I self-identify as a farmer. I have a farmer hat, two pairs of wellies, and a compost pile. Others might call me a pseudo farmer or a hobby chicken-keeper who incidentally grows spectacular tomatoes. I call myself a chicken farmer. I acquired my enthusiasm for farming in late middle age, though there may be some genetics at play there as well. To me, there is something sweet and idyllic about the sounds and sights of free-ranging hens rambling about the garden that melds so beautifully with my mellowing age.
I currently keep six hens, primarily for eggs, though only two currently comply with their end of the bargain. The other four free-loaders seem content to dig up our gardens and bespeckle our walkways with their free-flowing poops. Some might say they’re producing excellent compost material for our tomatoes— but their contributions exceed our gardening needs. In truth, I don’t mind all the shit that comes with keeping them. If it lives, it poops. This is true of all creatures, even the cutest (consider babies). I loved having babies, and I love keeping hens.
My grandmother was a real farmer. In addition to goats, rabbits, and countless cats and dogs, she had chickens; loads of them. She had two large converted sheds housing every imaginable hen and rooster and an ongoing supply of new hatchlings. Summers at her small farm boasted a new collection of ducklings and chicks each year. She personally preferred her Bantams and bred several varieties of these tiny, ornamental chickens. The larger breeds were less coddled and reared exclusively for eggs and meat. Happily, our grandparents spared my sister and me from the spectacle of chicken butchery, but we were tasked with collecting eggs.
Keep in mind we were American city children, accustomed to uniformly white eggs packed in styrofoam cartons and sold to our mother at the grocery store. We were spared the knowledge of where eggs actually come from.
Grandma’s hen houses were dark, stifling hot and reeked of ammonia. Her broody hens would screech, flap their wings and peck at our hands as we attempted to reach into the nest boxes. Horrified, our little city-child hands would touch unseen spider webs and chicken poop as we clutched the still-warm eggs in the darkness. Oh, and all the colours! Eggs in various shades of cream, brown and even green and blue, perplexed us. Surely they were not clean if they did not resemble the immaculate white eggs from the grocery stores. Though we recoiled at the thought of eating those eggs and were not big fans of the adult roosters and hens, we delighted each year in the new chicks scrambling after their mothers in the summer sun. For that reason alone, we looked forward to our summers with Grandma.
Nearly half a century and an ocean away from her remote Washington farm, I channel my chicken-keeper grandma in rural Ireland. My tiny flock are pets. I am grateful when they lay eggs; when they don’t, I am just grateful for their company. Like any pet, I monitor their habits and regularly check them for parasites and signs of illness. Recently, one of my hens, Nugget (once you name them, your heart is screwed), appeared unwell. Her head was down, she puffed out her feathers, and her gait was stiff and slow. When I went to lift her, it became obvious that her belly was swollen and painful. I set her up in a makeshift hospital inside my office.
Fortunately, even in the wilds of West Cork, we still live in a digital age. It took mere seconds to google Nugget’s symptoms to learn what ailed her and take steps to help her. She had egg-yolk peritonitis, a potentially life-threatening condition where a yolk misses the oviduct and becomes lodged amongst the internal organs. Sometimes the body will simply absorb the yolk, and no one’s the wiser, but other times it turns septic. Nugget suffered from the latter. We made an appointment to see our veterinarian and, in the meanwhile, soaked Nugget in a warm Epsom bath.
One week of antibiotics and regular ‘spa breaks’ and our little hen has perked up and rejoined her flock-mates. But she’s not entirely out of the woods. We were lucky enough to have caught it early, and she was robust enough to respond well to treatment, but in many cases, egg peritonitis recurs. We can only keep watch.
I will never be my grandma’s kind of farmer. I named each of my hens, and I know each one individually like I know my dog and cats. In naming my hens, I repurposed them from livestock into pets. They have toys, treats and get regular cuddles. My name is Elizabeth. I keep hens as pets. I’m not really a farmer.