Sad for Madeline

Ok, so we’ve had probably a hundred birds by now, most of whom have had names, most of whom have daily provided us with a generous supply of fresh eggs, and most of whom have ended up on the stove in a big pot surrounded by carrots and onions. So we know what it is to experience loss. Knowing that it’s coming makes it easier, and bonding less with the gal or guy who’s destined for the freezer makes it easier still. And conversely, knowing those certain, endearing qualities peculiar to one chicken alone, and having both named and loved that particular animal perhaps just a a bit more than all the others, well, that is another story. That makes it hard to see em go. Really hard.

We both just kinda thought our eldest and most beautiful hen Madeline would live out a long and happy life here with us. We knew that one day she’d die, yes, of course we did. But we always thought it would be us to find her, years hence, one morning, lying lifeless in a corner of the coop on a bed of hay. Having evaded a good dozen or more animal attacks and weathered hundreds upon hundreds of cold, wintry nights (some five years of em), we just always thought that our dearest Madeline would be the last to leave, and the least likely to succumb to disaster.

The funny thing is, she probably met her maker just about as I was insisting to our friends last night that yes, when it got dark our chickens were honestly in great peril – and especially these days, as we’d both seen for ourselves the enormous resident raccoon trying his skill at the seal on the feed bins. We had to get home, it was dark, and it was becoming more urgent that we get going. We knew we were pushing it. But we’d pushed it before – I guess just not so recently, and certainly not since our new neighbor moved in. Elihu and I have tortured ourselves with a million ‘if onlys’ over the past twelve hours. And until a couple of hours ago, we continued to hold out hope that we’d see her once again, just coming around the corner as usual, as if nothing at all had happened.

Sometimes that does happen. And in fact, it happened this morning. Last night, when we got home, we discovered two hens missing – Madeline and Azalea. We’re not terribly attached to Azalea; she’s a rather run-of-the-mill red sex link (her coloration linked to her gender), and she isn’t from the original bloodline here. And this morning, when I went out in hopes of experiencing one of those rare moments when one girl finally returns from an overnight hiding spot, sure enough, Azalea came around from the far side of the garage, sputtering and making out of the ordinary sounds, approaching the flock with caution. Azalea came, but not Madeline. My heart sank and I felt shame for my instant disappointment. Where was my savvy survivor Madeline? Why was Azalea coming back and not our treasured Madeline?

Now our surviving  flock is rather mundane looking. Only two remain that are related to the first matriarch, Molly. All the gals we currently have are red, black or white. (We cannot forget or overlook our common-looking but delightful favorite Thumbs Up). Ah, but our Madeline – she distinguished herself from the very start as a unique bird. From the eye makeup she wore to the beautiful spangled pattern on her rust-red feathers to the tiny, compact rose comb atop her head – all that plus an aloof, queen-like quality, modest and dignified but yet practical and street-smart too. Sometimes the entire flock would be scattered far and wide in the aftermath of an attack, some bloody, some missing feathers – some just plain missing – and yet there Madeline would be, perched on the very highest rung, safe, quiet, keeping her cool in the eye of the storm. We had such faith that it would always be thus. That it no longer is – it’s simply too much for us to understand. It brings to mind all sorts of existential questions, from whether or not we should even be eating meat to how this afterlife thing might work for animals to lessons we might learn from our loss. We want to memorialize our eldest hen by learning something important from this heartbreak. But what?

Elihu doesn’t cry often, and it took him an hour or so to process what had happened. Finally, he sobs. Me too. Even our flock seems to feel the loss in some way as they all huddle as closely together as possible on the lawn chairs. We both know that the raccoon was just doing his job, that he too needs to eat. That all things happen as they should. That Madeline is at peace. Yeah, we know all this, and we go round and round trying to convince ourselves that it’s all ok. Finally Elihu pounds the bed with his fists and screams. “Damn that raccoon! I do want him dead! I do!” He tells me that he wants to eat the animal. That it’s symbolic. And important. “Look it up, please” he begs me. And I do. I find a video of a fellow cleaning and cooking – and eating – a raccoon. And why not? If it’s a healthy, wild animal, why not? Certainly I can understand Elihu’s need for vindication – and perhaps even connection with his treasured hen. After all, we’ve always believed that an animal should not die in vain. We’ve always felt that eating an animal was in some way honoring it. And since the raccoon ate the chicken, well, I guess Elihu feels he’s showing her his respect. And until this raccoon is on his plate – and in his tummy – I don’t believe my son will feel the matter closed.

