The Harsh Reality of Life on the Farm

Life gets real on the farm—meaning sometimes cruel.  Those of us who live more urbanely, shopping for hermetically sealed dairy, meat, and produce in the supermarket can easily forget this fact.  But your grandparents or great-grandparents, and if not them, your pioneer forebears knew all about the farm’s morbid facts of life.

Having lived on a farm myself for nearly a lifetime, I’ve been largely desensitized to the prey-predator drama enacted on many farms every day.  For example, I often tap the fence around our livestock pen with a stick when I walk by to roust Shirley, our pig.  She’s a curious creature, always ready to shove her wet snout through the fence slats to get a sniff of my pants.  I smile until I remember Shirley, at nearly 300 pounds, is almost butcher weight.  Honestly, if I thought about this much, I would turn vegan—or Muslim—but sadly, one of these options in America today might predispose me to being the one butchered (at least metaphorically-speaking).

This past summer I watched a charming movie, The Biggest Little Farm, about a city couple, a husband and wife from Los Angeles, who loved animals and wanted to try their hand at sustainable farming in California’s Central Valley.  It’s always fun to watch city people “do” farm life.  I think of that silly early 2000’s reality show, The Simple Life, about a spoiled heiress, Paris Hilton, and her manicured best friend, Nicole Ritchie, slogging through cow dung in waders.

But John and Molly of The Biggest Little Farm were much more serious about going “full hayseed.”  They wanted to be a model, an example, that food, both plants and animals, could be produced in humane and sustainable ways. 

Pesticides, chemicals, and fertilizers were a no-go.  They wanted to prove that a bio-diverse environment, with a variety of plants, animals, and other creatures, would find a rhythm and harmony that was not only natural, but profitable.  I was cheering for them every step of the way in my movie theater seat.  If they could do it, maybe bigger farms like the one my husband and I operate, could too.

To their credit, John and Molly created a relatively honest film.  Which means—the way they controlled pests like aphids, snails, gophers, and coyotes—was by letting nature take its course.  It other words, allowing animals to eat each other, i.e. prey-predator cycle.  Of course, there was savagery in this, and not all of it was planned.

Oopsies happened, like when the coyotes broke through the fence and ripped the throats of baby lambs.  One of the trusted guard dogs even ravaged the beloved pet rooster, Greasy, Greasy’s entrails scattered across the barn yard.

As animal-lovers themselves, the way life and death played out on the farm became an unavoidable nightmare for John and Molly.  Yet, they were determined.  They acclimated.  They watched stoically as the sweet, little piglets they helped birth, were hauled off to sale and slaughter.

By the end of the movie the before/after pictures of John and Molly’s farm were not quite as dramatic as a 600-pound woman post stomach stapling surgery, but it was impressive. Where once the southern California dust skittered over alkaline patches, fruit trees bloomed and herds of sheep roamed through grass meadows.  John and Molly though, looked older, more haggard, and less enthusiastic.

It took seven years to realize their sustainable farm—and it came at a cost.  The price appeared to be their idealism.

And did they make a profit?  That was less clear.  Something my businessman-husband picked up on immediately.  For despite the Garden of Eden John and Molly had managed to nurture in the California desert, my husband’s one comment at the film’s end was:  “I want to see their spreadsheet.”

 

Image credits:  The Biggest Little Farm        Image credit:  The Simple Life        Image credit:   Diana Hooley, Hooley’s commercial, desert farm

Hope is the Thing With Feathers

To those of you who ask why raise chickens, I say why not?

Especially during the age of coronavirus, companion animals can be an important comfort.  I realize some of you may not see chickens as companion animals, but don’t forget what the great poet Emily Dickinson had to say about this: “Hope is the thing with feathers…”

Chickens have many superior qualities to commend them  For one thing, they don’t bark annoyingly as some dogs do.   Plus chickens lay eggs.  Dogs don’t lay eggs.  Also, chickens are very efficient animals.  They have one of the highest feed conversion ratios (FCR) of any livestock.  Feed conversion ratios look at the difference between how much it takes to feed an animal versus how much food that animal provides.  Chickens will eat your table scraps and turn them into protein-rich eggs.  If you don’t know what to do with that watermelon rind—feed it to the chickens.  What about that tub of soured yogurt in the fridge?  Chickens love yogurt.  They even eat ground rock.  It’s called grit, and it helps them digest their food better.

We’ve raised chickens on our farm on and off for years and though they’re interesting, funny creatures, they do have their challenges.  One time I had a problematic hen who was a real nester.  When it came time to gather eggs, she wouldn’t leave her nest box and scratch in the yard with the other hens.  She just wanted to sit in the box, murmuring contentedly.  I tried to surreptitiously wrap my arm around the box to grab her eggs from behind.  But she’d have none of my foolishness.  She’d squawk and flap her wings indignantly like I was some stranger with my hand up her dress.

Chickens are generally peaceable, but like humans, they’re keenly aware of social hierarchies. 

I was reminded of this fact once when I taught school and attended a faculty meeting.  I understood the “pecking order” among faculty members, but one of our new, young teachers, did not.  She had the temerity to make an innocent suggestion–without vetting her idea first with faculty leaders.

“What? Where’d you come up with that stinker?”

“That’s a dumb idea.”

“You’ve got to be kidding!”

I tried to defend her, rebuking fellow faculty members by saying they were all acting like a bunch of chickens picking at the youngest and newest member of our group. It was only later that I realized what a bizarre comment this was.  My only defense is I had chickens on the brain, one of the few downsides of being in the chicken-raising business.

Chickens come in variety of breeds and colors:  Rhode Island Red, Plymouth Rock, Leghorn (famously popularized by the cartoon character with the southern drawl, Foghorn Leghorn). 

Eggs come in different colors too, but there’s a popular myth about egg shell color.  Some people believe brown eggs are more nutritious than white eggs.  White eggs can be just as nutritious if they’re laid by a “pastured” hen as opposed to a caged hen.  This is what really makes the difference in terms of egg nutrients.

One of the best parts of raising chickens is sharing the eggs with friends and family.  I’ll give Nancy (an older friend who is careful with her diet and prefers organic) a dozen.  Elizabeth next door needs my eggs to bake her delicious homemade cupcakes and Danish pastries.  Simon is always in a hurry when he goes to work in the morning.  He likes to break one of my eggs over a piece of bread and microwave it for a quick breakfast.  Overall, being in the chicken business has been for both me and my husband, an egg-cellent adventure.

 

Image Credit:  Diana Hooley