Of ice and hens

A friend of mine from New Zealand asked me the other day why I stay here, when there are much easier places to farm–I’m beginning to wonder that myself! The night before last, it started snowing; it looked like Mother Nature was just brushing the dandruff out of her hair.  But by morning it had snowed about 18 inches–not that it isn’t picturesque, but it is a make-more-work-for-me-kinda-scene that I am growing tired of this year.

I blame the goats for my negative attitude towards the ice and snow; they hate the snow and that makes me not like it. They stand in their shelters and bleat and moan about it, like I’m somehow personally responsible for their  lack of comfort. It is quite hilarious to watch them run from their barn to their day-paddock; like cats treading through puddles, they lift their feet high trying  not to get them wet. It is the best darn high-stepping trot I’ve seen, and would make many a horse person envious. There is usually a puddle or two along the way and they all leap over it, one by one. I picture them jumping puddles like that at night when I can’t sleep. This is what happens when you don’t have sheep.

When I watch these domestic animals and know how relatively pampered they are, it makes me wonder how the wild goats survive these Canadian winters. Actually, each Canadian winter I survive makes me wonder how any wild creature survives out there without shelter, heat, and readily available food. This year’s cold stretch lasted longer than the previous years I’ve been here, and I noticed the other day the wild birds were eating snow–I guess their puddles and water sources were all iced up and they were desperate.

The chickens, on the other hand, are relatively stoic, and I appreciate them for it. They seem to come out of the barn in nearly all weather. The only time they didn’t make an appearance this winter was for the week of sheer blizzard conditions we had in December. Otherwise, they are out grubbing for a portion of their living. It is helpful that they are an energetic bunch because, even with their enthusiasm for self-sufficiency, I’ve had to buy a lot more feed than previous years, and the feed costs have risen. Consequently, the attempt to be profitable is ever-receding into the horizon. I have yet to do the books, but I’m not all that enthusiastic. We both suspect that the off-farm job is actually paying for the eggs I’m selling. I don’t need to do the books to know we are going through more feed than we are realizing in egg sale returns, so I’m putting the accounting off as long as I can.

I want to farm, but I’m still not sure how I can actually make it work. It is just not enough to have a cute place and funny animals; I need a wage like everybody else. The funny animals take time and effort, and I could justify having them as pets when I had a nice salary; I am having a more difficult time justifying them, along with the ducks, now that I don’t. Surprisingly, when I say that to people (who have nice salaried jobs), they are shocked. “Oh, you can’t get rid of your goats, they’re so cute!” is the most common response. Yes, they are cute. So are the ducks. But cute doesn’t pay my taxes, replace my roof, or replace my truck as it rusts away. When did our society come to expect farms to be cute, and farmers to not make money on their farm? When did we stop caring that, like any other service industry, if it is not supported and can’t make a profit, it won’t last? This principle is well understood for all sorts of business and services, and yet farms seem to be thought of as something that shouldn’t make money. It is as if we’ve all come to accept that it is logical that farmers should work off the farm to pay for their farm. What other business would this (ill-) logic apply to? Would you run a restaurant that way? How about a mechanic shop?

Thus far, neither my ducks nor my goats have had to work for their living. Now that I am trying to make the farm a going concern, I have to look around it and put everything through an income-generating test: does it, or can it, make money? In light of this, I’ve slaughtered most of the ducks and lost the last two females to foxes. I’m going to take the last drake to the game dinner and he won’t be wearing a bow-tie, but I haven’t told him yet. In addition, I have been toying with the idea of finding a buck for my does and putting them to work. I know they will not make money because I’m not allowed to sell the meat, but they will at least provide me with a return in meat and milk. The milk I can make into cheese and the meat I can eat. The fact is, my workload will not change much in order to realize some milk and meat returns for us, directly.

Thus far in my farming career, I have yet to witness the birth of anything that doesn’t hatch, but I am drawn to the idea of mammalian births. I have finally managed to find a willing buck, and now I just have to get emotionally prepared for the result: extra work and butchering the kids. While I love the idea of seeing my goats pregnant, giving birth and having some kids around, I know that ultimately I’ll have to eat them or sell them. Our place is too small to expand the herd and I can’t just keep adding glorified pets to the equation any more.

