“Eat food, not too much, mostly plants,” says local-food evangelist Michael Pollan, and though his books have been translated in at least sixty-five languages including Urdu, Chicken wasn’t one of them. Even if it were, it would be lost in translation on my willful mob. Can you say “Eat food, lots of it, mostly Matthew’s plants.”
Breakfast of Chickens: The apple blossom special.
My Dilemma with Omnivores is their lack of discrimination. They seem to pick up on the coddled pheromone trail I’ve invested into my favorite varieties an go for those first. Just when a long-awaited apple, pear or tomato is heavy with itself, it’s pecked or gnawed into oblivion.
Chickens are über-omnivores: They’ll sample, trial and taste almost anything, even chicken (don’t ask). And they’ve become so unhinged lately by the delirium of Spring that they’ve even taken to browsing the blossoms off of fruit trees in the orchard. Who does that?
I’m not alone, of course. I just have a larger produce department than most home gardeners, and a few too many fowl wandering the aisles.
Annual Lamium purpurium carpets the orchard. Also known as henbit, it’s chicken candy.
I spoke about “Growing Beautiful Food” at a big garden conference last month in Connecticut, where the Master Gardeners were many, and the Q&A was mostly about predation. “Yes, it’s all very pretty, and thank you for your lovely presentation, but what about the critters? How do you keep them out? This was the idée fixe: Beauty is negotiable, plundering is not.
And while I implored them to sacrifice a few peonies for eggplant, they couldn’t get passed the loss factor. Though growing things is always fraught with peril, growing food–no matter how beautiful, healthful, and environmentally responsible—is asking for trouble. Of course, in the long haul, not growing your own, or not supporting those who do it locally and organically, is the real worry; It will be no accident when we just can’t feed ten billion people on chemically saturated agricultural land that’s dependent on a diminishing supply of petroleum. So a few wayward chickens or nibbled greens are the least of our worries.
I’m seeking absolution, I suppose; having come in from the urban cold of not knowing (or caring) where my food came from, to caring deeply and deciding to do something about it.
I came from cities – physically, psychologically. From the bump and bustle of urbanism. No planting, no growing, no harvesting. And yet, here I am in mid-life, an organic farmer, feeding my family, feeding neighbors and CSA members; lost in a headlong swoon for this crazy, sexy piece of earth, and unable to imagine a life without it.
Spring at Stonegate Farm: One sexy piece of earth.
So I let the chickens have their barter share: They lay, I look the other way. A dilemma resolved by a kind of rural détante. Sometimes letting go can be the very thing your life needs. -Mb
Visit the farm @ StonegatefarmNY.org
The day we decided to resettle the chickens to the other side of the farm began clear and lovely: the luster of the previous night’s rain still visible in the grass, the air luminous and warm. I weeded early in the orchard and stole a few productive hours before heat and swelter took my energy hostage. The day before, the farm seemed to exist only to absorb the sky, to take in its rain like a sieve. The sky on resettlement day was unburdened by clouds or rain, punctuated instead by temperatures already in the 90s.
Coop and cupola, separated by a century and a half, now occupy the same aesthetic space. Ambivalent chickens just want a roof over their heads.
It was high time to furlough the young hens. They would be freed from their tight hot quarters in the Hell’s Kitchen garden, and moved three at a time to their new coop. The trip from the kitchen garden to the orchard is a few hundred feet, but to the hens—who had never known the flap of freedom—the journey was pure trauma.
Each hen had to be blindly grabbed through the coop door, and whatever I got my hands on was how they were removed (foot, wing, thigh, tail, giblet), squawking as though about to be slain. They were put into a box and carried to the new hen house.
My first instinct was to excite them about their new space, like any good chicken realtor: “Look at all these windows, and the closets. Plenty of space to park your eggs, and room to scratch. Have you seen those roosts?” But instead they chose to lie low in the box, head tucked under wing as though resigned to the certainty of a swift end. It took turning the box upside down and shaking them out to get them to check out their new home.
The coop was modeled after the cupola on the barn, with its carpenter gothic detail and pyramidal roof. When the farm was built in the late 1850s, the Gothic Revival period was in full fancy in the Hudson Valley. Its advocates claimed, like their gothic predecessors, that steep gables, vertical battens, and skyward finials brought the dwelling closer to the vault of heaven, so as to almost scrape the stars. All this is lost, of course, on a chicken.
Chickens love routine, and are ambivalent about architecture. To them, any change is loss, even the good changes. What they covet is the daily pattern language they’ve learned since cracking out of the egg. Give them repetition, monotony even, and they seem content. One hen was so put out by the change of venue that she took flight, choosing the perils of the wild wood over unfamiliar routine. She returned a fallen woman, ready to join the showgirls at La Cage.
Free at last, Free at last! The hens take to the orchard and frolic over worms and dirt
After a few days of house arrest, the young hens were set loose upon the orchard. At first the vast, open sky bewildered them, but they quickly acclimated and before long were actually frolicking (when was the last time you frolicked?). They soon headed down the long alleé of quince and plum to the thicket of blackberries, where they poked and scratched and left thorny brambles between them and the circling red tails.
We’ve lost a few hens to hawks in the past, and their swift, ominous shadows and piercing cries are embedded into a hen’s survival DNA. My children have witnessed a strike and kill, and after invoking The Lion King, the circle of life, and unfledged hawklings desperately needing a meal, they seemed perfectly at peace about it. For the chickens, now calling the gothic coop home, the further away from the vault of heaven, the better. – Mb
My new hens have outgrown their garret of a starter coop, and have begun to crowd the outside pen like a Parisian café. That’s café, not CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feed Operation), although conditions are rather similar, minus the threat of a looming hereafter. I hear them squawking over food and drink, or the best sidewalk table.
They’ll soon be moving to a new arrondissement in the orchard, where I’ve built a rather ornate gothic revival villa for them, in keeping with the rest of the property. The naming has begun even before the roof is on: The Café Au Lay. Coop de Ville. Das Coop. Why chickens bring out the cheap wordplay in us is a mystery. We just can’t stop ‘till we get an oeuf.
The New Coop will house 25 Maran and Ameraucana hens in great style.
While I was compound mitering the pagoda roof on the coop, my children and friends were in the orchard below, harvesting black currants. Their little hands, pulp-stained to a deep purple, picked the fruit in delicate clusters and arranged them in one pint boxes. This year is our first full harvest, with last year’s having been diminished by the ceaseless rain.
Black currants are certainly an acquired taste. Eating them fresh supposes a longing for complex tartness. The first bite through their supple, sun-blackened flesh is almost sweet, while the finish is much darker. All of life’s complexity in one bite. The Europeans have used them for centuries to flavor jams, tarts and juices, and the French transform them beautifully into cassis.
Daughter Daisy and best friend Hannah harvest black currant. Who needs a Brueghel painting when a canvas comes to life before your eyes?
But beyond flavor, black currants contain the fruit phylum’s highest levels of disease fighting anti-oxidants, particularly anthocyanins, which rage against heart disease, Alzheimer’s, cancer and diabetes. They’re also highest in vitamin C. For almost a century, production in the United States was banned due to concern over white pine blister rust, a fungal pariah carried by currants. But since 2003, all bans are off. I lift my glass of locally grown cassis to that.
Blackberries, raspberries and Aronia (another super-berry) will follow. The orchard view from the nearly-completed coop roof is lovely, full of promise; the fruit swelling in the heat, the bees traveling to and from, like the bowing of a thousand cellos, the chickens chattering in the distance. Life looks good from up here. -Mb
Black currants harvested in the orchard. Their smoky tartness and free-radical fighting brawn are legendary.