On the Best Chicken Stories from 2016

It seems 2016 was a big year for chickens. From chicken shaming to chicken sweaters, chickens have been in our hearts and on our minds in 2016. People all over the country are getting chickens for their farms, their backyards, and their homes. Chickens are the pets that poop breakfast, and we love them.

cute-chickens

We learned a lot of important chicken lessons in 2016. We learned from the CDC that we are not supposed to kiss our chickens. We learned about adorable chicken sweaters and then learned they weren’t a good idea. We learned a little bit more about just how intelligent these amazing little creatures are and that eggs are actually quite good for you.

As 2016 comes to an end, I thought it would be fun to take a look at some of the sweetest and most important chicken stories of the year.

1. We love our chickens a little too much and need to quit kissing them.

Because homestead, backyard, and even house chickens have become so popular, we learned this year from the CDC that salmonella cases are on the rise. This story from NPR summarizes the findings and tells us that we do need to stop kissing our chickens.

When I first read about the CDC report, I thought “I love my chickens, but I’ve never kissed them.” But, after thinking on it a bit, I remembered kissing a baby chick or two. I felt compelled to write a response in “On Kissing Chickens” and have given up my baby-chicken-kissing ways.

2. Chickens like to travel, too.

Without a doubt, the sweetest chicken story to come out of 2016 is the one about Monique, the seafaring chicken, who has travelled the world. In this story from the BBC, we learned about Monique and her travels with her owner, Guirec, from France. Monique provides breakfast and friendship, and in return, she gets to see the world. The video that accompanies this story is just the best, so if you haven’t seen it, check it out. Monique’s story has to be the feel-good chicken story of the year!

3. Chicken sweaters are adorable—but not such a great idea.

I don’t know how many times I was tagged in a Facebook post with pictures of chicken sweaters, and I have to admit that I wished I knew how to knit some little sweaters for my chicky girls. But it turns out that chicken sweaters are not so good for the chickens. Chickens don’t need sweaters. They do have feathers. And, apparently, putting your chickens in sweaters can do more harm than good.

So, even though those chickens in sweaters are cute beyond all reason, it’s best to resist. Chickens need to be able to preen themselves, and here’s a great post from Housewife Plus explaining both the trend and the reasons to resist.

As is often the case, Nature knows best.

4. Chicken shaming is a thing.

As chickens become more a part of our lives, we are learning just how much fun they are, and not to be outdone by dog and cat shaming, chicken shaming became a thing in 2016 as well. If you’re a chicken lover, chances are you’ve seen the chicken-shaming posts. There’s even an entire Facebook group devoted to chicken shaming. But it’s not so easy to get your chickens to pose for a shaming photo shoot, and I learned that the hard way in my own post on chicken shaming.

5. Chickens are wicked smart and full of personality.

Anyone who has kept chickens has known this one for a long time, but chicken intelligence got some great press this year. New research keeps adding to what we know about just how smart these chickens are. This piece from Modern Farmer, “The Inner Lives of Chickens” is a perfect example. It’s good for the world to know just how intelligent and interesting these birds are.

6. Eggs are really good for you.

And, while we really don’t need more reasons to keep chickens, new research was published this year emphasizing that eggs really are good for us. It used to be that we thought eggs were bad for us because of the cholesterol, but it turns out that eggs weren’t so bad after all. In fact, there’s a lot of nutrition packed into an egg. This piece from Time sheds some light on the egg debate. Fresh Eggs Daily also provides an excellent overview of the egg in this post.

One important thing to remember is that free range chicken eggs are much more nutritious than eggs from chickens in cages or even cage-free chickens. Chickens need space and to live like normal chickens for their eggs to be healthy, and I hope we continue to learn more about this in 2017.

If you’re a chicken lover like me, I’m sure you enjoyed all the press our little chicken friends have received this year, and we’ve certainly learned some valuable lessons. No kissing. No sweaters. And, if you plan to travel the world on a boat, a chicken can be a great shipmate.

Happy New Year, chicken friends!

On New Year Superstitions and Black Eyed Peas

I think many can agree that 2016 was a doozy. It was a tough one for our family in many ways, and we are not the only ones. I’ve even seen songs written about how crappy 2016 was. But we made it and are looking forward to a happy and healthy 2017!

I’m not one for superstitions, well, sometimes I am. I do like cultural traditions, and I knock on wood a lot. So I’m sharing a little bit of my superstitious southern background in this week’s blog post. If you want to have good luck in 2017, you just need to eat your black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day.

I’ve been eating black eyed peas on New Year’s most years since I was a little girl. When I was 16, we didn’t have black eyed peas on New Year’s Day, and later that year, in August, I overslept on the first day of school. Coincidence? I think not.

I knew it must have been because I missed my peas, and when you’re 16, waking up late on the first day of school is completely traumatic.

My husband is from Montana and had never heard of this lucky tradition, so when I first explained it to him, I’m pretty sure he thought I was crazy. And, I’m sure, if you’re reading this and are not from the south, you might think I’m crazy as well, but hear me out.

In addition to making your New Year’s resolutions, why not add a little of this lucky and highly nutritious bean to your menu? It’s worth a shot, right?

I did a little research, and it turns out that the black-eyed pea tradition goes back even further than I thought. Apparently, there is some disagreement about how this tradition began in the south. Some say the tradition started after the Civil War when there was nothing left to eat anyway. Black eyed peas were considered more for animals, and when times were tough, well, black eyed peas really were lucky.

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In the south, we eat our black eyed peas with ham and cornbread on the side. It’s both humble and lovely. Photo credit: Jeffrey W., Wikimedia Commons.

But it turns out myths and traditions related to black eyed peas go back much further. The Egyptians considered the black eyed pea to be a humble food, and it was important to eat the peas in order to show humility before the gods. Apparently, the peas were also connected to fertility and good luck, and some Jewish communities picked up the tradition and still eat black eyed peas for good fortune.

So it’s not just a southern thing, and it turns out that black eyed peas are way less humble than people originally thought. They are amazingly good for you.

This humble little pea is rich in vitamin A, which is good for your eyes and skin; it is high in fiber and aids in digestion; and it can, apparently, help lower blood pressure. That’s pretty good for a pea that people thought was unfit for human consumption.

Now, here in Maine, black eyed peas are not so easy to grow—at least my husband and I found this. I love black eyed peas. I think they might be my favorite bean, so I wanted to grow some in our garden. We tried, and we got some delicious peas, just not too many. They really do need hotter weather to grow, but I intend to try a few again and would love to hear from anyone out there who has been able to grow these peas in a colder climate. I want to know your secrets!

In the meantime, I’ve purchased my black eyed peas from the grocery store and am ready for some good luck in 2017. After all, it doesn’t hurt to try, and after 2016, I’m willing to try anything. I’m just about ready to eat a whole pot of black eyed peas to make 2017 better!

Maybe, if we all gave it shot, it would work.

Of course, as someone who has lived in several distinct parts of the country with some distinct cultural traditions, I’m always a fan of blending cultural traditions. What are some New Year’s traditions from your part of the world you can share with this southern girl? If it will bring me some luck, I’m willing to give it a try. Let’s all try every lucky tradition we can think of.

Happy New Year!

On Christmas Traditions and Cinnamon Rolls

While I really do try to eat healthy most of the time, I’m one of those people willing to just dig into the comfort food during the holidays.  Throughout centuries and cultures, we use food to bind us together, to feel connected, and to show people we love them. I feel that food traditions during the holidays are among the most important, and I’m willing to go for an extra walk in order to eat a few extra calories. roll-and-candles

With this in mind, I was after the perfect cinnamon roll recipe for years. My husband has these wonderful memories of his mom’s cooking when he was growing up. Specifically, he remembers how lovely and warm and wonderful it was when his mom made homemade cinnamon rolls for him and his siblings on Christmas mornings.

Since I love food, especially comfort food, I was determined to make cinnamon rolls for my husband and sons on Christmas morning. This was my plan. I wanted to carry on the tradition. Every year I tried. And every year I failed.

My husband’s mom was a great cook and was even a cook at the local school where my husband grew up in Montana, but, unfortunately, she passed away long before I even met my husband. This means no recipes for me, and while that may seem like a petty thing, “no recipes,” I’m a firm believer in food connections to memories and family, so even though the greatest tragedy is that my husband lost his mother, it’s no small tragedy that our family has none of her recipes to carry on with her traditions.

After first hearing the story about my husband’s warm memory of Christmas morning and cinnamon rolls, I set out to find a recipe and create a similar holiday memory for our family.

I started with a recipe that took like all day on Christmas Eve. It looked great, but, when you work with yeast, you usually are going to be working with it all day. But, oh my goodness, it was pretty awful. It was Christmas morning “this is pretty good because it has sugar on it” good but that’s about it.

Fail.

I tried again the next year, and I found a cinnamon roll recipe that looked good but didn’t take all day. Those were some hard cinnamon rolls and not comforting at all.

Fail.

But, last year, my husband found a quick dough recipe for dinner rolls, and I loved it. It allowed me to make yeast rolls in about 30 minutes. A miracle, right? And, then, one day we had the thought that maybe that dough could work with cinnamon rolls.

So I just invented a filling and icing plan and gave it a go. The results were quite comforting–and delicious.

This cinnamon roll recipe is now a part of our Christmas morning tradition, and I hope you enjoy them. You can make them in just a little over 30 minutes and maybe add a sweet breakfast treat to your holiday tradition.

