Chronicles of Less Urban Living, Fresh from In the Night Farm

Sheep

Growing Costs: The Value of Food

I’m going grass-fed. I promised.

My freezer is nearly empty of conventional meats. A pound or two of bacon remains. And some organic ground beef from Costco, which is New Zealand grassfed mixed with American organic grainfed. After that’s gone, I’m all in.

I’ve found a vendor of quality, local, grassfed meats just one town over. They sell beef tenderloin for around $20/lb, but I’ll be ordering the ground beef, stew beef, and mixed cuts of pork that average $5.50/lb.

I may have to close my eyes while entering my credit card number. I will try very hard not to think about conventional prices of $1.98 for ground round or pork shoulder at $1.79 or whole roaster chickens under $3.00 on sale.

This, after all, is simply how much food ought to cost. Unsubsidized, allowed to mature at a natural rate without being poisoned by a grain diet that would kill them in months despite heavy antibiotic loads, if they didn’t go to the slaughterhouse first, livestock is not cheap to raise.

In fact, given the dinner I enjoyed last night, $5.50/lb for local, grassfed beef looks downright reasonable. Yesterday evening, I cooked up two, broiled lamb chops with mint pesto and side of sauteed summer squash and onions with thyme.

Simple, right?

Sure, if you picked it all up from the grocery. But I didn’t. Those chops came from lambs born here at In the Night Farm. I grew the herbs and onion. The squash came from a co-worker’s garden.

Cheap, right?

Hardly. Not even if you picked it all up from the grocery. Which I didn’t.

Those chops came from lambs born here at In the Night Farm, remember? They were grass (actually, mostly hay) fed, which meant they took their time maturing to slaughtering size. Quite aside from the daily labor of caring for livestock, the monetary cost can’t be ignored. Care to have a look?

Quality alfalfa/grass mix hay runs $125 a ton around here. That’s about $0.0625 per pound. A sheep eats 5 pounds a day, for a daily feed cost of $.32. The sheep in question was 450 days old when slaughtered, and therefore consumed $144.00 worth of hay.

Well. That’s not too bad!

But wait. I also had to feed my breeding stock — one ewe and one ram. I’ll only add in the price of one parent, since the lamb I’m calculating was a twin.

So, $144 in lamb feed plus $144 for its mama’s feed (and that’s assuming I didn’t have to feed mama during gestation, which of course isn’t true), for a total of $288 in feed.

Now, add butchering costs. I paid $207 for both lambs, so let’s call it $103.50 for one.

$288 in feed plus $103.50 butchering = $391.50 for one lamb.

How much meat is in a lamb? About 40 pounds.

$391.50 / 40 pounds = $9.79 / pound.

Oh, my.

Is it worth it? To eat a healthy animal? A healthful animal? An animal I raised from birth, cared for daily through winter’s snow and summer’s blaze? An animal that, well-nourished, can provide real nourishment in return?

An animal that gave its life for mine?

$9.79 per pound.

That’s value.
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A Tale of Oregon Elk: On Food and Gratitude
Practically Impossible: The Challenge of Sustainable Living
The Organic Pocketbook: A Struggle Survived

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A Tale of Oregon Elk: On Food and Gratitude

When I was in high school, my family owned a whitewater rafting company. Our offerings of four- to seven-day expedition trips down wilderness rivers attracted mostly outdoor-types from the West, but we also booked the occasional city slicker.

