Winter and the magic of the first snow
I know. I know. That phrase usually belongs to Christmas, and I love Christmas, but whoever first coined that phrase and applied it to Christmastime obviously didn’t know the joys of springtime on a ranch.
Out here in the Midwest, March is when the Earth starts to wake from her long, restless, winter sleep, but, like me before my first cup of coffee, she moves slowly, and yawning, meanders through the month in a bit of a cloud covered haze. March comes with sprinklings of hope and signs of warmth. But it also comes with snows and drops from 70 degrees one day to 25 degrees the next. March is the messenger that Spring is coming, but March is not Spring.
But April? In April, things come alive again. For about two weeks, I have been soaking in blue skies and green grass. Reveling in the new flowers, chirping birds, buzzing bees. I find that there is something deeply intoxicating about the color green, and I’ve spent hours and hours aimlessly wandering our fields to soak in the spirits of the season.
Spring is when the ranch wakes up again.
My first trip to the ranch was in the Spring, over 15 years ago now. I recently stumbled across that story, one originally written for a Master’s level class in creative nonfiction. If you’ve ever wondered how on earth I ended up on this ranch, this is it. That day was when my love affair with the ranch started; thus far, with ten years on my marriage to Jeremiah, it’s been the most enduring love of my life.
It doesn’t hurt that it all started one beautiful Spring day… Continue reading “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”
Let’s be honest. You don’t need to follow this blog very long to realize that, on this sixty (plus or minus) animal, 100 acre ranch, the chickens basically rule the roost.
They steal grain from the llamas and horses. They hijack hay feeders to use as nesting boxes.
Each one has her own little personality and habits.
These chickens spend their days meandering around the pastures. They dust bathe. They eat kitchen scraps in addition to their feed and their homemade scratch. In short, they spend their day (and their lives) being chickens and doing chickeny things.
I’ve found when most people think of chickens, they think of chickens like mine, scratching and pecking and chickening to their hearts content in green fields and deeply bedded, comfy coops.
But most chickens, whether raised for egg-laying or meat production, will never see a comfy coop or a green field.
The average cost of a dozen eggs at the supermarket is $1.41, so I understand why some people have sticker shock when their local farmers charge between $4 and $6 a dozen. But, as they say, you get what you pay for.
The reason those store bought eggs are so cheap? Confinement. Most egg laying chickens, even today with a grass-roots push towards “cage free” eggs, live their lives in battery cages with almost no space: 67 square inches according to The Humane Society. (That’s less than the space covered by a piece of letter-sized paper.) Each cage holds five to ten birds and lends to a high rate of injury for the animals. They can’t even flap their wings, let alone walk around. Even “cage free” doesn’t really mean they have adequate space or outdoor access, but we’ll get into labels later.
These hens have short lives and are never allowed to be chickens. On their hatch day, they are sexed. The males, an estimated 6 billion of them annually who are useless to the egg industry, are deposed of, usually gassed or put through a grinder (yes, alive). The females are beaked (meaning part of their beaks are cut or burned off without anesthetic to disallow pecking of other nearby hens or pulling out feathers), a painful procedure that causes great distress. After being beaked, the hens will spend the rest of their lives struggling to properly eat. Then, they are confined. They cannot perch, dust bathe, or exercise. Ever. (For comparison, sit down cross-legged; now imagine that you have to stay there, like that, for the rest of your life.) When they are at the end of their egg laying cycles, they are starved for 7-14 days and go through a forced molt that will cause them to lay again for just a little while longer before they are killed. (The forced molt is linked to higher instance of salmonella due to the hen’s compromised physical state, so it is in neither the consumers best interest nor the hens’…just the best interest of the company.)
A chicken can naturally live 7-10 years. Egg industry chickens survive maybe 3 egg laying cycles.
Why am I telling all of you this? Honestly, it’s because I love animals, including chickens, and, for the most part I know that the people who read this blog love animals too.
Also, I like to eat eggs, and that’s ok. Consuming eggs is not inherently tied to these immoral practices. There are steps you can take to ensure that your eggs come from happier, healthier hens.
