Friday, January 22, 2010

Why My Next Chickens Will Be Named Dino and T.Rex



Yes, I am already thinking “next chickens.” I had planned to wait another year before getting new baby chicks. It was so much work to raise chicks last spring, I thought I’d give myself a year off.

But, by then the hens I already have will be two years old – and well into their third year before the new pullets start laying. The older ones will have slowed their laying, and you never know whether something will happen to one or more of them. When you have just a few birds, the loss of even one amounts to a significant percentage of your flock. Plus, I’m an “experienced” poultry woman now! Ha! It shouldn’t be as stressful as last spring.

It’s easy to get restless in winter, looking through seed catalogs, getting tempted by the variety of vegetables and fruits on offer, and now I have chickens, to check out the hatchery catalogs. Those
Partridge Rocks sure are beautiful! They would provide some variety yet are still in the same family (Plymouth Rock) as our Barred Rocks, so I’m hoping they’ll get along. But maybe that’s a pipe dream. Maybe to a chicken, a Partridge Rock is just as different from a Barred Rock as is a Rhode Island Red.

On the other hand, maybe with their molt finished, they will hold wings and sing “Kumbaya.” I suspected they were starting a molt when I saw a few feathers last week, but it didn’t seem possible in the middle of winter. Now it’s clear they are molting. Batgirl has lost the most feathers; she is nearly bald on the back of her neck. I did a search at
Backyard Chickens (what would I do without them??) and found others who had chickens molting in January, even in really cold places like Michigan, Minnesota, and Canada. It seems like a really stupid time to lose your winter coat, but who I am to second guess Mother Nature?

Many sources I’ve read say that chickens have hormonal fluctuations and are cranky during a molt. Maybe that’s why our previously well-behaved chickens are squabbling. I also read that I should give them more protein, to help with growing the new feathers. Some people give them cat or dog food, or feed with a higher percentage of protein. I’m suspicious about the quality of cat and dog food. Then I read of someone who gave their chickens deer and elk liver during a molt. She said it was safe because the livers had been in her freezer for two weeks - long enough to kill any parasites or bugs.

I had turkey livers in the freezer, so we thawed them and I gave them some this morning. They loved it! They abandoned their greens – their usual favorite treat – ignored me, and totally occupied themselves with devouring the liver. Usually, even after racing for their greens, they abandon that snack temporarily when they realize I’m leaving. They peck at my coat pocket until I bring out a little bag of cracked corn – their other morning treat in winter. Today their attitude was, Who needs corn when we’ve got fresh meat?

But back to naming my “next chickens.” As I’m sure you know, many scientists believe that birds evolved from dinosaurs, based primarily on similarities in bone architecture and respiratory systems. Recently, researchers got their hands on some collagen protein from a 68 million year old T.rex and used a mass spectrometer to sequence the protein.
They found that the ancient T.rex proteins “appear to most closely match amino acid sequences found in collagen of present day chickens.”

Now some researchers have got it into their heads to manipulate chicken DNA during embryo development and presumably hatch a “dinosaur,” or something with dinosaur characteristics. Hans Larsson, the Canada Research Chair in Macro Evolution at Montreal's McGill University, says the goal would be to prove that birds are direct descendants of dinosaurs. I’m glad somebody’s on the case, because it’s been keeping me up nights! Apparently a practical man, Larsson went on to say that he has no immediate plans to hatch live prehistoric animals, in part because a dinosaur hatchery “is too large an enterprise.”

Larsson is a colleague of paleontologist Jack Horner, Montana State University. Horner is one of the scientists who worked on the protein sequencing and was also a consultant for the “Jurassic Park” movies.
Horner has said that his dream is “to walk on stage on The Oprah Winfrey Show with chickenosaurus following him on a leash.” Like Larsson, Horner says this project has the high-minded mission of illustrating evolution. Why do I feel that it’s more like boys playing with really big toys?

I think Horner should start with baby steps. I’d like to see him get a leash on Batgirl, let alone walk on stage at Oprah with her following him. Batgirl doesn’t follow anybody. Better yet, let him try this stunt with a rooster. Then he can move on to bigger game, like the chickenosaurus.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Review of Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer

I just finished reading Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer by Novella Carpenter. In fact, I finished it in under 24 hours; I could not put it down. She’s a kindred spirit in many ways. I’m disappointed that I missed a chance to meet her. She was in Madison in October for the book fest. But, as often happens with interesting people who come to town, I wasn’t paying attention and read that she’d been here after the fact.

