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Food for Thought: The non-business of chickens

Written by Karin Payne on 27 December 2010.

Free range chickens graze on perennial peanut ground cover at Evening Rain Farm in Kapoho.
Free range chickens graze on perennial peanut ground cover at Evening Rain Farm in Kapoho.
There is a very fine line between having chickens on our subsistence farm and raising chickens as a business.

We are not chicken farmers. We do not have a chicken farm.

Our hens and roosters choose where they want to be at every moment. They love our front stoop and the barn. They want to be as close to us as they can without us being able to actually touch them (except for our bard rocks, who are friendly and we name them all “Friendly:” “auntie Friendly,” “Friendly’s sister,” or “Friendly’s daughter”). I just call them all Friendly. Lauren, of course knew each hen by sight. She would correct me, “No, mom, that’s not Friendly’s sister, that’s Friendly’s first daughter (but then Lauren had two horses as pets and milked and played with goats since she was 11.)

Our chickens can go over to our neighbors if they want (no mongooses on his expansive lawns and he gives them grains). But they generally stay here (well, the roosters do tend to spread out and find new territory, but we don’t mind unless they start to collect a harem for themselves from our girls). They sleep together in a mango tree and a key lime tree (totally neglecting the condominium coop we built). They eat perennial peanut flowers as soon as they hop down in the morning. They scratch anywhere and everywhere for bugs (their natural food) and we feed them coconuts and extra bananas. We built three oversized birdhouses and attached them to the outside of our main building and many lay their eggs there. Those eggs are “ours.”

In terms of work, that’s about it. We don’t keep records; we don’t round them up to put them in at night. We don’t do much at all. Our philosophy is “Why would we try to duplicate anything an animal already knows how to do?” That sounds like work. That would make us chicken farmers. We don’t want to be chicken farmers because once you do that you have to think about how many eggs per chicken you are getting and then, in order to compete, call some “unproductive” and decide to cull them. We’d have to feed them dense unnatural foods like store-bought grain and vitamin supplements to get our volume and size up to unnatural standards. We would have to be hyper-vigilant to make sure no girls sneak off and raise a clutch of chicks thereby lowering our production. In every way, THEIR business would be OUR business. We’d have to increase our number of hens and reduce the space they are in. We’d likely get more mites at that density, and ….

Chickens get to eat surplus farm produce, such as coconut meat.
Chickens get to eat surplus farm produce, such as coconut meat.
That all sounds like work and worse: I’m sure I'd no longer be able to name any of our hens and when I saw them I would probably think “Oh geeze, it’s another day. I’d better go interfere with their natural process again and create work for myself so I can eat significantly inferior eggs and make money I don’t really need more of.” I’d be annoyed that they tried to get out of their enclosures and mad if one of them was eating my expensive grain and not laying eggs. I’d learn to love or hate them based only on their egg count.

And come August, when the egg production goes down noticeably as they begin their molting, I guess we’d have to consider keeping the shorter days a secret from them so they would lay all year and after a few years of missing out on molting, they would be so ratty with so few feathers they’d have no warmth in the rainy evenings and would become sickly. They’d need antibiotics or culling.

And we’d probably engage in dreary conversations with other chicken farmers about eggs and hens and fret when our numbers were low. We’d have to start worrying about all sorts of things we don’t bother to even think about now: spreadsheet kind of thinking, like are leghorns better than bard rocks? Does supplementing with corn produce larger eggs? At what age is a hen past her prime and not cost effective? How many hens can we have per square foot? Do they even need wings? Can we raise more chicks ourselves than the mama can?

There is a very fine line, a sweet spot where the hens get to live their lives pretty much as hens and they get some benefits from being in close proximity with us and we get some benefits from being in close proximity with them. You start messing with that balance and you get generations of people who believe that hens naturally lay an egg once a day, every day of the year (and cows naturally give milk all year!), that chickens are vegetarians, that yolks are pale yellow and that fertile eggs need to be refrigerated.

We have the very best situation we can imagine and we get the most wonderful experience of living with chickens. They make me smile and they seem to like me and trust me and they keep laying where I keep collecting and I don’t have to think too much about their business.

We trade eggs for milk from local farmers who let their cows eat grass the natural way: in a field. They have calves each year, stop giving milk and rest, get milked by a warm human hand (not as natural as a calf but better than stainless steel). We trade eggs for Kalo (taro) from a friend who has a love affair with his kalo beds.

This feels good for us and hopefully everyone else.

 

Karin Payne lives with her husband Scott Middlekauff on their 22 acre sustainable farmstead in Kapoho. You can read their fascinating blogs at EveningRainFarm.com.