- Know your egg carton labels.
- If you must buy grocery store eggs, strive for cartons labeled “Animal Welfare Approved.” Usually these are organic eggs, and to get the label, the farmers must provide outdoor access (for specific amounts of time and with specific conditions) and enough room to perch, nest, and spread their wings. Beaking is prohibited, as is forced molting.
- Other labels related to animal welfare (from best to worst though all of these are better than not) are “pasture raised,” “USDA Organic, “free-range” or “free-roaming,” and “cage free.”
- Buy Local!!!
- Your local farmers’ market, farm stand, or chicken-obsessed neighbor are your very best egg sources. Our pastured hens are happier and healthier. The eggs are higher quality and so much more fresh! (Did you know that the eggs on the shelf at the grocery are usually a month old before they get to the store? Gross!!!) Many farmers’ market farmers bring photos of their hens living conditions and are happy to discuss animal welfare. Ask and you shall see! I promise if you make the switch to eggs from small production farms, you won’t regret it.
- Raise your own happy, healthy hens!
- Don’t get me wrong, chickens are a lot of responsibility and keeping them should be entered into with your eyes wide open, but they are such fun, and it is wonderful to know EXACTLY how the hens who lay your eggs are treated, what they eat, and how they live. If you have questions about what that takes, shoot me an email or follow Almost Farmgirl on Facebook and connect (there’s an easy-peasy link at the bottom of your page).
There are so many happy healthy hens around whose owners would be thrilled to sell you eggs. Of course, eggs from our hens costs more, because we give our hens the food and space and conditions that allow them to thrive. Some of us even allow our layers to live into their natural old age, long past their egg laying usefulness. (I will gladly pay to feed my chickens into their useless years!)
The lives of most of these animals is short and miserable. But it doesn’t have to be. We can do better. We can be better. And it can start with you.
Want to learn more? Check out these resources/references:
And, from the archives:
My bipedal servants seem to think that I owe you an apology.
I think they’re wrong…but they do refill the hay nets on demand, and I believe that they have access to grain, even though they don’t give me any of it, so I do what I can to stay in their good graces when it isn’t too inconvenient.
I, of course, am Slash. High King of the Hill, Guardian of Camelot, and First Pony of the Alpacalypse.
I assume you’ve heard of me? (Of course you have. It was silly of me to even ask, but I do try to stay humble.)
And you, I believe, are referred to by the bipeds a “Neigh Bores.” (They worry about us making noise, but you have “Neigh” right there in your name.) I gather that you are other bipeds who are not indentured to any equines, camelids, or chooks. That’s sad for you, but I won’t rub it in, as I imagine it is a source of despair and humiliation in your little hooman lives. (Seriously, what do you even do with your time? If a hooman wakes up in the morning without a horse to feed, does it even exist?)
Oh, right, apology…
(How does one even do this?)
I’m sorry that you were unprepared to behold all of my majesty, standing, as it were, in your front yard. It must have been quite a shock. (Next time, avoid looking at me directly, or perhaps wear sunglasses. I hear that helps when beholding glory.)
Also, that I pooped on your lawn; apparently that was “inappropriate” and “gross.”
In my defense, it was a lovely yard, and someone left corn there.
(*Editors note: regardless of how hard I try to convince him otherwise, Slash still thinks you left the corn there for him, as he believe that feeding the local deer is a waste of perfectly good horse food.)
My servants have informed me that it was naughty of me to climb under the gate and spend the day “running amok” while they were at work.
I think it’s naughty of them to put up gates and fences. We all have opinions.
The bipeds wish for me to conclude this little literary experiment with a promise to “never be such a little ass again,” but there, they ask too much. (Also, I’m really not sure how they can mistake me for a donkey, but the one is pretty nearsighted.)
I will grace you with my presence as soon as I can once again escape these foul fence lines. Leave more corn next time, and try to shoo the deer off as they were in my way.
