One night, in late September, we brought home 34 chickens. Of course, it is not as simple as bringing home 34 chickens. It was an after dark mission, on back roads, in a rainstorm to collect a bunch of feral chickens living in a dairy barn that had to go. The instructions we received were “bring boxes and muck boots, we are a working dairy farm.” These chicken were free if you took them all, and we are always game for an adventure. We naively thought we could build our egg layer flock at no cost. We are wiser now, but at the time, a bunch of free chickens seemed like a good idea.
So, we arrived, armed with headlamps, muck boots, an assortment of nets we found in our barns, and five sets of hands. Sadly for the sake of adventure, most of the chickens were already packed into crates when we arrived. We still had to transfer them to our boxes, an adventure in itself, because, remember these are feral chickens. We reached into cages and cornered and captured whatever body part we could catch as these wild chickens squawked, and flapped and carried on like a bunch of screaming monkeys in the spin cycle of a washing machine. The flock also included a fierce mother hen sitting on a nest of eggs which we carefully collected and packed in straw before we raced home in the dark- heat blasting, hoping that against all odds those eggs would survive the move.
Once home, the real adventure began. We tucked all the smaller chicks into an old bathtub in the greenhouse, hastily covered with a piece of wire fencing. The rest of the larger chicken we released in to the barn room we had prepared for them. Quickly we realized we had a problem. The 34 chickens included a high number of roosters- just old enough to be interested in the ladies and instigate fierce bloody battles with one another. We had too much testosterone in that little room. There was one fully mature rooster- with a bold beautiful green tail, that was the now disputed champion and was so quick and fierce he was dubbed “Mother Clucker”. We realized we had to isolate the roosters and quick before someone got killed. So back into the boxes went all the obvious boy chickens.
The next day we had some decisions to make about our many Roos- who would stay and who would go. We were peeking into cardboard boxes to study the group, when one runty little rooster made a bid for freedom and burst out of the cardboard crack like a jack in the box. This little guy was a tidy little bantam with salt and pepper feathering and copper fringe. But he was now loose on the property and no amount of chasing could bring him back. In a matter of minutes, Everett had named him ‘the President’ and we decide he could stay- if he minded his manners. By nightfall he had found our three lovely black hens and proceeded to follow them, before he discreetly tucked himself into their tiny little coop- curled up at their feet like a faithful dog. During the day this scruffy little rooster would chase after his hens. He was quite the alarmist and would panic if a bird flew over, or the dog walked by, or if the hens would come to us for food. But he had earned his place and was allowed to stay. For now.
Meanwhile, the mother hen was still diligently sitting on her eggs, and we were discreetly watching to see if any would hatch. Mama Hen was fiercely protective and would puff herself up and hiss at us when we fed and watered her. I’ve never been scared of a chicken before, but I’ve also never heard a chicken growl. If I had any doubts that chicken are descended from dinosaurs, they have been erased from my mind. This hen was a small and feathered velociraptor. One morning a little head and beak appeared under her, and then another! It was a full week before we saw the whole brood peeping around. There were, twelve, thirteen, no fourteen adorable baby chicks. She hatched ALL 14 eggs. As these chicken grew, it was apparent that they too, were a bit on the wild and feral side, despite our best efforts to hand feed and win them over. In the end, we kept only six of her babies. The rest had a bit too much feral dinosaur in them… and were given away to other farms with a bit more tolerance for this kind of crazy.
Of the original 48 chickens we brought home that in egg or crate,- we only kept 12 of the hens who were not entirely bonkers. The experience gave us the chance to perfect out chicken wrangling skills and we had some great laughs while trying to catch them- sometimes out of mid air. The next time we get chickens, I think we will just order them in the mail like normal people. It’s a lot less drama than bringing home a mixed breed of feral barnyard chickens and trying to manage their lunatic tendencies and the housing challenges of chickens who do not play well with others.
This is the story of where we came from and how we got here...
The story really starts years ago, before we spent a year trying to move across the country to start a farm on a dream.
