Buck & Mary Rickett: Successful Small Farmers
by Lynn R. Miller, photos by Kristi Gilman-Miller
Ten years ago I answered a classified ad and went to a small western Oregon farm to look at some young laying hens that were for sale. That visit to Buck and Mary Rickett’s place made a quiet impression on me that has lasted to this day. A few coincidences made it possible to revisit these folks on their farm recently and get a little information to share.
On that first visit in ’71 my eager new farmer’s eye and ear absorbed as much as possible of what seemed like an unusual successful, small operation. This was long before the Journal was even conceived. My enthusiasm came from a desperate desire to understand my suspicions about successful farming well enough to make something work for myself. And here on this small farm I found a contented couple who had lived and worked side by side a long time, resulting in a neat well-organized diversified farm. I asked what must have seemed like an endless stream of questions on that early visit. I was shown and told about their poultry operation.
In one shed (maybe 20 feet by 30 feet) 500 day-old chicks were raised to about 6 months of age. In the larger house (40 feet by 100 feet) a bulk feed hopper and egg room divided the building into two main hen houses which, in turn, were divided lengthwise for easier maintenance. One half of the house held 500 six-month old pullets and the other half held 500 year-old laying hens. The theory then seemed to be that as the second group of pullets came into full laying the third batch of laying yearlings might be sold as prime layers. The chicks would then be moved up into second position and conceivably a new batch of chicks would go into the brooder house.
Eggs were sold to city restaurants, private individuals and on contract to hatcheries. One restaurant purchased 60 dozen eggs a week. These eggs were then sold by the restaurant to city dwellers who, by word of mouth, knew the eggs were there.
On that first visit, I bought a dozen beautiful red hens (guaranteed layers) and a rooster and also took with me the notion that a person could make an honorable ‘go’ of farming. I felt like there was hope. I was fascinated with the scale of the Rickett poultry operation. It was an in-between size that seemed very manageable. I was familiar, through experience, with the small, home-use flock and with the larger commercial operations with 5, 10 or 20,000 birds. But there didn’t seem to be any examples around of intermediate or in-between scales of poultry operations working in conjunction with a mixed farm program. That is, until I discovered the Rickett’s operation. I wanted very much to believe that theirs was not an isolated obscure exception but just one of many thousands of such outfits tucked away all across the continent.
My experience with the Journal and the communication from small diversified farmers all over the world granted my wish. It is true – there are thousands (perhaps hundreds of thousands) of unique in-between sized, tailored, farming and ranching outfits spread out everywhere. And the common denominator in every case seems to be attitude. The people involved have a special attitude that combines a tough survival stance with a sensitivity to every aspect of their chosen vocation. And that combination has resulted, by necessity, in a cleverness affecting systems, equipment, work habits and relationships. Buck and Mary Rickett are wonderful examples of what I mean.
On my recent return visit I was apprehensive. What my mind’s bank had made of that first visit, long ago, was a precious little personal memory – a spark of hope. I worried that my return as a hardened agricultural “radical”(?) would have me discover that I had “created” this special example and that things were “less” or “different” than I remembered. Ten years made a difference, but I found my memory to be an understatement of what was there. The Rickett’s little ranching outfit was and is a very real, very special little gem of practicality and sensitivity.
Buck Rickett is a soft-spoken man who has worked hard, but sensibly, for many years. He has a gentle face and posture. You get a warm feeling from this man. It’s a feeling that reminds me of the way I feel when everything is going right. Buck is the kind of man you’d enjoy working for or going fishing with. And he’d make the best sort of neighbor.
Buck is a strong man and if you watch closely he’ll show you why as he glances frequently at his wife and partner, Mary. The interview about the farming operation naturally included equal participation from Buck and Mary because they work together on most everything.
Mary Rickett is a delightful, warm woman who works hard and keeps close tabs on what happens and why. As she talked it was easy to see that she was happy and content with her long tenure on the farm with Buck. She was very interested in the questions I asked and in how I might view the answers. At one point she stopped me and said, “You know, Lynn, you asked if we believed someone could make a go of it on a small farm today. It’s worked well for us, but we own this place free and clear. I don’t know what it would be like if we had to start from scratch with no land. Land is awful high in price right now. I don’t know what I’d tell young people if they asked me that question.”
I know that Mary’s answer will always be caring. I think that neither Buck nor Mary realize how much of an answer they provide as living examples.
Buck and Mary no longer raise laying hens. They were having trouble with the arbitrary pressures of the larger hatcheries, so when Newcastle’s disease wiped out their flock they decided to retire from poultry and put their time into the beef cattle, caneberries and the cherry orchard.
