Thompson Small Farm
In the fall of 2019 fresh from a screening of the film “Unbranded” (https://youtu.be/swX4BLbmBNU) documenting four friends riding mustang horses from the Mexican to the Canadian border, with an assertion by the leader of the expedition that the ride could not have been completed on domestic horses fresh in my mind, I rode our Clydesdale mare Jenny in the Bearberry horse rally in our hills. The event was 100 riders strong with the proceeds of the registration fee going to charity. Arriving fairly early to the staging grounds, there was a fair bit of lounging about that went on before the ride. It was in chatting to one gentleman about the pros and cons of this and that breed for this and that purpose that I became informed of the Wild Horses of Alberta Society – or WHOAS – that had their headquarters not far south from where the ride was taking place, and that they had several wild horses available for adoption. Now here is something I went away thinking.
I visited the webpage of WHOAS. (Check it out if you wish – https://wildhorsesofalberta.com/.) There was one horse up for adoption at the time. He was a young gelding, not quite three judging from his teeth, liver chesnut in colour and the name they had given him was “Eli.” He has an excellent disposition, and has proven to be friendly and willing his description went. The two photos suggested a well-proportioned animal aside from the head, which looked rather long for rest of the critter, relative even to the reason we coined the term, “horse-faced.” I decided to go check him out in person. Here was the real deal, after-all, just beyond our doorstep and ready for a new home.
I should mention that I have long been fascinated with tales of tough breeds of horse forged in the crucible of harsh lands. Breeds like the Morgan horse, the Canadian. The Newfoundland dog. Which isn’t a horse, but rather a dog. But you know what i mean, right? I fancied that if I were to one day keep a horse explicitly for riding, as opposed to our big Clydesdales that have been doing double-duty as riding horses, I would seek out one of these breeds. The caveat here being that these breeds have been around for many, many horse generations at this point, and are umpteen generations removed by pretty cushy times from the forces that resulted in their outstanding breed qualities. It only makes sense that these qualities will have endured a certain dilution of their seminal potency.
Yet in the great expanse of hills on the eastern fringe of which is located our farm roam the largest bands of wild horses, or mustangs, in Alberta. Horses that are 0% removed from unforgiving evolutionary pressures. (There is debate over whether they are more properly termed “feral,” but everyone around here calls them “wild,” “wildies” or “mustangs” and that works for us.) I had known for years that periodic trapping initiatives occurred in order to cull these bands, which are not popular with some ranchers for the fact that they eat grass they’d prefer went towards fattening some horde of squat beeves. Wouldn’t it be something to get your hands on one of those for riding I’d been reflecting of late. What could be better as a mount for these hills than a horse forged in these hills? But i wasn’t sure how that might be practically effected. Until now.
First impressions of Eli were very good. The length of his head was in reality perfectly proportionate, forced perspective being to blame in the photos. I spent some time with Bob Henderson, who formed the society in 2001.
The society seemed to think our farm was a good match for Eli, and we agreed to adopt him.
This was in October. Born and bred in the hills to mustang parents, Eli had been running wild until August, when as sometimes happens with bachelor males, he entered the pasture of a remote farm to woo the domestic mares there, in company with some of his adolescent friends. WHOAS was called to come and remove the horses, as this is one of the functions of the society, to help keep these animals out of trouble. The horses were trapped in a corral and trailered to their facility where basic preliminary gentling was accomplished by a handful of experienced volunteers. Eli had learned to stand in a stall tied and to lead on a rope in a halter. He was suspicious of me at first, and I spent some weeks going to visit him daily at the facility before trucking him home well into November.
He was kept in the corral with access to the big barn where I kept up the routine of tying him and graining him with oats daily to help him settle in and become used to me. He got to meet our Clydesdales through the slats of his corral fence, further separated by a solar-powered hot strand (electric wire) spaced to keep the horses off the fence but almost able to touch noses. The big Clydesdales spent a lot of time at that fence. A month later they were introduced in the central paddock and all has gone as expected there, that is to say, plenty of jostling to establish herd hierarchy with no injuries. The little mustang looks half the size of the big horses, which he pretty much is, but he holds his own, even managing to mount the big girls when they are receptive. He’s gelded mind-you, and it’s a waste of time for the girls beyond being pleasant society, I guess. Like dancing with the castrati.
Training Eli has been a joy. In very short order he “joined up” with me, following me about like a dog and calling to me when I first left the house. Contrary to what you might expect from a horse with wild genes in him that go back to explorer David Thompson’s era (1800), this horse has proven more sensible and less excitable in training than even some of our Clydesdales, a breed legitimately famous for its calm nature. It’s as though natural selection, in addition to weeding out all the physical liabilities in these horses, has weeded out the mental ones, too. And this of course makes perfect sense. In a natural environment that includes puma, grizzlies, and big packs of the world’s largest wolves, or even just random grouse exploding into flight from underfoot, an overly flappable horse would not last. Too much energy would be wasted. Mistakes would be made, potentially fatal ones. Condition would suffer, and winter would come. Injuries might happen and there would be the wolves. And so they have become like the zebra in relation to the lion. They know when it’s time to worry, and just as importantly, when it’s not, and they process the distinction efficiently.
