sweet sunday

damian and i try to set one day a week aside for rest, relaxation, and connection. today is that day. ahhh… it’s been a big week. our day-old chicks arrived on wednesday. they all seem healthy and happy. i can already tell the difference between the layers and the broilers. the broilers are fat! they don’t skitter around like the others. it’s more like a slow waddle. i hope they are getting enough protein for their little legs to keep up with their rapidly growing bodies. i gave them their first meal of worms today. they weren’t as excited as i thought they would be. perhaps worms are an acquired taste?
darlene & steve are gone for the week so i’m in charge of all the plants and animals. in this weather, that’s a big responsibility! so far so good though. it takes me about an hour in the morning to make my rounds, but i enjoy saying hello to the lizards, watching the grapes ripen, petting gilmore the cat, inspecting the new olive tree, adjusting the shade cloth over the tomatoes and marveling at all the pretty pomegranates between moving hoses.
damian bought me a new cookbook; the best recipes in the world by mark bittman. i’m already a huge mark bittman fan. i use his ‘how to cook everything’ almost daily. his article in the ny times about the no work bread has been revolutionary for us. not to mention lucrative. i’m only part way through the introduction of the best recipes in the world, but i am so excited about this cookbook. i may just read it cover to cover. dom yam gai, pho bo, and jook* here i come!
this is my first day off after 6 days of work. i usually work 4 days a week. i’m a little zoned. or maybe i’m just dehydrated. i better go make some lemonade just in case.

*my three favorite soupy dishes -dom yam gai a light brothy chicken and coconut soup from thailand
pho bo is outrageously good vietnamese rice noodles in a flavorful beef and basil broth
jook is asian comfort food also known as congee. a rice porridge or gruel served sweet or savory with all sorts of toppings. very nourishing and delicious.

national chick shortage

“i always knew there were more hot girls in canada” i’m not talking about that kind of chick, silly. but i’ve heard that too. 🙂
not long after our dear little hens were safely in the freezer, i started thinking about what kind of breeds i would like to have to replace them.
i spent several days researching and settled on a few favorites. i was looking for some pretty specific characteristics. i’ve always been excited about heritage breeds. i just love the idea of helping preserve genetic diversity in domesticated animals. the same way an heirloom tomato has more flavor and beauty than tomatoes bred purely for high yields, heritage breeds tend to have a lot going for them on the beauty, taste and personality fronts. sure we’d probably have more eggs if we only got birds bred to be laying machines, but i’ve heard they tend to be skiddish and mean. i’d gladly trade in a few eggs a year to have some friendly, colourful birds.
we decided bigger birds were better for us. both so they’d be less of a target for predators, and also after plucking and gutting a couple little bantams, damian decided they weren’t worth the trouble as far as meat goes.  i chose breeds with light colored feathers thinking they’d be more comfortable under our hot summer sun.
lastly i chose breeds who are known for being friendly as well as productive layers.
after setting my heart on my delewares, silver laced wyondotts, buff orphingtons, auracanas and cornish cross chickens, i called the hatchery to place my order. i was shocked when the nice lady on the other end of the line informed me that not one of my chosen breeds would be available until august! “we are hatching them as fast as we can, hun, but they are all spoken for until august 1st”
i found another hatchery offering heritage breeds. same story. then another, then another. apparently it’s a good year to be in the hatching business. suddenly every household in america wants a backyard flock. nobody i talked to seemed to know why the sudden interest in poultry farming, but i have a few theories… the economy is bad, you can make some extra cash selling eggs, food prices are going up, it’s nice to have some protein security. salmonella scares. the local food movement gaining popularity… in general i think it’s great, but i want my chicks!
i finally found a hatchery that had all the breeds i want available for shipment june 18th. hooray!
the minimum order is 25 birds, so we are getting eight meat birds (jumbo cornish cross)  along with the seventeen layers. we’ll ‘harvest’ them at six to eight weeks before the hen house gets too crowded.

the sometimes upsetting realities of growing your own food

**Vegan advisory: this entry contains graphic references to chicken death and butchering**

I had a hard time coming up with a title for this blog entry.
‘The Joshua Tree chicken massacre’
‘The tragic tale of two young chicken farmers in love’
‘Why I’m glad I’m not a pioneer’
‘Desert dogs are not my friends’

Ok, If you are like me, you need the punch-line before the tedious details. So here it is: all of our chickens were killed by a dog on Thursday morning.

The whole story:
Damian has been building the chicken accommodations in phases. First he built the coop itself; a beautiful A-frame complete with secure floor (so nothing can burrow under), sturdy human sized door and an adorable locking chicken door. We painted it peach. Next he got to work on the yard. A nice big yard with a tree shading it, fenced on all sides and screened on top to keep hawks and owls out. He dug a trench a couple feet down for the fence to go in before filling it in so no dogs, coyotes or bobcats could dig under the fence. The final step was to install the gate that leads into our garden (the garden is also fenced, but it’s a waist-high fence) in this spot, this 3 foot section in the garden, the only security was the garden fence. We had taken to letting the chickens out into their yard during the day while we are home so they could get fresh air, sunshine and exercise even during construction.
On Thursday morning I let the chickens out at 5:45am before I headed to work.
Damian was still sleeping.
I left for work. (insert cheesy horror film soundtrack here)
Sometime between 5:45 and 7:45am a dog hopped the fence into the garden, then hopped the fence again into the chicken yard and proceeded to brutally murder every single one of our twelve beautiful hens and our one rare Egyptian rooster.
Poor Damian got up that morning to find eleven dead chickens splayed in the dirt (one chicken was missing, and one was half-eaten)

