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Irony In Garden Farming

A publisher asked me to read a manuscript, the diary of an Ohio farmer during the depth of the Great Depression. More accurately, it is a diary penned by a rather famous historian who spent a year trying to farm during the dirty thirties when he could not find a position in a university. I don’t want to jump the gun on the publisher, so I won’t identify the person or say much about the book except that it makes very absorbing reading.

One anecdote from the diary addresses what I like to call “farm irony.” The author and his family pin their hopes of bringing in money on a flock of chickens. They sell their corn and wheat at a low price (this is 1933) and then buy mash— milled grain— for their hens. The cost of the mash is such that they barely break even on the eggs. They have a lot of bookish knowledge about chickens and do a good job of raising the hens and eventually get fairly good production from them. But the author constantly complains that the income from selling eggs barely keeps up with the cost of feed.

So here’s the irony to my way of thinking. I have kept hens for over 30 years now, feeding them almost completely on whole corn and wheat. I could probably get a few more eggs if I fed commercial mash with all the supplements and vitamins that are supposed to be in it but I’m confident that the extra eggs would have been just about enough to pay for the extra cost of the purchased feed. My hens have the run of woodland and pasture, just as the diarist’s hens had. I am sure he would have made a profit if he would just have fed his own corn and wheat and accepted a few less eggs for doing so. Chickens can digest whole grains just fine. In fact I can make a case for arguing that hens eat too much on a mash diet and have a shorter life span.

So why, being obviously an intelligent man, didn’t the diarist at least try my alternative?

Ah hah. Now I get to philosophize. In this age when so many people, happily, are starting to raise chickens, I have tried to convince several families that they would get all the eggs they need by feeding whole grains to hens and letting them roam outside occasionally to eat bugs and grass. Maybe add some dried lawn clover clippings— high quality hay— for their winter diet. I have in mind in particular one family whom I dearly admire even if they won’t listen to me. They disagree with what I say about chicken mash just as they disagree when I say that I don’t think the Pope is infallible. They are so sure they are right on both counts that my contrariness doesn’t offend them in the least. They just smile indulgently. Old Gene is being difficult again. They reject my 70 years of experience in both cases. It says in the books that hens have to eat commercial mash to lay a profitable number of eggs. All the farming tradition they know about or been taught says you have to feed mash. Momma fed mash so don’t you dare insult her memory. Ditto for papal infallibility.

Most of us have been educated by this sort of “biblical method.” What has been written down in sacred books, be they of a religious nature or a secular nature, is the golden truth that no right-minded person dare dispute. Momma was a good woman and she knew what she was doing. And if you don’t believe her, it says right here in this book put out by the commercial feed industry: Thou shalt feed thy hens commercial feed if thou wishes to make a profit. Amen.

The same biblical method comes into play over the matter of whether to leave a light on in the coop at night. I don’t know how many times I have tried to tell owners of six backyard chickens that they do not have to burn electricity in their little coops at night to get all the eggs they need. For large scale commercial growers this practice might pay (I doubt it) but it is absurd for the backyarder. But again, Uncle Wilbur made money with hens and by heaven, he kept a light on in the coop at night. And it says right here in this bulletin from the electric co-op that with a light on, the chickens will lay more eggs.

It would be only amusing, I suppose, if it did not point to a much larger reality in the way society operates. Almost all the “expert knowledge” about farming is colored, shaped, sometimes downright fabricated, to make money for someone other than the farmer. And it takes no imagination at all to see how this same situation holds in other spheres of human activity.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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