In our quest to discover where our food comes from, we have learned about our relationship with farm animals as co-creators of abundance and fertility. On our tiny urban backyard in Cleveland, we’ve kept hens, ducks, and rabbits, and have had the privilege and pleasure of watching them, caring for them, and watching our niece and nephew chase them (endlessly hilarious!). I’ve trapped at least 10 raccoons trying to get to the chickens and on more than a couple occasions, run down half asleep in the middle of the night to throw whatever object I could find at the coons trying to get in the coop. Animals, like humans, are a lot of work. And yet, I’ve enjoyed the morning ritual of opening the chicken door and watching them trip over each to get out and be the very definition of life and energy. They are mini-dinosaurs in their constant quest to find bugs and worms and convert them into more energy and eggs. They eat all of our kitchen scraps and leave behind their nitrogen-rich manure that we toss into the compost bin and eventually into the veggie garden. They have been a blessing and a gift indeed. Did I mention fresh eggs?!
And yet, as Peter Bane eloquently states, “if we take animals into our care, we are accepting responsibility for their deaths, whether by disease, accident, predation or at our own hand”. With winter approaching, chicken food running out, the realization that the hens are older and are barely laying anymore, and the fact that we are going out of town for 10 days, it seemed like a good time, to say it nicely, to harvest them. In the process of harvesting the chickens, we are grateful. As seasoned gardeners know, feather meal, bloodmeal and bonemeal are garden gold. We drain the blood into the same bin that we pluck the feathers into. That makes it easy to put these gifts into our compost bin which will go onto the garden in spring. We also eat the meat, which on older laying hens, is best slow cooked or crock-potted. We then make bone broth, which is a delicious and nourishing treat in soups during the winter. Once the carcass is done in the crock pot, we take the bones and dry them in the oven. Once dried, we can crush them and throw them into the compost bin for a phosphorous boost.
We have put lots of time and energy into feeding the chickens, providing them shelter, changing out their frozen water trays in negative degree weather (!), opening the coop door every morning and closing it every night. And they, in turn, have taken care of our food scraps, increased the fertility of our garden, given us many hours of entertainment, provided us lots of fresh eggs, and finally provided meat to eat and feathers, blood, and bone for the garden. Being a part of this whole process has brought us much appreciation and reverence for life, death, abundance, and partnership.
(Here's a little sample of summer backyard activity. A group of garden students were over to process and eat the corn they grew in the garden.)