One Month Too Long

I haven’t hugged a chicken in more than a month.

So much has happened since my last blog post, I have no idea where to start! I trudged through college applications and standardized tests, spent days running back and forth to the mailbox looking for college acceptance (or rejection) letters, and experienced the subsequent joy– and disappointment– upon ripping open said envelopes while standing at the foot of my driveway. I turned 18 in a different country, chose my college on the day of the decision deadline, graduated from high school, interned at a sheep farm, and spent a summer in a strange purgatory of dread and excitement awaiting my first semester of college.

Which brings me here, perched on my Twin XL bed, thinking of my chickens and scrolling through old blog posts.

So many of the unknowns that I was dreading have been solved– I know my roommate, my suite mates, where my classes are, and how to avoid being demolished by skateboarding ruffians. I would be lying if I said it wasn’t difficult transitioning from a school of 500 students to a university twenty times that size. But the more I become accustomed to life here, the more excited I get for my future.

A small farm-camp that I attended in fifth grade began this farm obsession– this desire, and need, to be a part of the farming community in some way. It got me hooked on the local food movement, and gardening, and– most importantly– chicken-keeping. Through my chickens I’ve learned about the responsibilities of animal husbandry. Their injuries and illnesses over the years introduced me to the world of veterinary medicine, and the joy of solving the puzzle to heal the animal.

These past few weeks have been about attempting to solve my own puzzle. What got me started on this passion, that ultimately shaped my college choice? And how do I want to incorporate it into my career?

To be more specific, I’m trying to decide between two pathways to my passion for farming. Ironically, neither of them are to become a farmer!

I am currently on an Animal Science track, with a pre-veterinary concentration. For a long time now I have thought seriously about pursuing large animal veterinary medicine. In theory, it sounds perfect– I’ll get to work within a farming community, traveling to various establishments healing animals and helping farmers raise their creatures responsibly and sustainably. A modern James Herriot, you might say.

But my gaze keeps wandering over to Food Systems, which incorporates several disciplines to study the problems of– and solutions to– the way food is farmed and distributed to society. Within the major there are various concentrations– from animal science, to food insecurity and injustice, to policy. It would allow me to study a little bit of everything that I love. I’d be able to work with farmers to help steer our food system away from industrial agriculture, and towards finding a way to grow food sustainably (and making sure everyone has access to it). In many ways this major is a direct application of all my passions. But I have no clue what I’d do with it.

Animal Science and the Pre-Vet track is neatly laid out for me. I’ll struggle through heavily science-based curriculum, apply to vet school, and– if I get in– get my doctorate in veterinary medicine, with a clear career upon graduation. Food Systems seems more murky, and less practical.

And so these things go back and forth in my head all day. I listen to my parents assure me that it’s only the first semester of freshman year, but I’m a planner. I like to know where I’m going, and what I’m working towards.

Unfortunately I don’t think I’ll know what I’m meant to be studying until I’m shoulder deep in a cow stomach (next week’s lab topic).

 

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Summer Evening Ramble.

Gardening is a tricky hobby. This is my sixth year in the business of vegetable gardening. It almost feels like the word “hobby” is an understatement. Gardening is a part of my life, and has been for years. I spend winters reading, designing, preparing, and ordering seeds. Spring is a mad rush to start seedlings indoors, amend my soil, direct sow cold crops, and wait impatiently. Summer is supposed to be when all of that pays off. I water and water and water, I weed and weed and weed. And I wait, and wait, and wait.

If there is one thing I’ve learned from six years of tending to a tiny garden, it’s that it is quite impossible to supply enough for my family of four. We can maybe have a salad once a week from my lettuce. And my herbs are always available for seasoning. But most of it is a waiting game. I probably have around ten tomato plants, all of them with plentiful flowers. In the spring I had several rows of beets and carrots. Now I have one of each, because the devil in the form of a rabbit has been helping himself to the buffet that is my vegetable garden.

