Free Range Chickens: Safety vs Freedom

Bit of Earth Farm Chickens ranging freely over a few acres is a peaceful sight. Our chickens rush eagerly from the coop each morning to spend the day as they choose in the pasture, woods, and barn. On hot afternoons we see them in the shade, fluffing in cool hollows where they give themselves dust baths, then rest. Some like to socialize under the hay wagon. Some hang out on low branches of bushes and trees. They eat insects, greenery, sometimes a hapless toad. It’s clear many of them pal around with the same chicken each day. Some of our birds are pretty geriatric, 7 or 8  years old at least. The two youngest, Scritch and Scratch (named after the sound of Mr. McGregor’s hoe in The Tale of Peter Rabbit) hatched just this spring and their mother still keeps them close. None of the hens seem to care for the rooster’s attention but he guards them, mates with them, and clucks in a distinctive way when he’s found a tasty morsel to share.

Chickens are, like all prey animals, in danger when they roam freely. We lose a few each year to hawks. It is a loss we mourn. Such losses also don’t improve the tenuous economic venture of making enough money selling eggs to continue raising chickens. But hawks are part of the ecosystem. And when we weight the chickens’ freedom versus their safety, we come down on the side of chicken freedom.

We can see the value of this choice in their calmer behavior. We know they’re foraging for a range of nutrients because they eat a great deal less purchased feed and the egg yolks they produce are brighter orange.

But dogs are not part of this ecosystem. When a dog gets loose and attacks chickens it doesn’t kill one and eat it. It kills every chicken it can, leaving corpses behind. This is what I found the other day.

Feathers near the pond.

A trail of feathers by the barn.

More feathers close to the woods.

Ten killed and one badly injured. Feathers up the hill and on both sides of the creek show how desperately these birds tried to save themselves. Scratch is dead. So is our rooster, and many of our youngest and most productive hens.

I feel so sorry for what the birds must have gone through. And now, somewhere out there is a dog who had the time of his/her life chasing and biting, wanting nothing more than to get loose and do it again. I don’t blame the dog. I’m sure all that squawking and warm blood activates motivations far older than “sit, stay, come.” What I can’t understand is people letting their dogs run loose.

Such a dog kill has happened here two other times in the many years we’ve been raising chickens. A few years ago a neighbor’s dogs got loose, injuring some of our flock and killing others. Tragically, one of the dogs spent so much time chasing chickens in the heat that it died (we assume heat exhaustion) and was found in a dry creek not far from a pile of feathers. The worst attack was about 12 years ago, when 23 of our chickens were killed by a single dog. We’ve never been reimbursed for these losses.

This time we have no idea whose dog is responsible. Some of my neighbors insist this was the work of coyotes, but coyotes don’t kill so many animals and then not eat their kill. The attack happened, best we can estimate, in early afternoon. We can’t see the chicken coop or barn from the house, often can’t hear what’s going on out back either. Even if we were home we could have missed the whole thing.

So for now our chickens are penned up.

Their accommodations qualify as free range by all industry standards. They have a roomy coop, an anteroom with a roof and partially covered sides, plus a 21′ by 20′ outdoor enclosure topped by avian netting. Plenty of room for three dozen chickens. Still, every morning they cluster by the gate, remembering all that lies just beyond. They can be distracted by a pail of kitchen scraps but it’s not remotely the same as foraging on their own. My hand hovers on the latch each time. I want to swing the gate open, choose freedom over safety, but I’m not ready yet.

What choice would you make— freedom or safety?

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Grape-Flavored Endeavor

Talk about a long-term project.

Last August, construction on our 30 x 72 high tunnel began.

A team of Amish workers put it up in two days.

As soon as they were done we put in a cover crop of winter rye.

Early this spring we tilled rows and put in locally milled locust posts, with high tensile wire for supports.

Next, hand-digging 54 holes.

Finally we put in the plants. Initially they looked like sticks but within two weeks they were growing rapidly.

Now to tend, watch. and wait. It’ll be two years or more until we’ve got a harvest large enough to sell. We’re looking forward to tasting that first grape…

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Sure Feels Like Summer

 

I know the solstice hasn’t yet arrived but I’m convinced it’s summer. Today’s thermometer reads 92 degrees. The humidity feels a bit like standing above a boiling pot of soup. And I’m a toasted itch grump full of poison ivy. I’m not a fan of summer’s heat but have to admit, things are lovely around here.

