On Planning Your Garden (in January)

My husband and I will be embarking on our fifth organic garden journey this spring, and this year, we’re planning ahead. Every year, we learn a little more about growing our own food, and while my husband specializes in the soil preparation in early spring, I specialize in dreaming about what we will plant and finding organic seeds from cool places.

Before it was even Christmas, my husband and I were talking about what new things we were going to try in the garden this year, how he was going to expand our garden area again, and how many rows of our tried and true favorites we would be planting.

And the truth is, while it seems early to be planning our garden for the summer while our driveway here in Maine is a giant sheet of ice, now really is the time to make your plans and order your seeds.

As you’re making your plans this month and dreaming of fresh strawberries and ripe tomatoes, here are a few things to keep in mind based on lessons our family has learned from our own organic gardening adventures.

harvest

I took this picture during one of our first fall harvests. I had never had a garden and tasted food fresh from the earth before. I was hooked!

Grow Foods You and Your Family Eat

There’s nothing worse than working for months, cooking something up, and having your kids say “I don’t like that.” That has never happened too much for our family, but it is an issue I’ve heard others talk about. Thankfully, our boys seem to be big fans of the garden harvest, but I have made a few mistakes in terms of the kinds of foods I actually know how to cook.

After a few years of trial and error, we realized that our family really eats things like onions, green beans, dried beans, carrots, and potatoes, so these foods get more space in the garden. If we try something new, we usually limit it to a half row to give it a trial run before we take away precious space from one of our staples.

Remember Some Fruits and Vegetables Need Two Years to Harvest

There are some foods that are going to require some delayed gratification, and this is never easy for me. I’ve been wanting to plant asparagus for years, but I can’t seem to get excited about it because, if you want it to last for years, you have to leave it alone the first year. I’m determined to show some discipline this year and plant that asparagus, but you should be aware that there are some things you have to wait until the following year to harvest if you want them to do well.

Strawberries and blueberries should be left alone the first year as well. And, of course, fruit trees will take some time, depending upon the kind of tree you buy.

Consider Harvest Timing

The seeds you buy will come with instructions for harvest timing or you can research the days to harvest online. You should also keep in mind when the food will become ripe and ready to harvest. Is that during your family vacation or when you have to work extra hours at work? The first few years we grew our garden, we had to work so many hours during the fall harvest that some of our harvest spoiled, and our hearts broke.

Make Your Plan

Once you have considered what your family wants and needs and can handle, you should make your plan. And, since you need a good plan before you buy your seeds, it’s good to sit down and make a plan for exactly what you will plant, how many rows you will plant, and when those seeds need to be in the ground or started inside.

You should also think about if you want to start with seeds or purchase starter plants from a local nursery in spring or summer. We’ve found that things like green beans, carrots, and dried beans grow easily from seeds. But we’ve frequently purchased starter plants for things like tomatoes and broccoli. This year, I’m determined to do some starters inside for those foods, but we’ll see how it goes. I tried last year and still ended up buying starter plants. Our cat kept eating my starters!

Purchase Your Seeds

Once you have your plan, gets your seeds early. You wouldn’t think so, but if you wait until too late, it can be difficult to find some seeds that are really popular. This happened to us last year with our favorite dried beans, so we saved some seeds for this year. But, if you’re just getting started, this can be an issue. I recommend checking with local nurseries and coops to make sure you are getting access to foods that grow well in your area.

This year, I’m planning to write a series of posts about the steps our family is taking to plan, plant, grow, and harvest our garden. I hope you’ll follow me on our journey and share your stories as well.

On Becoming a Maker in 2017

I’ve always been the kind of person who is hesitant about making New Year’s resolutions, but I made a couple last year that I mostly stuck to. This has me thinking I might try this again. Last year, I resolved to simplify my life and to eat more plants. Although I still have progress to be made in both areas, as we begin a new year, I realize I am doing better in terms of living simply and eating more plants.

With this in mind, I am trying this whole New Year’s resolution thing again.