I’ve managed to evolve emotionally this year and hone my butchering skills to cope with chickens and turkeys. If I get the does pregnant, then I’ll have to fast track the emotional fortitude to do in a baby goat. Learning to hunt this year has helped with the idea. After all, a goat is just a small deer. Still, there is one thing to butchering a deer you didn’t know personally and another thing to do in one of ‘my babies’ (it doesn’t help that they are called ‘kids’!).  Honestly, I’m not sure I’m there yet. I guess if I get the girls pregnant, I’ll have a time limit for that trajectory!

I’d like to raise more chickens and turkeys than I do, and maybe get into rabbits and goats, and sell the meat. Sadly, with all the prohibitive regulations it is nearly impossible to start anything without having to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars (think meat slaughter, poultry slaughter). I’d like to run a goat dairy, but we have the predators to deal with, on top of the prohibitive aforementioned capital investment. In addition to all of this, I’m living in an area where there are few people, so I wonder if there will ever been enough demand to make a farm work here.

Finally, I am struggling with the idea of investing more money here when there is such a huge risk of having my stock devastated by a bear or cougar. Even the losses I have taken (some chickens and ducks) amount to what may have been my profit margin. In light of the above, I toggle between wanting to go out and get a decent paying job so I can go back to playing at farming (and just supplying our own needs), and continuing to work at something extremely under-valued, in the hopes it will amount to something, someday.

I also face legislative blocks. Small farms in British Columbia cannot make a living on the wholesale market. This is why exemption status for small farming is so important. If we want to have local foods from small, sustainable farms that treat their animals humanely, we need producer-processor rights so that we (small farmers) can legally do direct marketing, attain the sales value, and avoid sharing the profits with middle-men. There are many places in the world that still allow this, but we have recently outlawed this in British Columbia for the majority of farming products. That’s why there are days when I think I should go somewhere and get a wage, or find somewhere I can farm more easily… but then I look up at these glorious tree-clad mountains and granite crags, put on my gumboots, and happily trudge out to care for my charges.

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16 Comments

Filed under Chickens, Ducks, Eggs, Ethical farming, Goats, Learning to Farm, Sustainable Farming, Turkeys

16 responses to “Of ice and hens

  1. Jo

    There’s a bit of a debate going on here on that very subject: are people who rely on a external income to pay the bills (especially the farm ones) just “playing” at farming or is it a reflection of our times, with only a limited number able to make do without the external help…?

    It’s frustrating, especially when you’re just starting out, but my reasoning is that I’m not looking to supply externally (apart from eggs and the odd sausage to family and friends) but to put food on the table, and that any costs will be off-set by massive savings from the veg patch (I hope!)

    You have to make the maths work – and if that means working, so be it. What’s the alternative? Stick to a foggy principle about “proper farming” and let your animals starve?

    Hmm, rant over!

  2. Can you not do a Bed and Breakfast holiday type place?

  3. Jo–I do have to make the maths work, but working off the farm so I can then come home and work some more so others can have eggs and good clean meat for no return, is not sustainable. I’m coming to realize that I’d rather have the job and supply just my own needs–then, perhaps I’d have time to work with and enjoy my much neglected horse. It would be different if I were living in a region that had say 25,000 people in the vicinity. Then I might be able to work up to 100 or so customers and eventually make a living. As it is, I’m living in a town that has barely 1800 people, a lot of them underemployed. Even if it was a thriving area, I suspect that 100 people is an unrealistic proportion of the population to expect to develop into my customer base. Sadly, I’m beginning to realize that if I want to farm seriously, I may have to move. That, or I need to reconcile myself to what I have and let the farming dream go.

    Vetnurse– you have no idea how many times that has been suggested and recently thought about seriously. But, the money that I would have to invest is not worth the likely return. We are in an extremely remote location, which can be attractive, but it is also an economically depressed area where lots of others are already relying on a B & B income and I don’t know if they are realizing sufficient returns as it is. One more on the scene where there might already be a glut, would not be a wise investment at present.

