If you enjoyed the saga of Feather, you may be interested in the follow-up. Yesterday, Feather stuck close to his mama and that night she decided to move them both to the big girl house. They are now in the chicken mobile. The picture here is of Feather and his mom (Silky) a few weeks ago when he was still an egg with legs.
This morning, the RI red again set up a squawk. I was much more casual about it (and fully awake) so I strolled out to see if it was another squirrel. It wasn’t. Now I know why she was so upset. A chicken hawk was perched on her pen gazing fondly down at her chicken nuggets. It flew away as I got close. I guess I need to listen to her when she yells because she knows what she is talking about!
Mood: accident prone
Feather’s story starts about 5 weeks ago. One of the RI red crosses was sitting on 10 eggs. If you know about chickens, you know that the eggs under a hen are rarely all hers. The other hens will add to her collection of eggs as long as she will let them. At some point, the hen will have had enough and will not let them add any more. Then, the long wait begins. For 3 weeks the hen will sit in a meditative state leaving the nest only once a day for 20-30 minutes to grab a quick bite and take care of “business.” Then, she is back on the nest. Anyone who has endured 3 weeks of “bedrest” can surely identify with the patience required.
As this particular hen’s eggs began to hatch, tragedy struck. The fire ants found her. Usually we are good about moving the hen’s cage daily so that the ants aren’t a problem but we got busy, or lazy, or forgot. When we checked on her, two chicks had been killed and one hatching egg was already invaded. We moved her and hoped for the best. She hatched all but 2 of the remaining eggs.
At this point, the first chicks hatched were beginning to get hungry so she needed to tend to them. In addition, she didn’t really trust that the ants were gone. So, she took her hatched chicks and left the nest–leaving behind the two unhatched eggs.
Meanwhile, in the back of an old pickup not so far away, a lonely black hen was hoping to hatch an egg of her own. She wanted badly to be a mama but it was getting late in the season–cold would be coming soon and it would be hard to keep chicks warm. In addition, we already had too many chickens. So, we took the eggs from under her each day. We didn’t feed her. We didn’t give her water. We did what we could do to convince her that now was not the time. Regardless, she sat patiently on her remaining ceramic egg and waited.
Back to the two eggs in the now empty nest. The day was reasonably warm–but not warm enough for two ready-to-hatch eggs. As the day went on, we knew the chicks inside were dying. Suddenly, near the end of the day (we are slow!), it hit us. We knew of a hen who would welcome these eggs!!
We moved the eggs immediately. The next morning we checked the back of the pickup and found that one of the eggs had hatched. Feather was born.
That little black hen loved Feather. She called him and taught him to scratch. She showed him how to flap and jump up as high as he could to escape predators. She taught him to eat bugs and pick the best stuff out of the feed. But, heaven knows, we really didn’t need another family to take care of. Each hen and chicks requires daily care. They require moving to fresh grass (and away from ants.) They require daily watering and feeding. The require their own space. We had been doing this with numerous families all summer and we were ready to be done.
Along came Feather’s savior–Boots. Boots offered to pay the $45 it takes to feed a hen and a chick for one year. She made it so much easier for us to justify the daily work of keeping Feather. And, she gave Feather his name.
That was Feather’s story until this morning.
Early this morning. as I was thinking about summoning the energy to make coffee, I heard that squawking that any farmer (or caretaker of the young and vulnerable) always has one ear tuned to hear. Something clearly had one of the hens–she was screaming as only a chicken can scream. I dashed out the door–white robe flapping in the 45 degree breeze and bare feet already turning pink from the cold–to realize it was the RI red mama. She was on top of the nest box screaming at the top of her lungs. I quickly looked around for the predator–nothing. Of course, it didn’t help that I hadn’t yet put on my glasses. Next, I looked for her babies. Last year we had lost an entire clutch of chicks to a predator that was never identified so I expected the worst.
This particular RI red was raised by me so despite the fact that she is a mean little mama to anything that comes near her babies, she trusts me. As she slowly calmed down, first two and then all of her babies came out of their hiding places–under the nesting box, squashed down low and small in the corner, behind the water.
