Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Hen Hazards (by Pammy Mae)

If you're considering getting backyard chickens, don't. Just don't. Yes, our Golden Comet biddies are friendly and sweet. Yes, it warms my heart when they happily follow me around the yard because they want a cuddle. Yes, I love the fresh, organic eggs they graciously provide.

The problem is not the hens, my friends. The problem is the greased slope you will find yourself sliding down with no hope of recovery short of hitting Homestead Rehab.

Here is the sad story of what happened after we brought home backyard biddies:

First, we began composting. It seemed like a trendy, "green" thing to do. We dutifully toted food scraps, leaves, and yard clippings to the far corner of our property to decompose and produce earthworms.

Yes, I encouraged decomposition and worm breeding in my yard.

I'm in shock, too. Keep reading.

It became such an obsession that when we passed a building site with felled trees on a field that had been vacant since the Civil War (which means it was chemical-free), I screeched, "Jay! Organic matter for the compost pile!" as he swerved off the road and stripped the brake pads. (To be honest, I'm not sure if the swerve was in thankful agreement of my helpful observation or if my shriek momentarily scared the sense out of him.) The construction crew politely tried to hide their snickers as they watched my husband do their job of hauling away piles of wood chips. 

Jay even bought manure from a man who raises organic, grassfed cows to add to our compost pile. He (Jay, not the cowman) washed the bed of the pickup truck six times after the cow poo was unloaded, but it was months before I'd ride in the cab because of the lingering smell wafting up from the back.

The next logical step was to create a raised garden bed. What else were we going to do with all that compost? And it seemed harmless enough. We made a raised vegetable bed (because you don't have to weed it) thirty-four feet long and four feet wide. To grow food for two people.  

Yes, I said two people. 

By God's grace, some of the vegetables actually liked our compost swill! (I mean, organic soil.) Only half of the GMO-free seeds we sowed actually sprouted, but I was absurdly proud of the abundance we received from the plants with an unusually strong will-to-live. 

Once I realized that our neighbors were hiding when I bounced up their porch steps with armfuls of produce, I figured out how to use a dehydrator. I dried enough kale and basil to last at least 15 years. I may put some of it in little linen bags to hand out at Christmas as "potpourri."

By this time, my husband and I often found ourselves chewing toothpicks and inexplicably referring to each other as "Jay Bob" and "Pammy Mae." It just sounded right.

Before backyard hens
After backyard hens

One morning, while eating some of our biddies' orange-yolked, super-vitamin-charged, free-range eggs, I thought, Fresh bread would taste good with this. So, I began making bread. From scratch. Yes, me. Stop laughing because it gets worse. Then I thought, Organic eggs eaten with non-organic bread just isn't right, so I began ordering GMO-free flour from a local farm.

One night, when I was exhausted from making 137 cups of organic pesto to freeze for the winter (okay, that's a slight exaggeration, but it felt like 137 cups), I accidentally ordered wheat berries instead of wheat flour. Instead of returning it, I thought, Hey, I could grind this into flour myself! It will be cheaper, and the bread will taste even more fresh.  

I discovered that a good flour mill costs $250-350, and since I'm not baking for a family of twelve, I couldn't justify the cost. Which means that I milled the wheat berries in our little coffee grinder. How did this work, you wonder? Well, I could only grind 1/3rd of a cup at a time. Then I had to let the coffee grinder sit for 10 minutes to cool off. So, it took about 3 hours to mill enough wheat into flour for a few loaves. And then I still had to make the bread! 

But am I still doing it? Of course. It's a backyard-chicken-owning thing to do.

Now I'm begging Jay for a goat. Yes, a goat. Goat's milk is rich in vitamins and contains more protein than cow's milk. As if our diet lacks protein. Its calcium can be absorbed through skin to help maintain a natural pH balance. My arguments run along the lines of, "But, Jay Bob, I could make goat milk moisturizer. And goat milk shampoo. And goat milk conditioner. And goat milk cheese!" 

Model: Leroy
Photo credit: Troy Leslie, goatman

Can you see me milking a goat? 

Me, neither. 

And yet, my brain keeps telling me that I need one.

Jay has been the voice of reason rejecting my pleas for a goat. Only because he'd rather have bees.  

Now I'm thinking about making my own soap. Why? Don't ask me; ask the chickens. They started this. One of the ingredients of homemade soap is lye. I discovered you can actually buy lye on Amazon.com. Yes, lye. That I understand, from reading Little House on the Prairie, is made from ashes and animal lard. You heard me right. Ashes and lard! Who is making lye to sell on Amazon?

