Archive for ‘animals’

December 6, 2013

Christmas in the Chicken Coop

Molting chicken

The Ashland Food Cooperative (or “the Coop”, either as two syllables or one) is just about the most wonderful place a person could spend their working day. My co-workers are intelligent, caring human beings who take pride in their work. Our customers are kind, gracious and possess some degree of knowledge about where their food really comes from. Sure, there’s the occasional roll-your-eyes moment – like the mom who video conferences with her toddler to ask him which brand of gummy fruits he prefers, or the bearded woman who talked to me for thirty minutes, first about ghee and finally about why sex should wait until marriage, gay or straight – but I really appreciate how most people take the time to think about their options when it comes to things like pizza sauce, coconut oil, or yogurt.
Or eggs. Anytime it’s my turn to stock the egg cooler, I prepare myself for a deluge of first-world problems. Do brown and white eggs taste different? Which is better, cage-free or humanely raised? If it says they’re soy-free, does that mean they’re non-GMO? Then there’s my favorite: Where are all the local eggs?
With my farming background, I thought I knew everything there was to know about chicken eggs, but I was wrong. Curious customers had me on Google every night with ovum-related quandaries. Turns out cage-free is not as idyllic as we would imagine, and organic is the only way to know with certainty that GMOs have not made their way inside those fragile shells.
But I did know this before I got the job: All eggs taste the same, no matter the color. Also, under natural circumstances, chickens take a few weeks off in the fall to molt, or grow in a new set of feathers. Like most living things – from apple trees to human beings – they don’t see it necessary to work 365 days out of the year. Responding to changes in daylight and temperature in the late fall to early winter, they take a break. Egg production drops or disappears for two to four months.
In the old days, when farmers kept chickens outdoors, people simply didn’t eat many eggs during molting season. They became a luxury item that only the rich could afford. Mixed with plenty of rum and milk, eggs became the ultimate special holiday beverage – eggnog. In spring, we ate lots of eggs to celebrate the fact that they were once again abundant.
Today, of course, we have technological “solutions” to the egg supply “problem”. Kept indoors in huge poultry barns, chickens’ natural clocks are confused by artificial lights. Farmers can force the molt to happen whenever it’s convenient for them, so they stagger molting to ensure that the entire flock doesn’t stop producing at the same time. They also keep the molting period short – a month or two at the max.
So that’s why “Where are the local eggs?” is my favorite question of the season. We do carry local eggs, from “Poe”tential Farms, located in the Poe Valley near Klamath Falls, Oregon. They keep their chickens outdoors on pasture, and they don’t force molts. Their eggs are fresh, organic and reasonably priced. They’re also a seasonal product – like pumpkins, watermelons, and eggnog-flavored ice cream. When the Christmas music starts playing softly over the Coop speakers, the local eggs take a hike.
Nobody wants to hear my long-winded explanation at the store, so I just say “Sorry, we’re out of stock right now.” Usually, that’s enough to satisfy a customer, but last week a woman huffed and asked, “What, are the chickens just not laying eggs?”
Um, yep. Your natural, happy-to-be-chickens are doing what natural, happy chickens do this time of year. Sorry, that means that you either have to buy the not-so-natural eggs we have available, or go without.

Chickens may be directly related to the dinosaur, but I’m starting to believe they’re more evolved than us. Sure, we have vacation days and sick leave, but taking a break isn’t actually built into our biological cycles. A chicken’s job is to lay an egg every day, sure. (Amazing fact: A hen is actually born with every egg she will ever lay already lined up inside her reproductive tract, ready to grow, calcify, and make its way toward an omelet or a meringue cookie.) But their bodies, somewhere along the evolutionary line, said – you know, I’m not going to commit to this incredibly physically demanding act every day out of the year. Human ladies, imagine if WE dropped an egg every twenty four hours. The world would be madness.
But at the Co-op, the evidence shows that most of the women – and men, but let’s face it, women do a lot more grocery shopping – are already teetering on the edge of a complete mental breakdown. Maybe we should take a cue from chickens and spend a good quarter of the year changing our wardrobe and preparing for what’s ahead. Then when we encounter a situation where we don’t get exactly what we want, when we want it, we could just scratch our nails in the dirt, shake our feathers, and strut away.

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July 9, 2009

>When Pigs Swim

>We crash through the thick forest in a single-file line: Andrea, Ann, Carmen and me. Carmen, the border collie, is sniffing out the bushes. Ann and I are shaking buckets of grain and calling in what we hope is a beckoning tone: “Heeere, piggy piggy piggies! Good piggies!”
Despite this effort, no soft oinking noises can be heard in the shrubbery. Ann suggests we make our way down to the river bank to look for tracks. The thought hadn’t yet occurred to me or Andrea, another woman who works on the Collins’ farm. We’re having a hard time comprehending how the pigs got themselves lost over here in the first place. Three weeks ago, they bolted from their pen at the Collins’ farm, which is just across the river. Granted, it’s not a huge river, but they’re not very big pigs, either. Still in disbelief that they actually swam over here, I gaze up into the tall branches of the cottonwoods surrounding us. You never know where a highly mobile pig might hide.