For 2017, my big goal is to become more of a Maker. You may be wondering what it means to become a Maker, and it’s a pretty broad term. Essentially, just making some of the things you need instead of being a consumer makes you a Maker. But there are, of course, varying degrees of Maker-ness.

I have been working on this for some time, but a few goals have eluded me. I am hoping 2017 will be my year.

Here’s some of the progress I have made so far:

  • I learned to crochet scarves, and we really use them.
  • I cut everyone’s hair in our family, and I am not trained in this endeavor. I just watched, learned, and bought some really nice German scissors.
  • We raise chickens for eggs, and my husband raises some chickens for meat.
  • I make home-cooked meals for almost every meal. This has saved us a ton of money and had made us healthier.
  • My husband is relentless about repairing instead of replacing.

And these are my Maker goals for 2017:

  • Learn how to knit. I want to make socks and hats!
  • Re-learn how to can jams and jellies. About 15 years ago, I was taught how and did it a little, but I think I’m just going to have to re-learn this year.
  • Plant apple trees.

And, because I love infographics, I made one to emphasize some of the many benefits of becoming a Maker and trying to leave those consumer ways behind. I also have a few fun suggestions, but I would love to hear more.

be-a-maker_686_b990a3dff5be69339ffce636ab702430c22bf217

Do you have any Maker resolutions for 2017?

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 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 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.

first-chicken-dinner
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.

chickens-love-corn
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.

On a Dilemma of Ducks: Not All They’re “Quacked” Up to Be

duck

This week, I have my first guest blogger post. My husband, Ron Sands, agreed to write about our duck ducks for me. I’ve been wanting to devote a post to the ducks for months, but I’ve found myself unable to do the duck ducks justice. The duck ducks are really my husband’s babies. I think you’ll find his talent for duck-duck description quite enjoyable.

 

Ducks. As a matter of fact—ducks unlimited. No, not the wildlife, conservation organization, our fenced backyard. At least, at times, it seems so. We have six Indian Runners. They are the duck coterie, the crew, the collective—the Borg. We named one Seven; she is Seven of Six. She is Seven of Six because she is absolutely loud enough to be two ducks. She is also the smallest, which perhaps explains her emphatic and raucous need for attention.

This might be the point in the narration were the reader stops and asks, “Why in the world do you have six Indian Runner Ducks?” Believe me, I’m asking myself that at this point, too. According to the internet of all things, Indian Runner Ducks are excellent egg layers, compliment a garden well, and their antics are great fun to watch.

Well then, I thought maybe I’d get some eggs. That would be a great perk; I understand duck eggs are large and delicious. Rather than go online, we ordered the cheap ducks from a local Farmer’s Union—straight run only, minimum of six. I am always unrealistic about these things in that I always expect to lose a few birds. But, so far, out of 48 birds, counting chickens, we have lost just two—one was DOA, and the other died at around a year from being egg bound. That’s a 4% death ratio.

The ducks are showing no signs of ill health; four percent of six is roughly a quarter of a percent, which means their mortality, at best, likely will be limited to the loss of a few feathers. And the lottery gave us a 4-2 split that the house did not win. Four of those ducks are never going to lay anything but down. The only perk—males are far quieter than females.

Okay, so they will help control insects in the garden. Yes, well, Indian runners apparently do not have it in their DNA to “go around.” They are tramplers—single-minded, seemingly-oblivious tramplers. They recognize nothing as an obstacle that cannot be waddled, tripped, and flopped over. They do eat insects, however, and Japanese Beetles, for which our garden seems to be a destination resort, are a favorite. But vegetables in their path take a cumbrous and prolonged beating. I am amazed at how long it takes a duck to scramble, waddle, and quack through a bean plant.

Accordingly, I am now adept at catching Japanese Beetles. I’ve caught probably 200 this summer. Those ducks are eating right out of my hand. I guess it beats the beetle-drowning bucket.

baby duck
So, at first, there was nothing cuter in the world than one of our little Indian Runner ducks. But we should have known we were in trouble from the beginning. This little one is complaining on camera.