And why would I buy their lye when I could probably make it myself by rendering fat and collecting ashes the next time we barbeque steak? (Oh, please stage an intervention before I try this!)

Yesterday, I found myself reading about how to make herbal tincture. I don't even know how to pronounce "tincture" let alone know why I'd need some. But I read the recipe with enthusiasm, thinking, Hey, I have some of these ingredients. I bet I could make this! 

Any day now, I expect to look in our backyard and see Ma and Pa resting by their covered wagon wrapped in a quilt (sewed with cloth woven from my organic cotton), eating pone that I made for supper by grinding organic corn into meal between two rocks (and cooked in the fireplace--so I could save the ashes for lye, of course), and waiting for me to bring homemade lineament to ease the ache in their rheumatic joints.

Yes, this post is a desperate cry for help.

Verse of the day: (Proverbs 12:11) "A hard worker has plenty of food, but a person who chases fantasies has no sense." And those who are a weird combination of the two will find themselves, surrounded by stacks of dehydrating zucchini chips, rendering lard and fermenting herbal tinctures.

Follow up: Two people took pity on me and gave me a real flour mill for Christmas. The lovely and gracious people at www.pleasanthillgrain.com (awesome customer service!) let me return one, so I exchanged it for a Bosch Compact Mixer. I'm giddy! Possibly from excitement but more likely from motion sickness as I plunge further down the homesteading circular slide.

For two other stories involving chickens, see "Daylight Nightlight" and "Happy Chicken Lady Day." 


  1. HAAAAhahaha!!! The before and after pictures really had me haw-hawing! (Or should I say HEE-hawing!) G'night, Jay Bob! G'night, Pammy Mae!

    1. We're in the South--it's "Gud night in the mornin'!" I still haven't figure out what that means, but I find myself repeating it with alarming regularity.

  2. Is it OK if I officially disown you as a blood relative but still keep you on as an amusing friend?? I don't know who are you anymore! Good gravy on boiled peanuts!! (I'm *sure* that's a Southern phrase somewhere. ;-)

    - Sis

    1. "Good gravy on boiled peanuts" is HILARIOUS! I've gotta use that one.

  3. While others (perhaps even your charming husband Jay) might be searching for an appropriate 12-step program to enroll you in, I, personally, am inspired by your transformation into urban-farmer girl and look forward to hearing about your orchard, which surely will come after the goats, tinctures, soaps and lotions. And don't forget the strawberry plants and blueberry bushes. Imagine the wonderful jams you could make for gifts! It's a short jump into honey bees from there. Come to think of it, I just acquired a "How-to" book on making your own perfumes that might have your name on it. Loved the pics, btw.

    1. My husband is the one who started this whole thing, so he's the last person to enroll me into the appropriate 12-step program--he loves this! And, after reading your comments, you are the second-to-the-last-person, apparently. You enabler, you! (By the way, thanks for the salt scrub idea you gave me when you were here--I tried it!)

  4. Jay...I too am married to a woman who gleefully tells folks about my supportiveness of her cockamamie ideas an often finds a way to imply that I was involved at the genesis of the "project". I'm not sure but I suspect it has something to do with my over-use of the phrase "sure honey, that sounds like an awesome idea" (insert eye roll here). I'm clever and therefore can skillfully conceal the eye roll part. I suspect we could find a reputable therapy group that would gladly extend a group discount to us. We should find a place to meet, have several beers and hatch (yes, I used that word intentionally) our plan. Let me know a good time for you.

    1. Yeah, no, Jerry. JAY Is the one who wanted the chickens, compost, and garden--and for the last year has been badgering me about getting bees. I admit that his influence warped my thinking until I began baking, lotion-making, and goats, but I at least know I need help.

      I was going to suggest that we get together for a spouse support group and send Jay and Chris to another group, but their group would just give each other MORE homesteading ideas. So, I suggest we keep Jay and Chris as far apart as possible. How about we go out and you and Jay hang while I keep Chris busy? That should be safe. Our schedules are open the first Friday and Saturday in November--either day work for you?

  5. I love this, your cadence, sense of humor, topics. I can smell (er, sense) them. Delightful. I know what wheat berries are, have ground them, have milked goats in a pinch, but cows more, just not lately, hardly since the time my farm dress got caught on the top rail. The pictures are great. Sometime we must talk in person. :)