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Here are two things that happened to me last week.

First: I sent a message on my old condo’s listserv letting the residents know that I’ve set up a farm hub there, and that they can order fresh/local/etc. produce and meat directly from a farmer who’s not only local, but one that literally owns a unit in the building. A few days later, a non-profit CSA aggregator (a 501c3 non-profit) who apparently has a rep in the building, sent a nearly identical email out on the same listserv advertising a 10% early bird special on their CSA shares.

Second: I’m driving around Charlottesville delivering food and running errands, and everywhere I go, I see the delivery truck for an increasingly popular online grocery store whose name rhymes with “we lay crudes.” They weren’t following me of course; it was just sheer coincidence. But seeing that gigantic shiny green truck in the rearview of my 100,000-mile, farm-dusted F-150 for two hours was quite the visual metaphor for what local farmers determined to remain independent are up against.

BRIIIIIING IT OOOOOOON!!!!!!

BRIIIIIING IT OOOOOOON!!!!!!

Independent farmers committed to sustainable agriculture turned their backs on the ConAgras and Cargills of the world, determined to free themselves from poverty, debt, commodity pricing, and a litany of other unhealthy farming realities. Using farmers markets and door-to-door sales, they blazed a trail leading back to independence – they determined to take as close to100% of the food dollar as possible to secure the financial stability that’s necessary to steward the land properly without relying on government grants and other forms of ecological charity.

The rest of the world is understanding that this is a good thing. Dollars are quickly flowing into local/organic/sustainable and, just as quickly, well-intentioned organizations are springing up that threaten to erode the foundations of the Local movement. Here are three good reasons why you, as a consumer, should take the time to cultivate relationships with farmers and buy directly from them… and here’s why we, as farmers, need to do a much better job of direct marketing our products:

1. Centralization in agriculture is bad.

Modern agriculture is a hot mess. Giant corporations pay next to nothing for agricultural commodities produced by farmers whose financial incentive is to produce as much as possible at all costs. The corporations consolidate the commodities, process them, and then distribute them across the country and around the world. This system leaves the environment degraded, the farmer in poverty, and the consumer with an outrageously unhealthy diet and the manifold consequences thereof. Why are things this way?

Consolidators have investors to consider, so they must grow profits. To grow profits, they must reduce their costs. Consolidators – whether it’s Walmart or ConAgra – reduce their costs, and thus their prices, by squeezing their suppliers. The ability to do this comes, ironically enough, by enlisting more and more suppliers to service more and more customers. As these customers pile into the consolidators’ stores, they create an ever-strengthening vise that the consolidators use to squeeze their suppliers.

Sometimes.

Sometimes.

Eventually, a tipping point is reached where the consolidators have enough customers and suppliers to offer prices so low that suppliers can’t survive on their own. At this point, the consolidator owns the supplier, and the supplier begins making tradeoffs to meet the price set by the consolidator. For Walmart’s suppliers, this might mean closing American factories and sourcing the work to Asia to reduce labor costs. For ConAgra’s suppliers, this might mean using genetically modified seed and contracting to feedlots to reduce unit costs.

Online grocery stores, even the Local-oriented ones with the big green truck, are consolidators with investors to consider (that’s how they got the big green truck). Right now they’re fairly small and don’t have enough customers to force farmers to take their prices, but one day and with enough customers, they will. Perhaps they won’t apply the squeeze when they’re able, but capitalism’s record of self-restraint is not encouraging.

2. Government subsidies in agriculture are bad

Some CSA consolidators, like the one that’s more or less competing with me in my condo, are non-profits that operate with government grants, tax-deductible donations (another kind of government grant), and self-generated revenue.  On its face, that may seem like a good thing: people like to think of sustainable agriculture as an enterprise too pure to be stained by the pursuit of profit, so going the non-profit route presents a pleasing image of donation-funded hippie farmers sitting above the earthly fray of markets. So what’s the problem?

Besides the hair. And the smell. And where are the women?

Besides the hair. And the smell. And where are the women?

Here are two things that the giant 1,000-acre GMO corn farmer and the 501c3 non-profit local CSA have in common: they are utterly dependent on government largesse. The corn farmer would be out of business tomorrow without the commodity payment and insurance programs in the Farm Bill, and the non-profit CSA would be out of business tomorrow without the tax-deductions allowed its donors and the ability to receive municipal/state/federal grants. This dependence has consequences.

The first consequence is volatility. Remember all the talk of milk prices doubling if the latest Farm BIll remained stalled in Congress? And if that non-profit CSA loses 50% of its government funding, they’re going to have to either fold the business or make up the difference at the register, either option promising to spike the prices of your CSA shares.

The second consequence is the artificial lowering of the price of food. Many non-profits use their donations and grants to reduce food costs at the register, usually to service low-income customers. While I absolutely agree that low-income individuals should have affordable access to food that’s fit to eat, I also believe that artificially lowering the price through subsidies is not the way to do it. If SNAP, WIC, or CSA grants get cut, low income folks are back to poisoning themselves with ramen noodles and Hot Pockets. Farmers should instead be working to lower the real price of food with things like multistory and closed-loop agriculture, perennial and locally-adapted systems, and a refusal to take on debt. That way, good food remains affordable no matter who’s in Congress. Government subsidies, however, remove the financial incentive to pursue these innovations, which leads to the third consequence, which is…

Opportunity cost. It’s very difficult for market-oriented, innovative, socially/economically/ecologically-sustainable, independent farms to get off the ground when their competitors are “juicing” on government funding. We know these utopian farms are possible – Sepp Holzer’s Krameterhof and Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm being prime examples – but we’re going to see a lot fewer of them if we continue to believe that government money belongs in agriculture.

3. The solution is so much better

Consolidators, whether they’re government funded CSAs or investor funded online grocery stores, are not evil. They simply exist because they’re filling a niche that farmers have failed to fill ourselves. Local food is not as accessible as it should be, the farms producing the food are few and far between, and many of them aren’t oriented toward direct marketing off the farm itself. Any farmer knows that a bare patch of earth, left alone, will sprout a giant tap-rooted weed that will become almost impossible to deal with if it’s ignored for too long. Likewise, the need for convenience and accessibility in Local food is much like that patch of exposed earth; instead of nature filling it with pokeweed, capitalism is filling it with consolidators.

