Catching Up With Ruth From New Harmony Farm
Catching up With Ruth From New Harmony Farms.
It was such a pleasure to drive deep into Magaliesberg yesterday and catch up with Ruth at New Harmony Farm after a year since being there.
There have indeed been some changes, which I wanted to share, some insights and my thoughts on leaving yesterday.
Ruth had stopped doing broilers for meat chickens and had only been focusing on eggs, which we’ve continuously stocked. Part of the new changes is being able to supply us shortly with whole chickens from the farm as well. She has built 4 new hen house areas, named rosemary, sage, thyme and parsley.
They have consistently been great eggs and after re-remembering how deep into the country this farm is, I wandered as I approached the farm yesterday if just the location alone, before we get into the way they are reared and loved, has something to do with it. Ruth’s little farm is set deep in a country setting in the Magaliesberg and exudes peace.
That’s before you get onto the farm and are offered her characteristic pan-fried scones with coffee & homemade jam. As you sit on her front deck overlooking scenes of green and tranquility contemplating life you feel your breath slow down without you. As I sat down with her and her son Lyle on that patio, remembering the last time I was in exactly the same place, I remembered the ‘exhale’ that just spontaneously leaves you as you sit down on her pretty porch set amidst her expression of love and life, which is her farm and her love of animals.
I get struck over and over again, every time I am in the company of a good farmer, of how their gift is about their inherent connection to the earth and the cycle of life. They are ‘connected’ people, earthed people who spend every day of their lives, connected to nature, to the weather, to the care of their land, soil, animals, and water. They don’t have that disconnect that we suffer from in urban existences and that’s a large part of their gift to us, why we need to support and embrace them.
Like all of The Jozi Real Food Revolution Farms, even more particularly so, New Harmony is a small family run farm. When we speak of New Harmony, it is undoubtedly the smallest and most family involved and I was deep in thought when I left when we had a tough conversation about how to get the price right, that we have to indeed pay more for a small family run farm and for the extra care and attention that goes into that farming. A small family-run farm does not have the economies of scale that allows them to compete price wise with larger farms with a greater output.
Not only is this farm fairly far from market, nestled deep in the country which I believe has much to do with why these eggs are continuously so highly rated but the higher price we need to pay to keep Ruth farming the way she does includes the fact that you have a farmer that literally has been known to sleep with her chickens if she is worried about them at night. It’s as much about the fact that Ruth spends all day with them, grows their feed herself, feeds them herself, supervises their day and checks on them all through-out the day. It is a striking feature at New Harmony that Ruth doesn’t employ any labor. It’s her and her son Lyle managing everything themselves.
This kind of dedication and attention limits the amount of chickens she can take care of, added to the her distance from the city, her pricing can never compete with larger farms doing volumes and we don’t want it to.
I left very deep in thought about this yesterday after really getting into the nitty- gritty of what is required to keep this little farm sustainable, how she best needs to make the best of her space and get a market for the eggs and chickens that is enough to keep going. If she increases the numbers of chickens, she will lose the personal attention to the chickens that she has now which she isn’t prepared to do and we don’t want her to. If she maintains her current levels then we need to pay a price that is right to keep the farmer in business.
So we will have whole chickens from New Harmony in next week alongside her eggs. Where these will differ from The Free Range Food company whole chickens is that they will be smaller. The 3kg chickens aren’t for everybody so for couples or those looking for a smaller chicken, these will be great as the average size will be around 1.5kg’s.
Ruth’s chickens have beautiful hen houses made for them with adjoining large gardens where they wander in and out of through-out the day. Their diet is a mixture of what she grows for them in the form of greens which is typically spinach and barley, they get all sorts of veggies from the farm as well as a feed mix made up for them of maize, non-GM soy, lucerne and barley. She has a guy who makes up the feed for her according to her instruction that does not contain any antibiotics or growth promoters.
We have been talking to Ruth about getting the maize out of the feed so that it can be a 100% non-GM diet and she’s currently working on it with the man who makes up her feed mix but it’s going to take some time. They aren’t able to source sorghum to replace the maize yet that doesn’t cost more with the transport costs and their location. We are exploring all options and on the hunt for a good whey or sorghum to use that they can use to replace the maize. So this is not a non-GM range yet, but I’m confidant that we’ll find a solution, Ruth being the resourceful and determined farmer she is.
So the chickens diet comprises what they are foraging off the grass, which includes weeds, earthworms, insects and grass and the added spinach and barley. In addition to that they have feed outside that they can help themselves to which is the maize mix.
Apparently early morning and evening is their best time for insect catching Ruth tells me, as the sun sets they go for moths and crickets especially.
Ruth has to section off patches of grass for them with fencing so that the grass can rejuvenate, they demolish one section while another re-grows and then she moves them again and they literally demolish any green patch they’re on pecking at grass, weeds and worms all through-out the day.
She tells me that generally they all choose to wonder inside the barn at mid-day when it gets hot, it’s their napping time.
What I found interesting watching them is to see what they choose to eat. They have the freedom to forage off the land or go to the feed bowls which are all outside and I saw a mixture of behavior, some were choosing to pluck on the grass, some where eating from the spinach, others were eating out the feed bowls, many were just napping not bothered about eating which is such a great sign. Each camp has a hen house with roosting perches and laying barns that they can freely choose to sit in if they are laying.
There’s an open flap and watching chickens freely wandering in and out, some choosing to be outside dust bathing, some pecking on grass, some sleeping, some wandering inside to lay, others choosing the a-frame shade cloths to lie under outside, I felt like I was at some kind of chicken country hotel.
What was also interesting to see was what happened when the sky suddenly clouded over, a wind picked up and thunder rolled, the chickens all of their own accord started wandering in from the outside to the barn.
The barns are lined with sunflower husk flooring which is the most hygienic chicken flooring. They have water and feed inside and roosting perches.
Ruth is most decidedly their mother. Their connection is very firmly with her; I noticed how they all started crooning and making that super cute sort of chicken purry-gobble every time she walked past.
Trust me when I say that these chickens are super relaxed. So much so that when the dogs race into the hen house and gardens, they aren’t remotely concerned, I didn’t see so much as a ruffled feather.
Like every farm though they have their difficulties and particular context. Jackals, a ruthless honey badger that hunts the chickens and that they are all frightened of as well as stock theft that they have to protect against.
It’s going to take a bit more time for us to find another protein source that will mean Ruth can get the maize out of their feed. They are also looking at the alternative of bringing in certified non-GM maize like the soy, the difficulty the feed mix man has is that he has to buy 35 tons of it at a time and that means investing in storage and a large risk.
For now though, I’m both impressed and content with the environment that these chickens are given to exercise their natural behavior, the effort and thought that has gone into giving them the freedom to move, to decide whether they want to be indoors or outdoors, the greens outside that encourage them to be outdoors, the care and love Ruth puts into these chickens.
New Harmony Farm is a very special small family run farm for pastured chickens raised in a country setting that I am happy to support.
If you are in the Magaliesberg area Ruth says that you are ALWAYS welcome to pop in, come and see the farm and buy eggs from her if you are out there, somebody is always at home, the gate is open and you are welcome she says to come in and when you are there you can buy directly from her too. So think about making a Sunday morning of it, you could drive out and have lunch at Die Ou Pastorie which isn’t too far from her, meet her and buy your eggs.