Things have been rolling right along with my poultry farm. The hens are laying 40-50 eggs a week, and in addition to providing eggs for our family and our near neighbors, I have been able to do some bartering for butter and cheese. Plus, it feels good knowing I am doing my part to address the egg shortage in Minnesota. I double checked the regulations in Minneapolis to make sure my nine laying hens aren’t too many and found, to my delight, that we are permitted sixty!
A few weeks ago my next door neighbor and I had a great idea. There is a long, skinny unused strip of yard between our fence and their fence just begging to be called a chicken run. Dan agreed to help* us frame the area with chicken wire and attach it to the existing coop so the chickens could frolic in this shady, buggy area during the day. While helping* me finish the run, a monsoon came upon us, so Dan propped the last panel closed, to be secured after the monsoon passed over. We should have known better. We both forgot about it, and the next day a crazy dog that has been menacing our neighborhood for weeks took advantage of our forgetfulness and murdered Sweet Alice, the silver-laced Brahma**.
My neighbor and I had been planning to have Dan help* us trap this crazy dog by luring him into our fence with meat and then calling Animal Control, but hadn’t gotten a chance to execute the plan. And now…too late…a tragedy! But, for the first time, we glimpsed the dogs owner who pulled up in a car in the middle of the attack, grabbed the dog and sped off. My neighbor, who used to be a security guard, had the presence of mind to jot down her license plate number.
Of course I called Animal Control and was told an officer would be right out.
A little while later, the doorbell rang. I don’t know how you picture the dog-catcher, but to my surprise, the officer turned out to be Dog-Catcher Barbie, in a crisp Dog-Catcher uniform with a walkie-talkie and everything. She was only missing a big net in her hand, but I’m guessing that was out in her Dog-Catcher Barbie van. She took a detailed report which included:
Name: Sweet Alice
Age: 6 months
Next, she asked to be taken to the crime scene. She walked around the yard with her notepad and camera taking pictures of feathers on the ground, jotting copious notes. Although I a never miss an episode of SVU, and am something of a self-trained detective, I have never participated in an actual investigation like this and it was all quite exciting. She informed me that, because this was a fatality, she had traced the license plate number and would be proceeding to the home of the dog owner. If they failed to respond to the doorbell, she would obtain a warrant and break down the door (presumably with her Barbie battering ram), and confiscate the offending dog. If the owner objected to having her dog confiscated, I would be invited to testify at a hearing.
Before leaving she inquired gently, “Would you be willing to surrender Sweet Alice to us for autopsy.” Would I ever! An autopsy at Animal Control….what a distinguished finish for Sweet Alice who came from such humble beginnings and was named after an industrial park***.
The next day, Dog-Catcher Barbie’s tiny assistant, who looked exactly like Skipper, arrived, clipboard in hand, to get a witness statement from my next door neighbor, and take some more photos of the crime scene.
All this for a chicken. It was very moving. I am proud to call myself a tax-payer in the great city of MInneapolis.
*Dan’s “help” consists of doing the physical work while I lend him my mind and circle around him making helpful suggestions.
**If you are unfamiliar with the Brahma, it is a hen known for its extraordinarily large bottom. She was an impulse buy.
***You may recall the Sweet Alice industrial park on Highway 119 in Shelby County Alabama.
We have celebrated four Birthdays this spring.
Annie turned 3.
The little Peppers seem to have as much fun deciding on a party theme as they do throwing a party. This year Annie told us that she was hoping to have, “A baby River party, with a baby River cake…if Baby River even does parties.” (See below for a photo of Baby River Jansen. Who wouldn’t want this face on your cake.)
Unfortunately, Baby River was not on hand for the birthday which we celebrated in Birmingham with Nini and Papaw and Aunt Claire and baby John. Annie’s party took about ten minutes. I must admit the highlight of Annie’s party for me was getting together with Aunt Lois, Aunt Sally, Cousin Susan (aka Aunt Special) and her husband Charles the night before the Birthday to paint peg people. Peg people have been Annie’s greatest wish since playing with some of them at Aunt Betsy’s. I couldn’t talk Betsy out of her own peg people, who have now moved to Manhattan for Betsy and Bernard to play with so I had to paint my own. We were tutored in peg people painting by Charles Preuter: lawyer at Papaw’s firm by day, peg person painter extraordinaire by night.
