Talk, talk, talk- so much talking lately. It’s good, really super good. As we began preparing our CSA share offerings for next year, it’s opened pandora’s box. What have we done in these past 3 seasons, where are we going, what have we learned and what will we be doing in the future? One thing is it’s apparent that we need to kick it up next season. Time to become a profitable business! Both of us knew when we began farming together, 3 years ago, that it would take some time to get our bearings as new farmers. Neither of us apprenticed or interned on farms before hand, and while we wish we had, there was no way we could have afforded that time. We just had to do it somehow because we bought a farm and knew in our hearts we could do make it work. It was going to be a steep learning curve. And boy howdy has it been. We’ve evolved from learned principles and a little homesteading experience, to building up our farm business towards success.
We chose to live in literal poverty while we taught ourselves to run our farm over these years. I’ve often lamented on my blog about being so poor, in the interest of explaining that this lifestyle/career choice is NOT necessarily lucrative nor is it all about making cash. We CHOSE this path. I don’t regret it, even though I salivate over a new not-falling-apart-home to live in. We believe in staying out of debt versus getting loans, if at all possible. It’s been extremely hard, very challenging, and stressful to live, learn and operate a business without a large influx of cash to just get everything set up right away. I do want to take a moment to talk about Kickstarter, which we did in 2011. Without that help from our supporters, i don’t think we’d still be here. So, from the bottom of my heart, to all of you who donated to our project, THANK YOU! It was hard to ask for help, to admit we couldn’t get past a certain point without assistance, but I look at our barn and ducks and think about our supporters everyday.
As we go forward, we now know what we like to do, what we’re good at, and how to proceed towards really making a living as farmers. The 4 areas we focused in on are: Produce, Value Added Products, Eggs, and Meat.
Produce don’t cost too much to grow. Seeds are not too expensive, but some investments have been made into infrastructure and our tractor for cultivation, otherwise, the main “expense” is our labor. Who doesn’t love fresh seasonal produce? It’s been such a pleasure to grow the best we can for our CSA members to enjoy. Honestly, scaling up veggie growing has been our steepest learning curve, but we’re doing good and once we put the duck barn’s contents on the garden this fall and every year thereafter, we are going to have some crazy awesome fertility cycles going on for growing amazingly abundant produce. Carry on!
Value Added products are very smart for a farmer- you take your raw material or surplus, and make into something ready to eat. The only limitation to your ability and your creativity is the regulations. Without a commercial kitchen and getting the products tested as an approved process (if a canned good), or standing at a farmer’s market if you just follow the pickle bill, your audience and market is limited. Putting in a commercial kitchen is in our future sights, but for now we’ve been using value added products as a CSA box booster and selling at community events, plus our own use, which helps to lower our own food expenses through the off season. The main downside for value added products is that they take your time, and quite a lot of it. But nothing is wasted, and preserved good keep forever and make nice gifts if unsold.
Eggs are a high input/expense product, even though our ducks live outdoors on pasture, they still need us to bring them feed, then there is the egg handling and packing time. Overall though, duck eggs are our flagship product- the one we are known for, super passionate and in love with. We’ll continue on with eggs no doubt. We’re actually in the midst of an addition to our barn so we can maintain 2 separate flocks to have a more consist supply as we grow.
