Thompson Small Farm is located in bear country. Here, two species of bruin – the black and the grizzly – still roam in numbers that might lead Ernest Hemingway, were he still around, to declare this land “a good country” yet. It’s a miraculous thing, anyways – all these bears – given the terminal condition of our civilization and the flabbergasting number of humans around today. On this eastern fringe of the foothills in the agricultural mosaic they live like their European counterparts, strictly nocturnal poltergeists trolling the inky blackness. You think that’s a nice woodlot there on the fringes of your quartersection, but it may well harbor a monster that can cleave your head from your body with one absent-minded swipe of its ivoryhung forepaw. And thank-God for the fact of such beasts. Even at this late stage, it is not yet entirely a world fit only for exfoliated girlie-men and women, despite our sincerest efforts to render it so. Three miles due east of our house in fact, a hunter a scant few years ago – armed only with a bow – encountered a grizzly and her wellgrown cubs on their own kill. And when he didn’t make it home, he was subsequently discovered some 160 pounds lighter than when he entered the bush. I could show you the spot, but I won’t, as there are bears in there as I write this.
It is primarily for the fact of the Great Bear in our backyard that I possess a rifle in the .375 Holland & Holland Magnum calibre. That and the fact that this cartridge – 103 years old now – is the most versatile ever devised. It is not just an arm for defense, I can hunt for the larder with it. By some magic alchemy of ballistics, Holland & Holland invented a round that can kill a rogue elephant and yet be effective on small freezer-deer without making hamburger of the meat before you give the butcher his instructions. As white hunter Peter Hathaway Capstick said, you are never over-gunned and only rarely under-gunned with the .375 H&H. It’s also one of the most effective rounds for stopping a bear bound on mayhem, should the unfortunate circumstance – and I would deem it unfortunate, as I would never wish to kill a grizzly – arise. But as they said in the olden years, and as our hapless bowhunter learned, it is better to have the weapon and not need it, than to need it and not have it.
But that’s not what this essay is about. It’s just background.
My rifle was built by the CZ company, located in some murky eastern European country, I’ve forgotten which one. Or maybe I’m pretending I’ve forgotten it because I can’t spell the name of the place. Whatever the case, testament to the excellence of the manufacturing process there and at odds with the manufacturing process in many places now, it is a very well-built firearm. This is why it is today the most popular of all among Africa’s professional hunters. Dependable as the death it delivers, under the most obscene of circumstances. The rifle is nonetheless mass-produced and costs $1200, or thereabouts, for the base model I possess.
Unlike the CZ company that produced my .375 rifle – the originator of the calibre is based in London, England, and builds artisan firearms. Holland & Holland does not mass-produce their guns. They are still built step-by-painstaking-step in a labor-intensive process. I can relate to this process, because this is how we raise our eggs and meat at Thompson Small Farm. Our products are in this sense artisanal products, same as the guns of Holland & Holland.
So what would I have had to pay for the equivalent rifle built in England by Holland & Holland to the one I possess costing $1,200? For the equivalent rifle built by hand rather than by industrial process? How many orders of magnitude more? A ball-park figure seems to be around $25-$30,000. $50,000 is not uncommon, and the numbers climb from there into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. $15-$17,000 being about rock-bottom.
And this is what we’re driving at here. An examination of the cost of a hand-built rifle from Holland & Holland illustrates why Thompson Small Farm and small farms like it are doomed to fail as busninesses from inception. (And if you work another job to support your farming, we’re talking a failed enterprise, economically.) And why the small farming model is not delivering a decent living – or a living at all – for its practitioners in general today, whether they admit it or not. And most won’t – there is a stigma attached to being honest if you’re failing, regardless of how many folks you may be doing a real favor to by being so.
So, the customers of Holland & Holland are willing to pay from 20 to 40 times (and up) the cost of a mass produced product for an artisan-produced one. These prices are not arbitrary figures. They are in fact a reflection of the economics necessary to allow artisanal endeavors to succeed. The economics necessary in an industrial paradigm to provide a living for those involved in the artisanal process. In any artisanal process that is more than just a sideline. And if you’re working at something all day every day, it is not a sideline.
Meanwhile, Thompson Small Farm – arguably a Holland & Holland of egg, poultry, and pork-production as are other farms like ours – sells our products for approximately twice that of mass-produced, perhaps somewhat less, wondering all the while that the market bears even this and still enduring the occasional raised-eyebrow. A box of our extra-large eggs sells for $7.00. The equivalent of Holland & Holland selling their rifles for $2,400 or so. Would they be around today had this been their practice, or rather, the demands of their market?
Based on the lesson of Holland & Holland’s example (and who’s to argue, they’ve endured since 1835) Thompson Small Farm’s eggs ought to sell for $70 to $140 a dozen for extra-large. That would be a pretty nice living, granted. About $720,000 average gross per year based on the 300 chickens maximum allowable by law in Alberta for small farmers. We could pay ourselves as other businesses expect to be paid in Canada and provide meaningful employment to people in our community. But this is only if there were no winter and the chickens laid consistently year-round at the optimal six eggs per week per bird; if they did not go into moults; if there were no attrition to predators; if we found all eggs produced (they are free-range, remember!); if our customers were fine with us feeding them the soy-based commercial feeds that allow for maximum production. But all of these things are in reality significant factors impacting our egg production. There are others, as well – this is not a full accounting. You’d realistically have to cut this number, then, by about 2/3 to 3/4. So let’s say $240,000 per year gross as a generous estimate for producing a rare and vastly superior artisan product at our farm based on eggs at an artisan cost of $140 per dozen. Gross, not net, mind-you.
Don’t be ridiculous, you say, and I’d be inclined by the same cultural conditioning to agree. And I certainly don’t require this much money, and frankly wonder why anyone does. (Maybe to buy a Holland & Holland rifle? I’d endorse that!) I am not actually advocating for $140 per dozen eggs. Yet, to be fair, there are plenty of households within our sales region of Calgary – the wealthiest jurisdiction in Canada – who make this kind of money for what it is they do, and well beyond. For what, specifically? I don’t know what makes them so valuable to society, to their species, to their planet – it’s been a mystery to me my entire life. Or perhaps, rather, it’s that I don’t understand why, while we attach plenty of value to some things that are so obviously of real importance, we refuse to do it for others.
So how about if we were to sell our eggs not at an artisan average of 30 times that of the factory produced eggs, but rather at one/tenth the artisan value, or around $10.50 per dozen. Three times the value of grocery store eggs. That’s in the ballpark of $24,000 per year gross, based on our experiences. I crunched the numbers and reckoned on a profit margin of 40% if all goes well. That’s $9,600 per year as income from eggs at just three times the factory farm cost. No margin there.
But we don’t sell our eggs at three times the factory farm cost, we sell them for perhaps twice, maybe somewhat less, and I can imagine what would result if we tried to up this to three times the value, which would nonetheless still not be anywhere near enough to justify the work.
What we have attempted to do here is illustrate the impossibility of the entire small farm model as it stands today. For if you are going to embark on an artisanal enterprise without the remotest chance of being compensated as an artisan, as the economics of the situation demand, then you are doomed to fail. Guaranteed.
Thomas Wolfe wrote:
“You can’t go back home to your family… back home to lyricism, to singing just for singing’s sake, back home to aestheticism, to one’s youthful idea of ‘the artist’ and the all-sufficiency of ‘art’ and ‘beauty’ and ‘love,’… back home to places in the country… back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time…”
It has taken us the thick end of a decade here to learn just how right he was. And the economics of why. The knowledge has come at a significant toll. And it’s why we won’t be producing eggs (nor meat chickens, which are even more labor intensive with less favorable margins,) beyond the current farm season. As you can see, the market will not adequately bear the endeavor. (Here we are, going on about bears again.) Unfortunately for the customer, there is no equivalent food to the CZ rifle: mass-produced and of quality.
Stories like ours are beginning to emerge more commonly a decade and some into the supposed small farming boom. People are beginning to recognize the futility of it all, they are becoming fed-up. It is a pity though, isn’t it, what Thomas Wolfe pointed out, looking around us at the world as it stands today?
And not just for those of us losing our shirts, perhaps?