Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Small Farming and the Holland & Holland Rifle: Lessons for Aspiring (and Expiring) Farmers from the Maker of the World’s Finest Sporting Arms

Holland & Holland .375 Magnum rifle.

Holland & Holland .375 Magnum rifle.

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?

Herman Nelson

Herman Nelson


Jonathan Wright





My late Uncle Cletus, second-eldest in a family of thirteen, explained the family-planning in those days:


“What’s that?” said Mom.

“I’ll set a trap,” said Dad.

“No… that…”

“Good Lord.”

“Another one.”


“Better go kill a chicken.  It will soon be hungry.”

“I’ll kill a quail.  The others grew so fast.”

“Maybe this one will be small.”

“Yes – start right. Control its diet.”

“It can be a Stenographer.”

“It seems small.”

“It’s still a baby.”

“Get it out from under the table.”

“We should find it some clothes – it leaves little to the imagination.”

“It’s a quiet one, though.”

“It doesn’t want to attract the others.”

“Good survival instinct.”

“And introspective.”

“What sex is it?”

“Give it time.”

“How soon can we put it to work?”

“Soon – simple tasks.”

“It’s rather hairy.”

“That’s a good name.”

“It has a lot of hair.”

“It’s a December child…”


The thing is, Andrea and I didn’t have thirteen children, but we did have something small, hairy, and unexpected arrive this December.


Mable is our sole remaining milk cow.  This is after selling her mother, Mary.  It seems like a terrible thing, to sell someone’s mother, but Mable doesn’t seem to care.  Her mother was a full-blood Jersey, a breed prone to milk-fever, so we crossed her to a Milking Shorthorn sire, a breed not known for milk-fever.  This made sense, to us.  Mable has the red-and-white colouration of the dad, overlaid with a nice brindling.


Now, here’s the thing about yaks: you can cross a yak with a cow, but the resulting bulls are sterile.  The cows remain fertile.  Prevailing wisdom surrounding yaks says that if you wish to accomplish such a breeding, you must separate the yak bull together with the cow you wish to breed.  He is something of an elitist, you see, and will only breed a cow when the pickings get – or are rendered – slim.


Mable was not separated from our small yak herd and we didn’t worry.  We thought one day we might separate her with Clint, our yak bull, when the time seemed right.  Anyway, she started bagging-up in early December, but not much, so we didn’t think much of it.  “She’s becoming a woman,” that sort of thing.  Nothing else to cause alarm seemed to be occurring.


It got cold, so we put her in the old milking barn, the one built by Arnie Arnesson way back when and that we put a new metal roof on because it was on its last legs, although it should stand now for a long time.  Log barns, so the prevailing wisdom goes, don’t fall over, they just get more squat over time, like the folks that build them; and all the other folks, too.  We hope the prevailing wisdom surrounding log barns has more substance behind it than the prevailing wisdom surrounding yaks.  You see, it had only been a few days that Mable was snug in her barn when I went in and thought,


“Who let that mongrel in here with the cow?”


But I was wrong.  Mable had given birth.  A little calf was there, small, hairy, red-and-white like the mom, and already frolicking about, his name: Herman Nelson.  Half-yak, one-quarter Jersey, one-quarter Milking Shorthorn.  Not only did we have a new calf, we had learned something more about Clint, our yak bull, Herman’s dad.  Something that we hadn’t thought about before, something that would not have occurred to us: he was not much of a reader.  And this is the thing about yaks, the other thing.  Their calves are small, like a sewing machine.  They make no more difference to the mother’s girlish shape than a couple of beers make to the shape of a long-haul trucker.  The result being that they tend to simply appear, if you are not watching closely.  If you do watch closely, they appear anyway.


Just like our ancestors did.