Pokeweed is the same color as that danged green truck...

Pokeweed is the same color as that danged green truck…

Changing this would require a massive proliferation of small farms, and the creation of farmer-owned cooperatives that could handle distribution beyond the farm – especially into cities. The reasoning is simple: if there are lots of farms everywhere then they are more accessible; farmers don’t have to take commodity prices and become slaves to the distributors if the farmers are the distributors.

Getting more farmers into the field and organizing cooperatives is going to take some work, and will become a focus of Sylvanaqua once our production is established, we’ve turned a small profit, and we’ve thuys demonstrated that this model of ours can, in fact, work. Stay tuned, stay positive, and buy direct from your local farmer!

Chris Newman
Manager, Sylvanaqua Farms

Our farm is dedicated not just to responsible, healthy, accessible food, but also to changing the very model that our country uses to produce and consume food. We’ve said before that being certified organic doesn’t go far enough to affect this change; in this article we take a look at a few more reasons that eating local beats both organic and conventional. And at the end, we give you a sneak preview of what our “dream” food model looks like.

1. Local really is more nutritious

An organic controversy exploded in 2012 when a Stanford University study asserted that there’s no meaningful difference in the nutritional content of organic and conventionally raised foods. Stanford, along with many other food scientists and supporting institutions, make the claim that the only substantial drivers of nutritional content in food are genetics and freshness. If you take two seeds from an identical heirloom plant, raise one on a conventional farm, the other on an organic farm, and harvest and eat them at the same time, there will be virtually no difference between the two.

One will become a testament to the tasteful application of makeup and eyeliner, and the other will become Maggie Gyllenhaal.

One will become a testament to the tasteful application of makeup and eyeliner, and the other will become Maggie Gyllenhaal.

Supporters of organics naturally (hehe) fired back, citing everything from the university’s relationship with agro-giant Cargill to alleged technical flaws in the study itself. Importantly, however, critics of the study did not attack its underlying premise: that genetics and freshness are what really matters when it comes to nutritional content.

When you make the decision to ignore the labels, buy local, and source all your food from a nearby ecological farm, this controversy immediately loses meaning for you. If you’re buying heirloom produce from a farm less than an hour away, you’re pretty much guaranteed two things: 1.) you’re getting plant genetics at least as good as what you’d find in an organic market, and 2.) you’re getting your produce at the peak of freshness, especially if you visit the type of farm that lets you pick produce yourself. The only way to get fresher food would be to disguise yourself as a cow during the day, graze the fields with the rest of the herd, and hope the farmer doesn’t notice.

Soon.

Soon.

2. Local really does taste better

It’s not hard to find people – especially those who patronize expensive restaurants – that will insist that organic food tastes hands-down better than conventionally raised food. Unfortunately, those people would be proven wrong by a slew of blind taste tests in which people truly can’t tell the difference between stuff that’s grown in a chemical-bound psedo-soil and compost-pampered supersoil.

Much like nutrition, taste is largely the effect of freshness and genetics. For eggs, meat, and dairy, the inputs that create them are also a very significant factor… but one whose positive effect on the taste of the food is correlated with freshness.

Except for this thing, whose taste correlates with bacon.

Except for this thing, whose taste correlates with bacon.

As great as organic farming is compared to its conventional counterpart regarding environmental impact, it gleefully shares conventional ag’s most glaring structural problem: centralized distribution. This model of distribution underlies the efficiency that some would argue is modern agriculture’s biggest strength, but it also underlies its biggest weaknesses: the ecological compromises demanded by farming for economies of scale, and products whose nutrition and taste suffer from shipping (to distribution facilities and markets) and waiting (in markets to be bought).

Do you find it strange that you can buy organic sweet corn and vine tomatoes at health food markets in January? If you don’t, then you should. That sweet corn and that big red ‘mater, being more than six months out of season, are both going to taste like hot-house garbage. If you buy from an ecological farm, however, this isn’t going to be a problem because an eco-farmer worth her salt will not grow things out of season, even in a greenhouse. Shopping for groceries at such a farm ensures that you’re buying food in season and at the peak of freshness, which is the ONLY way to guarantee your food is at the height of its nutritional content and taste.

3. Local really is best for the environment

Conventional and organic farming have something else in common besides centralized distribution: they’re founded on the idea that you have to fight nature to produce enough food for civilized society. The only difference between the two is that organic farmers are following the rules of gentlemanly warfare, while the conventional farmers are whipping out the nukes and mustard gas.

To be sure, organic farming is much gentler on the environment than conventional farming. The “Three Cs” of organic farming are compost, cover crops, and crop rotation; together, these are intended to minimize the effects of farming on the environment and reduce risks to public health. The first “C”, compost, provides natural soil fertility without frying soil life the way synthetic fertilizers do. The second, cover crops, prevents soil erosion and runoff pollution while improving soil structure and nutrient content after cash crops are harvested. The third, crop rotation, interrupts cycles of pests and diseases by taking away their food sources.

So... what do they eat?

So… what do they eat?

The Three C’s, unfortunately, do not address organic agriculture’s reliance on monocultures. A monoculture is what you get when you have a whole bunch of the same plant (or animal) covering a large area. This is something you almost never see in nature because, in nature, such a state can’t persist for very long. If a 50 acre field were to spontaneously sprout nothing but corn, then the beetles and armyworms would soon follow. With a gigantic food source and no habitat for their predators, these pests would reproduce explosively until all the corn was gone, at which point the they would starve to death. Their decaying bodies and rotting corn husks would cover the soil with new organic matter while the occasional breeze or four-legged creature would deposit various seeds from elsewhere. Over time, a new and balanced ecosystem would develop – one that would invariably be a polyculture rather than a monoculture. I won’t say that monocultures aren’t “natural” since “natural” is such a slippery term. But I will say that we’re swimming against nature’s current when we use monocultures, and that’s a dangerous proposition when we’re relying on them to stay alive.