(Ha. Not really)
(*Editors note: The neighbors were actually super nice about the fact that our tiny horse took up temporary residence in their front lawn.)
Do you guys remember my three little turkey peeps from last year? The ones we rescued from the feed store when it became clear that they were quickly destined to be dinner?
We lost one little peep (my favorite) to his birth defect. We lost another to a predator.
But one of the little peeps survived.
And he isn’t so little anymore.
Meet Arthur of Camelot.
(You know, because llamas are camelids, and he lives with them…Aren’t we clever?)
He is a year old, nearly fifty pound, broad-breasted Tom.
Being a broad breasted turkey, Arthur is basically a mutant, but he’s our mutant, so we love him. He spends his days wandering around, looking pretty, gobbling about how impressive he is, and also following Jeremiah and I around while we do chores, requesting clover flowers and chest scratches.
After he lost both his friends, I sort of panicked that he would be lonely, so I searched online for a couple of pet turkeys. (I’m realizing that that sentence says more about who I am than almost anything I’ve ever written on here…)
I found these two. In keeping with our Camelot theme, I named them Guinevere and Morgana.
Unlike Arthur, they are a heritage breed (Blue Slate), so I don’t have to worry about them outgrowing their own skeletal system, which, frankly, is a relief.
Of course, Arthur never really bonded with them and, instead, thinks he’s an alpaca who happens to gobble a lot.
And the Blue Slates never really bonded with him either. In fact, they don’t seem to know they aren’t chickens.
So, I guess my mission to find friends for Arthur kind of failed.
I ended up with three completely useless, but kinda cute, birds that I never really planned on. I nicknamed them “the three most useless creatures on the farm,” and just accepted their gobble-y little selves for what they were…
But, it turns out, I had it all wrong. They aren’t so useless at all.
A few weeks ago, Jeremiah and I were standing in front of the llama barn talking while the poultry free-ranged. They were scattered about the pastures when I glanced up and noticed a sandhill crane flying over the farm. It wasn’t a hawk or an eagle, both of which will gladly prey upon my flock, but Arthur didn’t know that.
I watched him look up and start gobbling (apparently a different than normal gobble). As soon as his warning went out, all of my hens and the two other turkeys ducked and ran as fast as their little feathery legs could carry them out of the open pasture and into the barn!
That was when we realized that our ridiculous, fifty pound, pet turkey had appointed himself as guardian of our flock (like any good turkey who thinks he’s an alpaca would), doing a better job of watching out for the girls than any rooster we’ve ever had. (Guys, it was maybe the cutest thing I’ve ever seen. I swear, he practically counted them once they were in to make sure everyone made it.)
Of course, that’s just one with a purpose out of three…
Until about two weeks ago.
See that fancy pants, speckled egg on top? That was our first ever turkey egg!
The turkey hens just started laying. So far, they’ve almost kept pace with the chickens, laying these big speckled eggs in the same nesting boxes.
The turkey eggs have higher fat and cholesterol than the chicken eggs, which makes them less ideal as a stand alone food, but perfect for baking! (I started using them last week, making a dish of brownies for my mom, and then another for my brother-in-law’s birthday.)
Guys, you have not lived until you have eaten brownies made with turkey eggs! They are so rich that it’s almost like fudge. I’m excited to experiment with cakes and breads!
Turns out, my turkeys had purpose all along. I just didn’t know it yet.
It’s almost like there’s a script, a list of exact lines shared with the rest of the world, but not with me.
Every. Single. Time. I say I have llamas.
“Oh…Aren’t they mean?”
Yes. Yes. They are horrible attack monsters unrivaled by all but cthulha and the kraken. I cower before them as I walk through the barns and the pastures, willing them not to see me as I pass. In fact, they have imprisoned me on this ridgeline against my will; I am bound in eternal servitude to their highness(es).
But, honestly, the question does come up nearly every time someone learns that we have llamas. Let’s just set the record straight, shall we?
- The friendliness of a llama is dependent on its handling and its genetics. (Like, you know, all other animals…and, frankly, people.)
