Night Moves

Day 19 of 365

Well, dear readers, it worked! Kate remains broody and has accepted being broody in her new digs!

Late last night, I snuck into the coop where she was sleeping in the nest box. I bird-napped the poor girl but took her warm eggs with her. Well, most of the eggs.

I had left three eggs under her, but when I scooped her up, I could find just two eggs. I have had broody hens hang onto the eggs, so I kept feeling around her the best I could. I finally had to give up and just accept the two eggs and Kate. Just as we made it to the garage, from some Kate crevice, out popped the egg onto the garage floor. No matter though. The two eggs did the trick.

Look at Kate in her new chicken mama house! She’s so cute in there I almost can’t stand it.

When I went to check on her this morning, she was on her eggs! She had even built up a little nook of a nest with the straw and seemed quite content. Phase 1 of operation Copper Maran complete. Next week will be the most stressful part, but I’m thankful for finally convincing Kate the dog crate will be a safer starter home for her baby chicks.

I have discovered, over the years, that you can get away with a lot at night when it comes to chickens. That’s why I decided to move Kate at night. It also has to be at night when we switch out her eggs with baby chicks. When I have to do any kind of health check on chickens, I do that at night as well.

I don’t know exactly what happens to chickens at night, but I guess they sleep hard. I may have to research this. In fact, I will have to research this. One of the best tricks of chicken keeping is learning to do the stuff you need to do at night. In fact, when you introduce new chickens to your flock, it’s best to do it at night. I mean, you do some minor daytime introduction, but you make the big move at night. This is considered a chicken keeping best practice.

If the chickens wake up together, they are more likely to accept each other. It’s like, “oh, I guess you’ve been here all along. I’ll go with this.”

There are many ways chickens are like humans. Chickens are curious, brave, stubborn, social, petty, mean, and they definitely have cliques. Temple Grandin, scientist and animal behaviorist, has said that animal emotions are like human emotions, only simpler. Not that she needs confirmation, but I can definitely confirm this through my observations. I am forever amazed at basic similarities between us, I guess because chickens are also social animals.

One of the cutest things is that my flock conveys hope and disappointment so obviously. My wonderful neighbor feeds our chickens healthy scraps at the garden gate all the time. The chickens know her very well, so every time she comes out to her garden, they come running–so hopefully! I will see her sometimes say something to them, something along the lines of “I don’t have any treats today.” Those chickens will slowly turn around, heads dropped, and gradually head back to what they were doing with such an air of disappointment. It’s the cutest thing ever.

But chickens and humans differ in some key ways, of course. If I woke up in the morning to find five or six new people in my house, there would be some freaking out.

***

And I have to add a quick Ruby update, of course. She’s doing well. She had watermelon for a treat today, and she has just three to four days to go! Babies should start hatching on Tuesday or so.

The Trouble with Kate

Day 18 of 365

I have to write quickly tonight, as I have more chicken work to do thanks to Kate. I love that chicken to the moon and back, but I should have known she was going to be difficult with all of this chicken mama business. She was the most difficult, sassy baby chick I have ever seen. Of course, this made me fall madly in love with her.

I want terribly for her to get to be a mama. Unfortunately, when I went to check on her this morning, she acted like she wanted out of the crate. I am not one to force anyone into motherhood, as it’s the toughest job in the world, so I opened the crate and let her go first thing this morning. She went back with the flock and was scratching around in the grass this morning.

This is Kate with her “Shakespeare crew” when they were young. That’s her in the back. Can’t you just tell she marches to her own beat? Her sister, Bianca, is front left. She’s also super sweet. The chicken right in front is the infamous Juliet. The beautiful rooster is Romeo. We kept him for a long time because he was beautiful, but he started terrorizing some hens. Romeo had to go, sadly.

She has been broody for nearly two weeks, so I thought surely the move would work. But when I saw her with the flock, I thought maybe she had decided against broodiness and that the move to the crate had broken her broodiness.

However, about 15 minutes later, I saw her back in the nest box acting all broody–screaming at people in the coop. (I feel like it is important to know that I call animals people. There are chicken people, duck people. It’s not that I do not understand that they are a different species. It is just that we don’t have a word in our language to convey the fact that I see them as different but not lesser. When I read in Braiding Sweetgrass that Native American languages have words for “bear people” and “chicken people,” I was moved to tears.)

Anyway, Kate was back in the nesting box, doing her dinosaur scream at anyone who wanted to lay an egg today. I just shook my head and realized I needed a special plan for such a special chicken.

So, this is my plan, I let her keep the eggs under her this evening instead of collecting them. Then, at night tonight, I’m going to pull her out of the nesting box, keep the eggs right with her, and put her in the crate with the warm eggs. My hope is that keeping her belly warm with the warm eggs will help keep her focused on being broody. I’m trying to not “break the spell” if that makes sense.

I am about to head out there right now and try this. Wish me luck. I am supposed to pick up baby chicks from the breeder next week. If Kate won’t agree to this new arrangement tonight, I’m going to have to enlist Jane. She has done this before and knows the drill. She made the move just fine last year. But, goodness, she was a bossy mama and didn’t co-parent very well at all.

So, please cross your fingers for Kate. She is generally a very sweet hen. She’s just–particular about things.

Grow Your Own

Day 15 of 365

Before we had chickens and ducks, we had a garden. The first time I ate a tomato from our garden, I thought I might cry. I didn’t even think I liked tomatoes very much. Then, I had a tiny sun gold tomato standing in our garden, and truly, it was like the sun had infused its magic into a tiny, delicious orange ball. 

I was hooked. 

I guess my husband was as well. Since that time 10 years ago, he has devoted himself each spring, summer, and fall to growing the food the feeds our family. Right now, if you count the garden, chicken and duck eggs, and the broiler chickens we raise, we grow somewhere around 60 percent of the food our family eats. Beyond that, we buy from local farms as much as possible, but we definitely do our best to grow our own. We do all this on about 1.6 acres. We are evidence that you don’t have to have a lot of space to do this. In fact, part of our property is still wooded.

It’s not easy work, of course. Outside of the epic work my husband does to start seedlings, plant rows (he grows perfect rows), compost the chicken poop for fertilizer, water in the most creative, water-conserving ways possible, and will the plants into beautiful growth, we have to focus our food preparation around the things we grow. 

This didn’t happen overnight. I grew up on Hamburger Helper, and though Ron had grown up on homegrown food, as an adult, he had also shifted his diet to the frozen foods section in the grocery store. And, as a cook, it took me some time to figure out how to use things like cabbage and beets. Additionally, even for the things I knew how to cook and use, like green beans, I had to find ways to use them a lot more frequently. We now eat a lot of green beans.  

Right now, our garden is just getting started, but the chicken and duck eggs are in full season. But we are eating greens every night for dinner (mostly spinach), eggs for every breakfast (and sometimes dinner), and I have learned to make several wonderful treats with rhubarb. 

My plan is to share some of the recipes I use that help us eat so well from farm to table. I have become quite efficient at cooking and storing food from the garden–from the spinach in the spring to the tomatoes and squash of fall. I think I can share some wisdom here. I mean, I’m going to try.

I’m going to start tomorrow with a little rhubarb recipe I kind of made up. I just don’t know yet if it’s a jam or a jelly. I think jelly, but I don’t want to steer you wrong and have to do some research. 

More on this tomorrow…

***

In the meantime, on the Ruby front, all is well. She had eggs and toast for breakfast and drank some of her water. It’s very nice and cool in the garage, and the sun comes in well. She seems to be pretty content. 

I have also decided that Kate will be our next mama, but we are going to try something different. Because she has been broody awhile, instead of getting hatching eggs for her this week, the chicken breeder I am working with says he can just sell me some chicks I want next week. So, this is exciting but also adds an element of drama. It will involve taking eggs from under Kate and replacing them with live chicks at night. We have about a 98% success rate with this, but we had one failure, which means I always have anxiety. Still, I am hopeful. Kate’s a good girl, and this strategy works almost all the time. We’re getting some Black Copper Marans and maybe some Blue Marans. If we get some girls, we will then be able to add chocolate colored eggs to our collection, and my little egg rainbow will be complete. 

One Step at a Time

Day 10 of 365

Well, I made it to double digits in my efforts to write every single day for year. That seems like a good first milestone. My husband says that you have to do something for 30 days for it to become a habit. I hope that’s true, as I will have just 20 days to go to make writing here a habit.

I will have to be quick with my writing today. I have much work to do–many essays to grade. It’s been a busy week, and Thursdays tend to be long grading days for me. Things have also been extra stressful this week. I am teaching a writing class that ends this week, and some of my students are just in a panic. I have found that, since the pandemic, the normal “end-of-class anxiety” has increased ten fold. Everyone is stressed. Everyone.

It’s understandable. I just read an article today about problems with global food supplies that are certain to get worse. There’s a terrifying baby formula shortage. There are wildfires. Inflation is worrisome. At the grocery store today, I saw that a carton of a dozen organic eggs cost $8.49. It made me very thankful for our refrigerator full of organic eggs. But I understand the stress.

Today, one of my extremely-stressed students actually hung up on me while I was trying to help her over the phone. At first, I was grumpy about it, bemoaning the treatment of teachers. But then I remembered the stress of the world, and I decided to text my student a kind message of support. I told her I was going to type out what she needed to do so that she could read and process it again when she was less stressed. I told her to try not to stress, that the work always seems worse when it feels new and unknown–feels like it’s piling up. But I promised her she just needed to take things one step and a time.

And isn’t that the truth? Just one step at a time.

I believe I have learned this deeply, learned a kind of serenity that helps me with my anxiety from the state of the world, from homesteading. There have been times when I have felt overwhelmed by the work of a farm, like when our flock got sick with a respiratory illness a few years ago or when the garden is producing faster than I can process the food in the fall because I have to keep grading essays too. There was the duck with the broken leg that had to be healed. There was the summer when three ducks had bumble foot to treat. Three ducks! That’s a lot of duck-foot wrapping.

But I always get through it.

These experiences have given me some wisdom and patience, which is so important to someone with such a busy, worried mind. I dig into each new task knowing that, even though my work may feel daunting, most likely, I will be able get through it all. I often write about the magic of the farm and living more connectedly to nature, but as I thought about things today, I realized one of the most important life lessons I have learned from the farm is that I can handle more than I can think. I just have to start.

I don’t know what to do about global food shortages. But, today, I delivered the first farm shares to two families, and a third one starts next week. Maybe it’s okay to just take things one step at a time.

***

And just a quick Ruby update. She is doing fairly well, but I discovered when I candled her eggs that she has some poultry lice around her head. It feels like a miracle I saw them. I have terrible eyes. My poor Ruby! But I treated her with the good stuff, since I don’t have to worry about withholding her eggs anyway. She’s not going to be laying eggs for a long time. I also took her extra treats and scrambled her an egg this morning. Being broody is hard on a hen, and adding lice to the situation is not good. Still, I will give her a second treatment next week and will scramble an egg for her every day. Hopefully, this won’t be much of a setback for her.

It’s Weirdly Hot for May in Maine

Day 3 of 365

Ruby is off her nest of eggs right now, and she has just 12 minutes before it makes an hour. I’ve read broody hens can be off their eggs for longer, but an hour is a safe window of time for a break. So, in the middle of writing this, I will have to go check on Ruby. She didn’t take a break at all yesterday, so I know she needs one. Still, I’m hoping she will get back to work soon.

It’s been really hot this week, very hot for May in Maine. Ron has been planting everything early but has been most worried about getting the broccoli and cauliflower going because it will bake in the heat and not produce. It needs our usual cooler temperatures. He did well, he got the plants into the ground, but getting hot this early is a concern. Hopefully, the plants will survive this heat wave.

The heat is hard on our animals too. We have several very old chickens. One is a meat bird, Mary Jane. If she makes it to the first of June, she will be five years old! This is something of a miracle, but she’s very large and very old, and I worry very much about losing her to the heat. Thankfully, our birds have a lot of shade from the many trees on our property, and I take great pains to make sure everyone has access to fresh water and cool treats throughout the summer. Still, a couple of years ago, we lost an older hen to the heat. I try to keep a watchful eye.

Yesterday, my son and I went for a walk on our road, and when we got home, I noticed the chickens looked so hot and dry. Earlier than usual, I went to the shed and got their extra waterer. I gave it a good scrub and put it out for everyone near the dust bath hang out. It was a hit. As soon as I sat it down, several chickens circled the waterer. They still had access to their main waterer, of course, but new is better. They always think this. When I am feeding scraps, I have some hens who will constantly move on to what I am dropping last, even if they are giving up a very good position with very good scraps I dropped earlier. Apparently, these hens do not understand the old saying, “a bird in the hand.” In so many ways, humans are the same.

While I was scrubbing the waterer, I noticed the ducks, who have their own area separate from our chickens. That’s another story in and of itself. We tried to keep our chickens and ducks together, as some farmers do, but it was a hard “no” for us. This meant Ron had to build an entirely new duck area complete with duck house and 1/2 acre fenced area. He’s kind of a miracle, though he doesn’t think so. Anyway, the ducks were watching me closely with the water hose, and one duck in particular, a duck we rehabilitated after she was over-mated at another farm, was making eye contact. Her name is Anna Maria.

I looked at her. She looked at the kiddie pool. I didn’t feel like scrubbing and cleaning their pool, as I needed to go make dinner, and we try to just do the pool clean just once per week to be frugal with water. They have access to large bowls with fresh water every morning, but the pool is pretty big. It hadn’t been a week yet since it’s last clean and fill, but when I looked at her again, she looked at the pool. I got the message.

“Alright, Anna Maria, hang on.”

I scrubbed and filled the pool with the sparkling water made extra beautiful by the fact that the kiddie pool is light blue. The ducks gathered and watched in anticipation. When the pool was filled Antonio, our only male duck, was the first one in. “Come on in, girls, the water’s fine,” he said with the bob of his head. The ladies seemed skeptical.

But after a few minutes, they couldn’t resist, and the girls piled in as well. But not Anna Maria. She waited. I went about my other work, as I knew she would get her turn. Indeed, she did. I came back by a few minutes later, and Anna Maria was in the pool with one other female. They were both ducking down and raising up, letting the cool water run over their heads, and my heart was so happy for Anna Maria. I will have to write more about her soon, but she has been though a lot in her life. Every single time I see her being joyful, I feel like I have done some good in the world.

I feel like I flail around the world most of the time–wanting to do some good, usually feeling helpless. I cannot affect much change in the world. I cannot convince world governments that we need to take action now on climate change, that Maine is too hot in May. I cannot even figure out how to help my children prepare for an ever-changing, more difficult world than I grew up in. I try but feel like a failure at every turn.

But I made Anna Maria’s life better.

And, yesterday, in the sparking water, as the sun shone on her between the trees, I saw a joyful duck, and there, before my eyes, was some good I have done in my life.

***

While writing this, I had to take a break and check on Ruby. Her hour was up, but she was still off her nest. Much to her dismay, I had to capture her, which is no easy task. Chickens are fast! But when I took her back to her eggs, she went to them immediately. She sat her little self down, adjusted her body to spread over the 8 eggs in her nest, and looked content. I guess she just needed to be reminded. She’s on day 2 of 21. On day 7, I’ll candle the eggs!

A New Year, a New Adventure, and a New Kind of Blog

Today is Day 1 of a 365-day project I start with this Farmer-ish blog. I want to try something different. I am going to be honest. I struggle with social media, and struggling with social media is not an asset when you are trying to run and market a new journal. Nevertheless, I struggle greatly.  

It’s hard to fully define the struggle, though I have thought deeply about this for years. Part of my struggle is that I am just so curious. I can’t help but read and click and explore. I study human behaviors in groups and forums. Far too much of it is heartbreaking. And this leads me to the second part of my struggle—I am an empath. One time, I read a post about rescued duck who had been used as a soccer ball by a family in a park. I mean, who does that to an animal? I had trouble sleeping that night and thought obsessively about that poor duck for days. Recently, I started reading about animal rescues in the Ukraine. I have spent more time than I can say crying on my keyboard. Yet I struggle to look away. The magical portal with all the information and all the stories in all the world lures me.

Even before I started Farmer-ish, I was working as a freelance writer and struggling with social media. I wanted something different but didn’t know what that “something different” might look like. I have recently researched other options. I have read all of the blog posts about what works on social media. You have to be authentic (people like that). You’re supposed to do it every day (this doesn’t work when you’re hiding from Facebook). I have read and read and read. Some people give up on the whole thing, this exhausting system of constantly “building your brand.” Some people try newsletters. Some try different kinds of social media. Some have had success. 

After searching my soul, I have a plan. 

For the next year, starting today, May 10, 2022 (the day after my 47th birthday), I am going to write, every single day, something farmer-ish for the Farmer-ish blog. My main goal will be to tell the animal stories of my life. I want the world (or perhaps just the handful of people who will read this blog) to know these animals and see what I see and experience. I used to doubt myself and my connection to animals, but the older I get and the more research I read, the more I believe my experiences are real—and worthy of sharing. 

So join me, if you will. 

I am going to tell you stories about my quirky chicken, Juliet, who doesn’t fit in with the rest of the flock and trades eggs for treats. I am going to tell you stories about a rooster named Rooster, who is reserved and thoughtful and seems to have an unusual capacity for language. I am going to tell you about our ducks and how, every night before bed, I bring them peas in a white bowl and then we play a game. I am going to tell you stories about the Eastern Phoebes who have built a nest on our back deck. 

In the middle of my animal stories, I will also share details of our famer-ish life. I’ll share seasonal recipes and tips on growing, cooking, and storing your own food. I’ll share stories about what my husband is doing in the garden. I’ll share about the things I make—from jam to quilts to bread to candles.

Sometimes, I’ll write a whole essay. Sometimes, I may only be able to share a quote from a book I have read or am reading. It won’t be polished. There will surely be typos. 

But I am putting this goal into writing and hope to keep it. For the next year, I am going to write something here every single day. 

In the end, maybe I’ll have a book. Maybe I’ll just have some writing worthy of reflection. Maybe I’ll find a way to establish a presence on social media (because blogs are a kind of social media after all) that feels honest and good for me—and maybe this process will keep my curious self away from the Facebook posts that keep me awake at night. And, maybe, you will sometimes feel compelled to comment.

If you are reading this, thank you for going on this journey with me—on Day 1 of 365. 

How to Last-Minute Prepare Your Flock for Extreme Cold Weather

by Crystal Sands

We have been keeping chickens in Maine for 8 years, and over those years, I have learned a lot about keeping our flock safe and warm through some fairly extreme cold. Some of what I learned, I learned through research; some, I learned through experiences. One of the key things I have learned is that there is the “ideal” situation for keeping chickens and then there is the situations many of us find ourselves in.

It is so true (and I have written about this very thing) that chickens generally do not need a heat source of any kind in the winter, even when the temps drop in an extreme way. But a good winter situation means you have a sturdy, dry coop with good ventilation, no drafts, and good, dry bedding. What do you do when this is not the winter situation you find yourself in?

I have given chicken talks for the Common Ground fair and written about chicken keeping for years. I have interviewed several big names in chicken care, and one of my biggest worries is when people offer “blanket” advice without knowing the ins and outs of particular situations.

Take our situation, for example. We had always done well with preparing our coop for the winter. We kept 15 to 20 birds for the longest time and went along at a good pace. We had no issues of frost bite in the winter. But, two years ago, we increased the size of our flock to 31 birds. When winter hit, we found we were struggling to get the vents opened to the proper amount, and our coop was getting damp from the increase in birds. After all, all that chicken breathing makes moisture. We were trying to adjust, but one night, the temps dropped to -7 degrees Fahrenheit, and our rooster got frostbite. We had an oil-based heater that we had used one winter when the temps were hanging out around -18 degrees for a couple of weeks, but since everyone told us you don’t need a heater, that year, we never brought out the heater. The night of -7 degrees meant frostbite for our rooster.

Thankfully, the frostbite was minor, but I learned a couple of valuable lessons: First, I needed to do better to prepare my coop for winter, and second, I needed to stop listening to “blanket” advice and make my own decisions based on the situations I am in, however not-ideal they may be.

As I write this post, we are looking at a significant temperature drop here in Maine tonight, so I wanted to offer some tips to help you prepare your chickens for a cold night–if you find yourself in one of those less-than-ideal situations.

Assess the Dampness Right Before the Temps Drop

Go out to your coop right now. Is it damp? Does the bedding feel damp? We use straw, and contrary to one of the many myths circulating the internet, no, it does not lead to crop or mite problems. When our straw is dry, I know things are okay in terms of the moisture in the coop. Because moisture leads to bigger issues with frostbite (essentially, the moisture sticks to any surfaces, including your chickens and leads to the cold feeling colder and doing more damage), you want to make sure your coop is good and dry tonight. Last year, when we had the frost bite, we had been struggling with the humidity, and the straw was a bit damp feeling. I should have pulled every bit of that damp straw out of our coop for that sudden drop and made sure, though we were struggling with ventilation, that, at the very least, we were starting the evening in a dry place. If your coop feels damp, get the wet bedding out of there today and put in fresh. Do not hesitate on this!

You should adjust your vents. The trick to a well-ventilated coop is that there should be no drafts, but up high, there should be vents you can open and adjust. If you have been struggling with dampness, open those vents a little more. It may feel counter-intuitive, like you are letting in more cold, but ventilation up high helps release the moisture from all of that chicken breathing.

Assess Your Flock

If you have healthy, cold-hardy birds, you are in good shape as the temperatures drop. If you have any Silkies, please understand these are not cold-hardy birds. We do not keep Silkies here in Maine, but I spoke to someone who lost some Silkies in a cold snap here in Maine. They do not have the same kind of feathers as other breeds and can struggle in the cold. If you have a less-than-ideal situation in your coop and can bring your Silkies into the garage or somewhere milder (you do not want too warm, as then they will get used to the warmth), I would. There’s just a big difference between a Rhode Island Red and a Silkie when it comes to handling the cold.

If you have just one or two birds, I would be hesitant to leave them alone in a coop in sub-zero temps. The snuggling helps everyone handle the cold. Plus, more chicken breath equals more heat in the coop. If you have one or two chickens, as I know some people do, I would make a plan B.

Should you add heat?

If the only heat source you have is a heat lamp, no matter the situation, I just say no. I know I said I don’t like “blanket” advice, but I have seen far too many coop and barn fires from heat lamps. In my opinion, they are simply not worth the risk. Plus, there are other heat sources. If you have just a couple of birds, a Sweeter Heater, which does not get hot to the touch, works great. If you do not have one, ask around. We have one we let a friend borrow, and chicken people are generally really good about helping other chicken people.

We have an oil-based ceramic heater that does not get hot to the touch that we have used. My husband also built a cage to go around the ceramic heater, just in case. This oil heater doesn’t make a huge difference in coop temperatures, but it helps. Our flock is a closed flock due to a respiratory issue several years ago. We have some old birds that are not as tough as they used to be. I wish, last year, I would have gone ahead and put the heater out that night our rooster got a bit of frostbite.

