Yesterday, Keith and I attended the Homesteading Heritage Poultry class at Yellow House Farm in Barrington, NH. What an experience! Not all of it good. Let me walk you through the day.

Warning, I will bracket icky parts with ** so you can avoid them if you’re squeamish.

As we pulled up to Yellow House Farm, I noted they weren’t kidding. This place is YELLOW! Check out the link above. Class started at 9. We arrived a few minutes early, I grabbed my mittens, notebook, pen and camera, and followed Keith into the house. Joe, one of the owners, met us at the door and ushered us inside.  6 other people had already arrived and were sitting around the dining room table. We took our places and Joe indicated that 2 people were missing, but started to share some of the class logistics – bathroom here, coffee and tea there, don’t feel you need to ask, just go ahead and get up.  Then he started talking about something, but I missed it because I got up and went to the bathroom (small bladder, what can I say? The second he said, “Bathroom” I had to go. I hate that.)

When the last couple arrived, Joe had each of us introduce ourselves and explain why we were interested in the class. One woman was a vegetarian and wanted to learn how to keep chickens properly so she could teach her daughter. My inside voice told me to check on her facial expressions when the discussion turned to killing and eating the birds. (My inside voice is so snarky!)

It was immediately apparent that Joe was Italian. He kept saying, “How do you say…?” and what sounded to me like, “Ergo”   in between sentences. I liked him instantly. He talked about the human ability to not make something suffer. We can make the decision to stop life instantly.  *Coyotes and fisher cats will not humanely kill their dinner first, they just start eating and, during the process, the animal will die.* He told us to take what we think and release it – rethink the way you think. Farming is very natural. We can give the animals a wonderful life, a clean life and not make them suffer when it is time to end the life.

See what I mean by, “Not all of it good”?  GRUMBLE. I just wanted to see baby chicks and within 15 minutes, and I should have expected this, I’m struggling with my inner nature as human predator and the morality of killing a living creature for my food.

I’m being melodromatic (you, Jenn? NO!) We did expect this. There is a distinct possibility that we will eventually want them for dinner, but we learned a new term at Cluck U, “Broody Hen.” A Broody Hen is a very protective mother hen that hovers and fusses over her chicks. When Joe explained what that was, Keith tapped my leg and whispered, “That’s you.” I am a caretaker, I fuss, I overprotect. I (s)mother and can’t imagine NOT naming chickens if we get them and trying to turn them into pets. This weighed on me.

Back to Cluck U. After about 2.5 hours of  learning the history of jungle fowl, then onto early domestication, chickens in Egypt, Greece, and ancient Rome, then the Fall of Rome, the opening of China and the Industrial revolution and what all these events in history meant for the chicken (and several bathroom breaks on my part), I was starting to wonder what we signed up for. Where are the frikkin chickens, buddy? Don’t get me wrong, I instantly loved Joe, but I am admittedly impatient. If I didn’t get to see a chicken pretty soon, I was going to muck the fuck out to the coops all by myself. Capiche?

Just a half-hour later, after discussing industrial farming and the reliance upon the oil industry, Joe said it was time to discuss chicken care.  He brought us into the basement where we got to see 9 day old chicks and 2 week old chicks that had hatched in the incubator.

9 day old chicks

They’re all huddled together, Joe said, because they see us as danger from above so they’re hiding in one area for protection. Yup, we’re hawks to them.

Keith with a 2 week old chick.

In the basement, we learned about how to raise them for the first several weeks of their lives, how, when and what to feed them, general care, etc. I took a zillion notes while juggling the camera. We then broke for lunch and were to reconvene 40 minutes later to spend the rest of the day outside and see the coops. Keith and I had brought sandwiches and pears for lunch. I did not have a chicken sandwich, but instead, a deli turkey sandwich. I could only eat half. As I chewed, I thought about the morning’s session and sort of skeeved myself out a little bit. *Do they really spray the meat with bleach before packing?* I sniffed my sandwich and put it in the wrapper. I don’t like to waste, but I just didn’t want any more.

We reported back after lunch and Joe said it was time to go outside. The day was gorgeous. I am glad I brought my mittens though. Teensy bit on the chilly side in the shade. Oh, so, mucks. Muck is mud. Muck boots are boots to withstand mud. Nickname – mucks. I didn’t have any. Joe happened to have some plastic boot covers which I wore over my winter boots when we FINALLY went outside 5 hours after class began (did I mention I was impatient). Style!

Thanks, Keith, for the surprise snap!