Now that she is three, Annie is growing so helpful and so wise. Last week she noticed I had a little something on my chin and immediately instructed me to, “Hold still, and I will lick it off.” And a few days ago after bumping her head she explained to us: “I bumped my head, but it did not crack open. I am glad it did not crack open, because if it cracked open then little chickens would pop out. Cheep, cheep!”
Miss P turned 5
She had a rather impromptu joint party with Lucy Hoffner since their birthdays are so close together (January and March respectively). They settled on a “Princess-Rainbow-Butterfly” theme and enjoyed partying with their two guests, Molly and Lily Benson. Miss P was up late the night before worrying the Bensons might get sick, which is a real concern when they are the only guests. She really didn’t stop talking about this possibility until the Bensons arrived in full health and princess garb.
Charlie and Elisabeth turned 7
One of the great joys of having twins is knocking out two parties in one morning.
Charlie easily decided to have a “Minnesota Vikings Football-Soccer-Bowling” party. He welcomed four friends to his home at nine a.m. to enjoy an early Birthday cake before heading out to the yard to play soccer with Dan who had the boys in the van and en route to the bowling alley by ten, so that I could erase all traces of the “Minnesota Vikings Football-Soccer-Bowling” party to make room for the “Little Woman’s” party which was scheduled at eleven.
It was Elisabeth’s own idea to throw a “Little Woman’s” party after reading “Little Woman” (as she call it) by Louisa May Alcott. The “Little Woman’s” party almost wasn’t, when Elisabeth discovered, to her disgust that Party City doesn’t carry “Little Woman’s” piñatas. I explained to Elisabeth that during the Civil War Era, piñatas were scarce and families had to make do without them. Elisabeth has high regard for historical accuracy and quickly decided she didn’t want a piñata at all and we settled on an Easter Egg hunt, as egg gathering was a popular activity back in the day, and we had a lot of plastic eggs and candy left over from Easter. So Charlie left Party City with a football-shaped piñata and Elisabeth left with four yellow balloons in honor of the four March sisters (again her own idea).
The Little Woman’s party also required Little Woman’s costumes, which are not as readily found these days as are princess costumes. Not one to beat around the bush I went straight to the top, suspecting correctly that Michelle Thompson, dean of Hand in Hand Montessorri might have LIttle Women costumes at the ready. She did not disappoint! The girls enjoyed practicing for the party for days. Let me just say of the below photo, I would not want to meet Beth (in the middle there) in a dark alley, would you?
I had the bright idea to let the partygoers make their own rag-dolls and sew on button eyes. I made a prototype the night before. While working on my prototype, I thought of my great Aunt Cleo, on whose farm I met my first chicken. Aunt Cleo had the most beautiful crocheted lady in a large ball gown that sat on the back of her toilet and covered her spare toilet paper roll. So I cut the skirt big enough to cover a toilet paper roll. Imagine: make your own rag-doll-toilet-paper-roll-cover. The Birthday party craft sure to go viral! I was really pleased with my prototype and showed it to Elisabeth who exclaimed with delight, “Oooo, it’s a little witch!”
Does this look like a witch to you?
Would you believe Elisabeth’s teacher not only accepted her invitation to the party but came in character as Marmie? And helped the girls sew the little witches? What kind of teacher does that.
And it’s not just Elisabeth’s teacher. A while back we were eating supper and Charlie had the great idea, “Could I invite Mr. Crowl over tonight to watch some basketball?” I didn’t see why not so I helped Charlie dial the number and heard him stutter nervously, “Hello this is Charlie. Would you like to watch the NCAA basketball championship with me tonight? Ok. You can talk to my mom….” Mr. Crowl apparently responded, “Sounds like fun!” and not only came, but brought his own little bag of popcorn and stayed up with Charlie until 11:00, explaining that it was probably okay for Charlie to stay up late since he himself would be the one to have to deal with Charlie the next day. And then commenting that when Charlie is tired, he seems to do what he always does which is whatever he is supposed to be doing.