“You could just cut off his tail and save that“, my mother suggests, hoping her grandson might accept the gesture instead of the culinary adventure. “Yes, ok” Elihu agrees, “…and then I’ll eat him”. This is a kid who had me fry up crickets and grasshoppers for him last summer and went on to ponder the benefits of a planet that might choose bug protein over large animals… There’s no changing his mind. Now exactly how we achieve this act of revenge I’m still not quite sure. I do begin to hatch a plan: a humane trap and a visit to the local farmer who does in his own hooved animals. This guy hunts too. He likes Elihu and might even get a kick out of helping him out with his project. I don’t know. It’s just so much, so soon. I’m up for the adventure that Madeline has set before us, but still, it doesn’t make this day any less sad. Elihu might just be searching for a way to ease the heartbreak, and for all I know he may cool to the idea in a day or two.

You know the way some things are just such a part of your everyday life that you never bother to record them? You don’t take photographs of that smiling fellow at the dry cleaners who’s been a part of your life for years now, you don’t snap pics of the same places you pass every day on your commute that help to make it the familiar part of your life that it is… There are so many things one just takes for granted. For heaven’s sake I kept dozens upon dozens of journals as a girl, and while I was studying piano with the most interesting and iconic woman for much of my youth, I didn’t so much as even mention her in passing in any one of those journals! How is that possible? All I wrote about was being young and misunderstood. Ich. And while I snap my share of pics – hundreds, in fact – I find that as I go thru my archives, I have very few of Madeline. I guess I just always thought she’d be around. Just yesterday Elihu and I admired her as she nestled down into the ground for a comfy dust bath. I’d thought briefly to get the camera, but then decided not to, as I’d have all summer to get a picture of her doing her thing…

Dear Madeline,

Thank you for being such an important part of our homestead. Beautiful, demure and smart from the start, you’ve fed us and charmed us and kept us happy for years, and for this we thank you and promise to keep you in our hearts forever. At last, no more endless, cold winters or traumatizing animal attacks for you! Hope wherever you are now, you have a flock to keep you company, delicious bugs to keep you fed and cozy dust bowls in which to relax. We love you so and miss you like crazy. The Hillhouse will never be the same as when you ruled the roost.

Love, Elizabeth & Elihu

P.S. This is a really crappy way to begin summer vacation. Sigh.

Garden August 2013 058Our Madeline.

Garden August 2013 061She may have seemed cool and indifferent at times, but she always did the right thing. Here she’s taking a turn on the coop’s clutch of eggs. You can see her pretty spangled feathers. She has a black ring around her eyes too, perhaps not easy to see here, but trust me, she was a looker.  If it can be said of a chicken, she had a great sense of self; she was a no-nonsense hen. Were she a human, she wouldn’t be getting as sentimental over all of this as we are. Oh, dearest girl, we shall miss you for a very long time.

Culling for Fall

Can no longer justify feeding all these dead ends. While we’ve meant to get to this butchering business several times already this year, it’s finally getting to the point where pure necessity is forcing my hand. I have to start saving for Christmas, I have a Halloween costume to make (in spite of being handmade it always sets me back at least a hundred dollars) and in the wake of my new employment, ironically it’s costing me a lot more just to keep the two of us fed, as food stamps have been cut by more than a half as a result of the new income. At this point we could truly use those birds in our freezer and not in the coop. Our three year old hens, while they’ve survived many raccoon attacks and have been with us through nearly our entire journey of chicken-raising, must finally go. They lay only intermittently, yet they continue to eat. And poop. And I am done. Even Shirley Nelson, our lone Araucana and occasional mint-green egg layer, is doomed to the freezer.

In the past we’ve taken our birds to Ben Shaw, a local Amish guy who butchers chickens (‘process’ is the world he chooses to describe the task), and he charges four bucks a bird – plus he charges extra to quarter them or reserve the giblets. That’s a lot of money when you add in the gas and factor in all that feed through the years. I know I’m not coming out ahead here, but I want to mitigate my losses at the very least, and paying upwards of $4 a bird feels a bit much. And we’ve come so far at this point; we need to make it to the ultimate end product here. There can be no denying it: we need to butcher our own. But exactly how? I know what it involves, I’ve been there at the butchering of our flocks in the past, but it takes a good bit of infrastructure to get the job done, and certainly I’ll need another adult present who’s had some experience in the matter. But who? I do some asking around at Waldorf and come up with a couple of options.

One is a guy some thirty miles away who has a real chicken farm. Just so happens he’s butchering this Friday. And if I’ll help him on the line for the day, he’ll let me use his setup to do my own birds. Only catch is, he’s in business to actually make a living; he won’t be able to help me with my twenty-something birds. He warns me that we’ll start in around eight in the morning and won’t be done with his birds till around two. He doesn’t say so exactly, but I can read his message. I should be ready. I’ve got a lot of birds, and while he’ll make his gear available to me, it’s a lot of work for one person. Plus I’ll need to bring my own knives. ! I’m not quite sure about this. Looks like a great opportunity for learning, but not so sure it’ll help me with my goal. I thank him, tell him I may or may not see him on Friday, and I hang up hoping for another solution. I contact a local farm that endeavors to help new farmers learn the art of butchering. But they’re a seasonal operation, and they’re not up and running now. I’m beginning to despair, so I rack my brain just a little bit more.