Mary Jo, a hefty and good-natured soul with glossy, black curls and florid cheeks, was one of the latter. She hailed from Boston and was startled to learn that there really wasn’t any point in packing her alarm clock in her waterproof gear bag. (Nope, not even with an extension cord.)
Along about Day 3 of Mary Jo’s trip, we were floating through open range, where cattle spend the summer feeding on the vast acreage of public lands. Mary Jo, spotting a pair of Herefords drinking along the bank, exclaimed, “Look! Wildlife! What kind of animals are those?”
Sure Mary Jo was kidding, the nearest guide joked, “Oh, those are Oregon elk. They’re very rare!” Imagine his surprise when Mary Jo pulled out her camera and started clicking away. He did some fast talking to spare our guest the embarrassment of hauling out her photo album and showing all her friends back home the elusive “Oregon elk,” which almost anybody would recognize immediately as garden-variety cattle.
That night in camp, we served up an Italian feast of wine, garlic bread, salad, and spaghetti with marinara and meatballs. Mary Jo ate with her usual gusto. Watching her from across the circle of canvas chairs in the fading light, I wondered if she had even a passing thought connecting her “wildlife” sighting with the meal rapidly disappearing from her plate. I was saddened to conclude, probably not.
Saddened, I say, because although Mary Jo may have been an extreme case, she is far from an anomaly. Too many people these days believe that food comes from the grocery store. I once heard of a woman who, listening in on a discussion about the danger a single plant disease could pose to our inadequately-diverse food supply, said “Oh, I’m sure they’ll always have flour at the store.” She, like Mary Jo, clearly had no concept of the sacrificial exchange that fuels our bodies.

We the People, with our fast food joints and deep freezes, are so far separated from farm life that we rarely consider that from the T-bones we gnaw once hung the loin of a cow with a swishing tail and liquid eyes. That neat mound of poultry breast was made to nestle warm about a clutch of eggs. Those egg yolks formed to nourish chicks ’til they grew large enough to hatch.

I’m not saying I have a moral problem with eating meat or eggs, any more than I have one with tearing carrots from the soil and scattering my salad with their precious roots. Zucchini grow to ensure there is seed for the next generation, not to be sauteed in my breakfast hash, but saute them I do. To live is to take other lives. Any farmer knows there’s no escaping the fact, no denying it, no point feeling guilty about it.

But I do believe there is benefit in understanding it — not just believing it intellectually, but experiencing it firsthand — for in understanding there is value, and in value, gratitude.

Those of us who were fortunate enough to be reared in agricultural country should be at least halfway there. We visited U-pick orchards every fall, plucked wild blackberries from their vines, perhaps retrieved eggs from the nests of disgruntled hens. Some of us even fattened stock for slaughter.

I was eight the first time I observed the death our annual beef cow. The man from the packing plant shot her three times, right there in our barn, before her sway turned to a topple and her topple to utter collapse. He hooked a chain to her hind legs and winched her outside to his truck, where he peeled away her chestnut coat and spilled her foul-smelling offal among the weeds.
My mother worried that I, an empathetic child who had bottle fed that animal as a calf, would be put off our daily meals of hamburgers and steak. But I was untroubled. Somehow, with the innate wisdom of the very young, I understood.
Not all children have such opportunities. One of my best friends grew up in the jungles of Chicago. He claims once to have stumbled over a pile of milk bottles and thought he’d found a cow’s nest. Does that mean he shouldn’t be permitted to eat meat, because he hasn’t paid his dues?
Of course not. But I do think those in his position should look for opportunities to connect with the lives and deaths that feed them. From farmers markets to bookstores, there is plenty of recourse for those who wish to understand their meals. A number of authors have addressed the concept of late, all from different perspectives. Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma), Barbara Kingsolver (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle), and most recently, Lierre Keith (The Vegetarian Myth) come readily to mind.

 

For the most adventurous — and wisest? — more creativity could lead one to a farm on butchering day, to feel the blood from chickens’ throats run hot across trembling fingers, see the feathers float on scalding water and stick like rain soaked leaves to pluckers‘ wrists. To pull the trigger that ploughs a painless path through the brain of a hog, or gut a fish from the neighbor’s pond, or simply gather the bosoms of ripe onions as they press up from the soil, strip peas from their pods, sever the stems of living herbs to rub beneath a turkey’s freshly-denuded skin.
I remember one blustery day in early spring at In the Night Farm. A freshly-slaughtered lamb had hung for several days from the north deck, aging beneath its burlap wrap. Meanwhile, out beyond the horse paddocks, lambing had begun. I spent the entire day running between the kitchen, where I rinsed and packaged chunks of carcass for later meals, and the lambing jugs, where I knelt in the hay to draw colostrum from ewes’ udders and coax it down the silken throats of newborn lambs.
I ate lamb that night, with the smell of sheep’s milk still strong upon my hands. The following winter, I butchered the wooley babies whose lifes I had saved. Come spring, I nurtured several more.
Death. Life. Death feeding life feeding death feeding life. The unbroken circle. Don’t feel guilty. But please, don’t forget. Real food costs more than pennies for pounds.

