Thursday, July 30, 2009

Even odds...

I placed my chicken order yesterday. For realz! Project chicken makes progress! 

I placed my order with a feed store down in Fresno. They, in turn, will order my chicks from the Belt Hatchery down the street from them.  I will collect the fuzzballs on the glorious day of September 3rd.  By driving the two hours down there I will not only satisfy my craving for instant gratification, but I will also save my pullets the trauma of being boxed up and spending 2-3 days at the whim of the US postal service. 

The good news is, the ordering went off without a hitch. The feed store was happy to take my credit card in exchange for the future delivery of 2 Easter Eggers (also called Americaunas), a black silkie, a Polish, a black star (also called a black sex-link), and a Mille Fleur pullet.

(Let me pause here and point out that this simple list of 5 breeds, up from the original 3, was comprised after hours...yes, hours of research.  I compared temperaments, egg-laying abilities, egg appearance, kid friendliness, and weirdness quotient on at least 20 breeds.  Then I cross referenced this data on at least 3 sites each to get a consensus.  Then I looked for availablity, which caused me to go back and redo the list because some breeds, like the dear Faverolle-of-the-fuzzy-feet are virtually impossible to get this time of year. In total, I would guess at least a dozen hours went into designing my chicken dream team.  Pathetic, maybe. But it kept me humming happily for weeks!)

The bad news is, while the first four breeds will be sexed, (an imperfect science, but I have a 95% chance of getting the females I want) the last breed, the beauteous Mille Fleur,  is straight-run only.  For those of you who don't speak chicken, that means that I have no way of knowing if I'm getting a boy or a girl.  We have to love it, and keep it, and hope it doesn't start crowing 5 months down the line. It's a 50/50 shot on ending up with a rooster...anyone want to take bets?

My friend Jessica, who bravely sat through a good 20 minutes of chicken babble tonight,  asked me what happens if the little Miss Mille turns out to be a Mr. Mille. I said, with bravado, "He goes in the pot!"

Brave words from someone who has never committed a food act more brutal than boiling crayfish. Brave words indeed... 

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Hunt for craftsmanship

After a few days of mourning the loss of planting justice, I returned to project chicken this week with renewed vigor.  Item the first: a coop to keep my girls in.   

After multiple journeys through google and craigslist for local coops and coopmakers, I determined that the coops at stood out as being particularly well made. To be certain, I wanted to see the goods before I bought in. And so I dragged my essentially disinterested-but-willing husband along on an hour-long drive to check out the coop's craftsmanship. 

We arrived at Dru's house on a warm Friday morning. It was hilarious to watch Rich and Dru together. Their eyes met across the crowded work area. They stood for a second, frozen in platonic man love. Then they crossed the field of scrap wood and power tools and fell, laughing, into each other's arms.  

Okay, it didn't go down exactly like that. But it was close.  Dru's fine craftsmanship, his knowledge of chicken husbandry, and his slick solutions to a variety of chicken needs made Rich swoon, and Rich's job at the Academy made Dru's heart go pitter pat. It was very cute.   I just sat by the chickens while Rich and his new buddy made up secret handshakes. 

So, the coop is now on order. We're getting the 4x4 coup de grande.  The coup de view is cuter, but the grand has more floor space, which our flock of 6 will need.

Oh, and Rich has arranged for Dru to deliver the finished product to our house.  This saves us the trouble of renting a trailer (it's too big and heavy for a truck), and it also ensures that the two of them will see each other again. Convenient!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Back to the Drawing Board!

So I had my meeting with The Backyard Food Project/Planting Justice.  And I loved it.  Gavin was full of great ideas about how to transform my back yard into a food-producing mecca. Things I hadn't considered.  Things of which I had never dreamed my yard was capable.   I was impressed. I was enthusiastic. I couldn't wait to get started.  

Phase one would be coop construction, scheduled to begin this Friday.  Gavin had suggested that my coop be located on the back fence of our property, which would make it extremely visible,  both from my living room and my backyard.  I wasn't thrilled with the idea, so I told Gavin that the coop needed to be cute. Nay, really cute. My backyard is my favorite part of my nest; I need it to be pretty. "No problem" said he. 

