What does it take to be a "real farmer"?

A photo of the feet and lower body of a juvenile turkey against a background of a concrete floor and scattered straw

Aileen Hymas

The turkeys were dead, and I took that personally.

I scooped their cotton-ball bodies off the wood shavings and planted them in the compost bin. It wasn’t much of a grave, but it softened the guilt, as if all the proteins and minerals harbored by their short lives would filter back into the soil like an ecological “Thanks for trying!”

I peered over the edge of the metal trough into my turkey creche, furnished with a glossy metal feeder and waterer that cost an extra $6.99 each. An incubator light swathed the whole scene in cozy red, like a poultry spa.

The remaining young turkeys scuttled to the far corner, scattering shavings under their scaly feet. Resentment seemed to lurk in their beady blinks and the quick rise and fall of their tufted chests. Prey animals don’t show signs of sickness until the very cusp of death.

I checked the water for the hundredth time. Still clean. The ringlets of bedding smelled freshly changed. Organic poultry crumble brimmed from its container. Whatever was killing the turkeys, it wasn’t in the water, the bedding, or the food. I squatted on my heels and cursed their pampered deaths.

“Wow, you bought the nice metal feeder and waterer!”

Rebecca swept into the barn, my blue Lenox pie dish from last Tuesday in hand. Her Southern California beach waves cascaded from under a conspicuous Carhartt hat.

“How fancy!” she said. “Did you get pretty poultry stuff for your Instagram?”

“No,” I answered. “The lighting in here isn’t good enough for Instagram.”

Her laugh was like tin cans clattering together. I felt in my gut that she wasn’t my friend, but back then—when I was still in my twenties, before we moved our family and our flock from California’s Scott Valley to Oregon’s Rogue Valley—I didn’t know how to tell when someone’s smile didn’t reach their eyes. And anyway, she had my pie dish.

“How’s the ranch?” I asked, not really wanting to know the answer. I’d heard enough about Rebecca’s crowdfunded hundred acres, her certified-organic pastured beef operation. I was still snatching at the watercolor image of my dream farm, $6.99 at a time.

“The ranch is so good! We got broilers last week. They’re so great!”


Soft peeping and ruffling feathers filled the silence. “My turkeys are dying and I don’t know why,” I said.

“I know, turkeys hatch wanting to die.” Rebecca sank down next to me, scrutinizing my brooder. “We always keep baby turkeys with chicks so somebody can teach them how to eat. You might have to dip their beaks in the water. Did you know turkeys can drown by looking up when it's raining?”

“That isn’t the problem.” A small burst of pride flickered in my chest. “I read this great article about how generic turkeys are unintelligent because of overbreeding for industrial production. I bought a heritage breed and look”—I pointed to the fluffs pecking up crumble—“they can take care of themselves.”

Rebecca made a pained sound like a garbage disposal.

“Fancy heritage breeds, yeah. We tried heritage poultry and, yikes, it just didn’t work out.”

Of course it didn’t, I thought. You hate everything about this gig.

“They’re so skimpy and gamey.” she said. “Nobody wants dark meat. And they grow to be way smaller than turkeys from the grocery store, so you have to charge twice as much for half the bird.”

I didn’t doubt Rebecca’s assessment, but wasn't the point of this work to roll up our sleeves and do the right thing? Her complaints were no match for the shimmering rhetoric I scrolled through every day underneath pictures of toothy smiles and dusty coveralls.

“Well, anyway,” I said, “the last dead turkey wasn’t lost trying to eat, it was gasping for air.”

“Where did you get them?”

Embarrassment bloomed in my cheeks.

“I ordered them from Murray McMurray.”

“Oh, I get it now,” she said. “Industrial hatcheries send such sick little birds.”

“They were 40 percent cheaper.”

Rebecca brushed a wood shaving off her jeans.

“It’s just too bad. You can either raise animals the affordable way or ethical way, but you can’t have both. You can’t.” Rebecca stood up. “Try apple cider vinegar, or oregano essential oil.”

