Thursday, November 8, 2012

Sustainability Means Making Choices

"What do you mean you didn't raise turkeys this year?" the caller asked incredulously. "We've always had one of your birds for Thanksgiving," she continued to whine hoping to guilt trip me for a decision that has not only added to my sanity, but to my bottom line as I have chosen to spend my finite resources (pasture, time, inputs, infrastructure) on a different type of livestock I've not had yet here at the farm--pastured pigs.

My foray into heritage turkeys began while I was still living in Ojai, California. The hatchery mistakenly sent a batch of Bourbon Reds instead of the Bronze Breasted (the brown version of the commercial white birds) I normally raised. Not a big flock--a dozen birds at the most as I was unaware that small-scale pluckers were available.

The birds were fed with gleanings from the avocado and citrus orchard in which I lived and were processed by hand thanks to my dear friend, Nancy and a good bottle of wine on what always turned out to be a sunny day with temperatures never dipping below the low seventies at worst.

Fast forward a few years and three thousand miles to the humble beginnings of Painted Hand Farm.

With limited fencing, we began with six Broad Breasted white turkeys poults (that's a baby) purchased from a local commercial turkey farm. Little did we realized that those poor little devils had been mutilated, toes clipped off at the first joint leaving them with bulbous knobs that left alien-like footprints as the birds matured. Similarly, the top half of their beaks were missing turning them into feathered Simpson cartoon characters.But the worst of all was the de-snooding of the males. Yes, it's as emasculating as it sounds since there is scientific proof that females prefer long snoods.

One had a bum leg to start with and we called him Stumpy. He limped around the barnyard avoiding a collision course between machinery, barn restoration and larger livestock which at this time amounted to only my mare, Bango. With an acre on which to roam, horse and turkey tangled in an effort to use the gate at the same time and Stumpy lost and we ate him.

Having been given a lovely commercial incubator that was lugged across the country, my hopes were to gather and hatch out all the farm's turkeys. I'd hatched quail, guineas and chickens, but no turkeys as of yet. When the obvious anatomical differences as well as size presented with the first flock of the farm, we harvested the larger, dumber and most irritating members of the flock leaving four females and one male.

The birds grew throughout the winter and spring arrived along with high hopes of hatchlings. The only problem was the big breasted Dolly Parton of a tom was so overly endowed with white meat he could only give good wing despite the hens lined up in a row, tail feathers flipped up to reveal their vents pulsating in anticipation. Every single egg was sterile.

Thanks to episodes of The Man Show and Dirty Jobs it quickly became apparent that ordering poults was going to be easier than hatching our own.  And so the last two of these monstrous freaks became the reason why a pair of turkeys are always smoked at the Labor Day Goat Roast.

For a few years we kept the number around a dozen until I became thoroughly ensconced in the pastured poultry sustainable agriculture movement. Then I doubled the number. While I wanted to raise the Bourbon Reds again, their hefty price tag for poults quickly sent me back to the Bronze, only this time I opted for the standard variety instead of the Broad Breasted--a comfortable medium. 

While I had hoped to retain a few choice specimens as breeders, in reality my technology and writing skills far outweighed my farming acumen and submitted a recipe to a burgeoning little website, LocalHarvest, which resulted in hundreds of calls for my sweet little flock raised on the rolling organic sylvo-pastures of Painted Hand Farm. Needless to say, I sold all of them.

"Let's raise 300 next year," my companion quickly suggested at our success. Having paid the bills for just getting two dozen to the table, I quickly surmised that his ambitions would require nearly a ten thousand dollar investment in birds and feed alone, not to mention additional fencing, feeders, waterers, etc. in order to support a sizable flock.

"Not so fast. Let's do 50," I responded and 50 it was. The following year, the number grew to 75 and there in is where I hit my limit as the fate of Mother Nature took over and ratcheted us back to 50. Those kinds of losses are hell on your budget.

But then I began going to farmers markets and that darn recipe was still floating about this thing called the Internet. Listen to Joel Salatin and only sell locally--don't ship. I watched a local Mennonite family with whom I butchered one year choose to ship. "It was a nightmare! We'll never do it again," they advised. I listened.

