Tiny Egg Tales

On Friday night, I went down to collect the dinner dishes from the chickens (rice, yogurt, leftover veg…yummy!), and found something very special.  Two tiny eggs!  One was just inside the coop door, and the other was in the nest box.  I was moved and awed.

Tiny Miracles!

I wrote up a sentimental blog post about the two hens who had laid their first eggs.  We’ve been waiting for more than a week for Patti and Selma, our two silver-laced Wyandottes, to enter this new phase of their lives, after their combs turned deep red and they started doing the “egg squat” and Selma the “egg dance” (it’s the squat plus a little stomp-stomp-stomp tatoo); both sure signs, we read.

I was so struck by the loveliness that these two hens, who came together from the hatchery on their crazy, unnatural journey to us, and who have been inseperable ever since, would start laying on the same day, within hours of each other.  They are so different in personality, yet they reign as Top Hen (Patti) and First Mate (Selma), must roost side by side every night, and follow each other around all day.  How fitting, I thought, that they would wait for each other before dropping that first egg.

It would have been a wonderful story, had it been true.

You see, Patti is the chick I wanted to call Miss Adventure/Misadventure.  She’s Top Hen because she’s always willing to go over the fence first and see what’s on the other side.  It didn’t take her long to figure out that if she flew up to the top of the gate in the orchard, she could hop down and be free (except she never did figure out how to get back in to where the food and water and everyone else was!).  We blocked off the gate, but she got out again somehow.  We never did figure out how.

Patti on the loose; onlookers confused...

A couple of days ago, I came home from work in the afternoon, and the orchard gate was wide open.  All the birds were out rummaging around delightfully.  Oh dear, I thought.  One of us must have left the gate open.  We swore we would pay closer attention.  And we did.

Saturday morning, I went down to check on the chickens to see how they were doing in the rain.  The gate was wide open again.  It had defnintely been closed at 6:30am when I had let them out.  Because of the rain, most of the flock were huddled by the coop where it was dry.  Patti was out in a nearby vegetable patch, looking wet and not very happy.  She quickly scooted into the run when I opened the door.

I noticed when I let her in that there was an egg in the nest box.  Aha!  It was still warm, and thus guaranteed to be Selma’s.  The penny dropped.  Patti must have laid her egg somewhere outside.

I looked around the vegetable patch.  I retraced her steps toward the orchard gate.  I peeked over the gazebo fence where the straw bales are stacked.  And there they were, tucked in a safe, dark, straw-covered corner.  Three beautiful tiny eggs.

So much for the perfect twins starting to lay on the same day!  Instead, we had a newbie chicken owner (moi) who didn’t recognize that Patti’s pacing up and down the orchard fence like a prisoner in the mornings, and yet being completely content to go back in and join the flock later and not try to get out again meant that she was trying to get to her nest.  And a newbie chicken owner who didn’t clue in that Patti might be smart enough to figure out how to open the gate latch! (It sounds far fetched, but it’s the only explanation! We need a web cam 🙂 ).

So much for projecting sentimental narratives on one’s pets!  This inter-species communication stuff is tougher than it looks!

Today, I tried to outsmart Patti by leaving everyone in the closed run until the two hens were finished laying.  Selma laid her egg in the nest box as soon as she could kick everyone else out of the coop.  By noon, Patti was still acting calmly as if she had all the time in the world.  I let them out into the orchard and figured it must be her day off.  I checked for eggs throughout the afternoon and made sure the gate latch was secure.  No egg.

Skipper went to visit with the chickens and get them back in the run around 7pm.  There was a tiny egg sitting in the straw under the apple tree.

Who’s trying to train whom, I wonder? 🙂

I Need a New Cookbook

This is the time of year when I remember what it really feels like to eat seasonally out of the garden.  It’s a roller coaster!

First, there’s the anticipation.  We gardeners wait–seemingly forever–for that blossom to turn into a blueberry or strawberry or raspberry.  There is joy when it finally looks like an actual food, but then we wait interminably for that fruit to ripen.  And then suddenly, the first two are ready.  And they taste SOOOO good.  The burst flavour that hasn’t been tasted in a year, the memories that come flooding back.  There’s nothing like the taste of a season beginning.

