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urban homesteading

Homesteading Update: Chicken Mutiny

The homestead has been pretty idyllic with the days getting longer. We celebrated an unseasonably warm February by planting a long-sought-after fruiting red-leaf plum.

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Brave Irene, our Delaware hen, is keeping an eye on those blossoms for good things to come.

We’ll do some grafting and pruning so this lady grows low and bountiful. We popped her in the ground right next to the chicken run so that when and if we can’t keep up with the plum glut, they’ll be easy to toss in for the chickens.

Ah yes. The chickens. Those longer days have turned our 0 or 1 egg days into 3 or 4 egg days, so omelettes are back in season! But along with our egg bounty came The Mutiny. It started innocently enough. I peeked into our nest box one afternoon and found a cracked egg. While I sighed over the loss, I wondered if any of the girls had helped themselves to a sample. Somebird must have. In the following days, instead of eggs, I found yolky wet spots in the nest box.

I’d heard about this dreaded development–the Marxist chicken revolution. Apparently, once chickens get a taste for their own eggs and owning the means of production, the habit can be pretty hard to break. I tried collecting eggs more often and put some golf balls in the nest box as a decoy. This did not break their revolutionary spirit. Yolky wet spots abounded.

I suspected Mavis, our Auracana. She was the sweetest little sweety as a pullet, sitting on my shoulder and burrowing into my hair for comfort.

Gone are the days of my sweet little Mavis.
Gone are the days of my sweet little Mavis.

She tossed that meek fragility aside in her old age. These days, she rules the roost with an iron beak, so to speak. The ruthless glint in her eye says, “Given the opportunity, and if I had them, I’d kill you with my bare hands.”

So I couldn’t stop a satisfied “I knew it!” from escaping my mouth the day I caught Mavis in the act, gulping down broken shell with the glisten of yolk on her beak. After that, I stomped into the house and broke out the big guns: emptied some store-bought eggs and coated the insides of the shells with dijon mustard. I popped those little dijon bombs back in the nest box and thought I might have won when Mavis rejected the shells after a single, suspicious peck.

Instead, she got a recruit. The next day, Mavis and Rosie were at it together. And LemonCake might have been in on it too. Mutiny. I was incensed. I fantasized about slitting chicken throats to protect the daily food source for my lean, sunburnt family, just trying to survive out on the frontier.

Luckily, my smart homesteader friend R, the one who used to have the goats we milked, offered an alternative to death: the rollaway nest box.

IMG_3974AJ and I spent all of Sunday retrofitting, and I am proud to say that our frontier spirit prevailed! We set the nest box floor at an incline, so that once the deed is done, the egg rolls via padded board into a slot which empties into a padded aluminum paint tray.

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Brave Irene seeks out the camera yet again.

I am proud to report that our frontier spirit prevailed! No yolky wet spots for the past 3 days. Means of production successfully wrested from Mavis’ crafty beak.

Homesteading update: eggs

Let me catch you up on the chickens.

In short, they’ve grown up. Sometime in July, Goldie layed her first egg. She graced it upon our neighbor who was chicken-tending during our victorious summer of camping.

I’ve never experienced the chicken coming-of-age transition before, and let me tell you it is A Thing. In the days before The First Egg, the girls were small, skitterish, made little peeps and clucks, and made staying out of our way their main business. Here is what our neighbor relayed to me about The Day of The First Egg. Before she’d  even discovered it, she knew something was going on. The ladies were strutting and squawking like narcissistic high school seniors at prom.

Bless our neighbor for recounting this by shuffling around our front yard with her elbows angled just so, her neck bobbing out and in, and for saving the first few eggs for us to see. She intuited that this was also a very big moment for me. It was.

I crooned over them. They were so perfect and small. Little starter versions of real, live eggs.

First Eggs

And they were delicious. It was a miracle to see them sputtering to white in the cast iron skillet I inherited from my grandmother.

Over time, the eggs have gotten bigger, and now they’re your standard medium/large that you get at the supermarket. Except for the fact that they’re a sepia rainbow. And Mavis’ are always this amazing blue-green color and more oblong than the rest.

We’ve also gotten a few whoppers. Like one from this morning that we cracked open to find 2 yolks inside.

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When I first layed eyes on it, I audibly winced. I hope she did some deep breathing when that one was coming out.

Now, our gals are routine and established layers. We usually get 3-5 eggs per day. The bounty is amazing.

And of course I have slipped into the mundane routine of it all, but I still get shocked into awe by the cycle we’re part of. We throw our cast off cheerios and weeds and apple cores and rotting pumpkins into the run (in addition to their pellets and scratch), and in exchange, these birds make us food and fertilizer. Every effing day. That daily wheel of give and take brings me back to the human animal I am. And even though I can be found hemming and hawing in bed about having to go outside to let the chickens out, I can also be found whispering “thanks gals” into the nest box in the afternoon.