I’ve measured my new boy for a new saddle, a nice one that will fit me, too. This comes in March. He has learned so fast that I could easily have been riding him by now in the training saddle, but I am in no hurry. Wait til the snow and ice are gone and the footing is better for that. In the meantime, it took him about a day to learn to respond to bit pressure, to get used to the pressure of my foot in either stirrup, and he now takes my full weight flopped over the saddle like a halibut calmly enough to be sniffing around for something to nibble whilst I am up there.
I’m very much looking forward to this coming season. It’s February end and Eli is losing his winter coat. I’ll keep you posted.
Thanks for reading!
Thompson Small Farm was launched in 2008 out of the belief that a return to a healthy, localized system of mixed farming using natural inputs and conducted on a human scale is one of the fundamental steps we must take if we are to restore the health of human and natural communities on this planet and live sustainably.
Modern Agribusiness took off in the years following World War II. Driven and soon controlled by the banks and the chemical and implement industries, the new agriculture spelled the doom of a system of sustenance that had nurtured and enabled the best of mankind for millennia. The consequences have been severe not just for the traditional farmer and the rest of the human community, but for the entire biosphere, with loss of topsoil, decrease in soil fertility, surface and ground water contamination, and enormous loss of genetic diversity in both the natural and the domestic animal communities being the hallmarks of postwar agriculture. Safeguarded by big money, this is still predominantly the way of the present. There is, however, no future in this for any of us.
We are attempting nothing new here on our small farm. We don’t believe there is wisdom in embarking upon another risky and prohibitively expensive technological fix to solve the mistakes of previous ones. Alternatively, we believe there were moments on this planet when humankind had reached the ideal equations for comfortable sustainability of our species and others, but that we passed through these moments of endeavor mostly without notice. We now have the knowledge gained by hindsight, and with this knowledge lies the power re-adopt the abandoned elements that worked. To re-embrace and to put back into practice the simple yet elegant systems with their track records of centuries. In essence, Thompson Small Farm is an attempt to return to the days when farming was conducted for the benefit of the immediate community and the farmer himself, with as little reliance as possible on financial or industrial institutions.
Our goal is not to “get big”. Rather, we wish to grow only large enough to do something positive for others and for the planet while sustaining ourselves in autonomous, modest comfort. In other words, to engage in “right livelihood,” and – very important to us – to hopefully be able to one day serve as an example to others of an alternative way to live, a way that sustains the global community as well as it does the family unit.
Small Farming and the Holland & Holland Rifle: Lessons for Aspiring (and Expiring) Farmers from the Maker of the World’s Finest Sporting Arms
Thompson Small Farm is located in bear country. Here, two species of bruin – the black and the grizzly – still roam in numbers that might lead Ernest Hemingway, were he still around, to declare this land “a good country” yet. It’s a miraculous thing, anyways – all these bears – given the terminal condition of our civilization and the flabbergasting number of humans around today. On this eastern fringe of the foothills in the agricultural mosaic they live like their European counterparts, strictly nocturnal poltergeists trolling the inky blackness. You think that’s a nice woodlot there on the fringes of your quartersection, but it may well harbor a monster that can cleave your head from your body with one absent-minded swipe of its ivoryhung forepaw. And thank-God for the fact of such beasts. Even at this late stage, it is not yet entirely a world fit only for exfoliated girlie-men and women, despite our sincerest efforts to render it so. Three miles due east of our house in fact, a hunter a scant few years ago – armed only with a bow – encountered a grizzly and her wellgrown cubs on their own kill. And when he didn’t make it home, he was subsequently discovered some 160 pounds lighter than when he entered the bush. I could show you the spot, but I won’t, as there are bears in there as I write this.
It is primarily for the fact of the Great Bear in our backyard that I possess a rifle in the .375 Holland & Holland Magnum calibre. That and the fact that this cartridge – 103 years old now – is the most versatile ever devised. It is not just an arm for defense, I can hunt for the larder with it. By some magic alchemy of ballistics, Holland & Holland invented a round that can kill a rogue elephant and yet be effective on small freezer-deer without making hamburger of the meat before you give the butcher his instructions. As white hunter Peter Hathaway Capstick said, you are never over-gunned and only rarely under-gunned with the .375 H&H. It’s also one of the most effective rounds for stopping a bear bound on mayhem, should the unfortunate circumstance – and I would deem it unfortunate, as I would never wish to kill a grizzly – arise. But as they said in the olden years, and as our hapless bowhunter learned, it is better to have the weapon and not need it, than to need it and not have it.
But that’s not what this essay is about. It’s just background.
My rifle was built by the CZ company, located in some murky eastern European country, I’ve forgotten which one. Or maybe I’m pretending I’ve forgotten it because I can’t spell the name of the place. Whatever the case, testament to the excellence of the manufacturing process there and at odds with the manufacturing process in many places now, it is a very well-built firearm. This is why it is today the most popular of all among Africa’s professional hunters. Dependable as the death it delivers, under the most obscene of circumstances. The rifle is nonetheless mass-produced and costs $1200, or thereabouts, for the base model I possess.
