Thursday, October 06, 2011

A visit to my favorite hay farmer Roger Tate and his 40,000 chickens

I go to Mebane with my little truck every once in a while to strap down 18 bales of orchard grass for my donkey Jethro and Superman, his pet miniature horse. Unless he's too busy, I quiz my farmer friend Roger Tate, third (or fourth) generation owner of Roger Tate's Harmony Hill Farm in Efland, NC, sometimes about the state of farming today ...

... for instance, about weather and his amusement that fellow farmers deny climate change (yesterday he told me MANY of them think Al Gore invented climate change so he could make millions of dollars) - and sometimes about his kids and his wondering if his daughter will be the next generation managing the Tate Farm. Sometimes he tells me about his wife and her Community Supported Agriculture project (she's made a Harmony Hill CSA Facebook page). You sign up and get a box of their home-grown produce every month.

Yesterday he took me to see his chicken houses, newly certified organic. We became the object of intense inspection by tens of thousands of chicken eyes when we drove up - we can see them milling around in there behind the chicken wire. A chain drags the organic chicken food down the length of the house in a trough - a truck comes and dumps a mountain of the stuff into Roger's silos. His chicken feed costs $28,000 A MONTH!! There is a pipe of water with a zillion red nipples in it that runs along just over the chickens' heads. There are outdoor areas at the end of each of the chicken houses where the girls can mill around and play volleyball.

He recently joined Braswell, out of Georgia, which supplies Whole Foods throughout the Southeast. Some day he'd like to be able to be a direct provider but there are a lot of problems that would have to be solved first.

He's gotten out of the "broiler business" - there've been serious bankruptcies and the industry is suffering because farmers can't afford to raise chickens for the prices they receive. He was shaking his head in pleased surprise at McDonalds and Walmart both requiring major improvements in the way the food (flora and fauna both) they buy is grown and prepared. "These are interesting times to be a farmer."

He said it used to be automatically recommended that cows be bred in the spring for most economical management. However, the last few seasons he tried that, disaster ensued - half his cows remained "open" (not pregnant) which means no calves and no milk. It turns out the incredibly hot springs we now have (due to Al Gore making millions of dollars off global warming) make the bulls temporarily sterile! So now the operation must be shifted to the fall.

You really have to be brave to be a farmer. He lost 30% of his hay crop this year due to the vagaries of weather, "but that's about typical." I find it amazing any farmer has the courage to stay in business. Ever seen those bumper stickers that say No farms, no food - you can get one for free from the American Farmland Trust and make a donation to help preserve local farms and farmland.

He told me in amazement about his visit to the place newborn chicks are sexed (after all, if you are supplying layers to farmers, you don't want to be sending roosters). Most of the chicken-sexers are from the far east (he forgot what country), and they are treated quite well because it's a tough job and nobody else seems to be good at it...

... They sit there as the chicks go by and pop the chicks into the "male" or the "female" holes nest to their stations, and there's a vacuum tube that sends the little chicks to the correct boxes down below, where they arrive very fluffy and surprised, but unharmed. (I've bought chicks through the mail in these little boxes - you'd think they'd be traumatized when they arrive at the post office, but they seem just fine - that's to say, no more traumatized than YOU would be if you were everybody's favorite dinner.)

Lastly: my son sent me a link to Cud, a short movie about a farmer who's gone organic and is raising grass-fed cows. He isn't happy unless he's on his land, about 365 days a year (he estimates roughly), having his first cup of coffee in his field in the dark early dawn and a bottle of wine (does he drink that whole bottle himself??) in the same place when the sun's gone down.

I hope you think every once in a while that, until we're living on processed seaweed, we rely unthinkingly on these guys to keep doing what they do.

Thanks for the hay, Roger!


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