On Tragedy, Tom Petty, and a Chicken Named Mary Jane

I’ve tried many times in my life to be a vegetarian. I’ve failed every time. One time, I did make it about 9 months, but I gave into the best cheeseburger I’ve ever eaten.

But I don’t like the way our food industry treats animals, so my husband and I started our own little backyard homestead, where we raise the biggest vegetable garden we can manage, chickens for eggs, and, yes, chickens for meat. That last part is hard on our hearts–always.

October 2, 2017 was the biggest day of chicken processing we’ve ever had. It takes a lot to get ready for it, and you have get ready for it mentally as well. For me, it’s a day when I start thinking a whole lot about death, what it means to be human, the ethics of eating meat, and my own mortality.

So when we woke up early that morning to the news about the tragedy in Las Vegas, I wondered if I would be able to hold up. For me, the worst part of the mass shooting is I have no hope that our country is ever going to do anything to try to stop this, so that hopelessness, which hurts so badly, kicks in and wears me out.

But there’s so much prep that goes into chicken processing I knew we had to proceed and that I would have to suck it up and be tough. I feel everything so deeply (not something that I like about myself because life is not fun this way for sure), but I can be tough when I have to be. I knew I would need to be tough. It would be much worse to put off processing the chickens.

It always starts the same. It’s easier at first. My husband, Ron, is careful, quick, and kind, and the chickens don’t know what’s going on. But, as their numbers start to dwindle, the chickens get suspicious. It gets harder to catch them. They fight against being caught–and rightly so. And, so my mind turns to heavy thoughts, and I start wanting to keep some chickens, even though I completely understand that the chickens we’re processing are a type of chicken that may not have a long normal chicken life.

But, still, it’s always the same. I start hinting around about saving some of the last ones, keeping some, the ones who have made it. People can say what they want, but I know the chickens know what’s going on, at least on some level, even though we try to hide it from them. My husband always makes me be practical. We don’t have the room. Meat birds don’t live very long lives anyway, usually.

But October 2 would be different.

While my husband worked on the next chicken, I had a few minutes for a break, so I went to my computer and checked Facebook. It was then I discovered Tom Petty had passed away. I just stared for a long time, and then the tears came. It was too much for one day, I thought. I loved Tom Petty. My husband did too. I went out to tell him.

“Tom Petty died today,” I said.

“What?!” he asked.

“I just read online that Tom Petty died today.”

There was a long silence as my husband continued his work. I knew he was sad, and I felt heartbroken, but we continued our work. I can’t even tell you how much I loved my husband in that moment. My heart was so broken, and I could tell he was really sad too. He got it. He got how important Tom Petty was, and my husband would become even more awesome to me that afternoon.

After a while, the conversation came up. We had just a couple of chickens left, and the last one was a little girl. She had eluded capture all day, and she was worried for sure. I hinted that we could really use another layer, and, that day, my husband agreed. I heard him ask our son, should we save this last one to be a layer? He’s eight, so, of course, he said yes. I was happy. And I really needed some happy that day.

Mary Jane
This is our Mary Jane hanging out with our sweet rooster, Rooster. She’s doing a pretty good job of fitting into the flock, even though she’s still kind of an outsider. I think Rooster loves her though.

Her name is Mary Jane, and she’s a beautiful, wild, mistrustful little hen. It’s been a little over two weeks, and just this week, she started coming for treats with the rest of the chickens. I love her already, and I am so thankful for Mary Jane and that little bit of happiness that came at the end of such a tough day.

Mary Jane doesn’t know it (But maybe she does. After all, who am I to say?), but she’s going to have the best little chicken life a chicken can have. She doesn’t let me pet her yet, but I’ll keep working on that.

Mary Jane’s last dance will, hopefully, be many years from now. Tom Petty’s music touched so many people’s lives in so many ways, and on the day he died, he touched our family so much that Mary Jane lived.

On Dogs, Chickens, and Property Lines: How to Avoid Tragedy

chickens inside fence

I read about this kind of issue all the time in chicken forums online. Chickens and dogs do not understand property boundaries, which makes for some stressful situations for both chicken and dog owners.