Unlike the CZ company that produced my .375 rifle – the originator of the calibre is based in London, England, and builds artisan firearms. Holland & Holland does not mass-produce their guns. They are still built step-by-painstaking-step in a labor-intensive process. I can relate to this process, because this is how we raise our eggs and meat at Thompson Small Farm. Our products are in this sense artisanal products, same as the guns of Holland & Holland.
So what would I have had to pay for the equivalent rifle built in England by Holland & Holland to the one I possess costing $1,200? For the equivalent rifle built by hand rather than by industrial process? How many orders of magnitude more? A ball-park figure seems to be around $25-$30,000. $50,000 is not uncommon, and the numbers climb from there into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. $15-$17,000 being about rock-bottom.
And this is what we’re driving at here. An examination of the cost of a hand-built rifle from Holland & Holland illustrates why Thompson Small Farm and small farms like it are doomed to fail as busninesses from inception. (And if you work another job to support your farming, we’re talking a failed enterprise, economically.) And why the small farming model is not delivering a decent living – or a living at all – for its practitioners in general today, whether they admit it or not. And most won’t – there is a stigma attached to being honest if you’re failing, regardless of how many folks you may be doing a real favor to by being so.
So, the customers of Holland & Holland are willing to pay from 20 to 40 times (and up) the cost of a mass produced product for an artisan-produced one. These prices are not arbitrary figures. They are in fact a reflection of the economics necessary to allow artisanal endeavors to succeed. The economics necessary in an industrial paradigm to provide a living for those involved in the artisanal process. In any artisanal process that is more than just a sideline. And if you’re working at something all day every day, it is not a sideline.
Meanwhile, Thompson Small Farm – arguably a Holland & Holland of egg, poultry, and pork-production as are other farms like ours – sells our products for approximately twice that of mass-produced, perhaps somewhat less, wondering all the while that the market bears even this and still enduring the occasional raised-eyebrow. A box of our extra-large eggs sells for $7.00. The equivalent of Holland & Holland selling their rifles for $2,400 or so. Would they be around today had this been their practice, or rather, the demands of their market?
Based on the lesson of Holland & Holland’s example (and who’s to argue, they’ve endured since 1835) Thompson Small Farm’s eggs ought to sell for $70 to $140 a dozen for extra-large. That would be a pretty nice living, granted. About $720,000 average gross per year based on the 300 chickens maximum allowable by law in Alberta for small farmers. We could pay ourselves as other businesses expect to be paid in Canada and provide meaningful employment to people in our community. But this is only if there were no winter and the chickens laid consistently year-round at the optimal six eggs per week per bird; if they did not go into moults; if there were no attrition to predators; if we found all eggs produced (they are free-range, remember!); if our customers were fine with us feeding them the soy-based commercial feeds that allow for maximum production. But all of these things are in reality significant factors impacting our egg production. There are others, as well – this is not a full accounting. You’d realistically have to cut this number, then, by about 2/3 to 3/4. So let’s say $240,000 per year gross as a generous estimate for producing a rare and vastly superior artisan product at our farm based on eggs at an artisan cost of $140 per dozen. Gross, not net, mind-you.
Don’t be ridiculous, you say, and I’d be inclined by the same cultural conditioning to agree. And I certainly don’t require this much money, and frankly wonder why anyone does. (Maybe to buy a Holland & Holland rifle? I’d endorse that!) I am not actually advocating for $140 per dozen eggs. Yet, to be fair, there are plenty of households within our sales region of Calgary – the wealthiest jurisdiction in Canada – who make this kind of money for what it is they do, and well beyond. For what, specifically? I don’t know what makes them so valuable to society, to their species, to their planet – it’s been a mystery to me my entire life. Or perhaps, rather, it’s that I don’t understand why, while we attach plenty of value to some things that are so obviously of real importance, we refuse to do it for others.
So how about if we were to sell our eggs not at an artisan average of 30 times that of the factory produced eggs, but rather at one/tenth the artisan value, or around $10.50 per dozen. Three times the value of grocery store eggs. That’s in the ballpark of $24,000 per year gross, based on our experiences. I crunched the numbers and reckoned on a profit margin of 40% if all goes well. That’s $9,600 per year as income from eggs at just three times the factory farm cost. No margin there.
But we don’t sell our eggs at three times the factory farm cost, we sell them for perhaps twice, maybe somewhat less, and I can imagine what would result if we tried to up this to three times the value, which would nonetheless still not be anywhere near enough to justify the work.
What we have attempted to do here is illustrate the impossibility of the entire small farm model as it stands today. For if you are going to embark on an artisanal enterprise without the remotest chance of being compensated as an artisan, as the economics of the situation demand, then you are doomed to fail. Guaranteed.
