Making Tough Choices about Health, Happiness, and Chickens



Aging parents, avian flu, and some health issues complicate plans for the farm.

Life feels out of balance — a spiraling mess of expenses, literal messes, and problems begetting more problems. Despite every effort to re-center, I feel our dreams drifting to the margins. 

As the adage warns, be careful what you wish for. We wished for a thriving business, and we’re getting it. On a single day last month, I sent out 90 dozen eggs between our monthly subscription customers. And we’ve already been averaging about 45 dozen a week to our commercial accounts. This doesn’t account for the orders from new customers and the dozens of duck eggs we sell. The regular inflow of cash has been a relief, and it feels like we’re finally making it work.

I have two aging parents in a nursing home, for whom I have just been granted conservatorship and guardianship, and we’re working on settling their estate. My wife Lydia is my hero: she puts up with my rants about government overreach while working alongside me, working her own full-time job, and keeping house. Somehow, my baby boy just completed eighth grade, is driving on a school permit, and is now a high-school freshman. 

Right about the time our farm business “made it,” we began getting calls from the principal’s office and teachers about my son’s bad behavior in school, plus calls from my parents’ care facility to troubleshoot some of their behaviors while they adjust to their new lives. We pretty much told the school to pound sand. There were only a few weeks until summer break, and, after that, oddly, the problems evened out. I think every teacher was ready for a summer break, too. 

stacks of egg cartons in refrigerator
We wished for a thriving business, and we’re getting it. On a single day last month, I sent out 90 dozen eggs between our monthly subscription customers. – Photo by Joe Villines

My own chronic health conditions from my military service make daily life more difficult. The SAD, or Standard American Diet, won’t work for me anymore. Though I have lost almost all faith in Western medicine, as they seem closer to “sick care” than “health care,” I have finally been assigned a doctor at the VA Clinic who is unlikely to quit anytime soon. Since my primary care provider retired five years ago, it’s been a revolving door of new physicians — I see them, they quit, and another is assigned. It’s tough to get continuity of care.

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After months of emphasis on clean eating and supplements, I’m way better off than before. No more grains, no sugar, and smaller than condiment amounts of dairy. No more artificial sweeteners or inflammatory foods, either. There hasn’t been any alcohol in my life for years. Living the status quo causes pain, pain causes change, then change eases the pain. 

We’re growing more concerned about avian influenza by the day, and the Iowa Department of Land Stewardship or the United States Department of Agriculture could shut us down at any moment. I think that their testing methods are bogus and that we should let any sick animals attempt to recover so we have breeding stock resistant to the illness. But the best case scenario in the event of a positive H5N1 test is a generous buyout so we can recoup past expenses, cover future sales, and rebuild our business.

Feed prices have risen a little, fuel prices continue to be difficult, and our current egg carton supplier is asking for up to six months to manufacture and print custom egg cartons. Also, we have to accept around 25,000 cartons at a time, which is about four pallet loads, if I understood the sales representative, and a $25,000 investment in cartons. What’s more, the 15-case boxes that we need to deliver our wholesale orders have risen from about  $1 to $3 a box, which is hurting our bottom line. I’m glad one of our buyers saves them for us to pick up on our next delivery.

We ordered all of the seeds we needed for our flower and vegetable gardens last fall, but were unable to get them started due to the family emergency with my parents that I described in my last column. So we had to order pre-grown organic vegetable plants to be shipped to us the second and third week of May, effectively costing us twice what it would have cost for a single season. Since then, no real planting has been accomplished due to competing projects. We can’t afford to hire help, and attempts to find subcontractors to handle the broiler chickens and gardens haven’t borne fruit. It’s a catch-22: I’m not yet comfortable hiring employees because I don’t have confidence we’ll be able to make payroll, but I also don’t have confidence we can get all of the work done ourselves. 

Perhaps the worst sin is that we haven’t really reconciled our farm accounts all year. This means we’re spending more time working for and not on the business. Most days, we’re up by seven, make breakfast, consume coffee, get my son to school, and then we’re doing farm work. There’s no will left to do office work when I’m finally home for the night. Just trying to get this old body moving in the morning is a challenge. 

I have written about the difficulties we had in 2018 with the weather, the ending of leases in 2020 kicking us off our farm, and then finding the place we have now in 2022. I’m older and wiser, but mostly feeling older as we attempt to get this place set up for long-term success. Both Lydia and I are seeing real results from our “FarmFit” exercise program (the cute name we gave to our strenuous chore schedule), but two people can only get so much done.

Very recently, Lydia took a week off from her job to help us put a stamp on my parents’ estate, finish cleaning out their apartment, and sell their car. We were also supposed to somehow rearrange the farmhouse, plant two quarter-acre gardens, and get all of our daily feeding and watering chores done. One day, we even hired one of our good friends to help us finish up a fence around the garden. What we got out of all of this was exhaustion on a cellular level, like down to the mitochondria. Dead batteries and extremely sore muscles with no end in sight. 

Now, for the bright side and some very important decisions made:

  1. We have decided that we can not do it all. We may not be able to proficiently get some of the work done. We might have to settle for halfass.
  2. Dealing with my parents’ issues is an ongoing process. 
  3. Having three quarter-acre sized gardens with a mix of flowers and vegetables is not doable for just one full time worker (me) and one very gracious part-timer (Lydia). 
  4. My son cares more for school activities, friends, and sports than the farm. This was a hard one to grasp.
  5. Unless and until we find a suitable business partner or contractor to raise broiler chickens and vegetables, we’re just not going to do it on a commercial scale.

It took completely breaking down our bodies trying to get it all done to show us just how impossible this really is. I looked Lydia in the eyes and explained how I need to start enjoying this again, or we need to close the gate, lock the doors, and get rid of all these animals. We’re way closer to 50 than we are to our 20s, and it’s really showing. Of course, we’re also much smarter than we were at 20 and have much more determination to keep moving forward. 

Our chicken and duck egg orders continue to grow every week, and we’re incubating eggs to grow our laying flock. It’s a six-month wait from incubator to the first egg, and we enjoy new babies. We’re actively searching for a partner, renter, or subcontractor to begin taking over some of the operations on the farm that we don’t have the time and energy to pursue. The operator needs to complement our farm and be someone we would consider a friend. Maybe we’re looking for the impossible, but maybe it’ll come together. 

Between crafting a succession plan and paring down activities to match what we’re able to enjoy, we’re spending a lot of time planting trees and setting this property up to be a beautiful place to retire. Everything else will fall into line as it usually does.

We put a lot of wood chips on our farm to form pathways and water retaining berms around our paddocks. Not only does this stop and slow down water long enough to soak in, it improves the soil underneath and gives the birds a place to forage for bugs and sprouts.
– Video by Joe Villines

In the tree stump of a 100-year-old elm tree, two of our hens have dug a bunker to dust bathe in the soil and ashes. In a few more weeks, they’ll probably be below the crown of the old tree which will make removing the stump a lot easier.
– Video by Joe Villines

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Joe Villines
Joe Villines
Joe Villines is a father, husband, US Army veteran and co-owner of Halfacre Farms at Armadillo Acres with his partner Lydia in Indianola, IA. He attended college for commercial horticulture to further a lifelong interest in growing food. Villines was a photojournalist and broadcaster in the Army Reserve where he served tours in Bosnia, Iraq, Kuwait and other assignments all over the world. Exposure to world strife and world agriculture informed his resolve to raising animals and crops using holistic methods for sale locally.
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