Newspapers around the country are reporting today that a man in Massachusetts shot a young Golden Retriever five times after the dog reportedly killed one of his chickens. The owners of the dog were letting their dogs run on their nine acre property when one of their dogs made his way to the neighbors and apparently killed a chicken.

chickens inside fence
Good fences make good neighbors, or so said Frost, especially when dogs and chickens are involved. Photo credit: Rowan S., Unsplash.

Dogs, especially younger dogs, and chickens often do not mix well. We have two Livestock Guardian dogs, and both of them had to be taught very carefully and thoroughly not to chase and hurt the chickens. Our dogs now understand and guard our hens, but, when they were puppies, our chickens running and flapping from them was just too tempting. We had to stay on the dogs every minute for several months, so it’s easy for me to see how a young dog could so easily get caught up in the moment and kill a chicken.

Gus
This is our Great Pyrenees, Gus. It took many months and lots of attention before he could be trusted with our chickens. Young dogs are just drawn to the quick movements of our backyard flock.

It’s no doubt a tragedy of epic proportions for the family who lost their beloved pet, but as a chicken mama, I’ve seen how hard it can be on people when they lose their chickens, especially when they lose them violently. A criminal investigation is under way in the case of the Massachusetts man, but this story has me thinking a lot about what I would do if a young dog were attacking my chickens. Honestly, I can’t imagine killing a dog for killing my chickens, though I love my chickens so much. I would be very angry at the dog owners, but there are so many things I think I would try before I resorted to killing.

But this story also has me thinking about we can all do, as both chicken and dog owners, to help avoid these kinds of tragedies.

As owners of both chickens and dogs, it seems the most obvious answer is for all of us to work so hard to make sure our animals stay on our property.

Of course, I do realize things happen. Chickens get creative and can suddenly fly. Dogs take off. One time, a neighbor little boy left our back door open, and I didn’t see it. Within minutes, our hound was roaming the neighborhood, so I understand things happen. But that’s my first tip. We have to make this our number one goal! If your dog gets out, there is a real possibility it could hurt someone or someone’s chickens. You have to stay on top of your animals, first and foremost!

If you have chickens and free range them, you have to know the risks.

I think most chicken owners do. If it’s not the neighbor’s dog, it could be a fox, a raccoon, a large cat. There are so many potential predators out there. It really is best to keep them inside a fence if you can. Before my husband built our fence, we let our chickens free range, and I knew it was risky. We were outside counting those chickens about 15 times a day!

If a dog does come after your chickens, consider all safe possibilities before resorting to a gun.

Can you safely intervene? Can you get help getting your chickens put away? Can you do something to distract the dog? If you are faced with a pack of dogs, this is something very different. You should never put yourself at risk, even for your chickens you love so much. Call 911 to get some help.

If your dog is responsible for harming chickens on someone else’s property, in addition to offering your apologies and condolences, you should offer to pay for the damages and the chickens.

Chickens are a valuable resource and mean food for families.

If a dog harms or kills your chickens, before you resort to “tit for tat,” try talking to the owners.

See if they are willing to do something about the problem. If that doesn’t work, getting the authorities involved is your best bet.

It’s never easy to deal with something like this. Our animals do not understand our property boundaries unless we put up fences. If you’re unable to put up fencing for your dogs or your chickens, it’s so important to be diligent and make sure your animals stay on your property. It’s the best way to avoid a terrible tragedy like the one in Massachusetts.

On Raising a Sweet Rooster

I’ve been reading chicken blogs, chicken forums, and following chicken Facebook groups for several years, and I’ve read some mixed reviews of keeping roosters. We had chickens a for quite a while before we made the leap and got a rooster for our flock.

We accidentally ended up with two roosters (story below), and so far, both of them are relatively sweet boys. They are mostly grown but still immature, and I keep watching and waiting for major signs of aggression. Based on what I read, I’ve been worried they are going to turn into mean roosters one day, but I’m starting to hope that we have two sweet roosters.