Then I remember Chuckie Arnold, the local farmer here in Greenfield. He’s a real-life hero in my son’s eyes, and I believe that Chuck himself is fond of Elihu. I have a memory of Elihu when he was a tiny five year old, his arms full of Mr. Roosevelt, our very large New Hampshire red rooster – literally half his own size – walking across the field to show him off to Chuck who was in the middle of haying. Chuck stopped the tractor, turned off the motor and stepped down off the machine to see the bird. Elihu was thrilled to have the audience of a real farmer. Chuck is not one for showing emotion, he speaks very little and his face is a hard read. But instantly I could see him soften as he put a hand out to pat the top of Elihu’s head. In that moment, I swear that he recognized a kindred soul in my son. From then on we’ve run into him at the feed store and around town, and he’s always been kind. At least as kind as an anti-social farm type might hope to be. So this morning, fed up with my prospects, I drove to his farm. I tried not to overwhelm him with my questions, I tried not to talk too fast, too excitedly, I tried to be as much the farmer peer as I could. But I felt him begin to withdraw under the interview, and I noticed that he never once met my eyes. He fiddled with a scratch on his truck, he shuffled his boots in the gravel. He didn’t look very encouraging, yet out of nowhere he just said “I’ll help you out.” ?? Wait, did he just offer to help? What did he mean exactly? I asked him. And not to push things, but just when was it that he thought he could? “Gotta get the corn in first.” he said, still looking at the ground. “It’s supposed to rain.” Wow, this guy really meant it. He was going to help me butcher my chickens! A thankless, messy job that required an investment of honest-to-goodness labor; a true gift of this busy man’s time. But how to proceed from here? I wasn’t sure how he’d contact me – did he even know my last name? He knew where I lived – it’s a small town, one knows these things – but was I to expect him to call? Just show up one day after he’d gotten his corn in? He probably knew me well enough by now to figure I’d get back to him. So I simply thanked him, as he’d already turned to head back to the barn, and I said no more.

On the way home I imagined the scene… Our lone traffic cone nailed upside down on the giant beech. Would the blood permanently stain our beloved tree? Would the blood also stain my favorite yellow marine-turned-farm boots? Just what would I wear? Did I need an apron? And what about knives? I wasn’t sure I had anything near sharp enough. I tried to imagine the act itself, the birds themselves. It’s one thing to hand off your bird and turn away as the deed is done, it’s another to take the knife to the throat. And I must be swift and effective – good Lord the last thing I want is a half-dead bird. I love these girls – our whole goal is to give them happy lives and a humane and quick dispatch. I had to have some technique! And it’s one thing to practice giving your kid a haircut – it’ll grow out – but to make a mistake here… it was unthinkable. ‘Get a hold of yourself – don’t anthropomorphize these stupid birds’, I remind myself. But still, the image of bearded Shirley Nelson, upside down in a cone is hard on me. I try to imagine that place from which I must act; the economic necessity and compassion I must keep firm in my heart. I try to recall that feeling I’d had once at the Amish farmer’s – I’d once begun to visualize doing it myself; I’d watched each and every one of our birds as their heads were pulled back and their throats were slit – I’d watched as their legs kicked and the blood drained from their small bodies. I remembered the smell, that irony smell of the blood, that strange and specific sort of smell to the whole operation…. As difficult as it was to face the process, I was strengthened by my resolve – assisted energetically by my small son’s own conviction – to honor their lives by seeing to it that they died quickly, efficiently. Plus I’ve always just felt that if I am to eat, I should I take responsibility, as I’m able, for what it is that I eat. If I can’t truly earn it, at the very least I can participate to the best of my ability in a respectful way. Same goes for vegetables, for milk, for eggs… I need to acknowledge where it is my food comes from. I cannot turn a blind eye, pretending that it all comes magically, without labor, sweat… and death. It’s been my goal and that of my son’s to participate in the witness of our food. If we can’t make it ourselves, we both feel that we need to be mindful of the process. It’s the very least we can do for the bounty this world provides us. Most folks are not lucky enough to be given this honor. But we’re lucky enough to have this rare opportunity, so we feel we must avail ourselves of it.

But after mulling it over a bit, I just can’t accept his offer. I’m not sure he was even considering it through to its completion. Propane stoves, huge buckets of water, gutting tables and knives, time and mess… I wonder what inspired him to offer his help, and I wonder how I can turn it down but still show my sincerest appreciation? And if I do turn him down, what then? I remember a Facebook message from my neighbor the other day. I know she’s not really down with this butchering thing, but she’d said something about her gals not laying anymore. About maybe putting them in the ‘deep freeze’. Now she’s not one for this sort of stuff – cuz she loves her birds – but her husband and her father-in-law just might be. So I called her. Suggested we pool our birds – that I take em all out to Ben’s. Or maybe…. maybe Zac and Phil might consider doing em in? Phil grew up on a chicken farm, and the father and son duo had butchered flocks in the past. Though both were currently out of town, she said she’d run it by them soon. We hadn’t settled on it at the end of our conversation, but it seemed possible they might be the men for the job.

Over dinner Elihu and I discussed it. We both felt like we didn’t know Chuck well enough to make such a request of him. We also both felt a bit more comfortable with Zac and Phil. “They kinda feel more like uncles, ya know?” Elihu suggested. “Like they’re kinda family.” He paused for a bit as he thought about it.  “I think I’d feel better going with them.” I knew that we were both feeling the need for some emotional support here. And while Chuck would certainly offer us a good education, I could tell we were each feeling the silent, unexpressed need for a bit of tenderness, a bit of familiarity to ease us into the process. Elihu was ahead of me, for sure, but still I could sense he’d appreciate the help of neighbors over the stern-faced farmer. We didn’t talk about it again. Instead we talked a bit about his bass, about orchestra and the need for a rubber stop at the end of his instrument’s end pin. We talked about Central America, about his wanting to go to Pategonia, about the islands just east of New Zealand and puffin studies in Maine. Soon he got into bed and I read to him a story of a mysterious, fast-growing cat.

His bedtime book may have presented us with a mystery, but there is no mystery here in the case of our chickens who continue to eat but have long since ceased to be fast-growing. There is no mystery in what comes next. There is only the hard fact before us: the seasons are changing, our freezer is empty, and we cannot keep some forty-odd birds over the winter as pets alone. They must earn their keep. It’s either eggs or soup.

As the trees let go of their leaves for fall, so too must we cull our flock in order to prepare for the cold months ahead.

Bunny Belief

We’re at that time when I can’t be sure if the holiday magic will hold any longer, if my son will truly believe, one more time, that gifts have been magically delivered as he slept… My son is so thorough in his thinking, in his reasoning and internal deliberations, that it seems impossible to me that he can truly still believe. And yet he does. Yesterday, as we sat cuddled on the couch, I made the mistake of telling him not to get his hopes up for anything big on Easter. (My goal was to plant some doubt so that the appearance of the Easter bunny would have even more of an impact. Not a good choice.) He burst into tears and told me not to say such a thing. “I want to have hope, mommy. I’m just nine years old, don’t take away my hope!” he told me. I was instantly very sorry I’d said anything at all. I was also struck by how much his comment seemed to imply; there seemed some foreshadowing in his remark of the adult reality that lay just around the corner. He must know, I thought to myself, but he’s still holding on…

On most most holidays and school breaks Elihu stays with his father. This past year was my first Christmas here at home with Elihu, and tomorrow will only be my second Easter here with him. I had wondered about the Easter bunny’s visits to Dekalb. I want to have some consistency, and it seems that the Easter bunny keeps many different methods and traditions in different households, so as we made our weekly drive to deliver eggs yesterday I asked him about it. Seemed fairly similar to my experience growing up. There were some differences, but I was relieved to know the bunny wasn’t in the habit of delivering handsomely wrapped birthday-worthy gifts because the Greenfield bunny had made no such preparations. (The Greenfield bunny is quite satisfied with several finds; a hand-crafted, dark chocolate bunny from the local candy shop, some wooden airplane models and a small bird puppet. The eggs, on the other hand, proved challenging as Master Elihu knows his eggs by shape – each hen has her signature style – plus dying an already dark egg is tricky. I couldn’t use the few white eggs we have, as Cora’s eggs are also very distinctive. A dilemma. Ended up drawing designs with sharpie on the most generic-looking medium brown eggs I could find. Since Elihu sees no color at all this seemed a good choice.)

A little anxious that everything be in order, I arose early today and went to my secret hiding spot in the basement to do an Easter basket inventory. Because of Elihu’s vision, he’s not good at spotting things. I’m continually surprised at how quickly and easily visiting kids will see things that I’ve stashed ‘out of sight’. Because color offers Elihu no clues (bright green plastic grass for the basket, for example) and since things beyond ten feet don’t register much, my job is made much easier. As I retrieved my goodies I felt completely satisfied that it was all still perfectly secret. I was happily surprised to see that I’d saved a few more things in the months leading up to the holiday (when on a budget one must plan ahead) and was very satisfied to see that it made a tidy looking cache of loot. Pretty too. I even got myself a single hyacinth bulb and a nice new ceramic vase for it at the dollar store – just to show the bunny had something for me too. That would further support the case that I had nothing to do with it. Might be over thinking it, but it’s probably the last such time I’ll have to do so.

