Making adjustments, on and off the plate

In the picture below, a couple of our hens are enjoying one of their first spring days outside. April 2016. They’re little more than scrappy balls of molting feathers, but over the course of four months, they will blossom into full-fledged hens.

During their first winter – despite the fierce weather20160913_114400 (1), which hit us especially hard up here in the hills outside Portland – our girls kept on laying. And laying. And laying. Every afternoon after work, I’d trudge through the snow or rain or sleet to collect a handful of brown, still-warm eggs, often nested beneath a cooing, broody hen.

Frittatas. Egg scrambles. Sunday apple baked pancakes, and other baked goods. Soon we were giving eggs for birthday presents, as thank you’s and house-warming gifts. You get the picture. Our refrigerator filled up with eggs and meanwhile, I started fantasizing about getting more chicks. It was official – I was turning into the Chicken Lady.

I’ve been an avid gardener since 2001, when we bought our first little fixer-upper house while I was in graduate school. I’ve long appreciated the experience of consuming food that I grew with my own two hands, in partnership with nature. Gardening runs in my blood: I grew up watching both my mother and grandfather tend to vegetable plots, and I’ve been told that my great-grandfather fled his small farming community in Eastern Europe, around the turn of the century. Preserving a connection with the land felt like a chance to reclaim my family’s lost heritage. A way to pass on the values I hold dearest to my own daughter, even in the midst of a busy, urban-centered life. I celebrate food. I love to cook. As a psychologist, I’ve made a living out of teaching clients how to re-connect with food from a place of balance and “inner wisdom.”

Sometimes, my garden was little more than a collection of containers or a wooden box with a staked tomato plant, an assortment of herbs, and some salad greens. Over time, however, it grew to include our current property, a total of 2.5 acres, populated by heirlooms and varieties I can’t always find at our local farmer’s market – blue baby potatoes, specialty kale, purple Italian tomatoes, Touchstone gold beets, miniature white pumpkins. I held tremendous respect for real farmers, because even though our hobby farm operation was modest in scale, it was hard, hard work. We had day jobs, a family. Did I mention that it was hard work?

However, once we made the transition to chickens, we entered a new chapter. The experience felt different. More intimate. Even now, I can’t quite put it into words. Each of our birds had their own distinct personalities. Blackbird was the resident bossy pants who sometimes pecked on our back door to demand her daily ration of cracked corn. Rusty was our farm’s ambassador, and once made a field trip to my daughter’s school so her classmates could see what a live chicken looks like, outside of shrink wrap. Thing One and Thing Two kept to themselves, but were dutiful layers. Kevin the Snipe was a beautiful, black-and-white speckled touch-me-not. Dalai and Chanel were plump, flame-colored, and vocal. Dalai, sadly, was the one casualty – prey to an vulture or eagle, we suspect; one predator who ate well, that day.

And of course, there was the squawking: the call-and-response every time a hen laid an egg. I did it, I did it, I did itYou did it, you did it, you did it. Or at least, this is what I imagined them saying. Endearing, at times. On other occasions – especially when I was trying to call a client back on the phone, or write, or get some administrative work done at home – a bloody awful racket that went on and on, until one hen or another emerged from the nesting area. Strutted proudly across the yard. Yep, I did it!

“Chicken television,” one of our friends said.

Did you know how industrious chickens can be? How destructive? I didn’t. Oh, did I learn. Over the course of the year, our seven hens scratched and pecked their way over our fenced acreage. Then wind storms destroyed the make-shift roof we’d established over their chicken coop. As we struggled to recover from flooding damage to our house, corralling the chickens in and out of their coop after their free range time became one more chore on a list of never-ending tasks. On the rare occasion we wanted to go away for the weekend, it was a scene straight out of Portlandia: “Wanted, chicken sitter. References required.”

Here’s what our hens did, in the short time we had them: spread the bark chips we’d humped, with back-breaking effort, down our steep slope to ornamental flower beds and garden beds…everywhere. I do mean, everywhere. Ate perennial seedlings, and decimated entire beds of new growth. Created gaping, hen-sized holes beneath the existing root balls of other shrubs and plants, for their daily dirt baths. To add insult to injury, they pooped all over our new deck – all in the pursuit of cracked corn, which grew from a treat and behavioral enticement to a daily entitlement. Blackbird, as always, their ring leader. When we limited their free-range time, their enclosure turned into a giant, poop-riddled pit of mud.

A month ago, we loaded our remaining six hens into the back of my car and drove them an hour away to a friend’s farm, which houses dozens of free-range chickens for his egg CSA, along with a handful of ducks, geese, and goats. Within minutes, our girls learned about roosters (I’ll spare you the National Geographic-type details, but it wasn’t pretty). Blackbird vocalized her outrage the loudest, at our betrayal, and I had to close the window (and try not to cry) as we drove away. They’re chickens, I reminded myself. Just chickens. But still. Thank goodness we weren’t raising them as roasters, because we’d soon end up one hungry household with a destroyed yard full of smug, well-fed birds.

These days, I console myself with news and pictures that we receive from our friend’s farm. I hear that Blackbird has since established herself as queen, second only to the giant black Jersey rooster. As a result, our little flock eats first, before the rest of the chickens. That’s my girl.

After we attempt to catch up on our various infrastructure projects, which include a proper roof for the chicken enclosure, fencing around some of the vegetable gardening areas, and recruitment of some farm assistance (hopefully someone is willing to be paid in heirloom tomatoes, or miniature pumpkins, ha!), I’m hoping that we’ll be able to retrieve several of our hens. Probably, we’ll spare them the stress of another move, and start the process all over again, next spring, with a new set of chicks. A little wiser. A little less Portlandia.  A little more prepared for the work and responsibility.

I miss our chickens. I really do. Definitely, I miss the entertainment. Absolutely, the sustenance – we had to buy our first carton of eggs this week. Darn! Quite likely, I miss the squawking, as well – that loud, evocative signal of the relationship that we all have with our food…even before it reaches our refrigerators, or dinner tables, or plates.

Adjustments are a necessary part of any relationship. And so are messy, sometimes painful learning lessons. These don’t signal failure, but rather, opportunities for growth. So I’ll wind down this meandering post about amateur chicken farming to pose the following questions:

What changes are you needing to make in your relationship with food? Are you willing to hit the pause button to concentrate on strengthening some aspect of your infrastructure, as well?