This post is participating in Fight Back Fridays at Food Renegade. Stop by and see what else is on the menu!


Practically Impossible: The Challenge of Sustainable Living

You’d think that owning on a farm would make sustainable living relatively easy. Grow a garden, raise some livestock. Hoe and weed, water and feed your way to health and self-reliance. After all, this is how most of the world’s population has lived for thousands of years! Sadly, these days, the simple life is anything but.

Take my latest research on natural chicken feeds. Motivated by Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which explains the myraid benefits of eating eggs and meat from chickens that eat as nature intended, I’ve been looking for ways to eliminate commercial layer pellets from our hens’ diets.

Feeding poultry a natural diet eliminates the use of (and the need for) antibiotics such as coccidiostat and results in food products whose nutritional content is properly balanced. Like most livestock raised en masse, chickens that eat typical commercial feeds take in more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3’s. In livestock and the humans who eat it, this balance should be tipped the other way, in favor of omega-3 fatty acids.

Balanced fat consumption leads to lower rates of heart disease, cancers, and mental degeneration, so I’d like to know that the small quantity of poultry and eggs I consume represents an appropriate nutritional profile. Hence, my interest in feeding chickens like nature intended — as hunting and gathering omnivores. It’ll only take one acre per chicken.

One acre per chicken?

Let’s see. One acre per chicken…fifteen chickens…Call the real estate agent, Honey. Looks like we need to buy the property next door!

So much for keeping my hens nourished without supplemental feeds. Surely, I thought, there’s a way to feed them naturally without quadrupling our mortgage.

As it turns out, there is. I’ll need: a wide variety of living plants, wild seafood, additional protein in the form of grass-fed meat and milk, nuts and seeds, varied grains (freshly cracked, of course), boiled soybeans or other legumes, sea salt, and oyster shells for calcium.

What? I can’t afford wild salmon for myself, let alone for my chickens!

And it isn’t just the chickens. Raising healthful lamb requires irrigated pasture or extensive range, quality hay, and oats. Pesticide-free gardening means losing part of the crop to insect damage. Irrigation requires electricity to run the pump. Rototilling large plots requires gasoline. Even our organic fertilizer started out as expensive horse hay, and this year’s diesel prices will drive that bill even higher.

And so, in an attempt to fund a more sustainable lifestyle centered around local foods, we are forced to drive nearly forty miles into the city to work. Gas costs us a fortune these days, though we carpool whenever possible and make no gratuitous side trips. We bought a motorcycle to cut back on consumption, at least when the weather cooperates. (I took my first ride on the new bike the other day. Ye gods, I’d forgotten!)

Day after day, I am appalled by the expense of trying to do the right things to spare our land and bodies from the behemoth of our industrialized food system. Why do you think most poultry growers, whether commercial or gentleman farmer, buy pelleted feeds? Twenty-five bucks will buy you a month’s worth of scratch grains and layer pellets for a flock like ours. It’s easy, too! Just open the bag, scoop, and serve.

As much as I would like to, I simply cannot afford to feed my chickens on soybeans, seafood, and hand-split corn. In this instance, like so many others — purchasing enough land to grow our own crops, installing solar panels and a propane refrigerator, even building the oh-so-sensible root cellar — converting to sustainable living is a proposition that implies tremendous financial strain.