And then the crop starts to ripen en masse.  At first there’s a gorging, a true sense of abundance.  We eat everything raw, or just lightly steamed, usually with butter, sometimes with a little herb or lemon or olives for extra flavour.  But then, the combination of the day starts to feel stale.  How many ways can I eat broccoli, peas, and cabbage?

And I start reaching for my cookbooks.  And there are always a few good recipes.  But then I feel dissatisfied by the books.  Sure, a recipe might feature broccoli, but it also calls for peppers or squash.  Or something else that I would have to go to the store to buy or that isn’t in season.  Or it’s a recipe for a really traditional slow food recipe that takes hours to prepare.  It’s July!  I don’t want to cook or spend time in the kitchen!

So here’s what I need.

I need a big, fat cookbook.  One that focuses exclusively on eating out of a realistic garden year round.  One that uses ONLY ingredients that are available at the same time, with a few other staples (rice, pasta, eggs etc) that would realistically be in an ordinary pantry.  AND it needs to have 10-15 recipes for each vegetable that is easy to produce in the garden! I mean, we’ve got weeks of cabbage left before the beans and tomatoes kick in!  I’m looking for a helpmate and handbook to truly eating out of the garden all year.

There are a spate of “farm to table” cookbooks out there.  But so far, the ones I’ve looked at feature all of about 6 recipes per season!  And those recipes are either complicated and not for everyday quick dinners, or they are really basic (tomato sauce? Really?), or they are for how to preserve a bounteous ingredient.

I need a book that gives me ideas, pictures, inspiration, realism, and ease.  Families are busy, adults are working full-time jobs, and the garden is the passion that takes up the rest of the hours of the day.  But at the same time, we’re doing this for the food!  It’s a joy and a privilege and needs to be celebrated.  Ideally in 30 minutes or less. 🙂

So what do you think?  Does this book exist?  Please tell me it does!

Giving away the harvest: Care package for friends--broccoli, cabbage, kale, beet greens, snow peas, and early potatoes

Is Eating Meat a Sustainable Choice?

Judging by the content of the many homesteading blogs that I read, there are MANY of us wrestling with the place of meat in our diets.  Anecdotally, it seems that those of us who have been working with food issues for decades went vegetarian or vegan in the 1990s, when animal rights, the realities of feed lots, and concerns about feeding a growing global population entered the collective middle-class North American consciousness (or when I headed off to university!).  Fast forward twenty years, and so much has changed in the world of alternative food production and our understanding of what sustainability means that many of us are taking another look at our food choices.

At the moment, I’m uncommitted and actively wrestling.  For the last twenty years, I have eaten seafood, eggs and dairy and in the last ten I’ve made sure those were ethically sourced.  I’ve had years where I ate in a more vegan style and years that were more fish-heavy.  There have been times where I have been repulsed by the meat my dinner companions were eating (the first time the Skipper ordered chicken in front of me I freaked out) and times where I have asked to taste the meat on their plates.  I have had no weight or other health issues stemming from this basic diet.

My sister, whom I love dearly and respect hugely, has been vegan for almost as many years.  For her the choice not to consume any animal products is extremely personal and comes from a deep place of compassion and love for animals.  I have always respected her ability to put those principles first, before all other immediate needs that might come up, whereas I tend to bend to culture and tradition when that feels more important to me.  I feel very temporary and small on this planet, and often feel like there are more important factors at play than the choices I might make at a meal in my own home.

My sis is extremely healthy, and had zero issues even when pregnant.  Her now five-year old son has also been raised essentially vegan thus far, and is the sturdiest, tallest, most physically vigorous child you could ever meet.  In fact, he was so robust as a youngster that the “fragile vegan baby” comment became a running joke!  They are also content and thriving in their food choices.

I cite this personal information because many of those in the “post-vegan” ethical eating ranks often comment that they just never did do well on a vegan diet, got tired of the “you’re just not doing it right” criticisms, and felt hugely better when they started eating meat again, even in small quantities.  In my family, we obviously do just fine on lower protein, plant-based diets, and our health is not really playing into these decisions, except in the sense that the standard info that suggest that the average global citizen is healthier eating less or no meat seems to apply to us.  I absolutely believe that everyone, physically, is different and needs to find the balance that is right for them.

My sis recently wrote that she believed that there would be less animal suffering in the world if we all moved to a vegan diet.  We talked a little about that point, because at my stage in this journey, I just don’t believe this to be true.  But she raised issues that did get me thinking, and rethinking some of the commonly held wisdom in homesteading circles these days, and I wanted to sort out my thoughts.

So here are some of the issues and premises that I believe to be true at this point.

1.  No food product that is produced through large-scale mono-cropping that requires lots of heavy machinery, fertilizers, herbicides/pesticides, other drugs (for animals), uses gmos, produces toxic waste products, and destroys topsoil and soil fertility is sustainable.

At the moment, I would argue that this includes most (organic and not) livestock production, all non-organic soy, corn,  (I’ll have to do more research but I suspect) probably most non-organic grain production, much of the non-organic and according to Michael Pollan much of the large-scale organic vegetable and fruit production.  This is also true, in my mind, of most processed food production, and that includes organic processed foods like fake meats and cookies, and also much of the commercial canning industry which uses metal, plastic, and international shipping to get cans of chickpeas and tuna to my local supermarket.

I believe that eating a diet that consumes the above products causes animal (and human!) suffering whether we eat the animals or not.  Whether it’s habitat destruction, carbon emissions, or combines harvesting hundreds of acres and killing untold numbers of animals in its teeth, this system is horrifying.  A vegan eating exclusively from this system, I belive, is deluding themselves that they are helping.  With perhaps the caveat that CAFO animals are living a nightmare and that at least the wild animals destroyed in other ways got some natural experience in their short lives.  Ugh.

2.  A traditional, diverse family farm before industrialization was pretty close to a closed-loop system with animals playing a symbiotic role with all the other parts of food production for the community.  The more I research this, the more amazed and inspired I am by the way the systems inter-related and worked together.  There was no waste, no loss of soil fertility, animals could be raised and killed humanely, and every part of them was consumed.  Much less meat was also eaten in that system than is eaten today in a Standard American Diet in terms of overall quantity.

There are people out there today farming according to these practices, and I love the idea of participating in such a system myself.  But I can’t delude myself, either.  This model takes land (especially for pasture and fallow fields), and it takes labour.  It worked then because families were big and land was available for reasonable prices.  The land-size and system can be scaled down some, we can use goats instead of cows, or mini/heritage cows, for instance, but we still need some acres.  I don’t have acres, can’t really afford acres where we live, and live in a family of 2 who both work full-time.  Much of this blog has been about figuring out how to make the dream fit our reality!

3.  Much of the world’s population lives on small amounts of land, which they do not necessarily own, and eats vegetables and staple crops that they produce with hand tools in small plots.  Meat in small amounts from small animals that co-exist with them provides crucial nutrient-dense calories, fat and protein.  These communities have very little environmental impact in the world and are probably the model that is sustainable on a global scale.

4.  To produce plant foods sustainably takes good soil fertility, which means returning nutrients to the soil in exchange for those that we remove through our food crop harvesting.  That fertility can come from two major places (though it usually comes from both): plant sources as compost, or animal sources as manure.  Jon Jeavons’ work in California has demonstrated that plant sources are adequate and a vegan diet can be sustainably produced, and his system requires that a significant part of your land be used to grown compost crops each year.  I can’t remember what the percentage is, but the whole system requires 4,000 square feet per person.

