Making the most of this sudden interest in growing your own food

There are some really great things happening during this COVID-19 pandemic. Families are eating dinner together and reconnecting over board games and puzzles; people are learning new hobbies and skills, such as cooking and baking; and, people of all walks of life are sewing and welding whatever they can to help the health industry fight this virus.

The new-found love of cooking is a dream come true to someone like me, who so badly wants everyone to have a rich, if nuanced, respect and understanding of where their food comes from. I’m hopeful that this new interest sparks conversations between farmers and consumers and creates real connections that last long after all of this is behind us.

I’m encouraged, too, that many people are looking into growing more of their own food. Similar to “Freedom Gardens” planted during the war efforts of another lifetime, many within my own circle of town-dwelling friends are ordering seed packages and planning at least a little garden.

But then, there’s also the very real trend of more people wanting to not just grow a few peppers, but move up to proteins: eggs, milk, and meat.

This is where I get a little nervous. Similar to how most people caution against getting a puppy for Christmas or a bunny for Easter, I’m hoping you’ll join me in encouraging non-farmers to leave the livestock raising to those that are either 100% into this new endeavour or already doing it. Here’s why: most, I really don’t think recognize the big picture of animal welfare, proper housing, and care, nutrition, or the full brunt of what end-of-life — the making of animal into meat — really entails.

And so, I give you this somewhat fun but deadly serious list of things I hope each person considers before wanting to raise laying hens or churn their own butter or raise their own steak:

  • If you buy laying hens as chicks, some will be roosters (unless you buy them “sexed” which is reasonably accurate). Roosters don’t lay eggs, are annoying and loud, and also sometimes get mean. You will need a plan for roosters (no, you can’t “re-home” them. The “plan” is a soup pot. So, be ready).
  • Any mammal must give birth before making milk. This goes for cows, goats, and humans. While sheep and goats can have babies at around a year old, it’s more likely you’d wait until they are about two. Don’t buy baby goats this spring thinking you’ll be making cheese this fall, please. Also, if you buy a girl, you will at some point have to find her a boy — boy goats — bucks — are beautiful, smelly, gross beasts. Are you sure you want to keep that at your little acreage?
  • Let’s talk about meat birds. These marvels of breeding grow incredibly quickly, reaching a decent carcass size in as little as six to eight weeks. Pro-tip: book the processor before you order chicks or you may find yourself suddenly Googling “how to build a chicken plucker” in the heat of the summer.
  • A word about livestock. With livestock comes dead stock. Have a plan to have any deads removed/picked up or disposed of properly on farm (burial or proper composting is possible, but requires planning and some research). Also, you may not think you have fox or other predators around, but just get chickens and you’ll discover you do (and that your resident chocolate Lab is NOT a guardian dog).

Here’s what I’m thinking. I absolutely adore that so many Canadians are rediscovering what a food value chain looks like and that accessibility to the foods we love is a privilege not to be taken for granted ever again. I’m thrilled that so many people are realizing that vegetables have to grow before getting to the store. It’s great, in theory, to want to raise your own meat…but here’s where I honest-to-goodness want people to stop, take a breath, and contact a farmer already raising livestock. I encourage everyone to plant some seeds and grow a good salad, but unless you are well and truly prepared to actually raise livestock, just book a half or a quarter with your nearest livestock producer. Your neighbours and your neighbourhood farmer will thank you.

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