- My llamas are not mean. Not all of them are exceptionally friendly; our rescues especially have a tendency to be standoffish. (But seriously, why on earth would I keep twenty violent, angry animals around as pets???)
- Some llamas are mean, just like some dogs, cats, horses, and chickens are mean.
- The llamas you met at the petting zoo (farm park, the pasture that sat caty-corner to the elementary school, etc), the ones you always tell me about, they probably were mean. Llamas really aren’t built for the petting zoo environment. They will get super stressed and will NOT be friendly.
- Llamas and alpacas do spit. It’s their defense response.
- Yes, I have been spit on.
- Yes. It’s really freaking gross.
- No, my llama probably isn’t going to spit on you unless you do something to really deserve it. A well-socialized llama isn’t likely to spit at a person. (Full disclosure – I did once have a llama spit at my sister-in-law for no good reason AT ALL. That is really odd behavior, but it seemed the llama just really hated her.)
I sort of get it I guess: Llamas are rare enough that most people have limited experience with them, and everyone has a cousin whose friend got spit on that one time (or whatever).
But honestly, these creatures are pretty misunderstood. The llamas at my farm have played host to kids birthday parties, allowing five year olds to lead them through an obstacle course or on a walking trail. They have been showed all over the Midwest.
They have visited nursing homes and schools and daycare centers.
And, even now, they take center stage when visitors, large or small, visit the farm.
Now, does that look like a mean creature to you???
I was reading a post from LittleSunDog (one of my favorite wordpress bloggers) about small, sometimes unseen, acts of compassion. She wrote about saving a butterfly from flying into a bonfire, deciding not to cut down an old tree because there was a family of squirrels living in it…that sort of thing.
And it got me thinking about life out here on the ranch. We live out here at the intersection of wild and domestic. The bulk of the property is woodland-with approximately 80 of Eagle Ridge’s 100 acres in forest-and, were we to let it be completely, it would reclaim this dwelling on the top of the hill in just a few years I think.
Living at the intersection of wild and domestic creates a certain tension: we struggle to care for the wildness while at the same time guarding against it. And it can be very difficult to know where to draw the line.
I never thought I’d spend so much time thinking about poultry…
When we agreed to buy the ranch, I begin mentally preparing for the chickens. I bought books; I read blogs; I meticulously picked out the breeds I wanted. I read articles about why chickens should only eat organic feed (for the record, even I don’t eat all organic feed…). I read about all the ways predators can get to your flock. I read about parasites and natural worming vs. chemical worming. I started following Fresh Eggs Daily, Garden Betty, and DIY Diva, soaking up every last bit of chickeny knowledge they had to offer. Continue reading “That moment when you realize you’ve gone from “chicken lady” to “crazy chicken lady””
I recently read an NPR article that explored the American relationship with meat consumption. According to the article, many say that they want to eat less meat–largely due to health concerns–but actual habits are slow to change.
Jeremiah and I are vegetarian; we have been for a while. (Actually, I’m a pescetarian; he’s a vegetarian. I still occasionally eat fish.) For us, it was mostly an ethical decision (driven by the fact that we have made friends with all the freaking farm animals). For others, its a decision driven by environmental factors or health concerns.
I thought the article was interesting; for me, it proved a point I have long suspected. That is, sounding the alarms against meat consumption doesn’t do that much good on it’s own. Rather than spur actual change, they just make people consider the fact that they should maybe think about changing…and then they don’t.
Honestly, I’m not the sort to just go around sounding those alarms. If you are interested in why I eat this way, I’ll happily discuss it. I may even write about it, but I’m not a “belligerent vegetarian.” I’m not going to argue with you about it. I’m not going to shame or guilt trip you. (In fact, in my experience, it generally works the other way around; there are meat eaters who get genuinely ANGRY with me when they find out I don’t eat meat. I still don’t understand that.)
Personally, I think that we’re going about this all wrong anyway. Vegetarianism (even on a “one meal a week” basis) is still being framed as a sacrifice, and, for the majority, that’s never going to fly. If it’s going to be embraced, people have to see how positive it can be for them: the positive outcome on their pocketbook, waistline, and health are good places to start.