Well, they’ll be cute and the wife and the kid will enjoy them. That statement was rock-solid for the first month, mainly because the ducks were mostly too small to effectively express their ethnocentric-flavored xenophobia. (Their first swimming pool was a 9 x 6 baking dish.) While it is true, they will reliably show up for food—and eat beetles out of my hand—at any other time, they look at me as if I’m coming to collect the rent. Considering the 4-2 split, they might be on to something.

At the beginning of their second month, we turned them out; we also bought them a kiddie pool. I have since learned, it’s likely no accident the words foul and fowl are homonyms. Duck “tea” is not a pleasant liquid, and six ducks can brew it black, potent, and surprisingly quick. On the upside, it gets the compost pile “cooking,” and our corn is taller this year than it has ever been.

And, now, after three months and a recent pool-side exhibition worthy of a honeymoon hotel at Cabo, one that brought color to my somewhat worldly cheeks, I’m having to explain the farm facts of life to my seven-year-old. Indeed, the ducks are no longer cute.

Which brings me back to that rent. Just how delicious are recycled Japanese Beetles?

On Our Mobile Chicken Coop

This week was a big week for the Sands “Coop”eration. My husband built a mobile chicken coop for our broilers we purchased last month. The babies had been living in the brood box but were big enough to make the move outside, and we needed something sturdy for them to sleep in at night. We do live near the woods after all!

We are learning to be a little more self-sufficient all the time, and since we’re not vegetarians (I have tried and failed several times), we decided to get broilers or “meat birds.” We believe that, if we’re going to eat meat, we should know where it comes from. And, we’re taking it one step further and doing it ourselves.

At least that’s the plan.

It’s not going to be easy to kill our own food, but I’ll write and worry more about that another day. We’ve been watching videos and reading about humane and respectful deaths for chickens, but, for now, I’ll just say that I’ve tried to be very careful not to get too attached to the broilers.

Food; water; how are you doing? In and out.

Unfortunately, these birds are extremely docile and friendly, much more so than our Rhode Island Reds and ISA Browns. Our layers are more mistrustful, and you have to earn their trust. The little broilers just come right up to you, all sweet and curious.

Thanks, universe, for making this even harder. Just what I needed, right?

But we are, of course, of the notion that we want these birds to live a merry life, though it will be a short one, so my husband built them some nice accommodations this week, complete with wheels, so they can move to different parts of the yard and explore new areas.

This week, I share some of his process and the beautiful end results.

framing the coop
Here, my husband is just getting it started. As someone who can’t build a thing, I’m so amazed that this is the beginning of something so substantial.

 

bottom of chicken coop
My husband has framed out the bottom of the coop here. In an effort to be frugal, he used a lot of parts and scraps he had around. The “mobile” part of the coop was built in an axle he created. He used our son’s old bicycle wheels for the “mobile” part of the coop.

 

Entire frame for chicken coop
And it’s looking like a chicken house!

 

Mobile Coop Finished and Red
Here it is finished and in action. My husband very creatively built a slider system to make it easier to get into the coop for cleaning and feeding and watering. He used shower rollers on the roof for the rolling. I’m pretty sure he could have been an engineer.

 

Moving the Coop
And here’s the mobile coop being mobile. Of course, our youngest had to help, and he was a great help. He helped scoop up almost every one of those chickens.

 

Chicken Coop in the Trees
Here are the chickens with their new home. My husband built a large temporary run and even a little gate. The chickens seem to be in heaven out there!

Ultimately, it seems like a beautiful little place to be a little chicken. The chickens run around during the day and sleep in their sturdy little red house at night.

I think we need a sign above the door though, like the one we have over the door of our main chicken coop, but I don’t know what it should say. The grim part of me thinks it should read “Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate” or “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.” I mean, I know what’s coming. I’m a little worried and have a bit of dread.

But I think my husband’s idea is better: “It’s a merry life but a short one.”

I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, my husband just kind of invented his way around in creating this mobile chicken house, but if you’re interested in building your own, here are some resources.