Small-scale livestock on a homestead can produce major amouts of fertility through manure and bedding compost in a very small space–arguably less than it would take to grow enough compost crops and on poorer land.  My 8 chickens have a generous 200 sq’ of of predator-proof enclosed space in an area of the yard that would be challenging if not impossible to grow in (under trees), and then can forage in the rest of the yard, allowing the orchard, for instance, to do double-duty.  They allow me to stretch my other garden waste to produce the soil fertility I need, as well as eggs and eventually…well, soup stock anyway.  Or more fertility in a garden grave if I didn’t have the heart to eat them. 🙂

5.  Many animals are raised with grain-based feed.  Not all need it–pigs and cows don’t, and pigs produce more manure and consume more waste foods.  But these animals also require more space than we have, so we’d have to buy them from someone else, which means they’re not adding anything to our own system.  But I have yet to meet or hear about anyone who is raising chickens–particularly meat birds–without grain.  In fact, when I decided to look into meat birds as a possible next step in our food production, I quickly realized that much of the conversation around pasturing birds (ie meat birds in a chicken tractor) as an economically sustainable system revolves around the Feed Conversion Ratio–ie, how much grain feed does a bird require to reach a reasonable slaughter weight?

The current dominant Cornish Rock hybrid birds, the ones who have been bred to grow so quickly they can’t stand up by the time they are slaughter-weight at a mere 8 weeks old and who start having heart attacks if you keep them alive much longer than that, have a low feed-conversion ratio of 2.5 lbs of grain for 1 lb of meat.  Many people are horrified by the Cornish broiler and are actively looking at other options; those other options are more expensive because their FCR’s are much higher, if only because they live longer as they put on weight at a healthier pace.  I have seen FCR’s as high as almost 5:1.  This clearly creates a better life for both the birds and the people eating them, but is growing grain for livestock feed at those conversion rates really sustainable?

6.  Growing grain crops to feed livestock to allow more people in the world to eat more meat is not sustainable.  This is well documented.  There are numerous countries in the world who were once exporters of food who are now importers because of the demand for meat and the grain required to produce it.  Undeniable.  However, it’s the industrial system and scale of raising meat that creates the problem; given that all large-scale traditional and sustainable societies ate meat, this imbalance is clearly not necessary.

7.  Wild meat is likely an overlooked and sustainable part of our diets that needs to be reconsidered.  I really think this is a piece missing from both sides of the debate, although the hunting movement is apparently growing.  Around these parts, we have an overpopulation of deer partly due to habitat destruction as a result of urban sprawl which is also arguably unsustainable.  But it’s also because attitudes around hunting have removed predators.  And the overpopulation of deer is a massive environmental problem that we need to take responsibility for.  There’s a great source of locally produced food with an environmental benefit and few ethical issues that would beat a can of chickpeas from Morocco any day.

With all this said (and more to be said–I haven’t touched on fat or fish yet, but this is getting epically long!), I still haven’t changed any of my eating habits yet.  But while I’m still not eating meat at the moment, I’m also not NOT eating meat. 🙂  Because my position right now is that we live in a highly imperfect world enmeshed with an unsustainable industrial food production system.  And although we are personally working our way towards eating only ethically produced foods, there are still gaps, when we look REALLY closely.  I do believe that we have created enough resilience on our own property that we COULD survive if we needed to off what we produce or what is available here.  But that’s not what we’re doing at the moment, which is fine.

But the point I wanted to make is that when I look at all of these facts, what I see is that eating meat or not, in and of itself, is not the deciding factor of whether a particular diet is sustainable.  Very few of us in North America are eating a truly sustainable diet either way, and there is work to be done for all of us to improve the systems.

And I think it’s true for all of us working on environmental issues  that there are easy changes to make–like growing lots of your own produce–and then there are much harder, and potentially higher impact things that need changing.  And if we keep slapping ourselves on the back for opting out of the easy things, we may not end up really doing the work to change the more difficult ones.  And that’s a challenge I think it’s time I took up a little more seriously.




Stepping up to the Plate: Learning to Manage the Flock

Well, we did it.  No, not quite what you’re thinking; there are no tasty fresh roosters now tucked away in the freezer (yet).  But we toook a deep breath, understood our role as flock managers/parents/alpha hens, and did what needed to be done.

We’ve raised all of our chickens from cute, 3-day old bundles of fluff.  I didn’t think we’d become overly attached; they never felt like pets, never had names.  As the birds grew and it became clear that we had 4 roosters, we expected to eat them eventually.  We had to cull one early because he wasn’t well and we knew he was suffering.  We didn’t want to, and when the day came it wasn’t a good experience, but we knew it was the right thing to do.