Guys, it’s delicious.
I’ve found that you seldom have to convince people to eat delicious food. Cupcakes, for example. You don’t have to lay on heavy handed emotional arguments to make someone want to eat a cupcake. All I have to do is put them out, and they get eaten. Forget arguing over meat-free meals. Just offer delicious meat free options and walk away.
They will get eaten…because that’s what happens to delicious food.
This one is one of my favorites.
I’ve been told that collard greens are a staple in the southern states, but up here, they’re one of those weird ingredients that most people don’t know what to do with. They are best suited for cooking, with a thicker texture and heft that doesn’t lend itself to salad. My first experience with them was pre-vegetarian, stuffed like cabbage rolls. However, shortly after we transitioned to a vegetarian diet, I found myself staring at a beautiful, fresh bunch of collard greens at the grocery store. I needed a vegetarian collard green recipe in my life, so I came up with this.
***As an aside, this will make your kitchen smell amazing, like a fancy Italian restaurant. I recommend making this meal to “Mambo Italiano” radio on Pandora, dancing to Rosemary Clooney singing “Lola” while chopping veggies and drinking red wine. (It worked for me…)
Unstuffed Collard Greens – Ingredients
- 8-12 collard green leaves
- 1/2 small clove of garlic (peeled and chopped)
- 1 onion (roughly chopped)
- 1 pkg of mushrooms (roughly chopped)
- 1 jar pasta sauce
- 2-3 tbls olive oil
- splash of red wine (optional)
- mozzarella cheese
- 4 cups cooked rice
First, a word on rice. I went with a black pearl medley, setting it to cook while I made everything else. This times well with non-instant rice, which you can set up to cook while you prepare the rest of the meal. The texture will be better if you steer clear of instant rice on this one.
- Combine garlic, onion, and olive oil in a large saute pan over medium heat, stirring occasionally.
- While the onion and garlic soften (about 5 minutes), de-rib your collard greens by cutting the coarse center stem away, and cut the remaining leaves into “ribbons” by rolling them and slicing the roll.
- Add the collard greens and mushrooms to the garlic/onion, adding additional olive oil if necessary. Cook an additional 4-5 minutes until both the greens and the mushrooms are cooked through.
- Pour in the jar of pasta sauce. Cook through and simmer for 5 minutes, allowing the flavors to combine. (This is where I added a splash of red wine…because wine is good.)
- Serves the greens and sauce over rice. Top with mozzarella cheese to taste.
Recipes are coming down the line on Almost Farmgirl. I thought I would let you know why…
I never thought I’d be the sort of person who cooks.
I mean, don’t get me wrong, back in college, I could microwave an INSANE cup of Ramen, but something about cooking, actually cooking, rubbed me the wrong way. Continue reading “Cooking as an Act of Love”
I was talking with my friend in Maine the other night before evening chores.
“I don’t wanna go outside!” I whined. We whine together a lot. If we lived closer, we’d wine together a lot…and that would be better. “I checked, Lauren. It’s been consistently colder here than at your place. Which seems completely unfair given that you’re basically Canadian!”
Lauren laughed, but acknowledged that it’s true. They live far enough north that she could damn near apply for dual citizenship. I, however, live in the middle ground of the country. Illinois. Home of Chicago at one end and cornfields at the other. Despite the expectations that it’s more temperate here, we get nearly arctic colds and southern warms. (Temperate my ass…110 heat index in Summers and -20+ windchill in the winter.) Last week, my little corner of creation went through a cold snap. It was colder here than in Bangor, ME. Actually, as a matter of fact, it was colder here than in Nome, AK.
And it was a problem.
Last week, for me, getting dressed in the morning to do chores has been more like assembling a piece of IKEA furniture than anything else. (“Cover shirt A and B with shirt C. Insert legs one and two into pants D, then pants E. Maybe pants F…) Continue reading “Dangerous Cold and a Full Barn”