Although I must disclose that Charlie does not always do what he is supposed to be doing. He was not doing what he was supposed to be doing this very morning and he required discipline: which was to shovel all of the poop out of the chicken run. It took about two hours. About half way through he declared that the chicken poop smelled just like shrimp and asked me several times if I had been feeding shrimp to the chickens. An hour and a half into the job he began to get hungry for shrimp, because the smell of shrimp was so enticing. I jumped in and helped him finish the job just in case he was developing some kind of Stockholm Syndrome.
Below, Elisabeth and me with some kind of Stockholm Syndrome.
Life with young chickens and young children is always a few steps forward and a few steps back. If you happen to pause for reflection and find yourself a few steps forward, even if it’s early in the evening, I recommend going to bed immediately. Do not pass go, do not collect 200 dollars just scurry upstairs and turn the clocks to 7:30 p.m. (as we have been known to do) and usher everyone to bed, so that you can proudly say you made progress today. Why wait those last couple of hours, tempting fate? Quit while you are ahead.
I wrote a month ago that we have been hatching baby chicks and selling them on Craigslist using fertilized eggs from our mentors: Farmers Bryan and Leanne Murdock of Wyoming, Minnesota. I have received a number of inquiries into the financials of my hatchery. As of this week, my chick-selling profit is $750. After the first round of chicken hatching and selling, I decided to raise my price from 5 dollars a chick to ten. Nobody blinked, so I raised it to twelve.
I discovered there is a real run on chicks the week before Easter. And the day before Easter is like chicken Black Friday. I had one customer call me in disgust at 9:30 p.m. to tell me that chickens at the farm store are only a dollar.
“You should just buy some of those,” I counseled her, “because my chickens are very expensive!”
Her response was a huffy, “Well how late are you going to be up? And can I come buy some of yours tonight, because I am afraid they will be sold if I wait till the morning.”
I think there are three main reasons my hatchery is so popular.
First of all, most farmers find it preferable to hatch chicks in the barn as opposed to the upstairs hall bath. However, this means they hatch a little later when the weather is warm, so the chicks don’t freeze out there in the barn. Because I seem to be one of the few indoor hatcheries, I got a jump on the other farmers.
Secondly, all the other farmers seem to be located on farms which typically require a drive out to the country, or at least the suburbs. My hatchery is conveniently located in the heart of Minneapolis. I recently learned that there are 3,000 backyard chicken coops in the city of Minneapolis. Chickens are all the rage. And I seem to be the only person geographically positioned to meet the needs of the urban chicken community.
Finally, I am increasing my rate of live birth with every hatch, as I sharpen my chicken midwifery skills. After each hatch I autopsy the bodies of the stillborn chicks and am working to identify preventable causes of failure to launch. There is always a lot of suspense the day of the hatch, because you never know which eggs will make it. Annie has developed a practice of sitting on the bathroom counter pointing to each perfectly healthy chick that is running around in the cage, long after the danger has passed and repeating, ” I don’t know if that one is going to make it”. Yesterday, she confided, “When I was in your tummy I didn’t know if I was going to make it out. But I made it!” I had no idea.
I am a little sad that my profit is $750 and not $850. It would have been $850, but two days before Easter I sold a batch of my expensive chicks to a happy father and son. About 15 minutes after they left I got a text message that said, “Do they always sleep on their backs with their feet sticking up in the air?”
I responded, “Send me a video.” I said this because this is what my mentor, Farmer Bryan, said a month before, when I texted him to ask if it was okay that one of my chicks appeared attached to his shell by a string and had been dragging it behind him like a trailer for two days. I don’t know what I was looking for in the video but it was shocking to say the least. I would post it, but the contents might be too disturbing. In the video you can clearly see each chick dropping dead while a cheerful voice in the background says, “Oh that is so cute, they are sleeping on their backs.”
Horrified, I forward the video on to Farmer Bryan who diagnosed the problem immediately. An industrial sized heat lamp from Fleet Farm, lovingly positioned over a tiny oven-like Tupperware full of chicks had essentially cooked them. The dad was so stricken, and the little boy was so sad, that I couldn’t not give them another batch of chicks. I suggested to the dad that he just slip them in during the night and declaring the risen chicks an Easter miracle.