In the book, Carpenter describes building her urban farm in an economically depressed neighborhood in Oakland, California. She grew up in rural Idaho and Washington state, the daughter of two 1970s “back-to-the-land” hippies. There she learned to love raising her own food and to aspire to a degree of self-sufficiency. However, she also learned that she did not like the isolation of rural life; that she preferred the culture and energy of a city. With her mini-farm in Oakland, she attempts to have the best of both worlds.


While Carpenter is straightforward in stating her preference for city life, her social nature and love of people emerges organically in the telling of her tale. Her genuine fondness for her homeless neighbor Bobby, who lives in an abandoned car, her patience with children who stop by to see her animals, and her generosity with the fruits of her labor are evident on every page.

Carpenter begins by clearing a vacant lot next door to her apartment and building raised beds for vegetables. Eventually, she adds fruit trees, raspberries, and strawberries. An experienced bee-keeper, she sets up her hive and orders baby chickens, ducks and turkeys.

Many community gardens in inner cities start much as Carpenter started hers, by planting, with or without permission, on vacant lots or other disused land. Nobody seems to mind; in fact, these gardens are welcome improvements in decaying urban environments. Residents appreciate having access to fresh veggies – expensive for low income households, and often not available at any price, as supermarket chains seldom locate stores in these neighborhoods.

In contrast, I’m learning, much to my dismay, that it’s fairly typical for middle-class professional people to look askance at community gardens, or even vociferously resist the creation of one, in their neighborhoods. So her opportunity to just start planting, to be a guerrilla gardener of sorts, is very appealing. I don’t romanticize her situation, however. There is violence and danger where she lives – though she seems to negotiate these situations and relationships successfully.

Eventually, Carpenter’s love of pork, and especially cured meats, leads her to decide to raise a couple of pigs. At one point, a neighbor with limited English approaches her, child in hand, to complain about the stench from her pigs. The smell nearly made his daughter vomit, he says. Carpenter writes that she apologized profusely, and that she felt like a “complete ass.” She asks, “Who would want me for a neighbor?”


Really, Novella? I thought. It took this complaint to finally wake you up? The choking odor of fish guts you scavenged from a dumpster to feed those champion poop producers didn’t tip you off earlier?

I certainly wouldn’t want to be her neighbor if she were raising pigs – but I’d surely want to live within biking distance, to work with her in her garden and talk with her about this business of growing to sustain life.

In most ways, she appears to be a generous and tolerant neighbor. Conscious that the land on which she grows is not hers, that none of us really “own” the land, and that we all need to eat, she allows people to pick vegetables and fruits from her garden. She restricts foragers only with signs indicating when certain items will be ripe and admonishing them to leave some produce for others. Similarly, she shares meat from the animals she raises with her neighbors.

It appears that the Universe does reward those who give freely. In a turn of events that would require suspension of disbelief in a film or novel, Carpenter happens to meet a classically trained salumi artisan after rummaging in the dumpster behind his upscale restaurant in Berkeley to find yet more food for her pigs. He agrees to teach her the art of salumi, to make prosciutto, salami, and pancetta from her pigs - and they become friends.

I see Carpenter’s experience as the inner city, moderate-to-low-income answer to Barbara Kingsolver’s journey told in her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Both women put a great deal of labor and thought into their gardens and animal husbandry as they strive towards their goals of a sustainable, healthful connection to their food. However, Carpenter farms a vacant lot in an inner city that belongs to someone else. Kingsolver moves to a farm her husband already owned when she met him. At one point, she describes harvesting cherries from an existing orchard on the property. Both women are serious foodies. Where Kingsolver attends
Rikki Carroll’s cheese workshop (today these workshops range from $150-$350), Carpenter apprentices to a salumi artisan after scrounging in his dumpster, in exchange for a leg of one of her pigs which will be transformed into prosciutto.

