How do I start? This is such a big change in our life….
This is our fourth summer raising chickens, hogs, turkeys, ducks, and geese. We raise our meat with a no-soy, no-corn, non-GMO feed (we used to use a completely organic feed, but it’s no longer available). We produce an amazing product. The people who try our food come back for more, and they always give compliments. I have never tasted chicken as amazing as ours. No store-bought chicken makes the dark yellow, nutrient-dense broth that our chicken makes.
And we love farming. We love the animals. I love the sounds of baby turkeys outside my bedroom window. I even love seeing the neighbor’s cows escape and walk right past me, heading for my fruit trees! I love the view (we are up on a hill, and we see the valley) below. I love the free ranging geese that go wherever they want to go (and poop wherever they want to). I loved the ducks (and now I love them in my freezer!) and hoped to get laying ducks this year. My husband loves doing the work–it is good work. It feels good, like we’re making a difference, even if it’s only a tiny difference, in the world. I love the ability to dream on this farm. I am a visionary, and I can dream up whatever ideas I want on this property. Maybe we’ll build a camp? A petting zoo? A boarding school for challenging kids? The possibilities are endless! Even if they never come true, I’ve loved the ability to dream here.
This March, my husband quit his full-time job to come home and work the farm. We have a child with really challenging behaviors, and for that child to heal, we both needed to be here. And having my husband here on the farm has helped that child a lot! We really hoped that the farm could sustain us. We analyzed spreadsheets of expenses and profits, etc. We had a really good plan.
Farming is an unpredictable job. Everything cost more than we thought it would. We made mistakes and then had to pay to repair the mistakes. In farming, if you make mistakes, animals might die. When you make mistakes, you have to fix them. Farming can be so expensive. And, unfortunately, the sales have not been as high as we anticipated. We’ve sold a few hundred broiler chickens per summer in the past. We thought that if we did farmer’s markets and acquired a larger customer base, we could sell 3,000 chickens this summer. That was our goal. We didn’t. We held off on ordering 3,000 chicks (praise God we did!) because the orders just weren’t coming in like we thought they would. We have raised, I think, somewhere around 800 birds this summer (some are still on pasture). We have sold hundreds, but still, not enough to support our family….
We also sell pork, beef, raw milk, ducks, geese and turkeys. We are raising 50 Thanksgiving turkeys and told people that we were taking deposits to reserve a turkey for this Thanksgiving. We got 2 deposits. What is a farmer supposed to do with 48 extra turkeys that nobody buys?
Our feed cost went up this year, too. It was around .49 per pound and now it is .55. It doesn’t seem like a big difference, but it really does add up. And since our price-list is all based on the .49/lb feed, that just reduces our income.
At the farmer’s market, we see people like this:
1. People who look pretty fit, like they care about their health. Half of them stop at our booth, and maybe 3/4 of those people buy. The other half of those people tell us that they’re vegetarian.
2. Average looking people who may or may not stop. If they try a sample, they suddenly want to buy our chicken, because it really is a good product–until we tell them that it’s, on sale (meaning, little to no income for us), a $17 chicken, even at only 3.5 lbs. Yesterday, a lady, who had her money out and was about to buy, said “$17 for that?” and then she put her money back in her wallet. I wanted to cry…
3. People who look unhealthy. They are good customers for the kettle corn booth, the snow cone stand, and maybe the berry vendors, but they don’t stop or even look at our booth. They might stop for free samples, but they never buy.
The people under #1 tell us “you’re doing a good thing!” and “keep up the good work!” and “I wish there were more farmers doing what you’re doing!”
We explain why we don’t feed our animals soy, and there are so many people who say they “get it.” We sell at a hospital farmer’s market, and we’ve had a cancer researcher say that the estrogen properties in the soy are promoting the growth of tumors. I knew that from my own studies–but a cancer researcher at the top medical school in our state told me that!! We are raising a GOOD product! Our meat is the only meat that I know of that does not promote the growth of tumors. That is AMAZING! We feel good about that! And yet….we aren’t selling enough. Even on the meat we are selling, we aren’t making enough. We probably should charge more per pound. I was calculating our hours at the farmer’s market, too, and thinking, for a fair wage, for the labor of raising our chicken and the labor of setting up the farmer’s market booth every week, our chicken should be $11 per pound. Yup. I wonder who would pay $38.50 for a 3.5 lb chicken??
We left the farmer’s market, discouraged, the other day, and drove past a sign that said whole fryers were .97 per lb. That is why people are not buying our meat. As long as chicken farmers pack thousands of birds into dark stinky buildings and feed them the garbage from the processed food industry, there will always be people who buy .97/lb chicken and people who scoff at our prices. They’ll, unfortunately, be unknowingly encouraging cancer growth in their bodies, too…
I know that if we stuck it out and just waited, eventually, people might get it. Maybe. But for now, there are the bills. If we didn’t have a mortgage on our farm, maybe we could make it. And if we didn’t take out debt to start the farm business (which we had to do), maybe we could make it. But we can’t.
