It's been a little over a year since the first batch of 100 day old chicks arrived at Autumn Farm. It's been a massive year of learning, surviving, nourishing our community, learning some more, working hard, crying, laughing, asking ourselves (and being asked by others) "why the hell are we doing this??" and "is this really worth it??" and then realising that yes, it is what we really want to be doing with our little piece of land - feeding people.
And while it is tremendously rewarding and for me, at least, the fulfilment of a childhood dream of wanting to be a farmer, there have been times when we've had a tiny taste of the tragedy and heartbreak that also comes with trying to make a living from the land, where you're ultimately always at the mercy of Nature. Like my 3rd-generation-dairy-and-sheep-farmer neighbour said: "some days you wouldn't give it up for ten million bucks, the next day you'd give it all up for 10 cents". It is really like that.
In my mind, The Hardships of Farming always kind of took the shape of drought and flood - images of sheep lying dead in a desert-like paddock, old gnarled farmers in check shirts and akubras with their faces in their hands, murmuring desperately about being forced from their land. Or the other extreme of cattle being lifted in helicopter-slings to save them from being drowned.
We, in our extremely small-fry operation will never be vulnerable to these kinds of desperate extremes. But that doesn't mean that we don't experience a little of the rollercoaster.
|On hot days, we spray the chickens with water every hour or so, to stop them from overheating|
Take the last 2 weeks. A fortnight ago, the weather was sunshiny spring. The chicks were loving it, the big chickens were loving it. Everyone was happy and healthy and growing well on the beautiful spring pasture. Pearl's and my moods (inextricably linked to the health and happiness of our chickens) were high. It was a 10 million dollar kind of a time.
And then we had a cold rainy snap. What does a cold rainy snap mean for a little pastured poultry enterprise? First of all, it means that we need to buy straw. There's no point moving the chicken houses onto wet ground, so the daily house move is replaced by houses filled daily (sometimes twice daily) with dry straw, to keep the chickens healthy, if not happy. Buying straw means our (already slim) profit margins go down, so while we love and need the rain, it's always in the back of our mind.
It means days of trudging around in raincoats at all hours of the day and night, tending to feed and water and straw, making sure the chickens are managing to stay dry. It means slipping over in the wet grass.
And, sometimes, it means death. This last cold rainy snap came at an unfortunate time for our chicks in the brooder house, who'd been happily acclimatising to the warm spring weather. They'd been born during mild weather, arrived on our farm during warm weather, and we'd been slowly lowering the heat in the brooder house in preparation for their move to pasture. So when the temperature dropped 20 degrees literally overnight, they had no preparation or resilience for cool weather and, in spite of the heat lamp in the brooder house, they piled up and crushed, out of desperation to keep warm.
The temperature, at 10 degrees, was nowhere near as cold as our winter chicks tolerated. But they were used to it. Not so these springtime chicks.
It is really sad. As the peeps at Buena Vista Farm put it, "Who'd be a farmer, eh?" (they have an excellent post with that title, and I strongly recommend you read it if you'd like to understand a little more about the human energy goes into producing your food). Those are the 10 cent days.
But now here we are in the sunshine. The chickens and chicks are all happy again. Yesterday we sold 120 chickens to some very happy local people, who hopefully feasted well last night. Today, across the Valley, people are cooking up bone broths and chicken soups. And that is what makes us keep going. But it's hard - no bones about it.