It’s a lot of frustration, but I can’t possibly expect anything more. I can hardly compare my yields to the growers at the farmer’s market- they have acres and acres, they use fertilizer and pesticides. I have only 64 square feet of vegetable growing space, and my go-to amendment is compost! But every year I do it again, because I love it, because it is a part of my life. I love the excitement and promise of a new spring, I love the hot summer afternoons of hauling watering cans. I love serving my family a bowl of delicious salad from lettuce I grew myself, even if it is only an occasional salad.

This summer I’m taking a course at my local community college. I’m still in high school, but my school doesn’t have anything remotely resembling an agriculture program. This class is three times a week, and lasts for three and a half hours. My friends wince when I tell them this- but they don’t get it. Every single minute of those three and a half hours is useful and interesting. I’m learning about conventional versus sustainable, I’m learning about crop rotation and sub tillage, cover crops and fertilizer. I’m learning things I never even dreamed of learning until college, and the best part is that the course is completely free (thanks Obama!).

I am sitting right now, overlooking my backyard. You could call it a back garden, since the summer flowers are so abundant. Colorful and blooming coreopsis, mandevilla, sedum, day lily, black-eyed susan, calibrachoa, and hibiscus line the stone walls. This scene is my favorite part about summer. It reminds me of cookouts, family, warmth, and life.

As I type away at my laptop, Boris the Pug attempts to wolf down the crushed walnuts he finds underneath the butterfly bush. I attempt to catch him and he runs behind the tall ornamental grass. I can see his glittering, mischievous eyes from behind the fronds even now. He unabashedly crunches on what must be a particularly satisfying shell, and then drops it on the bark mulch to find more.

It feels like the clouds are holding their breath. They completely coat the sky in milky white, with purple undertones in places. They seem heavy with moisture, and have brought a cool breeze all afternoon. On the radar an angry red splotch is racing in my direction, and should be here within the hour.

 

 

Lazy Summer Days

The lazy days of summer are upon us. The sun lingers over our heads, the crickets sing us to sleep, and the birds chatter for us to awaken in the morning. By birds chattering, I mean the raucous “bok bok bok boGAWK! bok bok bok bok BOGAWK!” of my hens, sweetly requesting access to the new summer day.

The horrors of high school have paused, and my soul can finally emerge from its sanctuary, where I store it during the school year to prevent it from being sucked out of me by the lectures, and the reading, and the essays…so many essays. I must have written close to 50 essays this year, most about 3-4 pages regarding the effect of the Balkan Crisis on Western Europe or How the Invention of the Printing Press Changed European Society… you get the point. Needless to say, I didn’t much feel like creative writing, which explains the long periods of silence on this blog of mine.

But now, with only two days of work and a summer class at my local community college, my creativity is soaring and I am ready to jump back in. What else would I do with these lazy summer days?

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The Egg Midwife

Well everyone, I am here to break the four month silence! I am not exactly sure why I chose today, of all days, to write again. Though I have an inkling that it has something to do with the fifteen page paper I’m supposed to write for tomorrow. I should probably start that soon.

The chicken world has been relatively stable. There is a resident fox family living in my neighbor’s yard, so I have to confine them to their smaller, secure, run when I leave the house. I feel awful doing it, but I’d feel even more awful if I walked into the coop one day and didn’t find chickens- only feathers. This past Thursday I had to play midwife to my hen, Mary. I walked into their run that evening and saw her sort of hunched over and slowly milling about. I wasn’t sure what was up, so I picked her up and gave her a check over.

Feet? fine. Eyes? no bubbles or foam. Under her wings? no mites. Ears? no infection. Nose? dry. Vent? large bump as if it were turning inside out.

Hens are tricky. If they don’t get enough calcium, or they have some other underlying issue, their egg can get stuck inside of them (this is called being “egg bound”). When they lay eggs, sometimes the vent does not go back to its rightful place, and turns almost partially inside out. This can lead to bigger problems, like shock or infection. And so I ran inside, readied a crate for her, and brought her in, just in case that was what was going on.

