June 4, 2011

I never create titles for these blog entries, but if I were to do so, I’d call this bit of musing “The Squeeze”. As in, the economic squeeze that seems to be affecting pretty much everyone I know. Like many things that start as a slow creep, I first began to notice something was amiss last fall, when I tallied up the annual income/expenses information on the poultry side of our farm.

I don’t want to be misleading….many people would laugh their way off the coffee shop bench to hear someone call about 60 chickens and 40 turkeys a “Poultry Operation”. But nevertheless we have them, we sell their meat and eggs as a farm product for income, and they cost money to feed and otherwise care for. For the longest time I felt we sold reasonably priced eggs at $3.50/dozen. And for the turkeys, as much as I cringed to charge $7/lb for their dressed Thanksgiving-table selves, I knew that there were farms charging $10/lb and up for what I would argue was a less fussed-over product.  The beginnings of the rude awakening came up one time when someone pointed out that another local farm charged $8/dozen for their certified organic eggs. I thought that was just the worst rip-off I’d ever heard of, but it caused me to start thinking enough to add up all of our own figures. I was stunned to realize that after the whole year of selling eggs and meat birds was over with, we had a profit of $100. Hours and days of hot, dusty, bloody, backache-causing work for….$100. Our birds have always been more a labor of love to us than a profit machine, but I had thought we were doing a little better than that…..not so. What the hell had happened?? It didn’t take much more math and looking through receipts to realize, that in the last 24 months feed prices had more than doubled. The bag of layer pellets that we feed our egg laying hens had gone from about $5.50 to $13. The bag of high protein turkey starter for the little fluffy poults had gone from about $7.50 to nearly $19 per bag. Weeks away from the start of the next egg season, I had to swallow the painful realization that the cost of eggs had to go up. Not to the $3.75 that I’d been mentally flirting with, but to $5/dozen. We try hard to keep what we sell to others out of the stratosphere, mindful that these good people are faced with the same economic pressures as we are. I wondered if anyone would buy them after a 30% hike, but we have wonderful customers that believe in the importance of what we are trying to do. That and, they are still the best tasting eggs for miles around. Sadly, $5 for good farm eggs is still a bargain. A good friend of mine once wrote from her perch at the Seattle Market that she was tired of “people whinging over $5 eggs who know the price of everything and the value of nothing”. Sometimes when things matter, it can’t be about what is the cheapest, as a matter of principle, and we are lucky to be surrounded by others who understand this. But we are also acutely aware that principles don’t put dinner on the table, when people’s backs are against the wall.

But back to the poultry feed. The next rude awakening came when I saw that aforementioned $19 bag of turkey starter. We had just had our first 15 poults hatch, about half of what would be allowed to come into the world for the annual Thanksgiving sales. I realized in a flash, “It’s over.” With feed that costly, we literally would not be able to afford to feed them this summer. If we somehow could pay for feed at that price, and raise the prices in November for the meat, $10/lb for the meat wouldn’t begin to cover it…no one is going to pay $15/lb for turkey meat, not even if we gold-plate the drumsticks. it simply became an economic no-brainer. We are in the process of placing, butchering, selling, and whatevering the vast majority of the turkeys off of our farm. I’m not totally throwing in the towel, because we are going to keep our best breeding birds in the hopes of better times ahead or better strategies for securing feed. But for now, raising turkeys is going into deep hibernation.  Ironically, last year was the first time we ever sold out, having reached more people with bigger sales than ever before. But we will only raise 3 birds…one for ourselves, one for a faithful annual client who supported us from the get-go, and one just in case.

Then I did some more math. Specifically, egg sales versus feed purchases. We are selling about 40 dozen eggs each month, a round $200. But we are spending $100 every ten days on feed. Oh, geez. This is seriously ridiculous. By now, you should be wondering what is causing that poultry feed to be so expensive…..and if you try to research this, you’ll find that the answers are vague and uncertain. But here are some factors that are undeniably contributing: US corn stores are at the lowest levels in over a decade. Harvests have been poor due to weather issues worldwide. Up to 2010, China exported corn…now they are importing it. Corn has been diverted in large quantity to the production of biofuels (read: ethanol). This is a long way of saying, there is more demand and not enough supply, and we all know what happens to prices in these circumstances. But wait, this is corn. Corn. Farm bill, corn subsidy, nutritionally dubious cruddy crop that farmers are paid too grow. Oh THAT corn. Ethanol, the fuel that takes more energy to produce than it returns back in power, and is also government subsidized to the benefit of a few big-dog corporations…..THAT ethanol. Our tax dollars, subsidizing the crop that we as individuals now can’t afford as the historically cheap livestock feed, because there isn’t enough of it. I could spend awhile waxing poetic about all the assorted stupidities here, but it would just give me a headache.

And, it’s going to get worse. We are approaching 8 billion people on this planet, and they all seem to want to eat something. As China acquires more wealth, they want meat just like we in the US have wanted meat for years. Meat is raised commercially by feeding animals corn. Meat prices are unsurprisingly going up. The cost of most groceries, which are infested with corn and corn byproducts on account of 70 years of domestic agricultural policy, is going up. It is my hope that everyone will get the documentary “King Corn” into their Netflix queue, because it tells a story about food in America that desperately needs to be understood by everyone.

So what are we  going to do on the little farm? The surplus birds are all spoken for by people who want them, and once the birds are actually gone I’m going to re-vamp the pens to support pasture grass. I can grow some milo and perhaps hold back some wheat. I can and will grow surplus squash to feed the birds in the summer. These birds are all landrace breeds, bred to forage for themselves, so as soon as there something for which to forage, they are going to out and nip grass. And for the forseeable future, our farm will move more toward focusing on produce, while keeping poultry pursuits at a minimum. It’s sad, because in a way I started “farming” in a backyard in Davis with three chickens about 20 years ago…we love our birds…but you do what needs to be done to keep juggling all the balls.