When I steered my family’s life onto this course known as farming, we knew there would be numerous challenges to overcome. We knew that we were completely altering the way we would live our lives, but perhaps we didn’t realize just how drastic it would be. We knew there would be an immense amount of physical labor, however the logistics of prioritizing all the chores, tasks and projects threatens to overwhelm us and undermine any sense of productivity. Growing the healthiest food possible seems simple enough yet, as we research the dangerous impact of GMO crops, we feel as though we’re after the white rabbit into a deep twisting hole. The sheer volume of money we would invest ( and have yet to spend) has probably been the greatest test of confidence.
I, like many who have plunged head first into this life, caught this feverish passion after reading any number of books and publications written by folks like; Sir Albert Howard, J.I. Rodale, Allen Nation, Joel Salatin and Michael Pollan. From them I came to grasp a set of ethics and ideals by which food should be produced, especially in regard to the manner in which animals destined to be eaten are raised. I was totally committed to never allowing a kernel of grain to pass the lips of my cows, giving my chickens freedom to roam, raising rabbits on pasture and integrating pigs as a vital component. I’ve managed to hold true to these, but just barely. I had to face some realizations; am I going to be a purely idealistic farmer who will always need to work an off farm job(s) or can I allow myself to temporarily sacrifice some of those ideals for the purpose actually making a bit of profit so that we could afford to improve our model?
The fastest revenue producer with the best profit margin of anything else a farmer could cultivate is pasture raised chicken IF, he orders Cornish Cross(X) hybrids male chickens and feeds them tax dollar subsidized commodity soy based feed. Doing this brings the greatest return, netting around $10 per bird or more in about 8 weeks. The Cornish X is the bird developed by and for industrial factory farming to satisfy the insatiable taste for fowl Americans have developed in the past 60 years. In the factory farms, this bird grows to size in just 6 weeks on a diet loaded with soy and corn, laced with antibiotics. By placing them in pens on pasture, they do have a better life than their FF counterparts, but if they didn’t get a high protein ration, they simply won’t grow. These birds are a purely man-made creature that has absolutely no foraging instinct. Sure they’ll eat grass, if they’re confined on top of it and have nothing else to eat, but if given the freedom to roam; cricket, grasshoppers and all manner of insectae are free to pass with little harassment from these grain hungry birds. Yes, the meat is healthier because they’re outdoors in the sun with fresh air and aren’t being fed drugged feed. BUT, and it’s a mighty big but, They are not eating the natural diet of a chicken. Chickens are omnivores, not vegetarians and since they can’t possibly get the protein they require strictly on pasture, their feed ration is still conventionally produced Genetically Modified grain, namely soy and corn. I write pages about the evilness that is behind GMOs but I urge you to do your own research. Everyone needs to watch Genetic Roulette, and you’ll be demanding GMO labeling of all the food you buy.
I’ve pursued raising rabbits for meat as well. Rabbits are more sustainable because we don’t have to rely on a hatchery and rabbits can glean the majority of their diet on pasture. I had this idea that we’d have rabbits living full time on pasture, breeding and raising young rabbits, never putting them in a suspended cage. That sounds great, but it doesn’t work. Even if you move the pen twice a day, a mature doe has a driving urge to dig and eventually, you’ll get to a patch of soil that she’ll dig through like butter and you’re doomed to play a game we call rabbit round-up. It’s not a lot of fun at all. You chase a few rabbits through the brambles, briers and bushes, and you’ll happily put her up in a cage. You also want to keep your bucks in the coolest location possible during the hot summer as they go sterile temporarily once the temperature climbs over 85 deg for at least three consecutive days. A doe with babies feels exposed and vulnerable sitting above ground. If something comes along and frightens her, her instinct for self preservation kicks in causing her to eat her young, and if there wasn’t a pen confining her, she’d run hide. The pastured rabbit model really only works economically, practically (and to maintain one’s sanity), by raising those rabbits who are destined to be eaten, out on the pasture. They will reach “fryer” size in 12-14 weeks and they do not develop a vigorous desire to dig, usually. So now we keep our breeders in cages and as awful some will say that is, it’s the safest manner for breeding and raising rabbit.
I mentioned GMO feed earlier. I came across a local grain mill that said they had non-GMO grain. I was extremely excited and I placed and order for three tons of broiler and layer feed. I asked about rabbit feed, but they didn’t have alfalfa so their’s would be soy bean and corn-based. Well I, and other farmers, asked them to work out a formula that was soy free. When I heard back from their rep, I asked for the ingredients so she starts reading them off to me I hear the words “blood meal”. This was for rabbit feed and so I was rather startled. “Why blood meal?” I asked. “It replaces the soy beans” “Well I don’t want to feed blood to my rabbits, chickens are omnivores so that’s not too big a deal.” Long story short, I’m glad I asked about the ingredients or else I’d have been feed my rabbits something they should never eat. Then I got to thinking, where does that blood meal come from? (All you organic gardeners need to listen up) It come from the factory farm processing plants, from animals who were definitely fed GMO grain, plus just the fact that this was the product of factory farming was enough to get me to reject this feed. In my book, I’d rather feed the soy than feed the blood meal. After much thinking, praying and calculating, we’ve found that the only way to ensure we do not feed our animals any GMO grains was to switch to certified organic feed. So now we will be paying 3x’s as much to ensure our food is the healthiest possible.
Probably the biggest challenge we face is farming in a metropolitan county from which agriculture has all but disappeared. As old farmers passed away, their heirs would either lease out their pastures for horses or they’d just sell the land off for development. Our 7 acre farm is the remnant of what was once a dairy farm. Our neighbors find themselves looking out their back windows at cows, chickens and pigs. Those that I’ve spoken with were very supportive and happy that there wasn’t another phase of development going up behind them. BUT. How do you raise free range, pastured eggs and keep your chickens out of the neighbors’ yards? Our first flock of egg layers really liked to roam, in the neighborhood next to us. Fence to them was just an obstacle that temporarily inconvenienced them in their quest for bugs and grubs. One neighbor came to me and in the nicest way possible, complained about the chickens coming in his yard. He didn’t mind them so much except for scratching out the flowers and leaving deposits on the patio and driveway. So after failing in to control them with netting (they just moved further down to the next yard) I had to lock them up in a shed with a pen. We found that part of the problem was the breed, so we switched out breeds and now we’re back to full-time free range.
Having cows behind your house is a novel thing for some, but the novelty wears off when said cow wants her baby back with her and it’s 3:00 am. Do you know what she does? No, she doesn’t “moo”, she BELLOWS! As in rattling the windows while you try to get the sleep you need before you get up in 2 hours to get ready for your commute to your office job on the other side of Atlanta. One of our neighbors drove past our house that morning, leaning on their horn.Ever since, we have tried to be as sensitive as possible to whatever our neighbors might be experiencing.
Why did we not decide to live in the country? Good question. This is really just a morsel of what we struggle to work with to raise the best food possible.