Saturday, December 26, 2020

New Flock at the Little Farm--3rd Time is the Charm!

Hens in the yard, near the big stump
We welcomed a new flock of hens to Berryridge Farm this fall, courtesy of our wonderful neighbors! Alan and Gretchen are terrific at raising chicks, and after John and I lost two separate flocks to predators, our first to a cougar, and the second to coyotes, they offered to sell us a few of their pullets. So this past September, we picked up 5 young Buff Orpingtons and brought them to their new home.

You may wonder, why don't we raise our own chicks? Well, our place isn't the safest, when it comes to vulnerable animals. It's kind of a long story...First of all, out of our 10 acres, well over 8 acres are thick woods. Also, John and I built our homestead in a piecemeal way, and by the time we decided to get hens, 4 years after moving here, we didn't have any space for chickens close in. So our coop and chicken run are a ways away from our house: beyond our main garden area, our 4 woodsheds and one of our orchards. 

Alan and Gretchen's place is far more open and thus safer: most of their 10 acres is cleared. Also, their hen operation is right next to their house, and they have a lovely Border collie watching over their birds. Most importantly, they made us an offer we couldn't refuse! 

I feel we've really lucked out with the Buff Orpingtons. They’re gentle, friendly hens, which is a nice change from the four bullies (Black Sexlinks) we had in our last bunch. Strangely enough, for all their aggression, those black hens had the worst startle reflex I’d ever seen—the slightest move from you, and they’d leap away, squawking in terror.  

Happily these new girls always come to greet us (sure, we’re bringing feed, but still). They’ve been good layers from the get go too! From my experience, young hens will lay fairly well through the winter—we’ll see what happens next year.

What else is new: John and I have improved safety measures firmly in place for them!

At the edge of the yard, where the best weeds are!

We know how happy chickens are to forage around the largest area possible—and it’s true, for the first couple of months, we let this flock run around the orchard adjacent to our food garden. But within a few weeks, they had torn up the ground into mud.

We have another, much larger fenced area next to the orchard, which we cleared out of the woods for our previous flock to forage in. When we’re working nearby, we’ll let the new kids scratch around in there. Otherwise given the predators here in the Foothills, we restrict these girls to either their covered, caged run, or a small yard with a 6 ½ foot fence.

Hopefully, they’re not so very bored in there—the yard has a little stump they can jump on, though by now they've scratched the weeds into oblivion. In the cage, there's more fun to be had. Besides their feeder and waterer, we have a large, big-leaf maple stump they like climbing on, with plenty of perches for all five birds. 

There’s also an outdoor covered roost if they want dry feet…and John created little roof over their feeder as well. They often hop up there too, and seem to be looking in the window he built into the adjoining shed. We only keep feed in the shed, so it’s a mystery what they’re looking at. Maybe it’s the visiting mice…or maybe they can smell the feed better up on the roof!  

If, despite all these features, they have nothing to do, there’s something to break the monotony…The girls have the thrill of John (or the Rooster, as we call him, since he’s the only male on the place) spoiling them: visiting every day to toss them some scratch. After the young lady at the feed store told me scratch grains are like hen candy, I have to keep an eye on John so he doesn’t give them too much! (Overdoing the scratch seems to upset their tummies a little. As a result, coop cleaning turns into a far more unpleasant chore than it needs to be, if you get my drift.)

If you have any tips for keeping hens, I hope you’ll share them here. You can also visit me at ...or starting this week, reach me on Facebook!

PS—Due to technical issues, I couldn't post to this blog for a few months. But the problem was finally resolved a couple of weeks ago—and I'll be posting regularly from now on!


Saturday, December 12, 2020

Finding Light in Dark Times

For this year's holiday season, it may be challenging to find the "Merry" in Christmas, or the "Happy" in holidays. With so many people going through hard times, sharing the usual seasonal greetings don't feel quite right to me. But sometimes, you can find hope out there... I wrote this holiday piece in 2013, after a very difficult year. Rereading it brings me comfort and joy--maybe it might do the same for you...

 Garrison Keillor says being joyful is a large task for people from the Midwest, “where our idea of a compliment is, ‘It could have been worse.’”

 But when it comes to the year 2013, I think sometimes that it actually couldn’t. For the first time in our marriage, John and I decided not to send out our traditional Christmas letter this year, filled with our happy times and photos of smiling grandchildren. It’s been a year of many sorrows and challenges—enough to make me conclude that there really is something unlucky about the number 13. Surely any truthful account of the last year would be too disheartening to revisit, much less share with friends and family. Still, here I am.