If there’s one thing your small, local family farm probably doesn’t have, it’s a 50 acre cornfield. These little farms generally use hoophouses and/or raised garden beds to produce plants in polycultures that are much more environmentally sound. And while these fruits and veggies don’t provide the staples we rely on from corn and soy, there are permaculture farms coming online using tree guilds to replace them both affordably and with ecological soundness. Most of these operations are small family farms that need your patronage in order to succeed.

4. It’s the only way to make responsible food affordable

America’s food model is broken because it demands an interface between the consumer and the producer in the name of efficiency and centralized profit.* Proponents of this model will argue that such ruthless efficiency is necessary in order to meet demand; a dubious claim considering that America trashes nearly half it’s food.

"Smashes" rhymes with "trashes."

“Smashes” rhymes with “trashes.”

The organic movement, God bless it, does not address the structural flaw in this model. It instead funnels food into the same broken system as its conventional adversary (or parent company) using a production method that’s much less efficient. With its misguided focus on markets and monocultures, organic farms fight a relentlessly uphill battle against the efficiency of conventional farming’s chemical marvels and the inertia of mother nature’s ecological inclinations. The result? The most difficult, expensive food on planet Earth.

But in spite of the cost, farmers markets and agritourism are booming at the same time unprecedented public outrage is being directed at GMO, feedlots, and big agribusiness. The enormous demand for organic, relative to its supply, is one of the drivers of its high price. If we could only lower the price of responsible food to make it accessible to the average person, the sustainable food movement would be on its way to fulfilling its mission of saving the world by feeding it. This is where your local permaculture farm comes in.

Permaculture farms are those that intensively mimic natural systems to produce food that’s both ecologically sound and affordable. The affordability stems from a number of things: reliance on perennials that only need to be planted once; emphasis on forage rather than feed for livestock; selection of locally-adapted plants and animals that require minimum human intervention; focus on a hyperlocal customer base that does most of the harvesting; adoption of multistory agriculture (fungi, ground covers, tall annuals, bushes, and trees occupying the same space) to improve efficiency; providing the diversity of products that allows the farm to replace the supermarket.

Taking central Virginia as an example, the new agricultural model here would have 1,400 small (20 – 30 acres) plantations set up near population centers, each providing food for the 160 or so people living with the immediate vicinity of that farm. People would go to these farms to do most of their food shopping; the Whole Foodses and Harris Teeters would be for the things you can’t get locally – coffee, spices, citrus, etc. The time a farmer would ordinarily spend every year planting, cultivating, spraying, harvesting, shipping, etc. would instead be spent on value adding (e.g. milling wheat into flour, grinding corn into hominy, smoking bacon, baking bread) and surveying the neighborhood to see what products her customers want more or less of.

"Coming right up!"

“Coming right up!”

This model doesn’t exist yet, but it can in your lifetime. All you have to do is make a commitment to cultivate a relationship with a local farmer, make a commitment to buy from her as often as you can, and of course stay tuned to our website as we work to make this model a reality for everyone.

Chris Newman
Sylvanaqua Farms, Earlysville VA

*Before my more conservative readers accuse me of Marxism, please know that I’m not a proponent of socializing or nationalizing food production (notwithstanding charity). Farmers and those who own farms should enjoy comfortable lives financially to the extent their talents will allow them to steward the land responsibly. It is another matter entirely for Monsanto to advocate for market-divorced commodity subsidies, soil-killing chemicals, seed patents, and a factory farm system that brutalizes both farmer and animal… all in the name of its stock price and at the expense of literally everyone in the world.

Thinking about raising hens to provide your home with fresh eggs? Or maybe you’re a farmer and want to get a larger-scale egg operation going. Here are a few tips we’ve learned to keep your girls happy, healthy, and laying.

1. Skip the vaccinations only if you’re breeding

Some people might come after my head for saying this, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with vaccinating your chicks if you’re raising a small flock just for home egg production and don’t intend to breed them.

Skipping the vaccinations to rely on deep bedding and natural immunity is appropriate if you’re a farmer looking to improve the breed over time by allowing birds without good natural resistance to be culled. Farmers have the space for deep bedding and free ranging/pasturing that makes such a thing possible. But if you’re raising these girls in small space available in your home and yard, you’re simply not likely to have the room you need to do things all-natural.

Having all of your tiny flock of birds die of Mareks after carefully raising them to the 20 -25 weeks required to get them to laying age is devastating, and it would be horrible to have to start over. Farmers, on the other hand, with a flock of 200+ birds withstand the loss of a half-dozen animals – in fact it’s a good sign that the culling and breed improvement process is working. So ahead and get your girls treated for Mareks and Cocci if you’re raising birds from chicks for home use – it won’t kill you, and if you’re not breeding them, then you don’t risk weakening the breed.

2. Give them light all day and night when they’re young

Birds are highly prone to suffocating if they a.) get cold, and b.) have corners to pile up into. On a cold night in a dark hen house, your girls will more than likely find a corner, pile up into it and, if the circumstances are just right, promptly suffocate whoever’s unfortunate enough to be on the bottom. This seems to become less of a problem as they mature, but in our hoophouse in winter we still leave a single brood lamp on to provide light so they can see exactly what they’re doing.

Some folks will install boards to reduce the sharpness of corners, but I’ve found it’s less troublesome to avoid pileups by just providing a little light.

3. Don’t bother with starter feeds

When the arrival of our Rhode Island Red chicks was imminent, we were at a loss for what to feed them. Layer mash isn’t appropriate until 16 weeks of age and, as usual, the henmasters of the Internet offered no shortage of advice, all of which contained the addendum that if you didn’t do it their way, all your chicks would die and you’d be audited by the IRS.

We started the girls on broiler feed because it’s fairly high protein, and because we had plenty of it left over from the broiler season. They did just fine on it, and I’m grateful to this day we didn’t go through the trouble and expense of purchasing some Cadillac starter feed.

4. Avoid crowding and roosts

Because of a series of mishaps with our hoophouse (the cover blew off in a windstorm, among other things), all 140 of our hens wound up boarding in our 480 sqft brooder until they were about 14 weeks old. Some might say that 3.4 square feet per bird is more than adequate, but I’ll tell you right now that for us, it wasn’t.