When I told him, Farmer Bryan was not happy that I gave away chicks for free, but I think he is in no position to talk. He never lets me pay for all these eggs that are making me so rich, and last year he gave us two free chickens after the hawk got Dumps. So there!
In spite of the Easter chick debacle, $750 dollars is a step forward. I should’ve sat real still holding my money, or gone quickly to bed with my money under my mattress. But I used some of the cash to pay a friend to build a bigger run onto our existing chicken coop. The idea behind the bigger run was that if my chickens had more room to frolick I wouldn’t feel so sorry for them and let them out to roam the neighborhood placing them at risk of another hawk attack, or in Dan’s words “inviting a blood bath.”
But I had to shoo them out of the coop and into the yard while the finishing touches were put on the run.
In those few hours before I could get them back in, that demon hawk had killed two of them while my back was turned. And not just any two: Ella Lehmer and Ella Wang! And he didn’t even eat them. Just killed them for sport.
Last summer, while sitting on the dock, at North Twin Lake in Amery, Wisconsin, I overheard Pete Gregory explaining to young David who, pole in hand, had questioned the morality of fishing, that fishing was okay as long as it was not done “with a bloodthirsty attitude”. There is only one way to explain a hawk that kills for sport: bloodthirsty attitude.
Especially difficult for me was the loss of Ella Lehmer, who I think of as our ‘therapy chicken’. After a long day, Elisabeth would crawl right into the coop and hold out her arms and Ella Lehmer would run right into them, and stand very still for hugging and cuddling. It was very therapeutic. It’s not every day you find yourself the owner of a therapy chicken.
It has been a week now since the incident and our yard is still full of feathers. Charlie keeps forgetting and on the way to the car yesterday he asked with disgust, “Whose feathers are all over the yard?” As if someone had left their socks all over the place.
Elisabeth decided to choose a single gray feather to place in her locket with the pictures of Dan and Charlie to remember her dear feathered friend. She came in proudly waving a feather the size of a quill pen, but because her locket is the size of a fingernail the feather had to be reduced significantly.
The loss of the Ellas was a big step back.
Also a step back recently was the chick that turned out to be a madman.
He was Annie’s chick, and she named him Ella. When I saw him attacking and bloodying the other chickens I called my mentor immediately, who said (in an ominous voice) that Ella must be put down immediately or many chickens would die.
But how to do this humanely? The last time I had to kill a chick, it was just an hour old and clearly “wasn’t going to make it.” That time, I invited an unsuspecting Terra Widdifield over and made her kill it, then took her out for pizza to cheer her up.
How did I get her to do that for me? I am not proud to disclose that when I took the “Strengths Finder ” personality inventory at work, I learned that my strongest talent is getting people to do what I want them to do. I had to share these embarrassing results with my team. Can this even be called a strength? I don’t think so. But the incident with Terra and the chick did sort of confirm the results of the test.
Ella the madman, however, was much older and much stronger than the first unfortunate chick, and the method farmer Bryan suggested involved a physical strength and internal resolve that I am not sure I possess. It would be the worst thing to half-kill a chicken.
I sought help from Dan who possesses both physical strength and internal fortitude, but he felt it was important for me to do this myself. (A decision which calls into question the results of my personality test I might point out).
After much thought and internet research I came up with the idea of releasing the chicken into the wild and letting nature take its course. So under the cover of darkness, I threw him over a fence into the woods by the Mississippi river. But as I walked away, I could hear him cheep cheeping so plaintively that I could not walk away. I decided the only thing to do was to go back for him and call his name. If he ran to me and leapt into my arms it would be a sign that leaving him in the woods was not a good way to put a chicken down. So I climbed the fence and knelt down and called into the darkness ” Elllllaaaa…..” And if that chicken didn’t run straight out of the woods and leap into my open arms…..
I eventually settled on another another method of extermination that could not be quite so easily undone. I will spare you the details but I will tell you it involved a bridge. And a river. And the middle of the the night.
Ella the madman was a step back. But in the words of my mentor, “We farmers must do difficult things other people are not able or willing to do.” And indeed we do.
