Hello. My name is Sonya, and I am not a farmer. I’m a wannabe — as in, I really would like to grow and raise at least some (and maybe much) of the food my family eats. And I do have farming roots — does that count?
My mom grew up in southern Oregon, where her dad raised dairy cattle and grew alfalfa, sugar beets and other crops. I grew up hearing all of the stories of her idyllic childhood in the country.
Now, I live in a large city in Arizona, on a typical suburban lot, so at best I could be a small-scale urban farmer. And that is what I aspire to become.
But at the moment, my time is limited (homeschooling four children and working part-time is all-consuming), and our yard is not set up to produce much of anything. Animal or vegetable, it would take a miracle. 🙂
Enter my friend Tiffany
Enter my high-energy friend Tiffany, also a homeschooling mom of four, who — along with her husband, Aric — live on a true farm, albeit small, about a 15-minute drive from my house. There, she has two horses (one mini, one full-size), seven goats (both Nigerians and Nubians), three dogs and lots of poultry (ducks, chickens, turkeys and pheasants).
Our families have been close for about seven years, and Tiffany and I have done much teaching, learning, cooking, laughing and crying together in that time. And now we’re (sort of) farming together.
I say “sort of” because, really, she does most of the work. Up to now, my part has only involved a little of my time and money — although I expect to devote a bit more of each to our endeavors in the coming months. Currently, I buy raw goat’s milk and pastured eggs (both chicken and duck) from her. (I share feed costs for the chickens and ducks, and I pay cash or trade something for the milk.)
Raising chickens for meat
Our latest adventure involves raising chickens for meat. We’ve both been searching for the ideal eating chicken — one that’s not only free-ranging, foraging and consuming non-GMO feed, but also tender and tasty (not tough and stringy) when cooked.
We’ve been able to buy chickens that fit some (and even most) of those criteria. But they are pricey ($6 to $7 per pound), often puny (about 4 pounds) and perplexing (are they really non-GMO?).
We began to wonder whether we could raise our own and keep the cost down while ensuring the quality we want. So after a few weeks of research, we decided on Splash Orpingtons, which are a bit livelier and hardier in the desert heat than the standard, hefty-but-lethargic Cornish Crosses.
Tiffany found a local breeder, and on April 27, she picked up two dozen eggs for us to share (cost: about $50), plus a 10-week-old breeding pair to start her own stock (cost: about $40). Into the incubator the eggs went, and the first chicks began to hatch on May 18.
Unfortunately, only a dozen of the eggs actually hatched, and one of the chicks died shortly afterward. 🙁
That leaves us with 11 chickens to share — so far, not a great return on our investment, but we’re counting this first go-round as research and development.
(Separately from our joint venture, Tiffany is also pondering the possibility of breeding a pair of Copper Marans she bought from another friend to test their viability as meat birds.)
Raising the chicks
The Splash Orpington chicks spent their first few days inside Tiffany’s house in a cardboard box outfitted with a heat lamp. Then we moved them outside onto the back porch into an old guinea pig cage — still with the heat lamp. Now they’re in a 4-foot-by-8-foot, wood-and-chicken-wire pen in the back yard.
By the time this post is published, they’ll have graduated to a fenced-off portion of the pasture, with a roofed structure that provides room for roosting, as well as protection from the birds of prey that occasionally soar and circle overhead.
So far, they are thriving on Big Sky Organic grower feed, a soy- and corn-free mix containing wheat, barley, peas and flax. The birds will take about four-and-a-half months to mature, so it will be October before we process them and give them the taste test. (Stay tuned for the results — that will be Part 2!)
By then, we hope to have another flock following closely behind. Eventually, Tiffany and I would like to build up our supply so that each of our families could enjoy at least one chicken (including the meat and the stock we make from the bones) per week.
Of course, that will require excellent animal husbandry skills — which I am definitely still in the process of acquiring. Once, I accidentally kidnapped one of Tiffany’s chickens (it hopped into my mini-van, which was parked in her driveway with one of the doors open) and unknowingly took it to a writing conference — but that’s a whole other story.
Last summer, my kids and I “farm-sat” for Tiffany while she and her family took a rare and much-deserved vacation to the beach. We locked ourselves out of the house and I had to break a doorknob with a croquet mallet to get back in — yep, another whole other story. 😉
I’m convinced Tiffany keeps me around strictly for entertainment purposes. Surprisingly, she still trusts me enough that she showed me how to milk a goat recently — and she promised that I’ll actually get to try it myself soon.
No, I’m not a bona fide farmer yet. But thanks to my patient and gracious friend, perhaps someday I will be.
Have you raised quality meat birds successfully and cost-effectively? Do you farm with friends? I'd love to hear about your experiences!
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