Christmas Morning Cinnamon Rolls

Dough Recipe (adapted from Kitchenmeetsgirl.com)

Ingredients

1 cup plus 1 Tablespoon very, very warm water

2 Tablespoons active dry yeast

1/4 cup local honey

1/3 cup melted butter or olive oil (I used olive oil but use extra virgin olive oil)

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 large egg

3 1/2 cups of white, unbleached flour

Filling

1/3 cup melted butter

1 cup brown sugar

1 and 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon

(mix together and add after dough is rolled out)

Icing

1 and 1/2 cups of powdered sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

4 Tablespoons milk

(mix together; icing should be thick)

Directions

In a bowl, mix the warm water, yeast, honey, and butter or oil. Let it sit for 15 minutes. Make sure the water is very warm!

After 15 minutes, the mixture should be fluffy and bubbly. Add your egg, salt, and 2 cups of the flour. Mix. Then, 1/2 cup at a time, add the rest of the flour. Roll it into a ball and let it rest for 10 minutes.

dough-ball

When the dough is ready, roll it out into a large rectangle. It should be thin for rolls and soft. Spread the filling evenly across the rectangle.

Carefully roll the dough from the long side of the rectangle. Go slowly and try to keep it even. When you have the dough into a giant roll, cut it into pieces about 1 inch to 1 and 1/4 inch wide. I usually have to leave off the ends and end up with 12 to 14 rolls.

cinnamon-roll-process

Bake the rolls in a glass baking dish, 9 X 13, at 385 for 10 minutes. Rotate and bake for 3 to 5 more minutes depending upon your own. The rolls will be golden brown in the top when ready.

Let the rolls cool slightly before adding the icing. In addition to being yummy, these rolls are pretty as well, and I struggle with pretty, so that’s saying something.

I serve the sweet rolls with our farm fresh scrambled eggs and some fruit on the side.

cinnamon-roll

I hope you enjoy these, and I hope our Christmas family tradition can warm your heart and tummy as well.

What are some of your holiday food traditions?

On Preparing Your Backyard Chickens for the Winter

It’s that time of year. The snow finally arrived here in Maine, and our chicky girls are laying fewer eggs. There’s still some molting going on, and the days are getting shorter and shorter. I saw a post on a chicken Facebook site (yes, we have those) that read “Let the freeloading begin.”

I had to giggle. Thinking about our girls as little freeloaders. I mean, they are certainly spoiled and very demanding. I can’t even walk out the front door without them running up and whining for a treat. But they do give us a delicious breakfast every morning, and with all the research about how beneficial eggs are to our diets, I think it’s okay if we have to support our girls a little as they molt and adjust to light changes. They can be little freeloaders if they need to be.

But shorter days and fewer eggs is a good reminder that we have to get our flock ready for the cooler weather, and after making it through our first fall and winter with our girls last year, I think I have some helpful tips from the lessons we learned based on both experience and lots of research online and in books.

chickens-in-snow
It took a little time, but our little Rhode Island Reds finally got brave enough to visit the snow!

1. Handling molting

If your girls are molting, they will lay fewer eggs, so try not to panic if you see egg production drop down suddenly right now. While they molt, it’s a good idea to give them some extra treats for their health. Sunflower seeds are a nice treat and can help their little bodies as they go through the molt. Of course, if yours are like mine and still molting a little even though the snow has arrived, make sure your girls have a warm place to go. I noticed our little girl who molted really hard hangs out in nest box quite a bit. Thankfully, the feathers are finally coming!

2. Thinking about light

You can supplement with light as the days get very short. This will keep your egg production from completely plummeting because chickens do need light to produce eggs. However, I read that you have to be careful with light supplements with young birds. It can lead to laying problems, apparently, if you supplement light when they are too young.

Most of our girls are in their second year now, so my husband just started supplementing with a light that is on a timer in the coop. He has it set to give the girls an extra hour and a half of light each day. The egg production right now is still not nearly what it was this summer with those long, lovely days, but we at least have enough for breakfast every day and a little sharing.

3. Keeping clean, fresh water

When it starts to get really cold, water will freeze, so you really, really have to stay on top of the water thing. Some people get heaters for the water. That is a great idea. We have an insulated coop, plus the girls put out a lot of heat, so we haven’t had to use a water heater. However, a water heater would work best if you don’t have enough warmth in your coop. And you have to make sure the water is fresh and clean every single day. Even during the winter, clean water really is the most important ingredient to chicken health.

4. Preventing chicken boredom

Be aware of chicken boredom in the winter months because it’s a real thing and will cause your girls to be mean to each other. Your chickens could get hurt. Our girls go from free ranging everywhere to only having their coop, a run, and some paths my husband shovels. We also have a few girls who do not want to go out when it’s snowy at all. So we have to find ways to get them some space and some things to do.

