Part time to Full time Farming

Fooling around on the interwebs tonight, I came across a recent video of Joel Salatin that I hadn’t seen before, on a topic he’s really just begun to expound on in the last year or so.  Maybe that’s not quite accurate – much of the content of the video is well known to anyone who has read Salatin’s books or seen other video clips, or even heard him at a conference.  But putting some of the information together under this one topic heading made a difference in the way I looked at it.

Some points(there were many, these are just a few) that hit me during his talk:

  • all the expertise needed to run a farm cannot fit on one torso.  A farmer needs to be a mechanic, a salesman, a carpenter, a bookkeeper, etc, as well as being able to handle animals and grow crops.  Everyone has skills lacking out of the total package, and needs to surround themselves with people who can help in those areas.
  • bundle chores.  He pointed out that a farmer needs to make sure there is time in the work day for making progress.  If the whole day is eaten up doing chores, the farm will never get ahead.  So get efficient with chores, find ways to cut time spent on routine, mundane, repetitive jobs.  Don’t allow chores to take more than 4 hours of the day.
  • Time and Motion studies.  This is old Salatin stuff.  60 seconds to move a broiler pen.  30 seconds to gut a chicken.  He’s got plenty of examples.  He challenges all of us to know this stuff for ourselves.  How long does it take to put eggs away (I think this means once they’re collected, so basically to clean them, box them and store them)?  How long does it take to feed, water and move the broilers?  etc.  We need to know these things so we know how to improve.  This obviously ties in with bundling chores.
  • Scale.  He spent quite a bit of time talking about the egg mobiles, another well known example from Polyface.  He describes the evolution of the eggmobile from 40 chickens to 800 chickens and the amount of energy, effort, time, fuel, etc that it take to do both, and why scale can make a huge difference for the farmer.  This comes up again in the Q & A near the end, and the answer is worth listening for.
  • Margins.  There are a lot of middle men in farming.  Processing, marketing, distributing, etc.  That’s where a lot of the money goes in commodity farming.  The more of that part of the industry that a farmer can keep for himself, the better.  A small farmer needs to wear more hats.  I find this particular point a little at odds with the first thing he talked about – which was leveraging expertise around you, but that might be because both are probably my weak points.  He went on to elaborate that margins are also about value adding, finding ways to make every possible part of an enterprise contribute to the bottom line.  Even chicken necks and backs.

So with that little summary, I want to credit the Practical Farmers of Iowa, who put on the conference at which this speech was recorded, and who have some great resources for all kinds of farmers.  I first learned about them from Ethan Book of The Beginning Farmer, who is an enthusiastic member.

Here’s the video:

An Alphabetical summary

Perhaps “summary” isn’t quite the right word, as this is rather a long post, but I’ve included pictures to make it easier, so be brave…

Fellow blogger Dark Creek Farm has been posting daily for the past few weeks on topics based on the letter of the day, as part of a bloggers challenge.  I don’t have that kind of blogging stamina at all, but as I was hacking away at yet more blackberries the other day, my mind started playing with the topics I’d choose if I was participating.  I haven’t blogged in a few weeks, so maybe this list will serve to give a glimpse of what’s up here at Tyddyn-y-morwr.

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Despite appearances, this was a lovely family time at the end of a busy day. Baked potatoes in the coals of what had been a huge pile of brambles, getting ready to chow down on sausage dogs. Eldest daughter told me she felt the picture needed livening up.

A…April. Apple blossoms.  Eldest daughter’s 19th birthday soon, making her an official, legal Adult.  She’s so grown up now, that it’s nice to know there is still some of the kid in her.  Love this kid!

B…Blackberries – as in hacking, hauling and Burning.  We’ve made some significant progress this year, thanks to W getting into some patches with his tractor. Burning blackberries of course means Bonfires – I have till the end of April to burn without a permit.  Broody hen. I’ve got two.  And Broken eggs – thanks egg eaters, go get caught by the eagle please.

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Nothing in this picture for scale, but the pile is in fact about 2 metres long and 1 metre high. The only good day for burning it was a day I had to start work after lunch. But we got it done. Now the pigs can get to the roots and finish the job.

C…Clothespin holder!  Made by my elderly neighbour, who accidentally knocked my former container off the rail a few weeks ago, and vowed to make me something better – which he most certainly did.  It might possibly be sturdier than my barn.  This is what you get from a guy who used to build lighthouses (real ones) I guess.

Old container on the left, news on the right (like you needed a hint!).

Old container on the left, new on the right (like you needed a hint!).


The internal view.  The chain is to prevent the roof from overextending the hinges.  It sits on the rail, but is attached to the post via a screw in the post and a keyhole in the container.

The internal view. The chain is to prevent the roof from overextending the hinges. It sits on the rail, but is attached to the post via a screw in the post and a keyhole in the container.

D…Driving lessons.  With both kids, one almost ready for the test, the other still making me clutch the door handle frequently (I’m a nervous passenger).  Daffodils – almost over now, but so beautiful the last month or so.

E…Edwardian Farm TV series, which I borrowed from the library, and which eldest daughter and I have been watching most nights, followed by some very cool discussion.  We began with Wartime Farm last year, also from the library.  Sadly Victorian Farm and Tales from the Green Valley (Elizabethan period) are not available on DVD in Canada, so we will have to watch these online.  But we will.  And by then the current series, Tudor Monastery Farm will be available in DVD perhaps….(I have in fact already seen all but the last one online but I’m enjoying the sharing with my daughter).