We Stand on Guard for Thee


Andrea is working in the farmyard, close to the gate that opens out to pasture.  Some of the big grazers are coming down the corridor to the central paddock for water.  There, approaching amongst them, she becomes aware of  something small and incongruous.  It is the fox that has been plaguing us, beautiful and relentless little killer.  It is there using the large animals as a screen to approach the field-chickens unnoticed, or so it hopes.

But it doesn’t work.  Just as she’s about to shout at the interloper, a streak of wolf-large whooly fur rockets out from behind her, followed by another and yet another  These are our protectors, our livestock guardian dogs.  They are almost on the fox before it realizes the very real peril it is in and bolts.  By now our two other farm dogs have joined the chase.  The fox won’t be getting a free lunch from us, not today.  Still, it is very lucky not to have been shredded.


Ranger and some egg birds.

The working group “livestock guardian dogs” is composed of a number of breeds, including but not limited to: Great Pyrenees; Maremma; Akbash; Komondor; Ovcharka.  The origin of these dogs is lost in antiquity, but it seems they share a common ancestor that originated perhaps in Asia.  They are designed for a pastoral style of livestock husbandry, that is, one that relies on free ranging stock out on open pasture.  They are raised from pups right alongside those animals they are meant to guard, and long instinct borne out of careful selection over millennia instructs them that their job is to watch over this “family” and all it contains, and to guard it with their life.  (In our case, we raised our pups alongside our chickens.  The yaks and the draft horses don’t need protecting.)  They tend to be large dogs, capable of standing a chance against a wolf or bear if necessary.  Custom sometimes suggests the dogs should receive a minimum of human contact in order for them to bond with their animal charges, but this hardly seems to be the case,  Ours are extremely bonded to us yet do an exemplary job guarding, and at only slightly over a year old, they will only get better – it takes these dogs up to three years to fully mature.  At any rate, we cannot imagine the loss that would be ours should we not have their friendship as we do – they are delightful creatures, full of character and personality.  Furthermore, any dog this large, and programmed for savagery as the situation requires, certainly needs socialization with humans.  Unless you are Ghenghis Khan, an individual infamous for harnessing his anger to produce a desired outcome.  Then again, while some people who come on your place will certainly deserve to be bit on the ass by a large carnivore, Mr. Khan did not live in such a litigious age as we do today.


Komondorok are serious dogs. Here’s one convincing a coyote.

Amongst the breeds that compose this group of dogs are those famous for wandering large distances.  I once had a friend who raised Pyrenees on his farm, for instance, this being one of the roaming breeds.  When I drove over the prairie to visit him in winter, it was not uncommon to begin encountering the tracks of his dogs in the snow many miles out on the plains before I reached his farm.  Two of his pups were our first livestock dogs, in fact.  We couldn’t keep them on the place, nor to be honest,  anywhere near it.  I suppose we got them a little old to bond properly with the stock.  Whatever the case, and while I personally found their free-spiritedness both fascinating and endearing, the dogs were effectively useless to us when they were five miles away and the coyote five feet from the fence.  We reluctantly returned them.

Our livestock dogs that are on the place now – the brothers Sounder, Ranger and Hunter – are a trio we rescued as young pups.  Their mother is a Komondor, a huge and intriguing breed that is more aggressive yet less prone to wander, their dad one of my friend’s old Pyrenees.  Since spring has come on and the chickens are out ranging well afield, these new dogs have become pretty much the homebodies, tied to their job.  But there was a time last winter when i was off deer hunting in the big woods that abuts our place, several miles deep into the sylvan fastness, and came upon tracks on a steep and trackless slope that i first took to be those of a pair of very large mountain lions.  Wolf-sized prints.  (There are lions here that leave such large tracks.)  Then I detected claw-marks, which the lion of course, having retractable ones, does not leave.  The prints were too round and catlike, however, to be those of wolves, found here as well.  Then it suddenly dawned on me why these prints were looking so familiar as I continued to examine them.  They were the tracks of my own pack!  I was happy knowing they were out engaging the wilds as I was. 


Sounder at his post near the eggmobile, guarding the free-range egg layers.

