My wife and children were to be out of town for a few days, and my job was simple. In the morning, let the chickens out and be sure they had food and water. At night, make sure the chickens are back in their shed, and double check the food and water. Easy. In the morning, the chickens want to go out, and at night, they want to come back in. I’m merely there to make sure they continue their good habits. One night, I came home after dark and checked in on the chickens. They were up on their roosting poles, with nothing amiss. I shut their outside coop door. In the morning, I opened the door to reveal the bloodbath. All six chickens, torn to bits, killed in the night by something. I shut the door and delivered the bad news to my wife. This wasn’t my fault, I assured her. This is farming.
Never mind that over the prior months and years we had lost chickens to different makes and models of predators. Hawks, mostly, but also one bold, brilliant, bushy red fox that trotted out into the lawn in the middle of the afternoon to snatch a chicken and instead of rushing away with his stolen prize, he just trotted off like he knew I was watching (I was) and that I couldn’t do anything about it (I couldn’t). The chicken game is thankless, gross, and depressing. The promise of richly yellowed egg yolks is lovely, indeed, but at what cost?
I’m glad you asked, because the pay-back from chickens is far greater than my wife’s other hobby: Bees. This was to be an interesting experiment. To begin, we bought $500 or so worth of bee supplies. Boxes for the bees to live in, boxes for the bees to lay eggs in, boxes for the honey to be made in, etc and etc. There’s the required suit, with the mesh guards, and later a stainless honey frame spinner so we could fling honey all over our kitchen. You must also buy the bees themselves, and the queens, and then watch them and feed them and stress over them, and then, if all goes according to plan, you’ll get about $100 worth of honey. Worse yet, the bees die nearly every winter, so we get to buy new ones in each spring. My wife declares the old honey frames and boxes, the ones she painted a lovely patina of pastel green, those are contaminated by something, often, so they must be discarded and by discarded I mean stacked on our dining table, in the garage, in the basement, in the closet, and on the front porch. It’s a nice look, and the stickiness is wonderful.
In Bloomberg last week, an article about the newest hobby of the banker class: farming. It’s a noble concept, and one that I’m sure can be quite romantic if carried out with enough vigor and execution. Have a farm in the country, raise chickens and goats and cows, visit on the weekends to pet them and eat some of them, and then return to the city to work in order to pay for it all. The idea is solid, and increasingly, it’s playing out in Walworth County. Thankfully, the idea makes good sense, and it makes good sense if you follow this outline.
Buy a farm. While I’m not exactly a farm seller, I will sell you one if you ask. Buy something interesting, or something basic, it doesn’t matter. There are two schools of thought on this farm purchase. You can either buy a terrific property in the country with a beautiful country home on it, and then build out the farm as needed, or you can buy an existing, actual farm. If you intend to use the property as a weekend vacation home, I would recommend the prior. If you already have a lake house and just want the goods from your own farm, then you buy a small farmette, install a caretaker in the farmhouse and have him, or her, or both, run your farm.
But let’s not get carried away here, because the business of farming is all about being carried away. You’ll need some farm accoutrements, like a tractor. I have two large tractors and I’m not even a farmer (see paragraph 1), so you should at least have one tractor. I’ve seen enough farming take place to know it’s basically just about tractors. Need to plant? Get on the tractor. Time to harvest? Tractor. Need to work on something? Where’s the tractor? Accountant says you made too much money this year? Buy another tractor.
Get chickens, for sure. They’re relatively cheap, kind of easy, and if a few get eaten overnight you’re not going to lose too much sleep over it. When I lost Mother Clucker I didn’t even cry, though my wife might have choked up a bit when Princess Laya met her maker. Still, get the chickens. 24 is a nice amount. Then buy some goats or sheep or something. They’ll just sort of wander around your fenced area eating grass and tin cans, and when you’re ready you can either eat them, or milk them, it’s your choice, assuming you’ve bought the appropriate breed (this is what the farm-caretaker is for). Definitely get bees, not because it makes much financial sense but because if you have acres of wildflowers, as I do, your honey will taste so much better than any other honey you’ll almost convince yourself it’s worth the $400/gallon cost.
Now that we have bees and chickens and some goats or sheep, it’s time to plant, and planting, after all, is farming. At my sort-of-farm, my wife and I had grand plans for gardening. I tilled a plot, and tilled it again. Then I waited and I tilled it some more. The next spring we planted all sorts of things, which quickly grew and then disappeared under a forest of weeds (we don’t use weedkiller). My wife blames my tiller, which is absurd, while I blame her lack of weeding ability, which is accurate. Still, the planting is important and this might be the best reason to have this farm be managed by someone else. They can do the weeding while you do the eating. If you’re planting regular beans and lettuce and carrots, it’s also a great idea to start off the farm by planting 20 each of apple, cherry, and pear trees. I planted these things at my house and even though the cherry trees have died and the pear trees don’t produce pears, I will say my favorite activity of late winter is when I take to my small apple orchard and prune my apple trees. The best part is when I’m done I stand back and pretend I’ve done a good job, even though I have no idea what I’m doing and my apple trees only produce small, misshapen apples (we don’t spray the trees). To round out your fruit options, do as I did and plant raspberries, blueberries, and strawberries.
It’s easy to see why the banker class wants to grow their own food, and if you live in the Chicago area, it’s easy to see how you should do it. Buy a farm here. Visit on the weekends, or never at all. Grow your dinners. Get stung by bees. Step in chicken crap right before you get into your car. Watch your chickens feed the wildlife. It’s hard work, sure, but everyone knows your life is quite boring and this would be a nice distraction.
Above, a rare tomato from our on-again, off-again garden.