F…Fencing.  W and crew from Warlin Farms were here for much of last week, whipping my future pig pasture into shape by putting in two permanent perimeter fences and clearing the aforementioned blackberries for me.  What would have been weeks of labour on my own was handled by a couple guys and a tractor in three afternoons.  Now I just have to get the electric set up inside this field to create pig paddocks, and we’re good to go.

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Warlin Farms crew pounding in the last post. There will be a 10 ft gate near the roll of wire, and yes, there’s quite a dip in the field near the middle of the line.

G…Gates.  W and crew are hopefully installing a few gates in the new fence lines tomorrow, and have done an awesome job repairing the gate down the bottom of the property, which for about the last 10 years had required one to untie the wire holding it to the posts and lift it to one side of the opening to come through with a tractor.  Thanks to the guys, it now hangs from one reinforced post, is secured at the other reinforced post and swings without touching the ground.  Amazing.

H…Hogweed.  Giant Hogweed to be specific.  I am dealing with two stands of it in one of the chicken runs, and it’s a wicked wicked plant.  Look it up on the web before you touch it.  Wear gloves and long sleeves.  Have black plastic bags ready to hold all the bits you’re cutting off.  And then…figure out how you’re going to get rid of your plastic bags of chopped up wicked plant.  Because the official recommendation is herbicide or the landfill, but your landfill might prohibit noxious weeds (gosh, why?).  And then do it all next year, this time before it sets seed.  I’ll be dealing with this for several years apparently.  Mowing will help.

I…Income tax?  It’s due, but it’s boring.  Instead, let’s consider Impossible.  Six impossible things before breakfast, for example.  I realize it’s a stretch, but here’s one impossible thing that happened before breakfast, up on the Atherton Tablelands near Mareeba, not far from Cairns in Australia:

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We started in the dark, and sunrise happened all around us, as we rose into the air. It was spectacular.

J…Jumpstarting the John Deere.  Lawnmower that is.  I have not had it in for servicing this year, and the battery is on strike, as a result.  I’m sure B is going to tell me to get a new battery when he does get his hands on my mower.  In the meantime, I have to jumpstart the mower from my car every time I want to mow, which is about twice a week.  This has been good for me, as I once set fire to a friend’s car in a parkade in a downtown apartment building by hooking up the cables wrong, and it has taken me decades to work up the courage to try this again.  I will admit the operator’s manual for the car falls open to the instructions for jumpstarting.

K…Koalas, Kangaroos and Keas.  We saw Kookaburras in Australia too, last month, but no good pictures, sorry.  This Koala and the Kangaroos are in a wildlife park up near Cairns in Queensland, the northeastern part of Australia.  Keas are in New Zealand, and are pests.  Not pretty birds, but very smart.  They are known to rip apart tires, window trim etc on vehicles and we watched a trio one night trying to figure out a way to take apart a chain that was keeping the public off a ski-lift platform on a mountain in Queenstown, a resort town in the mountainous area of the South Island in New Zealand.

New Zealand and Australia 2014 1802 small New Zealand and Australia 2014 1797 small New Zealand and Australia 2014 1135 small

L…Library.  I think you all know I work for the Local Library system.  I Love my job.  Most recently I love that thanks to a former colleague retiring, I have been able to transfer from the branch I was in for the last 5 years, to the one in my local community.  I really miss my colleagues at my old branch, and also the wonderful patrons there, but I’m loving the 5 minute commute (15 if I walk), and the fact that I know 90% of the people coming through the door.

M…Mud.  There’s still a surprising amount around, even though here on southern Vancouver Island, we’re definitely in full Spring mode, with mild temperatures, light if any frosts, and much less rain.  It’s only been a week though, and with a lot of heavy clay in the local soil, and farmers anxious to get the ground seeded, hay fertilized etc, there’s been a couple of tractors in up to their axles.  It’s not quite safe to stop wearing gum boots around this farm, either – a soft spot just before the hen house often catches me, and the garden soil is still pretty wet.


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Bubbling, steaming mud pools in Rotorua, New Zealand

N…New Zealand.  And Australia (though it doesn’t start with N).  We spent most of March Down Under, loving every minute of it.  I’ve been slowly creating albums on FB from the 1ooo or so pictures I took, and if you live nearby, you can watch the slideshow that hubby put together on his laptop – you’ll need to be prepared to stay for about an hour, longer if you don’t know how to make us stop giving commentary (we’re talkers here). I keep planning to post about it, but we just covered so much ground and did so many things that I am…

O…Overwhelmed.  As you will be if we ever inflict our NZ/Aus slide show on you.  I am also overwhelmed with farm and family life just now.  I am not good at prioritizing, though I’ve read books on the topic, and taken courses.  It’s the doing that’s hard.  There’s just so much.  I write lists, and break them down.  I try not to have too many projects on the go at one time.  But I find myself always spinning my wheels, having to fix something before I can do something else, or make a trip to buy screws only to get home and discover that I was short a couple of pieces of wood as well.  Or I’ll start the day well, but get bogged down in a morasse of small tasks that lead me down a red herring trail away from the priorities.  It’s like looking at the long list of possible tax forms for the first time, as elder daughter just did recently for her first tax return.  There’s just so many.  How to even start?  Yup, I can relate.  Fortunately, there’s Simple Tax for her.  For me it’s just a case of taking a deep breath, and following what I know I need to do to keep my priorities straight.

