The chicks arrived together. I can’t remember how many I ordered, but I think it was 50 broilers and 10 or 15 layers. I ordered white egg layers to add to my flock of brown egg layers, which has dwindled to four plus the rooster.
The next few weeks will be way too busy, as I feed and water them several times a day and clean their pen in the basement until they’re big enough and it’s warm enough to move them out to the coop.
For now they’re in the kitchen
I played a gig in the Cities last night and spent the night at John’s house. After rolling in at 12:30 a.m., my eyes popped open at 4:30. “Oh no,” I said. “My chicks are coming today.” I was awake for another hour wondering how I was going to drive home, pick up my chicks, get them set up in the basement, drive to St. Cloud to take a test, and then head back to the Cities to see John play his gig tonight.
At 7 my cellphone rang. It was the post office. “Your chicks are here,” she said. I know from experience that postal workers aren’t crazy about chick season. The constant peeping is enough to make someone go … well … “postal,” as John said with a hearty laugh, pouring me coffee this morning. Easy for him to laugh.
It took forever to get out of Minneapolis, with an inch of frozen slush on the roads. The snowstorm last night was yet another insult after a winter full of them — the worst winter in memory for many of us (though our memories aren’t necessarily reliable).
Yesterday I drove 20 on the Interstate halfway from St. Cloud to Minneapolis. By Monticello the roads were a little better, and in the northern suburbs it was raining. I wandered around the West Bank before I sang some songs on a radio show and then played at the 331 club in Northeast. Then another bar for another band, and the fitful night of sleep.
I decided to skip my test (the prof throws out your low score) and call this a chicken holiday. I’ve also learned from experience that you can’t spend too much time getting your chick nursery set up properly.
Which brings me to the title of this rumination.
Why do I do this to myself?
Short answer: After watching too many videos showing where chicken nuggets and beef and bacon and cheese and eggs come from, I decided that if I was going to continue to eat meat, I wanted to know where it came from — and ideally I was going to learn all the gory details of animal husbandry.
Since we live in the country and have owned horses, dogs, and cats for years, raising broiler chicks wasn’t a stretch. However, when you’re a true-blue suburbanite like me, you don’t necessarily have what it takes — regardless of how long you’ve lived on a gravel road.
I won’t share the details of my multiple failures in animal husbandry — first with chickens, then with goats — but I’ll tell one tragic story that was more fate than failure. Last summer, when the broilers were about half grown, and I had them outside in the chicken run, a horrible storm came through in the middle of the night. In the morning, five of them were dead or dying, soaked and lying in the mud. I gutted them on the tailgate of the pickup and put some of their meat on the grill, and the rest in the freezer.
Suffice it to say that not all of my flocks and herds have lived long enough to be butchered. I know I’m not alone in this, but it doesn’t make it any easier when you watch an animal — however fragile and unfit for life — die due to your own negligence, miscalculations, or bad luck.
But that’s part of the deal.
I’ve come to believe that if you’re not willing to face the reality of meat eating, you shouldn’t do it. And this is another thing I know from experience: Many people can’t stomach the thought of eating a chicken they raised and butchered, yet they’ll eat chicken nuggets daily without thinking twice about it. To me, that’s wrong.
Which is why I went hunting last fall and shot a deer (another story I’ll tell some other time). And why I try to filet at least a couple fish every year. And why I bought three goats last fall, and why I’m thinking of eating them, or their offspring, or selling them for others to eat. And why I went beyond just raising chickens last summer and actually butchered half of them myself — until I ran out of time and fortitude. And why I’m taking a chicken holiday again today.
And why I’m glad the Amish moved in next door. I have a feeling I may need them someday. This morning, driving home down our barely-plowed road, I saw Melvin Schmucker and his wife pass in their horse-drawn carriage. I had been asking myself (and my peeping chicks in the front seat) why I make my life so difficult, and I had to smile as they trotted past.
To be honest, I haven’t lived up to my values. I sneak a piece of pepperoni pizza now and then, or a couple slices of bacon. I’ve succeeded in eliminating a lot of the factory-farmed meat from my diet, although I still indulge in cheese and milk products. When I go out to eat, I usually order vegetarian or fish (which has its own set of ethical dilemmas).
I also don’t plan on butchering my chickens myself this year. I’m really bad at it, and it’s not a nice job, and there are people who make a living doing it for people like me, and I’m happy to support them. And maybe I can help support my new neighbors.
In the end, I may do what may be the most ethical thing in an age of climate change: go vegan.
I love grains and legumes and veggies and fruit, so I could probably make it work. The problem is that I like to raise some of my own food, and I’m the world’s worst gardener. I’ve learned that I’m better with animals because they’re a lot harder to ignore and neglect. One mistake and you’re burying them. To me it’s easier to feed chickens than weed the garden.
For now, I press on, a person who doesn’t like to work working way too hard in some ill-conceived attempt to live more ethically.
And I do enjoy the peeping of chicks.