One thing you can do is just make sure they get as much space as possible in the snow. They really do need to get outside to play, even when it’s cold.My husband was great about shoveling our girls’ run, and we read this year about saving the leaves from your trees this fall in bags and spreading them in the snow for your chickens to walk on and peck around in. This is actually the best tip I can share. It’s genius. It gives a great use for your leaves and will really help your chicky girls. Our girls have loved this so far, and it’s the only we’ve been able to coax some of them out of the coop since they are a little worried about this first snow.

But you can also give your chickens different kinds of treats to keep them busy. Check out my infographic here for more information.

Just make sure they are healthy treats, and, of course, always keep a balanced diet in mind. But, last winter, we would share fruit and vegetable scraps, and the variety was good. Working on the fruits and veggies also kept the girls busy.

5. Protecting their combs

And, when you let your girls outside to play in the winter, you should keep an eye on their combs. If you have chickens with large combs, it’s a good idea to put some petroleum jelly on them to help keep them safe in the winter cold.

6. Preparing for the deep freeze

Finally, if you haven’t done this already, it’s a good time to start thinking about how to winterize your coop. Just as we work on winterizing our homes here in Maine, it’s important to think about the temperatures for our chickens during the long winter months and what you will do during those long cold nights.

First, it’s important to keep in mind that chickens, depending upon how many you have, do put out some heat all on their own, so you may not have much winterizing to do, depending on how many chickens you have.

You may not need to insulate your coop, but, if you do, make sure your coop has proper ventilation. This is really key. You may think that keeping out the cold is the most important thing, but you also have to keep ventilation in mind. Chickens can get serious respiratory illnesses, and no one wants that.

According to my research, chickens can be okay and temps down to about 0 degrees Fahrenheit (and maybe a little lower, depending upon breed), so I recommend just keeping a thermometer in your coop to allow you to keep an eye on things.

Our coop is insulated, so we only had to heat our coop a couple of times last winter, though some people will argue you don’t have to heat at all. In fact, unless you are really careful, it may be best not to heat. My husband built a cage to go around a small oil heater, so it didn’t put out much heat and was safe for our girls. It just kept temps above 0 degrees during the worst nights of February.

This is, of course, not an exhaustive list but should help you starting thinking about adjusting to the cooler temps. If you have other tips or advice, please share in the comments section. It would be great to hear your tips as well!

And, remember, stay warm, my chicken friends!

On Chicken Treats in Winter

Winter is upon us, and I don’t know about your chickens, but most of our chickens are hesitant to leave the coop. “Snow. I’m not touching that stuff,” they seem to say.

But we have a few brave souls who will venture out, and, if our girls are anything like they were last year, eventually, most everyone will get cabin fever and have to venture out.

The winter months feel tough, and I worry about both boredom and health issues. The good news is that you can supplement a balanced chicken diet with some healthy and entertaining treats to help your backyard flock during our long Maine winters.

I created this winter treat infographic to share some treat ideas. But these are just a few ideas for healthy treats. What are your go-to healthy treats to keep your flock happy and healthy in the winter?

https://magic.piktochart.com/embed/18936278-winter-treats-for-chickens

On Something You Want and Something You Need: Keeping Christmas Special on a Budget

I always feel a sort of push and pull at Christmas time. For years, I’ve been trying to learn to live more frugally, and, in the last year, as we’ve worked to simplify and work less, sometimes, I do feel like things are a little too austere around here.

I should provide context. Austere for me is certainly not austere for most. Although we grow as much of our own food as we can, we buy organic food at the grocery store for what we can’t grow, and, as a family, we eat very well. We also have a comfortable house and a reliable vehicle.

But I’m pretty sure 90% of my socks have holes, and since we gave the family car to our oldest son, sometimes, I really miss having a car. But that’s about as austere as it gets around here, so I shouldn’t complain. I hope I’m not.

Still, since it’s Christmas time and it feels like it has been a really tough year, I’m having really strong urges toward “retail therapy,” but I’m trying to keep my head.

I have a long history of struggling with materialism, mostly in relation to my boys. I think mom guilt played a role. For example, when my youngest was a toddler, I had a particularly demanding job. I worked about 70 hours per week and had to travel quite a bit. I missed my family so much, but I think it was hardest being away from my little one. So, every time I traveled, I would shop for him way too much and shower him with gifts when I came home.

My husband expressed concern about this, but the problem with this mode of operation really hit me in the face when I arrived home after some travel for work and my husband and little one met me at the airport. The first thing my toddler said to me was, “What did you bring me?”

Yep. I knew I had been making a big mistake at that point, and, really, that was one of the moments that caused me to start rethinking things, to figure out how I could exchange money for time. To get more time would mean less money, but it felt like a necessary move.

But Christmas is still a struggle in materialism for me.

