Hate the budget? Time to get some chickens

The recent provincial budget reaches deep into the pockets of every citizen of our province. One way to combat ‘the age of austerity’ is to take steps towards self-sufficiency, just like our grandparents did when times were tough.

Across the political spectrum, most Newfoundlanders and Labradorians seem to be able to agree on one thing: our recent provincial budget is a real stinker. It guts government services such as healthcare, education, libraries, and even goes as far as to impose a Feudal-era ‘head tax’ on every resident of the province. This regressive taxation scheme disproportionately affects the working class, the poor, and the elderly. To combat this, many people are turning out in large numbers to protest the government. While protesting and pressuring the government will likely lead to a few concessions, the reality is that many of us will need to learn how to do more, with less, in order to try to preserve our standard of living, or manage to stay afloat.

The deck is stacked against us all. In addition to these painful cuts and heavy new taxes, we are also facing double-digit inflation for much of our food, public sector workers and many in the private sector face wage freezes, and due to Nalcor’s blundering, we are facing 50 percent increases to our power bills by the year 2020 (but enjoy your $1.3 million severance package, Ed Martin). This upward pressure on expenses, combined with stagnant or even downward pressure on wages after inflation, creates a recipe for what may amount to the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. 

Estimates show that the average household in our province will see their tax burden increase by over $2,000 per year due to the increases in our 2016 budget. Since 51 percent of us live paycheck to paycheck, where will this $2,000 come from? Many of our fixed expenses, such as rent or mortgage payments, utility bills, debt payments, child care expenses, and car expenses are more or less non-negotiable. So, for many of us, the extra taxes will come out of a budget line with a little more flexibility: our food budget. Newfoundland and Labrador households spend an average of $8,109 on food per year, and this is the ‘kitty’ that will get raided to pay for our tax-hike austerity budget. 

Strawberries priced at $15 a pound, more expensive than prime rib. Photo by Lisa McBride.
Strawberries priced at $15 a pound, more expensive than prime rib. Photo by Lisa McBride.

It’s no secret that our cheaper foods are highly processed and very unhealthy, while whole fruits and vegetables cost a small fortune. We all remember the absurdity of $7-a-head cauliflower and celery and $33 per kilogram strawberries at local grocery stores earlier this year. When we look to cut that $2,000 out of our budgets, one of the first victims will be our ability to choose healthy food to feed ourselves and our families. Considering the long-term implications of unhealthy processed foods on our health, and the long-term effects on our healthcare spending due to health-related issues from folks who can’t afford to eat healthfully, we’re left with a situation that is totally untenable. 

It’s poultry time

The City of St John’s famously allows for backyard animals. A very progressive set of animal control laws set out in bylaw #1514 make the basis of any animal complaint about its validity, rather than the species of domesticated animal being kept. Many other small towns do likewise. Even towns like Conception Bay South, which gained some degree of notoriety after threatening to arrest a resident for keeping a single chicken, has recently said their restrictions on backyard animals are being reviewed and updated to allow for small-scale, food producing pets.

Now, more than any other point in time in the post-war era, is the time to consider getting backyard poultry. In addition to providing fresh eggs and endless entertainment, your backyard flock provides pest control, and they’ll eat your left over food scraps and garden trimmings. Keeping four hens or ducks will also provide you with another valuable resource for your garden: 16 cubic feet of compost, and six pounds of manure, every year. 

Keeping a small flock and growing a backyard garden work fabulously together, creating efficiencies that allow each side to flourish and produce more food, for cheaper. The flock provides pest control and manure, allowing for larger garden yields and saving money on purchasing topsoil, while a portion of the garden yield goes to feed the flock, cutting the monthly cost of chicken or duck feed and lowering the ‘per egg’ cost of your flock. 

If you have the space to allow your flock to roam around a little bit, the cost goes down further, as your birds are industrious little critters who will find much of their own food. Taking less trips to the grocery store, through providing eggs, fruit and vegetables yourself, offers other, hidden bonuses: less time spent shopping, less gas money or transit time spent getting groceries, and fewer opportunities to be taken in by the ‘impulse buying’ our grocery and retail stores design their store layouts around. 

