Old ranch pickups never die. They just get put out to pasture.
Old ranch pickups never die. They just get put out to pasture.
It is fair season across the country. County fair was always the highlight of my summer – I finally got to see all the hard work I’d put into my horses, pigs or other projects come to fruition. I looked forward to the ribbons, competition and friends. Sometimes I even made some money.
But every fair also ended on a bittersweet note. The final day of county fair was also the day of the livestock sale, and that meant saying goodbye to an animal I’d grown to love. I cried each time I walked my hog into the sold pen or loaded them onto the truck bound for market.
“A lot of kids cry when they have to sell their animals,” you might think. “It’s a tough thing at the age of ten.”
I was 21 and still crying. I really did love those damn pigs.
Recently, a friend shared this article on Facebook, and I thought it was a pretty good read. Saying goodbye: How parents teach their children to part with market animal projects
But why, friends and family would often ask, would you ever raise an animal if you’re just going to send it to its death at the end of the summer?
Raising an animal is a learning experience in and of itself. I learned tangible skills like creating a budget, applying for a loan and how to reinvest profits into my project. But I also gained a heap of character through responsibility, pride of ownership and dedication. I developed humility and grace, because the outcomes were not always what I thought I deserved. And I flat worked hard at tasks cleaning stalls, walking pigs, stacking hay and hauling buckets.
Selling my animal and knowing it was bound for slaughter also provided me some opportunities for emotional growth. Life is not all lollipops and sunshine. An animal must die so that we have meat. It is as simple as that. Being part of that cycle of life and death made me accountable for my actions as a meat eater. It is easy to order a hamburger from a menu or buy processed chicken at the grocery store and wash your hands of your complicity in its death. It is another thing entirely to actually get your hands bloody, so to speak, and be accountable to the process.
My heart hurt ached each time I had to say goodbye. Those pigs and cattle had become part of my life. I had tamed them with Cool Ranch Doritos, scratched their ears, kissed their faces, fed them grain, doctored their wounds and loved them with all my heart. So saying goodbye was always hard and always emotional. As my pig walked out the gate and into the sold pen, my eyes would well up and boil over. The tears would fall off and on for the next few hours as I cleaned out pens and loaded tack. The first year I raised pigs, I couldn’t eat pork for three months.
But I would do it again in a heartbeat. I will encourage my daughter to do it, too, though ultimately the decision is up to her. I would love for her to learn all those life skills like money management, communication and responsibility. But she’ll get lessons in honesty, grit and toughness as well.
In my mind, raising market animals is not teaching our children to “betray their animal friends” as some animal rights organizations would have you believe. Rather, we are teaching them the value of the life of an animal. My daughter will learn that her actions have consequences for her AND her animal, both good and bad. She will learn to own those actions, just like I did. As my dad used to tell me, our actions become our character and our character becomes our future. Own your actions, build your future.
In much the same way, my husband and I are honest about his work raising fish and now pheasants. We own our actions as they pertain to the death of the birds he raises. Some of these animals will supplement wild bird populations. But most are raised and released for hunting opportunities. Last year I took my daughter to the hunting check station on the opening day of pheasant season. We watched as the hunters came back with their birds and cleaned their carcasses. We talked about how the pheasants she helped Daddy care for will now feed other families. And we talked about how those hunters pay money that helps take care of all the wildlife and land that we love. We even ate some of the pheasants that died before they were released. Because that is all part of the process. I’m not trying to be cruel to my daughter. But I am being honest and growing her heart.
I hurt at the end of every county fair. I hurt from each of those goodbyes, but I also grew from them. I am better for all the lessons I learned from each pig and cow. I grew in confidence because I could take care of and provide for a life other than my own. I learned that it is okay to be vulnerable. I learned that I can survive the sad moments. I learned that no matter how much it hurt, I still had the capacity to love.
So to all those kiddos out there saying those hard goodbyes, you have my empathy. My heart breaks just a little for you because I know all too well how much it hurts. But you also have my respect and admiration because you had the courage to put your heart on the line, the honesty to own your actions and the toughness to see it all through. That’s called grit and it is a trait that will serve you and our world for years to come.
My former hometown is considering creating an ordinance allowing residents to keep backyard chickens – up to 5 hens per residence. Folks across the city, which has about 60,000 residents, want to have the ability to raise a small flock of chickens for fresh eggs. And some folks are losing their minds over this.