She placed my pie plate on a plastic crate by the door.


“No, thank you, sweetie. Your fancy turkey brooder is too cute!”


People like Rebecca helped me understand that the system built to churn out 550 million Big Macs a year isn’t the farmer’s only enemy. Farmers despise each other. There’s a hunger in the way they gaze across the fence. Not only is the grass greener, that sonofabitch is making more bales with a newer drum mower.

And perhaps the resentment of my ilk is fair. Trust funds and crowdfunds in hand, the small farm revolution continues to stumble into rural America, interrupting the disputes between states, tribes, and established farmers and demanding, “Who wants a $5 garlic clove planted based on your astrological sign?” Enduring Rebecca’s disdain is a rite of passage, because I’m a farmer.

My husband was the first to embrace the F-word. He burst into our first apartment one morning after a graveyard shift at the nursing home and declared he was tired of feeding shelf-stable chocolate pudding to patients suffering from organ failure. He’d been asking for months, Why should food hinder when it can help?

That morning, he had a wild glint in his eye. He’d seen the rolling, verdant hills in Michael Pollan’s Food, Inc., and they sparked memories of his 4-H pig and his grandpa’s lush garden. He shouted, “I want to be a farmer!”

I’d seen the film too, gasping at the never-rotting happy meal and hissing at Monsanto, but the documentary made me want to buy from Whole Foods, not pick up a shovel. I knew exactly one farmer by name—Laura Ingalls Wilder from Little Dump on the Prairie—and her farm got flattened by several hailstorms, after her barn burned down.

“Hm.” I swallowed a wail. “I guess I do like animals.”


I found myself questioning whether animals like me in return when, the next morning, I found another turkey gasping like a beached fish.

I scooped her up in my palm and carried her into the house. Beside the sink, she lay on a bed of toilet paper in the box that brought my acne prescription. I fumbled with the eyedropper, the water, and the electrolyte powder spilling from a Sav-a-Chick packet.

“Come on, little buddy.”

I placed brackish droplets inside her pale fingernail beak. She sneezed. Then she died.

I took a photo of her dead little legs in a stream of golden light where it pools just inside the barn and posted my sadness on Instagram tagged with #farmingstruggles #iamamodernfarmer #liveauthentic. Only ten minutes later, the photo had thirty likes. A notification appeared on my screen: “@bitchyrebecca liked your photo.”

I went back into the house, bringing the turkey waterer in with me. Filling the metal basin portion with clean tap, I plopped three heads of garlic and a capful of apple cider vinegar into the water. The directions on the homesteader blog said to use a teaspoon, but a cap is probably the same-ish. The desperation in my head whispered “more is better.”

The water had a wretched, medicinal smell, like it would burn the evil out of anything. Good.

One thing all the homesteading blogs have in common is a belief in tactile problem solving. Got a rash? Slather on this pungent oil—the burning means it’s working. Want some tomatoes? Cut a bunch of milk cartons in half and hang them everywhere in your kitchen until you have a junkyard vertical garden. And ants.

There’s a physicality to DIY that feels like purgatory, as though bootstrapping is our deserved penance for ruining the planet. The seagull chokes on the plastic straw for thy sins, therefore go ye and plant kale, can peaches, mob graze thy ruminants in complex formations to sequester carbon. Know that every Mason jar you use and every internet screed about buying local you write gets us all an inch closer to paradise.

The healing water performed well as a strong gesture with a lot of style and intention, but my effort went unrecognized. Two more turkeys died the next day.

Early that morning, I spent six hours shuffling through the internet’s depths with endless variations of the same search terms:

>respiratory infection young poultry

>young turkeys dying violently make it stop

>practical hexes for evil turkey spirits

>why does everything I touch go to shit

Three solid knocks broke me out of my doom scroll, and I remembered the coffee thing at 10:30. Frantically, I slammed my laptop shut and scooped it off my dining room table along with the pile of bills and creased farming books.