Suddenly, the little black hen started screaming. By then John had joined me. We looked in her cage and realized Feather was gone. Agitated, the little black hen ran back and forth across her cage, screaming for Feather. We let her out and she headed first for the woods. When the fence blocked her, she veered out across the garden still screaming for Feather.
We searched for evidence of Feather. Unfortunately, with so many chickens ranging the property, there were plenty of feathers–but no Feather.
We next searched the cage for evidence of the predator. Nothing. We went back inside so I could better dress for a full-on investigation. Meanwhile, the little black hen sat huddled under a tree crooning quietly to herself. Some people do not believe animals mourn. I am sure they do–but they are pragmatic. They know there is a limit to how long they can safely live outside of the moment.
We searched every bit of that cage. We thought perhaps a snake had wiggled in, crushed poor little Feather, and then squeezed back out. But even that should have left some evidence in the chicken wire. I began to think about how I was going to tell Boots. Then, as we turned away to begin the morning chores, I saw a small yellow blur in the cage, It was Feather.
The reunion between mama and baby was a joy to see. I am still smiling.
So, where was Feather? What happened? What we believe happened was something, perhaps a squirrel–perhaps something worse–threatened the family of the RI red. She was a bit close to the woods. She set off the alarm. The babies did what wild babies are supposed to do–they hid. Since Feather and his mom are near the RI red family, Feather also hid. There was a wadded single sheet of newspaper in the corner of the pen that had been in the nest to help keep it warm. Perhaps he hid under it. When his mama checked for him, she didn’t find him. That’s when she set off the alarm.
And, THAT is the saga of Feather.
Weeding–like other repetitive tasks such as doing dishes, mowing lawns, and cleaning–provides an opportunity for reflection. Right now, I find I have a lot to reflect about.
Two days ago I quit a job that, for me, was toxic. Like a bad marriage where each person brings out the worst in the other, it became clear there was no saving the situation. I’ve never thought of myself as a quitter but I knew it was the right decision when I felt the flood of relief that comes with choosing the right path.
Today, I was in a reflective mood as I was pulling up coffee weed in the pasture. Coffee weed is invasive and toxic to cattle. Unfortunately, this year we have a LOT of it. Slowly, I realized that all around the coffee weed, around every plant I pulled, was hairy indigo. Hairy indigo is also slightly invasive but it is a legume which makes it a good source of protein for cattle and nitrogen for the soil. I realized, ironically (don’t you think), the same conditions that lent themselves to a proliferation of toxic coffee weed also led to the growth of beneficial hairy indigo.
I take great comfort in knowing that.
It has been a busy month!! While John continues to grow our farm outside in the 100 degree heat, I have been in AC finishing my patient care certificate, finishing teaching at Waycross College, acquiring a new teaching position at Florida Gateway College in Lake City, and moving. Now I am in Michigan at a technology conference. Check out my first ever camtasia video: Farm Web Tour
We haven’t had any rain for more than a month. None. No rain. Before the 3/4’s of an inch we had a month ago, we were having little rain. That is a problem on a sustainable farm because our plants are expected to make it with the advantages we have given them–planting them in the right place and using heritage varieties that have passed the test of time. For the most part, our plants are doing what we are asking of them.
Today we were picking blueberries and I was thinking about these plants and how the fruit compares to last year. The plants look stressed but they are alive. Because they are stressed, the fruit is not as fat as it was last year. I was dissatisfied. And suddenly it hit me. I was judging the fruit by its looks–a lesson I should have learned in high school. Because here is the thing. Looks are not a reliable indicator of quality. The berries are smaller this year but are they less nutritious? Do they have fewer vitamins and minerals? Are they lower in quality? I suspect that the struggles they are facing have done for the fruit what struggles do for all of us. They make is even better. I would put my blueberries up against any acai fighting its way to survival anywhere in the world.
It is difficult to see things from someone else’s perspective. It is difficult to even face the fact that there might BE another perspective. That is the beauty of friends–particularly friends who think differently from us–they give us perspective. And, being friends, they don’t hold back.