“They are too noisy!”
“They’re dirty! And dangerous!”
“There will be chickens running loose in the city!”
The way some of these people are squawking, you’d think the city is considering an ordinance to allow backyard Bubonic plaque. They are chickens, folks, not harpie eagles with a penchant for eating the faces off of young children.
Backyard chickens provide much healthier eggs for consumers. Numerous studies done have proved that eggs from chickens allowed out of their cages to walk in the dirt, peck at bugs and generally just be a chicken, are much more nutritious than those from their cage-raised, commercially grown counterparts. You only have to crack open a home-grown egg to see the difference in its rich yellow-orange yolk. A study conducted in Europe also revealed that salmonella was more prevalent in caged flocks than in organic, barn and cage-free flocks of chickens. Plus, you control what your chickens eat, what medications they receive and how eggs are handled and stored.
Hens are usually calm, quiet and well-mannered. Roosters can be noisy with their morning crowing, but hens go about their business quietly clucking and cooing, if making any noise at all. They eat bugs, making them a great organic pest control tool. They will eat table scraps like fruit and vegetable skins. Think of them as feathery little garbage men, er, women, that recycle much of your kitchen waste, saving space in city landfills for actual garbage. One study I read said that a single hen can “biorecycle” about seven pounds of food residuals in a month. So if 500 households raised 5 chickens each, that would be 105 tons of waste each year diverted from city landfills! And chicken poop, when composted properly, makes excellent fertilizer for gardens and lawns.
Backyard hens can also provide a wonderful teaching tool for children. Like any pet, children can learn responsibility and empathy from chickens. But hens have the added benefit of teaching about food systems and the human-food relationship. Society has become so far removed from the farm, children often don’t know eggs come from chickens or beef comes from cows. I think anytime you can be involved in the production of your own food, it’s a good thing. You become more invested in what you are putting into your body. And spending time outdoors has proven to reduce stress, help with allergies and improve your health and well-being. Chickens are even being used as therapy for patients with diseases like dementia, Alzzheimer’s, depression and autism!
My backyard is, for all intents and purposes, one giant chicken coop. Except we raise pheasants, not chickens. About 20,000 of them at the peak of the rearing season. The only time I am bothered by the smell is when it has rained or snowed and we are walking smack dab in the middle of the bird pens. Occasionally I can hear a rooster crow or squawk, but given all the noises around our place, it doesn’t even hit my radar. I lived in town and town noises are much more obnoxious that a few hens merrily clucking about. Yes, hens, can and do make noise. But guess what else makes noise? Dogs barking all day and night. People playing their music at max volume. Drunks walking home after a party. Street traffic. Construction. You know what wakes me up at night? Owls. Dogs. Coyotes. Trucks. But never our pheasants.
Raising hens isn’t for everyone. You need to be a responsible pet owner that is ready to provide the chickens with the right habitat and clean up after them. You need to be prepared to spend some money on their purchase, care and welfare. You need to be educated on how to protect them from predators and prevent attracting other vermin to your neighborhood. You’ll need to find someone to chicken-sit when you are on vacation. Hens are living creatures with needs, just like a cat or dog.
And most importantly, you will need to be prepared to make tough decisions about your hens’ lives when their laying days are over. Egg production will decline as a hen ages. Will you let your beloved Christina Eggulara live out her retirement in your coop and begin buying eggs again? Are you prepared to have a vet euthanize Chick Cheney ? Or slaughter and eat Cluck Norris yourself? It is NEVER appropriate to just turn your hens loose and let them fend for themselves. Local animal shelters simply aren’t equipped for hundreds of unwanted hens. So have a plan before you even step foot into your local farm and ranch store and be prepared to make some tough choices about Tyrannosaurs Pecks when the time comes.
But if you’ve educated yourself on the responsibility of raising laying hens and are prepared to be a good neighbor and responsible owner, I say bring on the cluckers. Will the backyard chicken movement go perfectly? Probably not. But I’d venture to say that the small group of locavores who will participate in this effort have already put more thought, time and effort into raising chickens than a large percentage of pet owners out there.
Let the chickens come. Then take your neighbors some eggs.
Wyokiddo and I attended a bull sale near our house today to chat with a dear friend who was there to buy some bulls for her family’s ranch. My 3-year old was quite the curiosity in her pink coat…the bulls she surveyed weren’t quite sure what to make of her.