  4. MMP

    I know of which you speak…

    We have a small homestead farm, dairy goats, fowl, my wife grows vegetables and garlic for a CSA and farmers markets. In a lot of ways, we don’t dare grow large enough to be sustaining, the cost and liability of regulation is just too high. And the government here is no friendlier to small farms. I have a consulting business that really pays the bills and we have rooms we rent out. My wife works at the local food coop and picks up other odd jobs. Even with all that we don’t make enough to afford health insurance, vacations, sick time and other modern amenities.

    I definitely do not subscribe to the belief that exclusive on farm work makes the farmer. A grain farmer riding in a GPS controlled climate regulated cubicle attached to a combine is no more of a farmer than we are. Nor is the owner of a factory hog CAFO surounded by manure lagoons.

    I was shoveling snow today, so I can sympathize about the weather. I hope you find a way to persevere there.
    –mmp

  5. I think part of the problem is the times we live in. I suspect it is the same in Canada, as the U.S., what business do you know of that has to pay retail for supplies and then expect to squeeze out a profit. I have to pay the same for a chicken waterer as the lady down the road that puts a sign on her driveway, FRESH EGGS! $2.00 dozen. She does not count her time, and she only wants to pay for her chicken feed. My neighbors can’t or won’t pay $5.00 a dozen, so we are forced to haul our products to town. That is why we quit doing poultry, the demand is there but there is no living wage to be had. I’m sure the woman down the road has no liability insurance either, since she has nothing to lose as a renter. The list goes on and on…

    We changed our mindset, we can grow our own food, without being taxed. Add to this, we supply our own heat, and water. When you start comparing what kind of job it would take to buy your organic meats and vegetables, you might be better off, trying to feed yourself, and if you have extra, sell or barter that.

    When we decided to be more self-reliant, my husband sought off-farm work, and I stay home and run the “farm.” We had to jettison all unnecessary stock, and pare in other areas. But we have less stress, and a better food supply for ourselves.

    The organic farmers around here that are successful, hire college students (slaves) and get grants. Most would not stand alone as a real business without the cheap labor, and grants for phony farm projects. It was hard for us to compete with other chicken farmers that would get 10K a year to measure the effect of poultry manure on their pastures. We wanted a true business, not government subsidies.

    Sorry for the rant in your space here, but maybe your worth in the community will be to show your neighbors that they can grow a variety of their foods, and become more self-reliant.

  6. lisa brown

    I hear you and am in basically the same boat.
    Am still struggling though. I have one advantage (I think) there is a larger customer base here willing to pay for good food.
    The govt. regulations are a big problem though.
    Have just had to move so am starting over.
    Am looking for a part time job to help me out until I can get on my feet. At least I will never starve.
    I belong to a farm share which sells raw cow and goat milk as well as meat, cheese etc… The cow milk goes for $8/gal. goat is $10/gal. sold out every week. Check out the weston a price foundation if you haven’t already. They may be of some help to you. Good luck, keep up the good fight.
    Lisa

  7. MMP & Lisa-Welcome to the blog, thanks for posting a comment. Always nice to hear from kindred spirits, helps me keep going!

    Trapper-never worry about ranting here! It too helps me keep going just knowing there are others who sympathize and are struggling along with me. I too am faced with the exact egg problem you describe, so many people here have a few hens and sell their eggs for much less than I do. Hence, I have people asking me all the time, how come your eggs are $4 when so and so sells them for $3.50? This January, I put the price up to $5.00 when the feed costs went through the roof, and I noticed that the so called ‘free run’ eggs in the store were up to $5! That tells me there are folks here willing to pay $5 for eggs. Why would I take any less that what they are paying in the store for eggs that come from a gazillion miles away, are not nearly as fresh, and certainly come from less than happy hens? I hold out hope that one day people will realize that it is better to spend money in the community and keep us here than to fork over their money and send it straight out of the valley to an unknown conglomerate, far, far, away. (I know, I could be waiting a while eh!).