Now as you all know, I've been doing quite a bit of research on "project chicken. " (One might say obsessive research about project chicken, if one were in a judgmental frame of mind) So in advance of our start date, I sent Gavin an email with some questions about the design of the coop. There were certain features that I knew from my research that I wanted in a coop, or at least wanted to discuss before we got started. (Opinions? Me? Never!)  To answer these questions, Gavin said that the design would be really cute, and a lot like his coop.  He attached photos for my reference.  I opened the photos with great excitement and anticipation.

I was flabbergasted. Not only was the coop in the photos not cute, it was shoddily done. Chicken wire sagged.  Wire stuck out from the cage, ready to rip at tender human flesh.  The doors didn't fit properly. The roof was warped. The run didn't even have a frame, it consisted merely of chicken wire stapled to upright posts with no cross pieces.  It was devoid of personality, AND it was poorly done. Sigh.

Even more disturbing was the fact my chicken-coop expert used chicken wire at all.  Many of the resources I consulted made special mention that a good coop uses nothing with holes larger than hardware cloth.  You see, chicken wire is not predator proof.  It's true that a predator like a raccoon can't get a chicken out through chicken wire...intact.  But they do try, and often succeed, in taking parts of the chicken out through the small holes. What a gruesome end to Cluckers! 

And so, with a heavy heart, I fired TBFP/PJ.  They are brand new, just figuring things out, and may one day do good work. But for now, I have to classify them as good intentions/poor execution, great theory/poor practice.  Sigh!

So, now, plan B.  My dearest husband helped me troll craigslist, and select a locally-made coop that we both like.  It's cute, well designed, (hardware cloth on every vent), reasonably priced, and appears to be very well made.  But I ain't buyin it till I see it in person!

We even found a good place to stash it in the garden...a dead space that gets plenty of shade, and will allow the girls a good bit of roaming room.  Incidentally, the new location is NOT on the back fence.  I can look at the coop from my living room if I want to, but it won't be the first thing I see every time I walk in! 

As for the rest of my food growing (Lettuce, oh, yes, lettuce!) well, that may take me a bit longer now that I don't have professional help.  But I am undaunted! I'm just going to have to take my urban farming challenges one at a time.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Web Research

So, with my two-pronged objective in mind (eggs and lettuce) I set out to do my research. At the recommendation of  Jenny, and my online buddy, Pip, I went to Birdvana!


That weekend, instead of indulging in my usual vacation planning/armchair travel, I spent hours playing with the “Breed Selector tool” on mypetchicken. I didn’t just consult it, I wallowed in it. I changed variables, changed them again, cross referenced the results with breeder sites.  We’re talking a major chicken geek out.  


My objective: to somehow balance my desire for copious eggs (more than a dozen a week at least…I don’t just want eggs for my family, I want to be able to share!) with my daughter’s need for friendly, tolerant chickens, and my husband’s preference for freaky looking chickens with feathered feet. Plus, I wanted a diverse egg basket, with eggs of different shapes and colors.  With this tool, I was able accomplish all of our objectives with six chickens, (the legal limit in my municipality) two of each of the following:


Ameraucana (Cute, mellow, 3 blue/green eggs per week)

Faveroles (Tolerant, feathery-footed, 4 cream/tinted eggs per week)

Silkies (Great pets. Cute, but freaky looking, 1-2 pink/brown eggs per week)


Not to count my chickens before they hatch, but I figure this lot will give me an egg basket of  16-18 blue, cream, and pinkish brown eggs a week.  Allowing for the variations of individual personalities, they should all be fairly kid-tolerant. And several of them will have that sideshow look that makes my husband happy.


With that victorious decision-making process behind me, I did some serious husbandry reading, after which I began my search for a coop.  If this had all happened two years ago, I could have gotten my handy-manny husband to build my coop, no problem.  But since he got his fancy job (aquatic biologist at a famous aquarium, dontchaknow…I’m so proud!) his honey-do list has expanded to biblical proportions. Thus, I figure my chances of getting a free coop are pretty slim. Hence, I must buy one.


I started on Mypetchicken, moved on to google, and quickly got coop-head. Not only is the information on what is required (2 feet per chicken, 10 feet per chicken, indoor, no, outdoor, no both, warm, no, ventilated) contradictory, but even a lower-end coop seems disproportionately expensive. For something big enough to house 6 chickens, I’d need to shell out at least $1000, plus several hundred dollars in shipping.