To help, my husband and I read about a plan to keep Christmas simple and still make it special. I read a blog post last year about a family who kept a plan to give each person four gifts and four gifts only—something you want, something you need, something to share, and something to read.

I loved this idea and thought that we should try it this year, especially since we would have to be more budget minded than we usually are. But I loved the way this plan kept Christmas special.

So, this year, we’re doing it! I made a little grid for each member of our family, and my husband and I have been figuring out a gift for each category. The most fun has been the “something to share” category, and I’m excited to see how this works out. We’ve been looking at games, fancy chocolates, and other fun presents for this category, and I’m excited for all of us to share a present with one another.

christmas-present
Photo credit: Ben White, Unsplash

This seems like a good plan for our family. I do believe in keeping Christmas special, even though I totally understand that it has turned into a terribly commercial holiday. But life can be a grind. It feels good to take a break from it and celebrate. I mean, that’s what holidays are for, right? Humans have been doing this a long time. We need a holiday break from the grind, and I believe holidays are necessary to overall happiness—however we choose to celebrate.

But I don’t want to charge things on the credit cards either. I believe we have a plan for balance, and I’m excited to see how this goes this year. I’ll keep you posted.

In the meantime, what are your plans to keep the holidays special without breaking the bank?

 

 

 

 

On Creepy Farm Food Superstitions, Just in Time for Halloween

What do tomatoes and witches have in common? Where did the tradition of carving pumpkins come from? What ominous events loom if you get a double-yolked egg?

A lot of the farm foods we consider a little on the boring side actually have some fascinating and even creepy backgrounds when you look at history, folklore, and tradition. As we prepare for Halloween, I thought it would be fun to dig into a little produce and farm food superstition and history. It might be a great way to get your kids to eat their meals this Halloween season.

Read on to learn some creepy stories from history and folklore about some of your favorite farm foods.

Eggs

eggs-in-basket
Image credit: Autumn Mott, Unsplash

You might think that there’s nothing more boring than eggs, but there’s a lot of superstition and folklore surrounding our incredible, edible eggs. The double-yolked egg is one of the most interesting.

One of our chicky girls regularly lays double-yolked eggs, and since I am fascinated by folklore, I found out that, while most cultures consider double-yolked eggs to be all good luck and signs of fertility, there’s a darker side to the double-yolkers.

In parts of Britain, it’s bad luck to get an egg with two yolks, and in Norse folklore, it’s downright dreadful. According to the folklore, cracking an egg with two yolks is a sign someone in your family will die soon.

But let’s not think too much on that story. Let’s just focus on the extra protein.

Of course, there’s even more to eggs than you might think. For example, ancient cultures believed it was critical to crush up your empty egg shells. Otherwise, a witch might steal the shells and use them to cast spells and create terrible sea storms.

Garlic and onions

garlic
Image credit: LoboStudio, Unsplash

Everyone knows that the best way to keep vampires away is to use garlic, but did you know that an onion in your windowsill will also keep bad spirits away from your house?

But there’s even more creepy and interesting traditions related to garlic and onions. In addition to being used in European traditions to keep away vampires and werewolves, garlic was used by the Greeks in a creative sort of way. They placed garlic on piles of stones at crossroads to keep away demons. And onions, according to some sources, were used during the Plague in Europe. People believed the Plague was caused by evil spirits, and wearing a string of onions around your neck would supposedly protect you from the spirits

Tomatoes

tomatoes
Image credit: Anda Ambrosini, Unsplash

 

Tomatoes have a fantastic back story. I remember learning in college about how people were terrified of tomatoes for a long time, and I remembered imagining the poor soul who had to be the first in an area to try a tomato and say, “Don’t worry. It’s cool!”

But I never knew why people were so terrified of such a delicious fruit or “vegetable,” depending on who you ask. Well, it turns out that tomatoes were closely associated with witches and witchcraft in Europe.

According to Romie Stott’s article, “When Tomatoes Were Blamed for Witchcraft and Werewolves,” tomatoes were a new food in Europe about the same time the witch hunts were in full force. It was earnestly believed that witches used mandrake to fly their brooms and cast other spells, and, well, the tomato plant looks a lot like the mandrake plant. Yellow cherry tomatoes apparently look a lot like mandrake fruit.

So the tomatoes were guilty by resemblance.

It was thought that eating a tomato could turn you into a werewolf or worse, lead to your death. Now, I totally understand the fear of the unknown, but this is a fantastic story. Who knew tomatoes and witches had so much in common?

Pumpkins

pumpkins
Image credit: Aaron Burden, Unsplash

Of course, no creepy food superstition list would be complete without the most important Halloween food item. Pumpkins are wonderful, right? They bring us pumpkin pie, jack-o-lanterns, and a fall pumpkin spice craze that will surely drive most of us mad. But there’s a cool and creepy backstory to pumpkins as well.