Thomas Wolfe wrote:
“You can’t go back home to your family… back home to lyricism, to singing just for singing’s sake, back home to aestheticism, to one’s youthful idea of ‘the artist’ and the all-sufficiency of ‘art’ and ‘beauty’ and ‘love,’… back home to places in the country… back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time…”
It has taken us the thick end of a decade here to learn just how right he was. And the economics of why. The knowledge has come at a significant toll. And it’s why we won’t be producing eggs (nor meat chickens, which are even more labor intensive with less favorable margins,) beyond the current farm season. As you can see, the market will not adequately bear the endeavor. (Here we are, going on about bears again.) Unfortunately for the customer, there is no equivalent food to the CZ rifle: mass-produced and of quality.
Stories like ours are beginning to emerge more commonly a decade and some into the supposed small farming boom. People are beginning to recognize the futility of it all, they are becoming fed-up. It is a pity though, isn’t it, what Thomas Wolfe pointed out, looking around us at the world as it stands today?
And not just for those of us losing our shirts, perhaps?
My late Uncle Cletus, second-eldest in a family of thirteen, explained the family-planning in those days:
“What’s that?” said Mom.
“I’ll set a trap,” said Dad.
“Better go kill a chicken. It will soon be hungry.”
“I’ll kill a quail. The others grew so fast.”
“Maybe this one will be small.”
“Yes – start right. Control its diet.”
“It can be a Stenographer.”
“It seems small.”
“It’s still a baby.”
“Get it out from under the table.”
“We should find it some clothes – it leaves little to the imagination.”
“It’s a quiet one, though.”
“It doesn’t want to attract the others.”
“Good survival instinct.”
“What sex is it?”
“Give it time.”
“How soon can we put it to work?”
“Soon – simple tasks.”
“It’s rather hairy.”
“That’s a good name.”
“It has a lot of hair.”
“It’s a December child…”
The thing is, Andrea and I didn’t have thirteen children, but we did have something small, hairy, and unexpected arrive this December.
Mable is our sole remaining milk cow. This is after selling her mother, Mary. It seems like a terrible thing, to sell someone’s mother, but Mable doesn’t seem to care. Her mother was a full-blood Jersey, a breed prone to milk-fever, so we crossed her to a Milking Shorthorn sire, a breed not known for milk-fever. This made sense, to us. Mable has the red-and-white colouration of the dad, overlaid with a nice brindling.
Now, here’s the thing about yaks: you can cross a yak with a cow, but the resulting bulls are sterile. The cows remain fertile. Prevailing wisdom surrounding yaks says that if you wish to accomplish such a breeding, you must separate the yak bull together with the cow you wish to breed. He is something of an elitist, you see, and will only breed a cow when the pickings get – or are rendered – slim.
Mable was not separated from our small yak herd and we didn’t worry. We thought one day we might separate her with Clint, our yak bull, when the time seemed right. Anyway, she started bagging-up in early December, but not much, so we didn’t think much of it. “She’s becoming a woman,” that sort of thing. Nothing else to cause alarm seemed to be occurring.
It got cold, so we put her in the old milking barn, the one built by Arnie Arnesson way back when and that we put a new metal roof on because it was on its last legs, although it should stand now for a long time. Log barns, so the prevailing wisdom goes, don’t fall over, they just get more squat over time, like the folks that build them; and all the other folks, too. We hope the prevailing wisdom surrounding log barns has more substance behind it than the prevailing wisdom surrounding yaks. You see, it had only been a few days that Mable was snug in her barn when I went in and thought,
“Who let that mongrel in here with the cow?”
But I was wrong. Mable had given birth. A little calf was there, small, hairy, red-and-white like the mom, and already frolicking about, his name: Herman Nelson. Half-yak, one-quarter Jersey, one-quarter Milking Shorthorn. Not only did we have a new calf, we had learned something more about Clint, our yak bull, Herman’s dad. Something that we hadn’t thought about before, something that would not have occurred to us: he was not much of a reader. And this is the thing about yaks, the other thing. Their calves are small, like a sewing machine. They make no more difference to the mother’s girlish shape than a couple of beers make to the shape of a long-haul trucker. The result being that they tend to simply appear, if you are not watching closely. If you do watch closely, they appear anyway.
Just like our ancestors did.
Andrea is working in the farmyard, close to the gate that opens out to pasture. Some of the big grazers are coming down the corridor to the central paddock for water. There, approaching amongst them, she becomes aware of something small and incongruous. It is the fox that has been plaguing us, beautiful and relentless little killer. It is there using the large animals as a screen to approach the field-chickens unnoticed, or so it hopes.
But it doesn’t work. Just as she’s about to shout at the interloper, a streak of wolf-large whooly fur rockets out from behind her, followed by another and yet another These are our protectors, our livestock guardian dogs. They are almost on the fox before it realizes the very real peril it is in and bolts. By now our two other farm dogs have joined the chase. The fox won’t be getting a free lunch from us, not today. Still, it is very lucky not to have been shredded.