Pale combs, large variations in bird size, pulled tail feathers, and restlessness are among the more obvious signs of crowding stress, and these girls had it in spades. Once 2/3 of the girls were finally moved to the 960 sqft hoophouse, their performance went through the roof: tails grew back, sleep was easier, and combs turned ruby red.

One more thing that I’ve heard: when the birds are too young to lay eggs, don’t introduce roosts. Apparently that’ll accelerate the formation of pecking orders and your girls will be fighting a lot more than if they’re all sharing the same level ground. Once they’re of laying age and you introduce nests, you’ll need to put in roosts to keep them from sleeping in the nests.

5. Don’t let them get comfortable with you

If you’re planning to introduce your mature birds to a pasture or free-range situation, then don’t let them get comfortable with you when they’re chicks. You want your girls skittish and terrified of anything that might even be close to a predator, so if they wind up getting comfortable with something as large as a human, then they won’t learn that shaking hands with a fox or raccoon is a bad idea until it’s way too late.

This may sound… mean… but when you enter the brooder to feed, keep the girls away from you. If they approach, lunge at them. Don’t hit or abuse them, but give them the impression that big things are after them and aren’t to be trusted.

Furthermore, if you’re looking for a free-range/pasture situation, stay away from docile, friendly breeds. If they’re going to survive out in the elements with predators all around, you want birds with aggressive roosters, flighty/skittish single hens, and broody mothers. This will, of course, make the harvesting of henfruit more difficult, but it’s a worthy sacrifice in the name of undoing the damage done to breeds adapted to unnatural confinement environments.

With the coming of the new year, we’ve reflected on the things that have gone well and not so well in these first six months of farming. It important for us to share what we’ve learned in order to reduce the learning curve for new farmers, so here are a few of the most important lessons we’ve learned since we received our first animal in August.

1. Don’t be a Tough Guy

My friends and family members often come to the farm for a couple of days to get fresh air and exercise by helping with chores and building projects. They’ve helped build practically everything on the farm, from the pastures to the hoophouse to the brooder, and they’ve all had two things in common: their help was indispensable, and they’ve tried to be tougher than necessary.

People, especially men (which is why this point says Guy instead of Girl; women know better), arrive on the farm from the city thinking they need to prove a certain degree of hardiness. They often go about it the wrong way, usually by doing one of two things: 1.) refusing to use basic safety equipment like work gloves and eye/ear protection, and 2.) doing things the hard way.*

hard_way

When people did this on my farm (including me, in the early days), the results were predictable: I nearly chainsawed into my own leg going one-handed after high log that didn’t even need to be cut (and I have the hole in my jeans to prove it); one friend aggravated an existing fracture in his hand driving hoophouse posts; another friend got a splinter in his eye using a handsaw to cut plywood; another threw out his back carrying a gigantic tree stump that he could have simply rolled down a hill; and a cousin spent a weekend as an invalid after getting a wood shank through his un-gloved hand while splitting firewood.

This is all fine if you’re only working a holiday in the country, but it’ll kill you if you’re planning to farm for a living. A professional farmer’s most important asset is his or her body, and injuring it is just as bad as blowing a piston in a tractor. Breaking a hand, losing an eye, getting unnecessarily sore, or slowly going deaf by refusing to wear earmuffs when working with power equipment will cost you money in terms of lost or slowed productivity, if not medical bills.

So wear the safety gear and learn to do things the smart way. After a year, you’ll still be tougher than 90% of the population anyway.

*The only two things required to prove you’re tough enough for farm work: 1.) Don’t whine, 2.) Don’t drag your ass.

2. Don’t be Perfect

Ecological farming is not a unified discipline. The Big Organic people differ significantly from the Small Organic people, both of whom are reviled by the Beyond Organic people, who share an uneasy alliance with the Slow Food and/or Pasture Systems people, who themselves are often seen as myopic and non-holistic by the Permaculture People.

It's just like this. The beards especially.

It’s just like this. The beards especially.

The world of ecological farming is full of tribes united in their hatred of conventional agriculture and divided in practically every other way.  If you’re coming into farming as a total neophyte, as I did, then you’re probably going to start with research. The information coming from that research will quickly turn into a firehose that knocks you in every imaginable direction before pinning you to a wall, paralyzing you with indecision as to exactly what kind of farmer you want to be.

Here’s the onion of the matter: doing ANY kind of ecological farming is better than NOT farming ecologically, and you always have the option to change your operation in the future. This is why, even though I’m in love with Permaculture, I’m starting out with pastured systems. Corn-fed pastured broilers aren’t as sustainable as heritage free-rangers, but they’re infinitely more sustainable than conventional pasture operations and give me a source of income that will allow me to convert to permaculture in the near future. And, of course, both options are much better than doing nothing.

Decide whatever. Staying off the boat is the only way to screw this up.*

Decide whatever. Staying off the boat is the only way to screw this up.*

Of course, not all of the confusion will surround the big questions like “what kind of farmer do I want to be?”  The real devil is in the small decisions you have to make much more often: opaque or translucent greenhouse plastic? RIR or Barred Rock laying hens? 12 ga or 14 ga aluminum wire for the pigs? Organic compost or raw milk on the pastures? Overseed in Spring, Fall, or both… or not at all? Get the birds vaccinated for Marek’s, or no? Nipple waterers, game waterers, or make something by hand? Do I really need the nestboxes with the special plastic lining? Water the animals with ponds or an intricate system of interconnected rain barrels? Burn the brush pile or bury it for raised beds?

Again: do SOMETHING. You’ll get some decisions right, and you’ll get some decisions wrong. Your experience will lead you in the right direction over time.

*Ladies, I recognize the sexist nature of this image. So… uh… here.

3. Don’t be a loner

Farming is like any other business. There are skills you have to develop that are particular to your chosen field – e.g. animal husbandry, botany, carpentry – and there are more general skills that you’ll need to make sure you can actually sell your products/services and stay out of trouble with the law –  e.g. social media marketing, basic accounting, public relations, salesmanship. Each of these things has to be kept in balance in order to achieve stasis in your business.

Entrepreneurship.

Entrepreneurship.