Is that possible? It is possible to raise a sweet rooster?

Rooster
This is our accidental rooster named Rooster. He’s our rooster who really seems to worry about the flock. He frets every time something isn’t right.

And I’m not talking about the roos who live in people’s houses. I expect them to be sweet. They get so much human contact that you just know they’re going to grow up and be sweet. I’m talking about the farm roosters who protect their flocks and live in the barn or the coop and, of course, have human contact but nowhere near the contact a house rooster gets.

And, by the way, if you were unaware that people have pet chickens in their homes, let me tell you: It’s true! There are many people who keep chickens as house pets because chickens are so sweet and smart. The chickens have to wear little chicken diapers, but people do it. If I could, I might try to let my favorite chicken, Poe, move in our house, but my husband thinks this is not a good idea. So there’s that.

Anyway, so far, my experiences tell me it might be possible to raise a sweet rooster, so I did some research. It turns out that there are some strategies to help promote sweetness—or at least good behavior—in a rooster, and I was accidentally doing some of these things, just following my instincts with my flock. I was impressed with myself!

I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m bragging. I’m not. I was just really impressed with myself that this once city girl and academic had some proper gut instincts in relation to our farm animals! I have grown!

But I won’t keep these strategies to myself any longer. Here’s what my research revealed about how to raise a sweet rooster, and, so far, these tips have worked for me.

Handle your rooster as much as you can as early as you can.

We were able to do this a lot with the Rhode Island Red rooster we bought as a baby, but we accidentally got a second rooster in a group of chickens that were supposed to be girls. I was outside last summer cleaning water and filling up food buckets when I heard a big crow come from a direction where there shouldn’t have been a crow. It turned out we had another roo, and since we had the space and enough hens, we decided to keep him. So we started holding and petting him as much as we could from that day forward.

The idea, of course, is to humanize them as much as you can, and the handling is how you do it. If your rooster is not a fan, use bribes. Treats are a good way to get your rooster to hang out with you a bit.

Don’t let your rooster mate in front of you.

You want to be kind about this, and you don’t want to kick or hurt your rooster, but, apparently, it shows your rooster that you are the boss if you don’t let him mate in front of you. I was doing this before I read about this as a strategy just because chicken mating is pretty aggressive, and I didn’t like one of my sweet girls getting jumped. So I just take my foot and scoot the rooster right off when he jumps on a hen in front of me. Not everyone agrees with this strategy, but, in my research, it came up time and time again.

If he gets aggressive, hold him or give him a time out.

If your rooster does get aggressive, it’s best if you can just pick him up and hold him firmly until. he settles down. I have also read about the method of picking him up by his feet and carrying him around a bit upside down, but I also read this can be dangerous if he happens to have something in his mouth when you do this. So I would recommend just holding if you can. Time out in another area also seems to work well.

Never, ever hit or kick your rooster, unless you are defending yourself or your kiddos.

Over and over again, the most important I read is to never hit or kick your rooster. You don’t want to hurt him—ever. He’s going to have instincts you will want to work with, and unless you just have to fight back to defend yourself, never hit him.

Of course, reading this list, you may be wondering if roosters are worth it. There are a lot of people who keep chickens who never want to mess with the trouble of a roo. They can crow quite loudly. And, in addition to being aggressive toward people, roosters can be aggressive to your hens, and this just makes them not worth it to many people. I do understand.

However, roosters will provide protection for your flock and can be raised to be kinder. And, if you want to raise your own baby chickens, you’re going to need a rooster.

And, so far, our experiences with roosters are pretty positive. The two we have, Runkle and Rooster, are at least pretty sweet. We can hold them, though they gripe about it a bit. And Rooster is a great guard rooster. He worries about the girls, gets stressed if something is out of sorts, and is the last one into the coop every night. He’s a good boy!

If you have rooster tips or experiences, please share below. I’m still learning, but so far, I’m a fan of roosters. Our roosters are pretty good boys, but I’ve read that even a mean rooster can be rehabilitated if you’re willing to work with him.

