It’s spring and the seed racks beckon and tease. Above the feed store, the sign in bold shouts “The chicks are in!”
It’s a time to clean house and reset priorities, a time for faith, renewal, reflection, the promise of a temporary release from winter’s grip.
Outside our house there’s a new 8” of snow, the wood stove is going and we are sharing our living room with four pens of 100 chicks.
Once upon a time Old MacDonald had a farm: a couple of chickens scratching in the yard, a milk cow with a name and a wife that cooked. Now and then they sat down exhausted to enjoy the products of their efforts.
Today, people wait in line at the drive through for an “Egg McMuffin” which they consume in their car on they way to work. McDonald’s used 600 million eggs in 2005 alone.
But do you know where your food comes from? Can you afford to care when you are late and borrowing from the next paycheck?
Americans as a whole spend less of their earnings proportionately on food than any other nation.
Less than two percent of the population are farmers feeding the other 98 percent and much of the rest of the world.
Cheap food is neither cheap nor food. While the agricultural/industrial revolution fuels the ever-increasing demands of a growing population, what is the cost to the health of the planet and the structure of a society still dependent upon it?
Is the current interest in all things “Foodie,” local, raw, organic, Vegan, “sourced” and so on a flash back to the 70s back-to-the-land movement, a revisiting of the romantic idealism of the Victorians, or one final fling with a Slow Food picnic before digitally cloud computing to hyperspace?
Are we more connected by blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Skype, less lost with GPS, or yearning to find a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) share to put us in touch with our roots?
In the west, we don’t plant until after Memorial Day and by June 5 it’s too late.
Not much leeway. The seed racks are filled with promise, cooking shows abound, magazine covers shine, the library shelves fill with how-to inspiration on the latest craze to hit the backyard: Chickens!
Meanwhile, in the store, the lettuce on the shelves has doubled in price and looks terrible due to a freeze in Mexico and local eggs are up to $6/dozen.
So maybe the consumer wants to try their hand at raising something, but where and when, and how—between the job (or finding one), kids, aging parents, and life?
There will be no more vacations, but that baby chick is so cute! At $2.89-$3.29 it comes with a carrying box, a few shavings, and will have already been named by the time you reach the register.
Pullets, those are the girls, are the ones that lay the eggs. They are already sexed and that’s why they cost more. Straight run chicks less expensive but they are also unsexed, so there is at least a 50 percent chance one of them will crow. This risk makes the option a no-no in city limits.
Hens can still lay eggs without a rooster, but having one around does keep the girls content, protected, and alerted to newly-found food sources when allowed to forage freely.
“Food, Water, Shelter” is the farmer’s mantra. Take care of these needs and a peaceable kingdom is obtainable.
With chickens, consider the operation will be replacing the mother hen so a heat lamp and bulb and a reliable power source will be needed. These things catch fire and more than one chick has been fried, not to mention whole structures.
A waterer, less than $10, plastic (tops and bottoms sold separately, they break), and more for metal, but they rust.
Feeders are less than $5 (guessing, they last forever, I got mine at an auction 25 years ago) but as the chickens grow they will need different sizes. Shavings are $5 to $6: grit, oyster shell, we’re getting ahead already and the chick has not even survived the trip home (not too cold, not too hot and go straight there, you’re are done shopping).
Don’t forget the feed. Ask what they are presently eating, meaning if they have had their first drink and bite. 50 pounds of feed costs about $15 to $18. Some places sell 5-pound designer bags for starters. Note too, you will soon be looking for a truck or SUV, and a partner. Remember, there is usually help to load the rig at the store but the help does not follow you home. Think of it as an opportunity to give up a gym membership, and never having to pay for a work out again!
If the token chick (best to get a few more to cover your losses and for companionship of the same kind when you are not there) survives the first 24 to 48 hours, jet lag, mauling by little ones and assimilation with other pets with previously established territory, you have made a career change and a commitment to the out-of-doors once the chick is ready to move outside. We don’t keep animals, they keep us (often on a short tether).
There will be a serious investment in infrastructure. Hopefully the fencing came before the chicken. My first pigs stayed in a discarded appliance box while I fashioned the first of a long series of many temporary housing units for them. But back to the chickens, don’t forget the garden hose, shovel, rake, and the hen house or variation on the theme.
Definitely do not mix chickens and pigs as pigs will happily eat chickens and not tell you about it except for the leftover feet. Don’t forget the power bill, smell and clean up.
You will meet the neighborhood through their dogs and the silent marauders whose stealth keeps you wondering; was it a cat, skunks (they come in threes), raccoon families, weasels, mink, fox, coyote, cold, heat wave, drought, wolves, bears, city regulators and county livestock taxes.
But what about the first egg? You will wait, all the while feeding, hauling water while housing, cleaning, hoping, for 16 to 24 weeks for the first one.
It will be priceless.
Wait another week and you will have enough to invite friends for brunch and you will shine, resplendent in personal empowerment to do for yourself and your family, appreciative of the taste of the real thing, nourished by the knowledge and enriched by the closest thing to a complete protein. It’s love, pure and simple.
There will be another lone egg tomorrow or the next. Hens only at most can lay one a day and two out of three is not bad.
You’re hooked for life or at least until you have to buy another bag of feed, or the neighbor dogs find a hole in the fence, or the it- turned -she- turned egg machine shuts down production and is still eating while taking a much needed break and sadly, eventually, inevitably, you may have to find out how to kill a chicken, if it hasn’t already otherwise met with fate.
To everything, there is a season, even for eggs. Why are eggs so cheap at Easter? Because they are old, have been stockpiled in the warehouse and are used to get customers in to the store to buy something else, like a dye kit. Just like that chick was a lead in to your life as a farmer.
But the chick allowed you the freedom to do for yourself, to become a producer as well as a consumer, a provider, and it afforded you access to not only a lifestyle few others enjoy but to savor the flavor of something so fundamental and essential. To have had a taste of reality, pure and simple in all its complexity you will now know its price.
Or you can keep the polish, heels, lipstick, suit and day job and vote with your dollars. Will you outsource jobs? Will you buy organic? Will you buy local? Can you depend on trucked-in commodities from a place you don’t know whose practices may be suspect? Do you rely on over-regulated, understaffed, politically motivated, middlemen to make your decisions? Who feeds the chickens whose eggs you eat and what? Cage free? Free Range? Organic? Local? California? Montana? Paper or Plastic? So many decisions.
99¢ to $6 per dozen I cannot tell you which ones to buy, but I can tell you which ones are freshest because I just gathered and delivered them to the grocery shelves from a farm nine miles away and trust me, sometimes that’s as close as you want to be to a chicken.
At least we still have choices and the freedom and obligation to make educated decisions. I cannot afford to buy my eggs nor can I afford to charge any less but I will not feed my family any others (we eat the cracked and misshapen that don’t make it to market).
The price of freedom is constant vigilance or one good egg from the hands of a neighbor. Chickens earn their keep and supply a local sustainable protein source and I can help you get started with raising your own.
Who’s your farmer? Know your source. Ask questions. We’re all in this together and serve at the pleasure of the planet. Farm visits welcome (please leave your dog home!) at Willow Bend Produce at 271 Cokedale Road.
—I. A. Carlhian