Of course, in an ideal situation, I would never use heat. And, honestly, we have managed to fix our moisture problem in our coop with better ventilation. We may not break out the heater tonight for the -8 degrees, but if we find ourselves at -18 degrees again, I’m probably busting it out. Our flock has a health issue that makes for a special situation. My sweet Lucy is 8 years old and has survived a serious respiratory issue. She needs a little help.

Can Treats Help?

I used to feed our flock corn before bed on cold nights, but I recently learned this may be doing more harm than good. This article, What a Corn-Idea by Dr. Curran Gehring, explains why corn may actually be making things worse. This information is explained in some pretty clear scientific terms, and it’s new to me. However, it’s compelling enough that it is given me some hesitation about giving corn to the chickens tonight. In fact, I think I’m going to pass on it tonight and share it as a treat when it’s not so drastically cold. This article definitely goes against the chicken lore we read on the internet and in the forums, so I understand this may be controversial.

Ultimately, however, I think doing whatever you can to make sure your flock has a super clean, dry coop tonight is the best thing you can do. So if your bedding is damp, head out there before or after dinner and spiffy up the coop. And if you have a little Silkie, I would bring them into the garage.

I hope this information is helpful, and I hope tonight goes smoothly for everyone!

What’s Going On?

by James Sands, guest blogger

“… and I scream from the top of my lungs, WHAT’S GOING ON?! “

My wife was casting about for potential guest bloggers, and I reluctantly answered the call—not certain if my current brand of comma-laced (the world gives me pause), cynical incredulity would be deemed appropriate for public consumption—but, if you are reading this, and hopefully not reluctantly, it, apparently, was.

Perhaps some or maybe even most of you will remember the pop tune from the early nineties, “What’s Up,” written and performed by Linda Perry, formerly of 4 Non Blondes, and its unavoidable, inherent question. Linda Perry could belt one out, and that question was aurally etched into the auditory pathways of my brain with the earnest fierceness and underlying frustration of someone who, I imagine, knows the biggest and most important questions are typically the ones that go unanswered. Her question, timely then, is even more so today.

“What’s going on?”

There is much I do not understand. We are in the midst of what is possibly the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced. And, in addition to climate change, we are also in a pandemic that has sickened almost 250,000,000 people and caused the deaths of over 5,000,000 people world wide. This seems like a time when humans should come together, should unite in common purpose against global crises that detrimentally impact us all.

Yet what do we do? We divide; we attack; we fracture—swayed by forces that seemingly are out to confuse, profit, segregate and control. Why?

It is apparent many of us live in two separate realities, polar realities supported and fueled, in part, by major media organizations that, seemingly, no longer view themselves as purveyors of the news, keepers of the sacred truth. Instead, they have become “social influencers.” My spell-check does not like the word “influencers; “neither do I. I am disgusted by it. The truth is sacred—but not to some.

Social media for example. What promise. What possibility. What potential to educate and unite. But no. Social media has become a powerful wedge for the dividers—and a money machine for those who have the power to check and eradicate the lies that live and thrive there. Tragically, it is also, for some, the only source of “news.”

Why is it easier for some people to believe prominent democrats run child prostitution rings out of pizza shops or JFK junior is not deceased but has been in hiding the past twenty-two years and will return to become president or Covid vaccines contain satanic markers than it is for them to believe the burning of fossil fuels has altered our climate to the point where we now are on the cusp of irreversible, planet-wide disaster?

The internet, via social media, now runs the biggest tabloid press on the planet. 

I can see with my own eyes the climate is warming. Ten years ago, my young son and I built a snowman on the day after Halloween. This year, on November 2, I harvested the last of my peppers from plants that were still producing blossoms, yielding almost a half bushel basket the day before our first major frost. This in Bangor, Maine. I have never had pepper plants survive, let alone thrive, outdoors past mid October.  

I have been to Los Angles; I have been to Boston; I have been to Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Chicago, St. Louis, Buffalo. I have witnessed the traffic; I have seen the sick gray skylines, the billowing clouds of smoke. I have watched the documentaries, seen the pictures of smog-shrouded cities in India, Pakistan, China, Kuwait, Uganda, Bangladesh, Russia, Mexico, Peru, Egypt, and Iran to list a few.

Where does all of that pollution come from and where does it all go? I have read the literature. I understand how CO2 emissions affect the upper atmosphere. Climate change driven by the burning of fossil fuels is accepted as fact by a majority of scientists world-wide. Do they have an agenda? Are they making money by promoting this. Is there an international corporation of scientists whose board of directors dictates this truth be told in order to keep their stock holders cash-fat and happy?