Of course, the best plan seems to be to try to raise a sweet rooster from the beginning.

On Preparing to Get Your First Backyard Chickens

Chickens are awesome. They just are.

And, as more people begin to figure this out, the word is spreading. I know many people who are considering backyard homesteading and want to start with chickens, and with good reason. Chickens are great producers of food, highly efficient, relatively easy to care for, sweet, interesting, smart, funny, and quirky. They’re a good homesteading animal to start with.

I dreamed of having our own chickens for years before we finally had a place where we could give them a nice coop, plenty of space, and would have the time to care for them. And, when we did get our chickens, it didn’t take long for me to fall in love with them.

guiniveve

This is Guiniveve, and she has more personality than I thought a chicken could have. She’s also a great layer and just a sweet hen.

We started with 17 Rhode Island Reds, and I loved those girls from the start. They were my babies, and they changed my life. But I won’t go on and on here about how much I love my chickens or how much they have taught me; I want to focus this post on helping you answer this question:

What happens when you finally decide you can get those backyard chickens you’ve been thinking about?

I learned fairly quickly that, while chickens really are relatively easy to take care of, there’s a lot than can go wrong. So you have to be prepared going in. Preparedness is going to be especially helpful if you find that you love the little girls like I do and can’t bear the thought of losing one.

And, I’m just going to assume right now, if you get chickens, you will love them and want to learn as much as you can about them because, well, you’re probably just going to love them.

With that in mind, here’s a list of 5 tips I have for being prepared to get chickens for your backyard homestead.

Do some research about keeping chickens with good books and sites.

I’m a slow mover, so I read books and sites for about two years before we finally got our girls, but I think that’s probably a little overboard. Still, I recommend going to this site, Fresh Eggs Daily, and reading every single link on caring for chickens. The site is awesome, and Lisa Steele really knows her stuff. Her advice has saved more than one of my girls, and I am forever thankful! You can also order some helpful books here.

You should also check out these helpful resources from your local university extension office. The University of Maine Cooperative Extension office here in Maine provides a number of helpful publications on chickens as well as a number of web resources on everything from selling eggs to chicken nutrition.

Give them a home safe from predators.

Thanks to our neighbors who already had chickens, I learned about the high number of predators in our area. While it helped that my husband had grown up with chickens, I think having an awareness of the types of predators in our area also helped us make good decisions about the chicken coop.

We decided to keep it as close to the house as possible. This makes daily chicken chores easier, but it also adds protection. I have seen coops out near the woods, and those people tend to lose a lot of chickens.

Keep your coop close if you can, and having dogs around seems to help a lot. Make sure your coop is sturdy and can be closed up at night. There are just too many predators that can get at your chickens at night.

We also have two roosters, and they really do seem to help guard the flock. There are pros and cons to roosters, though, and one of them is the crowing. I like the crowing, but you should check to see if roosters are allowed in your area. Some towns will allow hens but not roosters.

Consider breed and number.

You want to consider climate, temperament, your space, and your goals as a chicken farmer when you’re choosing your choosing breed and making decisions on how many chickens you’ll get. We wanted a smart breed that was winter hardy and great layers, so we chose Rhode Island Reds for our first hens. They have been wonderful! But there are other breeds that work very well in Maine.

Here’s a link from The Livestock Conservancy that will let you download a chicken breed comparison chart. But you should also ask around; ask friends and neighbors for their experiences and recommendations.

Be aware you will have chores.

So, yeah, chickens are easy farm animals to care for, but they’re still work. As you do your research, you’ll find this out, which is why that research is so important. Chickens need fresh water every day and clean food and clean facilities. This means you will have some daily chores, which can feel a little tougher in the winter. We also shovel a run for our chickens in the winter, so it adds to my husband’s snow shoveling duties.

You’ll also need to do health inspections on your chickens to make sure all is well. But I’ve found that, if you spoil your chickens, the health inspections are easier. They don’t run too much when you try to catch them and don’t make too much of a fuss as you are investigating vents, legs, eyes, feathers, etc.

Get connected to chicken communities.

