I found a used hoophouse that summer and invested in that as housing for a larger flock of ducks. After laying out the plans to grow my business the upcoming year, I ordered 100 ducklings for new layers. A nice neighbor farmer, who I’d met at my local farm store, offered to help raise them up in his empty milk house, since I had no where to brood 100 babies safely. The ducklings arrived in November and went to his place right away. I learned quickly how hard it was trying to take care of everything- even though his farm was just 5 minutes away by car, it was really hard to get there and do chores, and do chores at my little farm too, before and after working at my day job. Luckily my neighbor really liked the ducks and did alot of the work. But suddenly, the boundaries grew thinner when he began buying bedding and feed for them, saying “don’t worry about it.” I’d arrive at his farm in the early morning to take care of my babies before work, and he’d already done everything. I felt he was beginning to try to claim some ownership over my ducklings, he was trying to strong-arm his way into my business.
As the awkwardness between us progressed that winter, it became clear what his motivation was for helping me out. He was unhappy in his marriage and made some comments I wished he hadn’t. He also felt hopeless being a conventional farmer and wanted to latch onto my enthusiasm and new ideas. I had wanted to explore whether we could become partners as they had land and I didn’t, but this was looking to be a horrible situation for me. I got my ducks out of there as soon in spring as I could.
They ducks loved the hoophouse set up, which was used their shelter/feeding area. They had about 1/4 acre set up as their pasture. I was still trying to figure out the ideal proper rotation, but meanwhile they were outdoors with lots of space and grass and sun. They were happy ducks, and they were laying eggs! I continued promoting my CSA shares that spring, posting flyers and brochures around town and tabling at local CSA fairs to get the word out. I sold 28 shares, some including a veggie “greens share.” It was kind of a nightmare to try to keep organized while working my day job, and it still wasn’t paying me to be a farmer, but I was so grateful for my customers and friends who supported me and encouraged me forward.
Not wanting to leave things awkward, I had a meeting with the unhappy neighbor farmer and his wife, telling them how much I appreciated all they’d done. We sat around a table and tried to come up with some ideas to farm together, but I could tell they just didn’t “get” what I was intending to do, or where I was coming from. I don’t think many old dogs can be taught new tricks; conventional farmers just don’t get raising livestock from an ethical perspective. Even if they were caring people, they thought first about money when it came to anything farm related -what’s cheapest and most profitable. There were two things he said that confirmed for me that I couldn’t farm with them. One was that milk cows preferred being tied in stanchions all day in the barn, because they didn’t really want to go outside. Really, they didn’t like to go on a walk in the fresh air, then lie down in the grass under a tree in the shade? Then he proposed the idea of raising pigs, and showed me his pig pen, a corner stall lined with cement and metal, in the dark, dank barn. This horrified me- if I ever had pigs I’d want them outside, being able to run, ramble and root. I had read how intelligent pigs were, and this proposed pig setup of his was no better than a miniature factory farm, a prison camp. This couple might have been able to come around to the beauty of sustainable, ethical farming, but as a totally new farmer, I wasn’t the one to try to show them how because I didn’t know how to implement my own plans yet.