Friday, March 27, 2009


Call me a flip-flopper. It's true. I'm having a hard time deciding what kind of chickens to get and when.

When I first embarked on this chicken adventURE, I thought I'd be part of a herd. Groton Local would make some key decisions and I'd comply: Pick up XX chickens of XX breed on XX date.

No such luck. Groton Local made their order without me. So I formed my own Hen Talk group and we've been researching, visiting chicken raising operations, reading, talking, and asking questions.

I FINALLY decided to buy 14-16 week pullets that would be ready to lay in a month or so. It would give me immediate gratification in the form of eggs -- my purpose in this adventure, and eliminate the nursery stage of caring for cute little chicks.

However, I called the Townsend chicken farm so I wouldn't have to get them mail-order from the Midwest, and found out they administer the chicks antibiotics.

Michael Pollan, a modern-day Cronus or Saturn [Greek and Roman Gods] of agriculture, reports that 70 percent of all antibiotics used in America are on CAFOS - Commercial Animal Feeding Operations. They don't qualify as farms -- they are factories. Without the antibiotics, the animals would not survive in such close quarters, and grow more slowly.

Put that piece of the puzzle together with MRSA, an antibiotic-resistant strain of Staphylococcus bacteria [Strep Throat] that infects 100,000 Americans a year and killed 19,000 in 2005. More people are dying of MRSA than AIDS.

Recent studies point to CAFOS as MRSA breeding grounds. MRSA also thrives in hospitals. For the full story, click on Michael Pollan link for his 2007 article in the NY Times Magazine.

Either way, I'm going organic, even if it means losing a few chicks to death and disease. One of the most common ways of sharing disease among chickens is if I visit other chicken keepers and track home their ailments on my shoes.

I'm going with a heritage or endangered breed, too, because of a Yahoo Group on Organic Chickens. After stern admonitions in the welcome-to-the-list-serve-rules, such as "Don't ask stupid questions," such as "What breed should I get?"

They say, "We will make one recommendation: choose a heritage breed" and help save a breed. OK, I've flip-flopped to a new plan. There are no rules!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Fresh-Air Poultry Houses

This remarkable book, "Fresh Air Poultry Houses," by Prince T. Woods, M.D., has made a comeback since its original printing in 1924. Yes, 1924.

Readers can enjoy the humorous and archaic writing style while gleaning relevant information.

"Dank, dark and smelly" is a lethal combination, according to the book's introduction.

"If fresh air and sunshine, instead of being free to all, were delivered by meter and charged for at high rates, both would be in greater demand and much more appreciated," writes Prince.

(What parents name a son "Prince"? He is surely destined for greatness or a music career.)

"It is pretty well-known that when so-called un-civilized naked savages, who live in the open, are taught to wear clothes, live in closed houses and adopt other habits of civilized white men, they soon sicken and die of 'white man's diseases,' often of tuberculosis," writes Prince.

The wise doctor practices what he preaches. "Here in the variable climate of Eastern Massachusetts, often bleak, blustery and very cold in winter, my own family have used an open-air sleeping porch, with wire screen front, on the south side of our house, both summer and winter for the last ten years. The results have been entirely satisfactory and some of our neighbors have followed our example."

BRRR! Sleeping outside in the winter in Massachusetts? He's a bit crazy.

Prince provides a plethora of photos of open-air poultry houses and diagrams of how to build them. His missive convinced me to add extra ventilation, even though I've been warned that chickens are sensitive to drafts.

Raising chickens is a lot like raising children. There are many theories and practices, and ways to insure good health among children and chickens.

I do recall that every fall when we closed the windows of the house for winter, my children would get sick from breathing inside air. They didn't get TB, like the savages, but they did catch respiratory infections.

Prince would approve of the ventilation in my coop.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Hen and the Art of Chicken Maintenance

A good book is one that can't be put down. I couldn't stop reading Martin Gurdon's description of the antics, expressions, elegance, absurdity and atavism of keeping chickens in his "garden" in England.

It's edutainment -- he entertains and informs readers about the adventures of Psycho, Mrs. Brown, Satan, Wimpy and Bossy.

My hen-talk buddy Denali picked it up at the library and it's available online, too. Martin is a good storyteller and a better chicken keeper than I will ever be.

Martin views his birds as pets who produce eggs. I will view my birds egg producers who live in my chicken coop.He regularly took his birds to the veterinarian. My birds will live by the doctrine: survival of the fittest.

I've finally decided how and when to get birds. As soon as the coop is built and fence erected, I'm buying 15-week old Rhode Island Reds and Araucanas raised on a nearby family farm. They will produce eggs within a month. Rhode Island Reds are hearty and Araucanas produce green eggs.

Like spouses, there's no perfect breed. Some are heartier and easier to live with.
Getting them at 15 weeks eliminates the nursery stage. Chicks are cute, but my four children exhausted my broodiness.

Denali and Bernadette will adopt Speckled Sussex and Wyandotte chicks in June, by mail order, nurse them through infancy and wait 6 months for eggs. With a renewed interest in chicken keeping, there's a higher than usual demand for some breeds.

"You'll have chick envy when we get our babies," Denali said.
"You'll have egg envy when my birds start producing eggs," I said.

I'm psyched. Even psycho! My chicken advent is almost over. The adventURE is about to begin. Does anyone have thoughts on the breeds we've chosen?

Monday, March 23, 2009

Low Carbon Connections

People don't that get using less fuel means we're more connected to each other and our communities.

When I get chickens -- next week, I finally decided! -- I will get to know my neighbors better because I will sell them eggs and ask them to look in on the chickens when we're away.

That's Tom Doherty, a chicken farmer in Westford, MA, talking to Denali and Bernadette (holding Leila) about chickens. The three of us women get together for Hen Talk, to share information and plans for what kind of birds to get, when to get them and how to take care of them. There are dozens of decisions to make, and we're helping each other. It's fun.

At left are carpoolers. I made some wonderful friends by carpooling to work two to four days a week. I got to know people I never would have met through carpooling. They would make me laugh at 7 am and it insured that I almost always arrived at work in a good mood.

At my Unitarian church we have fun washing dishes together after a pot luck dinner for 10 or 100 people. [Unitarians aren't regular churches. We must think for ourselves. Unitarian Universalists accept all beliefs: aetheism, Buddism, Christian, Jew or Pagan.] By using china plates and real silverware, we generate less waste.

I belong to Ayer Local -- which is planning and taking action to transition when peak oil inevitability becomes a reality. We have fun together. I'm getting to know people in my neighborhood.

What are you doing that's local and sustainable that connects you to your community?

The truth about chickens and WHY CHANGE?

One the most refreshing things about young people is their honesty. During Sunday School, it was my job to shepherd a group of boys from 10 to 16 years old to figure out an Earth Day project that could be accomplished during a Sunday morning.

"What about raising chickens?" I asked. "Has anyone raised chickens?" Calvin, 15, scowled and shared his second-hand knowledge.

"They're stupid and they're a lot more work than you think. You give them fresh water and they poop in it immediately. They are stupid. They smell and they're dirty. You have to shovel out the poop from their coop to keep them clean. You have to take care of them a lot. My sister keeps them in our barn."

After the condemnation of chickens, it was hard to muster enthusiasm from the rest of the class. Like most Americans, they are so far removed from the experience of hunger, or from the intellectual possibility of peak oil and a social collapse, chickens are no more than an inconvenient pet.

The youths reflect the values of their elders -- chickens smell and they require regular care and feeding, which should be avoided and left to the CAFOs -- Confined Animal Feeding Operation.

I asked them what motivated people to take action. Calvin answered, "Our moral compass." I suggested fear, which they rejected. Money was also suggested as a motivation and similarly discarded.

The main reason people change is because everyone else changes. We are herd animals, we follow the trends. We do act out of fear of not fitting in and to save money.

