I've been raising laying hens for about a year, and I've never been happier. I have fresh eggs whenever I want them (which is always), I have become more in tune with myself in relation to the land, and I've come to love chickens for all their neurotic, pecking glory. I will never go back. If I were still living in New York City, I'd raise them there. I'd take over an empty lot and farm eggs for the neighbors. And so, I stand on my soapbox, in a plea to anyone who's ever thought about farming, to start by raising some hens. I. Beg. Of. You. It's the stepping stone to self worth. Not to mention pretty easy, fun, and the first mounting of the molehill towards homesteading ... if that's your goal. But most of all, it might make you enjoy life just a wee bit more.
Alright so I'm not god, and you don't have to believe me. In fact, you're probably thinking something along the lines of "Hey you, yet another organic-crazed fundamentalist preaching the ways of the prairie hippie to all who sleep near the mountain of flowers and compost and flowing rivers of soy." But if you raise hens, or if you've ever visited a friend who raises hens, or if you've lived vicariously through people who've written about raising hens ... then you have to admit there is a shred of truth in this.
So, how did raising laying hens make me happier?
Richard Wiswall, a fellow (and much more experienced!) farmer in Vermont, and author of The Organic Farmer's Business Handbook, speaks well on the issues of true sustainability...which first and foremost means doing what you believe in, and then acquiring the skills you need in order to make a living from that (partly, or wholly):
Happiness is something we all strive for. I define happiness, in simple terms, as getting what you want. If this is true, it sounds easy enough. In reality, however, happiness can be quite elusive. Getting what you want may not be that easy, mostly because we don't have a clear grasp on what exactly it is that we want. What we truly want is not a new tractor or late-model pickup truck. Wants need to be defined as deeper, value-based goals--things that are held very dear, such as family, creativity, leisure, health, or economic security.
What I wanted when I moved from New York City to a farm in rural Vermont, was to get to a deeper part of myself where I wasn't consumed by materialism and a want for disposable goods that would feed my ego in the short run, but not sustain my soul. I think a lot of people feel this way, to be honest. Like, one can buy their morning latte, but when I invested in an old-time manual coffee grinder from the 50s and nailed it to my wall, I owned my own coffee experience in a new way. I realized the difference. When I wake up, the first thing I do is not consume, it's create. And for me, that daily ritual has changed everything.
So, what does this have to do with raising laying hens?
I took the coffee experience and expanded it a little bit...to breakfast. If I could feel a bit better every morning by creating my own coffee experience, then surely an egg sandwich was not far behind! I started with ten hens and a rooster that my boyfriend found on Craigslist, from a farmer about 20 minutes away. We used an old truck cap converted to a makeshift house (he made it, I mucked it), lined the nesting boxes with some hay, filled up the water trough, and voila. They waddled and foraged, they pecked and humped, they dawdled and dangled...and we had about 10 eggs a day. Every night they made their way back to their little hut, and every morning explored the land around our house. Now we were waking up, grinding our own coffee beans with a weighty iron lever, and pulling on some rubber boots to collect the eggs. So, the second thing I did every morning was commune. With the chickens, you know? Greeting them, feeding them if they were out of oyster shells, exclaiming over their beautiful eggs. And not only them, I communed with the land as well. I noticed some days, the hens' favorite poop spots had become lush green pillows of amazingly fertilized grass! Golf course green, and fluffing with nutrients. I began to realize, it wasn't just me who was happier. It was the earth itself! Big things were happening.
I guess you could say I took Richard Wiswall's advice. I identified my wants as a deeper, value-based goal. I want to ground myself in the dailyness of tasks. I want to learn how to care for myself, by learning how to care for the animals and plants that provide nourishment for my body. I want to invest in land, in soil, and in actions that reverse the damages of climate change and corporate monopoly. I want to grow my spirit...by growing plants! By watching hens lay eggs! By learning to bake bread, and make butter. Did you know if you shake whole milk in a jar for long enough, it becomes butter? Maybe you did. But for me, this was a miracle!
So I expanded. We built a bigger hen house on an old hay wagon. We ordered chicks in the mail, and they arrived just born. I learned how to raise them from babies, with careful attention to warmth and electrolytes, and picked them up daily so they would get used to being handled by humans. They grew, and grew, and soon could be put out to pasture. Now I have 40 hens, and 2 roosters (the older guys from before have been given away or put in the pot). That means in about two weeks, I'm going to have about 38 eggs a day!
What the hell am I going to do with all my eggs???
I'm going to be selling them on the black market, of course! Which means, in a secret place at the bottom of my hill, hidden in a shed with a collection box for cash. And truckin' them in to work, where my colleagues have vowed to support the fledgling free-range businesswoman. Hopefully the profit will at least cover the cost of feed--and I'm certainly saving by not buying eggs. But mostly, I finally believe in what I'm doing! As Richard Wiswall says:
A clearly defined goal should define your quality of life. We all have a quality of life: It may be good or not so good, defined or undefined. But we all have some sort of quality of life ... Farmers tend to survive very tough economic times because they believe in what they are doing; this is, working toward their goals.
Start your workday the right way with the news that matters most. Learn more