The Baggage of Chickens (Old and New), Winter Gratitude

Back when Mary and I were just homesteading, Christmas, for us, consisted of making gifts with our budding woodworking skills, roasting coffee, and enjoying time with family. Now, you might say, it's all different. A few days before Christmas this year, we put the finishing touches on our very first chicken plucker in our workshop. We built it for about half the cost of a commercial, machine, though the accounting depends on whether you count the the cost of replacing the motor on our friend Leon's drill press after we burned it out in the process of drilling holes in the metal plate (sorry about that, Leon). As we did the final wiring of the motor and then installed the belt and idler pulley, our gentle sounds of tinkering were joined by the sound of 100 baby chickens, busy foraging in their brooder.  They are growing and will help us re-fresh the farm, with new fertilizer, and eggs for market by early summer.  

In less than a week, 100 additional chickens will join them, and soon after, the first batch will move out to our greenhouse.  The greenhouse that, while it is making progress still, um, doesn’t quite exist.  With the help of the few farm faithful who still stop by to visit, we've completed the posts, beams, and supporting structure of both our new kitchen and greenhouse.  There's still a lot to do, and even though we took an entire truckload of used wax boxes to the dump recently, there's still a lot of cleanup at the farm. In one of our less than glamorous moments, we pulled large plastic tubs of scrap metal, all frozen together like some accidental roadside ice sculpture, into the hoophouse to thaw. It's worse than I describe; it was actually two tubs. 250 gallon capacity each, each weighing that many pounds.

All while this happened, news from the climate change talks filtered through the barn and the shop. In moments when we weren’t both in ear protection, we’d compare notes on the bits and pieces of news we’d heard, wondering what would come out of this rounds of talks, and also what we can do.  During this time of giving, we sometimes make fun of ourselves - we are doing nothing but really gobbling up lots of energy, consuming a lot of calories, and working, nearly all the time.

Young chicks, in the farm shop in an expanding brooder with a new, energy efficient heat pad.

The talks though, were a significant event; and even from Montana we found ourselves thinking through our own responsibilities to these global issues. One of the reasons we are drawn to farming is that it is all applied, all action; despite academic backgrounds, we like this life that doesn’t just talk, doesn’t just think, about problems.  As a farm, we can do a lot more to strengthen not only our local economy and help mitigate the impact of climate change.  The talks were on our mind because like all commercial farmers we know or have read about, we till, turning over the soil at least once a year.  If done sparingly, this practice can help us grow cover crop, add nutrients to the soil, and build organic matter. If done improperly, tilling can cause erosion, enhance weeds and pests, and break apart organic matter that contributes to reducing global warming.   But we can do more, even though we are new farm.  And, I think we can do a lot that inspires others. Back when I was a consultant traveling the globe, I could offer recommendations, but this time it's different. We are ones that can act.

Our new commitment to climate action started first with our new batch of chickens. We've elected to purchase chicks locally, raised by a wonderful farmer, Angela at Canyon Creek Poultry. She lives just six miles away from us.  In the past, we've always mailed-ordered chickens. It works fine, but supporting a local business and not having any additional food miles on our protein sources are important to us.  And, since we could get them right away, we hope to have eggs in about 5 months from now.  In about that time, we will also hope to have our first meat chickens ready. In the past, we've just had a few dozen or so, but this is the first time we'll have them at scale - with nearly 100 heritage, locally purchased and raised Rhode Island Reds, North and Golden Stars. Mary and I were on the fence about purchasing chickens locally. If just looked at in terms of economics, it might not be the cheapest, but it makes sense for the values-holding business we aspire to be, and the impacts we want to have.

In all of our current building projects (and yes there are many going concurrently), we are using all reclaimed lumber with the exception of two, 2x4 treated boards we bought from Massa since they will rest quite close to the ground.  Using reclaimed materials, as one neighbor says, “ya know,” sometimes harder and takes longer. I don't think Mary and I would have it any other way. As we explained to one of our woofers this year, or sometimes to friends, or sometimes to all of you, you know that we are stubborn.   While we might wear through saw blades faster, we like the fir and the sometimes weatherbeaten character of the wood that we haul by the truckload to our place.  The floor of our sauna and washroom, that will soon go down, for example, is from an old chicken coop that Mary and I tore down in Missoula. It was old farmland, slated for development, and we like the idea of tearing something down, and building it better, making a hand-built life.

We also do a ton of composting this time of year.  Our aging out chicken flock finished turning one of the compost piles near the new hoop house just last week.  From our favorite Brewery in Missoula, we hauled another batch of nearly 3000 pounds of spent grain to the site, covering it with leaves and organic vegetable matter for our chickens to turn.  As we contemplate truly building soil rich in organic matter, we realize that we have the power, as a farm, and the ability to purchase large quantities of organic compost, and we are quite excited about that, giving our pasture and new growing space a boost that will help improve the soil, and sequester carbon, for decades to come.

There's other stuff we can do. Although we already adhere to the National Organic Standards, we are seriously considering organic certification as well, because, although it's not perfect, it helps solidify our commitment to build soil formally.

We are hoping to make some other changes. While nearly all of the restaurants we deliver to may know that we deliver in vegetable-oil powered (although aging rapidly) Jetta, we'd like to take this one step better.  This spring we will give ourselves a challenge, and it involves taking a page from our friends at Cycle Farm, and delivering locally, to restaurants by bicycle. We'll need to build a cart that can keep our produce cool, of course, and haul it without accidents like the time when we hauled Malaya in a bike cart, but we can do it, well, because we think we should.

So, even though it's a bit of a terribly challenging time for us, with us still cooking outdoors, it's also the time of dreaming. We'll make that bike cart and we may up our odds at early mortality by driving our neighbors dump truck to pickup truckloads of compost this spring. We'll figure out a better way to move organic grain, purchased by the ton, without our headlamps and without moving it bucket by bucket, into barrels, and then rolling the barrels, and being nearly steamrolled by the occasional one that gets away.  With all the chickens, we'll need to build a grain bin at some this spring.  We do all of this because that's us, that's the way, and we are damn stubborn.

We also realize too, that with a little more investment, we could eventually even phase out our large tractor, and purchase a smaller walking tractor, with a set of different implements that minimizes tillage even further, and ups our efficiency and allows to upgrade to smaller (narrower) bed sizes that are all more manageable with hand tools, many that can be fabricated with our pile of scrap metal. We like that a lot, even though we are not sure we can make the financial investment this winter. It seems like the obvious choice, the way to go forward and make our farm more efficient and it can perhaps help us make the transition to zero-till. I'm not sure if we can make the investment with all of our building.  It's a challenging, difficult question.

And that chicken plucker? We've tried it out, on a test batch of stewing hens, and it works better than any other plucker we used. It took a couple of days to build, two farmer's shops (again, we are sorry, Leon), one local welder, two hours of Mary frantically pulling food-grade natural rubber fingers through the giant plucker drum, and an incredible set of mail-ordered plans. We don't like killing chickens at all, but we like doing it our way. We like owning the process, growing the farm, building, and wrestling with all of this.  The new chickens, even down to the low-wattage heat plates (heat lamps use a ton of electricity) give us pause to reflect, and do things differently.

This time of year, we have a lot to worry about, but we have a lot to be excited about.  Even as I write, two incredible interns are on the road, traveling towards us, as part of their own mission to learn about, and create a farm of their own.  This makes us excited, but it also terrifies us slightly - we'll soon need to work on intern housing, and better ways to give back to everyone, just like you all, who support us.

With gratitude of winter,Noah and Mary

Editors Note: To order our first batch of heritage chickens and to see our latest version of chicken tractors, fill out the form here.