Q: Is farming ever cut and dry?
A: Only when you're haying.
Apart from this dumb joke I made up, farming is not quite as simple as it sounds. I thought, for example, that raising my own meat would be easy. You know: just buy the little chicks, make sure they don't die, feed them scraps, collect eggs, kill them several months later, then freeze the meat and go on with life. But, so far…not so simple. This week, for one, we dealt with the possibility of losing our egg business altogether, and had an ethical dilemma about ravens.
In the style of Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm in Swoope, VA, we constructed (designed by Sam) an eggmobile for the month-old chicks. It took about 4 days to make, and is basically a sweet little cabin perched on top of a hay wagon. This way we can roll the chicken coop around the fields, the hens can graze on fresh forage, fertilize the soil with their nitrogen-rich poop, and follow around the cows to eat bugs out of their poop. There's a handy little ramp that leads into the beautiful coop, and a bed of hay, not to mention insulated windows that open from the inside. We named it The Guest House. And even though we could charge people by the night to stay in there–it's so rustic and lovely–alas, the little buggers refused to go inside.
It's possible we made a couple errors. For one, we raised the chicks in an incubator in the tractor shed, before the Guest House was built. It probably would have been a good idea to have incubated the chickies from birth in the Guest House, so they got used to it. And when we finally let them out one month later, to touch ground and eat earth for the first time, we didn't put them in the Guest House. We put them outside the Guest House. They slept underneath it, never went inside, and therefore never quite realized it was an awesome scenario they were missing out on. And then, they were attacked by wild animals.
Ravens. During the night, and during the day, the ravens came to eat these poor little creatures. It's a disgusting scenario: the ravens swoop down, stand on their feet, hold out their wings, and kind of swagger to and fro as they herd the powerless chicks into a corner of their mesh netting. Then, they poke out their eyes, cut off their heads, and eat them. In order to combat this wretchedness, we had two options.
1. Shoot the raven.
2. Make a scarecrow, and hope for the best.
Because we felt our egg business was threatened, and we felt bad for the chicks, Sam grabbed the .22 and stood guard while I was at work. But no luck. It was like a mini farm war. The gun popped (although not killing anything) in honor of the dead birds, many of which I buried in the manure pile by the cow shed. The ravens would circle, ca-cawing, one as look-out, the other as killer. It was a bad situation. Eventually, while I was at work, Sam decided to catch every chick and put them inside the house–and it took half a day to do so. So they're in there, at last. Safe, for now.
But I don't know how I feel about shooting ravens. For one, they're mythical animals. They are powerful beings that in ancient lore used to bear messages from the magical realm. They carry omens, and bring forth news of death. They're incredibly smart. And despite their ferocity…I respect them. But with that said–I also respect my chickens.
On Sunday, I went to Cedar Circle Farm's annual Strawberry Festival (which is Will Allen's beautiful farm in Thetford, VT). I picked fifty-seven dollars worth of strawberries that, when processed, packed into four gallon-sized freezer bags, with some left over for shortcake (that I consumed last night, rapidly and excessively) made by my friend Tali, who just left her position as a high-ranking pastry chef in New York to come here and farm. At the festival, Tali and I met up with some friends, one of whom (her boss) runs Fat Rooster Farm in South Royalton, VT. She's written a book on raising chickens, and I asked her what she thought about my raven situation. Apparently, it's a common thing (which I also gleaned from looking at online farmer forums, and my farmer listservs), and it happened to her as well–only the raven got every last one of her chicks…we only lost about six. She said, you either shoot them, or you train the chicks to go inside their house at night, and cover the top of their grazing area with chicken wire during the day until they get big enough to defend themselves. She, like me, can't imagine shooting the ravens. They're magical!
There is a shoot-on-sight argument for our egg business, though. How can we let those ravens get away with it? They're murdering our egg producers, and putting the chickens at risk. But, then again, how can we blame the ravens? They're acting according to instinct. And maybe it's our karma, because it's not natural for humans to be confining chicks in a fenced in yard, anyway (but conversely, if we didn't domesticate these animals, they'd die off). I'm no vegetarian by any means, but for some reason stepping to the ravens with a gun feels a bit…hypocritical. I'd rather deal with it diplomatically. So I can raise my happy chickens in peace, y'know…before I kill them.
Meanwhile, if a raven does get shot, I'll have a ceremony honoring its life. And hopefully his friends will be smart enough to not come back.