Some people manage it. You can read their stories at the Backwoods Home Magazine forum. I suspect, however, that the majority have either lived long and well enough to free themselves from debt — including home mortgages — or are not trying to create a self-sufficient homestead while preserving and promoting a rare breed of horse. Reading the BHM forum is, for me, both inspiring and discouraging.

So, what now? Shall we move back to the city to eat factory farmed poultry and pesticide-laden, chemically-fertilized, genetically-modified broccoli while we wait for cancer to set in? Or, shall we, like other small farmers across our nation, continue to struggle against the economic and political tide?

A horse trainer in my area likes to say, “Start where you can, not where you think you should.” I find that his advice applies to more than just horse training — it’s useful in our progress toward sustainable living, as well.

For now, I’ll hand-pick a daily bucketful of weeds and grass for my hens. I’ll save them vegetable scraps from the kitchen and check prices on bulk legumes at the grocery. I’ll even look into the cost of canned wild fish. While I’ll still buy pelleted feeds, I’ll restrict their use as much as possible.

This decision, like replacing a truck with a motorcycle but still commuting to work, represents a compromise between practicality and perfection. Such choices are often unsatisfactory, but for now, for us, “ideal” isn’t an option. Surely doing our best is better than doing nothing at all.

To tell you the truth, I don’t know how we’re going to make this small farm work.

…but I also don’t know how to give up.


This post is participating in Fight Back Fridays at Food Renegade. Be sure to drop in and see what else is on the menu!


Only Ewe

Once upon a time, we decided to obtain a few sheep. We would raise a lamb or two each year for organic meals, and we’d put to good use the inevitable, sub-standard-for-horses bales of hay that arrive when your order upwards of twenty tons per year.

We had the good fortune of coming across a small flock of sheep, free to good home. Okay, so we weren’t planning on getting nine sheep. What’s another sheep…or six…on a farm?

Nine more sheep, that’s what. All but one of our new arrivals turned out to be pregnant. Several had twins. Thanks to many sleepless nights and sticky hands, all but one of said lambs survived. Our flock, noisy and adorable, was also excessive.

And furthermore, there doesn’t seem to be much of a market in our part of Idaho for organic lamb.

And hay prices are going up.

Craigslist to the rescue! On Sunday, most of our flock went to live on a Suffolk/Rambouillet farm thirty miles away. The breeder is glad to have more Rambouillet blood, and we are glad to have just two sheep left at In the Night Farm.

We kept an older Suffolk ewe, and named her Only.

This is Only’s gentleman friend, a Rambouillet called Megabyte.


Yes, that’s a Megabyte of ram…which passes for humor around here.


Maybe Baby

We weren’t supposed to have any lambs this year. But, accidents happen.

Yesterday morning, while frost still lay on the ground, baby Boo-Boo was born. His mama licked him dry, but the chill sapped his strength so he couldn’t nurse.

We milked some thick, yellow colostrum and bottle-fed him. Without the antibodies and calories in this precious, first milk, he would not survive. His strength picked up at once, but before he could learn to nurse, a bitter storm blew in.

Boo-Boo’s only chance was a move to the shed. Mama rode there in luxury.

This may look uncomfortable, but sheep relax when flipped into a sitting position. This is how we hold them for shearing and hoof trimming, so they don’t struggle and injure themselves.

Wind rattled the shed and whipped it with snow that raced horizontally across the sky. Inside, Mama and Boo-Boo were reunited.

Travis and I stayed up much of the night, trudging back and forth between house and shed, our arms laden with flashlights, nipple bottles, and old liquor bottles full of hot water to ward off hypothermia. Several times, as I dozed in my farm clothes between feedings, I wondered why we went to all this trouble for one, weak, unwanted lamb.

The answer, of course, is simply that it’s the right thing to do. Farming is about nurturing, about doing your best. You can’t look into a tiny, helpless face without knowing that it, like every living thing, deserves a chance.

This morning, Boo-Boo is strong enough to stand for mealtime, but he has a long road ahead. All we know for sure is this: we won’t be sorry for having tried.