It was a visit to a small organic farm high in the Yatsugatake Mountains in central Japan that opened my eyes to how incredible eggs can be. Our professor had taken a group of us students to visit the farm to learn about issues facing farmers in Japan. On this unconventional farm, they raised pigs outdoors in tall grass so thick you couldn’t see the pigs. You could hear them rutting around, and the farmer showed us the deep ruts they dug with their snouts.
They also had chickens which roamed around freely. During our discussion, the farmer served us some of the eggs, and we were shocked at how brilliant their yolks and firm their whites were. The taste of the eggs was so intense that we couldn’t stop talking about them.
That was back in 1981. Ten years ago, my husband and I moved to the country, and I finally had a place to raise chickens. I started raising chickens nine years ago. I didn’t think anything of buying hatchery chicks and raising them. I always wondered why they peeped so much. I kept them nice and warm with plenty of food and water.
In 2009, one of the Buff Orpington pullet chicks I purchased grew up to be a rooster. We named him Billy, and he set in motion a chain of events that dramatically changed how I raise chickens, and my understanding of these remarkable birds.
In 2010 when we came home from a vacation, Madeleine, one of the Barred Rock hens was missing. We looked all over for her, but couldn’t find her. We were sad, thinking that a coyote or eagle had nabbed her.
A few days after returning home, we discovered her under a porch. She was sitting on a clutch of eggs, thanks to Billy. When her chicks hatched, and she brought them out from under the porch the day after they hatched, I was amazed at how much she cared for them and how much her chicks loved and adored her.
The little chicks didn’t peep anything like the hatchery chicks I’d raised. They were much calmer. The only time they peeped like the hatchery chicks was when they got separated from their mother and were calling for her. It was then that I realized that hatchery chicks peep so much is because they are calling for their mothers who never come.
I watched Madeleine raise her chicks for a full month. By then, they had learned enough to be on their own. Instead of running after her when she walked, they started running ahead of her, and eventually, it was Madeleine who was having trouble keeping up with them.
When she was done raising her chicks, Madeleine went for a long walk in the woods. It was as if she was taking a congratulatory stroll.
How did we come up with this notion that chicks don’t need mothers? Since 2010, I’ve had many hens hatch and raise chicks. The mother hens will do anything for their chicks. When you have a mother hen, you don’t need to worry about keeping the chicks warm. I’ve had hens hatch chicks in early spring when mornings are still frosty, in late fall and as late as December. With a mother hen, the chicks are never cold. They have her warm body to keep them toasty.
You also don’t have to worry about getting chick starter. Their mothers break apart grain which is too large for the chicks to swallow. Within a few days of hatching, the mothers have the chicks outdoors, teaching them how to scratch for bugs and worms.
The mothers raise the chicks for one to three months. Each hen has her own style of child rearing. Some are very strict, keeping their brood in line. Others are more easygoing, letting their chicks run all over the place.
I have no allusions that commercial farms will ever turn over their chick production and rearing to mother hens. They have schedules to keep and billions of birds to ship. The breeds they raise don’t know how to hatch and raise chicks.
Yet, the only poultry and egg option for consumers can’t be just industrial-scale chicken. Somewhere, there have to be places where people can go and buy mother-hatched, mother-raised chicken and eggs. Instead of chicken breeds which balloon to butchering size in just eight weeks or so, there must be places where people can still get chickens which takes six to nine months to grow to full size, chickens that have spent their entire lives outdoors, running through grass, chasing butterflies, hunting frogs in streams, nabbing field mice, and scratching for bugs and earthworms in the forest. Chickens that get to experience romance.
A Man and His Hoe is one of those places. Instead of maximizing profits and products, the goal here is to maximize happiness: my happiness, the happiness of the chickens, and the happiness of the chicks who get to grow up under the warm wings of their mothers.
Photos by A Man and His Hoe®
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