Yeah. He’ll be ten in a month. It’ll be over soon. At least it can’t last too much longer. So, as with Christmas this year, I approach Easter with the same emotions, the same tender nostalgia. I will savor it all. Every surprise, every laugh, every egg. And Elihu’s right, having hope is important – especially at this time of year. After all, isn’t that what Easter itself represents – apart from any religious significance? The renewed life of springtime and with it, hope… And belief, yes, that’s important too, cuz I know this Easter bunny sure is happy that one certain little boy still believes.

Hungry Fox and Broody Hen

Feb 2013 hens 002

While I’ve been drinking prep solution and having polyps removed, life in the country has continued on without me, with new tiny dramas and situations arising each day. And no matter what’s on the day’s agenda, it always must start the same way: first thing in the morning, with muck boots and farm jacket on over my pajamas, I head out to water and feed. Everyone’s happy to see me, and it’s a charming way to start the day. The walk outdoors brings me into my body, the fresh air revives me, and seeing these silly, endearing creatures always – always – lifts my spirits.

We’ve had a couple of light snowfalls over the past  couple of weeks, and with the fresh snow come fresh tracks. There’s a new resident fox in our neighborhood – first made apparent to me by a friendly Facebook message a few weeks back from Stephanie, who lives across the field and the road from us (owner of the ancient model T seen in previous posts, the tracks of which you can see at the bottom of the above photo). A day later I myself saw the mangy creature run down the driveway one evening as I made my p.m. rounds. He/she merely trotted past, in no hurry to escape unseen. I hadn’t seen a fox with my own eyes in some four years. And the last one I saw, quite sadly, killed my much beloved lilac point Siamese and tabby mix, Taylor. (I still can’t quite let myself off the hook for not calling him in that one, fateful night.) My heart went out to this lil creature, regardless of the threat it might pose to my flock. In fact, I so wished I could surrender up one of my non-layers to her. But of course, I couldn’t make such a living sacrifice. After the sighting, I didn’t think much about the fox for a few days – until I saw its tracks recently.

A straight line of petite dog footprints made their way up the hill from the woods – and went straight to the coop. Then they went under the coop. Then a second set of tracks came out and proceeded to march down the course of the driveway, eventually turning to cross the field. This was a bit alarming, but nonetheless it awakened my pity on the creature, and I decided to leave out some leftovers that night. It worked. She returned, ate them, and revisited the coop. I don’t worry for the hen’s safety – that little building’s shut up tight. But it’s those couple of minutes just after sunset that concern me. If I’m not there to shut the door and gather stragglers – something might happen. And just a couple days ago, something did.

I heard a very suspicious round of hen noises one afternoon (usually attacks occur at night in my limited experience) and so I threw on my coat and made a beeline to the coop. In the snow I saw something quite different from before: groupings of two prints side by side were each separated by some six feet – making a line from the woods to the coop! This was clearly a fox moving at lightening speed – and at the end of the tracks? A small pile of feathers. No blood. No real evidence aside from that – and a reduced head count. I had to admire her. Swift, stealthy and successful. In fact, I wasn’t at all dismayed, but secretly quite happy about it. I had too many mouths to feed anyway. Since that afternoon I’ve seen tracks again, but I’m hoping she’s not quite as hungry and motivated as before and that she’ll find herself a cozy little den to nap until spring. Not letting my guard down yet though. (I’m not terribly concerned about losing one of our many generic red hens – I just want to make sure Max, Austin and a few of my favorites are safe.)

So now the cycle of life means to revive itself once again – and one hen has parked herself most determinedly on a clutch of eggs. She can’t be dissuaded – when I try to collect eggs from beneath her she pecks quite violently at me. I myself am quite impressed with her behavior. And, like the fox, I admire her innate qualities, her resolve to do what she knows she must. Sitting on eggs, however, seems quite a usual thing, right? Probably doesn’t sound so impressive.  Sounds natural, yes, I know – after all, this is how chickens reproduce, right? Well, in the old days, yes. But sadly, modern chicken breeders have made it a priority to breed out the instinct of hens to ‘set’ (sit patiently on a pile of eggs til they hatch) and instead have chosen to aggressively breed the less broody (maternal) gals. The reason being that it’s much easier to get eggs from gals who don’t sit on em, and from gals who really couldn’t care less. Rather than setting and being all broody, wasting time and hoarding the inventory, they just go on eating, laying, eating laying… And that’s what a consumer-based, commercial world demands of these gals. Kinda sad, I think. When I first heard that finding truly broody hens these days was not such an easy thing, I felt my heart sink. How sad! Can you imagine? Chickens bred to do nothing but ‘make product’, and their procreation depending entirely upon the intervention of man – and on man’s own schedule! Ich. So seeing this gal – and seeing how tireless her post (she’s been there each and every time I’ve been to the coop the past three days) my heart and hopes are lifted. Good girl.

