There are some things you can control, like the heater in your car, and other things you can’t, like how many Turkeys you manage to raise successfully despite predators, finicky weather, and random disappearances. As a farmer, you have to learn this lesson early on. There are just too many factors that are beyond your influence.

We were feeling great about our crop of turkeys this year. We felt great when we only lost a handful of chicks in the brooder. We felt even better when we managed to count 380 birds the day we moved them out to the pasture. We were ecstatic when, after a few weeks, we had only lost three or four of our fowl to hawks and they were quickly growing to the size that would make them an unlikely meal for most predators. We estimated that we’d have at least 350 by the time thanksgiving shoppers showed up. With that number in mind, we started selling birds. Of course, 350 was supposed to be a conservative guess. If we only promised 350 birds, that would leave room for transport and processing damage and any other slight problems that might arise.

The other evening Walker got a call. It was Amanda from the Foothills Processing Plant informing us that the numbers were in…324 birds, not counting those damaged during transportation. That is the kind of phone call you don’t dread. Not only because it meant dozens of customers would be left out to dry, but it also meant that, somewhere along the line, we’d made some big errors in judgment that couldn’t be undone.

As we piled boxes of birds into the cooler this morning, Amy said something that made me really appreciate this job, even in the midst of a minor crisis. She handed me one of the 60 pound boxes and said, “It just makes me feel so bad to disappoint customers. I mean I know it’s not our fault exactly, but I can’t help but think if we had worked a little harder at a few details, we wouldn’t be letting all these people down.”

It wasn’t as though Amy was worried about the extra work this debacle cost us or the credibility of the business. She wasn’t even most concerned about loss of profit. She was thinking about the customers who were so looking forward to a Hickory Nut Gap, pasture raised turkey for their Thanksgiving who wouldn’t be able get one. I know that lots of businesses tout customer service as a core concept in their mission statements, but it meant so much to me to hear so directly that our goal is to give customers the very best product we can muster– to give this farming thing our best shot– our very best. Whatever the weather, whatever surprises come up, this bunch of farmers is going to put in the effort because there is value in a job well done.

Sweetbread

This summer we put together a hoop house just above the barn to help us accommodate larger numbers of pigs. The house looks like a long greenhouse without all the air circulation and ventilation mechanisms. In order to feed the pigs we plan to keep in the house through the winter, Walker recently ordered two new pig feeders from a catalogue. The feeders are steel, seven bushel, flap style contraptions that arrived in large boxes; some assembly required.

I loved Legos as a child. It was exciting to build my own space ships and castles from old lego sets, but I also enjoyed getting a brand new set and following the instructions until I’d built whatever model was on the box. Legos come with great step by step instructions in a colorful booklet. Kids can put these things together because the instructions are so good! Ag companies could take a few leaves from Lego’s book where instructions are concerned.

Our pig feeders came with a single diagram that attempted to show how each nut and bolt was supposed to fit. Not only was it nearly impossible to see all the directional arrows because the diagram was so small, it left out some crucial bits of information.

Despite the lack of detail in the manual, Walker and I were making good progress when we came up against another problem. While trying to attach the body of the feeder to the base, we realized that the rivets that had been assembled on the base were actually aligned incorrectly. This threw the alignment for the entire feeder off so that none of the bolt holes lined up.

When Walker called the company to ask if we’d perhaps done something wrong, he was told that there was no mistake, they were just cheap feeders. “They’re made in China. You’ll just have to drill some new holes or bend the frame or something”, the salesman told him.

It surprised us a little how flippant the salesman was about the shoddiness of his product and the insignificance of customer service.  The mindset of modern capitalism is “cheap and easy”. Growth is more important than craft; dollars matter more than durability. It’s funny that so many people talk about sustainability these days when most of our production is built to be replaced within a year or two. Food issues seem to be at the forefront of the argument for an ecologically conscious consumer/ producer relationship, but it can’t be the end.

As farmers, we need products like pig feeders and waterers and tractors to last despite heavy wear and tear. As cooks, we need pots and pans that don’t scratch and burn. As business people, we need telephones and computers that don’t need to be upgraded every six months. The list goes on and on. So, while the sustainable food movement is a vitally important step in protecting the delicate ecology of this planet, it has to be a stepping stone for other issues. I don’t know exactly what this means in terms of systems. That will mean big shifts in big businesses. But as an individual I think the choices are everywhere and I make them all the time. Where will I spend my time, my energy, and my dollars. I think that too often we are asked to take up the local movement merely as consumers. “Voting with your dollars”, is a slogan that we often hear. But we are not merely money spending figures, devoid of inherent value. We can invest our days and the strength of our backs and our intellect as well as our paychecks.

Maybe we won’t be able to buy a well-crafted pig feeder in the year 2013. Maybe there still won’t be one available in 2014 or 15, but hopefully, one day, it will be possible to know your pig feeder maker, just like you know your famer.

Sweetbread