I went downstairs to check on her. When I opened the crate door, she stepped out onto my arm. I held still while she perched on my wrist, soothingly petting her feathers. Then she started making a loud groaning noise, visibly straining. Then I heard a plop on the pine shavings. I leaned over to look, and there was an egg.

Did I just catch her in the middle of laying an egg and make a big fuss for nothing? Possibly. But I’ve never seen my chickens look that lethargic during the egg laying process. And when chickens want to lay, they seek out a cozy, dark corner- they don’t hobble around outside. I think she might have just been having a hard time laying that day. Regardless, I made sure I relocated the oyster shells (a calcium supplement all hens need) to a more accessible spot in the coop.

In other news, I got a job! I’m pretty sure its seasonal, meaning I’ll only be working until the end of spring. What exactly am I doing, you ask? Hanging out with plants! That’s right, I’m working at my local garden center. I’ve worked three days so far, and let me tell you that hanging out with plants is a lot of work. My job is to water, and restock the annual flowers and vegetables. The people who never put the plants back in the right spot actually make my job exist. I am constantly rearranging the little six-packs of plants so that they live where they are supposed to. And then I bring everything up to the front so that it looks nice. After this, I make about five trips to the greenhouse to restock- the hardest part is remembering which varieties I need to replenish. Then repeat. Then repeat. For about eight hours. All of this is interspersed with customer questions that I cannot answer (yet!). It can be a tad monotonous, but the amount of information I am learning about plants is amazing. I am slowly recognizing different flower varieties, which I’ve never been good at; dianthus, dahlias, zinnias, calendulas, marigolds, monarda (bee balm), portulaca, snap dragon, lisianthus, gazania, pansies, and petunias, to name a few.  I find that each time I work I am more able to answer questions. It’s quite exciting!

 

 

The Dreaded Job Search

Today marks the first week of summer vacation. The dreary days ruled by school bells and textbooks are over for a few months, giving my brain some respite. However, replacing these days are grueling mornings chasing after my miscreant pug puppy, trying to keep the little devil from killing my elderly pug. What fun!

Regardless of this, I really do enjoy my summer. Unfortunately I am at the age where my parents are waiting for me to start producing my own money, via employment. I did have a job last summer/fall, but my naive self decided that instead of working at a job that didn’t really align with my interests, I could find a job that actually made me happy. I want to do something I’m passionate about, is that so wrong? And since I spent a year volunteering at a local co-op/grocery store, and a season working at a farm stand, I figured I would make the ideal candidate for any job I desired.

With this in mind I confidently selected the submit button of my first application. Its been three weeks… I think I can probably assume they don’t want me. After the first week of silence, I applied to another place, still brimming with confidence. Nope. Third place. Nope. Fourth place. Nope. The worst part is the ignoring. I wish they would just tell me “You can’t work here” rather than having me desperately checking my email for acceptance. It seems rather disrespectful to prospective employees.

Its unfortunate, because I know I would be an excellent worker. I have a great work ethic, I’m responsible, friendly, experienced. I suppose my next realistic step is to apply to just a regular high-schooler job, and to be grateful for any opportunity given. Its a good lesson for me, and a surprising one as well. Adults always told me I could do anything, and now I realize that that idea is sort of a fallacy.

I should really just open my own farm stand 🙂

If only…

This is my 50th post! Thank you all for following my story, and supporting my ideas since that lovely May morning of last year, when I got my first chickens. In the photo below, Mary snoozes under the EcoGlow.

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Well, no new chicks for my birthday. They weren’t kidding when they said “no”- something I knew in my brain, but my heart sure was hoping to hear a box full of peeping chicks coming down the stairs. I did get lots of nice things though, my parents did a great job, considering I gave them absolutely zero help in saying what I wanted.