However, it’s much too cold right now to be raising up a new flock – so I must intervene. This morning I held her head in my right hand while I retrieved some eight, toasty warm eggs with my left. She’s such a good mother, and I just hate to do this to her. She had piled up all the hay and wood chips in a cup-like shape, making a nest as snug and warm as possible. Oh dear, I really do feel bad. She’s clearly upset about my removing her future babies, and it bothers me to know she’s feeling so distraught. I try to convey to her with my heart that there will be plenty of time for this in the spring. That warmer weather is coming, and one day, universe willing, she will have her babies. Yet ultimately, a few years down the line, they’ll either end up in the freezer – or in the fox. Sounds kinda sad, yeah, I know. But that’s just the way it goes. At least everyone here has a full, rich and natural life – as fine a life as any animal could want.

And so on it goes… for both fox and hen.

Feb 2013 snow

The view from my kitchen window early morning

Feb 2013 hens 012

Fox tracks coming in from the woods…

Feb 2013 hens 013

and up through the model T tracks towards the coop…

Feb 2013 hens 008

My beloved flock (Austin above at left)

Feb 2013 hens 018

Happy, hungry hens

Feb 2013 hens 031

The broody gal takes a water break

Feb 2013 hens 039

… and returns to her post

Feb 2013 hens 042

A bird’s eye view of a top row nesting box

Feb 2013 hens 044

The fox uses the long driveway to make her exit… See you soon, you sly fox!

Culling the Flock

First our hens weren’t producing enough eggs. Now they are. Only problem is, over Christmas break some of our regular customers weren’t around and our good ol’ gals just kept on doin’ their thing. We should be glad, but instead we find ourselves in a tad of a panic. We’ve got some 200 eggs now in our mudroom, awaiting their hopeful future delivery. Good thing that eggs keep really well. Cuz it’s gonna take a minute to move em. Did you know that your regular, everyday white eggs that you buy at the store may be as much as a month old? And yet still, eggs are just as healthy to eat even a month after that. Truly, this is some miracle food. Our girls eat table scraps, glean what they can from the grass and nearby woods, and turn it all into eggs. I am continually impressed with their efficiency.

These days, however, the snowfall of a few weeks ago has caused an unforseen hitch in our business, Eggs of Hope. Because the girls can’t spend the day foraging in the grass, they now depend entirely on us for food. And that – crazy at it sounds – means we must provide nearly twice as much feed as before. And at nearly $20 a bag, 2 bags a week… well, you can see this has really become more of a hobby these days than a business. It’s frustrating, especially when I’m having difficulty just buying ourselves food, but for now we’re hanging in there. I went through my pantry and cooked up every bit of pasta and flour over six months old, I opened ancient cans of vegetables I knew darned well we would never eat ourselves, and I even added a few scrambled eggs into the mix. Yup, the girls love eggs. And chicken too. ! Hey, whatever works. They are the world’s very best recyclers, of that I have no doubt. Daily I stand in awe of the miracle of a hen and her magical egg.

We sure do have a lot of magic in our house right now. Happily, we’ve got some new customers, and I’ll post some flyers in town, send out some emails. Should be able to move some if I put a little muscle into it. But still, Elihu and I have both been thinking lately that we might need to adjust our strategy a bit. We’ve had a couple of folks ask us if we sell chicken, and while we do eat our own chickens, it might not be a bad idea to step up the meat sales too. Last night Elihu and I spent nearly an hour going over numbers, ideas… I just love that he is so thoughtful about our process, so careful to consider all our options. I am so incredibly proud of him for having such a good business sense about it all. He’s just as mindful of the details as I am – and honestly, sometimes even more so.

And I’m also so very proud of him for being the farmer I myself can’t quite become. When we decide upon butchering all the non-layers next week, I hesitate. It was our original plan – how can I be getting sentimental now? I knew that the old girls were freezer-bound. I just find that it’s an honest-to-goodness personal challenge for me to follow through. But Elihu? Not a problem. In fact, he’s the one coaching me. Telling me that we tend to anthropormorphize them. That they may be individuals, but in the end they’re not that smart. They don’t return our affection. Or at least necessarily remember us from visit to visit. They are simple creatures, he tells me. They know we feed them. They’re funny to watch, and yes, he agrees, we love them…. but they’re just chickens. And after all, he tells me, they were domesticated for this very purpose. Sheesh. All right already. You’re the bigger farmer than me, it’s clear. Ok. Let’s do this thing.

