Chronicles of Less Urban Living, Fresh from In the Night Farm


Poultry To Go

Check out this portable poultry coop:

I found it on CraigsList. The seller wanted $150.00, which seems a fair price when you figure in materials and labor, but Ironman and I are going to build our own using this as a model.

The dimensions, as posted in the ad, are 9 feet, 9 inches in length, 4 foot base width, and 30 inch height. I imagine it’s fairly heavy, and indeed the ad states that the seller moves it around with a tractor. No problem there; it just so happens that I have a tractor.

The primary purpose of the portable coop, as anyone who has read Michael Pollan’s excellent book The Omnivore’s Dilemma will know, is to be able to move your birds safely around the farm so they can forage for fresh plants, insects, grubs, and whatever else they fancy.

You know, real food. The things poultry was designed to eat, instead of the grain-based, packaged feeds that practicality demands for the bulk of their calories. When the chickens and ducks eat real food, the eggs they lay show up on our table with a proper balance of nutrients. That’s a prize worth the investment of a bit of time spent with a screwdriver and staple gun.

And, there’s another advantage. Ironman and I have been wondering for a while what would be the best way to house the guinea fowl we’d like to introduce to the gardens of In the Night Farm.

Squash bugs and grasshoppers have been a real problem in years past, and we’re loathe to use poisons to control them. Chickens will gladly consume the pests — but they’ll scratch up the plants in the process. Not good.

Guinea fowl, however, are reportely excellent garden hunters that snap up insects without harming the crop. They can also be quite loud when disturbed — but we figure that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Out here in the the country, it’s nice to get a heads-up when someone drops by.

Thing is, one buys guineas as tiny and defenseless keets that should be raised near the area in which you intend them to spend most of their time as adults. Constructed using a tighter wire weave than was chosen by the Craigslist seller, our portable poultry coop should make a suitable guinea nursery before returning to its usual duties.

Ah, the projects. They never end. But then, neither do their rewards.

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Practically Impossible, The Challenge of Sustainable Living


Practically Impossible: The Challenge of Sustainable Living

You’d think that owning on a farm would make sustainable living relatively easy. Grow a garden, raise some livestock. Hoe and weed, water and feed your way to health and self-reliance. After all, this is how most of the world’s population has lived for thousands of years! Sadly, these days, the simple life is anything but.

Take my latest research on natural chicken feeds. Motivated by Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which explains the myraid benefits of eating eggs and meat from chickens that eat as nature intended, I’ve been looking for ways to eliminate commercial layer pellets from our hens’ diets.

Feeding poultry a natural diet eliminates the use of (and the need for) antibiotics such as coccidiostat and results in food products whose nutritional content is properly balanced. Like most livestock raised en masse, chickens that eat typical commercial feeds take in more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3’s. In livestock and the humans who eat it, this balance should be tipped the other way, in favor of omega-3 fatty acids.

Balanced fat consumption leads to lower rates of heart disease, cancers, and mental degeneration, so I’d like to know that the small quantity of poultry and eggs I consume represents an appropriate nutritional profile. Hence, my interest in feeding chickens like nature intended — as hunting and gathering omnivores. It’ll only take one acre per chicken.

One acre per chicken?

Let’s see. One acre per chicken…fifteen chickens…Call the real estate agent, Honey. Looks like we need to buy the property next door!

So much for keeping my hens nourished without supplemental feeds. Surely, I thought, there’s a way to feed them naturally without quadrupling our mortgage.

As it turns out, there is. I’ll need: a wide variety of living plants, wild seafood, additional protein in the form of grass-fed meat and milk, nuts and seeds, varied grains (freshly cracked, of course), boiled soybeans or other legumes, sea salt, and oyster shells for calcium.

What? I can’t afford wild salmon for myself, let alone for my chickens!

And it isn’t just the chickens. Raising healthful lamb requires irrigated pasture or extensive range, quality hay, and oats. Pesticide-free gardening means losing part of the crop to insect damage. Irrigation requires electricity to run the pump. Rototilling large plots requires gasoline. Even our organic fertilizer started out as expensive horse hay, and this year’s diesel prices will drive that bill even higher.

And so, in an attempt to fund a more sustainable lifestyle centered around local foods, we are forced to drive nearly forty miles into the city to work. Gas costs us a fortune these days, though we carpool whenever possible and make no gratuitous side trips. We bought a motorcycle to cut back on consumption, at least when the weather cooperates. (I took my first ride on the new bike the other day. Ye gods, I’d forgotten!)