 

Fragrant elderflowers are in bloom — some of them on bushes we might actually be able to reach, out there in brambles and underbrush, when it’s time to pick the berries.

Water lilies are again clogging up the pond, both white

and pink. Many mornings a great blue heron stands pondside looking for breakfast, but I’m not sure the pickings are great with all these lilies in the way. (I keep trying to give lilies away. If you want a few or 100, come on over.)

Trees seem to be heavy with fruit this year. Our pear tree is loaded and we’re already eating cherries.

We always assumed this was a crab apple tree but my daughter suggested it might be a heritage cider apple tree. Commonly used to make hard cider, many old varieties were lost during Prohibition and after, when hard cider fell out of favor.

A clutch of eggs hatched a few weeks ago. These nearly grown chicks are still a little wary of leaving the coop without mom.

We’ve had such massive rain this spring that our new hoop house wasn’t dry enough for planting until this week. Today is the day that grapevines are being planted!

After years of cattle and now two years without animals on our pasture, new fencing is going up. Already I can picture sheep here. And maybe a miniature donkey or two. Every new post put in gives me hope.

I hope too that my son’s truck will get fixed before it becomes part of the forest.

Best of all is this outdoor girl. She speaks the secret language of stones, sticks, and puddles. She’s teaching me to love everything summer has to offer.

 

 

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Indoor Seed Starting Set-Up Extraordinaire

I save many of our vegetable seeds year to year, but give in to flower seed splurges.

Every year our indoor seed starting ritual seems to get just a little more elaborate. Years ago we planted a few seeds in egg cartons. Then we planted trays of seeds in repurposed tp tubes. Then we bought grow lights and warming mats. And this spring my husband built me a substantial seed starting set-up that will last for many decades.

It measures four-and-a-half feet tall, four feet wide, and nearly nine feet long. The whole contraption comes apart for easy storage.

The “roof” can be raised to move the grow lights up as plants get taller and the sides of the roof can be held open with hooks suspended from the ceiling to tend seedlings.

For a few weeks each spring, our basement eco-system is a fertile place indeed.

 

Cautionary reminder: I heard from many readers who had major difficulty or total failure starting seeds using NK products and Jiffy products including “peat” pots, soil mix, and dehydrated soil disks. (Jiffy has been bought out by NK.) Here’s more on this.

 

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Seeds from Cyprus = Heavenly Squash

 

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Our friend Chris is from Cyprus. There’s a sorrowful story behind why his family left their beautiful Eastern Mediterranean island when he was a child. But they keep fond reminders of their homeland alive in the food they cook, including a unique winter squash they eat prepared with garlic, olive oil, and lemon juice.

A few years ago I was honored when Chris shared some of those squash seeds with us.

I started the seeds indoors, set them out when it was warm, and with little attention they grew into vigorous plants, blossoming  with zeal.

We ended up with squash in several gardens.

We ended up with squash in several gardens.

All summer long we picked immature squash and used them in dishes meant for summer squash. They were tender and delicious. They continued to grow past the first few frosts. The leaves were so large that it was hard to see the squash lurking below, looming like Cucurbitaceae whales. This explains why some of them grew to outlandish proportions.

Squash so huge a wheelbarrow is necessary to move them. Thankfully there's a two-year-old conductor on board.

Squash so huge a wheelbarrow is necessary to transport. Thankfully there’s a conductor on board.

Even at such ridiculous sizes, the squash is somehow still tender and flavorful. And it’s amazingly hardy — perfect to store and use throughout the winter. I use every single part of the fruit, scooping out the guts and cutting away peels for livestock to eat. (Goats and cows can eat them raw. Chickens are more likely to eat cooked root vegetables. — Yes, I cook for chickens.)

Every spring since Chris shared the seeds, I’ve started the plants in March and every winter I’ve gratefully used up our storehouse of squash by the next spring. The seeds he shared and the harvest that results reminds me how every generation has kept their families alive, relying on nutrients locked into forms that can be unlocked months later when nothing grows outside. In the tradition of immigrants who arrived on our shores with seeds sewn in their hems, I’ve done my best to pass along a few seeds when I can, letting friends know these Cypriot squash seeds have a story.

When I went through my seeds this week to plant under grow lights, I discovered my precious stock of Cypriot squash seeds, despite my careful preparation, appear to be moldy. I cut open one of the last few squash I have stored to use in cooking, hoping the seeds were still viable. The seeds were no longer plump and full, clearly depleted of life force. Disaster!

