Farming Detroit?

It’s difficult to describe just how hollowed-out the City of Detroit has become, or how cheaply vacant land (and even houses) can be had. As I like to tell people: if you ever have a little time to kill and want some entertainment, get on Google Earth and fly around Detroit for awhile. You’ll be shocked at how much open space there is. Then get on and see how much land you can buy there, in some cases using the coins you can probably dig out of your sofa or from under the front seat of your car.

This piece from The Urbanophile takes an in-depth look at what’s been happening to Detroit, and explores the possibilities available to entrepreneurs who are willing to think creatively about what to do with a city whose population has shrunk but whose boundaries have not. There is now some serious, organized urban gardening going on inside the city limits, and many have been exploring possibilities for more serious farming. The piece has a number of excellent links to other stories and bloggers who have also looked at other farming-related projects in and proposals for Detroit.

His conclusion bears reprinting verbatim:

As the focus on agriculture and even hunting show, in Detroit people are almost literally hearkening back to the formative days of the Midwest frontier, when pioneer settlers faced horrible conditions, tough odds, and often severe deprivation, but nevertheless built the foundation of the Midwest we know, and the culture that powered the industrial age. No doubt in the 19th century many of those sitting secure in their eastern citadels thought these homesteaders, hustlers, and fortune seekers crazy for leaving the comforts of civilization to head to places like Iowa and Chicago. But some saw the possibilities of what could be and heeded the call to “Go West, young man.” We’ve come full circle.

Here Goes Nothing

I’ve decided to let the broody Buff Orpington hen try her hand at actually hatching some eggs. Thanks to those of you who left comments; although all three of you live in more temperate climates than MI, your sentiments reinforced my own inclination.

I gave her a dozen, as I’m uncertain how many of these are fertile. We have multiple roosters, and they’re not shy about doing their thing, but they have a lot of hens to cover. Anyway, I went through the 14 eggs that had been sitting at room temperature overnight, and removed the two that were cracked.

Check back in 21 days to see what actually comes of this experiment. Given that she’s made the nest in a 40 gallon tub, it should be easy for her to keep the hatchlings together and keep them warm — and for me to provide supplemental water/feed for them.

What fun is a farm if you never try crazy things?

Broody Henny Penny

I have an odd dilemma: one of our pullet hens has gone broody. She wants to do nothing put sit on a nest, and has picked a spot in a 40 gallon tub with hay in it. Originally, there was an egg in that spot…and she really wanted to hatch it. I took that egg away, but she’s still incredibly broody and keeps returning to that spot no matter how I try to separate her from it.

We’ve lost her as an egg layer for several weeks no matter what (once they go broody, hens stop laying — much like mammals stop ovulating when they’re pregnant). I’d normally be inclined to give her a dozen eggs or so and let her “have at” brooding them in a nice isolated nest that no other hens can get into and lay more eggs. We’re big believers in letting mother hens do their thing, and hatching out a brood of chicks they can raise on their own. But here is the problem: 21 days from now (when those eggs would begin hatching), it will be mid-November. In Michigan. Unless she’s the mother of all Buff Orpingtons, those chicks would need supplemental heat for quite some time. The dead of winter is a lousy time to be letting a hen walk around with a clutch of chicks.

FWIW, we have eggs coming out our eyeballs and I can easily spare a dozen for this experiment. But I’m not into animal cruelty, and would hate to see a dozen chicks freeze to death.

Any thoughts from my dear readers? I need to make a decision shortly.

Urban Chickens Have Issues

Living in an urban or suburban area, and thinking about raising some stealth chickens? Today’s NYT has a nice rundown of “issues” that others have encountered. And you know what? Many of these “issues” are difficulties you’ll encounter in raising chickens, and other livestock, no matter where your house is located.

An excerpt:

They get diseases with odd names, like pasty butt and the fowl plague. Rats and raccoons appear out of nowhere. Hens suddenly stop laying eggs or never produce them at all. Crowing roosters disturb neighbors.

The problems get worse. Unwanted urban chickens are showing up at local animal shelters. Even in the best of circumstances, chickens die at alarming rates.

“At first I named them but now I’ve stopped because it’s just too hard,” said Sharon Lane, who started with eight chickens in a coop fashioned from plywood and chicken wire in the front yard of her north Berkeley home. She’s down to three.

Ms. Lane, who is close friends with the restaurateur Alice Waters, wanted exceptional eggs, plain and simple. But her little flock has been plagued with mysterious diseases.

She has not taken them to the vet because of the high cost, but she goes to workshops and searches out cures on the Internet. She has even put garlic down their throats in hopes that the antibacterial qualities of the cloves might help.

“I’m discouraged but I’m determined to figure this out,” Ms. Lane said. “I still get more than I give.”

The last line I quoted might be the most important one in the story: Raising chickens, or any other kind of livestock, is often discouraging. But there is a wonderful reward that comes from the very struggle to figure out what the problems are and in trying different solutions. And along the way, you learn that — despite pouring your heart out and doing everything you can imagine doing — animals die. But you keep going. You learn. You do things differently the next time.

And you know what? Whether your next batch of chickens dies or thrives…you get more than you give. Because you’ve learned, and you’ve grown, and no one can take those experiences away from you.

And, yes, you will eventually get some really really good eggs. Just keep at it and never give up.

Getting Started

Our family very much enjoys having other families over for dinner and giving tours of the farm. It’s particularly gratifying when the guest family has been thinking for some time about getting started with a farm of their own, and we are able to give a practical introduction to what such a farm could look like.