Our oldest hens are now 20 weeks and are on the verge of laying.  The nest boxes are open and have their beds of straw; the golf ball is tucked into one of the nests to signal that this is a safe place to lay an egg.  The Buff Orpingtons and Australorps are 18 weeks and just coming into maturity.  Including our 3 Buff roosters.

We always knew we wouldn’t be able to keep 3 roos in our small flock, but I worried about the lone Buff hen, who is our sweetest, most docile bird.  I didn’t want her to be without a Buff companion!  And the roos were so sweet, and so fun to watch running towards me as I brought them their kitchen scrap treats.  They were the lively, curious personalities of the flock, and they looked so handsome as their deep golden feathers started to grow in.

About a week ago, the biggest, proudest roo began to crow.  We knew their time needed to come sooner rather than later.  We considered our “processing” options and talked to the experienced folks around here for advice.  We quickly decided we weren’t up to the whole process ourselves in the backyard just yet, and narrowed the list of other processors available.   Skipper wondered about whether finding them another home (other than the freezer!) might be a possibility.

When I came home from work on Thursday afternoon, my neighbour met me in the driveway.  “Don’t cull your roos, yet,” she pleaded; “our rooster is sick!”

They have a beautiful flock of 16 Buff laying hens that free-range their large pastures and go home to a roomy coop.  They have the room to have broody hens hatch out chicks and need a rooster around for all the important roosterly duties: protection of the flock from eagles, fertilizing eggs, and keeping order among the hens.  With the size of the flock and the recent death of their lone rooster, they were thinking of getting two to keep up with the jobs.  We loved the idea of watching two of our beautiful birds grow to full maturity next door.

So over the last couple of days we’ve been back and forth between the 2 flocks, making decisions.  Then suddenly, yesterday afternoon, the rooster hormones kicked in the and the feathers started to fly.  Roo #1 was taking control and mounting the two oldest Silver Laced Wyandottes (we call them Patti and Selma, after the chain-smoking, wise-cracking spinster sisters on The Simpsons whom they resemble closely 🙂 ).  Again.  And then again.  And then again!  He must have chased them down a dozen times in just a few hours!  Poor girls were appalled at what had happened to their companions, and they were also not happy about suddenly not being at the top of the flock anymore!  Our soft hearts hardened–their normal roosterly urges were just not going to fit in this small flock, and they had to go.

This morning, after hearing the tell-tale squawking starting up again, Skipper had the brilliant idea to keep Patti and Selma in the closed run with our 12 week-old Blue-Laced Red Wyandottes and keep everyone else in the larger range area.  This gave everyone a much-needed break, and gave us time to get organized.

This afternoon, we managed to catch the two most mature roosters and brought them next door.  As we carried them over, I talked to them about the fields of fresh grass, the many laying hens, the bugs in the cow patties, and all the happy adventures to come.  We placed them in the new coop in their cage and the hens all came to check out the visitors.  The roos gradually settled, jumped out of the carrying cage and started exploring.  We were all expecting some aggression, a necessary period of adjustment for all.  But nothing happened.  Everyone explored together, ate and drank together, looked for bugs and scratched in the dirt.  Then Roo #1 tried his luck with one of the dust bathing hens, and she wasn’t the slightest bit perturbed!  Off everyone went about their business.  An unimaginably peaceful transition so far!

Meanwhile, back at the home roost, the rest of the birds seem a little on edge.  I tried to bring them some treats and gather everyone around, but without their fearless leader, they were reluctant to come running.  I went to them instead.

I’m sure it will take a few days to adjust to the new order, but I’m hopeful.  Roo#3, who is skinnier and less mature than the other 2, will hopefully now be able to come into his own, and we’ll keep him for a few more weeks.  We’ll see if things stay peaceful next door!  Hopefully, Patti and Selma will settle into laying, and our 12-week olds will relax a bit with their major threat of protective, testerone-laden roos out of the way.  And Skipper and I will get used to the feeling of knowing that when we are the top birds, with the responsibility for the health of the whole flock in our hands, we will do what needs to be done.

Which is good, because we have another 3 roosters in the batch of 12-week olds!