Many a middling, struggling* entrepreneur at once boasts and laments about “doing it all”, “wearing lots of hats”, etc.  while the story of every lasting (e.g. 50+ years) and successful business I’ve studied involved an entrepreneur that surrounded him/herself with other talented people. Farmers tend not to be this second kind of person. In fact we tend not to be either person. We don’t enter farming to collaborate with people and start a business… we enter farming to escape people, enjoy the beauty of pastoral solitude, and maybe write the millionth freaking city-to-farm memoir wherein the author waxes redundant about “OMG I fell in cow poop!” and “OMG the rooster crowed!”

In one of the few books of this type worth reading, Joel Salatin makes an important point that there are “people that farm with money, and people that farm for money.” The former are hobby farmers and, while I wish them well, this article isn’t for them. This article is for people who, like me, want to make a comfortable living from ecological farming and JUST ecological farming. To that end, I’ll say that farming is just like any other business, and the more successful among us will be those that surround ourselves with talented people. The more good people you surround yourself with, the more surface area fortune has to latch onto.

I don't know what fortune looks like.

I don’t know what fortune looks like.

In my own operation, my wife and in-laws are everything. My wife is the empress of regulatory compliance, PR, and value-added products. My mother in law is the expert in horticulture and customer networking. My father in law is a general contractor and the reason nothing I’ve built has yet fallen down. My brother in law is something of an expert in avant garde methods of fundraising and crowdsourcing. So while my own talents lie in animal and pasture/forest production and strategic planning… they’d mean nothing if we couldn’t comply with state food regulations (my wife), secure loyal and repeat customers (mother in law), build facilities that didn’t fall down (father in law), or obtain seed funding through Kickstarter (brother in law).

Beyond that, I frequently rely on the help of friends and other family members to lighten the load or speed things up on physical tasks. When you’re accustomed to working by yourself, you’ll be amazed at how incredibly easy things seem to get when you add just one more person. When you get farming, be aggressive about getting help and complementing your weaknesses. You’ll be the better for it.

*Being financially successful does not mean you’re not struggling. If you’re working 60+ hour weeks, can’t take a vacation (without working), and don’t seem to have time for anything that isn’t work or materially-oriented play… your soul is undergoing atrophy, and you will pay the price sooner or later.

Be sure to check out the other articles in this season’s series:

Lessons from the Farm, Pt. I – Brooders and Feeding
Lessons from the Farm, Pt. II – Poultry Processing
Lessons from the Farm, Pt. III – Fact Check: The Cost of Starting a Farm

———————

Scalability

My father-in-law and I began clearing a bunch of trees last May, the first living sacrifices for what would eventually become our poultry pastures. I was still employed as a technology consultant at the time, so I was happy to be out in the country exercising and getting fresh air. At some point, either I or one of a few friends that were helping us said “Yeah… I could definitely do this instead of [current sedentary career] for a living.” Pops, a general contractor with decades of experience in construction, shot back, “Do it for a year, then say that again.”

He was right. The clearing of land dragged on through the summer and was easily the most backbreaking work I’ve ever done. By the end I didn’t quite hate it, but there’s no way I’d be willing to keep it up for an entire year, much less a living. Since the tree felling ordeal, there’s one very important idea I ask when presented with a new idea for our farm operation: Would this idea still work if I a.) had to do it forever, or b.) had to scale the practice up?

This idea first bore fruit when I was trying to figure out the broilers’ feeding schedule. I’d been reading all over the internet about people checking on their birds every three or four hours, carefully restricting their feed to just six hours a day, and otherwise babysitting them practically around the clock. Checking on the broilers every few hours would be fairly easy for us right now since we just have one pen fairly close to the house. But next year we’ll have three or four, and the year after that we’ll probably go to a dozen or more, with some of them being on neighboring properties. On top of that we’ll have pigs, hens, bees, turkeys, gardens and orchards to contend with at the same time. Needless to say, managing the birds by keeping a near-constant eye on them is a solution that wouldn’t scale to a mature operation, so I forced myself to come up with a service schedule that allows me to visit the pens just twice a day.

The same idea convinced us to get a guard dog for the broilers. After a raccoon attack claimed five of our biggest birds, we start putting 4×4 blocks around the edges of the pen to secure it against burrowing predators on uneven ground. Again, this solution works well for our single pen but fails the “what if I had to do this for ten pens” test miserably. Unpinning and re-pinning the 4x4s on one pen takes about seven minutes. On ten pens it’ll take over an hour, ultimately tacking on additional labor costs of $6,400 for the entire season. This adds about 25 cents a pound to the sale price in addition to tying up time (to the tune of eight man-weeks) that could be spent doing other things. The alternative was to buy a guard dog for less than $100 (allocate this at $10/year over the ~10 year life of the dog), make a one-time labor investment of about $800 in training (allocate this at $80/year over the 10 year life of the dog), bank on about $500/yr in vet bills and meds, and feed the guy with unsellable birds and homemade dry kibble for $50/mo. It wasn’t hard to opt for $640/year instead of $6,400/year.

We’re still using the 4x4s on the practice pen because it isn’t economical to use a guard dog for just one pen, but next year those blocks will definitely be repurposed for something else.

The bottom line is, do not become dependent on any practice that can’t grow with you.

The Importance of Having a Mission and Values

If you’re into sustainable agriculture, there’s a good chance that you’re fairly well read. Sustainability rarely makes the news, so having a clue about the movement usually means putting eyes on books. When you decide to take the plunge into a farm of your own, your voracious appetite for knowledge will be critical to your success. But it can also be your undoing.

Sustainable agriculture is experiencing a renaissance. Increasing numbers of people are both entering the field and maturing within the field, spawning an array of new and exciting ideas so vast as to be overwhelming. In my own experience, I found the ideas of my Native ancestors, Joel Salatin, Sepp Holzer, Mark Shepard, Alan Savory, and many others competing for space in my head, often contradicting one another. For example:

  • Compost is a key element of Salatin’s fertility program. But then, the legendary Sepp Holzer does not practice intensive composting at all.
  • Tillage disrupts and destroys soil life. But then, it can be done in a way where that disruption is only temporary and erosion/compaction doesn’t become a problem. Furthermore, no-till practices are nearly impossible to implement economically.
  • Nothing builds topsoil like perennial grasses grazed by herbivores. But then, forests and savannas produce much more biomass and capture much more sunlight than open pasture.

