Saturday, July 25, 2009

Difficult Decisions

Lately things here at the farm have taken a serious turn for the worse. I have been debating whether this blog is an appropriate place to discuss them. Right now I have far more questions than I do answers. Certainly, it seems I will not continue to live and farm here. However, it is a blog about the farm, so leaving the personal bits out, I would like to continue to tell the story of the farm.

One of the areas in which there has always been some serious conflict for us is the poultry aspect of the farm, which is a large part of what we do here. We hold ourselves to extremely high standards when it comes to the quality of life of our birds. Knowing that hatcheries have questionable standards regarding selection and care of breeding flocks, and treatment of the extraneous male chicks, we made the decision to keep a "closed flock" and breed our own chickens and turkeys, and hatch our own chicks. This way we are indeed responsible for their whole lives and the lives of their parents.

The tricky issue then, is the final one. When you hatch your own birds, you then have many "extra" little boys, and the ladies that do not have the appropriate points to be healthy and productive, or that do not meet the breed standard. We have always taken them to an independent, USDA inspected processing facility, to be be processed for eating. This is the only time in their lives when they leave our farm and our care. Our options our limited here, but we had put our trust in a certain place in Virginia, one that claims to be very concerned with the humane treatment of animals, seemed like minded in intent, and whose owner is a certified reiki healer, in fact. The last time we took chickens to this facility to be processed, it was last fall, and the condemned happened to be the sweetest, gentlest, most laid back bunch of fellas I have ever raised. It caused a particular sadness for me to help load them into the crates to go, because in their trusting way, they didn't struggle, weren't especially upset, they let me catch them without too much fuss.

We picked them up, brought them home, opened the cooler-and were horrified. Many of the birds were bruised, some severely. One of them had a leg so extremely bruised that I am certain it was broken.

Furthermore, they were badly packaged, and mislabeled "stew hen". They were young cockerels, not old hens. Furious, we both called the place, I obtained the owner's cell phone number and tried to call him, I e-mailed. I wanted to know what happened to them, what was the explanation, why our birds were given back to us in this state? I understand that accidents or mistakes can happen, but if, say, a crate of birds was accidentally dropped, I felt I at least deserved the courtesy of being told. There was never any response. So much for customer service.

So, there is the stress not having an adequate processor for the product. That aside, we are losing money on the birds, no fault of theirs. We hatched a good number of chickens last fall in order to have plenty of eggs to sell at market, but as I have said, for all the reasons I have mentioned before, the eggs aren't selling. Trying other avenues, such as selling hatching eggs, hasn't panned out. Feed costs remain very high, and it is a lot of work to tend a large flock, so the result has been Steve working off the farm to afford the feed for birds that aren't making us any money, and on my end..

While Steve is off working I have been taking care of the birds, and it is an average of three hours a day to take proper care of them. For us both, it has become drudgery. Because it is a large, complex system, we have been unable to leave the farm for a vacation, or any sort of break, because we lack the funds and an appropriate candidate to train to take care of them while we are gone.

Also, I am facing the fact that, though I have tried to make myself accept it, I do not want to raise animals to kill them any longer. It goes against my basic nature, I can't be comfortable with it, it is simply not my calling. Both of us believe strongly in raising our own food, in eating food that is raised right, be it animal or vegetable. We believe in "you are what you eat" at a fundamental and even spiritual level. However, every time I have to sort a flock of chickens and decide who gets to stay and who goes, and when I help catch and load them into the truck the morning they go away, it hurts my heart, and that feeling never goes away. I believe in what we do, but I can't do it. So there is that.

The decision then, has been made that we will disperse most all of the flock. These young hens I mentioned are in the prime of their lives, and we hope to be able to place as many of them as possible in good homes. I have a few small groups of old timers that I feel I must keep, a few favorite youngsters, a few turkeys, and my geese that I feel the need to hold on to. Go ahead and call them pets, if you must, but at least these pets have jobs. They provide poison-free pest control, and produce nutritious eggs, and fertilizer, which is more than I can say about my dogs!

The ones we can't place, Steve will process himself. Neither of us likes it, but there it is. We hear every day about another poultry producer that is going out of business, selling off the flock. It is a serious crisis, trying to remain a viable small poultry farmer in this economy, and I have wished that we could make it work, but it looks like it is our turn to quit.

Next up: why wiregrass is the devil's weed


d.a. said...

I'm so sorry to read how the producer mangled your birds! How awful! I can only imagine the anguish you must feel.

I wish you best of luck finding new homes for your flocks.

Billie Jane said...

Sara this is awful! I am so sorry for you both. It is a global problem, here in the UK the plight of the small chicken farm is very much the same... we have had a celebrity chef on tv...showing to his dinner guests (in all its horrid-ness) the gassing of male chicks... and another celebrity chef trying to challenge the supermarkets on their 'cheap' meat and misleading labels for hens eggs... its very very sad. And makes me a little depressed to be honest.

ACE said...

Nothing good is ever lost. I trust your knowledge and skill will carry you through this transitional period, and your smart and good heart will make something beautiful out of this mess. This world is better for your work and I am grateful to you.