It was all Peter’s idea. “Fresh eggs,” he said. “Every day.” We were talking about getting chickens, of course. Not the kind in the plastic wrap at the grocery store—no, these would be real ones with feathers.
“What about the dogs?” I asked.
“I’ll build a dog-proof pen,” he said.
“What about early-morning rooster crows?”
“We won’t get a rooster,” he said, “Just hens. They only cluck.”
“OK,” I said, and soon Peter was busy building a large pen in the middle of our yard with electrical wiring around it to fend off our two dogs, Lucky, a lab, and Gypsy, a Rottweiler.
“What if the chickens fly out?” I asked Peter.
“I’ll put a net over the top,” he answered.
Soon our seven clucking full-grown chickens arrived, and after a day or two of getting acclimated, they began laying eggs. How cool is that! Want to make an omelette for breakfast? No problem. Deviled eggs to take to a cookout? Natch!
Nowadays when you hear about the salmonella risks of eating eggs from factories, you can appreciate the benefits of raising chickens at home even more. Plus if you’ve paid any attention at all to the fresh-food movement, you already know that eggs laid by free-range chickens taste exponentially better than the kind that come from sad chickens, crowded into wire crates, who never see the light of day.
Our chickens are happy chickens. Peter and I love to sit on the veranda and watch them scratch for bugs in the soil, chase each other around, and generally do the things that chickens do. We also ordered some chicks and, when they were big enough, added them to the brood, bringing our total to 14. Unfortunately, a couple of chickens managed to escape, and sad to say, Gypsy’s instincts kicked in.
One of them was Peter’s favorite, a hen with a strong mothering sense who used to sit on the unfertilized eggs, waiting and hoping. Peter, who called her “Mama,” would gently scoop the eggs out from under her while she scolded him with gentle clucks. When Gypsy got Mama, it was a sad day in the Sijswerda household.
Now Peter is talking about goats.
“What do we need goats for?” I asked.
“To clear out the vegetation in the woods,” he answered.
“Then what?” I said.
“How does roasted goat sound?”
“Hmmm, dunno,” I answered.
I have to admit it’s kind of fun to be cottage farmers. Peter and I are fortunate to live in an agriculturally zoned neighborhood, so having small livestock is OK. Most suburban neighborhoods don’t allow chickens, for example. That’s a shame. I would love to see a local movement whose goal it is to change those city regulations. The truth is a few hens don’t cause any problems at all. They’re not noisy, and they provide rich natural fertilizer for lawns and gardens.
Last summer Peter and I traveled to Denmark to attend an au pair’s wedding. The groom’s parents were cottage farmers as well. Besides growing vegetables in their gorgeous garden and greenhouse, they raised a cow and a lamb each year, which ended up in their freezer, feeding them for the next twelve months. The obvious advantage to raising your own meat is you know that the animals are happy, healthy, and properly fed.
This is not to say that raising your own animals is necessarily economical—just as planting your own garden might, in the long run, cost more than buying produce at the corner stand. But doing it yourself gives great satisfaction and well being. It takes the food chain away from the mega-corporations, who are more interested in profit than anything else, and brings the relationship we have with the animals that feed us into perspective.
In today’s crazy tumultuous world, such simple pleasures offer a soothing antidote as well. Like when Peter and I sit on the veranda and watch the chickens do their funny little dance as they scratch for bugs. Or when we sit down to enjoy a spinach and goat cheese frittata for dinner and know those lovely little hens created our meal.
Peggy Sijswerda is editor & publisher of Tidewater Women.