Meat is the one we’ve been hemming and hawing over. In the beginning, the year before Andrew and I joined forces, I had read this book called The Compassionate Carnivore, and decided that I really wanted to be involved in animal welfare by producing humanely raised meat for those who want to support the compassionate care of the animals their meat comes from. We have done this now for 3 years and you know what? Not many people get it, or are willing to put their money where their mouth is. It isn’t profitable enough to want to grow that aspect of our farm anyways. I’m about to get into specifics over costs and I’m not sure it’s wise…but for example, the “easiest” chicken to raise for market, the quickest and most feed efficient, is the cornish cross broiler. I’ve become totally smitten with these birds, I call them the Bubsters. They are the most sustainable chicken option for a farmer to raise, as they take grains and turn them into the most meat, per pound of feed. So many people label/slander them as lazy fatsos who cannot forage- or move even- this is NOT true. I believe if you give them foraging space, respect and some initial encouragement to actually be chickens, that is what they will be. I have digressed, so…a broiler will take at least over $17 worth of organic feed to get to a mature weight. Each chick costs $1.40, and if you have any causalities, you have to add that to the bill off the cost of raising the group. Plus there is your time to account in. If you have a bird costing you a bare minimum of expense of $18.40, how do you determine what to charge for that bird? It’s never going to be enough in my opinion. I recently had a lady tell me she thought a $17 chicken was too expensive. Wow. And she was talking about another farm raising organic soy-free fed chickens, and that feed is even more expensive. We cannot expect farmers to sell their product at their cost – that is NOT sustainable. For me, I feel not only do the farmers need to be considered, but also the lives being taken for the meat you eat. A $17 chicken may sound expensive, if you are used to buying a $7 garbage-fed factory farm raised chicken at the store. Garbage meaning raised exclusively (and crowdedly) in a barn, treated as a nothing but a unit, if that, and given antibiotic laced feed so they grow faster. We have decided that meat is not our forte, it is something we do for ourselves and our appreciative customers only. The people who get it. There is no need to bleed out the nose financially for your morals. Do your own personal best, and work with those customers who understand the high expense of raising meat right.
We’re figuring this stuff out, and there is no way to know what is right for you, as a farmer, until you try it. You have to be honest with yourself about what is working and what is not. You have to follow your heart and monitor your bank account. But most of all follow your heart.
It has been a harrowing year with the turkeys. We had owls attack them, we had problems with their portable roost idea, it was cold and wet and windy up in the hayfield where we pastured them this year and we’re raising more of them then we ever have. A larger group of turkeys means a whole different thing. Turkeys are lovely and inquisitive birds, but a big group of them is kind of crazy. They have this bullish group mentality, pushing together at you as a mass, and as they have grown, that’s a lot of bird mass. Like 100 eagles. It was hard to walk through them at feeding time. And they did not herd together well when they got out, they all went in opposite directions. Very different experience with turkeys this year indeed. I still love them though.
We decided it was time to move them back closer to the house when snow started showing up on the 10 day out forecast. The best, warmest place we could think of, where they wouldn’t be exposed to the cold rainy winds that threaten hypothermia (I’m a bit overly dramatic and overly concerned about our birds sometimes, Andrew says it happens approximately every 4 days) is the hoophouse. I thought initially we could herd them from out in the hayfield, but quickly we realized this would be impossible, it would take days or weeks! So we did a hopscotch maneuver with the geese and chickens and used the horsetrailer, which is what we lock the chickens in at night, to move the turkeys. It didn’t go too smoothly, but it did work much quicker and less stressfully than trying to herd them a mile. Now they are cozy in the hoophouse, growing fatter and eating up all the plant debris leftover from what we planted in there- squash, tomatoes, peppers and lots of hopi red dye amaranth which is the most prevalent and beautiful weed we have to contend with in the hoophouse since I first seeded some of it 2 years ago!
Turkeys have an incredibly diverse vocabulary of expressive noises. To one unfamiliar with these birds, all the sounds of a turkey are passive and sweet, but to the turkey-trained ear, many indicate trouble. When two turkeys get into a tiff, there is a specific high pitched back and forth between them, a trilling threat noise. This time of year the toms are maturing and have to go through dominance rituals. It’s frustrating, as they leap at each other and can actually break each other’s legs in these fights. SO anytime I hear this noise I try to go and break up the fight. Giving them plenty to do is key, so they aren’t bored and looking for something to do, like get into trouble. But the tiffs will continue until harvest day, because this is what toms do. We can only hope they have grown strong legs that can withstand some fighting, and that the fighting doesn’t get too serious.