P. Piglets.  Coming this Saturday, from Alberta, because I couldn’t find any here on the Island.  There are people here breeding pigs, but most of them are doing so for their own farms.  Those that are available are spoken for months in advance.  I was slow to start looking and basically missed the boat, and being away for a month didn’t help.  The people bringing in this load of piglets are very nice, and have a lovely little farm where they are establishing a CSA box programme and raising many of the pigs they’re bringing  back themselves, so I’m sure all will be well, but with the PED virus spreading like wildfire, getting pigs from a big producer in Alberta is a bit of a risk.

Q.  Quail.  Who are not happy that we’ve removed so many blackberry stands, which they love to shelter under.  I love hearing them piping away through the day, and usually see a parade of them bravely rushing across the back lawn when I’m heading out to the chickens in the morning.

R.  Rats.  Big problem right now.  The cat seems more interested in rabbits and voles (probably easier to catch).   The dog used to be a great rat catcher, but less so as she aged.  Now she’s gone, I guess they clued in.  I’ve bought a few traps and will have to start using them, but man, I don’t like this part of the job.

We had lunch at the RSL club house on Bondi Beach, just outside Sydney Australia.  It's nickname is the "Rat House".

We had lunch at the Retired Servicemen’s League club house on Bondi Beach, just outside Sydney Australia. It’s nickname is the “Rat House”. Enlarge to see the explanation.

S.  Strawberries.  We’ve planted some for the first time in years, me in a part of a former flower garden, the elder daughter in a raised bed she built herself.  Hers is deer and rabbit proofed, mine is not.  It’s like an experiment, and I’ve got the control group.

Her strawberry bed.  I'm not showing you mine.

Her strawberry bed. I’m not showing you mine.

T…Truck.  I keep passing a truck for sale, a GMC Sierra 250 4×4, 1995, single cab, long box, bright red.  I want it.  Every time I pass it, I slow down.  But it’s got more than 201,000 km on the odometer, and the model is known for fuel injection issues, and 1995 means it will need some maintaining, which is a skill I most definitely don’t have.  I could really use a truck, hauling feed, straw, junk, garbage, kayaks, chickens, pigs, etc.  But so far, I’ve been managing OK with the little Echo and the help of friends from time to time.  A 3/4 ton might be more truck than I really need.  I should stop yearning for this one.  But I still keep slowing down to look at it.  And it’s red.

U…Undone.  There is an old prayer in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer which resounds in my head frequently in this season of too much to do:  “I have left undone those things which I ought to have done, and done those things which I ought not to have done, and there is no help in me.”.  Yup, pretty much describes me these days.  I have a list of things to do a mile long, and yet my day seems to fill up with countless small things that crop up.  The struggle to focus and get one project done at a time is huge.  And not possible – to focus on one big project is to stall the others.  If I focus on getting the pig paddocks ready and don’t do anything else, they might in fact be done in time.  But the chickens desperately need to move to new ground, and I have some fence repair to do (it’s the fence I share with a gardening neighbour) before that can happen.  Moving the chickens to fresh ground will make them happier, and should reduce the egg eating issues for a bit.  If I don’t hack blackberries now, I lose the chance to burn the clippings, since I won’t be able to burn at all after the end of April.  See the problem?  I’m behind on seed planting because I keep leaving it for night time, and then being too tired to go downstairs and get started on it.  Driving lessons are eating up my Sunday afternoons – but that’s better than when we tried just using errands to double as driving time – elder daughter ended up getting no driving practice as she was never around when I did errands.  It’ll pass, it always does, but as I get older, I’m getting more aware of how quickly it passes…

V…Vancouver.  Youngest daughter and hubby are headed over to Vancouver this weekend for the provincial level of the Concours d’Art Oratoire, a public speaking competition for Francophone and French Immersion students. It is held annually across Canada at the class, school, district and provincial level, starting in grade 6.   This will be the fourth time younger daughter has made it to the provincial level, and her sister went once as well.  Youngest daughter’s topic this year is “La depression chez les adolescents” (teenage depression), which came out of some research she did in Psych class last semester.  I can’t join them this year because of work and the pigs arriving the day of the competition, but I’m crossing my fingers for her.  It’s amazing listening to the proficiency and fluency of these kids, seeing how confident and articulate some of them are in front of dozens of strangers and expert judges.  Yup, proud of this girl!

Younger daughter horseback riding near Queenstown, New Zealand.

Younger daughter horseback riding near Queenstown, New Zealand.

W…Water pipes.  I have an issue getting water to the future pig paddocks.  The plan was to run the line from the chicken house which is plumbed for the automatic waterers, but over the winter, one of the pipes has split, and a new section has to be plumbed in.  More than can be fixed with plumbers tape.  It wasn’t an issue when I was just taking out water to the chickens – a five gallon bucket is good for the day, but the pigs are going to need the same, more as the summer wears on, and it’s a good many more steps from the hose on the back of the house to the pigs area than it is to the chickens.  Water is something I definitely need to deal with.

