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Monthly Archives: August 2013

Typically, about half of the links in a links roundup come from stuff I’ve read this week, and the other half are dug out of my bookmarks. In searching for links about chickens, I realized that I don’t actually consult many websites–for the most part, what I know about chickens, I’ve learned from the chickens themselves, and from a few farmers with really great backyard flocks.

More than any web link, I recommend Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens if you’re looking into having your own flock.

Urban Chickens

Live Brooder Cam

How to Butcher a Chicken

Just Food City Chicken Meetup NY

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Today at the racetrack, my father and I were recognized for speaking at a “chicken hearing” yesterday. Who woulda thunk it. Anyway, it was exciting for about two seconds and then the race got my attention again (look forward to a longer piece on Thoroughbred racing soon!).

Interestingly, to me at least, the reason I found myself at the county courthouse making a case for urban/suburban chicken-keeping was not because the county codes that restrict chicken-keeping to property owners with over 1.0 acres were going to be changed, but rather because these codes were up for review.

If these aren’t happy hens, I don’t know what are. (Pictured: my dad with, l-r, Beatrix, Lolita, and Zora.)

To summarize: Baltimore County has a law that prohibits keeping chickens on less than an acre of land. (As I pointed out to the review board, this legislation does not prevent owners of one acre or more from owning 600 roosters, although a separate code would require having those birds inspected.) The hearing I went to merely brought up some kind of legislation that would bring about review of this current code. So we’re reviewing a policy to review another policy. Great.

When it comes to suburban chicken-keeping, the setup of these codes is really bureaucratic and frustrating. Most of the codes date back to roughly the 1950’s, when people wanted to very clearly delineate CITY and COUNTRY. Country living wasn’t in vogue as it (sort of) is now, so it was prestigious to live somewhere with a lawn that resembles a paint chip from the middle of the greens and that definitely doesn’t have chickens scratching in the dirt.

Chickens (and chicken, in meat form) have long been a class issue, among other things. To many people, particularly people of my grandfather’s generation, raising chickens says “poor” because it means you have to raise your own meat, and you can’t quite afford a pig or cow or sheep. For people who jumped on a certain diet fad advocating chicken over beef, chicken can seem like a sort of educated healthy choice.

Chicken wasn’t eaten in the quantity it is today prior to the 1980’s or so due to the lack of McDonald’s, Perdue, Tyson. The big chicken growers (Tyson, Perdue) arose in tandem with the big chicken batterers-and-friers and then chicken got that healthy thing pinned to it as well. The chicken as an animal was doomed. The chicken as meat would be loved seemingly forever.

The conditions of factory-farmed chickens are so bad that a lot of people, especially people who didn’t grow up with the chickens-in-the-yard-means-you’re-poor stereotype (aka people of my approximate generation), are wanting to raise their own chickens. (While I’ve emphasized meat chickens as the chickens becoming popularized since they sort of started the trend, egg producers have also gone through the same process of specialization and industrialization, and are kept in similarly horrendous conditions.) We like to see our chickens pooping in lanky, bug-laden grass. We like to take pictures of their bright red combs and post them to Instagram.

Plus, the eggs are great. Pasture-raised eggs have been proven to be healthier than battery eggs. A small flock can easily meet or surpass a small- to medium-sized family’s egg consumption, often providing enough extra to exchange with neighbors for occasional chicken-sitting.

Having kept cats and rabbits outdoors, I will say that chickens are really not much more complicated. Yes, you have to check the nestboxes for eggs every day, but their basic requirements are simple to meet and they can live very happily on very little land.

cautious inter-species bonding

The main detracting factors with chickens are that 1) roosters are noisy as heck; 2) chicken poop is kind of smelly until it dries or gets swept away, so coops shouldn’t infringe on a neighbor’s patio, for example (aka: separation from nearby dwellings is critical); and 3) too many chickens in a coop can get out of hand quickly (…they’ve been known to cannibalize, or just be really, really gross).

So, rather than focusing on the one acre nonsense, it would be great if local legislation could deal with the actually critical factors of keeping chickens in a way that is both good for the chickens and acceptable to neighbors and neighborhood associations.

