This year my husband and I celebrate 10 years of farming. In 2000, we transplanted ourselves from the Twin Cities to our farm in East Central Minnesota and over the past decade, have gradually expanded our agricultural output. Our primary focus has been growing produce, beekeeping and honey, and making maple syrup. But the one thing that everyone we know has asked us is why do we not have any farm animals?
We're now proud to proclaim that Sapsucker Farms has finally added some authentic farm animals: chickens! In the spring, we acquired five laying hens. Ironically, three of the chickens are also transplants from the Twin Cities, just like us. They came from a family living in the heart of Minneapolis, who had quite an impressive little backyard farm, which included these three chickens. But the family was moving, so they needed to find a new home for their hens, so we adopted them. The other two hens were already residents of Kanabec County, so they just moved down the road to our place. Three are Rhode Island Reds, one is an Araucana, one is its own unique breed. And all of them came with names: Maude, Liz, Pearl, KFC, and Stew. I admit, I don’t’ remember who is who, but they do all answer to “hi girls!”
Their summer home is a chicken tractor my husband built -- kind of like an RV for laying hens. It has a covered coop area with three nesting boxes inside and an attached enclosed pen; the entire structure is on wheels. Every few days, my husband moves it to a new patch of grass, giving the hens a fresh area to scratch and peck. Inside, there's a water container and food tray, which is always kept full of organic chicken feed. We’ve located the tractor in our apple orchard, where there's plenty of room to move around, and the chickens obligingly fertilize the ground as they go.
Personally, I'm finding that chickens are not only a great source of food, they are also profoundly entertaining. In my opinion, they're so much more interesting than American Idol, The Bachelor, Deadliest Catch, or any other popular TV show. To me, these ladies are the ultimate comediennes who always manage to make me giggle and smile. The quirky way they bob their head when they walk, the cooing and clucking noises they make, how they establish the pecking order in the coop, their daily competitions for food scraps and their cute cuddling behavior when they lie down to roost for the night. No matter what kind of day I’ve had, I look forward to my time with the girls; I could watch them for hours.
But, of course, the biggest reward, by far, is the eggs. Each day these five hens collectively produce three to five eggs, and to my surprise, no two eggs are ever alike. The array of eggshell colors are vast and stunning: pink, tan, brown, peach, white, blue, and light green. The size and shapes also vary. Some are long and slender, others are round and plump, some with speckles or little bumps, some very large, some very small. Once I found one about the size of a robin’s egg. Putting all of my eggs into one basket (sorry, couldn’t resist) I see a lovely display of what real food is inherently supposed to look like – fresh, natural, random, diverse, and just plain beautiful.
Cracking open a real farm-fresh egg, I see that the yolk is an intense, bright yellow, something rarely, if ever, seen in a traditional store-bought egg. And then there is the flavor...nothing compares to the flavor of a fresh-from-under-a-hen egg. The closest I can come to describing it is “wow!”
While this journey of discovery of chickens and eggs has brought me a lot of joy, I also feel some sadness. Most people don’t get to see where their eggs come from. They also don’t get to experience the fun and smiles that chickens can bring. What is sadder still is that most people only get to see the same shape, color, and size of eggs that are sold in the grocery store and miss out on the beautiful colors, various sizes, shapes, and textures of eggshells that hens like Maude, Liz, Pearl, KFC, and Stew can provide. But the good news is that experiencing real chickens and real fresh eggs is an easy thing to do, whether you live in the city or the country. SGT's own Alicia Jabbar wrote a fun post earlier this year describing her desire to set up a chicken farm in her backyard. And last month, Angelique Chao wrote about the exceptional mothering ability of certain breeds, like the Silkie. So if having a few chickens is something you’ve thought about, there's plenty of information -- and inspiration -- to get you started.
After just a couple of months of being a chicken farmer, I wish I had taken up this endeavor sooner. But regretting the past does me no good, so I look forward to the future, which I know includes expanding our chicken-farming operation. I do know that at least for the short term roosters are not part of the expansion plan. I’m not quite ready for the predictable crack-of-dawn wake-up call that comes with a rooster, but I promise to be flexible in considering it.
With all of this taken into consideration, I can’t avoid the age-old question of which came first, the chicken or the egg? My answer is: I don’t care. To me, chickens and eggs together are a life-enriching experience, and it is something that I hope everyone get’s a chance to enjoy as much as I do.
Debbie Morrison grew up in Minneapolis and spent more than 20 years as a marketing strategist for ad agencies in the Twin Cities. Now, she and her husband own and operate Sapsucker Farms, where their certified organic crops include maple syrup, honey, apples, plums and vegetables. Debbie's last post for Simple, Good and Tasty was How Growing a Few Backyard Tomatoes Led to My Life as a Farmer.