Our dogs are interesting to us on many levels, not the least of which includes how their physical appearance lends insights into the ancient ties between the livestock guardian breeds.  For while both their parents were entirely white, two of the brothers are predominantly grey.  A person might well wonder why this is so, yet in learning more about this guild of canines, will discover that other guardian breeds known from geographic regions abutting those from whence the “Komondorok” (plural for Komondor) and Pyrenees sprang indeed commonly have markings, hues and patterns not unlike those of our crosses.  Breeds like the Pyrenean Mastiff, and the South Russian Ovcharka.  The long buried lineages emerging readily from the ether of long ago with a little genetic coaxing.


Komondor x Pyrenees pups, newly arrived. Sounder, Ranger and Hunter.

It is normal these days when new laws are passed out in the country for them to represent some level of inhibiting nuisance to those rural folk living traditional rural lives.  So it was with relief and hope that we reviewed new ordinances in our home county of Mountainview.

In Mountainview County, it is now writ in law that a barking livestock protection dog is not to be considered grounds for nuisance complaints.  Nor is a livestock protection dog that is roaming off-property in the pursuit of its duties to be considered a “dog-at-large.”  Rather, these dogs are now being protected as the vitally contributing rural citizens that they are, essential elements of a productive rural fabric.

Now that’s the kind of “progress” we need to see more of.  Laws that actually favor, rather than hamstring, traditional farm economies. 


A Most Elegant System

Image “All flesh is grass,” says the Book of Isaiah, and so on our farm, that’s where it begins – with the grass.  The production of our free-range eggs and meat chickens is a good example of the genesis of this adage.

To produce the best chicken and eggs possible, we must raise the birds on pasture, and so rather than focusing primarily on the chickens, we must practice farm management principles that are best for the health of this pasture first.

Grass is designed with grazers in mind.  Grazers in nature run in tight herds and move around a lot.  The stay tight as defense against predators, and they move around so that the grass beneath their feet is always fresh.  Any given blade of grass is nipped off once and left alone as the grazer moves on.  The root of the grass dies back according to the amount grazed off above the surface, and the dead root elements decompose into topsoil.  The blade of the grass then has a growth surge in response to being nipped, and the roots do too.  Nip it more than once in too short a span of time, however, and you stunt the blade and the root, both.  Hence the old adage, “Keep down the shoot, kill the root.”

The first step then in raising the best chicken and eggs, is to have a herd of large grazers to keep the pasture healthy and prepare it for the chickens.  On our farm, this herd is composed of draft horses, yaks and dairy cows.  In order to mimic the patterns of natural grazing just described, we move them daily to fresh pasture, enclosed tightly in a temporary paddock delineated by solar-powered electric wire and just large enough to completely graze in one day, no larger.  They’re on there, they hit it hard, and they’re gone, leaving the grass alone to respond naturally.  They aren’t brought back to the same spot until the grass is ready.  Your grass tells you when and where to graze the animals, in other words.  This system is called “mob grazing.”  It is not only a key to healthy pasture, it is a potent tool in combating climate-change, for while over-grazed pastures which are the norm today lead to desertification and absorb little carbon-dioxide, and ungrazed pastures emit carbon dioxide from their thick decomposing thatch of dead, unused grass, mob-grazed pastures maintain optimum growth and absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide.

