Saturday, November 24, 2007

Agritourism vs. working on the farm

Funny how I was just talking about requiring turkey customers to spend a day on our farm, and today I read this in the NY Times: Down on the Farm With Your Sleeves Rolled Up, an article about agritourism, where farms charge people to visit and sometimes work.

I really don't like the idea of agritourism, as I think people visiting farms for sleigh rides completely miss the point that most people need to understand -- it takes work to grow food in a way that is sustainable. I really don't think anyone learns much of importance by taking a sleigh ride in the country or feeding a baby animal for 10 minutes. In some ways it might even do more harm than good. Sleigh rides and baby animals are fun, and while that is part of farm life, it's only one tiny segment of it. When that is the only thing that people see, they get the idea that farm life is this Utopian existence. It's not. I love living out here, but not because it's perfect. Like Thoreau, I appreciate all parts of it, the joyful, the confusing, and the devastating. Learning to live with nature is a constant learning experience. One never knows all the answers, and each new day is filled with opportunities and surprises, some wonderful and some not.

Little of that knowledge is obtained in the few minutes it takes to feed a baby animal, and none of it during a sleigh ride. You might begin to get an appreciation of it in a day, but to really understand farm life, it would take at least a few days or a week. And it's not just any week. We're hibernating during winter, the garden is frozen over, and the animals are just hanging out too. There are some days in spring where I feel like I've lived a month in 12 hours. Summer is not too crazy, but as fall draws near, we're kicking into high gear again, trying to prepare for winter. Maybe this is why some people say I should write a book. I suppose this is my passion -- I really want people to understand where their food comes from.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

My busiest day of the year

Yesterday was exhausting. I woke up at 3 a.m. after only four hours of broken sleep. By 4:10 we were driving down the road towards Arthur, where we get our turkeys processed. We pulled into the parking lot at 6:35 and waited almost two hours to start unloading. We had the misfortune to arrive after a couple of trailers that had a few hundred turkeys in them. As we were waiting, I said to Katherine, "You know, I've never seen a bird get loose here." Then I immediately knocked on something I thought was wood.

When it was our turn, Katherine caught the turkeys, handed them to me, and then I handed them to the man who was responsible for hanging them upside-down by their feet on an overhead conveyor system. Another man quickly cut their throats, and within seconds, they were dead. It is probably a much better end than the turkeys at home will have, and it was something that I thought about yesterday. We kept two turkey hens here -- we still have a gobbler from last year -- hoping they'll hatch poults next year. But we've also been having coyote problems, and dieing in the jaws of a coyote is not a pleasant way to go.

We had almost finished unloading. Only two turkeys remained, and as Katherine tried to grab one, the other decided to make a break for it. She flew right past me. I tried to grab her, but she slipped through my fingers and started to fly. The first thought that flew through my head was, "Damn heritage turkeys!" and I realized that the reason none of the trailers full of turkeys ever have any escapees is because they're all broad-breasted mutants who can't fly! Lucky for us, she landed between a car and a wall, so she was trapped. A man grabbed her before she realized she could have run under the car, and she is now in the refrigerator.

After the turkeys were unloaded, we went to breakfast and then shopping at Beachy Bulk Foods and Country Salvage. I love buying kitchen equipment down there because unlike most Americans, the Amish cook at home, and not being wealthy, they buy good-quality, practical kitchen supplies. It is the best place to buy knives -- the only place I've seen that sells something called a "butcher knife." I bought several knives and a diamond knife sharpener, as well as a variety of flours and grains not available at the average supermarket.

We arrived back home at 4:30, which is when the real work begins for me, if you don't count the five hours of driving as work. Katherine called out the weights of the individual turkeys as I wrote them on a pad of paper. Then I came inside and started matching them up with the weights on the reservations. I also realized that we didn't have enough room in the refrigerators for the turkeys, so we had to make room for them. That meant taking out a lot of milk and making cheese! I poured milk into a pot on the stove to be pasteurized while I sent out emails to all the turkey customers, giving them their weights, balance due, and expected time of delivery on Wednesday. Then I went back into the kitchen -- it was past 10 p.m. by then -- to make cheese.

I'm glad I only have one day like this once a year. We did have a few moments of insanity as we were trying to get all the turkeys into the refrigerators, and oddly enough, it was my oldest daughter who was swearing off turkeys next year, rather than me. The good news is that everyone is happy with their turkeys, even though some are as much as 3-4 pounds less than what they'd requested originally. I do think I'll raise turkeys again next year, although I am contemplating ways to make it less crazy. Probably the biggest factor in "craziness" is having the turkeys processed just before Thanksgiving. So I am considering a processing date well in advance of the holiday. That would mean the turkeys would be frozen, but it would also mean a much calmer process for me.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Thanksgiving madness

It's that time of year again -- the time when I start thinking that we really should not be selling our meat. If you've been reading this blog in past Novembers, you might remember that I get a little crazy this time of year. The insanity is contagious and is transmitted through emails and phone calls. The disease starts with the turkey customers, and after a few emails and phone calls, I start to lose it and swear never again to sell turkeys for Thanksgiving.

The emails started last week -- people who wanted to make sure their turkey was still coming next week. It's not so bad when the emails are from people who actually sent in their deposit and reservation form, but one particular man had not done that. Let's call him Homer. He's been a thorn in my side for two or three years now. He's a Chicago lawyer, and if I had to guess, I'd assume he's the ambulance-chasing variety, rather than the honorable type. Homer sends me an email asking when his turkey would be delivered. I email him back saying that we don't have a reservation or deposit from him. He emails me saying that he is certain he reserved a turkey last year right after Thanksgiving. I check my email log, and sure enough, there is an email from Homer saying how great the turkey was, and he'd be getting another one next year. I email him back to say, "Sorry but we can't hold turkeys based on such emails. We need the reservation form and the deposit." I also explain about how we've only got a couple turkeys left, but apparently I wasn't clear on the fact that they would be small. He writes back thanking me for squeezing him in and telling me that 13 pounds would be perfect. [cue primal scream]

It's interesting how people want humanely-raised meat from small, local farms, but they don't want to deal with the reality of that choice. They are seriously stuck in the supermarket mindset. "Yes, I'd like a 14.5 pound turkey." We can't do that! I wrote Homer another email being as blunt as I possibly could. We have only 27 turkeys, and they only grow as big as they grow. Their weights fit a bell curve perfectly, and we take reservations based on that. Most people want big turkeys, so if you contact me in November, you're getting something small -- if anything at all. We can't "squeeze in" another order. I can't make a 13-pound turkey appear out of nowhere!

Monday is D-day for the turkeys. I'll be getting up before dawn to make the drive to the turkey processor. In spite of the early rising, it is usually a fun day for me. The processor is in Amish country, so I spend the day visiting the Amish shops and eating at Amish restaurants. It's a long day though, and we don't get home until after dark. Then I have to write down the weights of all the turkeys and match them to the reservations, essentially putting a customer's name to every turkey. Then I email everyone with the exact weight of their turkey, balance due, and the time my husband will be delivering the turkeys. It winds up being an 18-20 hour day. If that is followed by angry or hysterical phone calls from people who are upset that their turkey isn't big enough, well ... you can see where I start to go into hermit mode and declare that we'll just be raising turkeys for ourselves in the future.

On the other hand, when I read books like Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle or Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, it reminds me that we are doing something important. Still, I feel like people should be more involved in where their food comes from. Every now and then I get these crazy ideas -- like only selling to people who have actually come out here and spent a day on the farm, seeing what we do and maybe even helping us for the day. I can hear the screams now, "But I don't have time!" The average American watches 28 hours of television a week, yet they don't have time to plant a garden, shop at a farmer's market, or visit a local farm to see how their food is grown. More than 60% of Americans are overweight, but they'd rather go to a gym to work out so they can continue watching television and eating processed foods.

I suppose some people might think we're just trying to get free labor, but having a green city slicker out here would not be beneficial to us, since we'd spend more time explaining how to do something than they would actually spend working. There are farms where they actually charge people for such an experience. As for me, I just want people to understand where their food comes from. I want them to understand that we can't grow a turkey to an exact size. We can't always stop the coyotes from coming into our pasture and eating our lambs or chickens. When you want animals naturally grown, you cannot control everything. We do not grow animals under scientifically-controlled conditions, which means everything -- weather, predators, parasites -- can affect them. Is this so crazy?


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