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An ode to Donna the Chicken

By Julia Loman, Phase II Fellow

Prior to the last week of her life, Donna was just another unnamed chicken in our flock of laying hens. Eating worms, running to the compost, and bathing in gravel dust made up her simple three years of chicken days. She earned her keep by laying the eggs that contributed to our 40-egg frittatas (and many less-ambitiously sized egg dishes).

Now, Donna and the rest of our hens are in their third laying season this year, and their egg production is slowing down, but we’re still very fond of these ladies.

Our lovely laying hens.

One day, we noticed a limp on one of our birds. Upon further inspection, we found that she had twisted or broken her foot. When one chicken in the flock gets hurt or injured, the others begin to attack her- a flock preservation strategy inherited from the birds’ wild ancestors to keep the group strong as a whole. So, before the other hens could start pecking her bloody, we made a little safe haven for her: a rabbit hutch in a different room of the chicken shed, complete with little containers of food and water. The Fellows named her Donna, and we began our chicken hospital operation in earnest, changing food, water and bedding regularly and checking up on her during the day.

Donna's hurt foot.

Now, this is not how you treat a sick chicken on a farm. We came to grips with this reality when our farm manager, Dylan, announced that it was a no-brainer: it was time for Donna to become soup. We process chickens that we raise for meat each year- about 25 Freedom Rangers, and we’re aware of their eventual fate from the moment they arrive in their box at the post office. Their lives end all together on a predetermined date, and the whole day is treated with a quiet solemnity. This feels different though: making the decision that this is the day- of all days- to end the life of a bird who has been with us for years, and is, for the most part, still lively.

Our rooster Dwayne, fearless caretaker of the hens.

The rest of the flock will meet the same fate in the near future as it becomes less reasonable to keep chickens who can’t keep up with our egg needs. The necessarily practical nature of these decisions on the farm can be jarring. It’s different from the way many of us have been accustomed to thinking about animals for most of our lives thus far. We spend a great deal of time here re-learning the knowledge that our grandparents and great-grandparents took for granted as part of the art of living, from canning and cooking beans to growing vegetables and slaughtering chickens. What an oddity it would have been- or a sign of extreme privilege- for a young person not to have done any of this before 100 years ago.

It’s a problem for agriculture. In the words of Wendell Berry, “there is no farmer pool from which farmers can be recruited ready-made. Once, we could more or less expect good farmers to be the parents of good farmers... We are not talking here about “job training” but rather about the lifelong education of an artist, the wisdom that come from unceasing attention and practice.” As anything, it’s much easier to learn these skills and lessons as children, when they can be easily integrated in our concept of the world.

But here, we get the space and the opportunity to live the agrarian dream fully- to spend time paying attention and practicing the new-to-us, old motions of de-feathering a bird, planting garlic, and making tomato sauce, among many other skills. And there’s a simple, satisfying joy that comes from learning these things as an adult. A good friend once described learning to garden like this: “it’s like a whole new chamber of my heart opened up.” And so it is. We get to experience these things that were an integral part of most peoples’ lives, just a couple of generations back, for the first time. After a few tries, chicken slaughtering has become (joyful is not the word for this one) satisfying in a way that remains heavy. As I become a better farmer, I hope to keep this beginner’s mind, and the quirks that it affords, even if it means a few more chicken hospitals...

….and chicken obituaries:

Donna is succeeded by 19-20 of her beloved flock (it’s tough to keep count) and devoted rooster Dwayne. A memorial service will not be held, but her soup will be enjoyed with reverence.

Happy chickens getting a treat as Lightfoot the horse drops bits of feed.

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