Dottie said to me the other day that I shouldn’t be doing the business of farming if I don’t love it. She practices what she preaches–she doesn’t love the marketing of yoga so she does not market her yoga studio http://www.suwanneeriveryoga.com/–so I had to take what she was saying to heart. The problem is this. I love farming and a side-effect of that is that if I want to do what I love, I need to be involved with the business end. The question is, is farming sustainable as a profession? I’m not sure of the answer. In my family, we have always worked off-farm to subsidize our farm. Most farmers must do the same. In fact, there is a joke my mom tells:
A priest, a Baptist minister, and a farmer were talking about what they would do if they had a million dollars. The priest said, “I would build an orphanage!” The minister said, “I would fund missionaries!” The farmer said, “I would farm until the money ran out.”
So, where does that leave me? We will try for a year to see if we can do what we love by embracing what we don’t. We will see if we can find our way through the hard challenges of the business end of farming. We will try to find that tricky middle path.
We are trying to eat locally and seasonally so lately we have been eating a lot of squash and zucchini. However, John thinks zucchini is a second cousin to tofu in the taste department so I’ve been searching for the ultimate zucchini recipe. In my search, I found this site which I highly recommend to anyone else who has had enough zucchini bread to last a lifetime:http://www.wellcat.com/august/sneak_some_zucchini_onto_your_ne.htm
One of the biggest challenges of farming is how frequently death comes up. Before we were so involved with farming, when we dealt with death it was usually something faked on television. It was not so “in your face.”
This weekend something broke into the pen where one of our broody hens had just hatched her chicks. It killed her, and killed all but one of the newly hatched chicks. We were not there but it was clear from all the feathers that the momma hen put up quite a fight. It is inutterably sad…because here’s the thing. According to our neighbor the villian is a mama fox feeding her kits. Unlike television with its black hat and white hat to tell bad from good, we are left unsure how to react to the gray of life that is farming.
Melissa gave us a great memoir for Christmas: “The Dirty Life: On Farming Food, and Love”, by Kristin Kimball. John read it first; I am just now getting around to it. It has been–like all great reads–the right book at the right time. We are often full of doubt about our farm life so to read that someone else has been down this road–made these same choices–is very affirming. I found this particularly so in a passage about the Kimball’s vision of farm shares, and the challenges of marketing them, on pages 160-162:
“We were offering a full-diet share–including beef, pork, chicken, eggs, milk, vegetables, flours, grains, and dry beans….. We were pitching a radical all-or-nothing, year-round membership model that was untried, even in the most agriculturally progressive pockets of the country. We were asking people to fork over thousands of dollars for the promise of a return that was by no means guaranteed. At the price we were charging, most people in our community couldn’t afford to use our food as a supplement to their usual grocery store haul. They’d have to give up, like I had, that familiar and comforting experience of pushing a cart down an aisle. The central question in the kitchen would change from What do I want? to What is available? The time spent in the kitchen–in planning, in preparing, in cooking–would jump exponentially.
…Maybe most important, farm food itself is totally different from what most people now think of as food: none of those colorful boxed and bagged products, precut, parboiled, ready to eat, and engineered to appeal to our basest desires. We were selling the opposite: naked, unprocessed food, two step from the dirt.
…We’d be asking people to eat things they couldn’t identify and didn’t know how to cook. We found, from giving away samples, that the rich, flavorful Jersey milk I loved so much was just too different from the store-bought kind for some palates to accept, especially if they were used to drinking low-fat or skim. Moreover, we couldn’t offer the kind of consistency that consumers have come to expect from grocery store food. Could we really expect people to change their habits radically, and pay good money for it?”
Like the Kimballs, we also have envisioned a whole-diet model where we would provide meat, eggs, milk, fruit, vegetables, sugar (honey), and oil (olive oil.) We also see the same resistance–in ourselves. Do we really want to eat zucchini for the fourth week in a row just because that is what is now available? Do we want to give up eating what we want even though it is out of season? Are we prepared to eat in an organic way by using what we have instead of what our tastebuds tell us they want? And, do we want to put in the time needed to prepare our foods for storage?
We have been only tentatively answering yes to these questions but knowing we are not alone has strengthened that budding feeling that we are on the right track. As Dottie would say, keep a-going.
Thanks to Melissa (who lit a fire under us), there are now plants growing in the greenhouse. Hopefully we will have Roma tomatoes, sunflowers, squashes, and peppers for Melissa, stuff for our own garden, and plants to sell. Dennis has already offered to buy some of our plants. It’s coming together. Thanks Melissa!!