The working group “livestock guardian dogs” is composed of a number of breeds, including but not limited to: Great Pyrenees; Maremma; Akbash; Komondor; Ovcharka. The origin of these dogs is lost in antiquity, but it seems they share a common ancestor that originated perhaps in Asia. They are designed for a pastoral style of livestock husbandry, that is, one that relies on free ranging stock out on open pasture. They are raised from pups right alongside those animals they are meant to guard, and long instinct borne out of careful selection over millennia instructs them that their job is to watch over this “family” and all it contains, and to guard it with their life. (In our case, we raised our pups alongside our chickens. The yaks and the draft horses don’t need protecting.) They tend to be large dogs, capable of standing a chance against a wolf or bear if necessary. Custom sometimes suggests the dogs should receive a minimum of human contact in order for them to bond with their animal charges, but this hardly seems to be the case, Ours are extremely bonded to us yet do an exemplary job guarding, and at only slightly over a year old, they will only get better – it takes these dogs up to three years to fully mature. At any rate, we cannot imagine the loss that would be ours should we not have their friendship as we do – they are delightful creatures, full of character and personality. Furthermore, any dog this large, and programmed for savagery as the situation requires, certainly needs socialization with humans. Unless you are Ghenghis Khan, an individual infamous for harnessing his anger to produce a desired outcome. Then again, while some people who come on your place will certainly deserve to be bit on the ass by a large carnivore, Mr. Khan did not live in such a litigious age as we do today.
Amongst the breeds that compose this group of dogs are those famous for wandering large distances. I once had a friend who raised Pyrenees on his farm, for instance, this being one of the roaming breeds. When I drove over the prairie to visit him in winter, it was not uncommon to begin encountering the tracks of his dogs in the snow many miles out on the plains before I reached his farm. Two of his pups were our first livestock dogs, in fact. We couldn’t keep them on the place, nor to be honest, anywhere near it. I suppose we got them a little old to bond properly with the stock. Whatever the case, and while I personally found their free-spiritedness both fascinating and endearing, the dogs were effectively useless to us when they were five miles away and the coyote five feet from the fence. We reluctantly returned them.
Our livestock dogs that are on the place now – the brothers Sounder, Ranger and Hunter – are a trio we rescued as young pups. Their mother is a Komondor, a huge and intriguing breed that is more aggressive yet less prone to wander, their dad one of my friend’s old Pyrenees. Since spring has come on and the chickens are out ranging well afield, these new dogs have become pretty much the homebodies, tied to their job. But there was a time last winter when i was off deer hunting in the big woods that abuts our place, several miles deep into the sylvan fastness, and came upon tracks on a steep and trackless slope that i first took to be those of a pair of very large mountain lions. Wolf-sized prints. (There are lions here that leave such large tracks.) Then I detected claw-marks, which the lion of course, having retractable ones, does not leave. The prints were too round and catlike, however, to be those of wolves, found here as well. Then it suddenly dawned on me why these prints were looking so familiar as I continued to examine them. They were the tracks of my own pack! I was happy knowing they were out engaging the wilds as I was.
Our dogs are interesting to us on many levels, not the least of which includes how their physical appearance lends insights into the ancient ties between the livestock guardian breeds. For while both their parents were entirely white, two of the brothers are predominantly grey. A person might well wonder why this is so, yet in learning more about this guild of canines, will discover that other guardian breeds known from geographic regions abutting those from whence the “Komondorok” (plural for Komondor) and Pyrenees sprang indeed commonly have markings, hues and patterns not unlike those of our crosses. Breeds like the Pyrenean Mastiff, and the South Russian Ovcharka. The long buried lineages emerging readily from the ether of long ago with a little genetic coaxing.
It is normal these days when new laws are passed out in the country for them to represent some level of inhibiting nuisance to those rural folk living traditional rural lives. So it was with relief and hope that we reviewed new ordinances in our home county of Mountainview.
In Mountainview County, it is now writ in law that a barking livestock protection dog is not to be considered grounds for nuisance complaints. Nor is a livestock protection dog that is roaming off-property in the pursuit of its duties to be considered a “dog-at-large.” Rather, these dogs are now being protected as the vitally contributing rural citizens that they are, essential elements of a productive rural fabric.
Now that’s the kind of “progress” we need to see more of. Laws that actually favor, rather than hamstring, traditional farm economies.
“All flesh is grass,” says the Book of Isaiah, and so on our farm, that’s where it begins – with the grass. The production of our free-range eggs and meat chickens is a good example of the genesis of this adage.
To produce the best chicken and eggs possible, we must raise the birds on pasture, and so rather than focusing primarily on the chickens, we must practice farm management principles that are best for the health of this pasture first.
Grass is designed with grazers in mind. Grazers in nature run in tight herds and move around a lot. The stay tight as defense against predators, and they move around so that the grass beneath their feet is always fresh. Any given blade of grass is nipped off once and left alone as the grazer moves on. The root of the grass dies back according to the amount grazed off above the surface, and the dead root elements decompose into topsoil. The blade of the grass then has a growth surge in response to being nipped, and the roots do too. Nip it more than once in too short a span of time, however, and you stunt the blade and the root, both. Hence the old adage, “Keep down the shoot, kill the root.”
