Why raise chickens? For Ashley English, author of the Homemade Living series, butter-churner, bee keeper and chicken mother, it's a matter of self-sufficiency and a connection to her food.
The most surprising thing about raising chickens? "The way it dictates my social life," says English. "In the summer, the chickens don't go to bed until 9 p.m. You can't get them in the coop any earlier — it's like corralling cats. They run our life."
But, the more she talks about the pratfalls and quirks of raising chickens, the more it becomes obvious that she wouldn't have it any other way. There's the time that her German shepherd essentially ripped the back off of one of her more docile birds. "It was like when you buy chicken at the store. It was skin, no feathers, no nothing, and she was completely in shock — and chickens are actually really tough broads."
English held that injured chicken close, dabbed her with hydrogen peroxide and isolated her from the rest of the flock for two weeks. During that time, she coerced and tricked that stubborn bird into swallowing daily doses of antibiotics — eventually nursing her back to health. "That was a learning curve," says English.
This past long, snowy winter, the chickens, she said, did remarkably well, thanks to her constant care. "I would go out there with all-natural petroleum jelly and rub it on their combs (to prevent frostbite). They're very coddled, my chickens. They're very much like pets."
Pets — not food, she emphasizes. English, after all, didn't eat meat at all until her body recently began craving poultry — she and her husband are expecting their first child later this year. However, she says, she's fine with animal protein — "as long as it's done with conscientiousness and gratitude." As for chickens for meat? "I think it's one of the most sustainable food choices you can make, if you care for your chickens and provide them with a really good diet," English says.
She credits an article in The New York Times about modern homesteading written by Peggy Orenstein — "The Femnivore's Dilemma" — for making her reevaluate her views of animal husbandry. "She made me start to question the notion that all death was bad. I've always thought that no animal gives its life willingly; we all fight. However, if you're going to live, you're going to die."
It was the article's discussion of our culture's de-emphasis of death that struck her. "We don't want to talk about it at all. We want to hide it away, when it is such an inherent part of existence for everything," says English. "So, I've started to become more OK with the notion of animals giving their lives for food — but it's all in the manner in which it happens."
For her part however, English insists she would never eat anything that she had personally named. The tiny flock she currently tends, for example, is strictly raised for eggs. "I can't imagine hand-feeding a flock that small and then butchering them — I would never name a pet that I intended to slaughter. I would keep a small flock of chickens as pets, and then keep a larger flock … that (was) intended for table."
English says that most people who raise chickens — at least those doing so on a smaller scale — do so for the eggs, not the meat. "They want that intimate connection with their food — other than growing a carrot."
English's two books, Raising Chickens and Canning and Preserving, deal with issues like corralling unruly birds and putting up fruit for the winter. Skills, says English, "that people have been doing literally since they began putting down roots. These aren't difficult skills to learn; anyone can churn their own butter or keep a flock of chickens. I don't like elitism or exclusivity — I wouldn't find such passion in anything that promoted that."
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