Homesteading, Heritage Breeds and Mission Statements

Reader Contribution by Mary Lou Shaw
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Homesteading with heritage breeds may seem to have no more in common with mission statements than backyard chickens have with JP Morgan. In real life, however, having a mission statement helps us have a clear vision of what our long-term goals are and prevents us from veering off in costly directions. I’ve seen these wrong choices result in homesteads, and even relationships, failing.

Heritage breeds offer so many enticing advantages that having a mission statement may seem unnecessary for success. These old breeds excel in longevity, easy births, good mothering, and are excellent foragers. However, The Livestock Conservancy reports that the average time people keep heritage animals is only five years. Because some people have worked with heritage breeds for decades, it’s obvious that others quit after a year or two.

That is what I’ve witnessed during the 17 years I’ve had and shared heritage chickens, cows, pigs and turkeys. Not only has this been sad and expensive for the people involved, but it’s disastrous for these animals whose genetics are close to extinction. It’s understandable that people are attracted to these wonderful breeds–perhaps they haven’t thought about their goals or how these animals fit into their plans. For example, heritage breeds are perfect for sustainably feeding our families, but don’t suit high-production and consumer sales as well. If you create a mission statement to clarify your goals, you can see if these animals fit your situation. In this way, you will continually make successful choices for your homestead.

Below is the mission statement my husband and I agreed upon when we began our homestead. By seeing how your own goals agree or differ, I hope it helps you form a mission statement of your own.

Grow healthful and flavor-filled food for ourselves: First of all, we want healthful food, and that means feeding our animals well. Not only are they free-range and their food organic, but we continue to improve their pastures. The second part of this statement reminds us that our goal is to grow food for ourselves. We are a homestead and not a farm, so we don’t depend on income from selling produce. This has saved us from saying yes to everyone who asks us to raise food for them. When we have extra produce, we sell it. When winter comes and there isn’t extra, we can say “no” without guilt; growing food for others is not part of our mission statement.

Help save rare-breed genetics: As industrial agriculture has come to provide the vast majority of the meat, eggs and milk consumed in the United States, heritage-breed animals are becoming so rare that some breeds have become extinct. For the animals’ sake as well as future generations of humans, we find it meaningful to be part of an effort to save heritage breeds. The Livestock Conservancy provides a wonderful network of people with whom we share knowledge and genetics.

Our goal of saving these animals affects the choices we make for them. We can enjoy them, but not keep them forever as pets. If the chicken house is full of non-laying hens and the meadow filled with steers, the genetics of the breeds will be lost. To save these endangered animals, we must keep them reproducing and share their genetics. Individuals who have single-handedly saved a bred from extinction have usually done so by finding markets for their products, including their meat. It’s true—we have to eat them to save them.

Sharing knowledge and genetics: I’m writing this blog because I enjoy sharing as I learn. If you also enjoy sharing knowledge, you’ll find people eager to learn about these beautiful animals. Likewise, sharing the genetics—both fertilized eggs and young animals—will put you in contact with a wonderful community of people who feel as you do.

Having these animals puts us on a continual learning curve. Resources I’ve found helpful are The Livestock Conservancy and the individual breed associations. Neither my husband nor I had been around cows when we got our first two Dutch Belted cows; folks from The Dutch Belted Association have been our mentors ever since.

Being part of these communities helps us keep going when things go wrong. Don’t feel isolated if you lose a calf or if a predator gets one of your precious turkeys. Contact others through these associations to both learn from and commiserate with. Feeling isolated contributes to failure.

Enjoy life: I admit that enjoying life is a state of mind as much as it is the activities we do, but at our homestead, making time to enjoy our animals has definitely enriched our lives. Juggling full-time work would make this tougher, but so does juggling a large garden, orchard, bees and family. I remind myself to stand still and observe the chickens’ antics, to take time to teach the cows to enjoy eating tomatoes (they really do!) or even sit in the pasture and let the turkey-girls fly up onto my lap. Yes, it is silly. But always trudging through a to-do list doesn’t make life quite so enjoyable. At any rate, having fun doesn’t have to be justified if it’s part of our mission statement!

As you write up your own mission statement, I hope you’ll be able to find the perfect animals and breeds to help fulfill your goals. You may even find that a faster-growing and higher-producing hybrid animal would fit your mission better than a heritage breed. Being clear from the beginning what your mission statement is will keep you on the right track. Whatever direction your homestead takes, I hope you’ll be able to include “Enjoyment” as part of your homesteading adventures.

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