An Omnivore’s Dilemma

I’m constantly amazed at the wide spectrum of people interested in the subjects profiled on this blog. Our readers run the gamut from leftists to libertarians, to Republicans, with a sprinkling of hunters, new moms, city dwellers, suburbanites, and more all united in the common goal of manifesting a better world.

Of course such a wide coalition isn’t always going to agree on everything. This week we heard from some animal rights activists amongst our readers who politely took issue with the fact that we keep chickens for eggs. I’ll keep my rebuttal short, hoping that we can stay focused on our common goals. With the animal rights folks I agree that current agribusiness livestock practices are appalling and I suspect most of our readers agree on this point. I don’t agree with animal rights activists on the nature of the relationship between domesticated animals and humans. I see a long historical, symbiotic, beneficial relationship cutting across almost all the peoples of the world (with some exceptions such as Hindus). Farmer Bryan Welch sums up my attitude far more eloquently than I can in an essay in Mother Earth News when he says, “I get a lot of laughs watching my animals figure out their lives and I get pretty sad when it’s time to kill them. I have a lot more death in my life than I did before. And, ironically, that’s part of the reason why I feel like I have a lot more life in my life. That’s why I farm.”

Even though I’m raising hens for eggs not meat (though I don’t have a problem with doing so), there are ethical questions involved in keeping backyard poultry. Is shipping chicks by mail humane? What to do with roosters? Would keeping hens on pasture be better than confined to a run? I believe these concerns are outweighed by the benefits of knowing where my food comes from, but others may disagree and I respect that.

Since I’ve been asked in the past, I’ll let everyone know that I’m a omnivore (though I don’t eat much meat, following Michael Pollan’s admonition, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”). Mrs. Homegrown is a “fishetarian”. And I’m interested in hearing our reader’s opinions on the ethicacy of keeping backyard livestock: please leave comments. I’ve also crafted a poll that you’ll find along the right side of this page to indicate your dietary practices which I’m curious about.

Bird Flu and Industrial Agriculture

While I have not seen this new documentary, Shall We Gather at the River, its website contains three provocative interview clips with Michael Greger M.D., the U.S. Humane Society’s Director of Public Health and Animal Agriculture. In these excerpts Dr. Greger asserts that industrial agriculture’s penchant for cramming thousands of animals into sheds is the most likely vector for a host of scary diseases such as bird flu and mad cow disease.

Keeping chickens in our backyard has brought home the debate on biosecurity and bird flu. There’s considerable dispute about how these viruses spread, with the industry trying to make the case that wild birds and backyard poultry keepers such as ourselves are a greater threat. A report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Industrial Livestock Production and Global Health Risks (pdf) lends credence to Dr. Greger’s assertion that the hazard of a bird flu outbreak comes not just from backyard flocks but from large scale livestock operations. It seems logical: pack thousands of immunosupressed birds in a shed and spew their waste into the air and waterways and you’re asking for trouble.

And f.y.i. our sickened hen (not by influenza) seems to be on the mend and will hopefully rejoin the flock soon.

Problems Part I


The road to urban homesteading ain’t smooth and involves more than a few potholes along the way. Some of those potholes will swallow a bike tire while others are big enough for a Hummer. But with persistence it becomes easier to deal with the occasional bump, lessons can be learned and future mistakes avoided. With the popularity of our earlier blunders post, I’d like to begin regularly sharing problems as they develop. Here’s problem #1 for this troublesome July:

A Sick Chicken

Our Araucana hen became listless and depressed over the weekend, just sitting around, avoiding food and not engaging in the usual hen chatter. She also stopped laying eggs. At first we thought she might be egg bound, a condition in which an egg becomes stuck on the way out the cloaca. Warm baths and lubricants (I’m going to resist a cheap joke here) ensued with no results. The thought of inserting a finger into the cloaca, or worse, attempting to break an egg seemed foolish for inexperienced chicken owners such as ourselves. As of today we can feel no swelling in the abdomen, or butt dragging, both signs of an egg-bound chicken.

