Yesterday I took advantage of the beautiful sunny day to do as many outdoor chores as possible. And as I completed each task, my faithful pet was by my side.
No, it wasn’t my beautiful little Eskimo Spitz (she was too busy guarding "her" goats); it was an eight-year-old hen that we simply call Miz Chicken.
I know commercial chicken house owners with thousands of birds will scoff at this article, but for the small, family farmer like me, chickens can provide the best eggs you’ve ever tasted for your breakfast table with comic entertainment as an "added value crop" you probably don’t anticipate.
I will explain the wonderful dual-chicken enclosure serving our farm and our family’s garden for years, in just a moment.
But the majority of our chickens are free-range now, and some take "free-range" to an all new meaning.
To be what many would consider an "elderly" chicken in chicken years, Miz Chicken doesn’t seem to miss a beat.
Not only did she follow as I sweatingly shoveled two wagon loads of composted chicken poop yesterday, she then carefully appraised each and every limb I cut from two small trees I was pruning.
As I exhaustedly went inside the house to shower, I figured Miz Chicken would hunker down in the shade for some much needed rest.
A little later, I discovered instead she’d waddled to my son’s house on the farm to oversee my daughter-in-law as she worked in her greenhouse!
Miz Chicken greets each and EVERY visitor to my farm, tilting her head from side to side in a comical, inquisitive gaze.
A "real" farmer would likely have already culled her because her egg-laying days are long behind her. But look what they would have missed!
My laying hens work extremely hard. They not only provide huge brown eggs for my extended family’s needs, they lay enough for me to sell which brings visitors here who often also buy my goat milk soap or other items.
But even if you don’t have any commercial aspirations at all, chickens can provide their healthy eggs, fantastic compost and fascinating entertainment for your family.
It hasn’t been many years ago when every small farm had a flock of chickens to provide for their needs. The three years we lived in town when I was a pre-teen I was awakened every morning by the rooster belonging to our neighbor who lived up the hill.
Now, so many larger farmers concentrate on a single crop or two that for a long time the backyard flock seemed to go by the wayside. But it hasn’t disappeared.
Last spring there were so many new folks buying baby chicks that many of the nation’s largest hatcheries had waiting lists.
Even just two or three hens can supply a modern-day family with all the eggs they need.
And keeping chickens is not complicated. If you start them out right, they pretty much take care of themselves.
My first coop was simply a shed built on the side of an existing outbuilding, with a square chicken run which not only had chicken wire on the sides but also stretched over the top to ward off predators.
When I decided to expand my chicken numbers a couple of years later, I borrowed a chapter from one of my favorite BACKWOODS HOME magazine writers, John Silveira.
His engineer-father always searched for better and more efficient ways to do anything around their home so he came up with a way to take care of his chickens, garden and even his compost pile.
He built a small coop in the middle with fenced enclosures on each side.
The first year, chickens had the run of the east side and the west side access door remained closed. The next spring, the chickens moved to the west side and his father tilled the soil and planted the family garden on the well-fertilized east side. Each year the chickens and garden alternate sides.
The great thing about that plan is you can build the coop and the adjacent side yards ANY size to fit your needs. If you have just a few chickens and want only a small garden, build each area small.
(You can read John’s article in the 8th BWH anthology on page 73 or link to my article about building the coop at www.backwoodshome.com/articles2/geno0704.html.)
I had such HUGE cabbages from that initial garden I would have won a Bonnie Plant youth contest if I were younger!
I knew NOTHING about chickens when I began, so the late Jerry Sterling, former Blount County Co-op manager, recommended I get Golden Comets as my first breed because they were hardy chickens and good layers.
Also called sex-link chickens (because hatcheries can tell by their colors whether they’re male or female), you can order them through many Co-ops or through national hatchers. I’ve since expanded and also have some of just about every other breed, but the determined Golden Comets remain the best and most reliable layers on the farm, with personality to boot — like Miz Chicken!
My chickens now free-range so they graze on pasture, eating bugs and anything else in their paths before they return to the safety of their coops at night. They also eat laying egg ration pellets and occasionally crumbles bought at our local Co-op store.
Even though they free-range, they lay in their nesting boxes because I always keep them contained in the coops for a couple of days when they move from their original heat lamp box on the back porch to the coop when they are fully feathered.
Even many towns and cities now allow small backyard flocks (usually only if you DON’T have roosters to disturb the neighbors!) and in many other cities groups are advocating allowing hens as "pets."
My farm-raised husband always told me I’d know when a hen laid her first egg because of her special "I am happy" cackling song. And he was right.
My mama told me you’d have thought I’d laid that first egg myself those many years ago.
So if you want to have farm-fresh, healthy eggs available right outside your doorsteps, and want your kids and grandkids to know the joy of retrieving a warm, fresh egg from directly under "the source," get at least a trio of happy chickens.
But I warn you, chickens can be addictive!
Suzy Lowry Geno is a Blount County writer who can be reached through her website: www.suzysfarm.com.