Day after day, I am appalled by the expense of trying to do the right things to spare our land and bodies from the behemoth of our industrialized food system. Why do you think most poultry growers, whether commercial or gentleman farmer, buy pelleted feeds? Twenty-five bucks will buy you a month’s worth of scratch grains and layer pellets for a flock like ours. It’s easy, too! Just open the bag, scoop, and serve.

As much as I would like to, I simply cannot afford to feed my chickens on soybeans, seafood, and hand-split corn. In this instance, like so many others — purchasing enough land to grow our own crops, installing solar panels and a propane refrigerator, even building the oh-so-sensible root cellar — converting to sustainable living is a proposition that implies tremendous financial strain.

Some people manage it. You can read their stories at the Backwoods Home Magazine forum. I suspect, however, that the majority have either lived long and well enough to free themselves from debt — including home mortgages — or are not trying to create a self-sufficient homestead while preserving and promoting a rare breed of horse. Reading the BHM forum is, for me, both inspiring and discouraging.

So, what now? Shall we move back to the city to eat factory farmed poultry and pesticide-laden, chemically-fertilized, genetically-modified broccoli while we wait for cancer to set in? Or, shall we, like other small farmers across our nation, continue to struggle against the economic and political tide?

A horse trainer in my area likes to say, “Start where you can, not where you think you should.” I find that his advice applies to more than just horse training — it’s useful in our progress toward sustainable living, as well.

For now, I’ll hand-pick a daily bucketful of weeds and grass for my hens. I’ll save them vegetable scraps from the kitchen and check prices on bulk legumes at the grocery. I’ll even look into the cost of canned wild fish. While I’ll still buy pelleted feeds, I’ll restrict their use as much as possible.

This decision, like replacing a truck with a motorcycle but still commuting to work, represents a compromise between practicality and perfection. Such choices are often unsatisfactory, but for now, for us, “ideal” isn’t an option. Surely doing our best is better than doing nothing at all.

To tell you the truth, I don’t know how we’re going to make this small farm work.

…but I also don’t know how to give up.

This post is participating in Fight Back Fridays at Food Renegade. Be sure to drop in and see what else is on the menu!

Playing Chicken

In the Night Farm’s chicken coop consists of two sections. The first and largest is known as Harlem’s Harem.

Harlem is our rooster.

A Non-Bearded White Crested Black Polish (we think), Harlem showed up in a friend’s urban backyard last summer. Why yes, of course we have room for another animal.

The second section of our chicken coop is known as the Broody Bay. When a hen decides to set a clutch of eggs, she is said to be “broody.” A broody hen stops laying and eats and drinks little until her hormones get out of the way — typically by raising a brood.

Last fall, my lovely Sooty hen, a small Black Australorp, turned broody. We let her set, and four of the eggs hatched.

Three of Sooty’s chicks grew into beautiful cockerels. I am sad to say will also be tasty cockerels. But, if I’m going to eat a little meat now and then, I want it to come from critters that haven’t been stuffed full of chemicals.

Note: For an entertaining, intelligent, and enlightening read about the origins of most American meals, pick up a copy of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

Anyway, when you live on a farm, you learn not to name some of the animals.

Sooty’s only pullet (young female hen) did get a name. Henrietta, who sports a small crest like her daddy’s, now lives in Harlem’s Harem. Her eggs are easy to identify by size and shape, so if she gets broody, we won’t accidentally let her raise any inbred chicks.

Right now, Penny is the broody one.

Penny was Travis’ prize in the Great Chicken Caper of 2007. This was an unpublicized event in which we responded to a Craigslist ad for free chickens — as many as you can catch. Let me tell you how many that is: Not Many.

Anyway, we’ll let Penny set a clutch of Aracauna eggs soon. Though relatively non-descript in appearance and unenthusiastic winter layers, heritage Aracaunas are a favorite of mine for their beautiful, blue-green eggs.

Seeing as we knew almost nothing about chickens when we bought (or, in Penny’s case, caught) them last year, we were lucky to get some that go broody. Many chickens, including some strains of Rhode Island Reds and Sex-Links, have had their brooding instinct bred out of them in the name of increased production.

Vegetables aren’t the only things losing ground to hybridization for factory farming. Heirloom chickens, also known as heritage chickens, are getting harder to find. Smarter, hardier, more disease-resistant, and longer-lived than their modern brethern that are often incapable of reproduction without artificial insemination, heritage chickens are trying to make a comeback with the help of dedicated farmers and the American Livestock Breeds Conservency.

Don’t worry — I’m not an alarmist, nor even a standard-issue liberal. I’m just another small-time farmer observing that our national obsession with hybridized plants and animals incapable of procreation puts us on a crash course with Fate. Perhaps the sustainable, local, and organic farming movements help us swerve in time.

All the more reason to let Penny raise Aracaunas.