Poultry and Politics

I have had a lot of people ask me about how and what I feed my animals. At the Farmer’s Market, customers are most concerned with how the laying hens are treated because that, in their minds, is a measure of the quality of the eggs. When the Barbizieuxs and Cornish are ready for processing, their lives in the preceding ten months or so will determine the carcass quality and in turn, justify the price-per-pound.

On the Facebook pages I follow, there is a wide variety of opinions about what sort of feed is best: specialty non-GMO organics, particular brands, “live” feed, sprouted or fermented, etc.

Just like with other pet foods, there are companies who manufacture ready-to-use feeds under less than ideal circumstances or with vague “by-product” ingredients, but are able to sell that product for much less than their competitors. And that’s really the point of capitalism: producing something at a price the market will bear. I could totally seek out a supplier of whole grains who uses non-GMO seeds, never sprays their fields with any pesticides or ripening agents, only allows rainwater on their fields and hand-harvests. I can’t imagine what that would sell for, but I do know I couldn’t afford it, and my customers couldn’t afford to buy poultry fed on that grain.

My feeding philosophy aligns with the mission of the Farm as closely as possible, as often as possible: use the feed and feeding techniques that the animal would seek out in their native habitat, and adjust for deficiencies. With the Swedish Flowers, they are a very hardy landrace breed and naturally foraged for centuries, so they are well-suited to roam the Farm with minimal feed assistance in the rainy winter months. The other layers have a single treadle feeder to go to if they just can’t bring themselves to forage, but  as foraging is a learned behavior, the whole layer flock now knows where the best bugs can be found, how to dust bathe and how to naturally scratch and peck. I supplement more bagged feed in the winter more for myself I suppose, but it’s working so far.

The meat breeds, Cornish, Barbs, Chantecler and Jersey Giants, have greater protein needs and therefore would require a larger foraging area. The Giants, being a temporary breed this year, will be released into the north pasture where the sheep are grazing, as this is a much larger area with a more diverse micro environment. I expect well-muscled, proportioned birds for the holidays. The other flocks get Game Bird feather conditioner feed and whole or rolled grains free feed, with wild bird seed mixed in every other feed purchase. This gives them a wide variety and allows for personal taste, if chickens have such a thing.

So all this leads me to the point of the essay: I have developed a feed recipe and schedule that I can support financially and ethically, and that won’t preclude the majority of my customers from being able to buy a premium bird. Someone just starting out might look at what I am able to do and think they can’t raise chickens because it’s too complicated, or too expensive. They have read or been told that a store brand is unacceptable, that Purina uses GMO grains and therefore is not good for the planet in some way, or that the chickens will know the difference between feed packaged in a natural sisal bag and a plastic bag.

This sort of bias does a disservice to people wanting to learn how to provide for themselves and their families. One of my customers remarked recently that people under 50 don’t know what a “real” chicken tastes like: one taken from the yard where it received a handful of left-over corn harvested from the farmer’s field in addition to having to hunt for live prey, slaughtered and cooked the same day. The big factory farms are big for a reason: they are able to produce the most for the least, and that means feeding chickens the cheapest food, supplemented with ingredients to make them grow more quickly and produce more preferred meat, for the widest customer base. I don’t have an obligation to ship WalMart 50,000 packages of whole chickens every month. I can commit to selling 45 meat chickens free-ranged on pasture without antibiotics or hormones, humanely slaughtered and packaged in time for Thanksgiving or Christmas.

Because I am where I am at in my Farm adventure, I am aware that one of my unspoken responsibilities is to pass along what I have learned so that other people can start to make their own way as well. If all they can afford is Producer’s Pride feed for their three laying hens, then they should buy that. If that means they can provide something better for their family than what they can get at the grocery store, that’s great! Hopefully, they will want to improve their practices and expand their operation so that they can have better eggs, or more eggs, or both. But when more experienced farmers denigrate the choices first-timers make or intimate that they must start with only the best feed and equipment, they can not only prevent a potential small business from starting up, but also limit breed diversity, innovative development and quality experimentation.

I appreciate those farmers who have the time and inclination to fiddle with new types of feeding equipment specially suited to small operations, using crop rotation and pastures more efficiently and increasing the populations of critically threatened or heritage breeds. None of that is possible if that person is discouraged from ever starting.

Politics. Where to begin?

I have been through 10 voting cycles and have voted in every one of them. I can’t say I’ve paid attention to the rhetoric of the particular candidates or the circumstances of the campaigns for the first 5. And except for the last 3 elections, I could have only recited the “facts” I heard on the news.

I had other things to worry about.

The 2016 election, though, I have had time and interest to listen to the candidates, the pundits, the scandals and the opinions. It can be overwhelming and depressing. I know people have strong opinions about Fox Broadcasting personality Bill O’Reilly, but one thing he said made everything about the election, on both sides, crystal clear.

He was talking about his series, “Legends and Lies: The Patriots.” In his description of the first show, he said that when George Washington was offered a lifetime appointment as President (in effect making him a king), he refused and instead relinquished the office to his successor, as indicated by the will of the people. This was, and has continued to be an example of why America is unique from other regimes and empires. Despite sometimes discordant differences of opinion, personal insults, allegations and shenanigans by support organizations, we transfer our power peacefully and regularly. I don’t believe this is an accident. Our country overcame tremendous odds to secure independence from our original culture in a dangerous and unexplored land. America is divinely blessed in so many ways, and remains so despite the efforts of some individuals throughout our history to change our destiny.

This election, the two leading candidates (and I use that term loosely) can only really try to divert attention away from their past personal decision and actions long enough to eek out a “win”. Each side’s opposition claims that the other will be the Worst.Thing.Ever. for the country and we will all devolve into anarchy should they be elected. I don’t believe that is true at all. One person, even if they are the acknowledged leader of the country, has such little influence on the day-to-day lives of American citizens that it’s almost as though we just need someone to live at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to justify keeping the air conditioning on.  Markedly different from nations where a single man (it hasn’t been a woman for hundreds of years) can make a declaration that can plunge every citizen into poverty, or prison, our President can’t just wave his or her hand and make all 200 million of us bow to their will. I can’t name the last Executive Order that President Obama signed or how it might someday impact my life. I’ve been doing the same job for the last 25 years, lived at the same place for the last 10 years and can freely plan to carry out the dreams that I have, all without thinking once about who is President or fear how they might change my life.

America is what she is because of her people. I believe God placed certain people in positions to both promote America and hold us back, according to His plan. Though I have already voted a preference for this election, if the candidate I voted for doesn’t win, I’m not moving to Canada. I’m going to go forward with my Farm and trust that what I need I’ll have, and I’ll be able to expand and prosper so I can pass that along to other smallholders, and we can all prosper together.

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