Wednesday, March 20, 2019

To Chicken? Or Not To Chicken?

Let me lay out a few facts:

1) We have a farm.

2) We have no chickens.

3) I yearn to travel.

That we have no chickens, no coincidence, is between two oppositional truths: having a farm and wanting to travel.

After much soul-searching, I decided, finally, that this is the period of my life when I have a farm.

I have been deluded with the very suburban assumption that I live between city and country, I can have the best of both worlds.  To a limited extent, that is true.  I can drive into Madison and get sushi.

I could spend this chapter of my life contemplating the life I don't have, but then I wouldn't be thoroughly enjoying this life that I wanted and chose to live.  (When I lived in town and had the convenience and freedom of walking to the library and going away on trips, I spent a lot of time longing for country life.  It was a yearning that ultimately could not be ignored.)

Living on a farm, and having brought outdoor animals safely through a long hard winter, it is time to savor the farming life, enjoy the long light days of spring, and stop, once and for all, wishing that anything was different.  Because that is an asinine way to live.

So, chickens. YES, chickens!

We have an empty stall in the barn where we can house the baby chicks in a kiddy pool with a little warming lamp.

We have a ramshackle chicken coop next to the barn, and chickens would motivate us to fix it up nice again.

I have a form to fill out from the farm & feed store.  I did my homework; I want Rhode Island Reds and Browns-- hearty, agreeable chickens that can make it through a Wisconsin winter, and maybe a Polar vortex.

The next question was simple: How many?

If we ended up with one rooster, accidentally--it's almost impossible to determine the sex of a chick--then we would need a dozen hens to fend him off.

Did you know that "sexing a chick" is a fine art (involving something about their anus) that literally requires years of training to learn, and you can make a very handsome living doing it, because so few people on the planet can do it reliably and accurately, and because so few people need more than one rooster?

If we didn't get a rooster, then we could do with five hens.  But there's no way of knowing in advance whether they'll be a rooster in the lot or not, so, perhaps it would be wise to go with a baker's dozen.

Of course, then we'd also be more likely to get more than one rooster, and since each rooster requires a dozen hens to fend him off, we'd have to buy two dozen hens.

It would be best not to have any roosters, but, and this is the big philosophical conundrum about the hard realities of farming which even the most romantically inclined East Coast transplant can't ignore: More than one rooster is out of the question.

The second one has to go.

You know what I'm getting at.  I'm talking about the grim prospect of killing a rooster.

But I've grappled with my share of death and gore on this farm--the unavoidable effluence of glorious summer days, blue skies and glossy horses grazing at pasture.

For every moment of transformative bliss, there is its counterpart.

Living in town shields one from all that.

I remember, when I lived in town, I got a call once from the barn where my horse was stabled.  She had injured her mouth, it needed to be stitched up, and the vet had been called. By the time I arrived on the scene, there wasn't a drop of blood on the premises.  It had all been cleaned up.

Here on the farm, when my horses disagree on some pressing issue, and one of them lurches toward the other to press his point home, and the other recoils and leaps back into his door latch and tears open his shoulder...Well, heck, I was standing right there when it happened.  (It was a windy day, and the wind kinda freaks horses out, as do so many things.)

So, I'm thinking, now, after all of the trauma I've been through with life and death and the in-between, I can handle the mortality of chickens. 

Of course, these won't be meat chickens.  We're not savages.  (Kidding! Totally respect people who kill their own meat.  I just don't want to do it.)

I have  a Margaret Wise Brown view of farming, still.  I'm what Real Midwestern Farm Wives call being stupid.  I get it. No offense taken.

The chicken order form has to be turned in by the end of next week.

So, I was talking to my friend, Krista, who grew up among the Amish, who are seriously bad-ass farmers. (Respect!)

A dog kennel fence works best, she said.

I pictured a six-foot tall chain-link fence enclosing my pastoral chicken run.

And then you have to put netting across the top, she said, because the raccoons climb up the fence. They have hands.

I pictured a raccoon tumbling into and falling spread-eagle onto a trampoline of netting, bouncing there for a while, face down and gazing with frustration at the chickens safe below.  Excellent.

What else?

Chicken poop: It smells worse than anything in the world.

Really?  Not worse than dog shit, surely.



We used to clean the coop out every day with a power washer.

Every day?

But we had like, 29 chickens.

I only want 13 or five, depending.

If you have a rooster, it's going to fertilize the eggs.  A hen will get broody and wander off.  You won't see her for a while, and maybe you think a hawk has got her.  But then, one day, she'll come strutting out into the yard followed by a band of chicks.

How cute!, I thought. And how terribly inconvenient.

We'll collect the eggs, I said.  (For this, I received the Midwestern Farm Wives' glance: Yeah... Good luck with that.)

By the way, I suggest cracking your eggs open into a bowl, rather than into the pan or batter directly.

I knew what she was getting at; I did not require explanation.

Because of the partially formed chicks, she said.

Okay, let's talk about something else.

What are you going to do if you get two roosters?  The Rhode Island Reds aren't bad [as meat].  Would you kill it?

I guess.  Someone else will have to do it.

It's not hard, she said.  You go into the coop just before dawn, about ten minutes before they wake up.  You squash your hand down in the middle of their back; and then, with your other arm...Wait, how did that work?  [She gestured with her arms in the air as if to apply pressure to a roosting foul and with her other arm, made less certain, sweeping gestures. What the heck was she trying to do?]

You don't want the wings flapping in your face.  It's very alarming to hold a rooster with wings flapping in your face.

You can kill it for me, I said.

I could do that.  For a chicken or two.

Geez, I thought.  I've tapped into Krista's deepest agricultural instincts: We were now bartering: One kill for two chickens.

Who's going to kill the other chicken?

Maybe, I won't get chickens.  I said it out loud and I meant it.  But I wasn't sure.  I was giving up a lot: the whole point, really, was to embrace my life on the farm--every part of being on a farm--which meant chickens, obviously.

My friend gave me a lot to think about...a lot of grim reality to mull over.

I suppose I should thank her for rubbing the guild off the lily.

Now, when I picture a blue plastic kiddy pool full of fluffy baby chicks, I have a few competing images I can't get out of my head.

Farming. You have to be okay with predation and killing.

You have to see yourself in the food-chain of events, playing your part, making your plans, trying to thwart nature at every turn--foolishly imagining you can.

The chicken form is due by the end of next week.  I still haven't made up my mind.

No comments: