It’s a gorgeous June day, the windows are rolled down, the radio is on and a warm breeze is blowing through the car. My husband Rick and I are driving north on the Taconic Parkway and I’m wondering if we’ve gone too far with this homesteading thing. Growing food and baking bread is one thing but when we return home we’ll have six hens. Jim the farmer is a towering man with hands as big as oven mitts. He laughs at me when I ask him to choose good-natured birds for us. Scanning hundreds of chickens running around at his feet on his Dutchess County farm, he asks, “What are they, pets?”
I did not grow up on a farm, obviously.
Not waiting for an answer, Big Jim scampers across the grass, cupping each chicken with his enormous hand-appendages until he can grab the bird by its feet. Holding the flapping creature with a tight grip, he ambles to our SUV and stuffs each hen in a large dog cage. Six chickens later, we are farmers.
“Good luck,” he says after the last one is in. I hand him $120 in cash, $20 for each pullet.
A pullet is a young hen, about nine months old, that’s just started laying eggs. We thought it better to start this way rather than by incubating a clutch of 25 day-old chicks which would have arrived at the post office in a box poked with holes from the Murray McMurray Hatchery. (Although those fuzzy yellow chicks are adorable, you inevitably end up with a rooster or two, which are prohibited in many towns and must be given away).
The birds squawk loudly and peck at themselves nervously until we reach the end of Jim’s winding, bumpy gravel driveway. The squawking morphs into gurgles. Finally they are quiet but standing alert as we head south on the Taconic to our “farm” in Nyack.
My husband and I give each other a look that says, “Is this really our life?”
Eighteen months later, we have some answers. There is absolutely nothing like a fresh egg. Nothing! That first brown oval we collected was a little warm miracle. Fresh eggs piling up in the fridge (in warm weather we get three to four a day) transforms you from a short-order cook scrambling eggs to Jacques Pepin — whipping up eggs Benedict with hollandaise sauce (four eggs plus four egg yolks). My husband specifically looks for baking recipes that use a lot of eggs. We come to friends’ houses bearing baskets of eggs.
Keeping hens — we have two Barred Rocks, two Sex-links, and two Rhode Island Reds — sure makes for amusing anecdotes. As everyone rightly says, the birds are comically entertaining. They dart for position. They perch. They preen. They roll in the dust and take dust baths. They eat grass faster than it grows. Near sunset they gather together and cluck softly. They gaze into the sunset wistfully. At sundown, they throw themselves into a pile inside the coop and sleep in a trance, eyes open. Some of this I’d expected from reading Chickens in Your Backyard and from checking out posts on www.backyardchickens.com — but experiencing it firsthand is different.
When I walk down the path the girls sound like a choir warming up, with their high-pitched whine that in “chicken” likely means, “Where’s our fruit and veggie scraps?” It’s Pavlovian — I’m the lunch lady. When my husband’s car rolls up, they’re apoplectic with delight.
My young daughter Julia loves to feed them live worms. She has named them: Miracle, Gloria, Nina, Nicole, Layla, and Lila.
To protect the utterly defenseless hens from coyotes, raccoons, foxes, and hawks, we house them in a coop with Yale locks that are pulled tight at night. During the day, they move back and forth between their coop and an attached run that is enclosed on all four sides and overhead.
Home on the farm: Traster’s fancy “McCoop” is the new home of her six hens. Building the coop cost more than $1,000
Photographs courtesy of Tina Traster
Before we got chickens I dreamed of being able to let the birds run free by day (provided I supervised them and chased away hawks). The first week they were home I realized they’d quickly be lunch for a wily stray cat and my neighbor’s hound dog. That put an end to my Old McDonald free-range fantasy.
The fussing and worrying is one thing. But the biggest kick in the head has been the expense. Keeping chickens ain’t cheap. Our circumstances remind me of William Alexander’s book The $64 Tomato. He set out to have a kitchen garden on his Dutchess County property; by the time he paid for high water bills, electric fences, animal traps, and pesticides, he figured each heirloom tomato he grew cost him $64.
According to my most up-to-date ledger, in 18 months we have spent more than $3,500 to rear our chickens. That breaks down to $15 for each dozen eggs we’ve yielded. Which is four times what it would cost to buy fancy, organic, free-range eggs at the health-food store.
“I break even by selling the eggs to friends,” says Melissa Bogen, who lives with her partner Les and 25 chickens on a semirural property in Chester. The couple spends about $70 per month on feed and supplies, and sells about three dozen eggs a week, for $5 a dozen. “If I didn’t sell eggs, it would be a losing proposition,” she says.
It’s like anything in life — having kids, buying an old house — you just don’t know where the money goes. Unless you get out pen and paper and calculate the costs. So I did.
Before the chickens arrived we ordered a premade wooden coop with a six-by-four-foot triangular attached run from a chicken guy in Michigan that cost us $1,100. Initial supplies cost another $350. So far, $1,450.
Last winter, we were worried about the cold, so my husband fashioned temporary Plexiglas panels to fit into sections of the run to shield the birds from wind and snow. That cost $120. Then we bought an electric heating pad for inside the coop and an electric waterer so their water wouldn’t freeze. Cha-ching: another $70. On top of all this, monthly expenses for their food, including organic pellets ($26 per 50-pound bag), oyster grit, dried meal worms (because you can’t always get the real thing), and Swiss chard costs about $35 a month.
One of Traster’s six hens
Then there are the inevitable “issues” — like one poor little chick who was almost done in by her peers. (That’s the one we presciently named Miracle.) By the time we realized how badly the other five were cannibalizing her, she was near death. We brought her inside to live with us for three months and nursed her back to health. My husband then built a solo coop for her using scraps of lumber and chicken wire. But bottles of Rooster Booster vitamins, which is more expensive than Neosporin, added up. Say another $40.
Last summer a raccoon was hell-bent on tunneling under our run. With time on his crafty and agile little hands, he’d spend the night digging, though he never made it inside. We added fortifications to the coop and run. One afternoon I even chased a bear cub away from the coop. Who said bears are herbivores?
“It’s time for a bigger, safer coop,” I told my husband.
Thus began the endeavor known around here as “The McCoop.” We spent weeks building a 312-square-foot enclosure on a grassy hill, expanding the chickens’ space more than tenfold. An impressive structure painted farmhouse red and sage green, the coop resembles a see-through barn, with a partial wooden roof, a wooden door, and a little window that looks like the one in The Wizard of Oz from which Dorothy and gang are first turned away from the Emerald City. The lumber, paint, boxes of staples, chicken wire, plastic netting, hasps and lag bolts added up to a whopping $1,200.
If I knew then what I know now, would I have gone to Big Jim’s farm that day in June? I think so. I love watching my chicks strut around in their palatial quarters while I strut around in my kitchen. And when my husband comes in from the coop, his Wellies covered in mud, eggs in a basket, I remember that day when I looked at the six hens in the back of our SUV, and I think, “Yes, this really is our life.”