Category Archives: Chickens

Our local food dinner

We did it! We cooked and served a meal made mostly from ingredients we grew, raised or made from scratch ourselves. We made way too much food, but no one seemed to mind taking leftovers home the next day. It was such an incredible weekend! The weather was perfect, the people wonderful and fun, my husband amazing…

Andy & I during our wedding ceremony

It’s weird to be on the other side of a weekend that we have spent many months preparing for. We’re back home and back to work for a week before heading out on our honeymoon in southern Utah. Then we’ll have to find a new project to take on – maybe getting our new land ready to build and farm on!

Andy asked me several times throughout the weekend, “Was it worth it?” Were all the hours of preparation worth it for one meal? I always said yes, absolutely.

We cooked our wedding dinner with friends and family in a summer camp kitchen

The meal provided more than just pleasure and sustenance for our guests, it was a learning experience for us as well. We gained confidence in our growing skills, since this was by far the biggest garden either of us had tended on our own. It gave us hope that anything is possible.

It was also a test of our relationship. There was stress and there were decisions to make together. We realized that the way we approach projects is quite different. I like to think things through before starting and have a plan for exactly what will happen. When we have to stray from the plan, it stresses me out. Andy, however, likes to figure things out as he goes along, and he is more flexible when something doesn’t go as planned.

Butternut squash destined for soup

“We’ll figure it out,” he said numerous times this summer. “But I want to figure it out now,” I would reply. We struggled at times and got grumpy with each other, but we’ve developed some new techniques for dealing with stress and for combining our different styles of approaching tasks. Once we let go of needing to be right, we realized that it’s better for us to be different. When you combine us, we think ahead and we’re flexible.

Kim roasted endless trays of chicken and potatoes

It’s hard to describe the weekend because for me it all went by so quickly. On Friday we gathered in the kitchen of the summer camp we rented out for the weekend. Friends and family washed, chopped, mixed, baked and boiled. We filled the walk-in cooler with trays of roast chicken and potatoes, salads, squash soup, veggie sticks, hummus, chopped watermelon and cantaloupe and more.

I can’t do Saturday justice by explaining the sequence of events. It was an emotional and incredibly wonderful day. And the food was delicious and abundant.

Max designed the image we had printed on aprons we gave away to our cooks as gifts

To be honest, I find it remarkable that we pulled this off. Neither of us have ever done any catering before, but we decided to make a meal for 90, and it worked out. I’ve been thinking lately about how neither of us are scared to take on projects, even if we don’t know how we’re going to accomplish them. I’m so grateful for this trait, which I can probably thank my parents for. Through their words and actions, they have infused me with a feeling that anything is possible with hard work and determination.

I guess this blog is done, now that our local food wedding is finished. However, I plan to start a new blog that Andy has named, Living From Scratch. We do so much from scratch – cut our own firewood, make tomato sauce and pickles and ketchup, boil maple sap into syrup, bake bread, smoke bacon, make cheese, brew beer…. We enjoy providing for ourselves, and we’re able to live a lifestyle less tied to our income. We still need money, of course, but since we have a low consumer footprint, we are able to put away money even on very modest salaries. Check back for a link to the new blog.

If you want all the recipes we used for our wedding dinner, I plan to post them sometime soon.

19 chickens on ice

Yesterday we took the second batch of chickens (the slower growing ladies and one giant rooster) to the slaughterhouse. I’m glad I went this time and saw them through the whole process. I have similar conflicted feelings as Andy when it comes to eating meat. Ending lives is sad, no matter what species they are.

The second batch of chickens on their last day

It was interesting to watch the whole process of live chicken to food. It’s amazing how quickly it all happens. I’ll spare you the bloody details.

I like to tell myself that at least these chickens died quickly in a slaughterhouse where the human workers don’t seem to be mistreated or exposed to dangerous conditions. The chickens lived their lives outdoors with fresh grass every day. I’m certainly more excited to eat them than any chicken we could buy in the grocery store.