People have been carving pumpkins for centuries, but most of us don’t know where the tradition comes from. According to the History Channel, It all goes back to an Irish story about a man named Stingy Jack.

Apparently, Stingy Jack convinced the Devil to have a drink with him one night, but, because Jack was stingy, he didn’t want to pay for the drink. So he convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin, but when the Devil did this, Jack put a silver cross next to the coin, which kept the Devil from being able to turn back into himself.

Finally, Jack set him free but tricked the Devil again the next year and made the Devil promise he would never claim Jack’s soul. When Jack died, the story goes that God would not allow such a character into Heaven, but since the Devil couldn’t claim Jack either, he was doomed to wander the earth. The Devil sent Jack into the darkness to wander with only a burning piece of coal for light, which Jack placed into a turnip he had carved. So Jack carried the carved turnip to light his way for eternity.

In Europe, people carved turnips and potatoes with scary faces and put them in their windows to scare away Stingy Jack, and when the tradition came to the New World, well, people discovered the awesomeness of pumpkins. Of course, the rest, as they say, is history.

And that’s my list of creepy farm food superstitions, but I know there are more fantastic stories from folklore about many of the foods we raise on our farms. If you have some to add, please share in a comment below. Who knew farm foods could be so interesting?

Hopefully, sharing these stories with the family will make for a fun Halloween tradition. I know I can’t wait to tell my son that about tomatoes turning him into a werewolf. I’m sure he’ll be intrigued.

Happy Halloween, everyone!

On Rejecting the Food Industry: Processing Chickens and Finding Truths

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about my anxiety surrounding our first “one bad day” as farmers. We had 14 chickens to process, and I had never experienced anything like it before. For me, it was a tough day. A long day. A draining day—and my husband did most of the work.

Still, that one bad day was profound for me, but I wanted to share my husband’s perspective with my readers because he bears the brunt of our farming endeavors so much more than I do. I invited him back for a guest blog post, and he writes about why we do what we do here.

We live in a world where most of us buy our lives from one store or another—the grocery store, the big-box, the mall conglomerate—ready-made and processed by others. Our appetites and desires are crafted and subtly honed; our satiation is often artificial and, at best, temporary, at worst potentially harmful. It is perfectly acceptable to mislead, obfuscate, and flat-out lie in this world. Television commercials, product labels and politicians do it all the time. Our truths are processed for us. The effectiveness of fact-checkers, like weather-forecasters, is subject to the winds.

Truth seemed different when I was young. When I was a boy, I had a step-grandmother. She kept a hatchet; the wooden handle was smooth and polished, and the edge on the head invariably was sharp enough to slice paper. We kept chickens; she came to help butcher the cockerels and old laying hens—she was a tough old bird herself. She would catch a chicken, grab it by the legs, flip it upside down, hold it until it settled, then lay it across the chopping block and whack! Her hatchet flashed like a guillotine. Sometimes, a headless bird would spring up and run, spewing blood around the yard, seemingly unwilling to accept the hardest of truths.

My step-grandmother was not a nurturing woman, but she was particularly grim on the days she butchered. She had no time for a foolish boy, and I did not understand her shortness. It took me many years to fully comprehend.

I left that world as an adult; I became busy, like most, with modern life and all its fixtures and conveniences. I moved with the times. But gradually, persistently, I started paying attention to where exactly “the times” where taking me. Terms like pesticides, preservatives, and factory farms began picking at the margins of my attention. I began to question the costs of my convenience, and with my wife, began to examine the modern truths.

We decided we no longer wanted to support agricultural systems designed around convenience for profit, where animals are abused and foods are poisoned with pesticides. We no longer wanted to support a food industry whose colorful and elaborate claims of health and nutrition form the foundational architecture for products propped up by preservatives and additives. So, as much as we could, we deliberately and steadily began moving away from this modern version of the truth.

We started with a garden. Each year we worked it, the area we planted grew—along with our vegetables—and our reliance upon the grocery store diminished. Three years after we started gardening, we bought chicks—Rhode Island Reds (stalwart layers)—and we began to collect eggs. My wife previously had insisted on buying eggs from cage free, humanely raised chickens. Having our own was a substantial cost savings. A year into raising laying hens, and subsequently increasing our flock with the addition of ISA Browns (the little French maids of laying hens), we bought a flock of Freedom Rangers—a type of broiler chicken.

Broiler chickens are also known by the anti-euphemism “meat-birds,” which is a truth that isn’t processed.

Ironically, the first batch of broilers were the friendliest chickens to date. I initially housed them in our garage in a brood-box I had fabricated out of scrap wood and old, closet doors. They quickly outgrew this arrangement, and I extended their garage area with a pallet enclosure bedded with straw. During this time, I also built a mobile chicken coop (not out of scrap wood and closet doors). I had it finished when the broilers were almost a month old and ready to move outside.