A few weeks ago, a close mutual friend introduced us to a family which had recently relocated to the general area from out of state. It turned out that our families had a lot in common, and we were glad when they accepted our invitation to come over for dinner. The kids immediately hit it off, and all of them were soon having a grand time tromping around the barnyard. The adults sat down to talk; in the course of the conversation, they explained that they were renting an apartment until their old house sold, at which point they planned to begin looking for a place in Michigan.

Things have been going well, and I received the following email recently:

Hey, do you have a recommendation for a couple of books on “hobby farming” or small scale farming? We’re set to close on the 10 acre house in two weeks and are starting to think about what to do first. We’re thinking big, big garden, and some animals like chickens, turkeys, or pigs. I suspect it is easy to get in over your head pretty quickly with all the excitement. [My wife] has made contact with the local 4h group, which seems to be full of Catholic homeschoolers. Anyway, I thought you’d be the guy to ask since I remember you saying that you must have read every book there was on the subject.

Indeed, the list of books in the blog’s right margin is only part of the library we’ve accumulated. But if I had to choose just one book for the aspiring homesteader, it would have to be Carla Emery’s The Encyclopedia of Country Living. As I told my correspondent, there is no single book that is as comprehensive as this one. It covers a massive amount of territory, easily enough to get you started with whatever you want to try. Once you decide that you like a particular thing (chickens, pigs, gardening, etc), you can invest in specialized books about that subject. Mrs Yeoman Farmer and I spent hours reading Carla Emery’s book, even while still living in a California subdivision, and it was a huge help in allowing us to hit the ground running in Illinois.

I’d also add, as has been stated ad infinitum on this blog, Do Not Try To Start Too Big. It’s extremely tempting to jump in with both feet and try a hundred different things at once. Slow down. Do your reading and study. And try one thing at a time — each of them on a small scale.

Blog readers, do you have any other good introductory / overview books that you could recommend to my friend (and others in a similar situation)?

Life and Death

On a day like today, with lambs having been taken to the butcher, and when a melancholic mood is practically unavoidable…it’s always nice to have things brightened a happy arrival. And today, we had two such happy arrivals:

Button, one of our dairy goats, surprised us with twin kids. One male, one female. The timing couldn’t have been better: this means that we will now have at least one doe in milk all winter.

Deo Gratias!

The Butcher

Homeschooled Farm Girl and I just got back from the local butcher. Our flock was shorn over the weekend, so this was an ideal time to get the lambs processed. We got up early, then jammed eleven lambs into the back of our old 1984 Ford Bronco II. The trip is always interesting, to say the least, with that many nervous animals in the back — especially when slowing for stop signs, starting back up from stops, and going around curves.

As I’ve noted previously, these custom slaughter operations are getting increasingly difficult to find. Back in Illinois, we had to drive a great distance to reach the one and only place for many miles around that still does this kind of work. Here in Michigan, the place is closer — but it is still our only option. With the decline of small farming operations, it seems there has also been a decline in small meat processing operations.

The one near us is one of the survivors. It’s run by a man named Jack, and he looks to be in his mid to late fifties. He has employees, but he is personally involved with every aspect of an animal’s trip through the facility. Dressed in a blood-spattered white apron, he meets our truck when we pull in the back with a load of lambs or goats, helps us unload and secure them in a holding pen on death row, and then goes around to the retail portion of the place to write up our order. Put all the animals together or keep them separate? How many people in your family will be sharing a package of steaks or chops? You want the ribs, or should we remove the meat and grind it? Shanks? Rear legs as whole roasts? You want the organs? Neck as soup bones? Okay, I think that’s it.

Jack is not a chatty or extroverted guy, but this morning he happened to mention something interesting. As he finished writing up our order, I asked him if we could get a couple of male goat kids in next week. He flipped through his order book (it’s all still done by hand — nothing in the place is computerized), and sighed about how incredibly jammed they are. And then he added something to the effect of, “I hate killing those little baby animals, and having to charge you for all that labor.”

I assured him they weren’t “babies,” but that I totally understood if he wanted to wait on taking the goats in. He said we should hold off, because (waving at the calendar on the wall), they are super busy from the time of the Fair through February. Nobody wants to over-winter anything more than they need to. And then there are all the deer that hunters want processed. You could see from his face, and the way that he leaned on the counter, that he’s tired. But the tiredness was more than physical, and gave a further hint as to why these custom slaughter operations are getting harder to find (despite how much business they can do). “Everybody wants us to kill this, kill that,” he said, shaking his head. “When I first started doing this, it was easy for me to kill everything. I’m starting to hate killing things.”

Killing things isn’t fun. We butcher our own chickens, turkeys, ducks, and geese; I’ve personally killed and cleaned hundreds of birds over the last several years. But I’ve been holding off on butchering our larger animals. As HFG and I drove home in our truck, I couldn’t help feeling a little guilty for “outsourcing unpleasantness” onto someone else. If I invested in a good set of knives, and a block-and-tackle, I could butcher our lambs and goats myself. It wouldn’t be pretty, and I wouldn’t be able to package things up as neatly as Jack’s people do. But is the quality of the finished product the only reason I’ve balked at butchering our own lambs? Am I hesitant about looking a lamb in the face before putting a bullet through its brain? Do I have the emotional strength to cut the lamb’s throat so it can bleed out as it thrashes with death throes? Can I get my hands dirty cleaning out a lamb’s intestines and lungs? And pulling the pelt off?

I don’t see “butchering my own meat” as a moral obligation or anything — but I am a believer in taking a personal stake and having a personal connection with one’s food, unless there’s a good reason not to. For instance, there is simply no way I could possibly butcher a beef cow. But lambs are small enough for anyone to handle. And if squeamishness is the real reason I’ve been outsourcing this work to Jack, I’m starting to wonder if I should at least give butchering a try next fall with one of our lambs.