Really. Thanks gals. You’re doing a bang up job.

Homesteading update: the chickens have landed

I spent Sunday afternoon somewhere between extremely tired and blissed out. That feeling when something you’ve worked really hard for and toiled over is suddenly, actually here.

Chickens.

In case you weren’t aware, I’ve wanted chickens for a really long time. Remember, way back when I had those chicken and kale dreams? Well, it turns out that the kale was easier to realize than the chickens for a number of reasons. Among them, radical rent increases, pregnancy, buying a duplex, moving and becoming a family of 4.

But we stayed the course, and were regularly reminded of that way-back dream every time we had to haul this coop around over the last 2 years.

#frontyardchickens

A post shared by Stephanie Mackley (@stephaniemackley) on

I’m pretty obsessed with these ladies. We chose 4 very docile breeds that are known for being good layers. From head placement in the photo from left to right, there’s the Black Sex-Link who Jo has already named Rosie, the Black Australorp who is still unnamed (suggestions?!), the brown and black mottled lady is an Easter Egger who I’ve already taken a particular liking to and named Mavis. And that big golden gal is a Buff Orpington, also, as yet, unnamed. So feel free to put some names in the hopper.

I chose to get pullets (teenager chickens) rather than baby chicks because I’ve had enough baby action around here, and it’s just less time and labor and material intensive. Pullets have their adult feathers and can sleep outside and eat out of all the adult gear, so no need for heating lamps or special feeders that you only use for a handful of weeks. We chose to buy our chickens from Dare 2 Dream Farms, a sweet and savvy outfit nestled near the coast between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Their website is a complete dream come true–organized, beautiful and delivering exactly the information you need instead of overwhelming you with 300 coop designs or a forum 6 miles long about how to keep pests from eating your layers. We got their coop-ready package which thrilled the pants off me, because it meant I didn’t have to strap the boys in and hunt around for feeders and food and wonder if the person at the farm supply store was giving the city girl a line.

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It probably sounds like they gave me my chickens for free so I’d write all these nice things about them, but no. I’m just a shameless promoter of things that I find helpful. And they were radically helpful from the breath of fresh air website to Jeremy (Dare 2 Dream farmer and co-founder) hanging out in our yard while the girls pecked around their new home. He checked out our coop, gave us tips on how to not freak the ladies out in their first few days with us, and we yakked like old neighbors about farming and New Zealand, as you do.

And then I just spent the rest of the afternoon sort of dopey and in love, staring fuzzy-eyed into the distance and listening to their sweet little croons.

I finally got my chickens.

**long, slow, satisfied sigh**

Homesteading update: I'm a goat milker

I have always loved goats.

Spending time with goats during a trip to Greece in college.

I love them so much, that I was given this as a birthday present.

And I wear it all the time.

So it does seem like destiny – perhaps even my purpose finding me??! – that I would now be doing this:

Back in the spring, my dear friend R said that she might be interested in getting goats. After nearly peeing my pants, I assured her that I would do everything in my power to help her with said goats, if that would make any difference in her decision. Whether it did or no, she got them. And she made the whole venture delightfully communal, offering a small group of her (and my!) friends a share of her gorgeous milking goat, Pippa.

Isn’t she beautiful?

So now, on Wednesday mornings, I leap out of bed, grab my 2 quart jars and head to R’s for my morning milking.

After a few milkings, my hands have gotten into shape enough that I can milk the entire 2 quarts all by myself in one sitting! Then I filter the warm, foamy milk (thank you, Pippa!) into my jars.

I get a small thrill every time I go to the grocery store and leave without needing to buy milk. And when I think back to how far I’ve come since posting this. And every time J asks for “Pippa milk.” I also feel a deep connection to the whole process, since I am also a lactating mammal. Everytime I milk her, I thank Pippa profusely. Because after all, we’re harnessing her body’s amazing ability to produce milk for our own benefit. And when she runs to the gate in the morning with her udder bulging with milk, I croon to her–I understand. I remember what that over full, desperate-to-nurse feeling is like. And I share some of her relief when the first streams of milk spray into the pan.

And just in case this has been stirring some homesteading dreams of yours, I wanted to offer that R doesn’t have a palatial property for this whole operation. She does have a pretty big back yard. But more than that, I think she’s had the vision and done the work to transform her small space in the world into a thriving homestead (she has a garden and chickens too…swoon).

See? Doesn’t this make you think you could do this too? Or find a friend who would let you in on their operation?