There are these moments

You sorta had to be there

There are these moments, they’re hard to explain, but perhaps you’ve experienced them too. Like the other day I was in the yard, taking out an old lavender bush and one of our hens, Handsome, was under my feet the whole time, waiting for spiders to fall.

At one point I stopped my hacking and looked at her–really looked at her. She was dappled with late afternoon sun, her fresh molted feathers glistening and speckled with bright gold patches of light. Sensing my attention, she stopped scratching and just looked at me. The sun caught her amber eye and made it beautiful and deep and somehow profound. And we just sat there, regarding each other for a long half moment. And in that small space of time, I realized how blessed I was to have this moment, outdoors, in the golden light, surrounded by the scent of dying lavender, with this strange and amazing creature by my side.

Organic Egg Scorecard

Chino Valley hen houses, identified by the Cornucopia Institute as “ethically deficient.”

The Cornucopia Institute has released an “Organic Egg Scorecard” to assist in the ethical minefield that is shopping for a dozen eggs. The scorecard identifies 29 “exemplary” and, not surprisingly given recent news, a whole bunch of “ethically deficient” organic egg producers. The study used a 0 to 2200 point scoring system, rating farmers on hen’s access to outdoor spaces, pasture and the quality of housing among other factors.

And, a memo to Trader Joe’s–take a look at that scorecard–you guys get a big “0.”

Via the Official Poultry Bookstore Blog.

Hens Busy Dust Bathing

It’s difficult to capture the cuteness of this chicken behavior with a still camera–we really should try to make a  video.  Anyway, this is called “dusting” or “dust bathing.” The ladies have dug a hole in our yard and are gleefully rolling around in it, flicking loose dirt under their wings and driving it between their feathers. This is an innate behavior and an important part of chicken hygiene. Dusting suffocates skin parasites that prey on chickens, and it also seems to be pleasurable for the hens, judging by their blissful expressions.

After dusting they puff up and shake off, and settle in to do fine cleaning by preening. When they’re done, they’re all pretty and shiny.

It’s really important that chickens have constant access to dirt–loose, dry, sandy dirt–so they can dust at will. If for whatever reason your chickens don’t have this access, whether that’s because they’re being raised in a concrete floor, or are trapped inside because of bad weather, or your chicken run is swamped with mud, or whatever, it’s a smart thing to provide them with a tray of dirt so they can bathe. Dusting is nature’s favored method of insect control.

ETA: To give you some indication of size, a kitty litter tray would be a good size for a few hens to share, a cement mixing tray for a bigger flock.

Warning: Rant Ahead

We first got our own hens because we disagreed with the industrial style of raising chickens and farming eggs.  But at the time that disagreement was purely theoretical–now it’s stronger than ever, because it’s based on practice. The more we know, and experience the fundamentals of chicken life, the more appalling the industrial practices become.  One fundamental is that chickens are designed to live on dirt. They love to scratch, peck, dig and bathe in it. Take dirt away from them and you have to scramble to make up for that deficit in unnatural ways. Being unable to scratch, chickens get bored and peck at each other–so their beaks have to be cut off. Deprived of the ability to dust, they get mites and lice, and have to be treated with pesticides. It’s just sad.

Mad Hen

One of our hens will be featured in the new Coco’s Variety ad campaign. What’s Coco’s Variety you ask?

“Coco’s Variety’s primary business is bicycles. Additionally, we sell Japanese figural pencil erasers, used bike parts, old toolboxes, books worth owning, bike pumps, balsa wood gliders, pocket knives, Lodge cast iron frying pans, glass water bottles, Park bicycle tools, wicker bike baskets and Dutch bicycle cargo bags for the carting of fresh produce, the transportation of books of French poetry and the rescuing of kittens.”

If you’re not in Los Angeles, you can get a virtual Coco’s experience on their awesome blog at: http://www.cocosvariety.com/.

Via the magic of the interwebs we offer you an exclusive behind the scenes look at Coco’s proprietor Mr. Jalopy making advertising history:

Changing Egg Habits

photo by Buzz Carter

Got the last word in an Associated Press article on the egg recall: Egg recall has some changing buying, eating habits. Basically, I said small is beautiful–better to have lots of  people with four hens each rather than a few people with hundreds of thousands. Too bad food safety laws winding their way through Washington are being crafted to favor the big guys who caused this recent outbreak. More on that anon.