I love and highly recommend both books. But I think Carpenter’s experience describes what will be possible for more of us than does Kingsolver’s. More of us will become downwardly mobile, due to fundamental changes in our energy situation and economy. More of us live in cities, and will continue to do so, than in rural areas. Certainly Carpenter’s project is more relevant to me. Although I don’t live in an economically depressed neighborhood, I also seek to combine the social life of a city with a degree of self-sufficiency. I’ve written my critique of lone homesteading
here. At this point, I believe my biggest challenge will be convincing middle class people of the value of urban agriculture, that we need community gardens and public orchards here, too. Maybe that will be my book to write.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Odds & Ends

We won! We won!
Well, okay, we got one of six honorable mentions in the most recent
Backyard Chickens coop contest. But we were pretty excited about it. Rick deserves all the credit; he worked really hard on building our coop and altering it as unanticipated design problems emerged. You can see our entry here. Check out all the winners here. There were many great ideas and interesting coops. It’s a terrific resource for anyone thinking about building a coop.

Eggs-tra! Egg-stra!
Ever since the chickens started laying – and even before - people have been asking me for eggs and volunteering to pay for them. It seems that everyone is looking for better quality food produced in healthier conditions. I’ve given some away, but resisted selling them.

I finally realized that I was reluctant to sell them because even though I’m sure these people would be willing to pay premium prices, I’m not sure the best price I could get would really reflect the labor involved in producing the eggs. If I count only organic feed and bedding, I could break even at the Whole Foods organic eggs price – when the hens are laying every day. They’ve really slowed down since it got very cold and the days grew short.

But if you factor in all the work and money invested up until the point where they start laying – the researching, the purchase of tractor and coop materials, building said tractor and coop, caring for the chicks, cleaning pasty butts, taking them outside and back in when they are babies, getting up in winter to fill hot water bottles, cleaning poop, mucking out bedding – it goes on and on – we’re operating at a loss. The only justifications for the expense are the degree of self-sufficiency we enjoy from producing our own, that these eggs are fresher than supermarket eggs, and, I suspect, more nutritious than commercially produced organic eggs, and that the hens also produce manure (and plenty of it!) for the garden.

So I decided I would only barter the eggs, perhaps in exchange for some home-grown organically produced vegetables that I wasn’t growing myself; or, for some fish! Our friends John and Barb, lifelong Wisconsin residents actually love ice fishing. Last year John gave us a beautiful bass that was the most delicious fish I’d had in years. I don’t know whether it was the freshness that made it taste so good, but it was succulent and almost sweet.

You’ll never catch me out on the frozen tundra, drilling a hole through ice, setting up tip-ups, and shivering while I wait for the fish to take the bait. I’ve cleaned fish before, when I was a girl (interestingly enough, when Dad took us on vacation to Wisconsin), but that’s another activity I’d like to avoid. So trading eggs for fish is a no-brainer. John just gave us our first bass of the season. I’m looking forward to beer-battered fish and chips for dinner tomorrow.

Mean Girls
After Little Jerry left, we had a period of d├ętente, when the girls appeared to stop fighting. We put bag balm on their combs to help heal their scrapes, treat the dry white patches from the winter cold, and prevent frostbite. Almost as soon as their combs were beautifully red and restored to nearly perfect, the pecking started up once again.

I was afraid of this; afraid that once we got rid of Little Jerry, someone else would assume the bully role. Astonishingly enough, that individual turned out to be Amelia, who I once described as our sweetest chicken. We’ve caught her picking on Tracy, the lone remaining Rhode Island Red, more than once, chasing her off treats or away from anywhere Amelia thinks is her domain. This morning was the first time I saw the tell-tale scrapes on Tracy’s comb. Judging by Amelia’s comb, Tracy gave as good as she got.

Still, Tracy has for days wandered around looking downtrodden. It makes me sad. Tracy has always been a good chicken; perhaps not the friendliest, but the first and best layer, eager to eat her greens, (Batgirl prefers cracked corn – not the best diet) and very healthy.

What is it with these chickens? They’ve got plenty of room; why can’t they just get along? It seems like the trouble starts between hens of different breeds. Little Jerry always left Tracy alone and went after Amelia and Batgirl, the Barred Rocks. Now Amelia is going after the remaining Red. We had already decided that we’d never mix breeds again, at least not in tiny backyard setting. But what if I get rid of Tracy, and Amelia starts in on Batgirl?


How do these chickens know which is their own kind, anyway? They don’t have any mirrors in there. Do they look down at themselves to figure who is Star-belly Sneetch and who is not? (Old Dr. Suess reference, for those too young to remember. I don’t know whether kids read Dr. Suess anymore.)

