Every little girl dreams of the day when she will grow up and meet her fabled farmer on his trusty, rusty tractor, and ride off into the sunset with him to the land of chickens, eggs, and feathered dreams come true.
Wait, that’s not how it goes?
You’re right, it wasn’t like that for me either.
Nevertheless it’s the Happily Ever After I am living. And I’m glad it is…but it wasn’t always so.
As mentioned before, I grew up all over the country and traveled a lot in between. But my love of animals, nature, solitude, and stubbornly independent ways altered little from age two.
As a little girl in southern California I loved being taken to the agriculture section of the local college, because I could see all the animals the students were working with and help out wherever they let me. As a preschooler I spent a lot of time in my tropical backyard with a bucket, grubbing snails to bring over to our neighbor’s white duck, Webster. Yes, these suburbanites had a duck in their backyard, a rabbit living in their tub, a pet rat in their attic, and a wall of reptiles in their teenager’s bedroom: they were a family after our own heart. Said Webster adored snails and would gobble them gratefully, while the neighbors themselves would always chat with me and my cousin and once even let us eat one of their duck eggs. It was my very first taste of fresh eggs.
We quickly outgrew our west coast suburban era and moved across the country to 20 acres in New Hampshire, where I fell in love with all things wild and wonderful. Sometimes we visited a nearby farm where a sweet turkey named Emma resided. She was a calm bird and patiently suffered my kindergarten affection. We hadn’t yet had any of our own farmyard birds (My short-lived little parakeet that ended in the paws of a kitty didn’t really count).
But one autumn as I rambled I heard the strangest sound echoing down the country road. The only thing I could think of was that it sounded as if a lone rooster were crowing somewhere, even though we knew our neighbor’s didn’t have chickens. No one believed me until later that evening, when a handsome young cockerel came striding up the long driveway with all the purpose of a bird intending to stay. He did, and we named him Clementine. He was beautiful, with reddish-gold plumage and a glorious white tail.
He was our pet until he decided he was cock of the walk and began to make our lives miserable, both for me (age 6.5) and for my little sister (age 3.5). We had to play everywhere with a solid stick in hand, lest the feathered beast attack while we were out romping. This was a big downside to our first chicken, and for a while there we lived in terror of his beady eyes and sharp beak. One afternoon he set upon me on the long grassy lawn, and I took off as fast as I could to escape him. In the flight I lost a shoe. When I was out of range and catching my breath, I came to my senses. No dumb bird should have the power to scare me like that and make me lose my shoe! I turned right around and went after that bird with a rage and a will and probably gave that wicked rooster the fright of his life. His reign of terror ended then and there; he never chased me again.
Furthermore, we were friends. I wasn’t afraid of him anymore, and I could scoop him up whenever I wanted and stroke his sleek feathers and generally trundle him about on my wanderings. I was able to save even some adults from his attacks in the future, including rescuing one comical young marine who was positively terrified of our feathery guard fowl. We let Clementine in the house sometimes and I remember him fondly. I even saved enough money from cleaning his chicken shed to buy my first pocket knife, which earned him a permanent place in my heart. I was sad when he had to go to live on another farm. Even more so when a friend let slip that that farm placement probably included a one way trip to someone’s oven. Gulp.
When I was 7 we also experienced the fun of having a small flock of Musgovy ducks on our pond, and we were graced with periodic sojourns by Canadian geese and blue herons. Whenever we visited my Chesapeake Bay grandparents I spent a lot of time on the docks, communing with the white ducks that waddled by the water. I loved pretty much any creature I came across.
When I was 8 we moved to Florida, and there was a lull in my barnyard fowl experiences. We caught lots of wild birds and tried to save fallen nestlings, but that’s not quite the same thing. When I was 10 we went on up to North Carolina, where life was more about rabbits, horses, and goats than birds. But when I was 12 we bought a 350 acre farm up in western West Virginia and my country dreams really began to come true.
One of the many experiences of this new farm life was having our own chickens and raising our own meat birds for the freezer. My Dad built a clever raised chicken run, and a little chicken house with a door that opened behind the nests for easy egg collecting. At first I really enjoyed collecting the eggs and naturally we gave all of our chickens names. Our handsome rooster was called Rhett Butler, a pretty Rhode Island Red was Scarlett, a plump black and white Barred Rock hen was Mammy, and so on and so forth according to whatever story or movie theme we thought of at the time. I soon found that cleaning the houseful of messy birds was kind of an icky chore, but I liked the novelty of having our very own laying chickens.
Then came the mail ordered chicks. They came in a box of fluffy, downy cuteness and we snuggled and petted and named as many as we could. They started yellow but soon turned white, and grew so fast they struggled to walk properly. One named Skittles was injured by our rooster, and we separated it for recovery. Resting in the knowledge that Skittles was safe and unharmed, my sister and I sat down to dinner that night only to be hit with the shock that our chicken dinner was in fact our sweet Skittles. It was more than a little hard to swallow, even though we knew that was the end of our meat bird all along. I never felt the same about eating chicken after that, especially after seeing the butchering process from afar. But it was very enlightening and we were glad we were having the old fashioned experiences, even if some of them were sad. Only my brave cousin dared to be involved in the actual dispatching, which earned him a hilarious story in the annals of our family but gave him an experience he didn’t really want to repeat for a good while.
On our next farm we kept our hens but took a break from butchering meat chickens, and instead added ducklings to the menagerie. Not our first, but certainly great fun to keep around our pond, in company with the big gray goose we called “Hissy.” The goose had adopted us voluntarily, though she remained aloof as a pet and prone to pecking.