I wanted to keep them separate from the main flock, so I fenced an area approximately 1250 square feet about 50 feet from our back door, and I moved the broilers and their coop into it. There was some initial trepidation and some awkwardness among the fourteen young birds. The contrast between blue sky and 8-foot garage ceiling must have been somewhere north of tremendous. And the coop, being two-and-a-half feet off the ground, made for some precarious, initial forays down the ramp into the new world. Still, it didn’t take long before the fourteen were scratching and pecking and having their little chest-bumping show-downs over the new territory.

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The Rangers always lined the fence to say hello.

We had deliberately attempted to humanize the Reds and Browns. But we did not with the Rangers, for obvious reasons. Despite this, the Rangers regularly crowded the fence whenever one of us came out the back door. I could walk among them without having them shy away as the Reds and Browns tended to. They often came to me instead, and I found, I could pet many of them if I wanted. This was before the treats started pouring out the back door.

Freedom Rangers finish in about 80 days, unlike the Cornish Cross broilers, which reach maturity in six to eight weeks and do little more than eat and excrete. The Rangers lead more of a “normal” chicken life, and I have read, taste better for it. The flip-side—in 80 days, I got to know them.

They were ready in mid-September, a few days before my birthday. I decided I would take care of business the weekend after. But I didn’t. I kept finding other, more urgent things to do, and it wasn’t until the morning of the 25th that I finally settled in to the task. I thought about my step-grandmother that day.

Like her, I am now a chicken serial killer. I slaughtered the fourteen—one after another. I held them by their feet, placed them in the killing cone, cut their jugulars, and then quickly pushed a knife through their palates into their brains. Each went instantly limp. It was one bad day for those chickens and one of many bad days for me. But there is truth in it.

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Everything we ate for this dinner came from our little farm–the chicken, the potatoes, and the beans. The food was so delicious, and we were grateful for all of it, especially the chicken.

 

It was late in the day when I asked my seven-year-old son to catch the final bird, which he did, his first involvement. He chased her around the pen then solemnly brought her to me. We talked over that final chicken, and he understood we should be grateful for, and respectful of, her sacrifice. We thanked her, as I had for each, and I explained that chickens do not have much of an opportunity to affect positive change in this world, but that he did. And she would help nourish him on his journey toward becoming a good man. There is truth in that too.

On Making the Most of Your Corn Crop

This year, we purchased some heirloom corn seeds in the hope of seed saving the corn this year. Last year, we planted a hybrid corn. It was delicious and grew well, but when we learned you can never repeat with a hybrid corn because you never know what will crop up, we decided to be done with hybrid seeds.

So with frugality in my heart and heirloom seeds in my pocket, we planted and grew a humble but still absolutely delicious heirloom corn.

We were worried about it for a bit. Well, my husband was worried. The corn ears were slow to grow, and it was getting late in the season. We had beautiful, giant corn stalks and not much in the ways of ears. My husband had watered extensively with “duck water,” so the corn had plenty of nitrogen, but he was really worried about the lack of ears.

I, however, was not so worried. Forever the optimist, I had a talk with the corn and asked the plants to please get busy and make some ears. I don’t know if it was that talk or just time, but those beautiful stalks began to produce many, many beautiful ears of corn!

After two weeks of eating corn almost every night for dinner, we realized we had better do some corn saving. We decided we would freeze our corn, so the following tips will be helpful if you go that direction. But I also have tips for seed saving and, well, just really making the most of your corn crop from top to bottom.

I mean, waste not want not, right?

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Here, the beautiful corn is drying after my husband blanched it.

Freezing

  1. After you pick and husk the corn, you need to blanch it before you can freeze it.
  1. Boil water in a large pot and place the corn cobs in the pot for 5 to 6 minutes.
  1. Remove the corn and place into ice water for 2 to 3 minutes.
  1. Let the corn dry and get your freezer bags ready for storage.
  1. Using a knife or corn scraper (one of these gadgets is totally on my wish list), scrape the corn from the cobs. Place the corn in your freezer baggies and save.

Seed Saving

If you’re using heirloom seeds and want to save the seeds, you’ll need to leave several cobs on your stalks.

  1. Leave the corn cobs there for about a month, though they will need to be picked before the first freeze (so watch the weather).
  1. After picking the cobs, pull back the husks to expose the corn. You can braid the husks together to create a little group of corn.
  1. Hang the cobs to dry fully.
  1. Once the seeds are completely dry, you can remove them and then store them in a cool, dry place.

You are then set for planting next spring. I read that corn seeds can last 5 to 10 years if stored properly. That seems pretty amazing!