We began to think that our ill tempered Rhode Island Red, who had pecked the Araucana pretty badly last week, may have caused an infection to develop. On Sunday we borrowed some antibiotics from a fellow backyard chicken keeper, specifically a product called Terramycin which we added to her drinking water. As of today she is substantially improved, but not completely back to normal. As a friend of ours who grew up on a farm says, “chickens are either on or off.” Once they get sick they often don’t come back “on”. We’ll hope for the best.

This problem brings to mind two lessons we’ve learned in the past year of backyard chicken keeping:

1. When you build your coop think about creating an isolation ward. A real farmer would just cull a sick bird to keep the flock safe. For those of us with just a few hens this is more difficult and it’s great to have a place to separate, at a distance, a sick bird just in case they have something communicable. It’s better to figure out how to configure this ahead of time rather than at 8 p.m. on a Sunday. Thankfully we’ve got a large dog pen for our Doberman that can double as a small chicken run. We’ve also got a small dog/cat crate that works well for bringing a chicken indoors at night to keep her warm.

2. Have medications on hand before you need them. A chicken first aid kit is a good idea. Here’s an article on what that kit should include. If our hen recovers we’ll have to follow up the Terramycin with a probiotic supplement to restore beneficial gut bacteria killed by the antibiotics. It would have been great to have these medications on hand rather than having to run to a feed store, rely on a friend, or pay to have them shipped overnight.

Stay tuned for July’s problem #2–an old friend–blossom end rot.

UPDATE: The Araucana (actually, probably a “Americana”) made a full recovery.

Terror of Tiny Town

The Homegrown Evolution in-box overfloweth this week with news of the cute and the tiny. Yesterday’s post about our miniature Red Currant tomatoes prompted Bruce F of Chicago to inform us that he’s working on the world’s smallest kale plant. He’s growing them in self-watering containers made with old pop bottles (more info on how to make a pop bottle self-watering container here and here). These pop bottle containers look like they’d work well for starting seeds, as they provide a constant source of water.

Nance Klehm, another intrepid Chicago resident, informed us that someone just gave her two bantam chickens for her backyard, the perfect compliment to her chihuahuas. Some say that bantams are better for smaller backyards due to their diminutive size. Readers with bantam experience please let us know what you think about keeping bantams vs. normal chickens as we only have experience with SUV sized poultry.

The photo above is, incidentally, a scene from Werner Herzog’s brilliant and inexplicable film “Even Dwarfs Started Small”.

Mistakes we have made . . .

There’s a kind of boastful blogging style that, I’m afraid, we here at Homegrown Evolution have been guilty of. Simply put, we’ve failed to detail all our blunders. These mistakes and accidents, some funny, others painfully disappointing, have more instructional value than our successes. And oh, how many blunders there have been in the past ten years. It’s about time to round up the top 6. I’m sure there are many more that I’ve forgotten, but here’s a start.

1. Installing a water garden.

That water garden looks great in the picture above. That was before the neighborhood raccoons spent several nights a week treating it like rock stars used to treat hotel rooms, and before scum and slime clogged up the pump. While the pump was solar powered, the profligate use of water was not the best example to set here in draught prone Los Angeles. After a few months we gave up, filled it in with soil and now strawberries grow there happily. We hear that Materials and Applications, a neighborhood landscape architecture firm that runs an amazing outdoor gallery, has stopped designing water features unless they are supplied by rainwater. Sounds like a good idea to us! And with the chickens we did not want to provide habitat for raccoons.

2. Mixing Chicken Breeds

Speaking of chickens, a friend of ours who grew up on a farm confirmed that “chickens are racists”. Like talk radio hosts, hens will pick on anyone who is different. In our case, our green egg laying and weird looking Araucana gets the crap beaten out of her by the Rhode Island Red and one of the Barred Rocks. If I had it do do all over again, I’d get four Barred Rocks. They’re dependable layers and don’t make much of a fuss.