X…Exercise.  This time of year, I start using muscles that have been idle over the year, which can make me pretty sore at the end of the day.  In addition, my issues with plantars fasciitis resurfaced a few weeks before our trip.  The massive amount of walking I did that month was great exercise but didn’t help my heel, and on return I was back visiting my favourite physiotherapist, who has begun training me in several stretching exercises designed to keep my left foot more flexible (I tore a muscle decades ago, and some stiffness has set in, causing much of my problem).  As the exercises increase, they are beginning to work my whole body, since, as my physio guy points out, everything is connected.   This is turning out to be a very good thing – a session with the mattock last week when I attacked blackberry roots for 3 hours left me stiff, but not immobile, and I actually woke up the next day feeling more or less normal.  Hauling dozens of wheelbarrow loads of brambles to the bonfire place? No problem.  Tired, but not sore.  This is excellent news, because as I move into this season, I will begin lugging more 20kg feed sacks around, hauling more buckets of water, and eventually will be moving the field shelters (200 lbs) daily.  It’s a good weight loss and strength training programme actually, but I also strongly recommend some stretching exercises.

Y…Yawning.  That’s about to get more common for me, as things start to speed up outside.  I love it, but it does tire me out at the end of the day.  Currently morning chores include chickens and breakfast.  Come Saturday, tending piglets will be added in, requiring a slightly earlier start.  Once I start brooding chicks (in about a month), an even earlier start.  Laying pullets will still be out in the pasture pens, being moved every morning when the broiler chicks start in the brooder at the end of July.  As they get ready to go onto the pasture, the layers will move to the (hopefully) repaired and refurbished hen house and it won’t be till the broilers and pigs get processed at the end of September that things will die down in the mornings again.  Evening chores are kind of the same.  Yup, I’ll be yawning quite a bit, but I’ll also be enjoying it all.

Z…And of course, I am sleeping very, very well these days.  Nothing like a lot of fresh air and exercise to make me sleep like a log.  In about a month, I won’t be awake much past 1o or so, and going deep under till the alarm goes off at 530.  ZZZZ…

Real Farm

From time to time, someone newly met finds out that I live in a rural area. “It’s so beautiful there, do you have any land?” Oh, yes, about 14 acres. “Wow, so like an actual farm?” Yeah, pretty much – we do both have other jobs, so it’s not as active as some farms, you know. “Really? Like, what do you grow?” Well, we have a laying flock for eggs, we raise broiler chickens every summer, we grow and sell hay…”oh, yeah…sounds nice”. And they move on, disappointment slightly evident in their body language and voice.

But this year when I added “…and pigs” to the list of animals, suddenly everyone’s interest was piqued. “Pigs? Cool!  So it’s a real farm”.

Why do pigs add the cool factor? Why was it not a “real” farm before that? What if what I grew was vegetables? Do carrots have a cool factor? If you’re a veggie producer modestly saying “Oh, I’m a farmer” when engaging in small talk at your spouse’s office party, do you get the “oh, that’s interesting” comment as they slip sideways to find the wine bar? Or do they say “wow, carrots, how fascinating!”?

What if my farm consisted of 2 blue sheds with computerized climate control to keep a couple of thousand broilers comfortable, a different batch every few months? Would I be called a “real” farmer by new acquaintances?  Is the place down the road a “real” farm, that sea of glass and plastic greenhouses, with automated venting and lighting 24/7, used for growing both veggies and flowers?  What about the couple hundred acres of daffodils planted around my area, on land leased by a “real” farmer?  Would I be a “real” farmer if I kept a riding stable, had 20 paddocks with horses and an indoor riding arena?

Farming is defined by the Oxford Dictionary Online as:  the activity or business of growing crops and raising livestock. Livestock is defined as:  farm animals regarded as an asset. Actually, that’s kind of interesting, and I’m tempted to pursue asset and see where it takes us, but let’s not for now.

So does that equestrian centre have a breeding programme?  It’s a farm.  Greenhouse operation – farm; blue chicken sheds – farm.  Carrots? Farm.

Many, many people homestead, or practice self sufficiency, or run some kind of monoculture operation – all of which produce crops or raise livestock.  Whether they make money or not is not what defines them as “real” farms.  Contrary to nostalgic wishes, farms are not just bucolic landscapes with cows, sheep, chickens and pigs dotted around the green meadows.  I have my own ideas of what constitutes good farming practices, and other people have ideas on that topic which differ from mine.  I lean toward the bucolic image style of farming, but that’s just me.  There are other ways of doing it.  That’s fine.   The fact that I do not earn my whole livelihood from it in no way lessens my reality as a farmer.  I grow food, sell some of it – people eat all of it.  How does that make me less of a farmer than buddy down the road with 240 acres instead of 14?

It’s bad enough that non-farming people are unaware of the huge range of models, styles and methods of farming around these days, but it’s even worse when that lack of knowledge is apparent from a farmer.

