Ruffled Feathers and Spilled Milk

Farming with ducks and dairy goats, chickens and children.

In the Beginning

If it is too good to be true, then it involves free ducks.

An entire neighborhood gathered to help me catch ducks from their overpopulated pond.  There were jubilant smiles and hearty backslapping as the crate was shoved into my truck. “You’re gonna love these ducks.”   “They’re no trouble at all.”  “Practically take care of themselves.”  Note to self:  no one is that glad to see a good thing go.  But my children were already peering excitedly at their sullen captives while debating names, and besides, I had a PLAN.

Of course, a plan is best kept under wraps.  Telling friends and family about a plan is like FEMA issuing disaster mitigation guidelines.  There will be unforeseen circumstances.  Participants will fail to follow protocol.  There will be casualties and no end to contributory negligence.  Besides, over-planning could result in ridiculous made-up words. ( “Preparedness”?  Really?)  In any case, if you keep the plan a secret then you can always pretend there was no plan.  This makes you seem like an exciting person whose exploits result from chance  and fortitude instead of a miscalculating moron.  Trust me, keep the plan to yourself.

All the way home I pondered the profits of organic poultry.  All that night snug in my bed, visions of free range duck danced in my head.  Farmers markets and Internet sales and upscale restaurants, oh my.  All I had to do was let the ducks live on my pond, hatch their eggs, and then sell the young ducks to a population yearning for healthy, natural, and gourmet meat.  There was not a single farmer specializing in raising and selling duck in my entire state!  (hmmm, what should that tell me?)  How could anyone miss such an obvious and easy opportunity?  Insert evil (and ignorant) laughter here.

Turns out that waiting with a commercially raised and packaged frozen duck (up to 10% water, unknown liquids, and frightening things you can’t say or spell added) under your arm in the longest line at Wally World, with a new cashier on her first day, behind a customer with 3  returns without receipts that were actually bought at Target, another customer who has 2 items without UPC codes (how did we price things before the computer did it for us?), and another customer who waits until it is her turn to check out to realize she forgot the milk so she sends her 6 year old back to the grocery aisles to get it, is a simpler and much less stressful way to get meat than raising it yourself.  Shocking, I know.

So there were a few glitches in my plan.  Nothing insurmountable.  Just housing, breeding, growth rate, predator protection,  USDA processing, marketing, and my neighbors calling about 60 ducks climbing into their professionally installed 20 gallon decorative pond surrounded by expensive (and apparently edible) landscaping.   I could have avoided some of these problems with a bit of research before I started, but really, who does that?  I have found that real experience embeds information in the hippocampus much better than skimming farm books while locked in the bathroom with half your kids beating on the door while the other half are scouring the cabinets for hidden cookies.  Although I am sure Storey’s Guide to Raising Ducks addressed adequate containment, I didn’t discard deer netting as fencing until a raccoon neatly chewed through it and had duckling nuggets for a midnight snack.  And, by the way, chicken wire will keep out raccoons but not black snakes who can slide through easily and, even worse, weave their bodies through the holes so that they cannot be pulled out by the tail.  (If you are even courageous stupid desperate enough to grab a black snake by the tail.)  Chicken wire to keep out raccoons.  Deer netting to keep out snakes.  Yep, the School of Hard Knocks for me.

By the time a friend arrived to find me cutting a duck loose from the 500 feet of fishing line I had strung from tree to tree to prevent hawk attacks, I knew I should have kept the plan to myself.  When we sat down to coffee at the dining room table (underneath which there was a brooder box filled with 18 ducklings), I was forced to endure such humiliating questions like “How many have you raised so far?”, “If any do survive, who’s going to butcher them?”, and “Do you know who you’re going to sell them to?”    Never mind, the rhetorical, “How much money have you made?”  No “friend” should laugh that hard at the weeping and gnashing of teeth that goes into transforming some free ducks into a specialty free range duck farm.  Really, it’s so unattractive to squirt coffee through your nose.

In the end, though, the farmer (that’s me!) got the last laugh.  Especially when those ducks morphed into a breeding stock of 30 birds and sales of up to 300 ducks a year through farmers markets, the Internet, and upscale restaurants.  Oh my.  My friend even created a new term to explain the various duck housing, food and water containers, and predator protection devices created from pallets, leftover tin, mixed drink buckets, flower pots, and kitty liter boxes.  “Ergonomic reuse”–turning unused/discarded items into comfortable and safe farm components.  Thank you, Patricia.  Take that, FEMA.  My original concept was too good to be true.  Ducks can’t take care of themselves and they are a bit of trouble.  But I did learn to love them.  And creating the farm was a good thing.

Good like standing over your kids as they watch a life peck its way into this big, amazing world.

Good like learning that it’s true– if you try,try, and try again, you will succeed.

Good like discovering even the hardest chore on the farm goes by faster with a companion.

Good like spending your days in the great outdoors…

…and taking comfort in the friends around you.

Just plain good.

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