I do not own a gigantic mushroom-shaped projectile filled with enough liquid rocket Viagra to penetrate and inseminate the mesosphere nor do I have a cowboy hat. I grow a garden; I raise chickens, and I refuse to be divided. Many of my neighbors do not agree with my political views. I refuse to hate them for it. Granted, I do not agree with or understand why they are where they are regarding issues like climate change and Covid-19, but I do understand how they were led there. Still, I refuse to be divided.

We are all human; we are all one; this planet is one—our only one. I cannot escape it nor would I want to. I love the earth and all the creatures on it. This is my home. Agree with them or not, all humans are my people.

And this is where I really get cynical. Do I think we will come together to save ourselves? Right now, I do not. There are powerful forces aligned against us, powerful people hell-bent on dividing us–hell-bent on turning this planet into a hell. Too many seem unwilling to change; too many seem profit-driven rather than socially motivated. Too many seem selfish, mired in ego and greed. As a whole, we humans just might be fatally flawed. We continue to repeat the same terrible mistakes, revel in the same ridiculous arguments, fall along the same unwholesome divisions.

Will we survive? Will we find the common ground that exists all around us, under us? If we are going to find a way out of this, we had better. And that, now, is the ultimate truth.  

And maybe next year, I’ll plant watermelons.

photo credit: Rachel Jarboe, Unsplash

I have to tell you a story about this egg…

I have to tell you a story about this egg because I think it will warm your heart. I know it warmed mine.

This beautiful blue-green egg comes from a breed of hen called an Easter Egger. Easter Eggers are technically not recognized as an official breed, but, for backyard chicken keepers, they might as well be their own breed. They are unique because they lay a green to blue-green eggs, like Easter eggs, hence the name “Easter Egger.”

Interestingly, it is actually a virus that hens carry in their genome that causes some breeds of chickens to lay the blue eggs. The Araucana, a breed from Chile, lays blue eggs. Easter Eggers are essentially a “breed” of chicken that has genes mixed with the blue layers.

All eggs are beautiful to me. They are little treasures, gifts from the hens to nourish us. I have hatched baby chicks from eggs, and I have seen how magical eggs are.

Eggs are so full of nutrition that a baby chick can survive for several days without food after they first hatch because they have been nourished so well by the contents of the egg from which they are born.

The eggs our hens lay are extra special to me. They taste better than store-bought eggs, and there is some compelling research indicating they are also more nutritious. Happy hens lay better eggs. Of course, they do.

Last year, before I was wise enough to freeze eggs during peak laying season, while our hens were taking their “winter break,” I had to buy eggs from the grocery store. The eggs were terrible to me. They tasted like depression. That’s the only way I know how to describe it. I don’t think I will ever again be able to eat store-bought eggs. I need eggs from happy hens. And, if you have never eaten eggs from happy hens, please do try some.

We have one hen, named Schubert, who lays the egg you see here. She’s an Easter Egger, but her eggs lean more toward a light teal than any Easter Egger eggs I have ever seen. The picture doesn’t do her egg justice. The color is magnificent in the sunlight. Schubert, named after the composer Franz Schubert, has her own way of putting beauty into the world—through her gorgeous eggs.

A couple of weeks ago, I delivered a dozen eggs across the garden fence to my neighbor, who was just inside the chicken yard with her grandchildren. They were feeding our hens grapes and breadcrumbs when I came upon them with the carton of eggs in my hands.

The children wanted to see the eggs, and I was excited because I knew they would be pleased with the beautiful colors. We have some olive-green eggs now, all shades of browns and creams, and, of course, Schubert’s blue-green egg.

Both children were immediately drawn to Schubert’s egg. I heard them arguing over which one of them would get the egg. As one sibling is in Kindergarten and another is still a toddler, it seemed like the oldest might win. If nothing else, she would have more staying power on the issue. And I was right.

A few days later, my neighbor told me that the oldest insisted she take Schubert’s egg home with her, that she needed to keep that beautiful egg. I loved that this little girl had to have that egg, that this little girl thought the egg was so beautiful that she just couldn’t let it go.

“She is my people,” I thought to myself. And that thought, the thought that there is another human in the world who sees eggs for the beautiful treasures they are, brought me joy.

Because I have to believe, if we can learn to treasure the gift, we can learn to treasure the gifter.

Mary Jane’s Long Dance: A Hen’s Story

It seemed difficult for me to decide what to write about for my first blog post for Farmer-ish, but, today, as I work through my day, despite all that is going on in the world, my thoughts have turned to Tom Petty and a hen named Mary Jane in his honor.