If you’re deciding to get some backyard birds, the biggest decision you’ll make is choosing your birds. Ducks, or chickens? They’ll both lay eggs just the same. Chickens lay more often, but duck eggs are typically twice the size, meaning you need less of them to make a good omelet. Many ducks and chickens lay beautiful, varied eggs, not just the white and brown eggs we’re used to seeing in the grocery stores! Our gorgeous Cayuga ducks, whose entire bodies shimmer with the same green as a mallard ducks’ head, lay eggs that are nearly black. Eggs can be green, blue, speckled, and so on. Many flock keepers have a variety of birds, leading to a carton of eggs that looks more like a box of chocolates, each one different! 

Ebony, the Cayuga duck. Photo by Lisa McBride.
Ebony, the Cayuga duck. Photo by Lisa McBride.

We chose ducks over chickens primarily because of the rainy, damp climate we experience throughout much of the year in our province. ‘Good weather for a duck’ is a euphemistic phrase to describe awful, rainy weather – but it’s true! Our ducks paddle around happily on rainy, gross old days when those who can, prefer to stay indoors. Ducks even love fresh, fluffy snow. After a large snowfall, they dive right into snowbanks, disappearing briefly, only to burst out a moment later, flapping their wings and quacking. 

Lacking pond water over the wintertime, this is how they bathe! Ducks also have a thick layer of belly fat, allowing them to stay warm throughout the winter, with no supplemental heating. A duck egg has a yolk that is much larger, by weight, than a chicken egg, so they are particularly good breakfast eggs. For those of you who have never tried a duck egg before, think of a chicken egg, but with a firmer white, a larger yolk, and a much thicker shell. Many people will choose to keep chickens, since that is what they are familiar with and used to eating, but either way you go about it you get delicious backyard eggs that taste better than anything you can buy from the grocery store. 

Keeping a small, backyard flock is simple; we jumped in with no practical experience and found it to be easier, cheaper, and less time-consuming than keeping a dog. A small flock of three to six birds can happily live in a 4×4 or 6×6 space, something you can easily assemble in a weekend with some lumber and some very basic building skills. Most backyard birds can’t actually fly, but only get a few feet off the ground, so a simple fence will keep your flock from wandering. Occasional gifts of eggs to the neighbours will ensure good will. Half the neighbourhood in our old haunt on Southside Road would save up their food scraps throughout the week, bringing them over to feed to our ducks. In addition to fresh eggs, our ducks also became a neighborhood focal point, building a greater sense of community among the residents. 

One thing I didn’t anticipate about growing our own food, and collecting eggs and milk from our backyard animals, was that the savings went a lot further than cutting out what we paid for those items when we bought them at the store. We eat more eggs than ever, now, which helps cut back on other foods at the grocery store, such as meat, bread, or potatoes. The abundant supply of fresh eggs also incentivizes baking at home more often, which is a wonderful habit to acquire, improving the quality of your food supply while also lowering your monthly costs. 

The sky is the limit for finding uses for backyard eggs. Home-made ice cream, Dutch-style breakfast pannekoeken, meringues, Hollandaise sauce, home-made mayonnaise and salad dressings, as well as your usual uses for eggs, will all ensure your bounty will never go to waste. Delicious challah bread, a Jewish tradition, uses up to eight eggs, literally the ‘manna of heaven’. 

So, while the optimist in me hopes the ongoing pressure against the government will yield the results we all need to survive and thrive the next few years, the pessimist in me will continue to develop our food security and our self-reliance, to ensure that when the going gets tough, we are at least able to effectively and healthfully feed ourselves.

Come join our thriving community of backyard gardeners and aspiring homesteaders, Backyard Farming & Homesteading NL, to connect with other Newfoundlanders and Labradorians about solutions to food security issues. See you there!

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