Four tips on starting
From quail to guineas
I wrote last week that waiting until retirement to start your farming dream (or any "someday" project, for that matter) is a terrible idea. Start it now.
It’s fascinating how many of the lessons I'm learning, mostly the hard way, on our tiny farm seem to apply to every other struggle I'm facing elsewhere. Food creation/procurement is one of those core functions of humanity that serves as a microcosm for life at large.
As such, I want to share some tips learned (primarily through failure) on starting. I hear from people often who have some dream or idea and can't take the first step.
What is the smallest and easiest way to start a big project? It's that adage about eating an elephant - one bite at a time.
Years ago, in the back of my mind, I had this big dream that in the future I would be a farmer making small-batch foods. It seemed complex and daunting. Taking small and incremental steps got me here.
When I started "farming," it was with just three small raised garden boxes and a handful of quail eggs I hatched. These initial endeavors were largely disastrous.
The three raised beds were fine, but they were far out from the drip system, so the water was sporadic at best. We got a few tomatoes the first year here, but it wasn't nearly as much as our haul when growing veggies in our last typical suburban home. It was a far cry from my vision of expanding our operation with the added space.
Quail seemed great in theory. I learned quickly that was not the case. Quail are not smaller versions of their easier-to-keep chicken cousins; they are neurotic and basically untamable. If a chicken gets out, it will run around the yard and go back to its house for bedtime. If a quail gets out, "bye."
Quail, however, are like chickens in that they are dumb, mostly suicidal, and every predator thinks they're delicious. It made for a challenge to start with the smaller and ultimately higher maintenance birds.
My hopes of sushi restaurant-style sophistication were dashed with a few "quail egg omelets" that required about 40 eggs to make a single dish. They're a fun novelty but don't make sense in any real way. Also, I didn't realize the tiny eggs can't crack like their bigger counterparts. Quail eggs need special scissors to snip the tops off, and this tool only sometimes manages to keep fragments of eggshell out of the pan.
Overall, my first two "dip a toe in the farming waters" experiments were total failures. Luckily, those three first garden beds are now full of onions and garlic bulbs, and the freezer is still full of quail.
Ultimately, I'm glad I started with two smaller projects rather than creating a whole soup-to-nuts farm at once. Smaller lessons have advised my larger undertakings.
In retrospect, although I was frustrated at the time my initial farming endeavors were so insignificant to start, I took a year to learn where our plants do best and how the sun hits. What I learned about raising poultry came, in part, by unwittingly feeding the hawks, snakes, eagles, skunks, and raccoons delicious quail.
Starting doesn't mean it has to be everything all at the same time; it just means taking steps and learning and starting anew. Every day is a new opportunity to begin again.
Mix it up to see what you love
So, quail weren't for me.
Chickens seem to be a farmyard given, and I have no shortage of those. They mostly do their own thing and bock and peck around. This year I added the breed Salmon Faverolles to the flock based on the following criteria: if these chickens were human women, would I want to be drinking buddies with them? Just look at them. Tell me you don't want to skip skiing and go straight to the apres party with these girls.
I have some ducks for good measure; I love their eggs, but even more, I laugh at their waddles and when they shake their tail feathers in a bit of ducky booty dance.
My favorite birds, though? Our guinea fowl. Most people have never even heard of guineas. I hadn't until we moved here. Guineas are very odd-looking turkey-esque birds. They have beautiful spotted feathers and are identified best by their distinctive vocalizations. It's a cross between a screech and a very loud chirp. Guineas are LOUD.
Like pineapple on pizza, guineas fall into that category of things that invoke love or hatred but have no middle ground. For the record, pineapple on pizza is gross, and guineas are amazing.
Guinea fowl are not just great egg and meat birds; they're also psycho robot murder watchdogs. They march around the pasture in a militaristic line and kill snakes and small rodents while eliminating any bug in their path. They will scream out their loud calls as soon as someone is around they don't know. I know they love me as they don't screech at me.
In the crooked path to where our little farmstead sits today, many such "guinea" test endeavors sloughed off: quail, which didn't work, goat breeds that were lovely but didn't produce enough milk, and cucumber varietals that were too bitter. But, had I not tried guineas in the flock, I would have missed out on my favorite birds.
Testing many things is a great way to find out what works best in a project. Constant testing is an opportunity for growth.
Pineapple on pizza is still terrible, though, so some tests need only be run once.
Don't be afraid to change direction
Part of the testing and honing process is letting go when something doesn't work. I won't pretend like the day I decided to quit on quail and send my whole flock to the deep freezer in the sky was a fun one. It wasn't. I felt like a failure, and in a small and specific way, I was. Luckily, I was able to eat my feelings with a lovely quail paté.
However, had I kept the flock of quail, I would have had to keep forcing an aspect of this project that wasn't working for me. Quail are great birds for some, so I have no regrets about trying and learning from them.
In service to the larger goal, doing the cost/benefit analysis on smaller aspects of it and brutally (in this case literally) eliminating those parts not working frees up time to do what matters most.
There are only so many things a person can do. Therefore, a critical and often overlooked part of starting must include not doing something else. For me, this means not having quail to so I can have guineas. It's only one small example of the more significant point.
In economics, when one determines cost, there is the actual cost of doing something, but there's also an opportunity cost - the cost of forgoing the next best alternative. Finite time and resources require that we constantly start and quit on the margins simultaneously to move forward with any project.
Don't be afraid to quit and move on.
There is something to be said about momentum. Once you take the first bite of your elephant, chew, and figure out if this is the cut of elephant meat you want. If so, take the next bite. The first step is the hardest, but once you’re moving forward, don’t stop stepping.
Evaluate yourself and your project fearlessly. Let go of things that don't work, but keep going. The sun will come up tomorrow, the rains will come back, the guineas will lay eggs again, and you'll be ready.
Maybe make some quail noodle soup in the meantime - just don't pair it with pineapple pizza.