Here’s where the story starts getting hopeful again. I’ve got nothing but love for that husband of mine… after about a minute of shock and horror, Damian broke out The Encyclopedia of Country Living and started the mighty task of cutting off heads, bleeding, scalding, plucking, gutting and cleaning the birds. All this as quickly as possible since it was already about 90 degrees outside and the birds were all lying in the sun.
I was still at work but found out what I could online about our situation (food safety concerns, mostly) and Darlene came over to lend a hand (thank you, thank you Darlene!)
By the time I got home Damian was working on the last stubborn feathers of the last three birds and there were pots of –meat- soaking in grapefruit seed extract solution on Darlene’s kitchen counter. The soaking is to kill any potentially harmful bacteria that may have entered the chicken from the dog’s mouth. This step is unnecessary in most home butchering circumstances.
I helped with the last little bit of processing, drying, bagging and freezing. Now we have a freezer full of chicken.
On Thursday I had a chance to be reacquainted with the five stages of grief. I don’t think I’ve ever felt them all in such quick succession! First was denial: “no! are you joking? All of them? No…” then blame “I shouldn’t have let them out, it’s my fault! I’m a terrible person…) then anger “I’m gonna find the dog that did it and get him, and his owner too!” depression: “we’ve failed, it’s all over…” then acceptance “hmm I bet that meat will taste really good… when we get new chickens I’m gonna get some auracanas so we can have green eggs”

But y’know, after all the dust settles, it’s really not so bad. We’ll get more chickens. We’ll get that pen fully secure. We’ll trap the dog that did it and send him off to the humane society. We give thanks for the gift of the chickens. We thank those sweet chicks for brightening our life for the time that they did, and give thanks that now they will nourish our bodies with theirs. I’m sorry for not providing a longer life for them, but I think it was a good life, while it lasted.
We also give thanks for the abundance of food all around us. We have the good privilege where we live to buy food from grocery stores and farmers markets. We need not go eggless for lack of our own chickens. As I write I’m looking out on big patches of green tomatoes, peppers, sprouting cucumbers and okra, plenty of leafy greens, string beans, onions, garlic and amaranth. I don’t think the dogs will get those.

One final note, Dave, if you read this, I’m really sorry roger got eaten after all. He was a good little rooster. I really wanted to be a good home for him.

chicken video #2

i was getting a bed ready for the tomato plants and thought the chickens would enjoy a break from their indoor box. sorry about the poor video quality. we used damian’s phone to tape it.

hot chicks

 on wednesday while i was working at the health food store, a customer asked me: “this may be a strange question, but do you know anyone who would want free chickens?”
to which i, of course, responded: “yes!” today is friday and we have 12 of the cutest little peeping fluff balls you ever saw! the road to parenthood is shorter than i thought! this guy (dave) is a school teacher and wanted to show his kids what chicks look like, or something like that. i guess he wanted 10 chicks, and had plans for them, but the hatchery ships a minimum of 30 chicks to provide enough body heat to keep the little girls warm on their postal journey. (yup, they send baby chicks in the mail, in a cardboard box) this left dave with 20 orphans. this leads us to the health food store proposal.
wendesday night after work i read the chapter on poultry in the encyclopedia of country living (one of my favorite books). on thursday after work we went to the feed store, grilled the helpful man behind the counter and bought $50 worth of poultry supplies. this included: a feeder, waterer, 8 cubic feet of pine shavings (for bedding), 30lb of chicken feed (5lb high protein ‘crumbles’ mixed with 25lb ‘laying mash’. the mixing is because i refused to buy the medicated ‘starter crumbles’. no chicken of mine will be receiving antibiotics if i can help it), and heat lamp. the pine shavings are probably 10-15 times more than we needed for the brooder, but we can use the excess in our composting humanure system. the heat lamp is to be a surrogate mother until the babies molt an grow real feathers to keep them warm. until then they need a 90 degree home. 
we set up the makeshift brooder last night, and damian picked up the birds this afternoon. so here they are. pecking and peeping and laying around. quite content it seems.
the chicks will live in their plywood box in the house for another 4 weeks or so, which should be enough time for us to build/modify a coop for them outside.
the chicks are supposedly all female, but from what i hear, there could be any number of future roosters hiding out with the girls. if we have more than one rooster in the flock, we’ll be getting real intimate with our sunday night chicken dinner.
having one rooster in the flock makes the hens happy and the eggs fertile (more nutritious). but having more than one rooster causes trouble. they fight with each other and terrorize the hens.
so, we’ll eat them.
the eating part i’m not worried about, i can cook some yummy chicken. it’s the transition from crowing-feathered-running thing to the oven (or freezer) that i’m squeamish about. i’ve read about it…i think we can do it. i’ll keep you posted.