Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
Michelle and I have been vegetarian for 21 years now and more recently we’ve started to eliminate dairy products from our diet as well. Now that there are so many alternatives to dairy products and they are much easier to obtain, we feel better not eating dairy for a number of reasons. I’ve always had a slight intolerance to lactose and as I get older my intolerance seems to be getting worse. We also are concerned about the welfare of dairy cows and until we acquire our own cow so as to be assured that she is well treated (and we don’t plan on acquiring a cow!), we just feel better not purchasing milk or cheese. The same is true for eggs – unless we are sure that the chickens laying the eggs we eat are raised humanely, we’d rather go without them.
For years we’ve been buying our eggs from a local organic
farmer but last fall, as his chickens grew too old to lay eggs, he decided to
not replace them. So for the last few months we’ve had to travel further to buy
organic eggs from another (less) local farmer or we’ve just done without them.
Hopefully our egg supply is about to become a lot more local … on Friday we
welcomed two chickens into the family!
We became vegetarian for three main reasons; ethical, health
and environmental. I think most people get the ethical thing and I think as
more and more of our meat is produced on
“factory farms,” I think this is more important than ever. I also think
most people get the health component of a vegetarian diet and are trying to eat
“less” meat. We just thought if you should eat “less” of it, maybe you
shouldn’t eat it at all. The environmental argument for vegetarianism is
becoming more well known too. Raising cows uses a great deal of resources such
as water and produces enormous quantities of methane gas and waste. It is also
an inefficient use of grain as it takes 12 to 16 pounds of grain to produce one
pound of beef. I prefer to eat the grain directly and it’s why I like to refer
to myself as a “carbo-tarian,” focusing on breads and pasta and rice and other
carbohydrates. When we became vegetarian, doubting friends and family members
suggested that we’d be weak and sickly all the time, but then I realized that
runners don’t eat steak before marathons, they “carbo-pack” to provide their
bodies with readily usable energy, so that’s the way I eat. I could actually be
a “pizza-tarian” and eat only pizza, but Michelle insists that we have some
variety in our diet.
The grain numbers for pork are lower than beef, and I think chicken and eggs take about 3 pounds of grain to produce one pound of animal protein. So I guess true, hardcore vegetarians would say that I’ve sold out. And I guess they’d be correct. But I think growing food I have a unique perspective on the whole concept of raising animals. I grow on a very sandy soil. I need to supplement it and I do that with animal manure. I’m lucky because my neighbor Alyce provides me with horse manure. But the reality is that I don’t think my land would be as productive as it is without with manure. I could use green manure, but then I’d need a tractor to till under my clover and it would require diesel fuel.
My friend Andrew McCann who did his Masters degree in
Sustainable Agriculture emphasized to me that animals can be an important part
of an integrated and sustainable farm. So I decided it was time to give it a
We’ve been talking about getting our own chickens for quite some time and so when our local source of eggs disappeared and it became more and more difficult to buy organic, local eggs from humanely raised chickens, I finally decided that we had talked about it for long enough and it was time to “just do it.” So while Michelle was out one day I called Joe at O’Neill’s Feed Mill and ordered them. You can either order chicks for $2.65 each or 20-week-old hens that are closer to egg-laying age at $10 each. We went with the older hens. If things go well we might try buying them as chicks the next time.
When I picked them up on Friday I took one of the cat carriers. Once I got them into the car they seemed pretty docile. I think that they were enjoying the classical music CD that I was listening to. I guess I could have played some country music but I thought I’d start them out on classic. We’ll work them up to “On the Combine” by High Valley by the summer.
The trip couldn’t have been too traumatic since they weren’t in any rush to get out of the carrier once I put them in their pen. After an hour or so Michelle coaxed them out. They fascinate the cats. The arrival of these two chickens is the greatest thing ever to happen at Sunflower Farm as far as the cats are concerned. They’ve been sitting and watching them like it was “Cat TV.”
We haven’t named them yet. I’m leaving that to Michelle. Michelle wants to get to know them and get a sense of their personalities before she gives them names. (Michelle’s Note: Feel free to make suggestions!)
We’ve got lots to learn about them. I want to get a handle on what they eat and how much. We bought some commercial food for them but I’ve read that they also like vegetable peelings and other stuff that usually ends up in the compost. Once I get an idea of how much they eat I can start doing the calculations on how much land I’d have to have under cultivation to feed them.
I’m looking forward to enjoying the first egg from our own
chickens. These days when I am busy and working hard all day long, I really
need to eat a substantial breakfast with eggs and potatoes and tempeh and
toast. I don’t own a tractor and so I do most of the work around my place
manually – jobs that many rural dwellers would use diesel fuel for. If I’m
going to eat eggs, I need to know where they are from and how the chickens were
treated. If our new chickens are treated half as well as the cats in this
household, my eggs will be coming from very happy chickens.
All Photos by Cam & Michelle Mather.