3. Planting stuff that doesn’t grow in our Mediterranean climate

As our permaculture friend David Khan likes to say, “work makes work.” Plants that need lots of tending and attention, nine times out of ten, end up unhappy. When they croak it leads to a downward spiral of disappointment and frustration. Just recently a hops plant I tried to grow up and died on me. I stormed around the kitchen cursing for a few minutes before I realized that, once again, I had failed to follow my own advice–plant in season and in respect of place. Hops belong in the Pacific Northwest. In contrast, the heat loving prickly pear cactus in our front yard provides both tasty nopales and fruit reliably every year while growing in terrible alkaline soil with no added water or fertilizer. The problem with the prickly pear is that it is too prodigious, and that’s the kind of problem you can hope for as an urban homesteader.

3. Newspaper seed pots

Those newspaper seed starting pots we linked to earlier this year . . . well, there seems to be a problem with them. I think the newspaper is wicking the water away from the soil. While in Houston recently, I took a class from a master gardener in plant propagation and we used regular plastic pots, a thin layer of vermiculite over the potting soil and a plastic bag over the pot. It seems to work better. The other blunder here is posting about something before testing it.

4. Pantry Moths!

A few years ago, using our solar dehydrator (we’ll post about that soon), we dried a summer’s worth of tomatoes to use during the fall and winter. We put the entire harvest in one large jar. Several months later we had a jar full of pantry moth larvae. This is the entomological version of “don’t put all your eggs in one basket”, a mistake we won’t soon repeat. Now we split dried goods into multiple jars so that in case some critters get it to one we’ll still have others.

5. Buying a wonky house with poor professional guidance

Be careful choosing a Realtor–pick one who has been recommended to you by someone you trust. Be especially careful picking a home inspector–pick an independent one–not one recommended by the seller or buyer’s agent. Our inspector spent a very short time in our house and ignored large problems, in my opinion, because it was in his favor for the house to sell so that he could continue his relationship with our agent. It’s an inherent conflict of interest for the inspector to have a connection to either real estate agent.

6. Planting a lawn

We weren’t always the Molotov cocktail tossing vegetable growing radicals that we are now. Just after we bought this place ten years ago we planted a lawn in the backyard. With some temporary fencing, we roped it off from the Doberman to allow it to grow. After a month the lawn matured into a lush green carpet . . . but it only lasted five minutes. That was the time it took for the Doberman to gracefully leap over the barrier and run in circles, causing chunks of turf and newly amended soil to fly all over the yard.

Let’s do the math–in a dry place like Los Angeles–lawn=crime. On top of the waste of water they simply don’t look good here without massive inputs of fertilizer, herbicides and gas powered lawn mowers. Sorry, but I hate lawns and will not ever be convinced otherwise. Got kids? That’s what mulch is for. Fuck the lawn. Fuck all it stands for.

The Conclusion

I guess the lesson here, with all of these missteps, is persistence. Push through the blunders and the light will shine. And a promise–we here at Homegrown Evolution we will do a better job detailing our mistakes.

The Great Sunflower Project

Help determine the health of urban bees with a citizen science experiment called the Great Sunflower Project. It’s simple and free. Just register at the Great Sunflower Project website and you’ll be sent a package of wild annual sunflower seeds (Helianthus annuus). Twice a month you’ll get an email to remind you to time how long it takes for five bees to visit your sunflowers.

Sounds like it has drinking game potential, though that might lead to inaccurate results . . .

Poultry Outlaws: Chicken Laws Around the U.S.

As the days get longer the chickens have started cranking out more eggs. In honor of our first four egg day, pictured above, we present a sampling of arbitrary and strange municipal codes around the country pertaining to chickens. Recent chicken controversies in Missoula (see our post on that dust-up) and Chicago, prove that urban poultry is still controversial.

Albuquerque: Zoning allows the raising of unlimited poultry if penned at least 20 feet from neighboring dwellings.

Atlanta: Up to 25 chickens may be kept if adequately housed, i.e. 2 square feet per adult bird, and their enclosure is 50 feet from the nearest neighbor.

Austin: Up to 10 fowl per household, but keep in an enclosure that’s 50 feet away from neighbors.

Boston: All residential zones in Boston forbid “auxiliary keeping of animals,” which includes poultry and other livestock. No person shall keep any live fowl of other farm animals, except in accordance with a permit from the Division of Health Inspections, Inspectional Services Department.