What makes you change the way you've always done things? Why do you -- or do you not -- recycle, wear seat belts, not smoke in public?

BTW- they decided to either work on a community garden project or pickup litter in town in honor of Earth Day.

Friday, March 20, 2009

A new paradigm

My friends the Sheingolds allowed me to rescue this wall-mounted chicken nest contraption from their century-old barn. It hasn't been used in decades, so I'm happy to recycle it and install in my new coop.

Having grown up in the city and never raised chickens, I had no idea of the purpose of the wooden slats in front of the openings. Neither did Carol Sheingold or anyone in my family. I felt like I should know, but that kind of knowledge is fading away. Looking at the nesting boxes is kind of like looking at a typewriter or rotary telephone.

When I cleaned it, I realized the slats are on hinges, meant to be folded down for roosting. Now it's obvious. They double as a way to close off the bottom row of nests, if desired. My chicken education and adventURE continue.

Going public about my chickens adventUREhas all kinds of rewards. My optometrist said he gathered eggs on his uncle's chicken farm when he was 5 years old. He would have known what the mysterious slats were for.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Power of Community

I watched "The Power of Community" on Friday night at a public showing, about how Cuba re-organized its food production and transportation after losing losing half of its oil imports when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990. Dubbed "The Special Time," food supplies dropped by 80 percent. There was no food available.

Without oil, the country coasted to a stop and changed how they grow food. Instead of big state-supported agriculture, they created a network of small organic farms using oxen to pull the plows.

"An ox won't work for eight hours. When it's tired, it just lays down," said an old farmer who taught new farmers how to train oxen to do the plowing. Oxen are better than tractors for the soil because they don't compress the dirt. Oxen also provide natural fertilizer. Today, 80 percent of Cuba's agriculture is still organic.

People started using bikes to get around and ate more vegetables and less meat. The country got healthier. The rate of diabetes, heart disease and stroke went down. The average Cuban lost 20 pounds! People got to know their neighbors and began living more locally, with more connection.

Cuba's "special period" is a look into the future of what will happen in a post-peak oil culture and oil costs $150, $300 or $500 a barrel. People act crazy when they're hungry. Maybe that's what we need to wake up to the coming post-oil era -- a little hunger-induced craziness.

Has anyone seen the movie? NetFlix doesn't have it. This movie's site -- -- lists public showings and distributes the movie.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

New ideas are typically first ridiculed

That's a sculpture of a Delaware Blue Hen.
My city friends politely snickered at me last night when I mentioned I'm planning to adopting baby chickens in April to keep in my back yard.

"Why?" they said, trying to contain their mirth.

"So I can grow my own food and eat more locally," I answered seriously.

They sort-of understood that motivation.

Keeping chickens is so far outside of their paradigm, it was humorous to them. I can take it. I have my hen-talk group. We are creating a new "normal." We humans are a lot like chickens. We like to belong to our flock. We don't want to be the first to do something, for fear of ridicule.

I got the idea from a group of people --
Groton Local -- who endorsed it and offered support and guidance. It seemed normal and even cool to them. So I jumped on the group's train. It's easier to get on someone else's train than to build my own locomotive and engine house.

New ideas are typically first ridiculed before eventually being accepted as truth.

Twenty years ago, the notions of curbside recycling, banning smoking in restaurants or an African-American president would have been dismissed as ludicrous.

They're the new normal.

I can relate to my city friends. In the 1990s, I bought eggs from two neighbors who kept chickens in our apple-orchard-farm-town-turned-Boston-commuting-suburban. I thought they were a little fringe.

Their eggs were mighty fresh and delicious. My city friends will be clamouring for my home-raised, free-range eggs. And I'll get the last laugh.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Green Acres is the place to be

Farm life is noisy and smelly.

Roosters in particular, can be loud and unruly. Some areas prohibit chickens by zoning regulation.

"Be a good neighbor," said one of the chicken gurus at the chicken training on Sunday, so chicken ownership stays legal and accepted. In my town, chickens are considered pets. Still, pet owners have responsibilities.