A local “real” farmer (self-described) read out a letter he had sent to the Agricultural department of our provincial government the other night at a meeting attended by many farmers and like minded folk from our community on the topic of farmland protection.  The gist of his letter was a request to consider that protecting farmland was not in the best interest of “real” farmers – it merely preserved land for pretty landscapes via people with hobby farms or who grew hay – not “real” farming.  What is desperately needed, he was saying, was some latitude for “real” farmers (his term) to be able to use creativity and his resources to make a decent living. If that means selling a portion of his land that is not suitable for farming, even though it is under farmland protection, he should be allowed to do it. Compensation packages might be an option to consider to help “real” farmers have more viable businesses.  He made reference in the letter to the fact than only a few “real” farmers were left on the peninsula – dairy, beef, vegetable growers, orchardists – all gone due to the financial reality of farming challenges in our area, like processing, transportation and distribution.  One had to wonder who he thought he was reading the letter out to, if not a bunch of people who farm with the same restrictions he faces?

I respect this particular farmer for his persistence in the face of considerable adversity. He does indeed raise crops (Oxford Dictionary Online: cultivated plant grown on a large scale commercially, especially a cereal, fruit or vegetable), selling them at several local grocery stores.  He is under tremendous financial pressure to pay a substantial amount of the value of the total farmland he owns to his estranged brother (who left the family business some years ago), something that has been hanging over their family for more than a decade. Schemes to bring a chunk of land out of protection to become medium density housing (about a mile from the nearest service area) failed, as they didn’t meet with the official community plan. Commercial composting was promising but eventually shut down due to neighbourhood complaints about smell and noise. A major warehouse fire. A freak winter storm that destroyed a number of greenhouses. His attempts to sell separate parcels of land, 3 that I know of each around 40 acres, each with an asking price of $1 million or more – no buildings, no services – and because they are within the farmland protection area, very restricted land use. They’re not selling like hotcakes, needless to say. This guy is definitely in a hard place.  But to consider himself a “real” farmer because of the scale of his operations, and all others who grow crops or raise livestock on a smaller scale as less “real”, well, that gets my goat (livestock).

Time was that farmers were people who grew crops and raised livestock, and sold the surplus beyond what they needed for their family.  Some of them planned a pretty big surplus, mind you, but still their primary goal was to feed their family first.  That’s where our mind’s eye picture of “farm” comes from, that historical farming model.  Farms were, by necessity, very diverse.  As specialization came in, the amount of surplus for sale grew, the amount raised for family use shrank, and was instead purchased with profit from that aforementioned “planned surplus”.  Eventually of course, we got to large scale farming as we know it today, which is very efficient at providing food in sufficient quantity for processing and grocery stores.  I’m guessing that many large scale farmers now buy most of their food from a grocery store.

I grow hay. That’s a crop. I keep a flock of laying hens which provide me year round with eggs, which I sell as well as use for home consumption, making them not just an asset but an investment, probably with better returns than whatever my remaining financial investments might be doing – which is to say they are most definitely livestock. Broiler chickens? Yup, livestock. Let’s not forget those pigs.  Livestock plus a freezer full of ham and sausage.

And just in case there is any doubt, I do these things not just because I love the lifestyle (I do), but also for profit.  I make money at it.  I have no debt.  That might just mean that I have more net worth than the “real” farmer who thinks someone like me is not “real”.   I’d rather be an unreal farmer with money to show for my efforts and a freezer full of sausage than a real farmer whose bank owns most of what he touches and whose greenhouses are full of flower bulbs, which may indeed be a crop, but are not good eating.

Bottom line:  I have a real farm, with or without pigs.  And though it irks me that a farmer in my community considers me to be less real than him, in the end, it doesn’t matter.  I know that bigger isn’t always better, and I know just how real I am.

It takes two to tango

pesto, around the farm 017

I have a quote taped to the inside of one of the kitchen cupboards:  “You cannot walk in your own strength”.

Joel Salatin has commented more than once, including in his book “You Can Farm“, that one of the most common reasons that beginner farmers fail is because their spouse and/or family is not on the same page with them about farming.  Farming is a lifestyle as well as a livelihood, and it is really not for everyone, blood related or not.

My family does not share my deep desire to farm. They are supportive:  they all do chores when I am at work, they cook meals, undertake maintenance projects etc.  My husband in particular has developed his interest in farming over the years, partly through an appreciation of just how much better our eggs and chicken taste compared to what we had been eating, partly because he’s in a “if you can’t beat them, join them” kind of situation with me.

As parents and spouses we have always had to deal with some tension due to our differing levels of passion for farming, careers, children’s activities, etc. and have had to do some give and take about family goals, plans, direction, etc.  One result of that is that the girls have developed non-farming interests.  They are great kids, turning out to be fabulous adults, but not farmers.  And I’m fine with that:  our goals as parents were to raise kids that would be good members of their community, contributing to the welfare of where they live and who they live with, living their values with integrity.  They are capable, responsible, smart, have wide interests and know how to laugh.  What more could we ask for?

I need to be respectful of my family’s different interests, desires, goals.  While they support my desire to farm, I need to support their love of adventure, travel, their goals for financial security etc.  We have to find a balance that allows each of us our thing, while still supporting all the others.  It’s not the way I hoped farming was going to shake out for our family – I had pictured us working together on a common passion.  But it is what it is, for whatever reasons, and so our common passion is being family, supporting each other.  While I still have goals in farming to develop production and diversity, and things I want to do with the land,  my family will always come first.  In return, they will support me when and how they are able (as long as it doesn’t involve manure, apparently!)

