Monday, May 16, 2011

This too shall pass...but hopefully not all of it!

As I type Kali is folding diapers AND entertaining Alida on our bed. It seems our family has been plagued with some kind of stomach bug which manifested as Kali throwing up once last evening and seeming fine before and after and Alida just throwing up today and seeming fine before and after. Jason and I have probably felt the worst and I'm certainly looking forward to feeling better and enjoying the thought of food again. I also feel like I've been using the washer nonstop in the last few days between washing the thrown up on futon cover and Alida's diapers and other soiled things. I've even used the dryer... Today Kali heard it ding and piped up, "I can get them for you since I'm the healthiest one in the house." And get them she did, followed by the offer to fold them which she also did. She is now multi-tasking - entertaining Alida who is cooing right back to her while Kali explains to her her different colored wipes. So I look forward to feeling better, but I hope Kali's assertion that she is going to do this again and that we might have a housemaid lasts a bit longer. :)

Sunday, May 15, 2011


We enjoyed the first strawberries growing on our property this past week, and have had many "strawberry parties" since that first one was savored. Kali usually checks the patch first thing in the morning and brings back the treasures she finds. We haven't gotten enough for more than a few each to enjoy, but they are special, very special!!!

We are enjoying so much beauty around our place this spring - in plants, animals and people. The flowers are brilliant in their color. And of course we can't post an update without one picture of "little miss." Today marks 12 years of marraige for Jason and I. I have a feeling my favorite part of today will be how we started it. Alida waking up in our bed full of her morning coos and grins. Kali waking up and joining us and the four of us laying in bed enjoying the first moments of the day together!

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Am I Dr. Chickenstein?

I've been petitioned to put words down regarding the young chickens that are rapidly putting on weight in the "brooder" coop currently positioned just below the garden. I'm sure the main point was an opportunity to post some cute pictures. These follow:

As is evident from the photos, we love having chicks around, and most of our visitors enjoy getting their quota of fuzzball-ogling in. However, I'm actually going to spend the rest of this post talking about some of the philosophy behind chicken keeping on our farm.

Please note that the following two paragraphs constitute breeding notes on the hatch, and will be of limited interest to a general audience. In other words, any of our agri-geek friends may now perk up. Others may decide to skip ahead.

The eggs we incubated this year came from two different sources, both our own. I had used a friend's Americauna x Barred Rock rooster (one he had given me in a batch of excess roosters intended for butchering, but which I took a liking to and saved out). He was a mostly black bird with copper-colored highlights, with a rangy body type, a beard of feathers and a "pea" type comb. Nice combination of genes and expressed traits for my breeding project in search of a superior woodsy free-range egg layer. I bred him to two different hens of ours which both came from Americauna x Black Java stock. One of these two hens was one I had to help out of the shell during last spring's hatch, and which had survived being glued with excess egg white to the incubator's wire mesh floor all night long. If it hadn't laid so many eggs this winter and spring, I would have considered it a poor breeding choice, given its scrawny state of development upon hatching and its failure to hatch naturally. It might have been a good idea. Only three out of twelve of these chicks hatched, and one was even runtier than its mother, requiring help to hatch and then lasting only two days out of the shell. The other hen was my "pet" hen (the one I sometimes allow to free range while I do chores or yard/garden tasks. She is brown with black highlights, and lays olive-colored eggs. Her eggs hatched at a rate of 66%. Half of the chicks were black, and the other half were brown, and patterned like little chipmunks (the ancestral jungle fowl's camouflage strategy).

The other quantity of eggs came from a less interesting source: purebred Buff Chantecler, bred out now to the second generation on our farm. These plain yellow birds with nearly no comb or wattles are pleasant-looking enough in their own solid way, but they tend not to dazzle a person, unless the person happens to be a chicken nerd like myself. I consider them almost ideally suited to portable coops, they are excellent meat birds (quality-wise as opposed to efficiency-wise...nothing can compete with the industrial meat hybrids on efficiency) and very good layers, and are on the edge of extinction. This year, like last year, they hatched like champs, at a rate of about 66%, and right on time. They are pure yellow chicks, just as the adults are pure yellow.

The above two paragraphs probably come across as rather technical for most of you, and probably not interesting. I submit them for the record and for the agriculturally curious among us. What may be of more general philosophical interest is the question: Is consciously breeding chickens for our purposes ethically sound?

Here is the dilemma: a person could make the case that agriculture in general and animal breeding in particular represent a form of the domination of our species over others. I have had a theology-professor friend of mine half-jokingly (only half, you see) try to make this case to me. Ethically, it could be considered superior to get our meddling fingers out of the genetic cauldron and let nature take its course, limiting our strategies for sustenance to scheming the gathering of what self-organizing nature has to offer. In that paradigm, the most ethical way to live would be as a "Fruitarian", which is a person who has chosen to eat only those plant products which the plant intends for consumption by animals.

Without taking time and space to point out a few conceptual flaws with the fruitarian philosophy (get a discussion started in the Comments section if you wish to pursue such), I would like a chance to characterize the chicken breeding endeavor a bit differently:

The chickens are using us to achieve their aims.