That same day, my dear friend Christie said she was starting some of the Cypriot squash seeds I’d given her. Of course when she heard my seeds were no longer good she said she had enough to share. Disaster averted! And another of the many good reason to share seeds —- you may need some back.

I’m deeply relieved that Chris’ family squash seeds will grow here again. And this fall I’ll dry the seeds more carefully in our dehydrator and store them in the refrigerator, hoping to keep that legacy alive, hoping to be worthy of the memory embedded in those seeds.

~~~

In the spirit of sharing, here are three of my favorite winter squash recipes. They are perfect for Cypriot as well as other winter squashes like butternut, acorn, kabocha, and delicata.

(I had photos of each recipe, but would you believe I’ve got so many pictures of kids and livestock that my phone memory threw a tantrum? I had to delete an entire file just to appease it.)

 

Roasted Winter Squash

This is more an open format plan than an actual recipe. Start with a normal, non-monster-sized winter squash. Peel, remove seeds, and cut the flesh into consistent chunks — one or two inch cubes are good. Toss them with a good glug of olive oil. Preheat oven to 400 degrees, flop the squash in a jellyroll pan, then consider your options. (Overall, it should take 30 to 40 minutes to roast. Remember to scoot the pieces around in the pan a few times.)

~You can roast plain squash, it’s quite a friendly dish. Simply sprinkle with about 2 teaspoons salt and add others seasonings as you choose.

~You can make a somewhat sweet version, good for breakfast or a light supper. About ten to fifteen minutes before it’s done, toss in some raw nuts to roast with the squash if you want some crunch. If you want to add seeds, toss them in the last five minutes or so. In the last few minutes of roasting time you can add apple chunks, pears, or other fruit if you like. Eat as is, or serve it with maple syrup, cream, or a side of cool applesauce.

~Roast it with plenty of halved garlic cloves and add other vegetables of your choice. Brussels sprouts work well here, so do rutabagas, cauliflower, onions, pretty much up to you. If you add more vegetables, little more olive oil helps the process along. Watch the garlic to make sure it doesn’t burn.

 

Curried Squash Soup

This is a lovely creamy soup. Don’t worry about chopping the vegetables perfectly, you’ll be blending everything except whatever ingredients you add as options at the end.

Ingredients

  • one winter squash, baked until tender with skin and seeds removed (I bake them on a parchment-covered jellyroll pan at 350 for about 60 to 90 minutes. Stab them in the neck to see if they’re tender. You can add horror movie sound effects if you like.)
  • olive oil or coconut oil, a few tablespoons
  • 2 medium onions, chopped
  • 2 or 3 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 2 stalks celery, chopped
  • 1 fresh jalapeno, chopped (or a dash of crushed red pepper)
  • 1 inch fresh ginger, chopped (or a pinch of dry ginger)
  • a handful or two of Brazil nuts or other unsalted nuts (walnuts or almonds work well)*
  • 2 cups milk, cream, or unsweetened alternate milk like soy or almond
  • 2 cups chicken or vegetable stock, may need less
  • 2 teaspoons curry powder
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  • optional add-in vegetables– pick only one or two: a handful of peas is classic, for some reason a handful of frozen corn works well, it’s amazing how many others work beautifully such as chopped greens like spinach or arugula, some cauliflower florets, some roasted eggplant, minced sun-dried tomatoes, you might want to raid your fridge and try different bowls of soup with different add-ins

Method

Saute onions and celery until soft, add garlic and jalapeno and continue sauteing until tender. Put these in the blender with ginger, nuts (if you choose to use them), and milk. Blend until smooth. Add squash. You may need to do this in two or more batches. Return to pan. Add curry powder, salt, and pepper. Stir in as much stock as you choose to make a smooth, flavorful soup. Now mix in whatever optional add-in vegetables you’ve chosen. Heat thoroughly, until those veggies are cooked through.

To serve, you can sprinkle with roasted pumpkin seeds or fresh chopped parsley.

*If you don’t have a powerful blender like a Vitamix, a teaspoon or so of unsweetened creamy almond butter is a good substitute for nuts. Or skip the nuts entirely. 

 

 

Butternut & Beans in Creamy Tahini 

This is loosely based on a recipe by Molly Wizenberg, memoir writer and chef who blogs at Orangette. Preparation can be speeded up, depending on how you prefer to roast garlic and caramelize onions. I brought this to a gathering of friends recently along with a friendly little loaf of bread. There are usually leftovers I can offer the host but this time every bit of the dish had been gobbled up!