I was in danger of schizophrenic thinking. All the ideas sounded great, including those at odds with one another. What ultimately saved me was the fact that I’d articulated a mission statement and core values for the farm several months earlier.

It’s understandable that mission and values statements sound both corporate and hokey. And it’s deservedly so in many cases since large corporations have by and large reduced their mission statements to cheap marketing bylines, and drifted far enough from their stated values to render them meaningless. Nevertheless, a simple but thoughtfully considered mission and values can be indispensable in guiding you through difficult decisions. I’ll share Sylvanaqua’s mission and values:

Mission Statement:

Make a healthy, happy world.

Core Values

Holism: Evaluate actions against the holistic goal, and their potential impact on future times and distant places.

Sustainability: Produce a net improvement in the continued ability to live happily on this planet.

Inclusion: Absolutely everyone deserves to be healthy and happy

With that in mind, here’s how our mission and values helped us to adopt the farming strategy we have today: one that involves a few years raising commercial breeds on pasture-based systems until our permaculture landscape matures:

Our farm is fairly unique in its value of inclusion. Many natural farmers treat the socioeconomic exclusivity of organic food as both unfortunate and unchangeable. As I’ve argued earlier, however, sustainable agriculture can’t fulfill it’s mission (i.e. saving the world) without moving into the mainstream; as James Madison would have put it, “a minority may block or delay, but ultimately may not govern.”  Lots of natural farmers and our supporters fight the good fight against ag subsidies and cronyism in an effort to get conventional agriculture to reflect its true cost. And while I believe that’s a worthy effort, I also believe there needs to be a Plan B that wouldn’t result in a debilitating economic shock on middle and lower income populations.

We can’t make everyone happy and healthy if we suddenly dump the ag subsidies. Food prices would double (or worse) and there’d be blood in the streets. Mainstream organic and natural production, as they stand today, are simply not capable of providing a product that’s affordable for the average person.

We considered several solutions to this problem:

  • Overproducing intentionally by about 10% to provide giveaways of our food to lower income people.
  • Annual community fundraising to set up a mobile market that doubles the purchasing power of lower income people. People come to the market, and for every dollar they spend, we match it with the money from the donations.
  • Getting into the community to teach people how to grow their own food.

Each of these solutions was a non-starter. The first idea would practically eliminate our profit and violate our principle of reducing overproduction. The second idea would make lower income people dependent on fickle public charity and increase their powerlessness. The third idea is one we’re still pursuing, but there’s only so many fruits and veggies people can eat; they can’t grow adequate staple crops and meat in an urban environment. At least not yet.

Underlying all three of these ideas was an assumed high price of organic food. It became clear natural food would be forever inaccessible (or accessible only through undesirable means) to the average person so long as the price remained high. So, how could we lower it and make it competitive with conventionally grown food without all the subsidies?

Asking this question eventually led me to consider permaculture. Among other things, permaculture espouses the development of extremely resilient, low-input agricultural systems by maximizing the capture of solar energy, installing perennial plant species, rearing animals naturally, and aggressively culling both plants and animals to encourage local adaptations. While the environmentally restorative effects of the system are to be lauded, I found myself particularly interested in the notion of feed and labor savings. If my animals could be fed with forage that I had to neither buy nor plant (due to perennial species), and my time in feeding and babysitting animals not bred for local conditions could be directed elsewhere – then I could pass those savings on to my end product to make it available to more people.

For these reasons I ultimately decided to orient my operation towards permaculture, but the glaring problem with that system is the time it takes to become productive. In a pasture-based system I can buy 200 Cornish Cross broilers from Ohio tomorrow and in eight short weeks I’ll have a harvest. Permaculture involves extensive earthwork projects, planting of trees and shrubs that won’t produce a harvest for years, and cull-strengthening the flora and fauna to adapt them to the local environment over a period of several years. Because of that reality, I decided to continue with pasture systems (which are infinitely more sustainable than conventional and even traditional organic systems) long enough to get our permaculture landscape to the point where it becomes our centerpiece.

It’s worth noting that these decisions would have been much more difficult without our core values. The decision to pursue permaculture is entirely rooted in the promise of fulfilling our core value of inclusion. Without that core value to drive decision-making, it’s very likely that we simply would have taken and remained on the path of least resistance. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, but I’d have likely spent the next several years second-guessing my decisions and being buffeted by the relentless tide of new ideas coming out of the natural farming renaissance.

Like a ship’s compass in a storm, your values will guide your farm through rough seas of naysayers, sales pitches, competing ideas, hyperactive enthusiasm, fads, and the desire to do everything at once. Take the time to build your compass, and find yourself farming deliberately instead of being moved along by the tide. You’ll thank yourself later.

 

Chris Newman
Proprietor, Sylvanaqua Farms

Be sure to check out the other articles in this season’s series:

Lessons from the Farm, Pt. I – Brooders and Feeding
Lessons from the Farm, Pt. II – Poultry Processing

———————

How much does it cost to start a farm?

Every now and again I like to fact-check and put numbers behind some of the statements I’ve made in previous blog articles. In one such article, I decided to try and back up the claim that conventional agriculture results in hidden costs by figuring out exactly what those costs were, and I found myself shocked by the results (about $25/week in hidden costs).

This time I’ve decided to fact check another statement I made awhile back about the cost involved with starting a farm. In the article “Six Reasons You Shouldn’t Wait to Start Farming,” I asserted that you could get yourself up and running with a 1,000-bird pastured poultry operation and a small 2,000 sqft market garden for under $20K. Here’s what I’d listed:

Poultry processing equipment and portable shed: $5,500
Poultry feed: $4,000
20′ x 100′ hoophouse/greenhouse: $2,500
Basic tool budget (table saws, leatherman, chainsaw, drill, etc.): $2,000
Misc. expenses (brooder, compost carbon, broiler pens, feeders/waterers, seed, rain capture equipment): $2,000
Poultry Stock: $1,000
20 acres rented pasture: $40/acre/year, $800

This comes out to $15,800. So how does that compare to how much I’ve actually spent (keeping in mind that we’ve included an egg and pork operation)? Well, here’s a table of our expenditures starting from April of this year:

Date Type Description/Source Amount
4/3/2013 Capital Acres USA Seminar $700.00
5/28/2013 Capital Lowes $54.56
6/2/2013 Capital Lowes $337.14
6/2/2013 Capital Lowes $48.85
6/10/2013 Capital Lowes $62.96
6/10/2013 Capital Lowes $365.08
6/26/2013 Capital Trailer Hitch $68.68
6/27/2013 Capital Website $37.99
6/29/2013 Capital Books (Amazon) $59.08
6/30/2013 Capital Lowes $80.02
6/30/2013 Capital Website $194.00
7/2/2013 Capital Adv. Auto Parts $7.34
7/8/2013 Capital Utility Trailer $1,500.00
7/29/2013 Capital Farm Equipment (FarmTek) $113.38
7/29/2013 Capital Lowes $27.36
7/29/2013 Operations Meyer Hatchery $130.49
7/29/2013 Capital Southern States $385.33
7/31/2013 Capital Lowes $185.90
8/1/2013 Operations Land Rental $200.00
8/6/2013 Operations Meyer Hatchery $334.94
8/12/2013 Capital Greenhouse Hoop Bender $129.53
8/12/2013 Capital Lowes $90.85
8/12/2013 Operations Seeds $74.74
8/13/2013 Capital Featherman Equipment $4,675.00
8/13/2013 Capital Southern States $50.46
8/15/2013 Operations Sunrise Farms Feed $360.00
8/18/2013 Operations Target $8.94
8/20/2013 Operations Vistaprint $46.97
8/21/2013 Capital FarmTek (Greenhouse, etc.) $639.24
8/23/2013 Capital Home Depot (Greenhouse) $841.59
8/27/2013 Operations Compost Worms $42.90
8/28/2013 Capital Lowes $92.07
8/31/2013 Capital Lowes $73.29
9/1/2013 Operations Land Rental $200.00
9/3/2013 Capital Southern States $27.37
9/5/2013 Operations Check Payment (Straw) $54.50
9/6/2013 Operations Cash Payment (Straw) $200.00
9/10/2013 Operations Acres USA Subscription $29.00
9/11/2013 Operations Southern States $9.45
9/12/2013 Operations Southern States $30.00
9/13/2013 Capital Lowes $535.06
9/18/2013 Capital Lowes $55.12
9/18/2013 Operations Southern States $24.63
9/18/2013 Operations Lowes $18.91
9/19/2013 Operations Blankshirts.com (t-shirts) $152.84
9/23/2013 Operations State Corporation Commission (llc reinstatement) $225.00
9/24/2013 Operations Constant Contact $255.00
9/27/2013 Operations Fedex (screenprint supplies) $18.94
9/30/2013 Capital Lowes $128.86
10/1/2013 Operations Land Rental $200.00
10/1/2013 Operations Sunrise Farms Feed $90.00
10/2/2013 Operations Southern States $355.67
10/3/2013 Capital Lowes $207.53
10/4/2013 Operations Southern States $217.59
10/7/2013 Operations Cash Payment (Unkn) $100.00
10/7/2013 Capital Lowes $139.50
10/7/2013 Operations State Corporation Commission (name change) $25.00
10/9/2013 Operations Featherman Equipment $366.45
10/10/2013 Capital Cavalier Restaurant Equipment $305.47
10/11/2013 Capital Lowes $285.46
10/12/2013 Capital Staples (Label Maker) $109.28
No Date Capital Misc Lumber & Supplies $1,100.00
Total $17,485.31

So thus far, I’m off by a little less than $2,000, but there are a few caveats that both nudge the numbers up and down.

Factors that nudge the numbers up:

  • This does not include feed for 1,000 broilers, though it does include feed for 150+ laying hens that are about 6 weeks old. This additional feed outlay will run about $3,800.
  • The cost of only 80 broilers (plus 150+ laying hens) is accounted for. We’d need to purchase just over 900 more, which will run about $950. Subtract from that the $300 we paid for our laying flock and we’re looking at an additional $600.

And there are several items in my list that bring the numbers down:

  • Our list includes a $700 charge for attending the Polyface IDS seminar.
  • Food and equipment we purchased for a special event we did later in the month is included, to the tune of about $300.
  • We’ve listed expenses for Kickstarter rewards, which runs to about $250.

So, if we start with $17,485, add to that the increasing factors of $4,400, then subtract the decreasing factors of $1,250, we arrive at:

Chris’ Original Estimate: $15,800
Amount Chris Actually Spent: $20,635

This is both good news and bad news. The bad news is that I was off by a whopping 30%. The good news is that I wasn’t off by orders of magnitude – I originally said that the farm operation could be had for under $20K, but it turns out it can be had for ABOUT $20K. This is much better than me having to eat crow because, whoops, it actually set me back $50K or $100K.

So the next logical question is: what happened that caused my estimate to be off? I think this can be nailed down to a few distinct categories:

1. Support Equipment

The biggest single item I didn’t account for in the original estimate was a $1,500 utility trailer I picked up on Craigslist. I didn’t include it because it was initially planned to just be used for hauling pigs, but since I wound up using it to haul lumber, feed, and other supplies, I decided to include it as something I’d missed. I’d be willing to argue that having at least one utility trailer is an absolute necessity. I also underestimated the cost of the four chicken transport crates I bought, which ran $85 apiece.

2. Composting

Composting is one of those things that seems like it’ll be next to free, but it really isn’t when you’re setting yourself up to fertilize your entire farm. I wound up spending a couple hundred dollars on straw bales (our bins are made of straw to provide more “middle” to our piles), about $40+ on red hybrid compost worms, and then the big ticket item of $750 for the wood chipper to make our own carbon.

3. Marketing

This was the most egregious one I missed in my first estimate. Producing without marketing is, of course, like winking at a beautiful woman in the dark, so you’ll need to set aside a decent budget for this. We paid about $250 for our website, about the same for an email marketing package, plus business cards, brochures, flyers, samples and giveaways, etc. All together these probably ran close to $1,000.

4. Supplies

There was a hodgepodge of supplies I hadn’t included in my original estimate. Among them were replacement chainsaw blades, gasoline, pine shavings for the brooders, ice/hoses/manifolds for processing, freezers, coolers, a label maker, a scale, replacement feeders, etc. These costs added up to over $1,000 I’m sure.

