Wednesday, December 11, 2013

2013 Reflections and Warnings for Future Hobby Farmers

Another year has come and nearly gone and we still don't have a house on the land we originally purchased to move to 'the country'. Turning the land into a hobby farm because we were unable to build has been a many faceted learning experience. We have tried to see what will work and what does not work and are constantly reevaluating 'the plan'. There never really was a' plan' which I have learned was the first of many mistakes. So, if you want to farm in any way shape or form, you should make a plan before you begin. A good, strong, detailed plan. And be aware that your plan will change anyways. But you should have a starting point.

City folk won't have the basic knowledge years of farming creates, knowledge that gets passed down through generations, so we must learn from books or by doing. Especially if there is no one nearby that can share farming knowledge.

Animal Changes
My goal has always been to strive for sustainable farming. Buying in feed for animals is not sustainable or cost effective in the long run. For many reasons, we have decided to downsize on animals and focus on plants. While we will still retain a limited number of livestock for pets, milk and manure, I no longer want to raise meat animals. To do so in a method that makes sense, we would need pasture and the land and the limited Tucson rainfall does not naturally support that kind of growth.

Shifting focus to intensive vegetable gardening has brought about raised beds and deep raised beds, more intensive composting, and a whole other massive sized garden. Pasture seed has been scattered anywhere and everywhere else it could possibly sprout and I await spring with bated breath and high hopes. Not for the first time. There will most likely not be enough pasture to support the limited livestock, but I am crossing my fingers still.

I have looked back over this blog to the beginning of this adventure and found that the saying "Chickens are the gateway drug to other farm animals" to be very true. Of course, my first chicken was a feral pigeon...but that's another story. This whole crazy idea started with a few backyard chickens. You have been warned.

Farm animals are unique in that most people keep them because they serve a purpose, or many purposes. In evaluating the most useful farm animal, I vote for the noble goat. A goat can clear unwanted vegetation, trim trees and small branches, give fresh milk which can be made into cheese, yogurt and soap, provide meat in the form of her offspring, carry small burdens, entertain, comfort, and will accept hugs as well as give them in her own goatly way. Goats are also cute and can learn basic verbal commands. You have been warned again.

Most often overlooked by those who raise animals for meat is the animal's intelligence. I have seen people who have no respect for the animals--especially when they want to eat them. Throughout this farming adventure, I have seen time and again that animals deserve a kind hand and compassionate treatment whether they are destined for the dinner table or not. They deserve respect. I hope that those I sold have found a place where they are treated with the same respect and kindness I showed them.

I don't recommend cows but I'll keep mine, thank you very much. They are gigantic beasts and get excited easily. Their steering and brakes don't work all that great when they're happily skipping and running toward a person. They can be stubborn and their sheer strength makes that an obstacle when they need basic care. But as my vet, Doc Mary, once said, "Cows are fun." They can be hulking, ginormous, earth thundering fun. True.

Sheep are too flighty and skittish for me. I loved my Muffy most of all because she was old and covered with wool and she loved to eat and would let me pet her. She was a challenge. She taught me to spin and want a spinning wheel. She was my gateway drug to alpacas. But sheep are not for me.

Ducks came because my oldest son has always liked ducks. He was the only one who mourned when they moved away. Ducks are a high maintenance bird, especially in the desert. They make big, nice eggs great for baking, but ducks too, are not for me.

I miss the geese, but I am the only one who does. Geese are not for my family. They are however, excellent watchdogs, weeders and makers of huge eggs. If I had a large pond and a larger acreage and my family all lost their hearing, I would totally have two geese again. I prefer geese over chickens, but it's obvious by now I am a little touched in the head.

The alpacas make the best yarn. They were not tame when they came to us, but they're getting there. Because they are fairly exotic here, their care can be a challenge if something odd comes up. But I like them. They don't have to die to make a product. They're peaceful and quiet. Best of all their pellet shaped poops are all made in one communal pile for easy cleanup. People who don't clean up after farm animals can't appreciate that last statement to its fullest.

So we have downsized to alpacas, cows and a few goats. Cows have goats beat on milk production and manure production although goat manure is far superior and easier to manage. What can I say. I love the goats and the goats love me, ever so much more than the cows or alpacas ever will. Cows and alpacas tolerate me. They could care less whether I tend them or not. They find me annoying. Goats like to hang out with me. Cows and alpacas hang out only if I have food. Then they go away because they don't think I'm that cool.

Milk Changes
Selling raw milk is, quite honestly, a pain. I milk by hand. I drink my animals' milk raw. I'm happy with that. I like to make cheese sometimes and soap sometimes. There are many regulations regarding the sale of raw milk that I don't really want to mess with. So, I generally don't sell milk. And I'm okay with that. A person really can't appreciate milk until she has to milk her goat or cow every day, morning and night, without fail. I would be the one crying over spilled milk because my Popeye muscles were made from milking day in, day out for the past couple years. I love milking. It's a time to sit and focus on nothing at all but the task at hand. It gives my mind a break. There is something timeless about it that connects a person to the past. I'm happy just milking for what my family needs or maybe our friend Koulis since he likes to play and make cheese and yogurt, but that's the extent of my milking prowess.

Egg Changes
The only laying fowl we have retained are the flock of chickens. They make eggs for us and the restaurant. If we manage to have surplus, friends and family might get some, but these hens are slowing on their production and one day, I'd like to just have three hens again. Three was enough. Since all the kids are in 4H poultry, it may be a while before that happens.

I am hopeful that 2014 will bring about better things for everyone, that our economy will recover and people will get back on their feet. Driving past so many closed businesses in Tucson is still gut-wrenching. The mortgage losses and foreclosures--devastating.

So, I don't have a house in the country, but I have years of useful knowldege, fond memories, painful memories, the memories of really good food and time well spent doing hard work, the kind of hard work done just for fun, not for profit. Markou Ranch is a hobby farm, not a business. It is in existence because when I was five years old, I wanted to be a farmer when I grew up. Each experience has taught me something, good or bad, that I will carry forward, and one day I hope I find that special house in the country to come home to, whether it is on this little plot of land or not.

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