A few days ago, I took my father up on his offer to go see the goats. These goats:

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Anyone who knows me knows I love goats, so it’s no surprise that I was willing to get up at 6:30 am on a humid day in August just to make a sighting of Goat Mountain (I kid you not – there’s a giant sign in front of these guys spelling that out). I also happen to like getting up early so, anyway, not a big sacrifice. And these guys were definitely worth the price of admission.

But where the hell were/are they? The Maryland State Fair comes here, and the goats came about a week or two before the fair opened. There’s little explanation except the sign proclaiming them to be Goat Mountain, sponsored by a local restaurant. Sort of weird.

This, however, is already a quirky place. Besides the goats, there is also this crazy awesome garden:

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There it is! And this was the real reason for our visit. My father recently became a Baltimore City Master Gardener. His service project has been helping to plant and maintain this community garden (along with other Master Gardeners and other volunteers)… at the fairgrounds.

It’s about a 15 minute bike ride from our house and the garden gets a lot of attention. As much as I thought fairgrounds sort of shut down between fairs, that’s not actually the case. There are lots of events happening there (especially since it’s the state fairgrounds), and there are constantly people setting stuff up or clearing out old exhibitions. While we were there, about five people came over and talked to us about the various veggies growing here. My dad has gone up during the fair to talk to people, as well, and while he says it’s difficult to hear yourself think over the fair sounds, lots of people are interested.

Our family has benefitted from the garden because it gets my dad biking in the mornings and we have been able to bring home a lot of produce (when I visited, we didn’t intend to harvest anything, but we scored a cucumber, a bag of green beans, several turnips, a few beets, and a tomato!). More importantly, though, this garden seems to be a pretty effective spokes-garden for local food.

This garden goes to show that you don’t need a lot of space, or even the “appropriate” space to have a useful, productive garden. We have a little garden at home in raised bed planters, but this one gets a lot more attention. Partly that’s because it’s a community effort, and I think my dad enjoys the social nature of gardening with a bunch of other people.

Personally, I’ve always gotten a little bristly about sharing my garden, so community gardening has never held much appeal. However, what I love about this garden is that it’s such a great use of this little corner of land. Even if you don’t want to start a community garden or get involved with one, you can think about the way this garden used an unorthodox space. Apartment-dwellers take note! Maybe somewhere near you has a few spare square feet…

and maybe if you’re lucky, they’ll import a Goat Mountain to keep you company!

Food Politics by Marion Nestle – an excellent, frequently updated blog about exactly what it sounds like. I particularly like this blog for the useful reviews of food-policy-related books coming out!

Normals (on Tumblr) – a local bookstore I’m planning on checking out in real life soon

Farmers fatales: Here are the women who grow your food [from Grist]

Turning the Page – it’s never to late for dramatic career changes! This publisher became a farmer.

Welcome to the Age of Denial – op ed perspective on science/belief

It is a fact universally acknowledged that a single female in possession of a good fortune any sane person must be in want of a kitten. Especially when they look at you like this:

This cat. This cat purred.

Surprise kitten acquisition, Artemis

I will restrain myself from delving too far into ‘widdle baby’ territory. But damn, she’s cute.

More importantly, as I was rushing around last night trying to set her up with everything she needs, I realized how incredibly simple those needs are.

Food. Water. Shelter. (To a less vital extent, entertainment. Companionship.)

Obviously, there are a lot of ways I could screw this up. I could feed her a diet of Doritos and Natty Boh. I could make her sleep on a bed of nails.

But she’s got her priorities straight. Right now, she’s curled up at my feet, out cold. Once again, I’m impressed by the zen attitude of animals. She knows where her litterbox is and she has food and water. Beyond that, she mostly seems to want to be my shadow, which is both flattering to my ego and nerve-wracking while I’m walking about with a cup of tea.

I’m leaving for France in under a month (bizarre time to get a cat, I know, but she’s supposed to keep my family’s other cat, Simon, company). This is cool and exciting, but I’m not a consummate traveler. I like knowing where every kitchen pot and pan belongs. I like having a familiar chair and an unfamiliar book. I like knowing the neighbors and becoming accustomed to the habits of the people and animals of the neighborhood.

Still, as much as my soft self has some definitely stay-at-home tendencies, I also like getting lost, I like walking for hours in places I’ve never been before, I enjoy making new connections with people. So in the months to come, I’m going to try to carry this feline zen with me even as I leave the little miss at home.

