an essay on resilience and diversity
As reported in the McMinnville News-Register today, a fire early Thursday morning March 19 totaled two barns on our property, damaged two other barns, and killed about 300 baby chicks that were destined to become the first three weeks of production for our 100%-certified-organic-feed, pasture-raised chickens. The newspaper reports the damage at $85,000; that’s probably pretty close.
ALL, and I do seriously mean 100%, of the poultry-raising equipment on this property was completely incinerated, from brooder boxes to heat lamps, from feeders and waterers to extension cords and garden hoses, and even including a building to put them in.
The morning after the fire we realized that we have absolutely no ability to receive the 120 baby chicks we are scheduled to receive from our hatchery this coming Wednesday, which would have been the fourth week of production. It all sounds pretty grim.
The silver lining in this story starts with the good Samaritan who was driving past our farm at 1:30AM, saw the fire, and stopped under our bedroom window honking his horn until he woke us up. Chrissie was on the phone to 911 in under a minute. If the fire department had arrived even three or four minutes later, our much more valuable third barn would have been lost. I’ve been blowing kisses to the universe the last two days, hoping one of them lands on the forehead of that unknown person.
The two buildings we lost were the two least-valuable barns on the property. No large animals or people were injured or indeed ever in any danger. By Thursday afternoon, we had come to be in awe of the resilience of our diversified co-op model of farming, and of the support and love we’re receiving from our community of customers and partner farms. Let me tell you the recovery story of our 2015 organic meat chicken production by first taking a step back to explain the design of Kookoolan Farms.
Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm once told me once that “if you don’t have a stomach for risk, you shouldn’t be a farmer.” That’s absolutely true: a hailstorm can destroy the lettuces or spinach you were planning to harvest tomorrow. A windstorm can knock a tree over onto a truck or tractor. A snowstorm can crush a greenhouse. Predators can wipe out free-ranged chickens. Disease can kill a herd of livestock. Tractor and equipment injuries are a leading cause of death and disability for farmers, and farming is still one of the most dangerous occupations in the country. For a farmer, risk is just something you live with. But for a smart farmer, risk is also something that you plan for and take steps to manage.
Chrissie and Koorosh bought this property in October 2005; this is the tenth anniversary year of Kookoolan Farms. In 2005 we had large ambitions, but a limited budget, and we had never managed acreage before. We were intimidated about the prospects of successfully managing 50 or 100 acres. The location of this small farm was perfect, so we bought the five acres, knowing that we would eventually outgrow it, and expecting that we would eventually buy a second twenty-acre-or-so parcel of naked land for expansion.
Instead, we have gradually become the stewards of a loose co-op of small Yamhill County “hobby farms.” We draw on the strength of independent small farms, each growing one or two types of livestock that each family is passionate about, whether it’s beef cattle or rabbits. We share the marketing resources of the main Kookoolan Farms storefront, website, delivery truck, farmer’s market booth, and credit card processing machine, allowing each family to concentrate on those particular aspects of farming that best suit each family’s personality, land, and resources.
In your own savings and investments, you have frequently read and heard of the benefits of diversification. And the expression even has its roots in farming: “don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” The diversification of products was from the beginning designed to provide us with a year-round stream of income that would eventually allow us both to leave Intel, and to provide our customers, who mostly live in Portland and the surrounding suburbs, with the convenience and efficiency of one-stop shopping for beef, pork, lamb, chicken, eggs, vegetables, and more.
This week we have viscerally learned and demonstrated that strength of diversity runs deeper and broader than that.
Several years ago, a similarly-diversified southern Washington farm, Wooden Bridge Farm, was hit by a flash flood. Their one-location farm was wiped out. Having “all your eggs in one basket” can also mean having all your livestock, or all your farm operations, at one physical location.
In 2013-2014, large-scale pig operations in the midwest and Canada were ravaged by a virus that killed more than 10% of the nation’s piglets, as reported in the Huffington Post. Viruses spread, well, like fire, through large CAFO operations. But having a larger number of small farms isolates the virus and protects the larger population. Kookoolan Farms includes four separate small farms for raising pigs: two farms raise our pastured Berkshire pigs, one raises the pastured Red Wattles pigs, and a fourth raises our pampered pigs. Not one of these four farms has experienced the virus. All four farms shared information with each other about best practices to avoid it. If any one farm had a problem, pork would continue to be available from the other three farms. This is just one example.
In 2015, we had designed our pastured poultry operation to be run on two separate pieces of property: Chrissie and Koorosh were going to raise the 100%-organic-fed pastured chickens, and neighbor Ken Payne was going to raise the conventional-fed pastured chickens. Ken has raised chickens with us for the past four years. We had planned this partly to isolate the two feeds from each other so that there would be no chance of mixing any GMO feed accidentally into the 100%-certified-organic-feed chickens, even though we had already come up with systems to keep them separate; and partly to allow more pasture space for chickens.
It turns out that the strength of Kookoolan Farms lies in these interdependent relationships. Ken will be able to receive those next 120 chicks this coming Wednesday, and to raise them on the certified organic feed. Kookoolan Farms will not skip even a single beat; the only impact of this fire is that the first three weeks of chicks are irreplaceably gone, and so our organic-fed chicken season will begin three weeks later, on May 21st. (Conventional-fed chickens will begin to be available on April 22nd.)
Often when we have farm visitors, they are surprised that not all the animals are here on this one property. Often people assume that Koorosh and I have hated working at Intel, and that we have “escaped” to the farm. The truth is, Intel was a wonderful place to work and to learn good risk management systems. Our farm has multiple locations for livestock by design for risk management, and that robust design worked this week exactly as it was supposed to.
Having Ken receive chicks and raise the organic birds as well as the conventional, at least for the first several weeks of this season, also means that we do not have to quickly scramble to jerry-rig inadequate facilities to get our production back on track. In fact (I’m saying this some 60 hours after the fire, mind you, not the morning of the fire) we have no emergency at all: we have a beautiful opportunity to take a step back and take the time to plan the best possible new construction, and we will probably take several months in 2015 to really do it right. This opportunity would not be possible if all our operations were on one location.
Many of you have asked how you can help; ordering ahead and placing a deposit for your beef, pork, or lamb share, or reserving your bulk-discount unit of chickens, (there are downloadable PDF fliers for all of these products on our main website at www.kookoolanfarms.com) or signing up for our vegetable CSA if you live within regular striking distance of Yamhill-Carlton, gives us a little boost infusion of cash to help with the cleanup, planning, and construction. We don’t need donations; this is just paying early for food you were planning to buy from us anyway. And we’ve been deeply moved by how many of you have expressed your care and concern and desire to help. You can do this at our new online storefront www.kookoolanfarms.csasignup.
Today is the vernal equinox, the first day of spring, and the day of the Persian New Year. For Chrissie, adjusting “new year’s day” from January 1st to mid-March seemed odd at first, and then simplistically obvious once we bought the farm. Of course today is the first day of the new year; what other day could it possibly be? Look around you: signs of spring and rebirth are everywhere. Despite our fire two days ago, we find ourselves energetic and optimistic as we look forward to 2015.
We’ll be at the Hillsdale Farmer’s Market tomorrow (Sunday, March 22, 10am to 1pm). The bright smiles you see tomorrow will not be forced or false, but will be smiles of genuine gratitude and appreciation for this beautiful community of interdependence and diversity that we have built and called Kookoolan Farms.
This weekend, both at the farm and at Hillsdale, we have frozen organic-fed chickens, eggs from pastured hens, raw Yamhill honey, 1/8th regular share of 100% grassfed beef, 1/8th steaks-and-burgers share of 100% grassfed beef, kombucha, and mead, plus a few other odds and ends. You can also reserve pasture-raised Berkshire pork that will be finished and ready April 1st, custom-processed beef shares from animals to be killed next week and ready April 15, or 100% grassfed lamb for May 15. And for people who live close to Yamhill and Carlton, we have our vegetable CSA subscriptions. We’re here at the farm all day today until about 4:30.
We’re looking forward to 2015 with renewed confidence in our diversified farming model, and we wish you and your family a happy, healthy, and prosperous New Year as well.
Happy Norooz from your farmers,
Chrissie and Koorosh
Call Farmer Chrissie at (503) 730-7535(503) 730-7535 . We answer the phone 365 days a year, 9am to 5pm!