With regard to the physical side of farming support – yeah.  That’s an issue too.  Building projects are difficult by yourself.  So much stuff needs to be lifted and/or carried.  Catching loose chickens is faster with an extra person.  Working off farm really requires assistance from someone to be around during the day.   It’s lonely and sometimes scary in the dark, it’s great when someone is out there with you.   We don’t have a lot of equipment, no truck or tractor, nor very many useful skills (like carpentry), and we have relied heavily on neighbours over the years for tractor work, construction work, transporting things/critters and advice.  I’m not good at asking for help, and my husband was raised to value independence. So we’ve had to develop some humility in this regard.

The emotional side? I’m female, I’m middle aged, my tear ducts get a work out.  I can be knocked down pretty easily by small challenges, like weather or broken doors or sick animals…it may be why I was put in this place, to develop some resilience and strength to cope with the curves life throws.  I have a stubborn streak that gets me back on my feet most of the time, but I could not do it without my husband there to pick up the pieces of me at the end of a bad day, dust me off and come help me build an emergency fence in the dark and the rain.

Something not often mentioned when successful farmers speak about their success is that someone is “keeping the home fries burning”. The vast majority of them have someone cooking the meals, keeping the bathroom clean, making sure the mud that gets tracked in also gets swept out.  I’m not saying that has to be gender specific, but it frankly often is.  Especially when there are small children in the picture, there are routines to the day that are kind of relentless:  meals have to happen, and someone has to cook them, baths, story time, bedtime routines.  It is very difficult to make headway on a project when you are only able to give it an hour before naptime ends or you have to pick up kids from school or take them to swimming or…  There is nothing more depressing than coming in tired and dirty on a wet, cold night to the prospect of a cluttered kitchen and no dinner till you figure out what it’s going to be.

I read a lot of farming blogs.  If there is one single thing that successful farmers have in common, I think it would be that none of them are farming alone.  First of all, farmers, especially beginner farmers cannot afford to be independent.  They have to rely on the farming community around them for knowledge, skills, help.  They need customers (what Joel Salatin calls his cheerleaders) – I know from experience that a bad day can be made wonderful when a customer phones to say “I just wanted to tell you that was the BEST chicken we’ve ever had!”.  They might be a couple of partners, they might be spouses, or siblings or a family or a single person with apprentices or employees, but NONE of them do this alone.

My parents farmed with a network of support around them, from the hippies next door, to the dairy farmer down the road, to my grandmother coming every Monday to vacuum and dust so my Mum could get stuff done outside.  In the 15 years since we’ve moved back to the farm where I grew up, it’s probably taken me a decade to realize that this farming thing of mine – it cannot be mine alone.  If I’m going to make it work, I’m going to have to get better at engaging in the network of support that is all around me. Change that me to we.  Somehow.

The Good Old Days

Jerry AppsAuthor, retired professor of agriculture, former farm kid.

I kept trying to write a post that explained how much I’ve appreciated his writing, his insights into his past, not just his own life, but how it was typical of how North American agriculture was shaped over the last century.  After a few unsuccessful drafts, I realized:  Jerry speaks pretty well for himself.

Go find one of his books at the library or online, check out his PBS series, buy one of the DVDs if you feel so inclined, and let his gentle way with words seep into your mind and heart.  It’s uplifting and realistic at the same time.  Enjoy.

Farm or Industry?

not part of the news story, just too good to not use!

Below is a quote from a recent issue of the local paper.

“As [the district] considers a bylaw that would allow large-scale composting, some residents denounce the idea as one that turns farming into an industrial operation.”

This is the third time in a decade that I can recall this issue coming up locally.  The basic problem is that we are officially a rural district, but have evolved in the last 50 years to become a bedroom community for the nearby city of Victoria.  People are drawn to buy homes here by the lovely hay fields, the great places for horseback riding, the pumpkin patches and orchards.  Subdivisions are surrounded by fields, as farms that escaped the strictures of the Agricultural Land Zones created in the early 1970’s were sold for development, while their neighbours were designated as agricultural land forever.

For the subdivision folk, the complaint is primarily about noise and odour.  In each of the three cases I know of, they have remarked on the trucks coming in with produce waste from the local grocery chain to dump at the compost facility.  They talk about the noise of the machinery, as the tractors turn the pile daily until the “batch” is ready.  They complain most strenuously about the odour, which I’ve experienced driving past one of the operations, and which I admit I’m happy not to have next door to me.

The farmers who have owned these operations all express bewilderment.  It’s compost for Pete’s sake, they say.  You know, good organic stuff for the soil.  What’s wrong with that? We’ve been here for decades, farming can be noisy and smelly at times, people have to allow for this if they want to live in the country.  And what the heck is wrong with selling what I create here on the farm?

The issue is complicated by the fact that the levels of jurisdiction disagree about that very point.  The district does not allow the sale of compost from a farm – sees this as an industrial enterprise, not a farming one.  The Agricultural Land Commission (ALC), a provincial body, allows farms to sell up to half of the compost they create on farm.  There are even two other government offices that could have a say in whether a farm can sell compost as well.  Phew.  Or Peeeuuuw.