One bull, in particular, caught her attention. Not because of his potential breeding characteristics, but because of his “bumpy” tongue. Wyokiddo was transfixed watching this guy lick the wire and pipe in the pen. In an age where some kids won’t look past their handheld gaming device, I love that my little girl can still appreciate little things like a bumpy tongue on a silly bull.
A few days ago, this graphic appeared in my Facebook News Feed. All I can say is that the person who created it obviously never took an agriculture education class. Because I learned all those things, and had to use the Pythagorean theorem. And I learned a ton of other life skills like basic auto maintenance, finding and interviewing for jobs, time management and public speaking. In fact, no other course that I took in high school came anywhere close to preparing me for the real world as my time in agriculture education classes.
Ag class helped me learn about applying for loans. I wanted to participate in the beef coop and cooperatively raise yearling cattle on grass at our school farm. I needed $3,000 to invest in the coop, so our teacher set us up to work with a bank to get the funds. I had to prepare financial statements to show where the money would go and my projected income. Then I had to meet with the banker and discuss those documents, including talking about how I was going to insure the cattle to protect against catastrophic loss, offer up a down payment and discuss the meaning of collateral. Did I mention I was 15 at the time?
I know exactly what FICA and social security meant to my take home pay. I did my first set of taxes at 17 in ag class. Mr. Cotton gave us a sample W-2 and some other income information (such as money made from the sale of livestock or equipment), and had us complete our taxes. By hand. We received extra-credit for inventing legitimate business and personal expenses that were tax deductible. The man was a great ag teacher, but I think he would have been a remarkable accountant, too!
Sure, I can draw up a business plan. In ag class, I was “bequeathed $200,000 by a dying uncle” with the provision that I was to start some sort of agriculture operation. I had to prepare a business plan, including costs and income, to take to the attorney in charge of handling the estate for approval. How’s that for a relevant final exam?
Need your oil changed? Ag class taught me vehicle maintenance and industrial skills. My senior year, Mr. Berry and Mr. Cress took us into the shop for a few weeks. I learned to weld, change my own oil, change a flat tire and jump a car. Mr. Cress taught me how to replace a hose on my pickup that was leaking. I helped a friend build a feed bunk, even busting out old Pythagoras to help with the angles.
Here’s my resume. When I started applying for part-time jobs in high school and college, I had a leg up on my competition. I had a resume that I created for an assignment in ag class. And because part of our assignment was completing fictional job applications, I knew how to do that to impress as well.
I to interview for a job? No problem! I’ve been interviewing for positions and organizations since I was 15. We had to interview for the livestock coops. We had to interview for FFA officer positions. We had to interview to be part of some career development event teams or go on certain trips. I probably did more interviews in high school that some adults will complete in their entire lives.
Stand up and speak up! Ag kids aren’t afraid of public speaking, because it was woven through everything we ever did. We memorized and presented the FFA Creed as freshmen, then prepared a persuasive speech as upperclassmen. We learned how to evaluate a beef cow, and how to defend those evaluations through oral reasons. We presented reports to our classmates on topics we researched. We discussed current issues facing the industry in small groups and with guest speakers.
Complaining about the high cost of eggs right now? Let me explain why and tell you about supply and demand. I rolled through my college economics courses because I learned about supply, demand, price, scarcity, marginal cost, opportunity cost, utility and the paradox of value in ag class. And I learned about finance, too. I know how to evaluate stocks, invest in mutual funds, understand the futures market and calculate compound interest.
I could go on and on, but you get the idea. Agriculture education is so much more than just “agriculture” education. Yes, I learned about cattle, crops, tractors and natural resources. And that is important. But I also learned about life and living in the real world. And my ag teachers weren’t just teachers. These men acted too as financial adviser, mechanic and life coach. It wasn’t a guidance counselor that helped me find a major suited to my interest and skills. It was Mr. Berry, my ag teacher.
As real world economics come into play and money becomes scare for school districts, it is often the career and technical courses, the “vocational” courses, that suffer. But what is the opportunity cost of cutting ag, welding, auto-body or home economic classes (see what I did there? See how well ag class taught me?) Students are losing out on the opportunity to learn life skills and career skills they can employ immediately in the workforce. They lose the chance to take classes that are enjoyable, applicable and keep them interested in school. They are losing the chance to experiment and innovate and find a vocation, not just filling in a box for a college admission sheet.
Isn’t that too high a price to pay?