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Learning from Scratch: Take Small Steps

Chickens on the run at Maui chicken farm.Chickens on the run at Maui chicken farm.Homesteading is overwhelming, and all the more so if you have high ideals about living lightly and are trying to do things in new ways. Let's see, since coming to Hawai'i we have studied up on and/or are trying to: make fish fertilizer and vermicompost, raise soldier fly larvae, make biochar and Natural Farming amendments, start up aquaponics for fish and greens, install solar and hydropower, create forest gardens and permaculture, grow chicken forage, raise rabbits without purchased feed, and raise as much of our own fruits and vegetables as possible. Maybe we are doing too much at once? Two lessons I have recently learned from other small farmers have reinforced the importance of taking small steps.

The lessons concern pasturing chickens. Joel Salatin's classic book, Pastured Poultry Profits (Polyface Inc, Swope, Virginia, 1993, reprinted 1999) has inspired many to try raising poultry on fresh grass and bugs by moving them around on fields that ruminant animals have grazed on, leaving piles of dung that are food for worms and insects.

The first lesson is brought to us thanks to our work-trader Jake, who has been enthusiastic about raising pastured broiler chickens in a chicken tractor. When Jake looked at the grass he needed to keep mown around his cabin, he saw a win-win opportunity to reduce mowing, increase soil fertility, and trial a way to raise food and eventually money. He built a chicken tractor - a small, moveable hutch -- out of available scraps, and purchased a dozen Cornish Cross chicks. The tractor has an open bottom that allows chicks to forage on grass. When the chicks were two weeks old he started putting them in the tractor and moving it every day to a new patch of grass. They very happily ate the bugs and perennial peanut flowers, as well as worms and bugs in cow patties he brought over from a neighbor's field.

Within a few days, he heard a commotion at night and discovered that a rat or rats had found a way in and several chicks had disappeared. He shored up the perimeter, and built a trap to drown rats in a 5-gallon bucket. Still, every day another chick or two disappeared. No rats fell for the trap. In spite of boards and sand bags around the edges of the chicken tractor, finally he was down to two chicks... then one... and finally none.

Instead of feeling totally defeated, Jake was glad he had done this trial with just 12 chicks and inexpensive building materials. He hasn't given up on raising organic broiler birds, but he knows he can't manage them on this site in an open-bottomed tractor. He also knows the chicks did not grow as fast as they were supposed to, and plans to try a small batch of an heirloom cross next time. Get different chicks, perfect the rat traps, rebuild the tractor. Small steps.

The second lesson is brought to us care of my kids'-in-law, Michael and Rebecca, whom we recently visited in southern Washington state on their beautiful organic farm.

Joe Salatin-style chicken tractor at the Parziale farm in Moloa'a, Kaua'i. Joe Salatin-style chicken tractor at the Parziale farm in Moloa'a, Kaua'i. They have worked on organic farms for years and had many ideas and plans to put in action. Their main farm income comes from raising organic laying and meat chickens and turkeys, for which they grind and mix their own organic feed. Following the Salatin scheme, they rotate the poultry into cow pastures. They also are raising pigs, hay, and potatoes. After a year experimenting with smaller batches, they expanded to doing several hundred poultry three times a year. They also have two big white Pyrenees dogs, Adams and Olympus, named after the snowy mountains that flank the valley. The dogs' job is to protect the free range flock from hawks, ravens, raccoons, dogs, bobcat, cougar, snakes, rats, badger, and coyotes (makes me thankful we only have to outwit mongoose, dogs, rats, and hawks!).

All was going well until a few weeks ago, when they discovered that one or both of the dogs had killed a chicken. They tried tying a dead chicken around Adam's neck, which is supposed to discourage the dog from ever wanting to eat chicken again. Unfortunately, Adam managed to eat this chicken. He did not get the message at all. So, the first night we were there, they decided to tie the dogs up by their house. There was a lot of barking but this was pretty normal.

The next morning Michael went out to feed the chickens and had the shock of finding dead birds everywhere in the field. When the carnage was cleaned up they tallied 125 dead birds. This was 80% of their broiler chickens and half of their turkeys, lost to what they later discovered was coyotes. (Read Michael's post on this.)

The lesson this devastating event gave them was that they expanded too fast and were trying to do too many new things at once. They had not realized how much work it would be to train the dogs properly. Before they expand the flock again, they will make sure they have a reliable security system -- either well-trained dogs or something else. As Rebecca said, there's a sweet spot where you get things working well, but when you try to expand the formula changes.

To sum up: it's wise to go slow with new farm projects. Feel good about doing a few projects in a small and methodical way. It may even extend the lives of some chickens!

Rachel Laderman moved to Hawai'i Island three years ago to farm and live off-grid in a small community of friends and family. Before this she worked for 20 years as an Environmental Health Educator in Olympia, Washington. She feels extremely lucky to be able to spend her days planting, foraging, and preparing foods. Read her blog at http://marketlessmondays.wordpress.com/.

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