    Lisa-Good luck with getting on your feet, sounds like you already are-armed with a good plan and lots of skills! Lucky you for being somewhere that allows the kind of food coop you are talking about belonging to. It is something that adds to my wondering if I’m in the wrong place. Some days I think it would be nice to be a part of something like that with like-minded folks, instead of always feeling like I’m pushing a peanut uphill with my nose.

    MMP-had a quick peek at your site this morn, looks interesting! LOVE the goat house-come-greenhouse. I’m going to peruse your site this morn when I take a break.

    Everyone-as always, I thank you so much for your input and support. It is especially welcome on days/weeks like this when I am feeling down about what I’m doing, the way the world is going, and the silliness of the system that seems out of control (with respect to reality) and yet totally in control (with respect to regulations).

  8. MMP

    Thanks for the comments on my blog.

    Yes, the south end of a north facing goat house comes down and goes up easy. My cattle panel structures are an adaptation of something a friend saw in an article in countryside small stock journal (I think that was where). They are basically hoops of cattle panel bent in a 8 foot arch. Since each cattle panel is about 4 feet, you can make a longer structure in 4 foot increments. Basically, stakes hold the pannel to the ground and help the first two feet stay vertical. I also use old bailing twine to tie “cords” across the inside of the arc to support snow load. Each cord is about 46″ long. It’s a hard to describe in words, but the first one goes across the top of the structure. The next two start at the mid point of the first one and go outward. A sheet of plastic or a tarp goes over the top of the panel. I like three panels and a 12 x 20 tarp. You can fashion a end wall if it is needed for your application. For a fully enclosed structure I find it is generally 20 – 40 degrees warmer than outside temps. I have heard of lots of uses, stock shelters, greenhouses, hay storage, wood sheds. I like them for any kind of seasonal use.

    I have several posts on my blog tagged as CPS (cattle panel structure) where I talk about their construction and use. Someday I’ll take pictures while I am actually in the process of constructing one and put up a how to blog.

    My method is to level a piece of ground. I like to use 1×6 inch hemlock boards to make a 8×12 foot box and fill it with sand for drainage. It keeps the does dry in wet weather. I plant 4 foot posts at the outside of the four corners of the box so the panels can go inbetween. I also add another 1×6 board to each side to get an extra 6″ of headroom and keep the stock panel off the ground. I use some twine to lash the panel to the post to keep the side vertical up to 2 feet high. I tie the cords as described above to prevent swaying in the wind and to support snow. I usually cover one end with a 9 x 7 sheet of plastic and leave the other open, unless it is going to be a greenhouse. For fancy goat houses, I space 2 8×12 structures end to end about 3.5 feet apart and use that space to frame up a door. The middle is humans only with hay storage and the feeder. And for a goat shelter, I put a canvas tarp on the coldest side to help soak up condensation. For a greenhouse I use more smaller stakes and put it on top of two raised beds. The lowered path gives extra headroom and we plant directly on the beds. In the summer we open one end for ventilation and they make great hot houses for tomatoes and peppers. In the fall we close them up and get an extra month on either end of the growing season. Greens will winter over even in our -25 outside temps.

    The one thing I don’t like is that in full sun, a sheet of 6mil PE translucent plastic only lasts about a year and three months (and those three months generally end in the middle of winter…). There are longer lasting greenhouse films, but I have not been able to convince myself that they would equate to financial savings. I have also toyed with polycarbonate or PE panels you can get from greenhouse supply places. But again, the panels are so expensive it does not look like a savings to me. I would like to stop throwing away plastic every year, though.

  9. Jo

    I’ve been thinking about this some more and have finally come to the obvious conclusion (for me and my situation, anyhow). It’s summarised with just two words: sustainable and happy. So what if the job pays for the animal feed because there aren’t enough customers etc? So long as I/you go to bed feeling happy and wake up the next morning, raring to get on with things, then where the money comes from shouldn’t matter (that’s aimed at the scornful folk over here who subscribe to the theory that you’re just “playing” if you need an external income).

    As to whether you sell up or downsize the Plan: if I’ve got a tough choice, I try to picture myself immediately after I’ve made the choice, then in a year and then in five years. If I can’t visualise things, I don’t do them.