One of the chicken coops on the tour smelled. I couldn't stay in there very long. It was a sunny, muddy, spring day, so most of the chickens were outside at the watering trough, left.

Most Westerners are disconnected from the production of food, which involves smell, sound, killing and dependence on the weather.

We're also disconnected from the rhythms of the earth. We protect ourselves from and complain about bad weather. I live in New England and love to ski, both cross-country and downhill. For optimum conditions and comfort, I watch the weather and respond to it.

This morning, I squeezed another day on my cross-country skiis before everything melts. I went out early before the sun melted the fresh snow. It was beautiful, pristine and quiet. I prefer going skiing outside of my back door instead of driving to the health club.

When we move away from the land and into cities, we're cut off from the rhythms of nature. Green Acres becomes a myth, a backwards, far-removed place with rustic noises, smells and barnyard animals. Small farms have been able to survive by becoming museums.

Maybe we need a TV show called Reality Farming?

Monday, March 9, 2009

Minimalist chicken keepers

Yesterday was Chicken 101: my hen trio visited chicken keepers and attended a free lecture [sponsor - Westford Farmer's Market]. The coop on the right was on the tour sponsored by Groton Local.

This is what I learned.

1. The chicken adventure is more fun with my "hen talk trio" -- me, Bernadette, and Denali. We help, laugh with and teach each other. A century ago, farm women got together for "hen talk." That's us.

2. We're trendy. About 70 people attended the chicken meeting, and some came a distance. Anybody who is "with it" eats organic and local, composts, and raises some vegetables and fowl. If you're really somebody, you've been doing all three "forever."

3. It's simple and frugal. The biggest challenges are building/buying the coop and choosing what variety of chickens to get.

"Make the coop so predators can't get in, it has no direct wind, and ventilation. Chickens will die from overheating sooner than they'll die from the cold," according to Tom Mahoney, who has been raising chickens since he was 5 years old. He's a regular chicken guru.

The coop can be made from recycled materials. It can be a retro-fitted garden shed. All the coop needs is a private place for laying eggs and roosts for sleeping. He really simplified it.

Tom recommended Rhode Island Reds, which can be bought for a buck or two each, which is chicken feed, so to speak.

4. Chickens don't need much attention, and they're entertaining. I asked one of the farmers on the Groton Local Tour, "How many chickens do you have?" She answered, "I don't know." That's my kind of chicken keeping. Laid back and low key.

They need to be checked once a day, sleep outside all winter, and don't like stress, which is simpler than a dog's needs. They do stupid things to make us laugh, especially roosters.

5. Chickens will help compost. Terry Golson, author of "The Farmstead Egg Cookbook," built her chicken run adjacent to the compost pile. Vegetable and fruit scraps first get heaped in a corner of the chicken yard, beside the compost pile. The chickens get first dibs, and they enjoy the pecking, then it's a short throw into the compost pile. That's my idea of a low-tech compost pile. Just toss it on.

Next step
The final decision is whether to get chicks or to buy the more mature pullets. I think it will be a more complete experience to raise them from the beginning. That's not saying I want to bond with them. The chicks at the lecture were mighty cute, so I'm leaning towards adoption at birth. Time to order the birds and build the coop!

Friday, March 6, 2009

We vote every time we buy something.

"I like to shop where the clerk says, 'Hi Bob,'" says Reliable Bob of Red Oak Renovations. (Disclaimer: he's my husband.) Bob shop almost daily for supplies when remodeling customers' kitchen and bathrooms.

Bob doesn't get "Hi Bobbed" at the big box stores.

When he shops at Moore's Lumber -- where the sign at right is posted, clerks say, "Hi Bob!" Moore's is convenient -- 2 miles away -- and has good service. The inventory is less than the box stores, but a smaller store is less overwhelming.

I'm in charge of the town's annual spring roadside trash pickup in April and needed to track down plastic bags for the effort.

Following the mantra of "We vote every time we buy something," I started my online search with "plastic bags + Massachusetts."

