For Chris and I, becoming first time farmers has been an experience not unlike becoming first time parents. Equal parts amazing, terrifying, startling, and fulfilling, farm life is both exactly what we expected and completely surprising. When we moved our family to the farm, we brought with us not only the entirety of our worldly possessions but all of Chris’s intangible prior farm and animal-related experience as well. While he did not – much to his chagrin – grow up on a farm, the sum total of Chris’s applicable farming skills is fairly impressive for a kid from the ‘burbs. Weekends and summers on the ranch with Grandpa Hank, as well as years and years of FFA membership have served him, and us, well. Even further, of the thirty-six boxes of books that we hauled from California – no, not a typo – several were packed with the informative, encouraging words of authors like Joel Salatin, Gene Logsdon, and Joseph Harris. When our tires hit the dirt road and our boots hit the pastures, we felt as ready as we could be.
As anyone who has made the transition from “preparing to be a parent” to “actual parent” can attest, the learning curve is as steep as it is mystifying. So far, our first nine months on the farm have been comparable to the first nine months after bringing Olivia home from the hospital. No amount of babysitting, whether it be other people’s children or livestock, and no amount of book learning can ever truly prepare a person for the dynamic, unpredictable first few months as a new parent or rookie farmer.
So far, in our experience, the animals that are the most congruent to figuring out a newborn and their persistent conundrums are the broiler chickens. We have already written about the debacle of getting our first, complete batch of chickens in the brooder. I won’t belabor that story, other than to acknowledge that it added to the overall tension connected with this first batch of birds. From day one – of a full brooder – Chris and I were back in the shoes of newborn parents. We checked on the birds constantly, discussed specific placement for feed and water (along with the benefits and imagined consequences of each option), and fretted about how much and when to feed these baby birds. As seasoned farmers know, there are appropriate amounts when it comes to feeding livestock of any kind. Too little and the birds won’t grow; too much and you run the risk of losing large numbers to heart attack (and other maladies). As new farmers, we know this, and yet we lack the history of experience to help us feel confident that we are doing things “the right way.” All the pre-farm reading has been helpful – in countless ways – but no amount of book learning can determine the right amount, the right time, the right placement of food for the batch of birds that happens to be in the brooder right now.
For all intents and purposes, this first batch of broilers is a flock of guinea pigs. On top of our rookie status as farmers, we are also leaning away from what is widely considered standard practice in the chicken industry. We are not feeding our chickens corn or soy in their daily ration of food. Our recipe is different than conventional feed, and we have yet to see how the birds perform (start to finish) on the non-soy proteins available from our most local mill. One thing we can be sure of is that these birds will be smaller than the average supermarket bird. On one hand, we expected and almost welcome this. Instead of being self-conscious about our smaller birds, let’s talk about why the ones in the meat aisle are so large and plump. Surely their size cannot be attributed to clean, happy living. Getting back to raising and eating animals as nature intended will most certainly look different than what the conventional chicken houses are offering. Still, as new farmers (and new business owners) we know that customers are used to, and possibly expecting, a product that is different than what we will be bringing to the farmers’ market. Will we be able to convince families that roasting two smaller chickens is as easy as roasting one large one? Are people as interested in personal, cornish game hen-sized birds as they are in personal pizzas? Time will tell.
One factor that we are anticipating will help with the bird size in the next batch is adjusting the food ration. We are still committed to non gmo, corn and soy free feed, but we are researching and weighing different soy-replacers than what this first batch had. Ironically, the most vexing thing about making a switch like this is also one of the reasons we started this farm. One personality trait that I will admit to harboring is impatience. As soon as we decided to make the move to farm life, I was ready to reserve a moving truck. Now that we have identified a possible solution to a source of worry, I am ready to implement it yesterday. However, getting through a batch of chickens – brooder to freezer – takes time. Batch number two is currently in the brooder, and any changes that we make in their feed won’t yield measurable results until August. Good food takes longer to grow. Slow food is, and always will be, better than fast food. Again, as new farmers and new business owners we are wholly on board with spending the time to bring a healthier product to market. As a problem solver though, I wish we knew *right now* if the key to larger broilers lies in the feeder. Just as when trying a new schedule, new swaddle, or new bottle for a newborn, I am searching for immediate answers. Patience though, is the order of the day when figuring out both new humans and new farm enterprises.
This first batch of birds is scheduled to be processed on the 28th of this month. Processing days, as farmers know, need to be scheduled months in advance, as good processors book up quickly and reliably. Chris and I have discussed and debated several options for bringing this first flock of “guinea pigs” to market. The various courses of action need not be overly examined here, and we have decided to stick with our original schedule: the birds will be processed on the 28th and be available for sale starting June 29th. They will be smaller than we hoped, but no less healthful and delicious than promised. We will keep the very small ones for our own family, unless customers are, in fact, interested in personal broilers (I contend that roasting a pair of 2.5lb chickens is as easy – and arguably quicker – as a single, 5lb bird!). With some adjustments, and a little more farm-experience, the next batch of broilers will be closer to our target size, closer to what customers most likely expect.
As we fine-tune our farming SOPs, our skills will improve along with our experience. Chris and I have been parents now for almost nine years. We have added two other birdies to our own flock, and I can assure you that we are much more relaxed, capable parents to five year old Audrey and two year old Nora than we were almost a decade ago. A decade from now, if we are lucky enough to still be your farmers, I hope that we can look back on our first year on the farm, our first season, our first batch of birds, and smile, knowing then all the fun that was waiting for us in the future. We all know babies don’t keep, and parents eventually get things figured out. We will keep plugging along at this farming thing, hopeful that just like everything else, we’ll get it figured out too.
Thanks, as always, for being on this adventure with us!