The really hard part of yesterday came after we got the chickens home. First, we cooled them in ice water. We’ve been told that it’s important to cool the meat as quickly as possible. Since we still have almost a week until we cook the chickens, we had to figure out how to keep them fresh and safe for our guests. We talked with people at the slaughterhouse and did some research to find that fresh chicken can be stored safely for a week on ice, as long as it’s kept below 39 degrees. Even though we have two refrigerators, both of them were full when we came home with the chickens, one with mostly pickles and melons. Somehow, though, Andy found space for 19 chickens on ice. We went out and bought some more ice and we’re monitoring the temperature carefully. So far so good.

Sometimes I look forward to the end of this whole project, because then there won’t be so much to keep track of and think about. It seems crazy that, without any prior experience cooking for crowds, we’re trying to pull together a meal for more than 90 guests. But I do not regret taking this on, and I’m determined to do enough planning ahead of time so we can simply enjoy ourselves next weekend. As Andy keeps reminding me, it’ll be great.

Guest post: Chicken wrangling

The following post was written by the groom, Andy McLeod.

Since camp ended and the cow I’ve been milking went back to Maryland (summer people and their dairy cows, sheesh) I’ve been feeling a little guilty about staying home, not earning any money and not “working,” while Julia goes off work everyday, slaving away in her lakeside office or snorkeling. But I have not been idle (see previous post and add to that cleaning up from all that canning, splitting fire wood and wrangling chickens).

J.M. Hatchery told us that Freedom Ranger chickens need 9-11 weeks to grow to slaughter weight, so we scheduled a date with the slaughterhouse for 11 weeks. After about 7 weeks of buying bag after bag of grain, it became apparent that most of the roosters would be ready at least two weeks before our date. Fortunately, West Gardiner Beef, where Julia’s parents and many other people we know bring their animals to meet their end, was able to fit half of our birds in a couple of weeks earlier. It was a Friday so that left the chore to me alone, since Julia had to go out on the lake to look for invasive plants.

Andy with one of our pastured Freedom Ranger roosters

Thursday afternoon I started separating the birds into keepers and takers.  We have two pens — the smaller one held 13 and the larger one housed 35 birds. Sometimes we let the lucky 13 out to poke around in the woods. We tried to let the 35 out but the door to their pen opens only at the top, so the opening is a few feet off the ground. We propped boards up as ramps inside and outside the pen so they could walk up and then down to freedom. But they wouldn’t do it. One chicken would walk to the top of the inside ramp and stand there looking out — like that kid at the playground who climbs to the top of the slide and freezes in fear while all the other kids are waiting on the ladder yelling at him to just go. And like the kid on the slide, each time, the chicken, well, chickened out and went back down into the pen, forcing all the chickens waiting behind her to climb back down too.

The smaller pen’s door opens all the way to the ground, which means they only had to jump six inches over the bottom board. Even that seemed like too much of a barrier at first, but once those first few brave chickens made the leap, the rest followed. So on Thursday I opened the door to the smaller pen, shooed out the smaller hens and one tiny rooster and kept the big guys. That was the easy part. Next, using a borrowed dog crate, I started sorting the birds in the big pen. The first few were easy to catch by just grabbing them by the feet. After a few seconds of being upside down, they went into a kind of trance and just hung there, looking around. But once they knew I was after them, the rest of the chickens ran to the far end of the pen. That meant I had to crawl into the three-foot-high pen, kneeling in chicken poop. They also seemed to know I wanted them by the feet, so they sat way in the corner with their feet tucked safely under their wings. Once I had a crate full of chickens, I then grabbed them by the feet two at a time and carried them to the smaller pen.

Once all the big, fat chickens were sorted into the smaller pen for their last night, I then had to catch the smaller hens and rooster and put them in the larger pen. They’re pretty easy to catch. You just walk toward them slowly with your arms out wide and herd them in the direction you want them to go. If you get them pinned against the outside of the pen as you approach, they just hunker down and hope for the best. If you grab them around the body, making sure the wings are tucked under your hands, they don’t squirm much at all. With all the chicken sorting, I was worried about new chickens being picked on by the old flock, but after an initial inspection of newcomers, everyone seemed fine with the new arrangements.

