Growing up in Indiana, where you’re likely to learn corn should be “knee-high by the Fourth of July” before you’ve actually grown “knee-high,” I had plenty of experience with life on the farm.
Whether I was sweating through humid afternoons in a loft, stacking bales of hay or straw or detasseling corn under a scorching summer sun sure to create quite the farmer’s tan, my first work experiences, gained in my pre-teen era, essentially revolved around the agricultural environs of my Hoosier homeland.
So when I chatted up Eric Dickerson, the lead organizer for Nevada County’s Sustainable Food and Farm Conference, which he says will offer “something for everyone,” from the serious homesteaders to the backyard hobbyists, I felt somewhat at home with the topic.
“The bottom line is that a local, sustainable food system provides the most healthy food,” Dickerson said. “We’re lucky to have such a good local food system here in our community. All we’re trying to do is to promote this behavior, buying local food, producing local food and supporting the production of local food. And there are so many reasons why that’s a good thing. We’re just trying to provide the kind of information you need to make that happen.”
I joked about being willing to offer my own expertise at this weekend’s conference. As the owner of eight chickens, I could be considered somewhat of an expert “egg farmer,” even if just one of the backyard variety. After all, that expertise essentially boils down to: Feed. Water. Repeat.
And as Eric said, egg-laying hens are probably easier animals to tend to than dogs and cats. Other than making sure they’re nourished, all that’s really left to do is retrieve the eggs and clean the coop on occasion.
Still, had I bothered to research the topic before we first broke into the backyard chicken scene, I would have learned a lot more.
For example, rather than the hundreds of dollars and ample amount of hours I spent on building a chicken coop for our girls, I could have saved substantially by simply checking out the kind of chicken coop kits offered locally or online. And although I broke ground on the coop way back in 2008, before our parent company Swift Communications had acquired them, I could have learned a lot from magazines like Countryside, Backyard Poultry and sheep! — the exclamation mark is not mine but an actual part of the title. I could have quickly cut to the chase.
But that would be like “reading the directions,” and where’s the fun in that?
I can honestly say after about eight weeks of eyeballing much of my backyard build — “Level? We don’t need no stinking level!” — the coop was complete and secure as Fort Knox. Now nearly six years later, I’m happy to report the henhouse is still standing — even if some of its former occupants are not, which of course was one of those lessons I could have learned had I sought it out:
Don’t name the livestock!
When we got our first flock of girls, our own daughters were giddy with delight, naming them as soon as we got them home.
One hen was named “Easter” because we were told at feed store that she’d lay a distinctive green-colored egg. Another was “Sunshine” for her yellow feathers, while our lone Leghorn — who we later learned would be the most consistent layer — was dubbed “Marshmallow” for her fluffy white look. A couple of weeks later, we added three more to the flock, a Barred Rock named “Dot” and twin Brahmas with feathered feet, which we called “Thing One” and “Thing Two.”
Through the first few months, as the birds matured, everything went surprisingly well. And when our hens began to provide us with fresh eggs each morning, we began to wonder why we had waited so long before becoming backyard farmers — and why wasn’t everyone doing it?
But then came the first tragic tale, when one of our girls, “Dot,” went missing after an all-day excursion around our yard as a “free-range” chicken. We assume a neighbor’s dog was the culprit. Over the years, as our original six started to dwindle, due to the occasional egg-drop door left open, offering access to a raccoon or the time we accidentally acquired a couple of roosters — “OMG! They killed Easter!” — breaking the news to our daughters became a regular part of the routine.
Soon thereafter, we began simply adding anonymous chicks to the cause.
But as simple as backyard chickens might seem, one question has continually come up out at the Hamilton Henhouse:
What happens when the eggs run out?
While, for the most part, nature has run its course with our older girls, we’ve now got a couple of “pet hens” not pulling their weight. What to do, Mr. Dickerson?
“I try to keep a balance between how much I’m spending on feeding them and how much they’re feeding me in return,” he said, noting that on his homestead he typically has about 20 chickens, depending on their level of production. He keeps an eye out for misshapen eggs or slowed-down laying as good signs that aging hens aren’t going to be able to earn their keep.
“And usually, they become soup-stock chickens,” he said in such a matter-of-fact manner that I knew what was coming next. “Yes, Brian, I’ve got this thing called a ‘kill cone’ that I use … and they bleed to death.’”
Sensing my weak stomach on the opposite end of the phone line, he was kind enough to offer to one day show me how to do the deed — and even more kind enough then to change the subject of our chat.
“They’re probably the easiest livestock to keep,” he said. “But there’s a lot of information out there — like determining how much calcium to have in their diet, how hard the eggs’ shells should be … how a supplementary light source can help keep them laying in the winter — there’s as much information as you’d want to know.
“Although we don’t have (anyone speaking) on chickens this weekend, we’ve got something for everyone, whether you’re a farmer, a gardener or a hobbyist … We want an awareness about local sustainable food to come to light. … There’s something about this that’s just a part of who we are — being in touch with where our food comes from — but as time has gone by, we’ve gotten away from that over the last few generations.
“And that’s another reason we should be doing this conference.”
Brian Hamilton is editor of The Union. Contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 477-4249.