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!