With the sorting done, all I had to do was load the 24 largest chickens into the waiting pet carriers Friday morning. I foolishly gave myself only 15 minutes for this chore. Of course some of the chickens escaped while I was loading others.  As I’ve said, they’re easy to catch, but considering my time constraints, I was a bit rushed. Luckily, the extra-large roosters couldn’t run very far before they need a rest. Once I chased them into the woods at the edge of the field, it was just a matter of getting them to trap themselves in a bush or tangle of branches. With everybody loaded up, I was off to the slaughterhouse.

24 chickens cooling in the fridge before being frozen

It’s a strange and confusing experience to raise animals to eat them.  While they were alive, I wanted them to be happy and comfortable and to lead a good life. Up until the last minute, I was concerned about their well-being — trying not to brake or swerve too suddenly with them in the back of the truck and worrying that they were too hot or thirsty on the ride — only to hand them over to blood-splattered butchers to be unceremoniously beheaded, feathered and gutted in a matter of minutes.

I am not philosophically opposed to eating meat that has been raised in a humane and environmentally-friendly manner. I think animals play an important role in the small farm model and can provide valuable protein to an otherwise vegetable-based diet. But at the same time I find it emotionally troubling to kill an animal just as it’s reaching full size and maturity. How can I put that much energy into caring for something, not only making sure it is well-fed and healthy, but also that is has fresh air, clean grass and comfortable living quarters, only to eat it in the end?

I’ve been considering being vegetarian again.  It doesn’t feel right to leave the dirty work to someone else and I don’t think I want to do this often enough that it doesn’t bother me anymore. I don’t want to be numb to the suffering of others, even if they are my dinner. Maybe I’ll get my protein from eggs and milk. I’ve found no difficulty in enlisting the outputs of animals for my own use, and it warms my heart to see a flock of plump laying hens foraging in the bushes.

Chickens are out foraging!

We finished chicken tractor #2 yesterday and put the chickens out in the yard. It’s great to watch them happily foraging. They were looking a little cramped in the garage.

Chickens are out foraging!

The chicken tractor is simply a frame covered with one-inch chicken wire. We put a tarp over two thirds of the structure so they have plenty of shade. We also laid out chicken wire on the ground around the outside of the chicken tractor so burrowing predators can’t get in to the chickens.

Skunk the cat is very curious about the chickens. She likes to sit on top of the chicken tractor and guard them.

Prison guard for the chickens

We hope that by giving the chickens access to fresh pasture (we’ll frequently move the chicken tractor), they’ll be healthier, happier and tastier. Hopefully they’ll eat less grain as well.

Welcome baby chickens!

The call came at 7:30 this morning. “This is the post office calling. We’ve got some chicks for you.” We immediately drove the mile to the post office and picked them up. On the box the packing slip read, 51 chicks hatched the day of the postmark. They were mailed two days ago.

Once we got them home, we dipped each chick’s beak in water, which we had prepared ahead of time with a vitamin powder. We arranged plates of food and water containers in the cardboard circle we had prepared inside the chicken tractor, which is inside the garage. Their bedding is a layer of shavings with paper towels on top so they don’t eat the shavings. All the details of how to prepare for them we learned from my parents, who have been raising chickens for years. My mom writes a blog about raising chickens.

Baby chickens, just arrived in the mail from Pennsylvania

The chicks almost immediately began eating and drinking. Their instincts are strong.

These chicks are meant for dinner. We won’t keep them long enough to get eggs out of them. They are a variety called Freedom Rangers, which are supposed to forage well and produce delicious meat. They don’t grow as fast as the Cornish Cross broilers. It makes me a little sad to know that we’re raising them only to kill them. But I hope they’ll live a happy and safe 11 weeks, with fresh grass and bugs once they get a little older.

We plan to keep them in the garage for three to four weeks under a heat lamp (they like to be at 90 degrees in the beginning). Then we’ll move them out to pasture. We’ll move their cages every couple of days so they have fresh pasture.