50 birds also seemed to be the limit that the pastures, the paddocks, the stock trailer and the farmers could manage. And in full disclosure, I should say that the birds were never really my thing. Once that relationship ended, I thought to myself, "Why am I raising these horrible throw-backs from the age of dinosaurs?"

Every single year it seemed as if the dank, chilly and wet winter sets in on butcher day. Nothing fills the nostrils more than wet turkey feathers caked with blood, guts and shit of which you will smell until the end of the day when you step into a hot shower and toss your clothes in the washing machine. Slaughtering turkeys is no picnic and if you are fortunate enough to be able to pay someone to do it for your, it's going to cost anywhere from $3.50 to $9 a the math.

For many years, however, raising a flock of turkeys--be they heritage or not--was profitable and fun. But then a few things happened.

First, I found myself farming alone and turkeys require a lot of time and labor. For example, heritage birds fly. This means clipping wings at least twice during their lifetime--a two person job. My year of keeping a flock solo resulted in a little too free-ranging turkeys who would make their rounds throughout the neighborhood twice a day and ultimately roost on top of the fence, not inside. Hungry birds will bear down on humans at an amazing speed if they think you have food for them. Anytime anyone would walk out their front door in the neighborhood or drive into their driveways, the entire flock would mob them. This did not go over well with some of my less agrarian neighbors so I gave away several turkeys to make up for the terror and turds in their front yards which the accountant pointed out was not a legitimate expense.

Secondly, the explosive growth of the sustainable agriculture movement meant that I was not longer the only pastured poultry game in town. My first year at market, I was the only farmer with Thanksgiving turkeys locally raised on pasture. The next year there were three. At the next market there were four and then it seemed everyone was doing it--farmers with more land, more labor, more capital and more processing capacity. Some of them didn't have to farm for a living and were able to offer a premium product for little profit leaving those of us whose sole source of income was the farm struggling to justify why our birds were so expensive compared to so & so's. 

Third, in case you've been living in a cave deep in the Himalayas, have you noticed all the news stories about the drought? Sure, we've got plenty of rain here, but in the mid-west, animal feed is at a premium driving the cost of grains necessary for growing out healthy turkeys as much as 35% more than last year. That means the turkey that I was selling for $3.50 a pound a few years ago now needs to cost at least  $4.75 at a bare minimum in order to deliver a 25% profit. And when you're looking at four to five months of caring for birds twice a day (turkeys take an amazing amount of water, too) combined with all the expenses, it's easy to see how the profit margin quickly shrinks.

With more people raising turkeys, the number of no-shows also began to increase. Taking deposits added yet another layer of time for record-keeping. You'd be amazed at how many people will put down a clearly-stated nonrefundable deposit on something, not show up and then demand their deposit. Let someone else have the aggravation, I say. 

But I think the final straw of my foray into fowl was the accounting of resources here at the farm. You see, I have a finite amount of land--20 acres. My limited space is one of the reasons I choose to produce small ruminants and calves as opposed to larger animals such as cows. Also, the sylvo-pasture is home to more predators than traditional open fields meaning I'm even more limited for pastured poultry. Trust me, cleaning up a hundred broilers housed in the woods for the shade during the summer that have been decimated by mink or weasel is most disappointing and extremely unsustainable.

Ah, there's that word--sustainable. It's been bandied about by both legitimate and illegitimate sources (yes, Monsanto I'm talking about your outright bribery via NPR's Market Place ad spots). And even those claiming to be sustainable really aren't when you peel back their non-profit status and peek beneath the hood of rich in-laws and multi-million dollar endowments.

These last few years I've been given the freedom to experiment with what is sustainable as well as what isn't. One of the things into which I've delved is pastured pigs and in the end, the numbers didn't lie--three pigs delivered more profit than 50 turkeys. After all, everybody loves bacon!

So, why not do both? goes back to that little thing called resources. There's only so much pasture to go around, so much capital to be invested, so much human labor available. Hire more people! Lease more land! And my all-time favorite....get some interns.

But I've been watching other farmers go down that path and invariably, they all say the same thing..."god, I hate these fucking turkeys."  They may not admit it to their customers, but I heard it at one time or another from ever single one of them, even the plain folks.

And so this year I decided to devote my resources to pastured pork instead of pastured turkeys--heritage or otherwise. I know it's not what anyone wants to hear, but sometimes we farmers need to take a break in order to remain.....sustainable.