Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Chickens for Dummies

R and I started attending Small Farm College two weeks ago. We are attending as our first step toward figuring out what in the world we are going to do with our farm now that we’ve bought it. I’m sure sensible people would have figured that out before they bought a farm. We saw an opportunity to fulfill a dream and took it. As so often happens when dreams come true, reality has a way of being… well, real. As a result of this realness, we have 37 acres, a barn, several outbuildings and very little clue of what we are going to do next.

R has the hopes that we will be able, over time, to turn this 37 acres into something that provides enjoyment and income. Most of the time, I just hope that I don’t lose my mind in the process. Don’t get me wrong. I have farm dreams too. Mine center around sunshine and green fields, beautiful flowers and children playing. These dreams are filled with prosperous vegetable gardens and fragrant herbs. Bees busy busily in and out of gleaming white boxes. Chickens peck quietly at the ground in the yard. Everything is lovely and peaceful. In my perfect farm world, there is a book and a glass of wine after a satisfying day of work while we enjoy the sunset. Sounds great, doesn’t it?

Now, we just have to figure out how to make it happen. And so, I am reading books about chickens and bees and farming in general. As I read these books, I have discovered how much I didn’t know that I didn’t know. I am also learning that farmers assume that the rest of the world knows a lot more about what they do and about how it’s done that I do.

Today I was reading a book about chickens. It’s called Keeping Chickens: The Essential Guide to Enjoying and Getting the Best From Chickens by Jeremy Hobson and Celia Lewis. The photos in the book are lovely. They truly represent chickens in their best light and the book is worth getting just for the pictures. However, when you get into the text, it is not a book for beginning chicken owners. The authors assume a base of knowledge and ability that is far beyond what I possess. Admittedly, the closest I’ve been to a chicken in the last 30+ years involves preparing, cooking, cutting and eating. I don’t even deal with chicken bones or skin. I do buy organic, local chicken so at least I’ve been close to "real" chicken but it was most assuredly dead and plucked.

As a result, I know less than nothing about live chickens. While I enjoy seeing the chicken pictures, what I need are step by step instructions on how to set up a coop, purchase birds and what to do to keep things going smoothly. I need pictures of feeders, watering systems, roosts and nesting boxes. When someone is as clueless as I am, nothing can be assumed. For example, this book spends a lot of time talking about showing chickens. Sadly, I admit that my first thought at the mention of showing chickens was…Show them what? As you’ve already guessed, that’s not what the authors meant. Evidently there are people that have chicken shows. I can only guess that these are similar to dog shows. My imagination comes up with all kind of chicken show activities; loudest cackle, longest feathers, biggest breasts, fastest layer…the possibilities are endless. I wonder if the chickens have to show their intelligence and carriage or if they are judged totally on their looks. Either way, for someone like me, the chicken clueless, the idea of a chicken show is beyond anything I’m prepared to face.

I haven’t checked Amazon yet but I’m pretty sure there’s got to be a book out there for me. (See!  I knew they'd have it!)  Chicken for Dummies is just what I need, provided that it tells me how to get my chickens, what to do with them once I bring them home and, especially, how to keep them alive. If it tells me how to get them to lay eggs so I can enjoy the fruits of their labor, all the better.

The really silly thing is that I have a great chicken coop. It is the original carriage house on our farm. It’s two stories high and divided into three rooms and a closet. Inside the walls and ceiling are lined with chicken wire. I’m thinking that the plan there is it keep predators out and chickens in. The result is that there several decades of really questionable dirt and debre stuck between the walls and ceiling and the wire. Inside, there are also a variety of shelves, boxes, bins and troughs. I’m fairly certain that each of these has a chicken purpose but I’m not sure exactly what they might be.

Maybe I just need to forget the books and call in a chicken expert. I’m sure the farm’s previous owner, Bob, will be glad to lend me his assistance. He’s been here once since we moved in and it’s easy to tell that he misses the farm and would be a wealth of knowledge. My fear is that if I ask Bob for help with the chickens they will no longer be my chickens and I’ll be seeing a whole lot of Bob. I’m not sure I’m that brave nor am I sure I want to let someone else know how chicken stupid I am.

Once again, I find myself so thankful that we moved into our farm in January. The time to figure it out is really precious to me. And whatever path I take on my chicken quest, I know that there are resources available. I also know that I can do this and that the results will be worthwhile.

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