The first step then in raising the best chicken and eggs, is to have a herd of large grazers to keep the pasture healthy and prepare it for the chickens. On our farm, this herd is composed of draft horses, yaks and dairy cows. In order to mimic the patterns of natural grazing just described, we move them daily to fresh pasture, enclosed tightly in a temporary paddock delineated by solar-powered electric wire and just large enough to completely graze in one day, no larger. They’re on there, they hit it hard, and they’re gone, leaving the grass alone to respond naturally. They aren’t brought back to the same spot until the grass is ready. Your grass tells you when and where to graze the animals, in other words. This system is called “mob grazing.” It is not only a key to healthy pasture, it is a potent tool in combating climate-change, for while over-grazed pastures which are the norm today lead to desertification and absorb little carbon-dioxide, and ungrazed pastures emit carbon dioxide from their thick decomposing thatch of dead, unused grass, mob-grazed pastures maintain optimum growth and absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide.
This method on its own, done correctly and with attention to detail, would result in very good pasture at about four times the volume a conventionally grazed pasture provides, but now we incorporate the chickens to add diversity to the system, for resilience is contingent on diversity. Our meat and egg birds are rotated onto the paddocks the big grazers have prepared as the grass is coming back, for the chickens don’t like the grass too long. The meat birds are kept in large, movable pens to protect them from predators and the elements, and the more agile egg birds range out from fixed-coops and a mobile “eggmobile,” protected by big, shaggy dogs whose working lineages are lost in antiquity. They nibble the grass without having the impact of the herd animals, and they eat the insects and take in all the nutritional elements of a healthy sward. They add their droppings to the grounds, an incredible injection of soil health-inducing nitrogen that the grass would not be able to incorporate were it not for the fact that it were being mob-grazed and kept in a hyper-productive state. The chickens in turn take in many healthy antibodies and of course receive plenty of ultra-violet from the sun. This way, we circumvent the need in today’s large and vulnerable meat birds for the constant infusions of antibiotics required to keep them alive in the crowded, stressed battery barns they were genetically designed for, and where the chicken you’re used to eating comes from. And the eggs you get our way have been shown to be six times more nutritious than conventionally raised. And so as a by-product of keeping our pasture in the best shape it can possibly be in, we get the finest chicken and eggs possible. We also build topsoil, maintain healthy herds, feed draft-animals that provide us with the sustainable power that machines cannot, at the same time as combating climate change.
In traditional farming, there comes a time of year in the early spring when one must lock their animals away in a paddock. This happens when the grass begins to green-up, and the purpose in doing this is to let the pasture get a good start before beginning the season’s rotation of the grazers. The paddock they are kept in for this period, usually lasting a month and a half or two, is called a “sacrifice area,” as it is sorely used by the animals and nothing much remains but dirt. But it is worth this sacrifice for what it does for the rest of your farm. The period the animals are kept off the fields is traditionally called, “The Hungry Gap,” for the animals are hungry for grass during this gap in their freedom, and like their wild counterparts, in their lowest condition of the year. In addition, the horses have already been working the ground, and the mares may have been carrying babies to near-full term. Gwyneth worked right up to the day before giving birth this time around. This is something working horses have long been doing, and it is actually good for producing uncomplicated births to work the mothers close to the day of arrival.
This year, the hungry gap ended for us on May 21st. (A couple of days before this was when Gwyneth gave birth. Our first baby Clydesdale of the season, a lovely young filly.) The animals, some thin and even a bit bony from a too-long, if fairly flaccid winter, were eager as always to get out on the grass.
Every day or at most two, our herd is moved from one small pasture to the next, given only enough area to graze off completely in that brief period. The patch is not then grazed again until the grass has come back fully. This is called “Mob Grazing,” and is the most efficient way to maximize the health of your pasture and the volume of grass, especially when it is a mixed herd doing the grazing, as different grazers eat the grass in a different fashion. Horses crop it down close and prefer shorter grass, for instance, while yaks and cows use their big tongue to encircle a swath of the tall stuff and pull it into their mouth.
Our first paddock, the one we traditionally break the gap with, is a mixed aspen-balsam-spruce savannah, a small patch of considerably less than an acre. The animals love it in there, it is cool and lush, and they sure are a pleasure to behold in this setting. Soon their condition will be noticeably improved, and in no time they will be back in prime shape.
is an offshoot of Thompson Small Farm. It is our educational wing. We will be putting muc hof our energies into this project for 2012. We will not be operating a CSA this year but will be selling our eggs and fresh produce at the Sunnyside Farmers Market.
Check out the new site for Jon’s latest blogs!
Andrea & Jon
I think we’ve figured this out now to make it usable for those who stumble accross this blog.
I started out posting all of our past newsletter in what I believe is now the wrong section so I have done some reorganizing and will get the archived newsletters onto the new newsletter tab and keep this section for actual news from the farm.
Keep checking as we’ll be attempting to post and update at least bi-weekly.
Thanks for your interest.
Hello everyone –
Spring has finally and definitively arrived here. It has been a couple of weeks now since we had a night frost, it seems, and the snow is at last gone from all but the shadiest places. The chickadees (black capped’s and boreal’s) and juncos (slate-coloured and Oregon’s) at the feeder have been replaced by white crowned sparrows, while the yard and the woods are filled with sapsuckers and flickers, barn and tree swallows, the swamp with winnowing snipe and quacking hordes of wood frogs.
