I lived a pretty dysfunctional farm life growing up. The fields were filled with corn or soy commodity crops, not delicious, nourishing people food. My late grandfather’s pigsty and chicken coop were long abandoned and falling apart, and no one particularly cared to fix them up. The farm was livestock-less, gardenless, and for all intents and purposes, we lived like your run-of-the-mill suburban family who just happened to be plopped onto a 65-acre chunk of land. In full disclosure, I did not learn how to plant a tomato until I was 27 years old.
None of this seemed particularly odd to me until I moved away and lived in Philadelphia for several years, and started paying more attention to where my food came from. Then, the miracle: Harvest Local Foods’ Meet Your Farmer Day!
Once I shook the hand that harvested my rutabaga, it was a done deal. In less than a year and a half, my husband and I were living back on the farm, figuring out how to grow and harvest three acres of vegetables by hand, and, perhaps most rewardingly, raising about 40 amazing, entertaining chickens for eggs. Because of just one meaningful afternoon, I permanently traded in a life of fancy city restaurant dinners and Coach handbags for a life dealing with dirt and chicken crap. And life is good!
Learning to farm would not be nearly as fun if it weren’t for our small flock of heritage-breed chickens. Read on to find out what can happen when you invite chickens into your world.
Sure, they’re just tiny fuzz balls of chirping cuteness. But day-old chicks are scary! It’s up to you to keep them alive, and I obsessed over this fact for a full two weeks. I didn’t sleep, partially due to the fact that we set up the brooder in a nearby spare bedroom. "Wait! Was that a distressed chirp? Is one hurt? Is one being crushed by the freak-show Jersey Giant chick? Are they drinking enough water?"
You learn to wipe caked crap off of their backsides (otherwise, they can become plugged up and die), sometimes you hold them until they fall asleep in your palm, and you generally just fall in love your flock in those first few days. Dark circles develop under your eyes. It feels like you’re a sleep-deprived new mom. You are. It’s worth it.
This same wave of uneasiness may return in a few weeks when you move the gawky, feathered, teenage version of the chicks into an outdoor coop. But eventually, you chill, and learn to appreciate the fact that your chickens are living better than 99 percent of chickens on the planet.
2. You’re hypnotized.
Once you get over the fear of killing your chickens, you can relax a bit and enjoy them. Kelly Coyne, coauthor of the upcoming book Making It: Radical Home Ec for a Post-Consumer World, once told me her backyard chickens were “hypnotic.” She’s right. Expect household and garden productivity to drop off temporarily—you’ll want to sneak over to your chickens, listen to all of their noises, and watch them grow and develop a small society amid the coop and your backyard.
OK, here’s where it gets a bit weird. (And please, people, I’m hoping you all do the same with your chickens, or this might just be awkward!) Because chickens are so hypnotic, you spend a lot of time watching them. In fact, watching chickens became the default form of entertainment for my friends and me. During that first summer, we’d mix up a few cosmos, pull out lawn chairs, and try to pinpoint which human each chicken reminded us of.
This Polish rooster, for example was flamboyant and overly dramatic, and he reminded us of my cross-dressing former Philly hairstylist, Jason. When this chicken would run, it honestly looked like he was dashing about like a large man in high heels.
4. Hens turn into roosters.
Here is something you really need to prepare yourself for, the worst-case scenario. We ordered zero roosters and wound up with 10. That meant that one quarter of my flock would turn into aggressive, horny, out-of-control maniacs. That’s too many roosters per hens, so we had some tough decisions to make. When I ordered the hens, I didn’t envision ever having to kill any of them, but we decided to butcher five when I returned from a work trip. As if sent by the rooster gods, I ran into vegan activist Alicia Silverstone the day before we were set to butcher five of our 10 ornery roosters, took it as a sign, and by some luck, found a larger pastured chicken operation that actually needed a few good roos. We were able to avert slaughter. Do NOT count on this outcome. Be prepared to separate excess roosters, or be ready to eat them. Be prepared to be attacked from time to time, too. I have the scars on my leg to prove it.
5. You start seeing chickens as gateway livestock.
Once you get the hang of raising chickens, you start to think about bringing other farm animals into the mix. For us, that meant adopting three goats as the chief organic weed-management team at Potter’s Farm. They LOVE multiflora rose, a thorny invasive, and delight in eating poison ivy. Even if you live in a city, you don’t have to limit yourself to backyard chickens. If you need inspiration (and a good laugh), read Novella Carpenter’s Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer.