Saturday, August 20, 2011

Chickies

The first question I'm always asked about my chickens is, "Why do you have chickens?"  The second is, "Do you get eggs?" Obvious questions perhaps, but worth answering.  The third most frequently asked question, usually posed by men, is, "You gonna eat 'em?"
(leader of the pecking order, Lemon Sorbet)

Before moving to Westport a few years ago, we lived in a nearby town called Weston that was my first foray into rural living.  It wasn't exactly the country, but it was close.  A neighbor had goats, and I'd take Gabi to look at them when we walked our dogs.  I once asked the property-owner there, who happened to be out in his yard, why he had goats.  He asked rhetorically, "Why do you have dogs?"  Good answer.


My next door neighbor had chickens.  She even had a rooster.  According to the story, when she ordered her chicks, they were supposed to be all female, but it turns out the gender-checker had made a mistake.  It can be hard to tell the gender of a baby chicken, so she ended up with a rooster.  That big bird patrolled the fence between our properties making noise and ruffling his feathers, taunting my dogs who barked and paced.  I thought that rooster was the funniest thing.

It wasn't until moving to a less rural place, only one town over, that I really missed the animal husbandry that was comparatively common in my old town.  I missed the woods and the laid back feel, too.  I am pretty sure I was trying to recreate the country feel I was lacking in my new home when I got the chickens and planted the garden.

The answer to the egg question is pretty straight-forward: The hens are still pullets (adolescents), so they are not laying yet.  We will have eggs in late October or early November.

But, why do I have chickens?  Honestly, I just thought it was cool.

(Kernel sits at attention, waiting to nab a baby chick; Cherry and Butterscotch safe in their run.)

My friend, Samantha, got some hens a while back, and a couple other people I knew had them, too.  I didn't know a cultural phenomenon was on the precipice and that backyard farming would become so hip. My friends were wild about the birds themselves and about the eggs they collected every morning.  I had to think about it for a long time, though, because I tend to take things on and then get overwhelmed.  But, what finally convinced me to talk to Chad about it was... You guessed it!  Food!

The more educated I am about our food, the more difficult it is for me to eat anything that came from some unknown place.  Commercial eggs are farmed in horrible conditions with laying hens in one-foot-square wire cages that cut their feet and stacked half-a-dozen high.  You can imagine what rains down from one cage to the cage below it.  The lights and heat are manipulated so that the hens' natural cycles are forced into mass-production mode at all times.  Genetic modification has rendered the eggs susceptible to diseases like salmonella and e. Coli that home-farmed eggs just don't have. The details get more gruesome, but I'll stop here.

(commercial chicken houses)

I was already buying eggs directly from a farmer I trusted at the Westport Farmer's Market, and having my own layers seemed like a logical step in the progression for me.  There are some aspects of food production I can't handle myself, like growing and milling my own grains.  But, I feel a responsibility for doing as much as I can on my own and for buying from trusted sources as much as is possible in a country owned by Con-Agra.  Besides, fresh food is healthier and tastes superior.

This was also a decision about what is healthy for my kids - not just their bodies, but their souls.  With a little garden patch, they could see that carrots don't really come in cute little whittled-down nubs in a plastic baggie labeled "baby carrots."  In fact, they are even more appealing right from the ground, with the dirt washed off and the greens still attached.

But, what about the food that comes from animals... or used to be an animal?  It was unlikely that I would ever own livestock for meat, even when I was still eating it, because there are zoning laws about it.  But, chickens have very few regulations, either commercial or private, so long as the neighbors don't complain.  I thought it would give the kids a chance to see where "animal food" comes from.


In my mind, though, I was testing myself to decide where I stood on eating animals.  Laying hens don't actually make good meat because commercial breeding has separated layers from meat for maximum efficiency and profit.  Still, I thought at the time that a dead hen shouldn't be wasted.  I have a friend who has eaten her hens after they've gone.  Hens live a good seven years, but only produce eggs for two of them, so many people have their non-producing hens picked up and "taken care of."  Could I do that?  I think I already have the answer to that long before the time gets here.  I'll have to introduce new hens every couple years and end up with quite a brood.

I often get on my high-horse about political hot-button issues, with strong opinions and a loud mouth.  But, my opinions on commercial ranching was based only on my feelings and not on a whole lot of knowledge.  Having my own chickens would be an education about farming, but also about the validity of opinions that could now be based on experience.

My family waited impatiently for months for our one-day-old chicks to arrive.  Oh, they were the cutest little things, peeping and fuzzy!  They spent a month in a brooder (a crate with mesh walls) in our laundry room before going outside to a coop and chicken run.  They eat feed from Benedict's farm supply store because I am unable to grow enough natural food for them in my own yard, but they get all our kitchen scraps, excepting oils.  They eat our weeds.  They'll eat ticks when we're able to let them out of the run.  Best of all, they peck sunflower seeds right out of my hand.


(the babies at one day old, then going outside for the first time at one month old.)

Why do I have chickens?  They make good eggs, good environmental sense, good education, and good pets.

Cluck!

WISHES AND THANKFULS

I am thankful for the opportunity to care for my little acre of the world.  It gives me peace and reminds me each day what it important.  I am thankful for all the backyard farmers who paved the way (or should I say "spread gravel") for the rest of us.

I wish my dogs would behave better.  So, I guess I also wish to be more diligent in training them.  If I can be successful in that, then I'll have happy dogs and truly free-ranging chickens.


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