I’m no math whiz. Totting up feed receipts is one of the many things I procrastinate about at the end of every season. But I go through the hassle every year anyway. Partly because of the tax man, partly because I want to make sure my income exceeds my outgo. This seems pretty basic math even to me.
Only once in 5 years has this not worked, and that was last year with the broilers we sold. I set the price in the spring, there was a family miscommunication which meant that some customers got chicken at the previous year’s price (lucky them), and while the broilers were on the field in the summer, the cost of feed went up almost $2/bag (20kg), which I had not allowed enough room for in the price. So we did not get paid for our labour on the broilers last year.
The thing is though, that overall, the farm didn’t lose money. The one enterprise did, but not the farm overall. Eggs did particularly well, thanks partly due to the fact that the new pullets (the ones I’m cursing now, but was excited about last fall) had come into lay, and I’d put my egg price up when that happened. So we were getting better than average egg production at the new price (which did include the new feed prices). Hay sales also did fine, about the same as the previous year. We sold some apple cider, not much – maybe a few litres, but it was money not anticipated, and that’s always a good thing.
This year, we doubled the number of broilers, were very careful about the price, about communicating it, and we sold out – paying ourselves a bit for labour as well as covering the costs of our expenses, and the cost of the chicken we kept for our own freezer (22 birds). A good year for broilers. On the other hand, egg production has been down a bit the last few months – there was a bit of trouble with hens egg eating in the heat of the summer, and now I’ve got some fence issues which means that a few birds are laying in hiding places. I haven’t seen the invoices yet, but I think hay was good this year again. In addition, we have pre-sold three sides of the two pigs, an enterprise that has not entered the equation until this year. As usual, in calculating the price to our customers, we have striven to have the meat we sell pay for the meat we keep for ourselves, plus cover the expenses of raising all of it. We had poor pollination with the apple trees this year; I’m not sure why – maybe we pruned too late (like end of February late), maybe the wet spring held the bees back, I just don’t know. So no surplus apple juice to sell. The shortage of wonderful apple juice is sad for us, perhaps, and the layers are being far too independent to be good egg producers, but the point is that overall our farm income will come out ahead once again – something we obviously plan for. Not that I won’t be doing something about those hens, and you can bet that I’ll be on the phone in January to get in line for pruning early next year, but I’ve learned to accept that some things will always do better than I expect, and some not so much, And the key to that acceptance is not having all your eggs in one basket.
We do not earn enough with our farm enterprises to pay one of us a living wage. We do have a freezer full of meat, however, which we basically get for free, since the cost of raising that meat is covered by the meat we sell. We have a couple of barter arrangements: meat for veggies and meat for tree service (pruning mostly) which I count as sales for tax purposes, though they do not put cash in anyone’s pocket. In addition, our farming income is more than sufficient to qualify us for farm tax status with regard to property taxes – which saves us literally thousands of dollars, as agricultural land locally is hugely overvalued (in terms of dollars/acre), making non-farm property taxes very high for a property this size.
Are we happy with our level of farming? Not entirely. We wrangle amicably about increasing this or that enterprise, starting or dropping another one, hiring someone, buying a truck, a trailer, a tractor, and on bad days – just selling the whole thing and travelling around the world on the proceeds. Mostly, we are realistic about where we are with farming. The original goal was to maintain farm tax status. That proved so easy that we changed the goal – we wanted to raise our own meat, and sell enough surplus to pay for it. We do that. We’re thinking about bees and honey. We have begun researching fencing suppliers for sheep. We could raise 50 more broilers and still sell out. We love raising pigs, and it will become a regular enterprise for us – two people have already put their names down for sides next year. More baskets of eggs. The balance we have to find now is not just with diversity, but also scale. If we add too many baskets to our work load and available time, we’ll end up dropping some. Not only that, if a basket gets too heavy..,you know. Ever dropped a basket of eggs? It’s not good.