I see two sides to this fence.  On the neighbours side, I agree the smell is something else when the compost is new.  I can see the district’s point of view that making compost entirely from material trucked in – grocery waste and tree chipping services, primarily – is not exactly a farm product.  The scale of the operations are a contributing factor to the conflict.  The daily trucks wouldn’t be in the picture if the vegetative content of the compost was coming from the farm itself. It is said that the tractors start up early and finish late.  I have a neighbour(not one of the composters) who gets started around 7am with his tractor – I’m up by then, but I’m not surprised the subdivision folk find that a bit early.  That said, I’ve lived in town in the past, and been surrounded by weed whippers and lawn mowers buzzing all afternoon and evening on the weekends, endured radios blaring from balconies in apartments I’ve lived in, and held my nose at the university where the gardeners spread the ripest mulch I have EVER smelled in the rhododendron beds, and in none of those places was I anywhere near a farm.

On the farmers side, the three that have tried this enterprise so far have all been long established family farms, here long before the neighbours were, and I think they feel the neighbourhood needs to recognize that it’s moved next door to an active farm, not the other way around. If they were making compost in the Cariboo, or even in a less populated area up-Island from here, this would be a non-issue, there’d be no one to care.  Also, the Agricultural Land Commission only allows them to sell half of the compost the make, which means they’re presumably using the other half.  Two of them have substantial acreage in vegetables (200 + acres each),  which must require copious applications of compost.  I see that as a farming practice, frankly.  And finally, farms are by definition almost, commercial enterprises – they are food factories.  The farmer is growing food to sell it, after all.  And if he’s using compost to do that, I’m pretty happy.  If he wants to sell some of the compost he makes, I think it makes good business sense.

My chickens give me more eggs than my family can eat, and I sell the extras.   No one complains.  Not even my neighbours who share the wake up calls my rooster provides, and the occasional cultivation provided by an escapee hen.  It might help that the neighbour gets free eggs from me when that happens.  And maybe that’s the heart of the issue.  What the composting farmers should be looking at is ways to be more neighbourly with this enterprise.  Maybe, despite the farms being here longer than the neighbours, the farmers need to go next door with a free yard or two of compost once in a while.  It works with eggs.

Future Farmers

Joel Salatin & Michael Ableman

For some time now, I’ve had simmering in the back of my mind a comment Michael Ableman made when he was introducing Joel Salatin in the workshop I attended in June. I didn’t write down his exact words, but the gist of it was:

You always hear that if you want kids to grow up to be farmers, you have to raise them in town.

Michael’s adult son, who grew up on the farm, has gone on to do other things with his life, and his younger son is only 10, so it’s hard to say what he’ll do.  One of the things that Michael found most interesting when he heard about Joel Salatin and Polyface Farm is that Joel’s son Daniel grew up on the farm – and stayed there.  Daniel now runs the daily operations of the farm and is as passionate about holistic farming as his Dad.

Michael disguised it with a grin and a laugh, but I think there was a tinge of envy and wistfulness in this remark.

And it’s made me wonder ever since:  how true is the truism? My own children have no desire to farm.  They”ve lived here most of their lives.  They enjoy country life to an extent, they can see themselves having veggie patches in their backyards when they’re adults.  But not chickens or livestock.  No anxieties about crops getting rained on or parched dry.  No fence mending.  Definitely no mucking out.  They want to be able to go camping spontaneously, travel without worry.  No egg washing or late night chicken butchering.

And yet…an old schoolmate of mine is a third generation farmer, and his son is just back from Ag college, full of plans for local grain harvesting and raising turkeys on the side.  Fourth generation farmer at the age of 19.  Cool.  A classmate of my older daughter (17) lives on a 40 acre sheep farm with his family and owns part of the flock with a view to building his own farming enterprise.  Another classmate, in the poultry 4-H club for years, has begun a breeding business, raising quail and partridges, and is “raking it in” as his buddy told me at the feed store the other day.  The son (age 25) of a friend of mine is a third generation farmer, and is leasing 2 acres to grow organic raspberries and raising a half dozen hogs, while helping his mum with her berry farm.

So why these kids and not Michael Ableman’s son?  Why are my kids not interested, but yours are?  I know there are a number of factors at play, not least among them farming practices, finances, the high value placed on post secondary education, and of course parenting styles.  There’s also the whole nurture vs nature thing – some kids are just not wired to want to grow food, some kids are.

Am I disappointed my own children are not interested in farming?  Not with them.  Truthfully, we did a lot of things in terms of modelling and training and exposure that pretty much guaranteed that they would lean in a different direction.  A little disappointed in us as parents, perhaps, that we didn’t get on the same page about this kind of thing early enough.  That’s more about us than them.  And it’s OK, really.  They understand what goes into creating food, what it takes to grow good meat, and that’s important.  It will make them the kind of consumer that supports farmers.  And maybe they’re wired to for something else entirely anyway.  Besides, my brother grew up yearning for an urban life and now owns a John Deere, has twice the number of layers than me, and is president of the local Agricultural Society. Seeds can lie dormant for a long time and sprout when you least expect them to.  Whatever path my children end up taking, I hope that they find fulfillment and challenge and satisfaction in it.  And if, like my brother, they come back to the land later, well, that’s good too.