The funny thing is, when I told Rick his fave was bullying, he immediately started making excuses for her. Maybe she needed something to do; more greens or corn, he said. “I gave them greens yesterday morning (and the afternoon prior), and the seed ball yesterday afternoon,” I reminded him. “I always put the greens in two suet cages, even if I can’t fill them, just to separate the chickens,” I went on. “I gave them greens this a.m. and am planning to pop them some popcorn today.”


How much more do I have to do to entertain these silly birds? We all have cabin fever in winter. I guess my next step is getting them a treat from the pet store this week-end. I’ve read online of people buying crickets at the pet store for their chickens to chase after and eat. This week-end it will be warm enough (with a high of almost 40F!) that the crickets won’t die right away. Or I might stop by a bait shop and get some worms. Maybe if they’re pecking at some other beast they’ll leave their roomies alone.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Planting to Grow A Community

Happy New Year!

I can’t believe it’s been more than two weeks since I wrote a post. I had one planned for just before Christmas; I even had a title: Christmas Trees. I wouldn’t be referring to pine or fir trees trimmed with ornaments and lights, but to a gift of fruit trees I fully expected to receive. Just goes to show, you should never count your trees before they sprout. Or something like that.

Here’s what happened. A couple of weeks before Christmas, I heard via a master gardener’s listserv that the
Fruit Tree Planting Foundation had invited grant applications from Madison for trees to be planted in community gardens, parks, and other public spaces. Interested parties from around the city were asked to attend a meeting organized by the newly formed Madison Fruits and Nuts (MFN) to determine which neighborhood locations would be selected to apply for the grant. Major requirements included access to water and a committed group of volunteers willing to be trained to, and undertake care of, the trees.

I sent out an email to the neighborhood listserv and was thrilled to get 25 enthusiastic volunteers. I encouraged everyone to attend the meeting to select neighborhoods. It was a frigid night, postponed to that date because of a huge snowstorm the previous week. Only one other couple besides Rick and me showed up to represent our neighborhood. Still, I was sure we had a good chance. I was so excited about the prospect of an urban orchard just blocks from my house, and getting to know more of my neighbors, I was already planning my blog post to brag about it.

The sad ending to this tale is obvious: We were not selected by MFN to apply for the grant. Stunned to receive this lump of coal just days before Christmas, I emailed to ask what were the criteria for selection? I noticed that most of the selectees already had established community gardens. A representative from MFN confirmed my suspicion, pointing out that MFN expected that established community gardens have the best potential of both approval by the city's Parks Division and fulfilling the Fruit Tree Planting Foundation grant requirements.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. I was dimly aware that there were community gardens around the city, and I’ve even been to the largest,
Community GroundWorks at Troy Gardens. I originally went to check out their chicken coop. The man we bought coop plans from, Dennis Harrison-Noonan, also designed and built the coop at Troy gardens as a project with his son’s boy scout troop.

Many, if not most, of the people attending the MFN meeting were members of formal organizations that ran existing community gardens. A very loosely knit group of people, formed about five minutes ago, many of whom did not even know each other personally yet, would have to be seen as a weaker candidate for a grant.

I felt defeated - for about a day or so. Then I decided to try organizing a community garden in our neighborhood. Why not expand the notion of a Backyard Nest Egg to include community garden plots, urban orchards in parks, and so on? The largest park in our neighborhood is practically in my back yard – just a block away. Even before the fruit tree opportunity, I often walked through the park, marveling at all the land, and imagining what it might be like to have it planted with gardens.

It’s a huge undertaking. I’ve never organized anything like this before. I’m not at all sure that the people who were willing to be trained to care for a few fruit trees will also commit to what may amount to a long-term effort to get a community garden going. It will involve finding a suitable site, getting approval from the Parks department or schools, if school grounds are selected, seeking funding, and learning how organize and manage the project.


There are multiple stakeholders to contend with. For example, there are two major events that take place annually in the largest park in our neighborhood. If we had a community garden, would these events have to find a new site? I am aware of at least one prominent person in the neighborhood who objected in the past to community gardens in parks because “the parks are for everyone” and “just your group will be gardening.”

He may have a point. On the other hand, wouldn’t a community garden benefit the whole neighborhood in many ways? It could serve as an educational opportunity for children, contribute to food security in the neighborhood, and give us a better chance at the next grant opportunity for trees. Working together to establish and maintain such gardens may also strengthen the sense of community in the neighborhood – a benefit our park board president recognized at the MFN meeting. I hope we can make it happen.