This method on its own, done correctly and with attention to detail, would result in very good pasture at about four times the volume a conventionally grazed pasture provides, but now we incorporate the chickens to add diversity to the system, for resilience is contingent on diversity.  Our meat and egg birds are rotated onto the paddocks the big grazers have prepared as the grass is coming back, for the chickens don’t like the grass too long.  The meat birds are kept in large, movable pens to protect them from predators and the elements, and the more agile egg birds range out from fixed-coops and a mobile “eggmobile,” protected by big, shaggy dogs whose working lineages are lost in antiquity.  They nibble the grass without having the impact of the herd animals, and they eat the insects and take in all the nutritional elements of a healthy sward.  They add their droppings to the grounds, an incredible injection of soil health-inducing nitrogen that the grass would not be able to incorporate were it not for the fact that it were being mob-grazed and kept in a hyper-productive state.  The chickens in turn take in many healthy antibodies and of course receive plenty of ultra-violet from the sun.  This way, we circumvent the need in today’s large and vulnerable meat birds for the constant infusions of antibiotics required to keep them alive in the crowded, stressed battery barns they were genetically designed for, and where the chicken you’re used to eating comes from.  And the eggs you get our way have been shown to be six times more nutritious than conventionally raised.  And so as a by-product of keeping our pasture in the best shape it can possibly be in, we get the finest chicken and eggs possible.  We also build topsoil, maintain healthy herds, feed draft-animals that provide us with the sustainable power that machines cannot, at the same time as combating climate change.

It’s a most elegant system.  Enjoy your chicken!

The Hungry Gap is Over

In traditional farming, there comes a time of year in the early spring when one must lock their animals away in a paddock.  This happens when the grass begins to green-up, and the purpose in doing this is to let the pasture get a good start before beginning the season’s rotation of the grazers.  The paddock they are kept in for this period, usually lasting a month and a half or two, is called a “sacrifice area,” as it is sorely used by the animals and nothing much remains but dirt.  But it is worth this sacrifice for what it does for the rest of your farm.  The period the animals are kept off the fields is traditionally called, “The Hungry Gap,” for the animals are hungry for grass during this gap in their freedom, and like their wild counterparts, in their lowest condition of the year.  In addition, the horses have already been working the ground, and the mares may have been carrying babies to near-full term.  Gwyneth worked right up to the day before giving birth this time around.  This is something working horses have long been doing, and it is actually good for producing uncomplicated births to work the mothers close to the day of arrival.

Gwyneth and new filly enjoy their first day together on pasture

Gwyneth and new filly enjoy their first day together on pasture, ending the Hungry Gap for 2013.

This year, the hungry gap ended for us on May 21st.  (A couple of days before this was when Gwyneth gave birth.  Our first baby Clydesdale of the season, a lovely young filly.)  The animals, some thin and even a bit bony from a too-long, if fairly flaccid winter, were eager as always to get out on the grass.

Every day or at most two, our herd is moved from one small pasture to the next, given only enough area to graze off completely in that brief period. The patch is not then grazed again until the grass has come back fully. This is called “Mob Grazing,” and is the most efficient way to maximize the health of your pasture and the volume of grass, especially when it is a mixed herd doing the grazing, as different grazers eat the grass in a different fashion. Horses crop it down close and prefer shorter grass, for instance, while yaks and cows use their big tongue to encircle a swath of the tall stuff and pull it into their mouth.

Our first paddock, the one we traditionally break the gap with, is a mixed aspen-balsam-spruce savannah, a small patch of considerably less than an acre. The animals love it in there, it is cool and lush, and they sure are a pleasure to behold in this setting. Soon their condition will be noticeably improved, and in no time they will be back in prime shape.

Mixed herd.

Mixed herd.

Our New Farmer Site

is an offshoot of Thompson Small Farm.  It is our educational wing.  We will be putting muc hof our energies into this project for 2012.  We will not be operating a CSA this year but will be selling our eggs and fresh produce at the Sunnyside Farmers Market.

Check out the new site for Jon’s latest blogs!



Andrea & Jon

Okay, I think we’ve figured this out!

I think we’ve figured this out now to make it usable for those who stumble accross this blog.

I started out posting all of our past newsletter in what I believe is now the wrong section so I have done some reorganizing and will get the archived newsletters onto the new newsletter tab and keep this section for actual news from the farm.

Keep checking as we’ll be attempting to post and update at least bi-weekly.

Thanks for your interest.

Andrea & Jon


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.