This difficult year began even before 2013 arrived. December of 2012, the holiday season promised to be already sad—John and I were facing our first Christmas after his mother passed away, and he was also grieving over the loss of his childhood home, which had just been sold. I was cooking our New Year’s Eve dinner when we found a voicemail on the phone—from a hospital in Phoenix, Arizona

John’s son had been in a car accident, hit by a distracted driver. Collin’s injuries were serious; after extensive surgeries, he was in no shape to care for himself, so John spent six weeks in Phoenix looking after him.

It was a lonely time for me—worried for Collin, and trying to look after Berryridge Farm by myself in the darkest days of winter. With John away, I learned to be more self-sufficient, but I also got a taste of what widowhood might feel like.

 John’s return and the advent of spring was a lift, but in March, we got another phone call. It was John’s brother—their sister Becky’s cancer had progressed and she had only a few weeks to live. It turned out the time she had left was more like days. So right away, we traveled to her care center on the other side of the state to say goodbye. She died two days after our visit. Losing Becky felt all the more poignant knowing she had struggled through illness for much of her life. And that she, who had such a generous and loving heart, and who adored kids, never found a life partner, never had children of her own.

John’s birthday begins one of the loveliest months of the year in the Foothills—the sun doesn’t set until 10 o’clock. But this June, it dawned on us that we were facing a plague of tent caterpillars, such as we had never, ever seen. So it began, our month-long battle: we hand-killed caterpillars at least five hours a day, and sometimes up to 8 hours to save our orchard and our many dozens of berry plants. 

I can’t describe how revolting the experience was, but I will say it cured me of squeamishness. The long days of squishing insects, bracing myself to kill other creatures by the hour, seemed endless. By the first of July, however, the caterpillar plague had pretty well petered out. But I felt like I’d lost one precious month of my life.

 John and I were just regrouping when we lost our small flock of chickens to a cougar. For the first time since we moved here, I wanted to get away from our farm. Get away from the sad little corpses, from the feathers strewn around the chicken run, from the empty coop. Get away from the guilt we both felt—that we’d let our girls down by not protecting them. After so many blows this year, after this one, I couldn’t seem to bounce back.

There's a verse in the Old Testament that has become part of the Christmas story: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” This Christmas, I see that it has been the light that has brought healing. In August, I went to the Oregon coast with our granddaughter and spent time with my daughter and her two little sons. At the beach one evening, I watched the setting sun and the silhouette of my granddaughter frolicking in the surf, saw the golden-pink light bathing my grandsons’ rapt faces as they played in the sand, and I felt an incandescent joy I hadn’t felt in long time.

In November, John and I went to visit his daughter and her family in Los Angeles. Seeing the kids’ bright little faces, being called Grandma by the children for the first time, walking on the beach in the warm sunshine, when at home it would be dark and cold, I felt my heart lift even more.

 A few days later, John and I took our granddaughter to Portland to attend an Oregon Symphony Orchestra concert, which featured a young singing prodigy. Christmas lights were all over the city—the eighty-foot fir tree in Pioneer Courthouse Square all lit up brought back the wonder of my childhood. At the performance of gorgeous music, I feasted my gaze on the stage lights playing on this young singer’s face as she sang, the sequins on her gown sparkling, and the lighting behind the orchestra dancing in the changing hues of a rainbow. It was a joy-filled evening.

Holiday warmth
 So after the darkness, if you’re patient, the light comes back to you. Right now is the time of winter solstice, the darkest days of the year, but we have the light. The light and hope of the Christmas story, that speaks of a bright star that shone over a miracle, the light of generosity that the season brings…

 Back to 2020: This Christmas, you may be missing seeing your loved ones...John and I are among the millions of folks who won't have the joy and pleasure of visiting our family or friends. Yet I take comfort from little things --a cozy fire in the woodstove, my favorite holiday decorations, rereading the Christmas story--which makes me believe the light will return. But maybe it never went away...surely all the caring and dedicated people who have helped others during this crisis are bringing light and hope for the future. 

Christmas figurines
I also take hope from a lovely Christmas wish that took place years ago, when the Apollo 8 spacecraft carrying  astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anderson first orbited the moon. Bidding goodnight to the American people, that Christmas Eve of 1968, Mr. Borman said, 

"Merry Christmas, God bless all of you. All of you on the good Earth." 

Take good care, and this year, may you create holidays that bring you comfort and light.