We will roast the chickens whole for our wedding dinner, then carve them and serve. Yum! I can’t wait.

Experimental farming

Farming is an experiment. Especially in the beginning, though I expect we will continue to experiment for the rest of our lives. I wonder if experiment is the right word, though, since we often don’t understand what we’re testing for or why something works or doesn’t work. Farming involves guessing, intuition and flexibility.

I have to remind myself that failure is a learning experience, which can be a hard thing to do. It’s hard not to feel disappointed when our seedlings are stunted. What if this whole experiment is a failure?

It’s a test of our relationship, too, seeing how we deal with things not going right. I might be exaggerating a bit, since I’m just talking about tomato and pepper seedlings, but there is some stress when neither of us know what is the best action to take.

I know everything will work out fine in the end. We can buy seedlings if we need to. We could even buy our wedding dinner ingredients (we’ll have to buy at least some). But it would be nice to have a beautiful, healthy garden.

Our sad tomato seedlings

Here’s what’s happening with the seedlings… We planted three kinds of tomatoes and two kinds of peppers on April 15. We put them on a table in Beth’s greenhouse. They germinated fairly well, got to be about an inch high and stopped growing all together. Many of them still haven’t grown their first true leaves (meaning they only have two tiny leaves).

Our happy scavenged tomato seedlings

It’s a mystery. Beth gave us some reject tomato seedlings that were also very sad looking at the beginning of this month. We re-potted those and they have far surpassed our own tomatoes. We kept those under grow lights in our spare room. This would lead me to believe that our seedlings don’t like Beth’s greenhouse. But she has tomatoes in her greenhouse that are doing great. Hmmmm… curious. Let me know if you have any ideas.

We started potting up some of our pepper seedlings, thinking that might help them, but then we ran out of space under our lights. So we decided to build one of our chicken tractors early and use it as a cold frame for our seedlings.

Potting up tomatoes and peppers

The base our our chicken tractor/cold frame

We used scrap wood we got through Midcoast Freecycle, but we did buy screws, corner brackets and a roll of metal strap hanger (which we joked is the novice carpenter’s best friend). With the brackets and strap hanger, our joints hold firmly together even if our cuts aren’t perfect and the wood splits a little as we put in screws.

Finished structure

Since we didn’t have very much wood, we decided to make a 59-square-foot A-frame. We’ll probably put 20-25 chickens inside, depending on whether we choose to give them two or three square feet per bird. We’ll have to build another structure for the rest of the meat birds (we ordered 50 chicks).

Completed (for now)

We made panels and covered them with plastic to make a cold frame, or small unheated greenhouse. It’s not perfect, and the plastic doesn’t do much to keep the inside warmer than the outside. We’re still experimenting with it. We might put blankets over the whole structure overnight. We also plan to move it somewhere sunnier than our driveway. But in the meantime, we have our brassicas and some herbs inside the structure and out of the wind at least. Check out the Photos page for more pictures of us building the chicken tractor/cold frame.

Cucumber seedlings

Still under lights in the spare room we have beautiful cucumber seedlings, loads of tomatoes, some lettuce and newly planted watermelons and cantaloupes! We love melons!

In the garden we’ve planted onions, potatoes, carrots and beets. Soon the danger of frost will pass and we’ll plant many more crops in the garden. In the meantime, we’re still trying to figure out where to put all our seedlings as we pot them up into any sort of plastic container we can find. The tomatoes really seem to take off when they have more space for their roots.

Choosing chickens

The best chicken I’ve ever eaten was in Costa Rica. I lived in a tiny town called La Esperanza (literally translated as Hope) in the mountains of Costa Rica for a year. I taught English in the public elementary school and spent many afternoons walking the steep, dusty roads to share food with new friends. My visits to Costa Rican families centered around food. Since these families didn’t have a lot of money and primarily survived on subsistence agriculture, meat was a luxury they cooked for guests. And it was delicious!

