By Seth Douglas of Lemonade Springs Farm
The question of equipment and capital, it seems to me, is really a question of what decisions you make about your daily work and your financial equilibrium and why you make them. Questions we ask regarding both tools used and money spent (both whose and how much) are those of means and ends- what will the application of a particular sort of funding or a tool mean to the possible success or failure of the farm, how much labor will be eased because of it, what will be further necessary to add as a consequence, etc. Tools shape the user, as well as the farm. Nothing is neutral.
I’ve always been told that debt is the death of small farms and farmers. There’s some truth to this across generations and locales, but this is, unfortunately, the Actually Existing Capitalism of debt-financed America, and without significant saving or lucrative off-farm work, it’s hard to avoid credit.
I’m of two minds on this. On the one hand, I’m an old-fashioned, reactionary, megatechnics hating anarchist loath to hand money over to the usurious death-trip that is global finance. On the other, I partially own a debt-financed tractor, and have been frequently dependent on the patronage and credit of well-meaning family and friends, as well as banks. The necessities of marketplace existence come crashing in quick and merciless upon my ideological niceties.
For example, Kubota and I own a tractor. It’s a good tractor, and I like it, although I was not given a free hat when I purchased it, a lapse that still has me somewhat salty. Our farm is predominately a one-person farm, especially as far as the row-crops are concerned. The tractor allows me to work the fields alone. It let’s me put in straight, even rows, and one day soon, will allow me to quickly cultivate and weed beds without doing anything more challenging than sitting. It allows one of us alone to move pallets of grain around the farm, turn and spread compost, and move pig and chicken housing through pastures in all weather and seasons. It has more than once rescued a truck from the mud. I love my tractor, y’all. This is naked emotion, right here.
The tractor represents a significant economizing force on a farm often strapped for sufficient labor to get everything done. Nearly all aspects of the farm are in some way or other reliant on its use. It is also the most expensive thing I have ever purchased, and that expense is compounded by the fact that it’s not usable alone- a tractor by itself is a very slow, rather loud way to drive from one place to another. For each task performed, the tractor demands further investments of capital into additional implements specific to it, and with each new implement’s purchase, I’ve made the tractor more essential around the farm. That shapes our farm layout; it shapes our daily routines; it shapes our relationship with our farm. On the balance, I’d say it does so for the better, but that is unique to us, and each farm will answer that question differently.
We bought our tractor new, at no interest, with the down-payment we would have likely spent on a used tractor. That initial money came from our savings, and we’ve managed since to pay the annual dues by way of our farm’s cash flow. In making that decision, we considered the necessity of the tractor as a labor saving tool on our farm; the lack of available cash necessary to buy an ultimately cheaper used tractor that would likely be reliable; and the lack of time, money, and specialized knowledge available to us to spend fixing potential problems with an older used tractor we could afford outright. Thus arose our increased likelihood of winding up in debtor’s prison.
A farm has to be manageable to be successful; the right tools and the right balance of funding help achieve that. It’s always easy to just do the extra work and not spend the money, since the one is usually free and the other is hard to come by. That can be foolish, though, and can as often lead to failed farms as can overextending your finances. You will have to buy tools, many very expensive. The point is to be smart about it. We built our own chicken-plucker and processing equipment, built all our buildings and greenhouses ourselves, and accumulate piles of metal and lumber scrap like magpies. Last year, we dealt with refrigeration by means of two household fridges; this year, with an expanding business, we were able to get a disused walk-in at an affordable price from a neighboring farm and get it running.
You take it slow, when you start from nothing- you take the time to patiently build up what equipment is available to you, starting at the most essential place. One day, you look up, and you’ve built a farm. Even without a free hat.
At our farm, we tend towards open-pollinated, heirloom varieties of seed, for reasons practical, sentimental and political. We are suckers for the poetry of seed catalogues and the promise of hopeful January orders. Our seed shelves spell out the history of our journey to this place- cornand shell beans from Oregon, garlic and dry beans from Vashon, pumpkins and sunflowers from Washington, tomatoes from a friend in Spain, greens from California. Carried along like treasures, these things have sustained our farm, and each row seeded has been a remembrance of past labors and their ultimate fulfillment. Similarly, I hope for our animals to grow with us- to carry our farm through their generations as the farm grows with them. Many have spoken passionately and eloquently in recent years about the value and necessity of seed and breed preservation, especially in the face of industry consolidation and economic monopolization. I have little to add; I believe the strongest argument to be made for saving seed, for breeding animals, and for choosing wisely and carefully for your place is an argument of sentiment- these animals and seeds carry us and our history with them, and all the complicated emotions of planting, hatching, kidding, harvesting and slaughter alongside. That lends a power to the relationship we have with each crop and flock and herd.
