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Did someone get the memo?

Somehow between the traveling to wrestling tournaments, and extended bouts of ill health, February garden prep at the Simons Gardens crawls on. No, I don’t have my lettuce started. I wish I had a cool photo of an emerging green house to show you, but all I have is stakes in the ground so far – beeeautifully painted stakes though. Edward likes to do things right. Maybe THIS weekend we’ll assemble the roof and sides..

Meanwhile, the chickens. WHAT is up with these chickens? I have never had so much trouble, or truly I wouldn’t still be doing keeping chickens for  eggs. Although at this point I can’t imagine going back. Eggs from our own yard are so fabulous – it’s hardly worth eating any others, “organic” or not. Still — if we aren’t getting eggs…

Out of ten hens, all winter I averaged 3 eggs a day. Terrible. Seven eggs out of ten hens would be normal.  Laying is improved by plugging in the string of chili pepper lights we have strung up in the coop, providing extended light from 5:30 – 7:30 or so. A couple days now we got 5 eggs!  ONE day last week we got 7 eggs out of ten, now a photo-worthy event. (I wondered if the girls heard Edward plotting their demise…!)  Ours are working girls, not pets, more a farm than a zoo. Animals that are sick or unproductive must be culled. Our gardens in general, our whole effort in growing, is to  learn and to show how much food a family can grow for itself on a half acre in suburbia. It’s a continuing education.

Let me digress for a moment on the uncomfortable subject of keeping of animals for food: I am not opposed to being mostly vegetarian, if I could digest grains and dairy healthfully, that would be possible. Many people cannot be healthy eating the carbohydrates that form the backbone of the American diet, and I, and my husband, and our children are some of them. Then, if you buy food cheap, you have to be ok with inferior food, and an inferior life for the animals that make up part of what’s on your plate. So, we dedicate more of our income to groceries than most Americans do. We want the animals who form part of our diet to have a decent life, for their own sakes and for ours, so we try to buy meat from smaller organic grower operations, close to home.  Smaller farms have more control over the lives of their animals. The less distance it travels, the fresher food is, and the less fuel it takes to get it into our kitchen. If we had the space we might raise more animal food ourselves. Then you really have control over what they get to eat, and how often they pasture.

Having said all that, it isn’t easy to do it right. Raising good food takes education, and patience – and in our country too few buyers seem willing to reward our farmers for the terribly important work they do by paying well for quality edibles.

To prove the difficulty, I look at my chicken flock. I think about what kind of care they re getting. I wonder what I am missing. Could it be that the wild birds who keep getting into the run are dropping diseases? Despite all my research, and yogurt feedings, apple cider vinegar in their drinking water, the poopy backsides continue on most of the flock. (Called Vent gleet)  I dusted them all for lice in the fall. The test for parasites came up negative. I cleaned out the coop, put down new straw everywhere in the run. The girls rotate on four paddocks, two of them grassy. They get daily kale and extra seeds. They seem very happy. But they don’t lay.

Lately the girls have been getting extra snacks helping out in the garden beds in their messy way – scratching out bugs and larva (who knows what they’re getting – amazing eyesight!) Although they kick the dirt around, the long term benefits are real.  I come around after them and put the top soil back where it goes, covering the roots of the perennial plants again.  Last Sunday I called them over to the asparagus bed, hoping to wipe out the beetle larva that are certainly over-wintering there. I weeded in the sunshine, and they scratched alongside.

Before we cull, I have one more idea. I have a friend whose husband …looks at poop for a living. (Hey, somebody has to do it.)  He’s a professor of poop actually, at George Washington University. Maybe I can barter some scientific examination for some salad dressing.  John is a big fan of Edward’s Honey Mustard Vinaigrette.  

But as Harvey Ussery says in his helpful book about gaining food independence, The Small-Scale Poultry Flock, “The recuperative powers of a chicken following even quite serious injury are astounding…On the other hand, where illness is concerned chickens pretty much have two settings: “On” and “Off.” Once a chicken has become ill, the chances of recovery – while not impossible – are so low it makes sense to cull immediately.” (p 218) (Note that Ussery hardly ever has any illness with his flocks though, because his careful management of the flock imitates nature in every way.)

Forgetting this advice, last fall I spent $100+ to find a cure for White Chicken, only to learn she was far more ill than I knew. Until then I had been far too practical to ever take a chicken to the vet — and I’ll be far too practical to ever do it again. The clock is ticking, chickies. For both of us.