By: Stephen Jackson
Note: This blog is written from the perspective of the off-farm worker here at Machaven. My wife is the actual farmer. This blog is intended to give a little insight from my point of view into what goes on and some of the hard lessons we’ve learned. Through it all, though, we’ve been grateful to be here.
I wasn’t expecting to see her there. Looking into each other’s eyes, I was aware she was seated in the driver’s seat of the Tahoe. I was standing outside the open driver’s side door. She simply looked at me. I said the first clever thing that came to mind, “Hi.” In reply, she inclined her head a little to the side. Quickly, I regrouped and tried a second clever line. “So, um, I guess you want to drive?” Nothing. I hadn’t heard her get in the truck. I had left the driver’s side door open while I loaded a few things I was taking to work into the rear cargo area of the Tahoe. I had only been gone about 15 seconds. I regarded her a little more closely and had to admit to myself that she was quite pretty. In the way that I hurry, I left the door open and strolled casually around the front of the Tahoe to the passenger side door. I gently opened the door and climbed in the seat. As I brought my head up, I realized she had swiveled her head around to meet my gaze, her expression impossible to read. I figured now was the time to make my move. So, I slowly extended both hands to hold her. At this she quickly flapped her way out of the Tahoe onto the ground and strutted away, the chicken not caring that she had made me a couple minutes late for work.
At Machaven farm, we have free-range chickens. Prior to actual farming, whenever I heard the phrase “free-range chickens,” I always imagined a bunch of chickens out in a large, open pasture, clucking, picking, and scratching around, living an easy and care-free life. I imagined them forming cliques, with a few sad chickens off to the side, not quite fitting in with the rest. The reality is a little different. Our chickens do cluck around, pecking up insects and scratching up the ground. I do see them forming cliques and hanging out in their own groups. The big difference is that they stay a little closer to us and our house for protection. Free-range to us means the chickens have no boundaries whatsoever. We provide them with food and water and a place to roost, more of a suggestion than a rule. They are literally everywhere. We find eggs all over the place. We have Easter-egg style hunts every day to find the fresh eggs – under bushes, behind the seat of our farm truck, where the goats sleep. We find an occasional egg in the middle of our gravel driveway, suggesting not much planning on the chicken’s part.
An occasional chicken will find her way into the Tahoe, if I’m not careful. Inexperienced me would angrily chase her from the front of the Tahoe to the back, from one side to the other, me climbing over seats and saying non-Sunday words. A cooler head makes extracting the confused chicken a little less cumbersome.
Chickens turn out to be quite resourceful. Every animal eats chickens and predators abound, so I appreciate the wily way they find new and unexpected places to hide themselves and their eggs.
One day my wife and kids went to a nearby restaurant they frequented. My wife inquired about the chicken who appeared to have taken up residence at the back of the restaurant. A whole set-up, not previously there, had been put in place for her. The friendly waitress told my wife about how the chicken had simply shown up one day. They had named her Mother Maybelle and even started an Instagram page for her. She sure looked like one of ours. We began finding other chickens in various places all over the southern part of the county. The places my wife would frequent. One day I ambled past my wife’s car and heard the familiar scratching sound of a hen. The sound was a little off in that it was the scratching of a chicken’s feet on plastic. I began to investigate and found the cacophonous chicken tucked away in the underside of the car. I discovered my wife’s car had a small hidey-hole in the undercarriage plastic of the vehicle. A chicken and a few eggs were warmly nestled in this spot. As the implications of this dawned on me, I now understood how Machaven Farm had unwittingly been sprinkling chickens throughout the county. I could only imagine the terror those poor chickens felt bumping up the driveway, then the acceleration of my wife’s electric vehicle eventually clocking 60 mph on the country roads around our farm, as the chicken weaved, turned, and bounced on the pot-holed back roads for which rural areas are famous. The winds alone enough to ruffle every feather. I could imagine the chicken, only too happy to extract herself from this precarious situation once the car stopped, pioneering a new residence in the closest place a chicken might find to make a new, safer home. Now we check under the car every time we leave the house.
Instead of the confines of the coop, the chickens mainly roost in trees. Right around dusk the chickens awkwardly launch themselves onto the lowest branch of the tree outside our door, hopping up to higher and higher limbs to get to just the right roosting spot. The wind chimes on the lowest branch can be heard clanging every time a chicken calls it a night. There is even a group of 10-to-15 chickens who roost on the top step outside our back door, just off our living room. The door is a simple a wood frame with panes of glass from top to bottom. At night, ten-to-twenty pairs of eyes stare into the living room, some watching me, which is weird, others watching TV with us.
The ever-present clucking, cock-a-doodle-doo-ing, chicken poop, eggs, and the chickens themselves have me thinking that a farm is not truly a farm without chickens. They are the one, ever-present reminder that we are not in a city neighborhood, that other creatures inhabit our land and depend on us, more even than we have grown to depend on them. I would recommend some amount of chickens roaming freely around any farm. They are a small part of nature, normally industrialized, that have scratched their way into our day in many ways. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Even if they make me late for work sometimes.