This is all grade-A small-farm propaganda right here, folks. Easy stuff, tugs at the heartstrings, etc. But let’s tackle the critter that supports our farm and accounts for most of our income— the Cornish Cross chicken. The Chicken Everyone Loves To Hate.
The Cornish are easy to obtain, easy to raise to a predictable finishing weight in a predictable amount of time, and easy to slaughter and butcher. They do well in a pasture-based operation using daily-moved chicken tractors. They finish faster than any other meat-breed. When fully dressed out, their meat is flavorful, well balanced between dark and white to the taste of our customers, and they are neither too lean nor too fatty. If raised competently and with care, they will have no more health issues than any other breed of chicken. For a small operation such as ours, with limited land and a market that demands fresh birds delivered weekly, they are the best option available.
Other options would include dual-purpose or heritage meat breeds, and hybridized breeds like Freedom Rangers. The downside, for us, to these breeds rests in a simple fact: they take longer to raise than the Cornish. This means we must keep more birds on our property at any given time. With limited pasture space, this is difficult, and additional time to reach finishing weight means more feed, (which already accounts for the bulk of our costs) more manure on fields, and more daily labor expended on chicken care. All this balances out to make the Cornish more or less our only practical option for serious commercial meat production, especially as we seek to limit how expensive our birds are for our customers. The Cornish help us be financially sustainable in the short-term so that we can pursue elements of breed preservation, seed saving, and ecological stewardship in other aspects of our farming.
With proper management and care, the Cornish are healthy, alert animals, but they are not laying hens; they will not act like them. They are not innately inclined to poor health any more than any other chicken. The more we speak of them as ugly, unfortunate creatures, the more we delegitimize them as living animals on par with other critters on the farm, and excuse ourselves when they develop health problems or seem uncomfortable. Ultimately, a farm’s animals reflect most of all the quality and care of the farmer.
We speak often of the importance of heritage breeds -of what is old and passed down. It is harder to come to love and recognize the importance of a breed that in its most common form represents all the abuses of industrial agriculture. Harder, but no less essential, for in doing so we strip the industrial system of its tools, and of the arguments for their maintenance and abuse- we provide a living, viable alternative. If such an alternative is to become commonplace, however, it must in the short-term exist on the same field as that of the industrial model, or exist solely in a niche, easily isolated and unthreatening. The question for us as farmers is one of assessing which breed of meat chicken will do this best- which breed will grow quickly, reliably, and healthily, and will allow us to produce meat whose real cost is represented, but whose price and availability is not so limited as to restrict access to the conspicuous moral consumption of the wealthy.
So sing the praises of the Cornish Cross. Honor them, raise them well, and give them their rightful place as part of farming for a sustainable future and a well-fed community.
By Seth Douglas of Lemonade Springs Farm
Lemonade Springs Farm is run by myself, Seth, and my partner, Kathleen. We are in our second full season. The farm is located in Watsonville, California, about a mile inland in the heart of the central coast’s commercial strawberry growing country.
We are reclaiming five acres of old strawberry land as a diversified, integrated farm. We raise a 200-bird flock of laying hens, have about an acre in row crops for market, CSA, wholesale and our farmstand, raise heritage breeds of pigs for pork (Tamworths and Berkshires) and raise meat chickens, ducks and rabbits. All our animals are kept on rotational grazing units on pasture.
Kathleen and I met in Portland, OR, where she graduated from and I dropped out of Reed College. I am full-time (and then some) on the farm; Kathleen works 20 hours a week at the Santa Cruz county library. Prior to Lemonade Springs, I started and ran the student farm at Reed, apprenticed on Vashon Island, and field managed a larger organic operation in the Ridgefield, WA area outside of Portland. I grew up in rural Alabama working on big ol’ farms.
Our farm is currently certified organic on the produce end of affairs, and non-certified “organic” for the rest of its goings on. We have been reasonably successful in our first season; we are still growing. This year may see us add additional acreage to breed more Tamworth pigs and raise more laying hens, and we will build on our own CSA, participate in the first year of a market oriented CSA with four other farms, work to begin building up a central coast meat producers co-op with Ecofarm, expand into a year-round famers market in the South Bay area in addition to our two Santa Cruz area markets, and continue to settle in to our new California home.
We are fortunate enough to farm family-owned land. Were that not the case, we would find it difficult to farm where we are, particularly in the current parched climate. I think we are a rare beastie of a farm in that while this is an outstandingly rich agricultural area, there are few diversified produce and livestock operations here; I can think of two others off the top of my head. Indeed, we’ve attained a measure of early success where other farms of similar size and opportunity have not in large part because of our focus on diversification.
Our location is also a study in contrasts; Dole grows about 300 acres of strawberries across the street from me. I mention this because it’s essential to what we are trying to do, which in clear terms is: to farm sustainably, in economic and physical terms for ourselves, and in ecological terms for our farm, our soil and our water; and to farm in a manner respectful and protective of our animals, our land and our community.