Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Goodbye Mr. Roo

Well, we're busted...for having chickens, that is!  Joseph found a violation sticker slapped on our door. Damn!

After meeting with the township I have been instructed that in order for me to "try" to keep the chickens I must apply for a zoning variance and plead my case before the township board. OK... The chickens are worth a fight.
 As I began filling out the necessary paperwork and attaching the supporting evidence that explains why we should be able to keep our chickens I'm forced to recall why we began this whole suburban farming thing in the first place.

It started innocently when I left my job at Neiman Marcus ready to begin a new entrepreneurial adventure.  I had always been a gardener, starting at my mother's side and eventually reading "Organic Gardening" and "Mother Earth News" as a teenager.  By the time I was in my 20's I was cultivating my own plot as well as dabbling in food preservation like canning and pickling.  Because this new endeavor would require our family to watch our spending, I thought I'd try growing as much food as I could to reduce our food costs.  Growing things has always been easy for me, but that summer produced a bumper crop of lettuce and salad greens.  I opted to sell our surplus at the local farmers market.  The greens were a hit!  I was like a vegetable "rock star" as my regular customers waited eagerly for me each Thursday, afternoon.  This is when I knew that I could have a place in the local foods movement.  Instead of being a consumer, I could be a producer!  Cool!

Joseph, my oldest son had visited his aunt in Vermont one summer and was introduced to a neighbor that kept chickens.  He was smitten and proceeded to beg me thereafter to get our own backyard flock.  At first I said, "no", but as time wore on I was tickled that my teenage son wanted to do something kinda cool.  I thought it a great way to do something together as a family.  I mean I could be digging contraband out of dirty jeans while doing laundry, but my son chose to raise chickens! So now I would scraping  chicken shit off his jeans!  I could live with that!

Someone said that owning chickens is kind of the gateway drug to becoming a farmer.  They were right.  After we gathered our first egg we became more concerned about the origins of  our food.  Reading numerous Michael Pollan books and listening to Joel Salatin only encouraged me to take farming a step further. Urban agriculture and SPIN farming were terms that were appearing in mainstream publications.  People were out there doing what I wanted to do!  I didn't need to have acres and acres of land, in fact, the idea that smaller could be better is the new way of thinking. I could be a farmer!
Of course, while doing my chicken research I read a lot about big industrial livestock management, also known as CAFOs.  Seeing pictures of suffering chickens debeaked because they are so stressed  living in such confined environments that they'd peck each other to death,  or of sows nursing their young laying on concrete and through a small barred pen or of dairy and meat cattle standing knee deep in their own manure.  This made me examine every piece of meat I ate wondering how the animal lived or died.  I knew that I was heading for a time when I'd only be able to eat the flesh of an animal I personally killed because then I would know how it lived and died.  In my care and by my hand the animal would leave this world with dignity, with grace and with my utmost gratefulness  I know it sounds crazy...but I'm getting there a little closer every day.

 We have a rooster.  He's a cuckoo maran and beautiful to behold.  He kind of slipped through the cracks and that is common in keeping chickens.  His presence has been met with blessings and curses. With his crowing he is probably the one who announced to the community of our flock.  A neighbor ratted on us.  But what's been so amazing is watching him interact with the hens.  Of course he tries to mate with them 24/7, that's what he's supposed to do.  But what's been really interesting is his place in the flock.  As one of the youngest chickens he takes on the role of protector and guardian. When a hawk flies over he lets out a call to warn the hens.  They run for cover while he surveys the situation and lets them know when the coast is clear. When I give the girls a treat he stands by and let's them eat first.  He's such a gentlemen. He's kind and gentle and lets me pick him up.  Not all roosters are this friendly. However, by getting rid of him could possibly increase our chances of keeping the quiet hens.
  Our first choice is to take him back to the farm where we purchased him as a chick. Hopefully she'll take him.  He'll make an excellent candidate for breeding.  If that doesn't work out we may have to find a home for him on Craigs List or something..  By doing this we will take a risk that he will be treated just as well in his new home as he has with us.  It kills me to think of him treated otherwise.
Of course, back in the corners of my mind, I debate the idea of slaughtering him.  By killing him myself I know he would go humanely without pain, fear or suffering.  And of course, we would eat him as his ultimate sacrifice shouldn't be in vain.
As I told my son today that Mr. Roo would have to go in order to possibly save the rest of the flock.  He cast his eyes downward hiding his tears.  And I hid the quaver in my voice as I explained that sometimes we have to make tough decisions.
Farming has brought out a side of me that I never thought possible.  It has made me strong and forced me to deal with life as it truly is...nothing sugar-coated or glossed over.  But what it is.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Earth Is Stirring...

This will be my first year operating as a CSA with 10 shareholders .  For those who are uninitiated, CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture.  My shareholders basically, "own" a share or piece of my harvest of crops that I grow in my suburban backyard of one acre. Working as partners, they help shoulder the risk, but reap the many benefits of buying into a CSA. More and more people are trying to become more connected and aware of exactly where their food is coming from and how it is grown or raised.  I grow my produce using natural methods.  I don't use any synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. One can look at what I do as growing "soil".When one takes the time to enrich the soil as much as possible this will eliminate many pests and problems before they even have a chance to begin.

In addition to growing crops I will be throwing in a portion of my egg production from my small flock of 9 hens to my CSA members.  Right now I'm averaging about 6 eggs a day.  I'm hoping to add a few more hens in the next few weeks to boost up production a bit.  Unfortunately, I lost 2 hens in the last few month, so I need to make up for that gap. 
My "girls" (Leviticus-White Rock, Paulie Walnuts -Buff Orpington, Kelly Kapur-Araucana, Bertha and Dean-Rhode Island Reds, Alice and Rylee -Barred Rocks, and Fred and George -Isa Browns) live the epitome of chicken life.  During the warmer months they are able to free-range the Fox property (and sometimes the neighbors property when I'm not watching) eating little bugs, and worms and all the vegetation that chickens like to forage for. I supplement their foraging with a feed that adds supplements for laying hens.  Ideally, I eventually would like to have the hens off of commercial feed, but that will be a process as my chicken-raising skills and knowledge increases. This year they will have their own garden of mangels (a member of the beet family) to nibble.   The girls get to scratch around in the dirt, take dust baths, lay their eggs in seclusion and bask in the sunshine doing the things that chickens are meant to do! For this they reward us everyday with a clutch of eggs that range in colors from light pink to blue, to dark brown which are rich in omega 3's and lower in cholesterol than their supermarket counterparts.  The yolks are a deep rich orange and the albumin is highly raised, firm and compact...and the taste is rich and delicious!

My hands are aching to dig in the dirt, but right now I'm making plans and reworking those plans, and ordering seeds and getting ready to start some plants, and making more plans....it's going to be work, but it's going to be so worth it!