This past weekend was a busy one: it was processing weekend for our second batch of pastured broiler chickens. For 11 weeks we cared for 120 birds, raising them from day-old chicks. Truthfully, we don’t love processing weekend. It’s hard on us, emotionally and physically, to transform all of those beautiful healthy chickens into what you put on your table for dinner. We make sure that our birds have an honorable, peaceful end, and that takes a lot of effort. Our first attempt, back in August, was just the two of us, which we quickly discovered was a crazy-pants idea. Unless of course, we wanted to spend an entire WEEK processing chickens! Since we don’t often find ourselves running out of things to do, that’s not an option! So, we recruited friends and family to help us finish batch #1, which was wonderful! We enjoyed sharing the experience with them and they found a new respect for the intimate details involved in bringing food to their table. GREAT we thought, this is the way to go, we will feed our friends, share in the fellowship of the harvest and give them free birds to take home. But truthfully, it’s hard to find people who have a full day to dedicate to processing chickens, and it’s even harder to find the SAME people to commit to doing it once/month during the growing season. Which means losing a lot of time training up new volunteers every time we process. So we started thinking about our options, which got us thinking about the history of small farms and old traditions.
a community effort
Many years ago, when it came time to harvest farms had a ready-made labor source: family. Multiple generations all pitched in and made the harvest happen. It’s part of what traditionally made farming work. Often, several farms would pool their labor at harvest time and help each other out: think Amish Barn-Raising. We marvel at what a strong sense of community that partnership and sharing of resources must have fostered.
the high cost of low prices
Mechanization and mega-farming mostly broke that bond. Today many farms are enormous operations that run on cheap migrant labor, often paid by volume, not by the hour. The hard work and poverty-level living conditions of migrant workers affords cheaper food prices for the rest of us. Migrant workers are the living embodiment of the saying “someone pays somewhere.”
We don’t agree with this practice, nor will we ever use it here at WPFF, but when we put figures on paper for what it will cost us to hire people at minimum wage to come to our farm and process chickens with us, it got us thinking about how this practice came to be. There is tremendous pressure from consumers for cheap food prices. Many crops are subsidized by the government to keep prices low, which we find ironic, because we pay for those subsidies through tax dollars, why not just pay the real cost of a gallon of milk or carton of eggs?! Farmers don’t take a salary, we “profit-share”, which is a neat little term for, we get what’s left over after feed costs, housing costs, and other expenses related to raising crops or animals. For small farmers, there isn’t an accounting for labor that is reflected in the price of a tomato, a dozen eggs or a steak. Faced with pressure to compete with large industrialized farms and CAFO feed-lots, small farmers who are raising crops or animals in a responsible, humane way are regularly driven out of business.
This begs the question: “Why don’t we value good food?” We are a society of consumers, spending lots of money on all manner of things that we don’t truly need. Don’t get us wrong here, Jennifer’s been known to horde some terrific quantities of really fine yarn, and loves a nice pair of shoes (or 20), so we aren’t saying we should all forgo the niceties in life. But food is essential to our health, anchors our social occasions and celebrations, comforts us in times of trouble and satisfies us in ways that nothing else does. Food is the most important thing we buy. The nutritional quality of our food is directly related to the way that it is raised.
Not only do we need food, we LOVE food! So why, when we step into a grocery store, do we become so cost-conscious? Why aren’t we questioning the REASON this carton of eggs is so much cheaper than that one? What is the difference between the two? Does one come from chickens in a factory-style automated barn that never see daylight; while the other comes from chickens raised on rotational pasture? Are we making a conscious choice when we pick up a carton of eggs in the grocery store, or are we strictly reacting to price? In an age where cancer, autism, fibromyalgia and a myriad of other diseases are becoming more common, why don’t we ask questions about how our food is produced? Why aren’t we willing to pay our farmers what it truly costs to produce good responsibly raised food that heals the land, honors the animal and is free of toxic pesticides?
what is the answer?
How can we change the system? How can we all become consumers that shake the hand that feeds us?
We don’t know! We’re interested in your thoughts!
Brian and Jennifer