Love the Grub 2.1

Black soldier fly (Hermetia illucens) larvae, common in compost piles, are a free protein source for chickens and fish. It’s possible to create a composter to deliberately propagate BSF. Jerry (sorry I don’t know your last name) of the Black Soldier Fly Blog, has put together excellent and very detailed instructions on how to construct the BSF composter above. It’s a kind of Logan’s Run for larvae. Soldier fly females enter through the pipe on the top of the bucket and lay their eggs in food scraps you place in the bottom of the device. Larvae hatch and climb up a spiral tube and fall into a holding box.

You can buy a commercial BSF propogator, the Biopod, but it’s a bit over my price range. I’ll be putting together this BSF composter soon and will report back on my results.

Thanks to Federico of the Los Angeles Eco-village for the tip on this. See Federico’s blog http://eeio.blogspot.com/ for some other amazing DIY projects.

Also, see our previous post on the BSF.

Los Angeles School Board Cancels Tyson Contract

Thanks to the hard work of local food activists, including my neighbor Jennie Cook, the Los Angeles Board of Education voted this past week to withdraw its five year contract with Tyson Foods Inc. It’s a multi-million dollar loss for Tyson which provides chicken, or.what they refer to on their own website as “protein products” to the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Tyson was to have been a part of a contract divided between three other providers. All together Tyson and the other companies, who provide beef, potatoes and turkey, were to split a potential $284,450,000 over five years.

Rumor has it that Tyson representatives will attempt to win back the contract over the next month, with the activists promising to return to the next LAUSD board meeting on August 31st.

Looks like Jamie Oliver’s “food revolution” has come to LAUSD.

Clarification 7/20/2010: According to an email from Jennie Cook, LAUSD cancelled the Tyson contract because of labor practices not food quality. I’ll post more on this story later.

Recipe for Raising Chickens


Mrs. Homegrown here:

We were sent Minnie Rose Lovgreen’s Recipe for Raising Chickens for review, and have been enjoying it so much we thought we’d tell you about it. It was first released in 1975, and this 2009 version is the 3rd edition. It’s a charming little book, paper covered and staple bound, totaling only 31 pages. In fine 70s style, it is handwritten (in neat calligraphy) rather than typeset, and copiously illustrated with pen and ink drawings of hens and chicks.

I’ll say right off the bat that it is not The Definitive Chicken Book. It’s simply too short for that, and its focus is primarily on raising hens and chicks, with a side focus on bantams (because they’re such excellent brooders). As we can’t keep a rooster in our neighborhood, we’ll never see our hens raising chicks–so this information serves mostly to make us wish we lived somewhere where we could let the chickens follow their natural life cycle. However, if your situation allows a rooster, and you’re interested in breeding chickens, this might be a poetical resource that you’d enjoy.

I should add that she doesn’t talk about roosters much at all. They’re invisible players in this story, which is an interesting omission. Perhaps the fact of a rooster being present in the hen yard, doing his work, was so commonplace to her that she didn’t feel the need to mention it. Or perhaps she doesn’t mention breeding details out of delicacy–Lovgreen was born in 1888.


Yes, 1888! That means she wrote this book when she was 87. Her writing comes out of a long life raising chickens, and as such, her advice is wonderfully relaxed and commonsensical–and also joyous. Her love of her hens, and the pleasure she takes in watching them and learning their ways, is clear in every word. She won me over with a quote of the cover: “The main thing is to keep them happy.” That is so true. In fact, that might be all you really need to know.

Above all, its her voice that makes this book so charming. Here’s a sample:

The hen never leaves her chicks for any length of time to get cold. Soon as they commence to “peep peep” like they’re unhappy, she calls them under her. She spreads out her wings and they can all get under her. She spreads her wings real wide. The feathers of her wings are almost like little pages where they can get the air under. They can peek out from her wings, under the feathers, and then get back under her again. When the weather is warmer, the chicks will climb up on the hen’s back and ride piggyback. They have so much confidence in her.

One caveat: this book is $13.00. That’s 42 cents a page. For thirteen bucks you could buy a more comprehensive title, but if you like collecting chicken books, this would be a nice addition to your collection. I like simple books, myself. Books that give you a friendly push in the right direction, but don’t beat you about the ears with lots of confusing details and worrisome warnings. Like all of the home arts, you ultimately learn to keep chickens by keeping chickens, by paying close attention and using your head. Like Lovgreen did.