So tomorrow, we’ll vent our chickens. Check out their rears, their egg-laying holes, to see if they’re wide enough to be passing eggs, or if they’re in a dormant, non-laying state. We know that if we have 42 hens but we’re only getting 27 eggs a day, 15 gals aren’t doing their job. And that makes em dead ends. Feed goes in, nothing productive comes out (and what does come out just adds to the mess and future cleanup!). We’ll vent em, paint a big white X on their back if they’re not up to the task, and plan to move em out. I’ll call the Amish farmer on Monday to see when he’s butchering. Then Elihu will help me gather and box the hens up, and load them into the car. I may take him out of school that morning to help, maybe not. It used to be a big deal, a special event, but now, not so much. He’s so nonchalant about the whole thing. Now he knows they meet with a speedy dispatch, and that’s all that matters to him. That they have a good life and a quick, humane death. Like I said, he’s a real farmer. And one with a good heart. A very wonderful combination.

I’m trying to stay focused on our new plan. We need to cull back our numbers over the winter to reduce food costs during the snowy months. We’ll sell our meat birds in mid fall, restart the flock again in the spring (as we do every year with 24 eggs in our incubator) and then start the cycle over. Near the start of fall, as it genders become evident, we’ll butcher the boys as well as the girls who aren’t laying well anymore. We’ll keep the youngish gals and a resident rooster and then just do it all over again.

This is the plan, and although it’s been our plan in years past, we’ve yet to see this process through an entire year without hiccups. Seems there’s always some situation that arises to interfere…  but I feel good about 2013. We have both learned so much together these past four years, and I feel we’re much better equipped to see our business through a successful year. Elihu and I both think that this is the year Eggs of Hope will reach its stride, get its groove. Just need to make a couple nips and tucks here and there. (Our nips and tucks will be a hell of a lot easier to make than what Congress has ahead…) That should do it. Will let you know…

August 2012 921

Increasing the Fold

Big day here at the Hillhouse Coop. We acquired sixteen new laying hens from Elihu Farm. Bob and Mary Pratt run this lovely hillside farm which produces eggs, meat birds and lamb. Named for its homesteader/builder and Revolutionary War patriot (so fitting for this Veteran’s Day!) Elihu Gifford – who lies a few paces down the road in a family plot – we first found the place several years ago through a quick Google search for anything “Elihu” in our new neighborhood, and we soon came to learn that this farm is well-known in the culture of the area farmer’s markets. We’ve visited Mary at both her farm and her farm stand over the past few years, and she’s given us some very helpful information about the raising of hens. She’s been very kind to us as we fumble our way into the next level of chicken farming.

Today we learned how to tell the difference between a hen who’s currently laying eggs, and a hen who’s taking a short hiatus from the job. In the fall, with the loss of daylight, a hen’s system often switches gears; her system slows down a bit and among other changes, she often shuts down in the egg department. There are physical indications; her comb is dry-ish looking and more pink than red, her legs may be less colorful, she molts all over, and finally – and most importantly – her ‘vent’ – that is to say, the hole where everything (yes, everything) exits her body, is much more constricted during this phase. Mary showed us how to informally ‘measure’ the vent to see whether it was in shape for passing eggs or not. She flipped a gal on her back, and kinda held her fast between her knees, bird head up and back, vent end up and forward. Mary showed us how two of her fingers easily fit between the pelvic bones and how the vent itself was much larger on the gal who was currently laying. Another hen also so checked, showed a much smaller vent – quite easy to see at a glance – and the fit was much tighter between the pelvic bones. For now, this hen was considered a bit of a ‘free-loader’ as she was eating but not producing. (She’d most likely be a stewing chicken fairly soon.) I’d thought it would be some messy, wet-ish, esoteric, veterinarian kinda challenge to see the difference between the birds, but it was easy. Invert bird, inspect vent. Done. Give the gal a couple weeks to get back in the egg laying game, and if she can’t get it together, she’s retired. Retired gals will be thanked for having contributed their wonderful gift of eggs thus far, spoken to ever so gently as we box em up and drive them to the Amish farmer who’ll have em dispatched and bagged up half-frozen all in less than a half hour. (I must remember this time to have them quartered. And to save those giblets. !)