So there you have it; my estimate certainly wasn’t sharpshooter accurate, but it was at least inside the ballpark. I’ll happily amend my earlier statement to read, “you can have a 1,000 bird operation with a 2,000 sqft market garden operation for just over $20K.”

Happy farming!

Chris Newman
Proprietor, Sylvanaqua Farms
http://www.sylvanaqua.com

Be sure to check out the other articles in this season’s series:

Lessons From the Farm, Pt. I – Brooders and Feeding
Lessons From the Farm, Pt. III – How Much Does it Cost to Start a Farm?

———————

Poultry Processing

From October 11 – 13, we processed poultry for the very first time. I’m willing to say that things by and large went very well, but there were plenty of lessons learned along the way. This article is my attempt to get as many of those lessons down on paper for your benefit, while they’re still fresh in my mind.

Lesson Learned #1: Get Help

This one seems like a no-brainer, especially if you’re raising a large number of birds. Our test set, however, consisted of just a single pen of 73 birds. Because of this small number, I figured I’d be able to handle that number with just the help of my wife. As it turned out, Annie wasn’t able to help me much because her in-town job schedule was a bit haywire. So for the most part, I was left to process all the birds alone.

You’ll hear that it’s impossible to process poultry alone, and I’ll confirm that statement is true. It is technically possible to process alone if you have nothing else to do. Otherwise it’s going to be an all-day activity for several days and the rest of your farm is going to be completely neglected. It’s easy to think of processing time solely in terms of the amount of time it takes to kill, scald, pick, clean and chill your birds, but it’s much more than that.

First there’s the setup phase. The hooking up and testing of the water supply. The heating of scald and shrink-bag water and the cooling of tank water. The catching and transporting of birds out in the field. The testing of the equipment. The sharpening of knives. None of these tasks can be done in parallel if you’re working alone, so they’ll easily eat up three or four hours.

Next comes the actual processing phase. I wound up working in batches of four birds at a time, then moving up to six at a time by the third day. You have to be careful about killing too many birds at once; they’ll go into rigor and be difficult to deal with. The kill step, which includes loading the birds into the cones, took about 5 or 6 minutes. The scald takes another 2 minutes or so, including loading time. The pick takes another minute. At my skill level, the clean of four birds takes about 10 – 12 minutes, or longer if the pick wasn’t so good. Then the birds chill in the tank for 45 minutes or longer, followed by 10 minutes on the drying rack. Then a couple of minutes to bag and tag. By the third day I was able to get a batch of six birds from the cones to the tank in just over 30 minutes.

Once you’re done with all the birds, you have to clean up. The offal and blood have to be walked or trucked to compost. Water must be drained from the chill, scald, and shrink tanks. Then you have to wipe, disinfect, and store your equipment. Finally, you have to move whatever birds aren’t sold to the freezers. And in between all three phases of prep, process, and cleanup, there are other farm chores to do: pasture and forest animals need to be moved, fed, and watered, and any emergencies that pop up have to be dealt with.

I figure you’ll need about a five-person operation to move through processing without any bottlenecks. One person loading cones and killing, another operating the scalder and picker, two more cleaning, and one person bagging and tagging. How many birds you can get done without the bottlenecks will depend on the skill of your crew, especially the folks doing the cleaning. You’ll really appreciate the help during the setup and cleanup phases, the latter of which will go particularly faster when you have more hands on deck.

Lessons Learned #2: Particulars of Processing

Here’s a bullet list of tips and tricks for killing, scalding, picking, cleaning, etc., most of which I learned the hard way:

  • In the kill cone, pull the head of the bird down through the cone while your other hand holds the feet out. If you let go of the feet, it’ll be harder to expose the neck.
  • Put on your big boy/girl pants during the kill. Look at what you’re doing and do not close your eyes. Cut deep along the side of the neck just behind the ear, and prepare to get bled on.
  • After the cut, do not look down into the cones. Some chickens will poop, and in their senseless death throes will kick that poop right into your eye.
  • Don’t kill more birds than you can get cleaned in the next ten minutes. Otherwise they will go into rigor.
  • Fill your scald tank to the top. Otherwise your dunker may not submerge the birds enough and you’ll wind up with a poor scald, usually around the wings.
  • Don’t put fewer than three birds in the picker at once. If you do, they can get stuck and have their skin torn.
  • Pulling the heads off can be tricky. Lay the bird on it’s back, with beak facing you and head hanging off the edge of the table. Grab the head by making a loop with your thumb and index finger (like you’re making an OK sign), and stabilize the rest of the bird with your other hand. Break the neck by pulling the bird toward you by the head, and bending the head sharply down and away from you (pointing the beak towards the bird’s body); you’ll feel the neck separate. From there you can just pull the head straight back toward you, but first…
  • Don’t rip the head off just yet! You’ll see the esophagus and windpipe exposed at the neck; this is the best time to loosen them without having to make a cut into the skin above the breast. If you loosen those pipes before you pull the heads off, you’ll have a prettier carcass in the end.
  • To pull the guts out, envision your hand as the claw on an excavator; the claw reaches into the ground as far as it can go, curls back at the hinge while still in the ground, then pulls out. Likewise, reach your hand into the body cavity along the spine as far as it will go, make a claw and curl up with your hand still all the way in the cavity, and then pull out taking everything you touch with you.
  • That green thing attached to the liver is the gall bladder. Do not rupture it. If you do, don’t let the green bile touch any birds. After I got smart, I started waiting until I’d cleaned the entire bird and put it in the tank before salvaging livers.
  • Lungs are also tricky. Get them by reaching forward into the front of the bird, then sweeping down (and hard) on one side then the other. The lungs are bright pink.
  • If you’re having trouble pulling out a crop/windpipe/esophagus from the inside, give the body cavity a quick rinse. That’ll make things a little less slippery in there.

I’m sure there’ll be a Part II to the processing lesson, but this will do for now. Next season we’ll take videos of our processing and post the details, being sure to go nice and slow and give lots of closeups. In the meantime, feel free to email me if you have any questions.

Chris