In other words, A) The goal, from a genetic perspective, of every organism is to become as populous as the environment can sustain, B) Since the time when humans first took an interest in the Red Jungle Fowl of southeast Asia, domesticating it into the common chicken, it has become the most populous bird on the planet, and C) Protection from the elements/predators and access to resources are the survival strategies of most species. We offer both.

So at the time of the domestication of the chicken, did we see an opportunity in it, or did it see an opportunity in us? I have not researched this thoroughly, but my understanding is that we will never know for sure, but in biological terms the answer is a resounding "BOTH!" In other words, I think of the relationships between humans and domestic/agricultural species not as a situation of plain dominance and exploitation, but rather as a form of biological scratch my back, I'll scratch yours.

Where it gets a bit trickier is to work out the details: In overarching terms the above may be true, but when it comes down to individual organisms and their interactions we often fail to match our treatment of the individuals of other species with the underlying mutualism. I do not consider it ethical, for example, to produce or purchase chicks or chickens, and then confine them in conditions that cause them suffering by way of poor hygiene or overcrowding. Neither do I consider it ethical to breed and feed chickens so as to grow at such a phenomenal rate that heart attacks and deformed limbs are commonplace (as is the case in the broiler industry). As another example, industrial-type turkeys are only capable of reproducing by way of artificial insemination, a process fraught with what I consider to be violence and trauma to both the birds and some of the people involved.

Maybe if we're really skilled at our breeding, we might come up with animals similar to the cow in "A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" which was of a strain that not only could speak, but declared its desire to be consumed (its ilk was used by some interstellar cafe, where they would approach the tables and solicit orders as to which part of them the diner wished to eat, then cheerily saunter on out back to shoot their selves).

In the meantime, I suggest a compromise specific to our chicken enterprises: I'll offer each individual chicken the best conditions I know how to reasonably and affordably provide, including predator protection, good nutrition, sanitary conditions and the chance to exercise its body and some of its most pressing instincts. I'll watch carefully for signs of ill health or discontent, and will work as I am able to remedy any faults in the system that I discover. In return I hope for animal protein, insect control, enhanced soil fertility, grassland and garden plant management, and entertainment. Nearly every individual raised on or brought to our farm will be analyzed as to its potential as a breeder, and as such will have been given a shot at procreation. When I need to cause them stress by handling them, I will be gentle. When the time comes to remove them from the population, I will be respectful.

I'm not a perfectionist or a purist, so visitors might be disappointed to see a few blobs of manure in the pens, or to see confinement practiced at all. In my view, nature isn't too interested in perfection. But here on our farm, the chickens and we are working our way through the accumulated obstructions--biological, cultural, physical--that thwart us...working our way towards each other, and towards peaceful relationships between our flocks and families.

Friday, May 6, 2011


Everything is bursting forth around here it seems - growth seems to be something we are seeing a lot of whether it be in terms of adorable baby fat or the abundance of greens we are picking and consuming (and I'm trying to leave sharing about our new little feathered friends for Jason but they may no longer be little by the time he writes).

We have enjoyed watching Nora's garden come alive with color and beauty again this year - which Jason uncovered more fully one day by weeding and mulching it. I find comfort walking through it often on my way back inside from taking out the compost or picking greens in the garden. We are grateful to be enjoying a thriving little one this spring, as much as we think often of Nora during this time as well, when she was struggling so much to thrive.

The garden is also full of abundance - of edible things that we are enjoying and weeds that Jason is slowly eliminating (or at least reducing in number). Most mornings Jason is treating me to a stinging nettle omelet for breakfast on homemade rolls made with lamb's quarter (that I need to use up from the freezer as more is growing rapidly all over the place!). We are having spinach salads most days, have enjoyed sauteed kale that wintered over, gave away chard today as we just aren't getting around to eating it with all the other things, etc... I realized right around Alida's birth that our canning shelves and freezer were way too full for this time of year. I think I still have the mentality of savoring/storing up our home canned and frozen goods. But we are getting to the place (a cause for much celebration) where we can feed ourselves a good part of the year on what we are growing/collecting/harvesting. So this coming year I need to nix grocery shopping much earlier!

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Carseat success...

While I have a list of things that are "blog worthy" accumulating, it seems that the time to type with two hands is quite limited these days so most things will need to wait just a bit longer.

But there is one thing that must be noted about today!! As I drove home with Kali and Alida from the grocery store (yes, that's right, Alida had her first grocery store experience, which she slept through!), I counted up the number of times I took Alida in and out of her carseat today. SEVEN!!

That is not what is so noteworthy though. What must be noted is that those seven transitions and the accompanying car rides all happened with ZERO tears, screams, cries! While she fell asleep most times, she even woke a time or two in her seat and stayed calm... So maybe as we build on these good car experiences, my anxiety about car trips will lessen!!

I guess she is growing up. And growing she is definitely doing. Today she was weighed and she has gained a full FOUR pounds in her short five weeks of life. She now weighs in at 11 pounds 13 ounces and is about 22 inches long.

Here she is with her favorite person (except I get that label when she is hungry!):