In La Esperanza most families seemed to have a flock of chickens. I would often see a mother hen clucking protectively, gathering her flock of multi-colored chicks. These chickens were good mothers and perpetuated the flock, in spite of the iguanas and other predators that snatched some of the chicks. Though people would feed these chickens handfuls of corn thrown in the dirt, much of what the chickens ate was foraged.

When my host mother wanted to cook chicken for dinner, she would send my host brother or sister outside to catch one of the hens or roosters that wandered around outside the house. Lili or Pelon would chase the flock until they caught one, then carry it by its feet into the kitchen, where Heidi had a pot of hot water on the stove. Heidi would hold the chicken close to her body, head down, and pull on the chicken’s head until she broke its neck. She then dipped the chicken in the boiling water and sent it back outside with Lili or Pelon to pluck the feathers. Then Heidi would cook the chicken and serve it for dinner. It was the ultimate in fresh, free range meat, and had so much more flavor than anything I’ve bought in a store or restaurant in this country.

Costa Rica cemented my transition from vegetarian to omnivore. Andy, too, eats meat now after many years as a vegetarian. We like to eat meat, though we do try to eat mostly meat from animals that were raised in a humane and sustainable way. We like animals, and we want them to be happy before we eat them. We also believe happy animals with a varied diet produce tastier and healthier meat. We like free range meat, and we want it to be a part of the wedding dinner. So we decided to raise our own chickens.

Cornish Cross chickens are the most commonly used meat hybrid. I’ve eaten these birds, and they taste good. We’ve seen these fat white birds grow quickly to slaughter size. There is an obvious advantage to a bird you only have to feed for six or eight weeks instead of 10 to 12. But we’re turned off by these chickens for several reasons. They seem over-bred to us, to the point of sacrificing some beneficial traits. They don’t seem to forage well, and some crosses have trouble even standing and walking because they grow too fast for their legs to keep up. We wonder if flavor could be better in a bird that eats a more varied diet and wasn’t bred primarily to grow fast. This isn’t to say that raising Cornish Cross birds is a bad choice, but we decided to look for an alternative.

In doing some research on Cornish Cross birds, I found the following excerpt from an article published in “Grit!,” the newsletter of American Pastured Poultry Producers Association (APPPA) and included in APPPA’S compilation: “Raising Poultry on Pasture: Ten Years of Success.” The article was written by Harvey and Ellen Ussery and can be found at http://www.TheModernHomestead.US.

“The Cornish Cross’s greatest virtue is also its greatest vice: its phenomenal rate of growth. That growth is constantly outstripping all its bodily systems—its internal organs and nervous system as well as its skeletal structure. The inevitable results include not only the well-known leg problems and tendency to heart failure—the digestive system clearly lags behind as well…The Cornish Cross—like the huge supermarket strawberry whose growth has been forced by over-fertilization and irrigation—is lower in flavor than a bird that has had a more natural growth curve…I would be happy to put one of my ‘barnyard chickens’ (slaughtered at about 12 weeks) up against any pastured Cornish broiler in the land in a taste test: they unquestionably have more flavor. And, if flavor is a measure of nutritional value—as I believe in natural, unprocessed food it is—then again we should be asking, ‘What is wrong with this picture?’”

Looking for an alternative, we found positive reviews of Freedom Ranger chickens as meat birds. Another few clicks with the mouse and we had ordered 50 from J.M. Hatchery in Pennsylvania. They’ll be shipped as day old chicks on June 30, and we should receive them two days later. We’ll keep them in the garage for a few weeks under a heat lamp, and then we’ll put them in a moveable chicken tractor so we can rotate them around the field near our garden. This way they’ll always have fresh grass and bugs to feed on.

Freedom Ranger meat bird

We’ve made an appointment to have them slaughtered September 18 at West Gardiner Beef. Then we’ll keep them on ice until we roast at least 25 of them for the wedding. The rest we’ll probably stick in our freezer and/or sell to friends.

We look forward to watching these birds grow outdoors with plenty of food, water, shade and sun. We also look forward to eating the juicy, tender, flavorful meat. Let’s just hope our structure is sturdy enough to keep out the predators!