I am a chicken farmer. Well, I’m a writer who owns a chicken ranch. Or, to tell the truth, really my family keeps a few hens in our suburban backyard in California. Oh, and as of February 17, we now have ten growing chicks in our house, too. So, although we didn’t set out to be chicken farmers, we have taken some pretty amazing steps toward homesteading in the last seven months.
My husband, Ian, and I had considered getting some chickens for quite a while, but we’re not ones to take on extra responsibilities lightly. Our two sons, Lucas (almost 9) and Asher (4), my business, and Ian’s job are quite enough to handle most of the time. But we started meeting other families at our Waldorf school who were keeping chickens, and they raved about it: “Oh, the eggs!” Such exclamations really made an impact, given how much our children eat, and how we all prefer our breakfast to contain eggs every day. So we were tempted, but still made no more effort than to buy a book about raising backyard chickens.
Then suddenly last summer, Ian’s mother called us. It seemed her next-door neighbors were moving suddenly out of state, and couldn’t take their five hens along with them. These hens were soon to be homeless. It was our catalyst. We went into action to adopt them.
In a week (the hottest week of the Sacramento summer) we built a chicken coop from scratch and built a chicken run so that our new guests would have a home safe from predators. It was an amazing family project and we are all so very proud of what we built.
Our hens moved in on July 17. We adopted a Rhode Island Red, two Leghorns, an Ameraucana, and a Sussex, or so we were told by the chickens’ former owners. Mainly we were grateful we could easily tell three of the five apart from each other. The two white Leghorns were twins in our inexperienced eyes. Fortunately the hens arrived safe and sound in their cardboard box and soon settled into their new home.
We began gathering five eggs a day! It was like delicious mana from heaven.
A box without hinges, key, or lid, Yet golden treasure inside is hid. —J.R.R. Tolkien
We had some disagreements about what to call our hens. Since we each had an opinion on this topic, we had to make a chart. Eventually, it was Lucas’s nature-inspired name choices that won out.
I should back up just a bit and tell you we have no pets. It’s my fault, too. I’m allergic to cats, dogs, guinea pigs—nearly everything, really—except birds. Although my sons and my husband would dearly love to have animal companions, we can’t. It may sound odd, but we found our new “pet” hens fascinating.
Lucas enjoyed holding them. We loved watching them scratch about in the yard. We came to see their personalities over time. My children began doing chores to help take care of the chickens, and to gather their eggs.
It feels pretty silly buying eggs at the supermarket when you have invested a decent amount of money in building a coop and keeping your own chickens. But that’s what we sometimes have to do because even at peak summer egg production, our hens don’t quite keep up with our demand. We considered buying additional adult hens, but decided our family would get more out of the experience of raising chicks. All fall and winter, we eagerly awaited Peep Day.
On February 17, Peep Day, we brought home ten baby peeps, just a day or so old, from our local feed store. We had done our research, and set up a plastic tote “brooder box” in our home. We selected two chicks from each of five breeds: We have two Ameraucanas, two Light Brahmas, two Barred Rocks, two Welsummers, and two Buff Orpingtons. They are just about the cutest things ever.
At first we thought we could raise them in our garage, as we had read that chicks produce a dust that gets on everything. Alas, it’s way too cold in the garage for wee babies, even in California. They needed even more heat than we were prepared for. We had to buy a proper heat lamp and placed the chicks in the warmest room of our home.
We feed them. We change their water frequently, about eight times a day. We hold them in our hands, carefully. At first they were timid little things, fragile and docile. As soon as we held them, they would fall asleep in our hands. They are growing so fast! When they were only a few days old, they started practicing chicken behaviors, like pecking and scratching with their feet among the litter, which is quite astounding to me as none of us taught them to do that. They are acting instinctively. For about a week or so, we had to inspect their little chick bottoms, to make sure their cloacae didn’t “paste up,” which I admit is a really weird thing to do. (It must be done or they can die.)
After observing our peeps for a while, we began to be able to tell apart the two individuals from each breed—except for the two Buff Orpingtons. These yellow chicks are twinsies. Lucas and I came up with the following names, based on how they look now and how we expect they’ll look when they grow up: Chestnut, Dawn, Lightning, Moonlight, Sunshine, Buttercup, Storm, Thunder, Summer, and Firefly. We think these names work nicely with the names of our hens.
On the fifth day, our chicks grew wing feathers. On the seventh, they had developed little tails. On Day 9, they flew! We rigged up a chicken-wire top for their brooder box to better keep them inside.
Our chick-raising adventure continues. We are challenged by their changing needs, but are adapting and figuring things out as we go. I love hearing their chirps and peeps next to me as I work at my computer. We are amazed to see these creatures growing and changing. Our children are excited about them and are learning to treat them with great care. We are happy to see how robust and active they are becoming.
Sara Wilson is a writer, work-at-home book editor, and mother of two young boys (4 and 8) living in Fair Oaks, California. She has written articles for Sacramento magazine on a range of topics including family, community, education, and spirituality. She shares her insights on crafting and Waldorf homemaking in Little Acorn Learning guides. On her blog, Love in the Suburbs (www.loveinthesuburbs.com), she shares her joys, learning, crafts, photography, observations, challenges, and occasional frustrations with family life. Sara is amazed daily at the unfolding of her sons and their ever-changing growth. She writes about living, loving, creating, and engaging fully in family life and the world. She has been married to her husband, Ian, for 15 years. She and Ian (a behavior analyst and therapist who educates children with autism) endeavor to enrich their lives by trying new things, learning, and growing alongside their children. They are educating their children in the Waldorf philosophy, with all its beauty, rhythm, and soulful qualities, but also have their feet firmly in the world. Sara says, “We aim for a peaceful, balanced family life, where all members’ needs are considered and met. We are gloriously imperfect, walking our path together and pouring our love into every step.”