Find the food and water and a good place to curl up–the rest will work itself out.

Like this.

Like this.

It’s a pretty safe bet that if you’re reading this, you have eaten something in the past 24 hours.

For those of us fortunate enough to be climbing Maslow’s hierarchy of needs pretty rapidly, or nicely perched at the top, it may seem counterproductive to go back to that most basic need–food–and think about where it’s coming from and what it means.

But food touches on a host of issues that aren’t always basic at all. We decide what to eat based on factors as variable as convenience, price, taste, cultural background, familiarity, economic status, perceived healthiness, emotional attachment, energy level, and availability.

I eat yogurt for breakfast every single day unless I’m traveling. Yogurt happens on auto-pilot, right after brushing my teeth, washing my face, doing morning stretches. But yogurt isn’t just yogurt. Sometimes I buy Greek yogurt, which is more expensive and sort of problematic because its manufacture creates a lot of excess whey. Other times I buy regular yogurt, and at all times it is “plain” flavored. Sometimes I buy organic, sometimes I don’t. I try to buy the largest container I can find, both because it is cheaper and means I’m purchasing less packaging per serving of yogurt. But then sometimes I am traveling, and I break down and buy those single-serve yogurts.

More importantly than my specific buying habits is the general framework I use to think about this food. Obviously, I think about price and environmental consequences. I also think about my typical physical activity; when I worked on a horse farm, my auto pilot breakfast was a bowl of oats with cinnamon and raisins (yes, dry oats), followed up by eggs just a couple hours later. Now, I might go on a run or do yoga, and I try to walk every day if nothing else, but I’m not lifting hay bales–so I prefer the digestive benefits of yogurt over the energy benefits of oats.

Beyond this, it occurs to me that my habitual yogurt is also something of a cliche, especially after that bit about running and yoga. Yeah, I’m a twenty-something white middle class female who eats yogurt every morning. Not super proud of fitting so perfectly into that mold. But I can start busting out of that  stereotype when I say that while, yes, breakfast might be yogurt, lunch and dinner might just as easily be rabbit–that I slaughtered myself.

Growing up eating meat, I had never personally been involved with the meat-making process, and at some point I started itching to “take responsibility.” Or at least see what the fuss is about. Raising (and slaughtering and butchering) my own meat rabbits and chickens last year was a humbling and empowering experience. And I’m confident in the product–I know that the animals had a good upbringing and were healthy up until the moment of slaughter; I know I made every effort to be as humane as possible.

But my grandmother, despite living on farms for a good part of her life (including a beef farm!), couldn’t stomach the thought of eating rabbit. She still pretends to faint when the subject comes up–and forget trying to butcher the meat in her kitchen. At some point, she’s developed a strong aversion to rabbit, specifically, because she’ll happily eat chicken, turkey, beef, pork–and my grandfather used to bring home wild rabbits he had hunted in the woods.

Beyond the personal level, eating habits–because everybody has them and acts on them daily–can create huge ripple effects. Problems such as obesity and heart disease create not only individual health problems, but larger economic issues and social concerns. When fewer and fewer people are actually growing food, biosecurity becomes an issue. Food deserts sound kind of fun (like somewhere to go after visiting the Grand Canyon and working up an appetite?) but are a major social justice issue.

The personal is political, and in this case something many of us take as a personal thing (what we eat) has really broad implications–political and otherwise. As I think about sustainability, eating/food is a great lens. It is universal. It is emotional. It is unavoidable. And it’s powerful–what we eat affects our health, our energy, and our ability to think beyond Maslow’s basic needs.

Why so Fast? High-speed train crash questions our need for speed – a friend of mine informed me about this train crash and shortly afterwards I read this article. Lately I’ve been taking a lot of public transportation and thinking about this even more.

Family Farming: the Key to Alleviating Hunger and Poverty – clear, brief piece; makes this look simple.

No-Man’s-Land: Fear, Racism, and the Historically Troubling Attitude of American Pioneers – long essay I enjoyed reading a while ago and still remember vividly.

Inside A Unique Yiddish Farm Thriving 50 Miles From Manhattan – language and culture are connected, shocking no one!

Dear Modern Farmer: How Do I Start Up A Community Garden?