expansive evaluation over reductionism
In my last essay, I explained how the foundation of our decision making involves coming together as a couple. Here I thought I would tackle the myriad of factors we consider when making decisions around the farm. It’s not all that different from all the parts of our lives so it seems a useful place to start. Let’s use laying hens as an example of the cost/benefit analysis a la Slowdown Farmstead style.
You know all of those beautiful eggs you see on Instagram? Those green and blue and chocolate eggs from lovely heritage birds that look like a pastel painting? They’re lovely aren’t they? Those are the eggs from heritage breed hens. They fell out of favour when the green revolution sought to bigger/faster/more every farm animal under the sun. Today, there’s a couple of commercial breeds of egg-laying hens, brown and white, that lay eggs like maniacs for the entirety of their short, confined lives. “Dollars in vs. dollars out” determines their value.
I can raise those chickens here on our farm. They, of course, would be outside, free ranging, eating forages and bugs and the organic grain we feed. They would be infinitely healthier and happier than their poor brethren stacked in chicken houses. They would give us eggs for a couple of seasons before burning out. The “dollars in vs. dollars out” equation is still looking pretty viable.
Now, let’s get to those heritage birds laying those beautiful eggs. How consistent are their egg laying tendencies? Depends on the breed and the bird, but anyone that suggests you will get the same numbers of eggs out of them that you would out of the “industrialised” birds is telling tales. You won’t. But will the consumer be willing to pay more for these farm raised eggs? Do they recognise the value in them? Some will, but most will scoff. So, how does the farmer make up the difference in return? How does the farmer compete with the grocery store eggs, heavily subsidised and woefully underpriced, that have convinced consumers that an egg can be had for a few cents? Well, the farmer can either hold fast to a price that reflects the true costs of raising those hens or they have to reduce the cost of inputs to lower their selling price. Often, the first stop on lowering costs is in the feed used. The cost of organic feed is prohibitive so they opt for conventional or “GMO free” feed (still loaded with glyphosate). Or the birds are kept contained in mud floor fencing and called “free range” even if there isn’t a blade of grass to be seen. Or, they stick to their guns and, hopefully, find the people willing to pay the real price for their food. I have a farmer friend that sells her heritage eggs for $11/dozen. She is always sold out. She makes $.50 profit per dozen and that’s without considering her labour.
If we were to exclusively use the dollars in vs. dollars out metric to determine the keeping of a heritage laying hen, our farming choices look foolish. The numbers are obvious. The numbers tell you all you need to know. Well, maybe, if that is your value set. But, we believe even when life necessitates the careful watch over our budgets, that observation and thought into the totality of the benefits and costs of any enterprise we enter into paints a more honest picture. Considering our farm as an organism, a dynamic ecosystem onto itself helps us to contextualise the choices we make. A holistic approach that brings a richness into our lives that dollars alone can’t. We are in harmony when we hold fast to our objectives, higher principles, and values. It is a reaffirmation to each other, to our farm, and with our Creator. Funny how an egg can do that, huh?
The hens then! Why do we keep heritage hens and how do they deliver to us far more than they cost? Well, I’ll start by telling you about the hens that still hold the wisdom and instinct of Ole’ Grandmother Hen in their bones? There are the feather footed ones. The smooth legged and silky plumed. There are the floppy combed ladies and the others who like to wear their combs like a pod of peas on their heads. There are big fluffy ones laced in silver and medium golden gradient gals, stealthy and quick. There are the mothers that, year after year, collect their mound of eggs and then diligently sit on them, foregoing food and water for weeks, while the mystical takes hold of their body. They stay, motionless in their deep, meditative trance, slowing down their life to bring new life forward. Even the monk on the mountain, as zen as he was, couldn’t do that.
These hens hatch out chicks that know this farm alone. This little farm, their whole life. Born in place, will die in place. They will live the entirety of their lives within their flock, well adapted to our extreme heat and frigid cold. The extra roosters will fill our soup pots, the females will replace their ageing great grandmothers. Every morning, we will open the door to the house that keeps them safe and delight in their exuberant escape into freedom. Every evening we will lock the door behind them as they retire to the safety of their perch. We will hear their excited proclamations “I laid an egg! I laid an egg!” as we work outside amongst them. All of us with a job of our own. They will alert one another when hawks fly overhead. They will live without medications and free of disease because they are raised free of disease causing feeds and conditions. They will be with us for years. We will bandage up the wounded and go to war with the predators that harm them.
They can do these things because they still hold some instinct, that same instinct and robust health that was traded for production in commercial birds.
We will go to the feed store and buy their organic grain. I cannot buy conventional grain because I will not support the application of synthetic fertilisers and chemicals into the body of our mother earth. If the time comes when we cannot afford organic grain, I will grow it myself or have less birds or incorporate other feed stuffs. As it is, our flock is small, augmented by the eggs of geese, turkeys, and ducks. We add our own ration of raw meat trim and guts, another benefit of home butchering our cattle. In return, their eggs are absolutely beautiful and delicious. Strong shells, buoyant golden yolks, thick whites. They, along with the birds’ robust health and high fertility, tell me what I need to know.
I suppose there are scientific ways to measure the difference in the nutrition between a battery hen and the old-timey hens we raise in an old-timey way, but what is measured? All that can ever be measured - what we know about. Some vitamins and minerals, maybe the viscosity and other physical characteristics. Yawn. I have an idea, come here into my kitchen. Let me slow poach an egg, an egg just for you, in a sea of raw butter. So much butter that it slides out of the cast iron pan and onto the plate with only a tip of my wrist. Here, sit in this sunbeam coming through the window on this frigid winter day. Go ahead, eat it. I will be quiet. It’s just you and the egg.
Now, please kind human, tell me all about it. Tell me and I will tell you about the plump little hen that provided it. Maybe you’d like to hear a story or two about her antics? Should I tell you about her personality? Or should we just talk about the taste, how your lips stick together from the thickness of the yolk. What’s your body saying to you now? What’s happening inside your body? Where did that egg go and what is it becoming? That little orb of assembled, potential life being disassembled and used for yours.
Cha-ching. What price shall we put on that?
How do I determine the value of the energy an animal provides to us? Shall I tabulate each incremental building block my mitochondria uses to keep me alive? What about my immune system, do the hens get royalties for their contribution to that? And what of the harmony and joy they add to our farm? Is that important at all? What numerical value should I put down in the pro category for all of the lyme carrying ticks they eat? How much do I get to take off their carrying costs for the chicks they hatch out and raise every spring? Do they get more asset points for the reduction in our electrical bills for every night they wrap their wings around their babies to keep them warm instead of me having to use heat lamps? How do I monetise all of life’s processes and is that even where we find the value? Not for me.
I can buy eggs from Costco cheaper than I can raise them. That’s a good hint that something’s wrong there. How to monetise all of the wondrous bits that connect us to the even more wondrous bits? Do we even want to? Is that where value lies? Is it really an authentic consideration of the whole. Me? I’m not doing it. I simply cannot buy the food we raise. It’s not available at any price. It’s why we do what we do in the way that we do it. It’s the whole reason we started farming in the first place - the food. We had no idea what was in store for us or all we would come to be and understand of fully living, being fed and feeding, from place. Now, it’s more than the food, of course. It’s us, wrapped up in this little farm on this swirling planet hurtling through the cosmos - our little homestead that is the very place of our lives. We give and we receive, we pay and we are paid.
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*Sacred Economics - Charles Eisenstein*
Keeping backyard chickens (with a slant towards kids)