This Tuesday-afternoon swine hunt takes place on my second day as apprentice at Ann and Bob Collins’ farm on Vancouver Island. Because agriculture hasn’t been profitable here for many years, Ann and Bob also run a campground that provides extra income from tourists willing to pay to pitch a tent or park an RV on the farm’s non-agricultural land. What that means for me is that a typical day might have me running the register, preparing food, cleaning the two campground cottages, pulling weeds, feeding animals and of course harvesting the organic bounty. Pig hunting, on the other hand, was not in the job description. I considered it a bonus activity.

The two pigs came to the farm about three weeks ago, before I arrived. They were only in their pen a couple of days before they got spooked by the donkeys and took off through their electric fence. The last anybody saw of them, they were tearing through the woods toward the river. Thinking they couldn’t have gotten too far, Ann and Bob called all the neighbors (excepting those across the river), but nobody had seen them. Ann figured they were dead; Bob, a fiction writer, imagined them building a raft and setting off for an adventure, Huck Finn style.
Then, Monday night as I was washing up the dinner dishes, the phone rang. I picked up. It was Georgina, across the river, asking when somebody was going to come pick up the pigs that had been hanging around with her cows the past two days. I told her we would let her know and hung up, scratching my head.
When Bob and Ann returned, I told them about the call. They were thrilled. “Can pigs swim?” I asked. “Sure,” Bob said. I still wasn’t sure if I believed him. “We’ll go pig hunting tomorrow,” he added. Proof was on the way.

The next morning, we loaded up the buckets of grain in the back of the truck, attached a trailer to haul the pigs in, and drove through town and to the other side of the river. Bob stayed with the truck while Ann, Andrea (who once lived on this side of the river), Carmen the border collie and I started to comb the forest. As we looked, we discussed whether we should have brought a lasso or if it was even possible to catch a pig on the run. But Ann was confident: The pigs had to be hungry after their long adventure. Luring them into the trailer with a bucket of grain would be a piece of cake. We just had to find them first.
The river bank held no tracks. Using our tracking skills, we deduced that they had been borrowing through the forest underbrush, but not even Carmen, a professional animal herder, could sniff them out. I began to feel a little silly and hung back with Ann at the water’s edge, pulling thorns out of my shoes and trying to think like a pig. Then we heard Andrea yelling. She’d found the fugitive pigs!
We broke out into a trot and met up with her at the cattle pen. For some reason we hadn’t thought to check there, but there they were, darting around under the bellies of the cows, who were going crazy at the sight of the grain in our buckets. The four or so cows began leaping about, long strings of drool coming from their mouths. Finally, the little hairy black pigs got over their fear of us and slipped under the fence, heading nose-first for the grain buckets. We let them have a sample and then started heading back to the road, continuing to shake the buckets. The pigs followed, their minds no longer on escape but on food. Ann led them straight into the trailer and shut the door. Carmen and I brought up the rear, she more disappointed than I that we hadn’t actually needed to chase or herd anybody.

It didn’t strike me until later that what the Collins are trying to do here – preserve the farming community and build a market for local foods – is quite similar to catching pigs. I’m not comparing people to chubby livestock, but I have noticed over the years that food is a strong motivator for the human type of animal. Screaming kid at the grocery store? He just wants a candy bar. Squabbling family at the holidays? A tray of cookies does the trick. Angry drunken party getting out of control? Order a pizza. The same principle applies to getting people excited about things in a more positive way. Talk to them about agricultural subsidies, the Farm Bill or food miles traveled and their eyes will glaze over, but put that glaze on a fresh fruit tart or a roast ham and the whole issue becomes a lot more relevant. As Alice Waters said, “food is the one central thing about human experience that can open up both our senses and our conscience to our place in the world.” A person who experiences the freshness and flavor of a locally produced vegetable might not go out right away and plant a garden, but they might think a bit differently about food from then on.
Unlike Eugene, Oregon, Port Alberni, BC hasn’t quite been hit yet by the local foods craze. I see this as a good thing: There’s a lot of room for community education. This weekend, I showed a few campers – one mom and three little girls – around the farm after one of the little girls begged to see the horses. After stopping in at the barn, we walked around the pasture, garden and chicken coop. I’ll never forget the look of amazement in the girls’ eyes as they examined the three fresh eggs, one of them pale green, waiting in the laying box. I let them keep the green egg, object of much fascination, on promises that they would come back for market day the following weekend.
Most food in Port Alberni is purchased through major grocery chains, and most of the farmers have disappeared from the valley, unable to support their businesses. I don’t have illusions about seeing this trend turn around while I’m here, but I think one-on-one interactions that farm visitors get can help spark some sort of change. We don’t need to catch people, we just need to show them the better option. After all, if the bucket of grain is tasty enough, even wayward, river-swimming pigs can be led back home.