Surely in this economy there must be someone local who can build a good, attractive coop for less money, right? Then I’d have the added bonus of a coop made to fit my particular space. According to the local paper, backyard chickens are gaining popularity, especially since the truly free-range eggs now sell for $8 a dozen at specialty stores. So someone must be building coops, right? And so I turned to craig’s list.


Bingo. There were several well-designed, attractive options, locally made, in the three digit price range. But I also saw a more intriguing option.


In with the other coop builders was a fledgling NPO called The Backyard Food Project/ Planting Justice.  According to their brief description, they specialize in helping people like me turn their urban spaces into food production zones, complete with chickens, vegetables, herbs, composting, grey-water recycling, fruit trees, the works. They look at your space, analyze the sunlight, the soil, the microclimate.  They develop a plan. Then they help you build and install said plan. Furthermore, they do follow-up calls, so if some newbie (like me) can’t figure out why one plant is thriving and the other sickly, you have help.  Fantastic!  Money raised from the project is then redeployed in a school, public space, or low income backyard, so that more people can have access to fresh, home-grown food.  


I was immediately intrigued. My two-pronged project now seemed small potatoes. Why not go all the way? Why not get some help so I could do my project right? Tasty, fresh food, grown sustainably in my own yard. And to help someone else in the process? How much better could it get?


So I went back to google in order to research this new option.  And didn’t find much. After much digging, I found two mentions of significant projects in which they were involved, but their own website was still under construction and had no content.  ACK!  Was this a scam? Did this organization even exist? Perhaps it’s my own web-research-based bias, but a flimsy web presence is a big turnoff. I recognize these guys are new, and web-building hasn’t been a priority, but still… I checked the better business bureau and found no bad marks, but I was still nervous. 


After several days of hemming and hawing, I decided that I liked the concept so much that I should take a chance. At the very least I should meet with them, and see what they had to say.


Will my leap of faith pay off? Or will it be a disaster? Stay tuned to find out!


Thursday, July 2, 2009

Lettuce Love

The purpose of this blog is to detail the transformation of my yard, and my life, from ornamental to food-producing. And I promise to get to that shortly. But since we haven't yet put shovel to soil, I thought I'd take advantage of this time before all hell breaks loose to fill in a bit more backstory for you.

So, after the fresh egg conversation with my father, I had an equally ecstatic incident regarding growing my own lettuce. My daughter and I went to Maine for a week's vacation.  We stayed with my friend Jenny's family in their wainscot-and-trim cottage. 

Behind their cottage was a little fairytale of a garden, all the misty greens and yellows bleeding together in the steady rain.  It was a magical place, even seen from beneath an umbrella. The chickens (yes she had chickens! :-) clucked contentedly. The squirrels watched imperiously from their tree-stump throne. To tell you the truth, I wouldn't have been surprised to see a leprechaun carousing among the hostas.

It was from here that Jenny procured the greens for our supper table, fresh from the garden. Given what else was on my plate, a boiled Maine lobster and an ear of early-summer corn, I had very little interest in the salad. I took a polite handful, and set to work on my lobster.

Mmmmmm....lobster. It was so good that I didn't even use the drawn butter. I ate methodically. First, the claws, then the meat in the body, then the silky tail. Using my teeth to crunch the shell, I sucked every last morsel out of every thin lobster leg.  Then I plucked every sweet kernel of corn off the cob. Summer on a stick. Finally, I was done. And full.  I had room, maybe, for one bite of salad. 

Dressed only with olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper, it was a simple salad. My favorite kind. I took one mouthful of mesclun into my mouth. 

Joy! Bright, tasty joy! This was no homogenous, store-bought spring mix. It was a mix of lettuces and cabbages and arugula, each with a distinct taste, a texture all its own. So fresh, so flavorful. Not only did I eat my own salad, but I commandeered the serving bowl. Jenny and her husband Keith watched with mounting amusement as I continued eating until every last leaf was gone. 

And in that moment, phase two of my project was born. I was going to have chickens, oh yes. There would be eggs.  But there would also be lettuce. Oh, yes, there would be lettuce.