Ingredients

  • 1 butternut or other winter squash, about 3 pounds before cooking
  • 5 cloves garlic
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil or coconut oil, divided use
  • one 15 ounce can chickpeas, navy beans, or other firm white beans drained and rinsed (1 1/2 cups cooked beans)
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice
  • 3 tablespoons tahini
  • 1/4 of water or stock, more as needed
  • pepper (Aleppo pepper is fantastic here)
  • 1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped

 

Method

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Peel and seed squash, cut into 1 or 2 inch cubes. For the fast method you simply toss the squash with the oil, garlic, and onions, roasting it all together on a jellyroll pan for 25 to 35 minutes, moving pieces around occasionally and scooping out garlic that’s in danger of burning. The squash and onions should have some nicely brown sides and smell heavenly.

OR, if you’re fussy like me, you can roast the squash on its own. I tuck the garlic into a little foil-lined ramekins with a bit of oil, close up the foil packet, and stick it in the oven along with the squash as it cooks. It’s far creamier and has a smoother taste as well. Then I toss the onions in a pan on the stove with some of the oil and caramelize on low heat for 20 minutes or so, which takes very little attention. You have another pan to wash but I’m partial to the taste of onions prepared this way.

Anyway, back to the recipe. Into your blender container put the cooked garlic, lemon juice, tahini, sea salt, and some stock or water. Blend. If the blender balks, add more stock. Throw in pepper. Taste. It should be marvelous. If not, add more seasoning.

Mix with the roasted squash and caramelized onions. Stir in beans. Warm through. Top with chopped parsley.

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Laws of Morals as of Botany: Emerson

“I have confidence in the laws of morals as of botany. I have planted maize in my field every June for seventeen years and I never knew it come up strychnine. My parsley, beet, turnip, carrot, buck-thorn, chestnut, acorn, are as sure. I believe that justice produces justice, and injustice injustice.”

from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1852 journal entry

 

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Pipeline Protest

anti-pipeline poem,

Pipeline Protest 

 

Its name is Nexus,

from the Latin

meaning to bind, fasten, tie.

The pipeline, nearly as wide

as a kindergartener is tall,

will cut through

dairy farms and backyards,

hurtling high-pressure

danger for profit. Always profit.

 

Maybe it’s another wake-up call,

like the one Bush offered

by invading a sovereign nation;

brutalizing the Iraqi people

we claimed to be saving.

Brutalizing ourselves.

 

Of course we keep hitting

the snooze button.

Waking up isn’t easy.

Birds flounder

in oily waters

and we’re desperate

to sleep a little longer.

 

Today you and I stand

amidst hand-lettered signs:

Windmills Not Oil Spills,

Eminent Domain=Greed,

Fuck Fracking.

Cold wind brings tears to our eyes.

 

Fear brings us here. Anger too.

And bone-deep grief

for this lovely lovely planet.

Awakening shows us a million ways

to climb past despair.

I want us to do it for love.

 

Laura Grace Weldon

 

Originally published in the Blue Collar Review. Find more poetry in my collection, Tending. 

 

  • Here’s more about the Nexus pipeline including the route and blast radius in Ohio.
  • Here’s an article I wrote about how fracking might affect my family, and yours.  (First published on Wired.com.)
  • Here’s a glimpse at just how shady the oil and gas industry can be. More than 100 letters sent to the Federal Energy Regulatory Agency (FERC) in support of the pipeline are fakes, using names and addresses of Medina County residents who did not write them or sign them. A FERC project manager said the falsified letters would remain on the docket.
  • Here’s recent disheartening news. An appeals court, using a 65 year old Ohio law meant to facilitate the construction of utility infrastructure after World War II,  has ruled against the rights of property owners. This means pipeline surveyors are free to intrude on the yards and farms of 65 landowners who have actively objected. Yesterday armed security guards stood by as surveyors took measurements on a horse farm just south of the fairgrounds, a farm that’s bordered on three sides by wetlands and park property. As resident Paul Gierosky said in a recent article, “NEXUS is no more a utility than I’m an astronaut. This pipeline is not a public agency designed to service the people along its route. It’s a for-profit company that’s going to sell the gas to a foreign country.”
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