Last night Matt and I were trying to figure out exactly what precipitated our desire to delve into the wacky world of chicken raising. Many of the things we do can be traced back to a particular moment- an article, a documentary, a conversation with a friend … but chicken-raising seems to have no identifiable genesis. In fact, figuring out where the idea first came from has appropriately become a “chicken or the egg” question. The more I try to think about it, the more I’m sure that it all started out as a joke.
Welcome to “The Ranch.”
The joke started back in the late summer of 2011 when we moved into this odd little rental house. It’s a strange triangular ranch-style house built in the ’70s on the corner of (I’m not kidding) a six-way intersection. The house puts the “ranch” into ranch-style. Low to the ground, exposed beams, a fence and archway that looks as if they were meant to keep cattle in, and two-foot long house numbers. The fenced outdoor area is equally strange with a rickety shed, carport, and sizable gravel yard. We joked about the quirks of the house and at some point must have figured if we were going to live in a ranch, the property may as well live up to its looks. Cows, goats, and other livestock were part of this “ranch fantasy.” But out of that conversation came the completely feasible idea of chickens.
The backyard, a flat lifeless dirt and gravel pit, is utterly useless for gardening, but surprisingly perfect for building a chicken coop and run to house a small flock. The idea seemed too good. A perfectly sustainable “Oregonian” thing for over-educated, handy, Liberals in a University town to do. Matt became obsessed with the idea of the fresh eggs. I love animals and happily meditated on the thought of a bunch of hens clucking around in the backyard while I sipped my morning coffee.
It turns out, we’re not alone. People all over town keep chickens. It was funny to realize after we had decided on a chicken project how many coops and flocks I encountered on my runs or while walking my dog, Hermione. For at least a couple of years now, my friend Angie has been raising chickens in her backyard. What started with a small flock has become an operation resembling a small free-range chicken farm with the colorful and curious hens wandering right up the driveway to greet guests. It wasn’t Angie’s experience that made us want to jump into this experiment in urban farming, although her affection for her feathered friends is encouraging. Her only warning: “The poop,” she explains dryly. “It’s everywhere.”
One of the things I love so dearly about Matt is that when we does something, he wants to do it right. So, chicken-raising did not begin with a trip to a chicken farm to bring home an armload of peeps, but instead with a trip to Amazon.com to find a good book on the subject.
Our reference guide.
A Chicken In Every Yard was a highly recommended volume, and appropriately enough for us, written by a couple living in Portland. They made the whole idea of urban farming seem fun and sensible. After reading the book, we thought, “Well, why wouldn’t you want to raise chickens?” Matt set to work, designing a coop, scavenging for free building materials from Craig’s List, talking to other experienced chicken-owners he encountered, and continuing to fantasize about the eventual pay-off of fresh eggs. We talked about the chicken project constantly, referring to it as “Chicktopia.” We researched breeds and invented clever names for our future hens. We began setting aside money in an envelope to pay for feed and materials. This all started back in September, even before I left on my trip to St. Louis. We knew we couldn’t order our chicks until spring, but proper planning is important.
Our local feed store.
Finally the time arrived for us to order our peeps. We are lucky to live where we do. It’s a beautiful community in a University town full of culture and life combined with access to agriculture and farmlands. We have a fantastic farmer’s market here and are in no short supply of … well, farming supplies. The local feed and seed, Denson’s is within blocks of the University and we found it stocked with everything we need to get started.
Matt shows off the chicken receipt.
Yesterday we showed up with our envelope of cash and made a few crucial purchases including a water fount, heat lamp and bulb, a chick feeder, and (most exciting of all) six chicks. From the breed list we chose a Barred Plymouth Rock, a Black Australorp, a Rhode Island, a Silver Lace Wyandotte, a Golden Lace Wyandotte, and a Speckled Sussex. We chose them for temperament and egg-laying ability. While the chicks come “sexed” there is a 5% chance we might end up with a cock instead of a hen. Fingers crossed they will all arrive healthy and female on April 4th (as scheduled). It’s exciting and will certainly be challenging, but we’re ready for it.
So … what came first? Angie? The book? Jokes? I’m not sure. But I do know that the desire comes from a shared sensibility that Matt and I have and continues to grow between us to just be better and do better in the world. We both get frustrated with the world sometimes, but realize that the only way things ever get better with industry, policies, the environment, and relationships is when people do something about it to the best of their means and their abilities.
Chicktopia has become an experiment from that mindset. A generation before us, it was fairly common for people to keep chickens and rabbits and to garden. My dad talks about this all the time. But things changed drastically in the ’60s and ’70s. The supermarket (and even more terrifying Walmart) culture of convenience has turned out a generation devoted to hyper-consumerism, over-processed and under-nourishing crap, and disposable junk. It spawned from the idea of convenience. But just because something is “convenient” doesn’t mean it’s good for you or your community. It’s nearly impossible to step out of this consumerist matrix completely, but we can all do better if we decide to become accountable for our actions. It’s easy for me to go the store and buy eggs. It’s much more work for me to raise the hens to make my own eggs. But I will know how these hens are treated and I know the eggs will be fresh. My actions affect others. Maybe it’s just a drop in the universal bucket, but I want that drop to count for something I support.
Let the road to Chicktopia begin!