Chicks and Other Thoughts

The following post is written by Addie Hurst. She is a new student in the Food Studies program and is a Graduate Associate on the farm!  She wrote this piece for her Nature Writing class. Enjoy!

As I wait for instruction on my first task as a farm assistant at Eden Hall, I take notice of the garden. Rows of swiss and rainbow chard catch my eyes first, as their bright yellows, reds, and purples stand out against the familiar green backdrop. Small heads of cabbage are forming in rows opposite the chard, and someone has recently harvested fresh broccoli. Cayennes, bells, and banana peppers are intercropped with basil. The tops of the potatoes have dried and are withering away, indicating there’s some delicious tubers ready to be dug from the mounds of earth. Leeks stand tall and in an abundance, and tomatoes of all stages of ripeness hang from their vines.

But today, I won’t be working with the plants. The three-week-old chicks are ready to be moved to their new homes. I help cover the large mobile chicken coops with tarp affixed by bungee cords. The tarp will protect the young birds against the wind, rain, and chilly nights. Entering the chicks’ temporary home in the greenhouse, there’s a smattering of peeps and faint flapping noises coming from their makeshift housing–two wooden oval fixtures set atop tables. The tables had been covered first with plywood, then with newspaper. Large pieces of cardboard are propped above the chicks’ homes to provide shade.

Each chick must be picked up and put in a cardboard box so they can be carried to their new dwelling outside. When my hands enter their space, they flock to the farthest corner away from me, presumably, fearing the unknown, the danger that may accompany this unfamiliar creature grabbing in their direction. Alas, I cannot reach. Katie, who has a few inches in height on me, takes charge of scooping up the birds. She hands them to me, and I put them in the box.

You want to hold a chicken with both hands so that the tips of your fingers rest on their breasts and your thumbs and palms hold the wings close to its body. In the transferring, some of my grips aren’t quite right, and the chicks’ small wings flap frantically in an effort to free themselves. “Shhh…” I say to them and place them gently in the box. Back on solid ground, most of the chicks continue on their business like nothing just happened. Some of them poop and some continue to cry for a bit. “It’s okay,” I tell them.

With six people (including myself), the transfer of ninety-five birds doesn’t take too long, and soon we’re left with the clean-up of the temporary housing. Anyone who thinks of work on a small farm in a romantic, idealized sort of way should go help a farmer clean up chicken poop. It’s not the most glorious, awe-inspiring task. With the poop shoveled into the wheelbarrow, I haul it to the compost pile where it will break down into nitrogen-rich fertilizer to use on future plant crops. I head over to the chicks’ new digs where they’ve already begun to settle in. The feed they’ve grown accustomed to over the past few weeks will now be a supplement to their diet. These youngsters instinctively know what to look for to eat in the earth–insects and worms and the like. They peck at the ground, picking out tasty morsels for a satisfying meal.

I love lots of aspects of sustainable agriculture, but one that’s at the top of my list is the cyclical nature, the balance. Crops take nutrients from the soil but they are inevitably returned with composting the non-edible parts of plants. Chickens may eat some of the earthworms that contribute to good soil fertility, but they also provide valuable fertilizer for the next crop rotation, and you’ll be sure the earthworms will flourish in such nutrient-dense accommodations. Everything that is taken from the earth is returned, and in working to maintain this balance, a farmer is never bored.

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