We are pretty much right on schedule with our started plants in the greenhouse, although certainly the direct field seeding has been delayed some by the late thaw. It is now windier than this country normally is, (according to neighbors,) more like the plains we just left. We are hoping this is something short-lived. We have enjoyed the sense of calm that has prevailed here until the past week or so.
The last weekend of April we took a minor part in the “Local 101 and 102” events put on by Slow Food at the Palace Theatre and the University of Calgary. This event was focused on local food production. Driving in, we reflected on the teeming hive of activity Calgary has become, and felt excited that the city was hosting an event focused on such an important issue as put on by such an esteemed organization. We had fun, there were some great presentations and films. The attendance, however, was frankly appalling for the entire weekend, with this fact being the dominating factor in pretty much everyone’s analysis of the event. We are hoping this was due to a lack of advertising exposure – which we have heard was not what it could nor should have been – and not an honest reflection of the relative order of priorities in our city. (Perhaps next year the event can be slid out onto the ice during the intermissions in a Flames game, some wag suggested.) This may well be the case – certainly the CSA model is receiving plenty of support from Calgarians these days, with the number of startup CSA’s on the rise, and this is a very positive sign.
Our first flats of brassicas (broccoli, kale and cabbage,) have gone out into the house-garden field as of yesterday. This field was the produce source for the original Norwegian family who arrived here from Minnesota by ox and wagon. (What a trip that must have been!) They knew where to put a garden in a climate like ours – and theirs – it is a lovely little micro-climate they chose, noticeably warmer on a cool windy weekend like we just had. We are deeply grateful to members Jo-Anne and Ashley Gibson, Bev Hollenbeck and Shelina Knight for coming out and participating in the planting. These folks were efficient! In a matter of a few short hours, they came, they conquered and they left, like a small locust plague in reverse, leaving the beginnings of a crop where just hours before there had been barren dirt, and turning for us what would have been an all-day task into something easily manageable in an afternoon. Similar events occurred here earlier in the past month, including the crucial help we received in erecting a new passive-solar greenhouse (for peppers and tomatoes) and in surveying our north fenceline thanks to dear friends Boris Berthelot and friend Paul, and Corinne and Gary Funk, respectively. Many hands do indeed make light work, not to mention a priceless sense of community!
There is a raven with a nest in the nearby woods who is stealing our eggs. I had seen him coming and going from the area of the hen-house with pale objects in his beak that looked too small to be eggs, but this was a reflection of his considerable size. Eggs they were. In the old days, a firearm would have been produced, and a raven would have died, but that thought is appalling to us, where ravens are involved. Watching this raven dip and soar in the wind, like some gorgeous airborne dolphin – with an intellect on par – we can only come to the conclusion that ending such a fine, unfettered life for the sake of our own ones, (which may well be of inferior quality,) would be a terrible sacrilege. So the problem is one of husbandry, and hopefully it is one that can indeed be solved. Our dogs chase him when they see him, but his patrols are relentless. He is the master at this game.
Predator issues were one of many factors bringing inefficiencies that lead to the (temporary) solution of modern agriculture – keeping everything under lock and key at great expense that could only be compensated for by increasing scale which in turn required ever more massive energy inputs. Of course, we know what this does to food quality, not to mention the quality of life for the creatures involved (including the farmer’s.) Sometimes problem predators do have to be killed, but this is not something that should be done without careful analysis. As a culture, we congratulate ourselves today that we no longer kill the hawk (a basic, reptilian creature compared to a raven,) that raids the henhouse like the small farmers of yore, without recognizing the inherent stack of ironies involved. It was precisely the shift to an industrial scale and mode of life that bought us the luxury in recent decades not to have to deal sometimes harshly with competing predators on the farms, and what’s more, that provided a living in our modern times for the scores of biologists and conservationists that champion such creatures (only a fraction the number of whom were provided for by the old system of patronage) so that they could in turn speak out against the nature and actions of the very industrial system that enabled most of their livelihoods. Thanks in large part to such folks, it is now a criminal act to protect your poultry by eliminating a problem goshawk, for instance. It is a complicated, convoluted time we live in. For is it not better to have many more small farms free-ranging their hens and necessarily killing the odd goshawk, however magnificent, than to have a system that saves some hawks and creates a profession of being a naturalist on the one hand while endangering all of life on earth – hawks and humans included – with the other?
We hope you all have a wonderful May, and that you’re able to get out there and enjoy our splendid part of the world!
-Jon and Andrea
You are capable of more than you know. Choose a goal that seems right for you and strive to be the best, however hard the path. Aim high. Behave honorably. Prepare to be alone at times, and to endure failure. Persist! The world needs all you can give.
Today’s industrial agriculture… will become utterly unsustainable once the huge fossil fuel inputs that go into farm machinery, agricultural chemicals, worldwide transport networks, and the like stop being commercially viable. Converting back to horse-powered agriculture would be a challenge, but one well within the realm of the possible; relatively simple changes in agricultural, taxation, and land use policy could do much to foster that conversion.
