Bean There: Not a Vegetarian

This year my farm has seen a succession of middle to top predators with catastrophic consequences for the chicken population and, by extension, my livelihood.

A raucous crowd of ravens was first, flying boldly into the barn and coming out with whole eggs in their beaks. I was sure they were mocking me as they ate the eggs and spit out the shells right over the garden. Tightening the barn and collecting eggs every half hour for a week discouraged them and they moved off down the valley.

Chickens. (Spectator photo)

Chickens. (Spectator photo)

A bald eagle was next, snagging oblivious adult hens in aerial attacks as they wandered freely, scratching up the manure pile and orchard – my egg-producing fly and pest control team. A few good hits with the paintball gun took care of that. It’s hard for such a macho bird to hang out down at the Legion with a big pink splotch on his chest. A couple of scarecrows moved every few days is all I need now, and the eagles are back to their usual diet of mice and rabbits from the hill field, so we are friends again.


Coyotes and mustelids

Coyotes are another predator with whom I have an understanding. Page wire fencing and a couple of tours around the property every day with a noisy tractor make them uneasy — at least, it does as long as I don’t let the chickens stray too far near the wooded end of the orchard and keep the brush cover around the edges mown.

Weasel (Photo by Karen White)

Weasel (Photo by Karen White)

For my part, I promise not to hunt or trap them. In any case, hunting pressure only encourages the sisters of the alpha female to have litters rather than babysit for her, and the litters get bigger too. For this measure of mutual tolerance, deer and moose are shy about my property. “Thank you!” say the fruit trees. The mice and rabbits live in fear and reasonable numbers as well.

The current invasion is being headed up by a crack team of ferocious mustelids – weasels and mink, maybe a fisher or marten, too. Their MO is to make a big kill and come back to feed on it over a week, so the damage they can do in a night is appalling. They take adult birds as they roost as well as the easy baby targets. They are clever, can get through amazingly small cracks and crannies and laugh at live traps.

I used to have a dog whose scent — although he was elderly and arthritic — likely gave them pause, but he has been gone for two years. So far, a reasonable solution has eluded me and all the poultry, chicks and chickens, have been airlifted in an emergency evac to a friend’s farm half an hour down the road. They are safe for the moment while I regroup.


Time to retool?

The situation has me thinking: should I get out of poultry altogether, at least for a year or two? They are a significant but not the main source of income for the farm and with some retooling, I could expand other areas to replace the income —  put in another couple of acres of dry beans and potatoes, hustle for more seed contracts, expand the small fruit plantings. It could be done. Might even be a good idea anyway. There’s just the problem of fertility, and that is a major one.

Though I no longer go for formal certification, I am an organic farmer. This was a decision made not only on philosophical principle but for economic and ecological reasons as well.

By M Tullottes (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

(Photo by M Tullottes, own work, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Healthy soil with its microscopic populations requires less added fertility. The subsoil ecosystem does a lot of the heavy lifting in nutrient uptake. A diverse demographic in that population buffers pest cycles too. Save money? Grow healthier plants? Sign me up! But wait. Taking a crop off and selling it is part of the deal on a farm. Even on a small scale, you’re shipping nutrients off-farm that have to be replaced. Yes, much can be done with cover-cropping systems but land can’t keep pulling itself up by its bootstraps. Stuff has to come from somewhere.

Some years back, I spoke to a farmer in Ontario who had taken over the farm from his father who had cash-cropped corn and soy for years. A test revealed the organic matter (OM) content of the soil was below 1% – it was essentially dead. He was told by the Ag Extension agent that it would take 20 tons of manure per acre to bring it to viability.

He had started a small beef operation while awaiting the parental retirement, so he did the math and figured it would provide one ton of manure per acre. One. When he needed 20. Well, he figured, he might as well start, if it was going to take 20 years, and put on one ton per acre for two years. He then did another soil test and to everyone’s surprise, the OM was up to a low but respectable 2% to 3%.