Here’s a coop with Heritage Breed Ancona chickens inside (I think they were Anconas, I tried my best to pay attention – he was giving us a lot of information.)

Coop with three or so chickens and a rooster inside.

If you look closely at the right side of the coop, you can see a wooden box (unpainted wood) hanging off the side. That is the nest box where they lay their eggs. Joe lifted it up. Eggs! Here we all are, crowding to check it out.

Note Keith in in proper muck attire (center, leaning to peer in).

Nest box open, showing entrance to coop.

Very cool.

Joe explains how to build the nest box while Keith looks on. Note the handmade scarf! I forgot to ask him who made it.


King of the coop.

Houdan hen. I thought this little gal was cool.

 Then we got to a Dorking coop and Joe pulled out a hen to show us body structure. It got pretty graphic. He was polite, he used the word, “Vent” for her laying “bits.”

Dorking Hens are very calm, Joe said. It fussed a little, but didn't peck at him at all.

What a good girl.

The Houdan originated from Normandy sometime during the French Renaissance.

Joe was great! While Rob was raking the gardens, Joe showed us and let us feel the body structure of the chickens, explaining what makes a good layer, what makes a good roaster, details on their combs (which can get frost-bitten, I had no idea) and more.

I couldn’t stop giggling, and this shows my 1) inexperience and my 2) maturity, but a male Dorking chicken is a Dorking cock. Yup. Ok, I just giggled to myself as I typed this.

*He didn’t talk very much about slaughter, but explained a few fine points about culling. What is culling? Selection for killing, basically. Pick out the weakest or less desirable chickens so they don’t breed. It was here the vegetarian started to make noises like she was being squeezed. Little groans were coming from her direction as Joe described how to use your hands to snap the chicken’s neck. His advice, make it quick. If you’re going to do it, do it, don’t try to do it. No suffering.*

We walked past the slaughter station on the way back into the house. Joe didn’t make mention of it. I did. *Oh, so that’s the slaughter station?” Feathers were all over the ground. Joe mentioned they had to slaughter right before the snow flew, so snow covered the ground before they could clean up the feathers.* Keith missed it completely. It actually didn’t bother me. I don’t know why.

We learned a lot.  I had a lot of questions.

  • “Um, I have day job, are the eggs going to spoil on a hot summer day if I don’t get to them until 7PM?”
  • “Um, how long before I move them from the basement to their coop?”
  • “And when do they start to fly?”
  • “SO, they can fly while they’re in the basement?”
  • “With the rooster in the coop WITH the hens, isn’t he fertilizing the eggs? “
  • “So, you’re eating fertilized eggs?”
  • “Um, you can eat fertilized eggs?”
  • “I heard you say chickens can handle certain levels of inbreeding, but can you repeat what you said after? Sons on mothers, fathers on daughters. Ok, got it.”

I also contributed too…

  • “You said that the prettier the chicken, the less tasty the meat. So, it’s kind of like us – beauty pageant contestants usually aren’t the smartest humans.”
  • “You said ‘Bathroom.’ Sorry, I’m back.”
  • You said, “Dorking cocks” (snicker)

We ended the seminar back in our seats around the farmhouse dining room table. Joe gave us magazines and a few web sites to which to refer and explained the current homestead movement, how, if we don’t save some of the heritage breeds, which have adapted to humans for thousands of years, they’ll be gone.

As other people left (it was just before 6PM and a few folks had come from very far away), Keith stayed behind to talk to Joe about ducks, wondering if we could buy a duck (the ready to defrost kind, not the still swimming kind), but all the ones they had were pre-sold, so he’ll email us this week after inventory and if he finds one available, we’ll head to the Seacoast Eat Local Winter Farmers’ Market  next weekend to pick one up.

She's holding a duck egg. Notice everyone in the barn is wearing hoods.

This is why they were wearing hoods. Ducks in the barn rafters.

While Keith talked to Joe, I chatted with Rob a bit. He’s a veterinary microbiologist and a really nice guy. He and Joe are moving the coops this year, building new runs for each coop to give the chickens more room to get out and exercise, expanding the garden, remodeling the farmhouse with salvaged items…he went on. They sound busy, as they both have day jobs.

That got me thinking, Keith and I both have day jobs too. If Rob and Joe can go through the process of preserving heritage breeds of chickens, turkeys and ducks – having upwards of 600 birds on the farm sometimes, I’m not going to be intimidated by what seemed to me to be a lot of work.

So, we are deciding which breed we want and discussed today where the coops would go. Besides, how can you resist this face?