It’s a struggle returning to school after having a week off. At this point in the year, a good portion of my teachers have given up. A fact frustrating for me, since I do actually enjoy learning most of the time. One teacher gave us an “exam” in which they asked the class “was the KKK bad?” and then put down a bunch of 100%’s in the grade column when we nodded. Great teaching strategy. It makes me feel unmotivated to go to school, because what’s the point? I don’t want to just show up and get an A, I want to work hard and be proud of it. I’ve started reading Shakespeare on my own time for this reason- I finished Hamlet, and I’m about three quarters through with Othello. Then, its on to Richard II!

Recently something has caught my interest… ducks! I’ve approached the topic with my parents, to which they responded again with a even firmer “nope”. But hey, if I convinced them to get chickens, perhaps they will relent. I doubt it, but its fun to dream. I even have a strategy-

There is a particular breed called Muscovy that is almost completely silent (apparently). According to my research they are extremely good at foraging, and hardy. They aren’t quite as fascinated with water as their fellow duck breeds, so they don’t make as much of a muddy mess, and they are pretty darn adorable. It’s possible to allow ducks and chickens to live among each other, though I’m thinking that I would keep them in the A-Frame I have. During the day they could free-range on the lawn, with a small kiddie-pool to satisfy their desire to swim and their need to dip their beaks in water for cleaning themselves. I would probably only allow them to be near the patch of trees we have (for cover from hawks), and then at night they would go into the A-Frame and perch on the roost (this breed is derived from a different ancestor then other duck-breeds, and thus tends to roost much like a chicken). My flock would consist of two or three, no more than that.

Pretty reasonable right? If only my parents didn’t have that annoying “no more animals” policy. I don’t blame them, we aren’t a farm, after all. And if they let me get ducks, what’s to stop me from requesting, oh I don’t know… Guinea fowl? Turkeys? Goats?! If only I could convince them that I am reasonable enough not to ask for these things. If only…

It appears my only tiny hope is to wait for a hen to go broody (for my non-chicken-keeping readers, broodiness is when a hen’s hormone levels change and she develops the desire to sit on eggs for 21 days until they hatch. She becomes very moody and protective of the nest, even if there are no eggs or chicks underneath her).

This isn’t a guarantee- I only have three hens, and some chickens never go broody. I’m guessing that it would be either Mary or Mabel, as Cora is more of a production bird, and probably got that particular instinct bred out of her. Brahmas, like Mary, are known for their broody tendencies, and Mabel was born and raised from a broody hen on a farm (so there is some broody history in her line). So I’ll be watching for nest-box hogging from those two ladies. If one of them becomes broody, I might (and this is a very emphasized might) be able to convince my parents to let her hatch out some eggs. And these eggs might just be from a Muscovy duck…

With my parents’ permission of course. I obviously haven’t discussed this with them, as they would immediately shoot the idea down.

If one of my girls does become broody, great! I’ll deal with it when it happens. If not, well, I guess I’ll have ducks when I’m older… If only we lived on a farm!

A Second of Spring

My February vacation has finally come to a close, though it wasn’t much of a vacation. I replaced my days of tedious high school with days of tedious Driver’s Ed. The instructor related many horror stories of car crashes and deaths from not wearing seat belts. Now the thought of driving makes me a bit nervous. Its scary to be responsible for the lives of your passengers, and the other people on the road.

The relentless cold has finally loosened its grip here. The sun is out and shining, the sky is a shade of blue that reminds me of spring. Sunlight reflects off of the fresh coating of snow and illuminates the house… and all I can think of is how much I hate winter. An intense “I NEED TO GET OUT OF HERE” feeling has infiltrated my thoughts. When is it going to stop?

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Gender roles, cannibalism and a new egg

This morning I woke up with my eyes watering and feeling completely congested. Outside it was -10 degrees Fahrenheit, and I decided that today was not a good day for dealing with high school. So here I lie on the couch, my nose causing many tissues to be used, hoping that this nasty sickness will go away as  soon as possible. In my boredom I picked up a Gardener’s Supply Company catalog and flipped through the glossy pages of seedlings and perfect tomato plants. A utopia of successful gardens.