We had fun entering our prized fowl in the county fair, and racked up ribbons of all sorts with our barnyard menagerie. But in all the muck and feathers and mess and day to day slogging between farm chores and birds, my joy in chickens began to wane markedly. By the time we moved to the suburbs after 10th grade, I decided that I was done with poultry altogether, and the nastiness of chickens in particular. They were just too disgusting to mess with. Never again, said I, never again.
Never say never in life, folks.
Then I met this boy. A boy who loved the country and was as smart as they come. A boy who noticed me, miraculous as that seemed. A boy with more than a pocketful of innovative dreams of his own. And he swept me off my feet and on into a lifetime of adventure.
After college and six brief moves later we landed in Illinois with a one year old, a two week old, and a one acre house of dreams nestled between a small farm to the south, a country neighborhood to the west and north, and a cornfield stretching off to the east. It was the perfect haven to start our life of raising littles, a family which soon grew to four darling rascals under 4 with about a million diapers in between. We explored, gardened, fixed up our nearly 90 year old farm house (this guy of mine is incredibly handy), let the munchkins climb trees and come home wild and happy with purple hands and feet from munching mulberries straight out of the shrubbery.
Finally, we branched out into mini-homesteading; a dream near and dear to our hearts since day one. We got a milk cow and rabbits and a pony; made butter and ice cream and cheese. And in all that country fun I realized that really, we had room for chickens. Even if I didn’t like them. Even if the thought of them was still pretty gross. I know I said never again, but…it was a new era. And there was all that room for birds to roam…all that wonderful foraging. There was that little shed just right for small animals. And the thought of fresh eggs. What a neat experience it would be for the kids to have chicks of their own. I could face chickens again, right? So I broached the subject, and Mark readily agreed.
First came sweet little chicks peeping in our palms. Then came chickens peeking in our doors and perching on our deck and trying to share our outdoor breakfasts. (Not to mention the pony that climbed the steps to eat our bagels and the cow that came to drink out of our little pool.) Next came scraggly adolescent roosters gargling their attempts at crowing that sounded more like strangled goats and woke us way too early. And then came eggs. Dozens and dozens of farm fresh beauties that the kiddos helped to wash and with which we could make so many fun things.
And with with grown chickens came another phase: butchering chickens. No more watching from a distance, but hands on, feathers in your face and slime on your fingers experience. Never my favorite part, but it was fascinating. And the independence of it all was exhilarating.
Mark soon had designed his own incubator from a plastic tote bin and a humidifier, and we were hatching our own little balls of fluff with our preschoolers and kindergarteners in wide-eyed and joyful participation. It was messy, but so much fun to introduce the homesteading life to our kids.
The next year we bought lots of ducklings and fully enjoyed their splashing antics and cute ways before they, too, ended up in our freezer. It was truly an experience. And we realized, this one acre bit of land just wasn’t enough for all we wanted to do.
So we moved to Oklahoma and settled into a little green house on 54 acres with a gorgeous creek running along the side of the property. And set about exploring our new world and making it home. Of course, within 4 days of arrival we bought a nanny goat and her darling kid. We just couldn’t help ourselves. One month later we bought 15 calves to raise. A month after that we bought 4 piglets. 6 months after that we added some ducks and chickens. And then a phalanx of gobbling, gorgeous (and yes, troublesome) turkeys.
Yeah, we rarely do anything in half measures. That is both a blessing and a curse, believe me!
We worked on raising our pigs into our own pork on the one hand, and mama pigs for the future of the farm on the other hand. The same with our heifers and the steers. We finally made it to the point of having enough critters to start selling pork and beef locally, a huge step forward. And we spent a few months helping out with friends’ houseful of new laying hens, spending our mornings surrounded by birds and eggs. It was a really neat and informative experience.
And the idea was planted. We could so this too, couldn’t we? And so we started the ball rolling, spending the better part of 2016 making it a reality: adding 10,000 pastured laying hens to the property with the goal of Mark being able to farm full time rather than just part time. Thus began an intense year of making things ready for those birds to have a home and fenced land on which to forage.
Me, who 16 years ago never wanted to own chickens again, who used to even think of them with a shudder. I never in my wildest dreams imagined we would own two barns full of clucking, fluttering birds, and walk through them every day, helping to collect 9,500 eggs, spending our days surrounded by feathers and wings and beady eyes! But life changes, and sometimes your priorities change, too. You see things differently and with a lot more clarity than you did as a kid. And understand more fully the purpose behind the choices that you make. So it has been for me. (God certainly has a sense of humor!)
These chickens are really rather amazing and interesting creatures (despite their inherently flighty, dirty, brainless ways), and we’re really enjoying learning how to enlarge our plans from small flock husbandry to large flock husbandry. They are a beautiful bunch of birds and I must admit to having had dozens of pleasant one-way chats with them, their bright beady eyes fixed on me, heads cocked, clucking in curiosity. Their silly ways amuse us often and they even flutter onto us when we are working with the feeding and watering equipment. I think I’ve come around full circle.
Most importantly, they have been a wonderful means to an end. Mark is now well and truly a full time farmer. Harried and busy and tired, perhaps, but doing what he’s been wanting to do for a long time. Best of all, it’s something we all get to do as a family: continuing to grow our farm and include our children in this future together.
Lots and lots of chickens.
If that’s not happily ever after I don’t know what is.