In closing, I must confess to an impulse buy. A Baby Brahma. A Brahma is a giant of a chicken, known for their big poofy bottoms which enable them to sit on a large quantity of eggs. It remains to be seen if this was a step forward or a step back. I wasn’t planning to buy a Brahma. But you know how it is when you are window shopping and you see a great deal on chickens, and before you know it you are driving home, the proud owner of a Brahma. We’ve all been there. And on the bright side, it wasn’t a baby llama, because those aren’t allowed in the city. I checked because I recently drove past a big llama sale on the way to Amery. We named our Brahma Sweet Alice.
The children have been busy with more important things than chickens, but I am out of time, and have to pick them up. To be continued, I guess….
Below: Elisabeth with Ella Lehmer during happier times.
*Note: I wrote this last week. Dan is now safely home.
Dan has been gone for ten days. To make matters worse, so has Patty. How did I let this happen? We are out of the woods now, though, and have limped along reasonably well. At one point I did fear the wheels were coming off when Charlie, Elisabeth, and Corndog were all three felled by a stomach flu that was sweeping through the school. But it proved to be a brief 24-hour situation and the results were not overly devastating.
Distraction was the name of our game and we had a number of really helpful diversions. The most helpful of course, being a three day visit from Nini, who showed us a really good time. Second most helpful, was the surprising results of our second attempt at hatching chicks in an incubator. Last spring we tried it and were pleased with five baby chicks (which were subsequently eaten by racoons, but still fun).
This time, to my astonishment we produced TWENTY-SIX chicks! The kids did almost nothing but hold baby chicks for the first three or four days of Dan’s absence.
Holding a baby chicken is a very stationary activity that does not involve the scattering of small toys all over the house or the spilling of snacks. It was like someone pressed the “pause” button, having the kids sit still like that for three days. I got so much done! But, let me tell you, twenty-six is a lot of chickens to keep in your bathroom, so I posted them for sale on Craigslist right away. They were all sold the first week, but my phone is still ringing off the hook so I have restocked the incubator for an Easter hatch and am doubling my asking price.
The prospective chicken buyers reflected the wide range of diversity one finds among poultry buyers.
On the one end of the spectrum: Jane Herman, who was willing to provide photos of her home and garden and letters of reference to assure us that our chickens would be the happiest in all the land.
On the other end of the spectrum: a very sincere Asian gentleman who explained in a very heavy accent: “I would like to KILL all your chickens for eat on November 15.”
We decided to go with Jane Herman and look forward to meeting her this afternoon when she comes to collect.
My goal with my hatchery is that I would make at least as much as we have spent this year on the chicken coop and the chicken feed, so that Dan will stop telling people my poultry farm is losing money.
My hatchery is especially lucrative because Farmer Bryan, who supplied us with our original teenage hens for last years Easter baskets, is for some reason, now supplying us with an unlimited amount of fertilized eggs and won’t let me pay him.*
So I kept six chicks from this last batch and let the kids name them and play with them and once they are feathered and cold-hardy we will deliver them to Bryan’s farm with our thanks.
In the meantime, they are keeping the wheels hot! The chicks had a blast visiting two first grade classrooms. Then last week they were rented for the day by a Craig’s list lady who wanted to rent chicks to take to a portrait studio for photos with her children. She picked them up and dropped them back off, and they had an absolute ball! This lady was hoping I also had a lamb she could rent, but I have decided not to do lambs this year.
The other primary diversion during Dan’s absence came to us quite by accident. In an attempt to keep spirits up last weekend, the children and I treated ourselves to waffles at Mickey’s Diner and then a morning at the Children’s Museum next door. Little did I know there was a special seminar for children on knitting happening that very morning.
Three of the Little Peppers took to spool knitting like ducks to water. The littlest Pepper contented herself with stringing beads onto a pipe cleaner. Each time she declared herself ready for the next one, I turned around and slid the beads off and she “knitted” another one.
Of course the children were eager to get home and set about their handiwork. It was very similar to the chicken phenomenon. All four children settled themselves quietly in the living room and knit for FIVE HOURS. After I had finished all my chores, and had nothing else to do I took up my own knitting and joined them. It was lovely.
Elisabeth finished a stunning purple cowl which she sported at church the next day. Miss P made an array of headbands, necklaces, and bracelets which also made it to church. Charlie, having decided on his own to knit an area rug, didn’t have anything to wear to church but his project will no doubt keep him occupied for the foreseeable future.
