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On Becoming A Flockster

What chickens bring to your garden

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Growing up in rural central California, my two best friends each had chickens in their backyards. Their busy moms would bribe us with a trip to Lickety Split, our favorite ice cream spot in town, if we helped out with chicken chores. We'd happily collect eggs, feed and water the birds in exchange for a scoop of mint chocolate chip. We reveled in the shady stillness of the henhouse on a hot summer day. Since establishing the home farm, my family has long aspired to recreate the joy of tending chickens. The bonus time of shelter in place has created a perfect window of opportunity to accomplish our dreams.

At 6 weeks old, our little flock is just settling into their yard and growing more feathers everyday. Their pleasant chicken sounds add a lovely background noise as we tend the garden and they entertain us with their bustling ways. In addition to producing eggs for us, our little gals will mow down compost and till ground for insects as they go. Most importantly, they generate lots of nitrogen-rich fertilizer in their droppings, which will take food production to the next level.

We sought advice on housing from flockster friends and incorporated their experience into the design of our coop and chicken yard. After trying out a few locations around the farm, we ended up creating a little paradise tucked under the palm and apple trees. The gals get lots of morning and afternoon sun, as well as midday shade. The palm tree adds a touch of tropical jungle vibe. Their coop window looks out a pleasant view of ripening apples. We didn't want to take any chances of our little darlings being harmed by avian or mammalian predators; their yard has protective wire above, around and below their coop. There's nothing like a little group of fluffy chicks to bring out one's inner mother hen.

Chickens don't ask for much in the way of daily care. Fresh water and feed, along with any kitchen treat such as lettuce, grated zucchini or even fresh blueberries. Chickens bred for laying are sensitive to stress from lurking predators, so we made sure to give them adequate cover by lifting their coop off their ground so they can retreat from ravens and hawks. One day we heard the flock kicking up a ruckus, so we ran over to their hangout spot to find a humongous raven landing on the clothesline. It turns out everything wants to eat baby chicks — we had a heck of a time keeping the farms cats away, too.

Tending a flock offers any home farmer the opportunity to get to know a sustainable and high quality protein source: farm fresh eggs. Homegrown eggs are the most delicious of all, and the most vibrant and colorful. Yolks range from golden sunrise yellow to sunset orange with flavor beyond any other eggs we've tasted, which adds to other egg products such as mayonnaise and aioli. Because we live in city limits, we're not allowed a rooster, so none of the eggs will ever be fertilized. The flock instead is led by the largest and most colorful female, a beautiful black sex-link with orange and black feathers.

We're also excited about these gals hitting the weeds. Our farm is on historic bay land that has never been formally landscaped. We've tried over the years to control the dreaded creeping buttercup, to no avail. It has continued to spread aggressively throughout the farm, especially along the fences and hard to reach corners. But the buttercup and all its creeping rhizomes that spread quickly everywhere have no defense against the talons and beaks of our flock — the gals have already completely eradicated it from their yard and are ready to take on more. We'll create day pens for the girls so they can forage in weedy spots, fertilizing as they go. Eventually we'll end up with a lot more open time in our farming schedule. Thanks, ladies!

Adding an animal element helps our farm become truly biodynamic. Harnessing the energy of domesticated farm animals unleashes the same symbiosis between animal, plants and soil that has successfully persevered for centuries on every continent in the world. Farming may seem daunting given that harvest remains unpredictable from year to year. However, in these pandemic times, the home farm complete with chickens offers security of nutritious food and a refuge from the threat of exposure.

For those of you who have also dreamt of beginning your own flock, there's no time like the present to begin. Due to COVID-19 and the aforementioned benefits, the demand for baby chicks has gone way up; we had to wait patiently for six weeks for ours. Also be forewarned that supplies like chicken wire are hard to come by. As always, we improvised with materials available and the chickens don't seem to mind their unconventional enclosure. As we continue to shelter at home, we couldn't feel more delighted with home farming. Nature takes care of all who invest in her.

Katie Rose McGourty is the owner of Healthy Living Everyday at www.healthy-living-everyday.org. She prefers she/her.

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