We covered some territory talking about their poultry years. In 1958 they started with their first flock of White Rock hens. They had 400 birds and sold hatching eggs on contract at Petaluma, California. Things went well and they grew to 1000 layers.
Over the years, the Petaluma contract for hatching eggs proved less stable. They switched to sex-link hens and sold to an Oregon hatchery. During the sixties when eggs were cheap they were receiving 70 to 80 cents per dozen for their hatching eggs. They had to maintain a fertile rooster for every ten hens and the hens had to be blood tested. Their contract with the hatcheries seemed like a good deal, but the Ricketts found that they were tied by law to sell only to them. Unfortunately, the hatcheries could refuse to buy the eggs whenever it was in their best interest. It was this arbitrary arrangement and uncertain situation which contributed, along with the Newcastle disease, to their ultimate retirement from the egg business. Buck confessed that he missed the chickens “in a way.” He passed on some interesting specifics that might have value; like the fact that his White Rock hens needed three square feet per bird but his sex link hens needed a little less. Buck preferred the sex link birds, saying they were quieter and better producers. Here Mary jumped in and said to tell everybody not to feed laying hens apples or any fruit as they would quit laying. Buck said he did raise oats and combined them. He then fed them, free choice, to his layers, who also had a higher protein mash available in the morning.
Buck and Mary reflected on their poultry experience and remembered that it cost them quite a bit to raise chicks to layers. They felt that with the use of a forced molt the birds were more profitable if kept two years, the molt helping to produce a good second year lay.
Chickens irregularly but naturally go through a molting season when their feathers fall out and they quit laying eggs for a spell. A forced molt takes advantage of the cleansing and strengthening aspects of the chemical changes which occur in the fasting bird.
In the fall of the year, the Ricketts orchestrate a forced molt on all their layers. They cut off feed and water for 48 hours. Then they start making water available for two hours per day. Also, they put out five pounds of feed per 100 birds per day. Within four to five days all egg production stops and birds begin to lose feathers. In one week they are put back on full water. Full feed isn’t available for 30 days. Within two to four weeks after the molt the birds start to lay. When they are back in full production they lay better eggs and a higher percentage of eggs per bird.
Mary said that they worked to maintain at least 85% of their hens laying, but the percentage, depending on the age of the birds and the molting process, might drop to 70%. If the forced molt accounts for the 15% increase that would mean 150 more eggs per day with the same 1000 hens fed the same amount of feed.
The Rickett’s laying houses were set up with nest boxes along the walls and roosting areas. The birds co-mingled on the sawdust floors, unlike the individually caged birds seen in most commercial setups.
The pullets (young birds) were allowed to run on pasture around the houses depending on the season. Buck lamented the loss of his great Border Collie “Jefferson Davis” who could carefully, slowly herd 300 birds off the pasture and back into the house without help. Mary said they were looking forward to getting another Border Collie to help with the cow herd.
These days fruit and cattle keep the Ricketts busy. They own 35 acres and rent a neighboring 50 acres. They maintain a herd of 14 white-face beef cows. They rent a bull each year and breed for April calving. The calves are weaned in September and sold each year. The man who rents the bull to them buys their calves. Year before last they bred their Hereford cows to an Angus bull. This year’s calf crop comes from a Hereford bull. Buck likes the crossbreed calves best and plans to use the Angus bull again this year. There is a big old barn on the rented place that Buck puts the cows and calves in every night.
Buck’s eyes lit up when he talked about the old barn which was built with lumber (some boards 30′ long!) hauled in on wagons. The big old timbers were pinned together. It was nice to see a fine old barn like that in the care of someone who loved it for all it meant.
Buck and Mary both talked about the time when a team of horses did the work around the place. They both said it, but didn’t have to – they missed working with the horses.
Between the hen house and the brooder houses you will find a neat quarter to third of an acre of Marionberries, which the Ricketts sell, U-pick, for $.40 lb. And on the hill is a 5 acre orchard of cherry trees; 75 Royal Anne trees, 100 Bing trees and some Black Republicans for cross pollinization.
For three straight years now the weather has made for bad crops but that’s a condition farmers must resign themselves to. Buck is hopeful this will be a good year and remembered several that were. He also hoped, out loud, that his use of mechanical “shakers” to harvest three years ago didn’t have a bad effect on the trees. He prefers hand picking. Mary mentioned that some of their customers preferred the Black Republican cherries because they were superior for freezing.
I guess you have a pretty good idea of the wealth of knowledge, experience, care, chosen diversity. and exception found on the Rickett’s little mixed crop and livestock ranch. This small place has been good to Buck and Mary. And they have been good to the land and each other. And as I see it, Buck and Mary Rickett have been good to themselves. They’re good to all of us ’cause they are there and doing good doing good. Thank you Buck and Mary.