Scientists have a technical term and explanation but I prefer his:

That land wanted to live, to fix itself, what I had to do was give it what it needed – rest, food and faith. Now we work together.


Costly alternatives

A farm that can maintain itself, as much as possible, with its own fertility is a lot closer to economic and ecological sustainability.

Ruminant. (Spectator photo)

Scrounging manures and compost from other sources is costly — and increases fossil fuel consumption. And is it really sustainable or ethical to divert manures from factory farms, even on a small scale? A big factor in the mountain of excess corn produced in North America is the need to do something with the vast waste from these nightmare operations, it’s true. But donating some of it to market gardeners for salad greens and kale does not give factory farmers an inch of moral and ecological high ground, even if those gardeners compost the waste on their farm for the required minimum year. It doesn’t do much for the ethos of local production either, to spend so much time and fossil fuel moving factory farm waste around the country.

Crabmeal and fish plant waste may not be wise in the long term either, as the oceans also suffer from our pillaging. I spoke to a fisherman just yesterday, asking if he still fished his own bait. “I used to,” he admitted, “but even the mackerel are scarce now. The big seiners scoop them all up before they can get to the inshore.” I didn’t think there was that much market for mackerel and he told me it all got ground up for fishmeal pellets to feed farmed salmon and for fertilizer.

There’s also the matter of farm efficiency in the nutrient cycle. There’s nothing like a large ruminant to take the grass and weeds off that inaccessible hill and turn it into on-farm soil amendment. Not to mention a nice income in the fall to get you through the winter.

Shipping meat is mostly nitrogen and water, and does not significantly deplete the farm’s nutrient bank. Don’t overstock, underseed with some long-lived legumes like birdsfoot trefoil, and that pasture will feed them for decades. Moreover, the raspberry canes will be kept at bay and the spruce tree jungle will keep a respectful distance.

Poultry keep parasite levels down by scratching droppings and gobbling up orchard pests. Even though I buy hay for the sheep and much of the chickens’ grain ration — as a concession to my one-woman attempt to do absolutely everything — both the economics and the ecology of the livestock are cornerstones of the farm’s health.


Terran ecosystem

This approach, of course, is radically different to that of factory farms, which are ecological disasters and rightly earn the wrath of animal rights activists. But I differ from those activists on the source of their righteousness: animals may well have all the attributes of emotion and intelligence claimed for them but they, like us, belong to the Terran ecosystem and ecosystems are all about things eating other things, circle unending.

My personal view is that there is no hierarchy of living organisms, that the life of a flatworm or tomato has the same weight as that of a cow or a pig or any other charismatic megafauna. I was struck by the comment of a Buddhist monk in a debate about the ethical framework of abortion. His view was that all life — human, animal and plant — is sacred and should not ever be taken without care, consideration and prayer or other forms of gratitude to the universe.

Organic produce, farmer's market, University of BC (Photo by Dllu, own work, [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Organic produce, farmers’ market, University of BC (Photo by Dllu, own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Each being has its place, and while life requires the taking of life, whether animal or plant-based, our continued ethical and biological existence is predicated on respecting the sacred nature of that place and striving to temper our drive for dominance.

There is absolutely no doubt Westerners eat more meat than is good for them or the planet. No vegetarian myself, I applaud those who choose that path – they, at least, are trying to think about where what goes into their bellies comes from.

And the scrutiny of activists has gone a long way to improve industry practices, although there remains a great distance to go. Meat should be occasional and expensive, reflecting its proper place in our diets and the food system. Eliminating its consumption altogether is not going to happen, while demonizing it undercuts attempts by farmers to develop sustainable and ethical practices for all the organisms, large and microscopic, under their care.

Once, a newly-arrived vegan couple at the Baddeck Market asked me if I would make them some treats they could eat. I agreed and made some special vegan desserts for the next couple of weeks, though they never showed. When they did, I hadn’t bothered that week, and they were disappointed. Norman, a favorite customer of mine, piped up, “You could have one of her sticky buns — they’re really good.” His full mouth was testament to this.