I ran toward the steaming kettle on the stove that had already boiled down to nothing. My door handle jiggled. Pivoting, I hustled to the door. Of course, she had arrived first.

“Hey, sweetie! How’s it going!”

Rebecca prowled into my house and commented on an art print on my wall, “Wow that is so Bay Area!”

I muttered something at the floor and trotted to the kitchen to get the kettle going again. I dumped two handfuls of assorted handmade mugs onto the table, and Rebecca sat down and picked up a wonky blue one with variegated glaze. She turned it over in her hands.

The burr grinder was munching up light brown beans when Rebecca said something. I switched it off so I could hear.

“I said, it’s nice to see you’re keeping up with your fancy coffee habit.”

I blinked down at my pour-over setup.

“Hey, listen, Rebecca.” My teeth creaked. “I know you’re from Orange County, so we don’t have to pretend to like Folgers and Wranglers just because we want to grow food for people.”

The Barbie smile split across her face but her eyes dimmed. She spoke slowly, like someone trying to corral a steer.

“Don’t you notice how they look at you?” she said, her over-plucked brows twitching. “At the feed store? At Mean Gene’s?”

I gripped the counter. “Why should I care?”

“Because you can get a million Instagram likes, but you still have to grow and sell the food. You have to be God and Fred Meyer at the same time.”

The kettle whistled in alarm.

Rebecca sat back. The flush crept down her cheeks to the collar of her flannel, and she smoothed a stray flyway of blond hair.

“How are your turkeys doing, by the way?” she asked. I wilted.

“They’re dead, okay? Almost every one of them.” I snatched the boiling water from the stove and poured it over the coffee grounds in a shaky stream.

She was staring out at the field when I looked up. The light from the big farmhouse window in the kitchen fell on her sun-chapped skin. There were dry patches around her eyes and brittleness to her beachy hair from long days outdoors.

“We might foreclose on our farm,” she said. I set down the kettle.

Her eyes glossed and I offered the Kleenex box, but she shook her head. She took a reusable microfiber cloth from her pocket and dabbed her eyes. I poured the coffee.

“Oxytetracycline should do it,” Rebecca said.

“Seriously? Antibiotics?”

“Forget about the organic label.” She wrapped her hands around the blue variegated mug. “A sticker can’t convey how much we go through to raise this shit anyways.”

Later, I stood on my porch and watched Rebecca’s pickup roll down the long gravel road, dust boiling up behind it. She made a sharp U-turn at Eastside and curved down the driveway next door. I thought about the generations of food producers on our two pieces of land. The decades of judgment leering over this fence. The countless pies.

The oxytetracycline had no smell or color when it dissolved into the turkey water.

I brought it outside to where I’d turned over a camper shell to house the turkeys; they’d grown bigger. When I set that shiny, expensive waterer down, it gluggled happily, filling the metal rim with music that summoned my clever birds to its edge. Daintily, they spooned up beakfuls of salvation. They tipped their heads up and it rolled down their skinny craws.

In November, I sold eighteen Thanksgiving turkeys. Every one looked nearly as small as a chicken, and the whole venture was in the red by $200, but when that caramelized, salt crackle bird came out of the oven in a buttery plume, everyone around the table clinked their wine glasses.

“Cheers to the farmer!” my extended family said. I swallowed my drink and glanced out the window.

Rows of kale curled in the frost between bolted heads of broccoli. Chaff and stalks of the summer garden heaped in the compost bin like browning bones. I remembered the farmers market, and the pair of elderly, hatted sisters in the next booth, selling beets out of heaping five-gallon buckets.

“Put more water in there,” one sister said, pointing.

The other unscrewed a plastic Dasani lid and dumped the contents into a bucket. She threw the bottle into the trash and sold out of beets before lunch.


Belonging, Environment, Food, Work


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