    Good luck with the soul-searching, I’m sure you’ll make the right decision.

  10. Jo-Yep, I do something similar…My version of what you suggest is the, ‘If money were not object’ or ‘If I won the 34 million lottery’ what would I do. The answer inevitably is, I’d stay here! (But I’d build a fancy dairy and create some economic development for the community!)

    MMP-Thanks for the description of the goat houses. Have you thought about writing a ‘how to’ book? Or at least some articles with photos?

  11. LittleFfarm Dairy

    Hey, Jo –

    I had someone dismissively tell me I was just ‘playing’ at it the other day….but personally I don’t call the £100,000s of investment in building a state-of-the-art dairy & being fully & exhaustively employed with the farm & the gelato, a game!

    However, I often reflect that if I’d known just how much tedious, mindless legislation & regulation there is in what I do – both in terms of farming and food production – I would never have bothered.

    We don’t get any subsidies; haven’t had any grants; & the returns on what we make are pathetic as even though our gelato is of far superior quality to standard ice cream, there’s a perceived ‘glass ceiling’ regarding the price so – just as with the eggs – we’re hamstringed.

    What’s really frustrating is to see the ‘fat cat’ farmers collecting all the subsidies & getting all the grants – whilst we little guys struggle ever harder, only to be told we’re so small that we’re “only playing at it”….grrrrr.

  12. LittleFfarm Dairy

    Quick & unrelated question –

    are you having problems logging on to Stoney’s Blog? I keep trying & it just comes up with “Password Protected” & won’t let me in. Hope everything’s OK…he has had problems this week after all.

    Jo.

  13. Jo

    I’m getting it too: I thought things were quiet in the blogosphere.

  14. LittleFfarm Dairy

    Cheers for that – hopefully he’ll be up & running again soon – I couldn’t send him a direct mail as I can’t find his address so at least you’ve mentioned it.

    I’ve answered the comment you left on my Blog ref goa breeding etc – if you need any more info, please ask & I’ll be happy to help if I can (& if I can’t I’ll consult Dreda – my Goat Guru – for you).

  15. I’ve traveled through bella coola four years ago on a long roadtrip with no particular destination; drove down the road from williams lake and was impressed with how beautiful the valley was. When I got there the pink salmon run was just finishing, and all of the rivers that I saw had carpets of pink salmon in them. I think I heard that the run was 6 million fish that year. So I can’t fault you for loving the scenery at all. Not one bit.
    I had my dogs in the back of my pickup and it was fun watching 200 dogs bark and chase them through the village, and how everyone waved.

    What surprised me about the BC farming regulation was how hard it was to become a commercial farmer there. In order to raise chickens for meat, for instance, I had to buy land and construct a barn to fairly rigorous standards; the type of bedding (sawdust) was regulated, as was the depth. Once I’d constructed the barn I had to buy a portion of some existing producers quota, but before I could do that, I had to get letters of approval from the chick supplier, and from the company that would buy the finished chickens, both. And then there’s citizenship requirements.

    I contrast that to the US, where in order to be a chicken farmer you buy a $50 business license and (in washington state) pay a $50 fee to the washington state department of agriculture for slaughter, and that’s about it. You pay taxes, and so on, but that’s true of any sort of business, not just farming. In my case the downside is in land use regulations that are increasingly restrictive and expensive to defend against. To prove that you didn’t commit some sin often requires thousands of dollars, and it sure makes it hard when you give an attorney the equivalent of a farm tractor every year or two. I’ve written a summary of this years stuff in this entry on my blog.

    http://ebeyfarm.blogspot.com/2009/02/floodplain-farming.html

    I got interested in producing chickens in canada because I saw tiny chickens being sold for $12 canadian, and I could not believe that price. Maybe 2lb birds. Tiny birds at a good price — seemed like an opportunity to compete.

    In my opinion, the farm regulations are designed to keep these monopolistic farms from having any competition. The problem is that if you relax these regulations the canadian producers will probably be wiped out by the american ones.

    Chickens regularly sell for $.69/lb here, USD, which is a far cry from $6/lb that I saw in banff.

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