Sharing Leftovers

Before you throw away the corn cobs, which will surely have little bits of corn left on them, especially if you used a knife to scrape the corn cobs like we did, think if the chickens. If you have chickens or ducks, they will be in heaven with the leftover corn. If you don’t, ask your neighbors. You will be making some chickens’ days by sharing your leftovers. Trust me.

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The girls were given 70 leftover ears of corn, and I have never seen them so happy. No sharing! Everybody could have their own piece–and then some.

Decorating

But corn is so awesome that there’s more you can do with it. Cut down your empty stalks (the ones not saving any cobs for seed saving) and decorate your front door or yard for Halloween in style and for free.

If you have more tips on making the most of your corn crop, please share below. I don’t know how to can yet, so if you have some tips or links to share, they would be great. Also, I have seen people used dried cobs to make lots of cool fall decorations. Please share your ideas below. Corn is pretty darn awesome!

On the One Bad Day: Processing Chickens

I’ve tried three times in my life to be a vegetarian. The longest I ever made it without eating meat was about 9 months. One day, I just couldn’t take it anymore. I went to a local burger joint and scarfed a giant cheeseburger. It was so good, and though I felt quite guilty, I decided that this would be the last time I tried to be a vegetarian. I’m just a darn omnivore, I suppose.

The reason I wanted to become a vegetarian is pretty simple: I love animals and didn’t want to eat them. Even now, ten years after my last attempt at becoming a vegetarian, part of me doesn’t want to eat animals, and that’s making this weekend an extra difficult one for this wannabe chicken farmer.

Earlier this summer, my husband and I purchased some broiler chickens as a part of our efforts to become more self-sufficient and frugal. We didn’t purchase the Cornish Cross chickens because they seem to have a lot of problems related to growing too quickly. We wanted a bird that could get around and have a good life—right up until his or her “one bad day.”

So we purchased some Freedom Ranger chicks and have had good luck. They take longer to develop than the Cornish Crosses, so they are not as much of a cost-saver. However, according to some experts, the meat tastes better because they can live a natural chicken life. We’ve not lost any birds to health issues or predators, and, well, unless something happens today, we’ll have had success in raising them.

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This is the biggest rooster of the Freedom Ranger bunch, and he’s pretty magnificent and only a couple months old. I’m convinced he’s looking at me here like he knows what’s up.

Tomorrow is their “one bad day.”

My husband and I picked up this expression after watching a Michael Pollan documentary. In the film, a pig farmer discussed her struggles killing her pigs that she has cared for so much. She admitted to having a hard time, but she focused on making the pigs’ lives really good ones so that they just had “one bad day,” the day of their deaths.

This seemed profound to me, and my husband and I have made this our focus. We have worked to make sure they have had good lives.

The birds we have are pretty tame and curious and busy, and they also learned quickly how to get what they want from me and my husband, especially my husband.

As an aside, in an effort to protect me, my husband has done most of the raising of the broilers. I mostly handle the layers; they get to be my babies. And my husband mostly handles the birds for meat.

So my husband, who is definitely a believer in the good life until the “one bad day,” has taken those chickens more scones than I can count and has ensured they’re never without fresh food, water, and a clean place to live and play.

But, this weekend, the “one bad day” is upon us, and there’s definitely a tension in the air.

When we first decided we wanted to be hobby farmers, I did a lot of reading about farmers who love animals, eat meat, and struggle emotionally with the killing of their animals. It seems it’s quite common for the dread to creep in the days before “processing.” That’s where we are. Tomorrow is the day.

My husband says I don’t have to help, but I want to. First of all, it’s a lot of work, and this whole “self-sufficient farm thing” was my idea too. I don’t work outside the home as much as I used to, not nearly so much, so I do see the work on our hobby farm as my responsibility as well. But, second, it feels important to me. I feel like I should mourn those birds. I feel like I should have to know where my dinner is coming from and what the costs of it are.

I don’t know how much I’ll be able to write about it. I’m pretty sure I won’t be able to be the blogger who provides the step-by-step support for the process, as some helpful bloggers do—at least not for some time. But I hope to share what it feels like emotionally, and I do hope to be able to share some tips about things people can do to ensure a humane death for their chickens. We have done a lot of research. We’ll see how it goes tomorrow.

If nothing else, a goal I have for my writing is to help raise awareness about our food we eat. It’s way too easy not to think about where our food comes from. I think we should have to think about it, at least some. I think we should give thanks to the animals.

And we’ll see how I do with this. This time next week, I may be on another quest to become a vegetarian. I really hope not.

One day last week, a little girl from our neighborhood was at our house playing with our youngest son when she saw the coop for the broilers and asked why it was smaller. “How will they have room to lay eggs?” she asked. I told her that these birds would never lay eggs, that they were for meat. I worried about how she might take it.

“It’s a little sad, yes?” I asked her.

“It is,” she said, “but at least you’ll have food.”

Wise words.