My husband is applying for work again. We have to be able to pay the mortgage and the bills. We thought, perhaps he could work through the winter and then farm in the spring/summer, like so many farmers do. The problem with raising meat is that every spring we need at least $20-30,000 to invest in animals and feed for the season. And next Spring, unless we get a surprise lump sum of money (not likely!), we won’t have that. Every ton of feed costs about $1,000. We have ordered many, many tons of feed this spring and summer. One batch of 100 turkeys (at a really great deal) cost us $500. Many of them died this year. Farming is SO expensive!!!
The type of work my husband does is not close to our home. He drives 45 minutes to an hour each way, depending on traffic. He used to be able to go in early and leave at 3 pm, and he would miss rush hour traffic and have a long evening with us (and to do all of the farm chores). His work got more and more intense, over the last year or so. He was needing to go to meetings later in the day & he had to work longer hours. He was leaving our home in the dark, and coming home in the dark. He was doing his farm chores with a headlamp on, in the dark. We did not have as much family time as we would have liked.
Like I said, he quit his job in March, and our goal was to make a living at full-time farming. I know there are scoffers out there who say you can’t. And my response is: that is just wrong. It is wrong that the people who provide the healthiest foods–the foods that sustain us and keep us going–cannot make a living at raising food alone. Why should the people who grow our food have to work MORE than the average person? They work much longer hours, with little thanks, and they get paid LESS. It is wrong. To the lady who scoffed at our $17 chicken, and anyone else out there who thinks that price is outrageous–I want to ask, how much do they make per hour and what do they do? Is their job sustaining the lives of people? I can’t think of a more important job in the whole wide world than growing people’s food (other than being a mom!). Growing people’s food is a very important job, and yet, it pays so POORLY. It’s wrong. I want to change that system. But it’s really hard to do, being the farmer, and trying to make a living….
We came to a point where we had to make a decision. My husband has to go to work again, there is no question about that. Our decision was:
- Do we continue on, farming, while he works 9+ hour days and commutes 2 hours? Do we keep sacrificing our family time? What is more important to us, good food (the best!), or time together as a family?
- Do we continue farming, knowing that it barely pays for itself, and this is just a “hobby” that we keep pouring our money into?
- Do we continue farming when we know that we won’t be able to invest enough into raising many animals next Spring?
- Do we continue farming when it’s so difficult to find customers to pay the real cost of real food?
- Do we continue to rack up debt on this farm, hoping that someday it will pay off?
The first point is really the most important one to us. We don’t want to sacrifice our time together for anything–not even the best food in the world. If we could farm and be together (I have LOVED having my husband home for all 3 meals!) and make a reasonable income, we would do it. But we can’t.
We are selling our farm so that we can spend tie together as a family. There is grieving with this. If we live in a neighborhood, we will never again find that a mama chick hatched 15 baby chicks in our backyard. I will never be able to talk to the geese as they walk past my kitchen window again (yes, I talk to our geese). We will never again see the looks on a customer’s face when they say that they tried our pork last week and it was AMAZING and tender, and juicy, and unlike any other pork they’ve ever eaten. We love producing good food.
We LOVE the farmer’s market experience. We will never again be able to set up a booth at the farmer’s markets and meet some of the best people in the world. Farmer’s are amazing people–really. We have loved the vendors we have met at the markets this year. Generous, caring, friendly people who are working hard and sacrificing so much to feed people. We will never be able to set up our booth again–our family has become quite skilled at putting up the white 10×10 tent, setting up the tables, etc. Our boys play board games behind the tent while our daughter “reads” chapter books (she loves to feel like a big kid) and my husband and I try to sell our food. Every week, the kids bring the money they earned (even if it’s only a few quarters for taking on extra chores) and they buy honey sticks, and other treats at the market. We walk over to the park for a bit while my husband manages the booth, and I let the kids run through the water, so that when we’re sitting at our booth in the heat, they can stay cool. When the market is over, we take down the tent and pack everything in the van. As other vendors are closing down, they often give away their perishables. I get bouquets of flowers, often, from a sweet young couple who sells near us at both markets. One vendor, a Mexican woman who recognized our adopted son as “a Mexican baby” (he’s 9) right away, gives us so much free food every week. She tells us over and over, “you are good people,” while she gives us bags full of green beans, tomatillos, onions, squash and cilantro. She, and her daughters who are also at the market, have blessed me and encouraged me so much. I love the market. My husband asked me yesterday, if I’d ever get tired of it–if I felt tired yet? If setting up the booth every week, multiple times per week, and sitting there for hours and then tearing it all down again was wearing on me? I said no–and I don’t think it ever would. I love it. He said he felt the same way. But we won’t be doing that again…
We are grieving. This is a loss. Really, a loss. But we’re not done yet…I think we needed this season of growing food, seeing what farmers go through, to understand it. We are passionate about supporting small farmers and telling everyone about the cost of raising good food–and that meat in the grocery store is not good for anyone (the animal, the eater, the farmer–anyone). I feel strongly that I am supposed to be an advocate–a voice for the farmers. And, I plan to continue on in that role. But I won’t be “The Farmer’s Wife” anymore, when we don’t have a farm. “The Software Test Manger’s Wife” doesn’t have the same ring, does it?
I still plan to write. I think I could write an entire book about our time on the farm and what we’ve learned. I hope you will keep reading, even when we are not farming any more…