– John Michael Greer
Hello everyone –
As I believe we’ve relayed by now, we are in the throes of moving to a new location, on the eastern periphery of the loosely defined settlement of Bergen. The move itself has been protracted by the freakish spring. Certainly we have never seen an April 3 that looked like this one for volume of snow – ever!
The reasons for the move are various. We have adequate space here to be far more farm-sufficient than on the other place. Grow our own feed and all, which gives us a highly level of control over quality at a fraction of the cost. The land will undoubtedly be inferior in its initial state to the rich prairie soil we are leaving, and the growing season shorter, but these are problems we know how to address in a healthy and lasting fashion. In the meantime, there are attributes of the area that are vastly superior. There will be more moisture. More importantly, there is community here. We wish of course to be a vital part of both our local and extended communities. For this to work, there must actually be a community to be part of. Unfortunately, prairie Alberta has become not just an agricultural, but also a social wasteland at this point in its history of attrition. (And its history has been overwhelmingly one of attrition, which will be complete as energy reserves tighten. Without all the cheap oil of the past century, I am sure our plains would be more a wilderness akin to Mongolia.) I suppose agricultural wastelands are bound to also be social wastelands – the two things going hand-in-hand has certainly been the norm for most rural areas. The plains, being an area only marginally suited to human settlement, are simply at the worst end of the spectrum. They are now dominated by corporate farmers and Hutterites, two immensely destructive groups due to their preferred modus operandi whom, no matter how large they are, dream of being yet larger.
Here in this particular section of the foothills of Alberta, things have remained on a more human scale. In fact, it is not an exaggeration to say that the feeling here, a mere hour and some due west of the former location and equidistant from Calgary, is one of living in an entirely different country peopled by an entirely different, and on the whole much healthier, race of beings. We have met a number of neighbors (there are many more of them here,) and the level of initial interest and acceptance for what we do has been universal. So far so good!
Don and Jon arrive in Bergen.
Whatever the challenges the new location brings, we have the overwhelming sense that we can make a better go of it here, and ultimately provide a broader range of the healthiest food the area can naturally produce.
As for the season at hand, things (as none of us can avoid noticing!) seem to be off to a slow start following one of the nastiest winters in memory. Last year we were in the fields with the horses preparing ground by now, this year the ground yet lies under a thick blanket of snow, which at this point is bound to go fast and create some issues not just for us, but for pretty much everyone, we’d hazard to guess. Whether or not the commencement of the CSA season will be delayed remains to be seen, however. Last year we all thought we were way ahead of the game, yet ended up at least a month behind. So hopefully this year the reverse will be true!
We’d like to thank everyone up front for joining this year, whether veteran or new members. In keeping with the spirit of the CSA model, we like to think we are offering more than just a healthier way to augment your diet in season. We hope our efforts (and by “our” efforts we mean the joint partnership between us here on the farm and you who are supporting us,) represent the fledgling days of a more hopeful way of life for ourselves and future generations. By growing poison-free food appropriate to place, being involved in local community, and keeping centuries-proven and truly sustainable traditions such as draft-horse powered farming alive, we hope that even if we get warshed out by a tsunami this year, you will still go away feeling that your money has been well placed, and that the returns on your investment will go beyond our particular farm and the given season at hand. This is our hope and it is what we are striving to provide through our efforts. It is, of course, a challenging work in progress for all of us, regardless of whether we work the land directly or from downtown Calgary.
Well, it’s all aboard and full-steam ahead from here!
-Jon and Andrea
Humans spent thousands of years living in small groups, hunting and gathering. The group was small enough so that each person knew every other person. Democracy could work because both the “voters” and the “politicians” were visible. It has only been in a tiny fraction of the life span of humanity that political units have been created that are far too large for people to know one another except as abstractions. Small groups have their problems, but in terms of providing happiness for the average person, the band or village is more efficient than the empire.
Hope you’re all wintering well. Seems like a hard one, so far. Lots of below normal temperatures and not much sun, eh?
Things are good here. The chickens are coming back on laying after the usual solstice low, and there hasn’t been a lot of mortality so far (there’s always winter mortality in chickens.)
We lost our young yak bull Enos, but we were expecting this: he was born deficient, in the lungs we believe. He is feeding the magpies, and hopefully the ravens and coyotes will get some of him, too.
The dairy cows are doing well – Mary is milking still, and Prickle is due to give birth next month. Andrea has been making cheese: cottage, cheddar, mozzarella type, other types, cream. We’ve all had our hand at making butter and I make lots of yogurt. It’s all turning out very well, delicious.
The horses are very tough, of course, and take the winter well – they look glorious in their fuzzy winter coats coming through the snow.
The big news is we’re moving the farm! We’re headed for a place equidistant to this one from Calgary, but to the west, outside Bergen. Here we will have better facilities, amenities, and more space to do what we do. We’re headed out there end of February so we can get into gear for the summer 2011 CSA season. We’re excited about this move and the changes it represents and looking forward to continuing to provide for folks in Calgary.
We had a great year last year and would like to thank you all again.
Hope to see you this year!
– Jon and Andrea