Chicago: May keep unlimited number of chickens for personal use, but their slaughter is forbidden.

Detroit: Unlawful to own, harbor, keep, or maintain, sell, or transfer any farm animal on their premises or at a public place within the City. [Despite this, we hear tell that there is some pretty progressive urban farming going on in Detroit, including plenty of livestock.]

Los Angeles: Chickens may not be within 20 feet of owner’s residence, and must be at least 35 feet from any other dwelling. Crowing fowl must be 100 feet from any dwelling. [Looks like we’re breaking the law again!]

Madison: Up to four chickens per household. Not allowed to roam free. Keep pen 25 ft. from neighbors. $6 annual permit required.

Miami: May have up to 15 hens, no roosters. Must be contained at least 100 feet from neighboring structures.

Minneapolis: Must obtain permission of 80% of your neighbors that live within 100 feet. Must be kept penned.

New York: Health Code § 161.19 Keeping of live poultry and rabbits.
(a) No person shall keep a live rooster, duck, goose or turkey in a built-up portion of the City.
(b) A person who holds a permit to keep for sale or sell live rabbits or poultry shall keep them in coops and runways and prevent them from being at large. Coops shall be whitewashed or otherwise treated in a manner approved by the Department at least once a year and at such other times as the Department may direct in order to keep them clean. Coops, runways and the surrounding area shall be kept clean.

Portland: Any animal may be raised for noncommercial purposes with no animals kept on any lot less than three (3) acres or closer than one hundred (100) feet to any street or lot line.

Raleigh: No limit on number of chickens kept.

San Francisco: You may keep any combination of four small animals on your property (dogs, chickens, etc.) without permit

Seattle: Three domestic fowl may be kept on any lot.

Even if you follow the laws above to the letter, you can still have problems with the neighbors. See the excellent Hen Waller blog for their Portland poultry saga (and some snappy vélocouture).

Considering how loud our perfectly legal Doberman is compared to the hens, these laws are ridiculous. You’ve gotta fight the Man if you want this–backyard eggs with homegrown Swiss chard and Italian parsley served on home-baked wild yeast bread:
Reviewing the laws, it’s obvious that the Man wants us to shop in his crappy supermarkets.

An Araucana Egg

Our Araucana hen, the lowest hen in the pecking order of our backyard flock, took a bit longer to start laying. Yesterday we got our first egg with the distinctive blueish green hue Araucanas are known for.

And once we get over the nasty flu we’ve picked up (not the bird flu!), we’ll get back to regular postings and some big changes to the blog.

Do Hens Make Noise?

Yes, indeed hens make noise. Far less than a rooster, but when it comes time to lay an egg you often get the stereotypical hen vocalization, technically known as “cackling,” which goes something like, “cluck, cluck, cluck, CLUCKAAAAAWWWWK!” Thankfully this only happens around laying time, which for our three productive hens is no more than once a day, and usually at a respectable time between around 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. Some of our club hopping neighbors may get an early than wanted wake-up call, but so far nobody has complained.

Being naive first time chicken owners, the first time we heard this sound caught us by surprise. We suspected that it’s the result of discomfort from squeezing out an egg, or some wonder of selective breeding, a way to announce to the poultry farmer, “Hey, time to collect an egg!” In fact, research presented by University of Sheffield animal scientists Tommaso Pizzari and Tim R. Birkhead, in an article entitled “For whom does the hen cackle? The function of postoviposition cackling,” posit that cacking is a way for hens to get the message out to nearby roosters that they ain’t in the mood. As Pizzari and Brikhead put it, “One function of postoviposition cackling may thus be to avoid the costs of sexual harassment by signalling to males a particularly unsuitable time for fertilization.” This contradicts earlier theories that cacking was, in fact, an invitation to boogie.

For those who’ve never heard it, we’re pleased to present the postoviposition cackling sounds of one of our barred rock hens. Towards the end of the track you’ll hear the usual soft clucking. For the DJs out there, please feel free to use for mashups, mixes and Quinceañeras:

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