*Note: in the course of thanking farmer Bryan for the eggs I discovered a very real and present danger to iPhone users everywhere: the accidental emoticon. We are all aware of the danger that accidentally responding to a group text, or texting the wrong person presents. But few are aware of the hazards of the accidental emoticon. Why, this very morning, while scheduling our next pickup of fertilized eggs I texted farmer Bryan: ” How can I ever thank you?” And then intended to select the chicken emoticon, but accidentally selected the lady-in-the-bathtub emoticon. Be careful iPhone users. It could happen to you.
Below, for your viewing pleasure: Chicks, Mickey’s Diner, and Dan’s trip to Nepal
Last week I found out that a membership to the Minnesota Science Museum gets you free admission to the Omnitheater. I beat a path to the door and signed us right up. On Tuesday we saw our first movie: “Flight of the Monarch”. We got our membership just in time. Last week was the last chance to see “Flight of the Monarch” before it was replaced with an exploration of outer space. Charlie was especially enthused by the opportunity as he spent much time last summer observing “The Monarch” in it’s natural habitat: our garden.
The theater was packed, mostly with elderly guests. We could only find four seats together so Annie sat in my lap. As I was thinking to myself what a milestone it is to be able to sit in a movie theater without worrying that we will be a disturbance, I heard from the seat to my left, one long word ring out in the silent theater:
I can’t say that I really blame Charlie. Have you ever seen a Monarch’s wing up close? It is nothing if not worthy of a good long “DAAAAAAAANG!” Although “Daaaaang” (held for five beats) is not my favorite thing Charlie has learned at Hope Academy, there are times when it is appropriate. Such as the sight of a Monarch’s wing.
I wonder if Ravi Zaccharias knows about Daaaaang? I will never forget reading his book “I, Isaac, take you, Rebecca” before I was married. In it, Zaccharias says that there is only one word in the English language that is appropriate to capture the emotion felt by a groom at the sight of his bride, the word: “Wow.”
Well, I would like to posit a second possibility for the groom experiencing this rapturous moment: “Daaaang.”
Below: In addition to an Omnitheater, the museum also has a newsroom.
Charlie attempted to pull his own tooth before calling in the big guns: DADDY.
Charlie attempting to pull his own tooth:
Charlie’s Daddy Pulling His Tooth:
The astute reader may have noticed in the picture of our children’s room attached to the last post that there are now four beds where once there were three. I think a room with four little beds just begs to be called “the nursery”. I called it “the nursery” for a long time. I had to admit I held on too long when I heard long tall Charlie inviting a few guy friends to come over and play monopoly in “my nursery”. As it was beginning to evoke images of “short bus”, rather than Mary Poppins and Peter Pan, I made the transition to calling it a “room” instead of “the nursery”.
Annie has been gunning to graduate to the “kid’s woom” for quite some time. But she was sleeping so well in her “tib” (crib), and it is hard to mess with success when you suffer as I do from Post Nocturnal Stress Disorder, or PNSD.
Annie made a strong case for her graduation: baiting me to agree that she is now a big girl, and then turning it on me. I walked into her trap every time.
Annie: “I will not go potty in my underwear because I am a big girl now, right?”
Me: “That’s right. Big girls go potty in the bathroom.”
Annie: “Hooray! I am a big girl now, and I can sleep with the big kids!”
Her luck turned last week. We were at the Hoffner’s and the girls were enjoying sliding down the steps on the bottoms, when Annie’s feet got stuck under her and she tumbled headlong down the steps. Apparently, a tiny nail punctured her scalp causing a tiny but steady trickle of blood, which she referred to as a “poke hole”. Her two front teeth bit a deep crack in her upper lip through which you could see a little light. After much deliberation I decided to get it checked out at the ER. As soon as we got home she announced: “My mouth is feeling better so I can sleep with the big kids now!” That just made so much sense I had to agree.
Besides, when you tell a child she must continue to sleep in her crib until she is older and she responds with:
Are You Serious?
What in the World?
You have probably held out too long.
Below: Annie fast asleep, as opposed to her status each morning which she calls “fast awake”.