I looked outside at the large amount of snow and groaned at the groundhog’s poor choice to extend winter.

 

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As I looked through the catalog, I couldn’t help but recall the lesson we learned in Sociology class a few weeks ago about gender roles in the media. Every single picture in the catalog involving actual gardening depicted a middle aged woman smiling joyfully during the summer afternoon (at times hand in hand with a child). All of the pictures of men either involved building the garden beds, or washing cars… interesting.

As you well know if you’ve been keeping up with the blog, I’ve been having a rough time with the chickens. Today is no exception. For the past week I’ve noticed the hens pecking at Edith’s comb. Blood is splattered all over the coop walls from him shaking his head, and one night I saw it was dripping down his neck feathers. Yes, thats right, my chickens are now cannibals.

So, how to stop this behavior? Well I discovered that the bag balm I’ve been smothering on Edith every night to prevent frostbite has been hindering the affect of the Blu-Kote (the blue stain/antifungal formula that is used to prevent pecking). The Blu-Kote was just coming off, and the hens then saw the blood underneath and continued pecking. Because I had a night above freezing, I didn’t apply bag balm. Instead, I carefully dabbed the comb with Blu-Kote, and let it sit over night. Since then it has stayed on- problem solved. For now.

I feel bad for them, because all they have to do during the day is walk around a small dirt run. To enhance their time I’ve been scattering their food on the ground so they have to hunt for it. I’ve also dropped a few leaves of kale every once in a while, as well as cracked corn (chicken scratch) to keep them warm. Of course, I have to go easy on the treats, because fat chickens have multiple health issues.

Another recent issue is the reappearance of excrement on Cora’s vent feathers. I have to get to the bottom of this issue (no pun intended), and figure out why the feces keep building up in her feathers. Its quite a hassle to remove the mess, as it involves warm water, gross hands, and a chicken in the basement.

Finally, I have one more announcement. Two days ago, I strolled into the coop and opened the nest box looking for Cora’s usual brown egg… and found…

THIS

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MABEL LAID AN EGG! And its white!!

Scatter Brained

Scatter brained is the only phrase that can describe me right now. With the start of school, everything has been busy, busy, busy. I get up at 6:00 AM, take care of my chickens, get dressed, eat half of a half of a bagel (I’m never hungry in the morning), jump in the car with my neighbor, drive to school, and show up slightly disheveled and unenthusiastic. Everyone in the whole school congregates in the cafeteria, then the bell shrieks and we trudge to our assigned homerooms. We chatter sullenly about how done we are with school, and did you get that math homework last night? No? Good, me neither.

The bell shrieks again, and we are off to the first of our many classes. My days are ruled by ringing bells and swarming hallways. When I get home, I sit down on the table, and do homework till 7:00 at night. Than I eat. Than I continue doing homework until 10:00, 10:30, or 11:00.

Then repeat.

Posting on my blog is a little guilty angel on the back of my shoulder, reminding me of shirked responsibilities. So I apologize for my recent absence! My blog isn’t the only thing I haven’t been able to pay attention to. I haven’t visited my garden in two weeks, I only see my chickens twice a day. I’m not a fan of this schedule. Today I decided I had enough with homework and spent the day with my chickens, making up for lost time. I free ranged them for a little, fed them a little chicken scratch, and just enjoyed the activity. I’m expecting an egg from Mary in the next few weeks!!! Very exciting! I also noticed Edith doing the mating dance for Mary (lowering one wing and strutting around in a circle), and this morning he attempted to actually mate. Mary was not pleased, as anyone could tell from the squawking and flying feathers. She escaped his attentions, but that didn’t stop me from feeling terrible for her.

Well, I’m going to enjoy the rest of my homeworkless night. I’ll keep you updated on the Egg Watch. I promise I won’t forget about you!

Here are some pictures of what I’ve been up to