I think it really comes down to vocation.  Many of us, in my generation at least, were encouraged to quell any sense of vocation and instead pursue “practical” paths – most of us were pushed in the direction of post secondary education or trade school, our ticket to financial security.  Something our parents didn’t have available to them.  It’s natural to want a better life for your kids.  But I think it’s wrong to view vocation as unimportant.  I think it’s our job as parents to give kids permission to listen for their calling.  Of course we cannot but help shape their experiences by our own lifestyle choices, but within that, we must give them room to discover passions and interests, to explore what makes them eager to get out of bed every day, what makes them feel like they really accomplished something good.  We have to watch for those little sparks, those lights in their eyes, when they suddenly switch on.  It doesn’t take 10 different sports or clubs to find those glimpses of interest and passion.  No, it’s true, your child growing up in the woods may not discover his or her innate talent for surfing.  That’s not what I’m talking about.  I mean the thing they’re going to do out in the world that is their contribution, their part of the greater whole, how they make their way.

Even if we’re the best kind of parent raising kids on the best kind of farm, they might not be hearing anything that calls them to nurture the land specifically; instead they might be hearing something that tells them they love to build, or heal animals, cook good food, manage a forest, fix machinery, paint pictures, care for people.  Or not.  They might really feel a call to grow plants for food, raise animals, improve soil…you know, farm.

Chicken injured by mysterious attacker

The Cornish Cross broilers went out on pasture yesterday after I got home from work. This is about a week later than I wanted to do it, but various circumstances made me delay the event – not least being (sorry Midwest folk) the storm and rain we had on the weekend.  I don’t mind them being out there in rain, but I don’t want them to spend their first night all miserable in the damp.  Work was another factor – I’ve been working extra hours lately, which hasn’t left a lot of time or energy for things like prepping the shelter, finding the big waterer, etc.  They’ll still get about 3 weeks on grass – good for them, good for the soil.

We use a field shelter modelled off the ones Joel Salatin uses at Polyface.  I say that like it was no big deal to throw one together, but it was in fact a huge undertaking to us – being pretty much construction neophytes.  There are lots of pictures of this type of shelter all over the web, and in Salatin’s books, but so far I have found building plans only in one place, and even those made some assumptions about our abilities.  However, we did get it done last year, and it is pretty darn good if I do say so myself.  If you’re thinking it’s a bit “House Beautiful” to have painted it, you’d be on my side, but my husband is from Newfoundland, and in Atlantic Canada, painting everything wooden that lives outside is part of the religion.  There is a reason – wood became hard to come by (expensive) in some areas like PEI, so people painted stuff to preserve it in the very bad winters they get there.  My husband paints everything wooden faithfully every year, even though he’s lived out here more than 30 years.  A modification that didn’t get done before I filled it with birds yesterday though, was to take off the chicken wire and use wire mesh instead, as it’s stronger and might inhibit a predator a bit better.

Sadly, not doing that may have been the cause for some injuries sustained by one of the birds when I checked them today after work.  I warn you, the picture below is not for you if you’re squeamish.

It looks to me like she got a good puncture in the head (near the eye).  She also has a loose flap of skin on her left wing.  I’ve cleaned her up and put her in with a couple of runt birds that I kept back from being tromped by the monster birds, to see if she can recover, but her head is swelling, so I don’t know if she’ll make it.

I’m not really sure what happened.  I checked the pen carefully – all the wire is fine.  All but one of the other birds are fine too (there is one other I discovered later with a peck or puncture wound above his eye).  The top has two removable panels, but one is covered in metal and too heavy for a critter, the other is covered in wire and is light, but both are weighted down with bricks, which were all in place when I went to check on them.  There are no feathers anywhere.

I would expect more bloodshed and feathers from a racoon, and dead carcasses from a mink.  A cat could reach through the holes in the wire, but I wouldn’t have thought this to be the result of those kind of claws.  I suspect it was a bird of some sort – perhaps a raven – as there are plenty about with the haying going on all around.  There’s also a bald eagle nest about 500 metres away, but again, they’ve been more interested in the rabbits and mice than chickens lately.  Especially chickens in a shelter.  Another possibility is that this was a bad result from pecking order battle, but these birds have been together for 4 weeks and have sparred plenty without bloodshed, and the wing damage seems excessive for something like that.

I also don’t know if it happened in the night or during the day.   I topped up water and feed before I left for work in the morning, did a quick scan of the birds and thought they all looked ok, but it would have been easy to miss if she’d been hiding in a corner.  Other members of the family checked their water in mid afternoon, but didn’t notice any birds looking other than normal.  So it’s a bit of a mystery.

In the meantime, the rest of the birds are very happy to be out on grass, in the sunshine and fresh air.  They get to enjoy it for about 3 more weeks before heading up to the processor.

If you have any ideas about what could have happened, feel free to comment.  There’s a lot of collective experience out there.

Smart Chic and Dumb Chick

SMART CHIC:  Our younger daughter went to a Mad Hatter Tea birthday party – apparently 14 is not too old for dress up, because she went in several layers from our old dress up box, and spent a good portion of Sunday making a Mad Hat out of an old lampshade, by sewing scraps of fake fur around the edge and sequins in patterns on some of the sides.  The result was really quite good.  Here she is modelling it yesterday.  I wish I had a picture of her full ensemble, as the overall effect was very Mad Hatter in a Tim Burton sort of way, but at least we have the Hat:

This morning, when I went to check on chicks and do their feed and water, I was greeted by this sight, without question in the category of DUMB CHICK:

I suppose it was smart from the chicken’s perspective, since she got a lot of feed all to herself, but she was completely stuck in there, with no hope of getting out without my help.   She was not remotely grateful to be taken out, and complained of murder loudly.  Little does she know.