Elihu hasn’t been this thrilled, happy, nor deeply contented in a good, long while. The very essence of joy was all about my son this evening as he stood in the middle of his flock, stopping to handle each and every one of his birds, new and old, to look them over, talk to them in a low, reassuring tone before returning them to their roost. We have 48 birds. Four are grandfathered in; two roosters, one male guinea fowl, and one white gander (Ya only need one rooster. Our neighbor’s offered to lend out his Roo as a stud service in the spring, thereby making our old boys redundant and quite unnecessary. Elihu won’t have it. He’ll send the old gals off to the butcher, but he can’t see these boys gettin done in. Oh well.)

The sounds of a full house – a full coop, I should say – are gentle and pleasing sounds. I think they’d soften even the hardest of personalities. As you stand in the coop, rows upon rows of birds before you, sitting on their roosts, getting comfortable for a good night’s rest, they make all sorts of quiet little purring and cooing noises. It’s a peaceful place to be. Elihu can simply stand in the presence of his roosted flock for literally hours. Literally. There’s a spiritual quality to this quiet time; there’s a true communing with the birds that seems to take place. The coop is an oasis, separate and apart from the buzzing, high-energy output of human life.

Today’s acquisition was not an impulse; we took a look at some numbers before we made our move to increase the flock. Our prices are far too low, our egg output lately has been the worst ever, and it’s been a while since we’ve donated to Heifer International (one of the founding principals of Eggs of Hope), so we had planned this addition for a while. We’d added a few hens here and there over the past few months, but hadn’t found a true solution until Mary told us she was selling hers. So, calculator in hand, we ran by some different scenarios til we arrived at what we think will be a profitable number of birds. We will have to step things up a bit; get some new customers, announce our new price for a dozen ($3.50 – still a steal!) and work our way up to our new price for Spring of $4 a dozen. At that point we’ll be solidly in the black, and perhaps able to save. Whew.

(Now if only folks wanted piano lessons like they do fresh eggs!)

Eggs of Hope

It seems I’ve not mentioned an endeavor which has become rather the foundation of our homestead here in Greenfield. Months ago, when Elihu and I and realized how little money our eggs sales actually generated after we’d met our expenses, we pondered what to do with that money to maximize it’s usefulness. We came upon a book entitled “One Hen” by Katie Smith Milway in which we learned that a little can do a lot. And so Eggs of Hope was born. With our small profits we’ve begun to ‘purchase’ starter chicken flocks through Heifer International.

While the accompanying video and newspaper article at the bottom may be over a month old – very old news indeed – the business is just beginning. Today we registered our domain name and will unveil a new site soon – if dear old mom can manage one more task on her plate.

Lest you think the talk of home-grown eggs being better is all hype – as I was apt to believe once upon a time – I can tell you that the eggs of home-raised chickens are much, much better than those of their poor factory cousins. I might not have been such a believer had I not used a carton of store-bought eggs recently, as our personal use eggs had been earmarked for the incubator. Yup, our eggs’ yolks are a superb orange color, are much plumper, and lastly, they taste very much like an egg should. (Recently we learned that guinea fowl eggs have the very best egg flavor of all, but a sad footnote to this story is that Clara, our only resident guinea hen and sole producer of these delicious, miniature eggs, was recently lost to a wild animal. We miss her. See our you tube channel ‘elihusmom’ for a little cameo of Clara in the video of our chickens on the first warm day.) But life on a farm is like that. It’s sad to lose a member of our flock, but we find peace in knowing the ones we’ve lost had lived happy, healthy lives and furthermore, died that other animals, equally deserving of a meal, should eat well. We just hope they went quickly. !

Chickens are the most miraculous recyclers. Once, in the beginning of our egg pursuits, I found the idea of eating our chickens’ eggs rather gross (and that was even before they began eating bugs!). I can admit this here, because I know many others have felt the same. Before, I’d thought it was just me. Intuitively it makes no sense that the eggs one buys at the store are somehow more edible, safer, cleaner – more whatever – than the ones that just popped out of your hens today. One knows that these eggs have got to be better. Right? Yet for me, eating that first egg was not exactly easy. That was then, this is now. Now I watch with great joy in my heart as our flock happily scratches away in the grass and leaves, gleaning little insects here and there all day long. I watch their progress as they cover the wide expanse of our property, in the woods, in the field, and sometimes, to my chagrin, in my garden. I am always astounded at how much less feed I buy each month – 50 pounds less – when they are allowed to roam free and forage. I am grateful to be an integral part of this process, grateful to know that in some way I am linked to them, and through them, to the land. Hopefully, with our growing little business, we’ll be able to extend that connectedness out into our great big world. Eggs are made to hatch…

A frustrating post-script:
After spending a good 15 minutes trying different methods of inserting the link to the Saratogian article into this post, I am giving up, and asking readers to simply search for “Elihu Conant-Haque” and you will easily find the link for yourself. Sigh.