We finally got our first real rain in a couple of months overnight and this morning, and are grateful for it, but still concerned about the crispiness of our pasture and those around us. And we’re not alone – I’ve been talking with a lot of other farmers, and they are expressing the same worries that we are having ourselves. The owner of our feed elevator said everyone he’s hearing from is saying the same. He’s a farmer, in addition to owning the elevator, so he sees both sides of it, too.
Have you read about how the drought is affecting farmers? You can find a plethora of news stories about it by doing a quick search on Google News.
The drought has us facing a triple whammy this summer, in that:
- Our pasture, the source of fresh graze for all of our animals, has dried up. Normally, we’d be able to rely upon it through late October as a food source for them. But we are already having to do extra hay and grain feedings for our goats and our poultry, respectively.
- Our pasture is not unique – everyone around us sees their fields suffering, too. This means lower yields of hay and crops. In the case of hay, we are starting to see $10 bales of hay, whereas these would normally cost $3-4 dollars. And there is a shortage of hay – the fields are only producing 20-30% of their typical yields, and we are reading that grain crops (corn, wheat, soy, oats, etc.) are seeing similar numbers. This winter will get particularly interesting as the shortages continue.
- The higher prices on grains have already been impacting us over the past few months in the way of increased prices on feed, and since the last time we sat down and crunched numbers, feed prices have gone up significantly again. Because the grains used to make animal feeds are a commodity crop, they are traded as futures – and analysts see impending shortages ahead, so the prices continue to rise as demand exceeds supply. This will only get worse as winter bears down.
What this means for us is that we have already been suffering – we’ve ran our numbers, and discovered that not only are we not breaking even, but we have been continuing to subsidize this farming operation heavily from George’s paycheck. Now, if we were extraordinarily wealthy folk, that would be one matter. But we are not – not by a long shot. And so what this has resulted in is belt-tightening and sacrifices, including things like me becoming the resident hairdresser for our entire family, eating less, rationing prescriptions, and having no budget for anything extra, including having to decline invitations to events like my cousin’s wedding, not only because we have chores to tend to, but because it is not in our gas budget to drive there (roughly 60 miles away.)
So let me put it this way: we are producing food for others, while struggling to pay for our own, and not only not breaking even, but we are paying to produce food for others. We work long, hard hours here, often not eating dinner until midnight. We don’t have the ability to attend social functions, not only from the perspective of not having the time, but the budget isn’t there, either. Getting together for family birthdays requires advance planning to insure that we not only will have the animals all set for the duration of our few hours away from home, but also to budget enough gasoline in our vehicle to get there and back, and still have enough for getting George to and from work, and me to the feed elevator or to get hay. It is a daily struggle and it is wearisome. We do not believe that it is fair to us to continue living this way.
I’ve emphasized the importance of sustainability many times in the past. It’s something we are very determined to accomplish here. And we are failing. So, we have asked, what can we do to fix this? And here are the options we see:
- Cut our costs. How would we do this? Well, clearly, salary isn’t an issue, because neither of us has ever earned one from the farm. So, where can we lower our expenses? Well, we could ration out feed – but that would result in malnutrition, and that’s hardly a solution. We could try to find cheaper feed – but even if that was plausible (and it really isn’t, given grain prices), we have raised these animals on high quality feeds, and food production is much like computer programming, in that the GIGO standard applies: Garbage In, Garbage Out. We are not willing to compromise on the quality and appropriate quantity of feed we supply to our animals. This is why we are able to produce nutrient-dense, quality foods: we treat our animals humanely and with respect. That said, we have not really been treating our own bodies humanely and with respect these past several months, as we often face the question: do we feed the animals, or ourselves? The animals always win. We cannot continue to do that and remain healthy and capable of caring for the animals properly.
- Increase our pasture. We’d love to do this. Unfortunately, we already spent our fencing budget for the year, and any money we might have been able to set aside for additional fencing is now going to our drastically more expensive feed bill. Furthermore, because everything is drying up due to the extreme heat and lack of rainfall, this would only go so far in helping to offset the need to supply our animals with the more expensive feeds (hay and grain).
- Downsize our livestock. We have considered this, but of course, this means that we will also have lower outputs. We’ve been backordered on chicken eggs for the last several months, and we are back to having a waiting list for our herdshares, so we’d like to think that producing less is not the direction we should be going. However, it is a consideration, and we have even talked about going to the extent that we would scale back to only producing enough for our own family, effectively shutting down the farm. Of course, amongst the challenges with that option would be finding homes for all of the animals we would downsize, and with all of the other farmers who are also experiencing the same problems with this drought, buyers are scarce.
- Raise our prices. This is the inevitable conclusion that we, along with countless other farmers, have reached. We know through our contacts with fellow farmers, both local face-to-face relationships, as well as many we have made through social media outlets, that this is impacting everyone, and this is the reality all small farmers are facing. Either raise our prices, or get out of farming. None of the small farmers we know want to sacrifice the quality of life and diet for their animals that is the foundation of what they do, and we are of the same mindset.
Unfortunately, we are seeing some farmers facing the choice we hope to avoid: leaving farming altogether, because they simply cannot produce the foods for a price that enough people are willing/able to pay. The subsidized industrial food system in this country has skewed perceptions of food value to the point where the surface price of a food is the only determining factor in some people’s purchasing decisions. But as Michael Pollan has famously said:
“Cheap food is an illusion. There is no such thing as cheap food. The real cost of the food is paid somewhere. And if it isn’t paid at the cash register, it’s charged to the environment or to the public purse in the form of subsidies. And it’s charged to your health.”
So. You’ve heard us say it before, but I’ll say it again: we hate to raise prices. However, we are facing either doing that, or getting out of farming for others altogether. We simply cannot continue to do this at a loss, particularly in light of the extraordinary sacrifices in our own life we make in order keep this farm running. We’re not looking for pity or praise, simply understanding and your continued support. We believe that the foods which we are producing here on the farm are worthwhile and are valuable to you, our customers. We know that our prices on eggs, even at the higher rate, are still lower than the free-ranged, humane certified eggs you would purchase at Whole Foods, Plum Market, and the like, and we hope that the added benefit of being a local producer, whom you can deal with face-to-face and actually see the hens who lay your eggs, is of value to you.
Our new pricing structure on eggs is as follows:
- Chicken Eggs: $5/dozen
- Duck Eggs: $10/dozen
We are still working on finding solutions to our goat feeding issue. Obviously, if we have to feed 3-4 bales of hay every day, and hay is costing $10/bale, we will not be able to continue offering our agistment services to herdshare owners at the current pricing of $26 per month. However, we are researching our viable alternatives and will revisit this soon.
Thank you in advance to everyone who understands and continues to support us through these very rough times. If you have any questions or concerns, we welcome your comments or emails to discuss those. Thank you!