A story of people and place is no story if the story is never told. It is a story of successes and failures, broken and mended relationships, a painful story sprinkled with hope and immersed in love, even when we can't see it, being refined by the journey.
The last few months on the farm have been beautiful always and broken a lot. In fact, I would say that has been our story from the beginning. It has always been this way.
And this past Friday was one of those terrible days, one of those bad farm days, the kind that seems to happen once a year or so, where your ideas and inexperienced plan meet the external elements of the world. My facebook post on Friday read, "Hell is real. It is on earth. The heat index of 115F over the past few days wiped out 41 broilers one day before the scheduled butcher date. Devastated in every way."
On Saturday, I delivered the 32 remaining live birds for process, and we are sitting at home this Sunday waiting for customers to pick up their pasture raised, local, non-gmo, organic, and transitional grain fed cornish X chickens. Not all has been lost and there is much to learn in failure.
I want share with you a few reflections about this experience.
The chicken. How and why did this happen? I have come up with a small list. Problems are usually complex, though the solution is usually simple.
1) The Factory Bird
Cornish Cross broiler chickens were not designed and bred to be on pasture. They have been developed to grow rapidly within a controlled barn structure and high input system. Their growth rate is 'monsterly' fast, able to be processed at 3-4.5 lbs in as little as 6 weeks. Cornish X broilers are very sensitive to temperature and other elements during their quick growth period. What we have attempted to do is take a factory bird and give it a chicken's life of eating legumes, grasses, other plants, and bugs on pasture for 8-10 weeks, before meeting its one bad day.
2) The Elements
This past Thursday, the excessive heat, humidity, and windless day killed the chickens. This week was really hot. In fact, I was really worried about the birds because of the heat. They were raised in a 8ft x 12ft mobile structure enclosed with cattle panels and chicken wire. The top was covered with a tarp to protect them from the weather. The birds were moved every day to a new area of fresh pasture. However, on Thursday, it was extremely humid and hot, and there was no wind. I went through 4 different sweaty shirts that day, spending much of my time dealing with other problems on the farm.
The pasture was wet, which made the birds' bellies wet. There was no wind to dry them out from the heat and moisture. They overheated. They died.
However, I cannot blame the chickens, the industry, or weather for the onslaught. I must take responsibility. I understand that bad things just happen, but bad things happen even worse with poor planning. We had not raised cornish X birds for 5 years prior to this, and at that, we had only raised 25 at a time. Since moving to Nebraska in 2012 we have only focused on heritage dual-purpose birds. This year we tried something different.
This was actually our second batch of cornish x birds this season. Our first batch started indoors in April and finished on pasture at the end of May. The current failed birds began at the end of May with a finish date at the end of July. Now, that was just bad planning! I don't ever want to be finishing meat chickens in July or August. I think it is best to raise them in spring and early fall, when the temperature is neither too hot nor too cold. This is a lesson in failure that I do not want to repeat.
4) Lack of Hands
At the beginning of the season we had a 7 person team, 3 of whom were interns. For a variety of reasons our team had shrunk down to 3 people, and is now back up to 4. We started and implemented many new systems on the farm this year that require lots of people to run them and the truth is, we just can't keep up with all the work with our smaller team size. Running on full steam for too long leads to exhaustion and burnout. It becomes easy to lose focus.
The design of our farm has been an experiment and a learning process. We began our farming journey to learn how to help impoverished farmers and the poor. Our farm was set up to be a learning and training ground for those wanting to work as missionaries of the land for people. We want to welcome, equip, and go to the places and people who need our type of help the most. And we have been trying to create a model that gives people a unique and full experience of learning and hands-on skills grounded in a biblical framework.
But we have also tried to do to much. Managing 12 different species of animals, 2,000+ trees, and many other shrubs, vines, canes, flowers, herbs, and a 1/2 acre of vegetable gardens is a lot to keep up with. When attempting to do everything, it is hard to do one thing well.
Through miscommunication and assumptions, I did not check on the birds Thursday evening as normal. I thought someone else on our team had already. I was worn out and ready for the day to be over. Friday morning I awoke to a disaster! I must take responsibility. The chickens still had water, but no matter... all the would'ves, could'ves, should'ves... it still comes down to me.
The loss hurt. It cost us a lot of time, energy and money. It cost food. It cost lives.
What the hell? It's time to let heaven in.
Hell vs. Heaven
The chicken failure is just a sign of the reoccurring failure in me. Ya, it was hot as hell over the past week. But hell is not just a place out there. It is also a place in me. Hell is the lack of relationship. Hell is isolation and disconnection from everything that is good. Hell is severed relationships. In hell nothing works. It is full of walls that are built in the head and heart in order to protect from all the external ongoing hell around. Hell is the fullness of violence and scarcity. Hell has no friends, no connections, no relationships.
But heaven, on the other hand, is the fullness of all that is good. It is the abundance of relationship and connection. Heaven is both an internal and external place where nothing is outside its walls. Heaven cannot be grasped, only accepted. It is a gift that comes down and flows from the heart of God.
Hell and Heaven are both real places and they meet and find their edge, their collision space, on earth, like tectonic plates grinding, destroying and leaving behind something new by their impact. Hell is having its reign but heaven is breaking in. Beauty can be found even in the midst of destruction.
After we dealt with the aftermath of the chickens, we still found time to commune at the table for lunch on Friday. We prayed by singing in unison, "The kingdom of God is justice and peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. Come Lord, and open in us, the gates of your kingdom."
Through the pain, our hearts were filled with worship. In humbling ourselves and inviting heaven in, we welcomed with gratitude God's in-breaking kingdom, a place where the restoration of people and place begin and end. Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy on us. We await your kingdom.
The dead chickens are only a sign and a symptom of our small farm problems. The world is groaning and breaking with much bigger hurts than the loss of a few meat birds. May our hearts be heavier for all the death and hate in the world than the troubles of our farm. Yes, the everyday farm fires must be dealt with, but it is time to slow down, reposition the what, stop being distracted by the why, and focus on the who.
I am a farmer because it is the way I know how to best glorify God. My failed attempts at that are pale in comparison to the work being done in my heart.
Here are what 18-week old cornish cross broilers look like. We processed these two birds in order to help make up some of the loss to meet our customer orders. They dressed out at 7 lbs each! Our celebration chickens are now on someone else's table.
Good thing we have plenty of other plants and animals to eat around here. Our pocketbook is empty, but our stomachs are full!