I’ve found that being connected to some excellent chicken communities has been so helpful. If I’m having a health issue with a chicken that I just can’t figure out or I’m just worried about, I can post a picture and description to the Maine Poultry Connection, a Facebook group, and get tons of help and advice. I’ve also learned so much by just following the threads and reading. There are MANY chicken communities online, and you’re likely to be able to find a community particular to your state on Facebook.

There’s a lot to consider, but I found that, once you’ve done your research and done your best to be prepared, don’t be afraid to just dive right in. There’s a lot that we’ve learned along the way and things I couldn’t have been prepared for, like the time I was running around the yard trying to shoo away a hawk or the way my girls stole my heart.

Once you’ve made your decision and are ready to purchase, I recommend purchasing local if you can, but you can purchase from national hatcheries. Just be aware that some post offices seem to be more prepared for handling boxes of live chickens than others. Ours is great, but I’ve heard stories about boxes of chickens arriving without many survivors. So local purchases are really a good way to go if you can.

I wish you the best with your backyard flock, and I hope they bring you as much joy and breakfasts as our girls have brought our family!

On the Year of the Rooster

Chinese New Year is coming, and it’s the year of the rooster! This is going to mean a lot to my fellow chicken friends.

rooster
Photo credit: Paulo Morales, Unsplash

I would love to sit here and pretend I’m this cultured person who has traveled the world and fully appreciates all the beautiful cultures our big world has to offer, but the truth is that this is just what I aspire to be. So I, shameful as it is to admit, originally grew excited about the Chinese New Year because it’s the year of the rooster—and, well, if you’ve read my blog before, you know I love all things chicken.

Now, I really was always pretty interested in the Chinese New Year anyway. As I said, I aspire to be more cultured and learn more about the world, but I never took the time to dig into the history behind this lovely holiday. Then, when I saw it was the year of the rooster, I was super excited about the holiday. Shallow, I know.

But somewhere along the lines, in my daily self analysis, I realized I should research the holiday and use this opportunity to teach my son and myself a little about Chinese culture.

Before I developed this plan to learn more, my knowledge of the Chinese New Year was limited to having some fascination with Chinese astrology and finding out that I was born in the year of the rabbit. According to what I’ve read, this means I am cautious, patient, quiet, kind of a worrier, and also stubborn and melancholy. I’m like, yeah, that about sums it up. I like this stuff!

But I never really investigated the history of the holiday—until the rooster.

And what I learned with my son has us both excited to learn so much more about this holiday.

  • The Chinese New Year celebration is thousands of years old. It’s so old, there is some debate, apparently, about when it started. It’s the most important festival in Chinese culture.
  • The myth behind the holiday is that, long ago, a monster named Nian (which also means year) would come on the first day of the year and eat the crops and the livestock. But the people learned that Nian was afraid of red and loud noises, so people started decorating their homes in red and using fireworks to keep Nian away. Since the Chinese invented fireworks, this makes sense.
  • The celebration lasts 15 days, and people celebrate with fireworks, costumes, parades, and people give gifts of money in red envelopes. We learned that the money gifts should be in even numbers, and it’s considered rude to open your red envelope in front of the giver.

Of course, this is just a bit about the holiday, and it’s a fascinating event. Thankfully, here in Bangor, we’re going to be able to expand our learning about Chinese New Year this weekend. There’s a Chinese New Year parade at our local mall, and I encourage you to check in your area, as, chances are, there’s something fun and educational going on.

I have a lot more to learn, but I’m going to keep at it. My curiosity has been sparked, and my son’s has been as well. We’re headed to the library to pick up some books, and in addition to attending our local parade, we’ll be having Chinese food on Saturday.

You can read more about the history of this holiday here, and you can learn about your Chinese astrology sign here. It’s fascinating!

Also, I’ll confess, I will be taking advantage of this opportunity to get some rooster gear. I already found some flour sack dish towels with red roosters on them. My frugality goals went out the door, but I’m giving myself a pass. I mean, really…

It’s the year of the rooster!

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 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.