Outside Inputs

To enjoy chicken dinner we’ll need- commercial pan, and all the mined industrial components of it, electric light, heat, and cooling- the list of inputs becomes a bear of consumption we can’t back down from or pacify. So what else to measure? How to acknowledge and progress forward in our learning journey? Where to pivot and stride on? What rich discussion to share over a baked wonder of home cooking. It’s winter, and warm meals make damp, cold days less frigid. A hen from our flock graces the pot with onions, spices, and lemons. Reflecting on all the bounty, inputs, and energies that go into our lives is something to crow about- in gratitude. EEC has so much woven into it’s makeup in the first ten years of transition, and the vision of forest future looks lusher every day. The outside inputs which help make this meal, and our greater ambitions realized starts with the food we eat.

The fruit comes from our family “grove” in Arizona when in season, a wonderful input we’re grateful for, especially in winter. Spices enliven a dish in any season, and our local grocery chain COSTCO has some great blends that make seasoning a meal easy. Our gardens do provide green herbs of all kinds, and we supplement with them in our food. EEC cultivates green onions year around, and though they are flavorful, the small fleshy bits are mushy after baking. Large commercial Alliums are a real treat, they grace the larder from local gleaners. The wider community orchestrates a county wide food salvage operation. This logistics organization does incredible work redistributing surplus food in King County. EEC Forest Stewardship is near an end point for one distribution hub. Our farm was asked if we could process some overflow organic material. the commercial food is transported in large produce boxes, EEC gathers and recycles cardboard as mulch. Bruised produce is usually thrown away, but EEC composts the fruit and vegetable scraps, adding good soil to the land. Uncut loaves of organic bread are often refused in redistribution hubs. Most of the fancy organic loaves remain uncut for freshness, look, etc, but many food pantries are large, fast pace prep environments where slicing bread to produce the hundreds of sandwiches that might be made in a day is not a time saver. The bread spillover goes to the sheep and chickens (in modest amounts) with a loaf or two for the larder. This grain input for our birds and sheep is a huge supplement from an outside source. These networks of additional abundance help strengthen the restoration of land, neighborhoods, and greater developed space we humans continue to inhabit.

In recent months, with many shifts on economic scales well beyond EEC Forest Stewardship, there are new restraints forming on outside inputs, which in turn, dictate the level of production at EEC’s farm. The soil, plants, animals, and songs of the birds have not changed, beyond subtle variants of tone in each note. We’ve had a mild winter, so pastures continue the production of modest grazing, but without bales of hay, alfalfa, and straw, we’d have a heck of a mess in hungry animals and mucked up barnyard. The cost of these precious inputs this year, added up to six lambs sold on the hoof. We’ve reached more than that goal in sales this year, but our flock is at a size now that would not be sustainable through another winter of inputs. The land will feed them through this year’s growing season, but the price of hay is soaring, and demand grows while supply dwindles. Our greatest local source for straw and ton hay bales told me next year he’ll not deliver, as his supply is getting bought up by larger commercial investors. My alfalfa source caters to equine demand, which comes at a much higher price. There is no hyper local source for alfalfa, it cannot be grown in the wet climate of Western Washington. Ours comes from an Eastern Washington source which is trucked in over the mountains.

Most alfalfa comes for Southern Arizona (where my family’s citrus comes from too). The Army Core of Engineers put in a great canal to channel The Colorado River to Phoenix and Tucson. Here are pictures from a recent trip I took to see Family. Pumping stations push the water across desert mountains and arid plains. Many PDC classes use the example of this canal and the swale created by its construction, which now fosters a modest forest along the uphill bank. Recently, Arizona began enacting phases on a long term water restriction plan. Small farms of a certain production level have been cut off from use of the canal. These “late comer” water rights were limited. Because of upstream covenants in other states, Arizona agreed to limited access rights. Alfalfa is a thirsty plant to grow, along with citrus and cotton, all grown in a desert with imported water. But back in Washington, on a small hill farm, we’ll keep sourcing alfalfa while we can for our eastern farmers. If this source becomes too expensive, we’ll reduce our herd size and shift to blackberry fodder. At that time, EEC will stop selling meat animals and focus fully on education and reforestation efforts.

Livestock will always play an important role in this lands restoration. Remember, these birds come from hot jungles in Asia. The inputs for birds remains commercially grown at this time, but the reduction of our flock to modest home egg and meat (5-10 animals) would allow us to produce all food for the chickens from our land. Right now, at 30, we sell enough eggs and meat birds to pay for grain. In future, as we develop out Ayam Cemani flock genetics, we will start selling chicks and make a profit. This year’s genetics are all black, moving towards the bird standard we wish to cultivate- adding dual purpose bulk and egg production into these black beauties. As we develop a more standardized breeding flock, we’ll encourage more hens to brood out their own chicks and remove ourselves from that natural process. Why are we mechanically doing it now? Predictability and production rule the roost. We can choose exactly when, where, and how many chicks hatch. That’s turning the birds into a successful product- which in turn supports our economic goals. Shifting resources to maintain stability in basic production is key to keeping things thriving and jiving at EEC. When an input cannot be reproduced on site, the system has to adapt, sometimes utilize outside resources- nothing on this planet acts alone, but most of the wild models keep themselves active and thriving through very localized channels. People have tried to harness these techniques in recent decades of our progress march, but the fantasy of fully self-sustaining still gleams in many eyes.

Should quality of life dictate practice? Yes. To be a profitable chicken farmer, you’re expected to have a flock of at least 500. Those kinds of numbers are ethically impossible to tend in favor of the bird’s quality of life, but it pays the gold for the castle and keep- if it’s you main source of economic gain. Chickens at EEC are a part of the complex whole. We do not rely on any one system alone. Our production of chickens has maintained a flock of 30 birds- give or take a few from season to season, and the birds remain healthy and productive in this environment. We’re now breeding from within a closed flock, for at least a few years, but in the event of any change in our outside inputs, we can grow or shrink the flock to suit upcoming needs- you have to plan ahead, yet be prepared to act in the moment. I don’t loose sleep over these potential changes- most of the time, but these going concerns are important to digest. Inflation has huge impact on larger farm production, but it also hits the small guys first, like those farmers in southern Arizona. Climate change and pandemics put a strain on all supply chains. Food and water dictate all life, and where food chains collapse under human development and environmental change, civilization struggles. Even in our global economy, individuals, and even whole countries of people find themselves in famine stricken lands. Things in The USA are changing more gradually for now, but livestock production is slowing down in 2022.

EEC Forest Stewardship will continue to weave what local resources we can into our cottage industry. The animal operations give back so much in food for us and fertility to the land. Seeing our pastures grow lusher each year, valuing the tropical treats when they arrive, while also navigating ever changing environmental and economical shifts is the spice of life. Networking within the community and knowing your sources helps so much in maintaining close relationship and broader collective vision for the future. This closer look at outside inputs, how they shift farm capacities, and our plans to keep the dance going with enjoyment for all remains a worthy quest in this world. In health and happiness, to all the abundance and learning!

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