One thing you don’t hear about turkeys is that they can be real jerks to each other. I won’t go into details because it’s unappetizing, and Thanksgiving is coming up- but the biggest toms can be real jerks to the turkeys lower ranking than them. They will grab hold of another’s face skin and not let go. The other turkeys will all rally round the bullying going on, excitedly. I don’t care for this much, but again, giving the turkeys things to preoccupy them is one way to deter this bad bullying behavior, even if it is natural for them to want to establish a pecking order. The best advice is just to keep an eye and an ear on them, especially as they get more mature. We raise our turkeys for 6 months, which is much longer than the factory farms do, because we find that a more mature turkey tastes richer and more delicious, and our birds can grow at a more natural pace and really make the most of the pasturing season. Factory farms push their birds to grow as fast as possible by giving them antibiotics from day one To avoid fights and injuries, factory farms not only crowd the turkeys tightly so the they can’t move and have room to fight, but they also sear off the whole beak tip so they cannot damage each other. SO, while I might be telling you something you don’t want to know, that turkeys can be jerks to each other and that they are a bit crazy, I feel so good to be able to offer our turkeys a really good life, with space to move away from a fight, with things to do instead of getting into tiffs as much as possible, to give our birds a longer life than they would have in a factory farm barn. I guess a shorter life for factory farmed birds is more merciful, since it is such a hellish existence. I know because I get to see these factory turkey barns all over the place- our county is the home of Jennie-O Turkey Store. Disgusting.
Meanwhile, turkey inquiry emails and turkey deposits come from our customers in the mail everyday now, and it’s soon to be harvest time. I love to hang out with the turkeys especially as the light of the day is leaving, as they DO make the sweetest sounds as they settle in for the night. Truly sweet coos while snuggling together on their roosts.
It’s been a year to be feeling pretty good, after these first 3 years of learning and making mistakes. This year finally, we did pretty well, meaning we didn’t have too many big disasters and our CSA growing and distribution went really well even after the insanely late start to the spring. But I’d been not feeling so good, not feeling my usual confident self. The big picture is stressing me out, I’m forgetting all the little triumphs because I’ve become obsessed with the big picture, and how we’re not there yet, but I feel like we should be. And this feeling has been making me feel like I don’t know what I’m doing, or more specifically, that my ideas are not working. We are not quite cutting it financially. And for some reason, I feel like it’s my fault.
Let me explain myself. I have this thing- I want to be making a living at being a farmer. I don’t just want to be a farmer. Being a farmer by the age of 30 was my goal 4 years ago, and I feel really successful at achieving that. This making a living as a farmer thing is weighing me down. And since many of these ideas we are implemented all started with my ideas, I feel responsible. Responsible that they are not pulling the financial weight I had hoped and projected for. I was at our Town Board meeting a couple weeks back and afterwards I talked to our neighbor a bit about this frustration. Do you know what she did? She mailed us an encouragement card. It was the most lovely and thoughtful thing. She gently suggested “gathering our resources over the winter.” Oh no, I know what shes alluding to….getting a job. Oh NO! I still want to be making a living farming. If we have to get jobs, I feel like we’ve failed. This is stupid, I know, but still, it lingers there, in the back of my brain, keeps me awake at 3am. What are we doing wrong? Why isn’t this working better? I should have patience. We are not in the red, or whatever that expression is. So right as we’re talking about this reality, a facebook friend of ours with a dairy messages me about working for them over the winter. How about that?! I can handle that kind of job. It’s still farm related, even though it’s not our farm. I might be milking cows this winter!
So I’m pulling my head out of the non-confident place I’ve wallowed in for a while and am going to go talk to those guys about this idea on Friday. It’s ok if I get a job, especially a job on a farm. It does not mean we have failed. Actually since I began this post, confessing my lack of confidence, a week ago, things have really started looking up. As our CSA winds down for the year, we’re getting wonderful feedback from our members, turkey signups are coming in and inquiries about our 2014 CSA as well, and we’ve been putting together our plans for the next season- all this reminds me we are on an upward trajectory and we are farmers and we are living, breathing and so fortunate.