On mini-chickens, and mentoring.
If you have never been to a small-poultry auction, then you probably don’t know what “accidental Bantams” are. Alternatively, if you happen to be the type who frequents livestock auctions, and have any competence at all when it comes to raising animals for food, then you wouldn’t know what “accidental Bantams” are, either. Because the experienced farmer would not ever find him or herself buying a Bantam breed, accidentally or not.
Bantam chickens are breeds that have been bred for the smallness of their size. Presumably, breeders have selected the smallest chickens of each brood over time, and then bred them with other small hens or roos. Eventually what you end up with is a mini-chicken. And gosh, are they ever adorable! They’re only little. And so bitty! Our accidental Bantams are bitty and round! Like cute spheres on sticks. They are rotund! Rotund-o!!!! Rotund-o and entirely useless! Ahem. What I mean to say is that I don’t think they have much purpose on a serious farm or homestead. They’re too small to bother much with eating, and the hens lay such bitty, bitty, adorable–er, tiny–eggs.
So that’s how Bantams have come about: by intentional breeding for size, cuteness, and poultry shows. Accidental Bantams come out of an entirely different set of circumstances. A person finds herself with accidental Bantams when she is new to the whole poultry-raising business, attends a poultry auction because a lot of people with more experience say she should, sits with her partner through three cacophonous hours of auctioneer-babble intermingled with that of hens, chicks, roosters, geese, ducks, doves, rabbits, and a few dozen human children, not to mention adults, and then bids on what she thinks is something called a Black Wyandotte, wins the bidding war at $17 for the pair, and finally arrives at home only to hear her partner point out that, hey, these new chickens have all the marks of being quite old, even if they are only the size of 12-week olds….
My partner and I now have two adorable, in-all-likelihood elderly Black Wyandotte Bantams running around in our barn. They’re so little that when they cluck, it sounds like beeping. And you should see their tiny little poops.
My point in all of this? Well, of course, you can’t learn without making mistakes. But more importantly, this little episode in accidental useless poultry-keeping has helped clarify what makes an effective mentor.
An effective mentor does not trade in “shoulds” and “should nots,” which is to say that they do not advise so much as they offer their knowledge, expertise, and opinions, but in a balanced, non-judgmental way. An effective mentor is one who keeps in mind that her job is not to help her students avoid the same mistakes she has made, but to make sure that any mistakes they do encounter become just that: a part of learning. Mentors share their knowledge and experience, thank god. They can help students avoid painful and costly mistakes. But it is important that they do so in such a way as to encourage their students to evaluate and weigh that expertise & advice with everything else they bring to the table–their own education, knowledge and background.
It’s been only a week since the Fur ‘n’ Feather auction, and I’ve already gotten over my bidder’s remorse. I am happy to have two cute chickens running around amongst the comparatively King-Kong sized ISA browns. I have learned, however, that I need to listen to myself a bit better when surrounded by confident voices offering strong advice. My partner and I have heard over and over again the importance of meeting others in the farming community, and getting involved in local agricultural events. We now realize that yes, while this is true, the venues through which we want to do this, and the ways in which we want to participate in this local community might be different for us, as part of a new generation of farmers & homesteaders who often engage with one another online, and who are invested in different methods of agriculture–especially permaculture & sustainability.*
This weekend my partner will be visiting the farm of a man who has kindly acted as a wonderful mentor for us in all things permaculture and farming. I’m curious to hear about his reaction to our “accidental” Bantams. Right now I can’t help but smile as I imagine him throwing his head back in good-hearted laughter at our mistake. Perhaps he’ll share in kind a story of one of his early blunders in the world of farming, and what he learned from it.
And I can’t help but think, too, of all the incredible mentors I’ve worked with here at McMaster: the members of my supervisory committee, my TA supervisors, and even other TAs. Thank you muchly.
*If you live in the Hamilton area, and are interested in connecting with some local farmers & producers invested in sustainability and/or permaculture practices, you might consider visiting or buying from these wonderful folk:
Featherstone Farm: Michelle & Andrew MacDonald raise heritage-breed poultry and pigs, as well as dairy & meat goats, and a single cow on Guelph Line in Burlington. They attempt to raise all of their livestock ethically, on pasture with fresh green grass when possible, and with GMO-free feed. Depending on the season, they can offer, eggs, pork, goat, chicken, duck, chemical free veggies (many intriguing heirloom varieties), homemade local goat milk soap (99% local ingredients), and some other fun creations as well.
ManoRun Organic Farm: ManoRun is at the border of Ancaster and Dundas in Copetown. ManoRun provides 150 families with Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares, and also sells produce at the Dundas and Locke St. Farmer’s Markets.
Old 99 Farm: Located on Old Highway 99 just outside of Dundas, Old 99 Farm is run by Ian Graham, who is also a permaculture practitioner. He updates his website regularly to let locals know what is fresh and available for sale on site, from steaks to eggs to mizuna greens and much more. For an interesting discussion of permaculture in general and Ian’s farm in particular, check out this post on treehugger.com: “Permaculture on a Canadian Farm.”
The Boar & Chick Veenstra Family Farm: Located in Flamborough, The Boar & Chick specialize in pasture-fed pork, and work to raise their livestock according to slower “traditional,” ethically-oriented methods rather than the speed- and efficiency-oriented techniques of industrial pig farmers. You can visit their “Pork Shoppe,” or even tour the farm.