I hesitated to write about Mary Jane for my first post, but what better example is there of the way my life has somehow managed to weave itself so deeply around both farming and the arts?

Here’s the background.

On the day Tom Petty died, which was three years ago this day, my husband and I were processing meat chickens. We had done it only a few times at this point, and the days of processing were always hard on both of us. First of all, it’s hard work, and though my husband always bears the brunt of it, I am his assistant in the endeavor. I work from sun up to well past sun down with him. Second of all, it’s a deeply emotional experience.

To not only know where your food comes from but to also know your food will change you. Over time, the experiences have led us down a path where we eat far less meat and eat vegetarian meals more and more. But that’s another story.

This story is about Mary Jane. And Tom Petty.

There was always something special to me about Tom Petty–the poetry in his lyrics, his deep understanding of those of us who are broken for our various reasons. It was only after his death that I learned about how he, too, had been broken by his childhood, which explained so much about that deep empathy and artistic soul.

My husband was outside processing when I came inside the house to take a break on October 2, 2017. I went online to skim the news. There, I saw the headline that Tom Petty had died. It had been a rough year for all of us, for our country, and losing Tom Petty hurt badly. I just sat and cried for a bit.

I went outside with my red face and hollered at my husband from our back porch, “Hey, Tom Petty died today.”

“What?” he asked, and then the understanding came. “No!” he said in sadness.

He stopped what he was doing, and we talked for a bit–about our disbelief and sadness. It was like losing a friend. Of course, we didn’t know Tom Petty at all, but I felt like he had been with me through his music my whole life.

Now, a little more background.

Every single time we processed meat chickens, I would always start asking to save a few, especially the hens. In my mind, it’s more than just an emotional appeal; it’s logic. A hen makes so much food for someone over her lifetime because of the eggs she lays, more food than someone can get from processing her.

“But these are meat birds,” my husband would always respond. “They don’t live very long.”

It was true. Meat chickens are bred for very short lives. They grow large quickly, and even though we have never purchased the kind that grows so quickly they struggle to walk, the reality is that meat chickens are definitely not meant for longevity. We both knew this.

But that evening in October, in the sadness of Tom Petty’s loss, my husband agreed to give the last hen a chance. She was smart. She had dodged him all day, and she would be reprieved.

“She has to be named Mary Jane,” he said. I agreed.

In the coming days and weeks and months, we would listen exclusively to Tom Petty’s music, and I was inspired to write. I wrote a short piece about Tom Petty’s impact on my life that was featured on the front page of Huff Post, only for a few hours, but there I was. I would later go on to publish a collection of essays about Tom Petty’s work. It was as if Tom Petty’s creativity was contagious to me. And, in my frenzy of writing, I also wrote about Mary Jane.

When I shared Mary Jane’s story, many Tom Petty fans reached out to me. “Here’s hoping Mary Jane lives a long and healthy life,” one person wrote to me. I didn’t have to heart to explain that Mary Jane was a meat bird and that “long” for her might be just 18 months.

But I really liked Mary Jane, and over the years, I came to love her. That’s right, I said years! Mary Jane is now just about 3 and 1/2 years old and is still with us; she is just a magnificent bird. She’s huge, like the size of a turkey, and she’s even smarter in her age. She knows her name and somehow knows exactly when to run and hide when I am coming for her for a health check.

Last year, she nearly died. I brought in a little hen who infected our whole flock with a respiratory illness. Mary Jane took it the hardest, as of course she would. She was an older meat bird. But we moved her into the garage, and I got on my hands and knees every night for weeks giving her medicine. She hated it all and fought me like crazy. Essentially, I had to fight with a turkey every night.

After a while, and in my exhaustion, I just decided to put remedies in her food and hope for the best. I thought, perhaps, my battle to get the meds in her was maybe causing her enough stress to hinder her recovery. So I took good care and waited and watched.

After nearly three full months of battling the illness, that hen fully recovered. Mary Jane has will.

Then, miraculously, this spring, Mary Jane even started laying again–and on the regular! We now have a Mary Jane baby on our little farm named Petty, and somehow, Mary Jane is, indeed, living a long and healthy life.

Much has changed in my life since the day Tom Petty died and Mary Jane got to live. We no longer listen to Tom Petty music exclusively. Our little boy is a cellist, so we listen almost exclusively to classical music. Interestingly, after a few years of listening to classical music all day every day, we can’t listen to popular music anymore–with one exception, of course–Tom Petty.

Sometimes, late at night, I go to our basement for quiet while I grade essays, and I listen to my Tom Petty favorites. I think about the impact a man I never met has had on my life. And, tonight, in the middle of writing this, I just went to the chicken coop and tucked in Mary Jane and gave her an extra pet. She didn’t even seem to mind.