She turned to him and said, “I don’t believe in eating pain and suffering.” Quite apart from her rudeness, I was not about to let this pass. I quietly said, “You know, there’s a lot of ways to think about eating ethically and sustainably. You’ve chosen one way, but there are others.” I tried to talk about the on-farm nutrient cycle and ethical care of my animals.

They instantly launched into a shouting diatribe, demonstrating not only that they had no manners, but that they also, as Norman pointed out later, knew nothing about farming.



Good farmers, for their part, undertake what I call the social-ecological contract. While the animals are under my stewardship I commit to giving them the best care I possibly can, according to their natural biology. Space for roaming, nesting, and just plain wandering. Food that suits their needs and nature.

Sometimes this costs money. Grass-fed beef grows slower, with less fat to bulk out the invoice total. Chickens, as already illustrated, need extra vigilance and protection and produce less efficiently than when forced with artificial lighting and confinement.

Jersey cows, Denmark. (Photo by BartLaridon, own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Jersey cows, (Photo by BartLaridon, own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

One young calf I had tore his eyelid on the eyelet bolt holding the water bucket in his stall. The vet, called out for a $300 emergency after-hours visit, and I could not figure out how the heck he had done it. But though that $300 was about the entire profit I could expect from that calf at the time, I did not hesitate to pick up the phone.

Dairy farming can be a tough living with thin margins, and some farmers no doubt are tougher than others, but many of the ones I know have deep emotional attachments to the animals in their care, and take it hard when the exigencies of the business mean difficult decisions.

One down the road, a big guy with a brusque manner not many get to see past, had a runty calf, born six weeks early a couple of years ago. Beyond all business sense he kept this small heifer going. He couldn’t get over what a feisty little fighter she was. Normally, a calf born that early would not survive and he was totally taken with her energy and determination to live and eventually thrive. He spent hours in the calf pens playing tug-the-rag with her, scratching her ears and laughing at her leaping around her bigger, heavier sisters. I don’t dare ask him if he kept her or not. Either way, kept or shipped, whether business or his heart won out, he wouldn’t find it easy to answer.

Beef Shorthorn calf (Photo ny Cgoodwin, own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Beef Shorthorn calf (Photo by Cgoodwin, own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

A beef farmer I know, really good at what he did, good with his herd, good with his land, was devastated by the BSE [bovine spongiform encephalopathy] crisis. He had to ship his best animals, his breeding stock — there was no market and no sign of one in the future those 10 years ago. Not only did he not make the cost of production, the bill for trucking them was more than his check from the stockyard. He told me he knew it was time to quit when he lost a calf to a late spring blizzard and all he could think was, “Well, at least it’s one I don’t have to worry about any more.”

He didn’t renew his registration that spring for the first time in 40 years. He was bitter about the way US-Canadian politics played out over that one; how small-herd producers like himself lost or came close to losing everything through no fault of their own. They certainly hadn’t created the crisis in the industry that a few big players had by feeding dead sick cows to vegetarian ruminants in the incredibly misguided belief that any source of protein was acceptable to shave feed costs.

Now, he drives a school bus, keeps a few cows to keep the fields open, and grows pumpkins and potatoes for fun.

He was actually pleased to have all my chickens wandering around the old feed stalls, scratching and clucking in contentment. He’s spending a lot of time watching them and laughing at their serious chicken conversations. He had been talking about tearing down the barn — he was worried it would come down badly in a storm and that it wasn’t worth paying the upkeep any more. He feels differently now. Said he didn’t mind if they stayed the winter. They’re good company.


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Market gardener, farmer, workshop leader, seed-saver, political candidate and mother, Michelle Smith has spent over 30 years coping with the challenges of our bioregion and in the process has built a store of practical and technical knowledge. The Inverness resident has served on the board of Seeds of Diversity Canada and represented Alternative Producers with the Federation of Agriculture but can do nothing about her hair. She is pictured with a head of Club Wheat, a seed that shares her approach to hairdressing.



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