Erlend was sitting in the IT department of a public library, sneaking out on weekends and lunch breaks to find peace in the outdoors, and cultivating a small vegetable garden in the arid high-elevation plateaus of Colorado. His undergraduate and graduate degrees in Plant Physiology and Biochemistry sitting somewhere in a dark and dusty box. He grew up in Germany, moved to the United States just after graduating high school, worked in various mountain shops, designed sports wear, worked the mortgage industry, and climbed trees with a chainsaw professionally.
Laurie was the director of a preschool catering to the children of the rich in the mountain resort town of Telluride. That was before she fell off a young horse and broke her hip, and promptly became unemployed. This was about half a year after we got to know Erlend, and a few weeks after we moved in with him. Once healed, she joined a landscaping crew, and began rescuing plants from the dumpster, most of which are still alive and thriving. She grew where, and what she could, with a circus worth of animals following her every step. She is an amazing cook, can make corn casserole without any corn products, but cannot follow a recipe or replicate one to save her life.
And then there is me, Chandra. Growing up I was interested in the act of planting the seeds, but like most children, the thought of caring for the seed until harvest was far fetched. I did do my share of harvesting, never with permission, and the bounty never made it to the kitchen. I graduated high school in 2016, and took a gap year before attempting to go to the University of Colorado Boulder. I lasted two weeks. I hated it, everything about it. The town, the people and their mentality, the mass for-profit educational system with it’s endless hoops to jump through, and promptly returned home to work in the family business and join the wonderful world of online university.
It is safe to say that none of us have never really fit into the wold in anyway considered normal. As I was on the cusp of entering high school, we made a change. It started with a dream to escape the 9-5 rat race in a square box my parents were facing, and that I would face once I graduated. Using his retirement money, Erlend purchased the equipment needed to start a landscaping business. It started out with just a couple of small properties that fit neatly into the weekend. By the time I graduated high school, we were all working seven day a week, all through the growing season with winters off. As it had grown, we had taken on debt to keep up, expanding to larger commercial properties and branching out into arboriculture.
I was learning the tree trade, taking on my own spin of preserving and propagating heritage apple trees. Our home garden was stuffed full of all sorts of creatures, but we were struggling to keep it all alive with the harsh high altitude sun, borderline toxic clay soil, and severe arid environment. Growing things professionally is great, but they are never edible, and always grown for other people. Despite the fact we were our own bosses, we were still reporting to our clients, and had to mow and pull endless weeds every week like clockwork.
The dream had always been to grow things, the more edible the better. To be outside as much as possible, and to answer to ourselves. And so we did what any non-reasonable person would do. We bought a forty three acre farm half way across the country.
Now, half way across the country was not necessarily the goal, it just happen to be where we landed. We spent two years scouring the country for land. At least five acres, under $250,000, with water, good soil, a reasonable climate, without risk from volcanic eruption, crippling drought, earthquakes, floods, or mining pollution. Buildings were a plus, but not a requirement. I cannot tell you how many properties we looked at and then discounted. Hundreds, thousands of them.
Then, we found it. A posting that was two hours old. Forty three acres, that fit all our criteria, and then some; it had three green houses, two barns, a garage, and a house for people. With an orchard and pond. It just so happened to be twenty minutes from where my Grandparents lived in Michigan. Because of the distance between the two states, I had no memory of ever meeting them. So naturally we asked them to go and look at the property for us. Three days later we committed to buying the farm, sign unseen.
We all visited the farm as we finished the landscape season, and luckily all fell in love with it. The challenge was then to find a way to transition from being landscapers and arborists in Colorado, to farmers in Michigan. We wanted to create a life where we were always together. So naturally the first step was to spend the entire summer apart. Mom and Everett, my baby brother, went to the farm in May to get things prepared and start making connections while Erlend and I stayed one more season to make money. We also had to handle the logistic of moving two and a half households and two businesses across the country. It only took crossing the country eight times.
And now we are all here. We have since sold the house in Colorado to pay off debt from growing the landscaping and tree business, and start this new adventure. Almost all of our possessions are still in boxes in the garage with no real rush to unpack any of them. There are much more exciting and important things to do. Besides, we have everything we need to eat, sleep, and cook.