The first place I called in couldn't help, but he connected me to Kurt at Eastern Packaging in Lawrence.

Kurt donated two rolls of bags for the cleanup. I wonder if he would've done the same thing if I was in Oklahoma, not just down the road in Massachusetts.

Thanks, Kurt.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Biomimcry for my offspring

If you haven't seen "The 11th Hour," rent it immediately and watch it with a group. Watch the extra features that have in-depth interviews.

The people in the photo above are my family and friends -- the most important people on the planet to me.

Janine Benyus studies biomimicry -- a new discipline that studies nature’s best ideas and then imitates these designs and processes to solve human problems.

This is what Janine said in "The 11th Hour." It relates to the photo and survival of the fittest.

Organisms have learned to take care of their environments so their offspring will survive the next 50 billion years.

Organisms manage to build soil, cleanse the air, filter water and exhale a cocktail of gases that is exactly what we need to breathe.

Life has managed to create conditions conducive to life. It's nothing special. It's part of the system.

They do it without the Environmental Protection Agency or lawyers or corporations.

Organisms create a place that will support offspring.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

One drop of water does not make an ocean

My dirty laundry is at right -- hankies and cloth napkins -- part of my campaign to reduce what I consume and throw away. The hankies and napkins will be used hundreds of times, compared to ONCE using paper products that have to be grown from trees, manufactured, shipped, stocked, bought, transported home, used and disposed of.

I picked up 20 dinner plates at the Transfer Station -- from a shed to leave and take excess household goods. I keep them in the garage for parties to avoid buying paper products.

I bike, carpool and use public transit when possible. Most of the light bulbs in our house are florescents. My husband, Reliable Bob of Red Oak Renovations has a green business plan. He attracts customers within a 30 minute drive from our home in Ayer, Massachusetts.

We've super-insulated our house and are investigating installing solar. I have a high-efficiency washing machine that uses 9 quarts of water instead of 36-gallons. I avoid using my dryer in favor of a drying rack. We have a small garden. I buy at the local farmer's market in summer. I'm getting chickens -- you can't get more local than that!

I'm only one person. We're only one household, one business. Do our solo actions make a difference?

I'll let Michael Quoist's poem provide an answer.

If each note of music were to say:
One note does not make a symphony
There would be no symphony.

If each word were to say
One word does not make a book
There would be no book.

If each drop of water were to say:
One drop does not make an ocean
There would be no ocean.

If each seed were to say:
One grain does not make a field of corn
There would be no harvest.

If each of us were to say:
One act of love cannot save mankind,
There would never be justice and peace on earth.
Begin now, why are you waiting?

Monday, March 2, 2009

Neither snow nor rain not heat nor gloom of night

What happens when it snows? What happens when I go away for the weekend? What happens if they get sick? During the advent before my chicken adventURE, I have time to fret over these questions.

It's snowing about a foot today. That's me at left, emptying the compost bin with Gonzo, who will hopefully evolve to be a chicken protector, not attacker. Photo by Reliable Bob.

The chicken coop will be attached to the brown out-building at the left. That's not very far to go in the snow. "The cold doesn't bother the chickens, but you have to protect them from drafts and provide fresh water daily," according to Doug, a fellow chicken keeper.

I can see why old New England farmhouses are connected to the barn. The buildings inbetween housed the outhouse, and the series of outbuildings provided a buffer and an enclosed path from house to barn throughout the winter.

It won't be that inconvenient or difficult to visit the chickens once a day during snowstorms and keep them cooped up and protected from drafts during the winter. It will be one more thing on my radar to manage. I'm anticipating that keeping chickens will be fun, interesting and productive.

Nowadays such a fuss is made over driving in snow. Perhaps it's because we can anticipate the storm coming. It only disrupts things for 24 hours, then it's over.

What if we all lived locally and didn't have super-long commutes on super-highways? What if we had chickens in our backyards and could collect some eggs for dinner and avoid the pre-storm trip to the grocery store?