Monday, August 23, 2010

Mail Order Chicken Memories

I never realized that Iowa is the #1 egg producer in the country.  I wonder when that happened. (I could research that, but....)

I lived briefly in Iowa in the 1970's and have been back many times since.  When I think of Iowa, I think of (not necessarily in this order):  Pork, soybeans, corn.  In fact, if you ask my son (who has been to Iowa several times) his memories, they are of miles and miles of very boring cornfields.  I don't think I saw many chicken houses there (and yes, I have been in them, when I lived in Arkansas-a former neighbor bought a chicken farm and we visited him.)

When I think of Iowa, I also think of local food, of heritage breeds, of farmers who still care.  Iowa does have at least one heritage breed poultry breeder, who we bought from several times when we lived in Arkansas:  the incomparable Murray McMurray Hatchery.

Iowa also has wonderful, friendly people and a wonderful place we have never been to-the headquarters of the Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa and its Heritage Farm..

Exactly the opposite of the current egg scandal farm owners, the folks at Seed Savers work to keep genetic diversity in our seeds, and also seek to keep heritage breeds of certain animals alive.  Their work deserves to be well publicized.  Please visit their website and read their blog.


Too bad Iowa right now is in the news for something totally different-tainted eggs. Half a billion eggs recalled.  And, thanks to factory farming, shipped to 22 states. It would seem these farms have had many violations-the "same old same old".  I will not go into a rant about food safety regulations-this is not a political blog.  So instead I would like to share some memories of when Iowa farming goes right.

I have fond memories of visiting the Iowa City Farmers Market.  Iowa City is a college town so, as you could expect, they had their share of organic booths.  Of course, everything was locally grown and made.
Yes, in Iowa the small farmer still exists, marketing the most delicious pork and beef (sorry, vegetarian readers), plus all the usual veggies.  In a climate hotter than ours in the northeast, one even saw okra and some other southern favorites for sale.

But I promised to speak about mail order chicken memories. I want to share something about raising chickens and "growing" our own eggs-from Iowa chickens.

Back in the 1980's, when we kept chickens, we would spend the New Year perusing the Murray McMurray catalog, with its brightly colored pictures of what was even then called "rare" chickens.  These are the chickens with names, not numbers:  Barred Rocks, Rhode Island Reds, Black Australorps, Buff Orpingtons, New Hampshire...and on and one-about 130 breeds total.

We would make our selection and place our order (in the mail, of course).  No internet, no fascinating website giving pictures of their operations, no instant update of stock on hand.  Rather, we placed our order and waited for the day we specified.  We did it the "old fashioned" way which, in those days, was the only way.

On the appointed day, there would be a phone call from our local rural post office.  We had to come and get them; they would not deliver.  The box, cheeping away, was rushed home.  In a miracle that we could never get tired of, the living chicks survived the trip.  Just imagine opening a box and being greeted by 25 cheeping 2 day old chicks!  We would take each one out gently, dip its beak in water, and put each precious chick in a little pen under a warm light.  The waterer and feeder were made from mason jars screwed into special "lips".  We fed them commercial but unmedicated chick starter.  After a day or so, they would be ready for supplementation with the occasional June Bug attracted by the light.

This next part is not for the squeamish.  The chicks would get hold of the unfortunate bug and chase each other, trying to snatch what was left of the large bug (it didn't last very long) in a game of chick free-for-all.  The whole while, they would be screaming in delight.

Don't ever say baby chicks are cute.  Not unless you've seen one of those feedings.

You have to love chickens to know them. And you have to accept their nature.  Chickens are omnivores, and they lust for blood.  If one of those chicks accidentally got cut, it would have suffered the same fate as that bug.

Well, those chicks would grow, and about 6 months later the female (pullets) would start to lay their small beginner eggs.  The males?  Well, that part isn't for the squeamish either.  (I'll leave the part out about how roosters treat the hens also.)  Now, that's living.  Nothing like a wonderful, thick shelled, fresh egg.  Except if you want to hard boil, in which case you want a slightly aged egg.

Know what?  We never worried about salmonella.  We ate raw (from scratch) cake batter.  We even made (gasp!) real eggnog!

We moved back to urban life in 1986, and our chicken life was over.  Well, maybe not so fast.

But what about Iowa, land of Seed Savers and rare chicken flocks? (yes, Murray McMurray uses local farmers to produce their eggs for hatching.)

I hope that the reputation of Iowa isn't tainted by this nightmare example of factory farming and inadequate food safety regulation. Instead, think of seed saving.  Think of heritage chickens.

Support your local farmer.  Know who produces your food.  Know HOW it is produced. Ask questions. Ask lots of questions.

That's one way to protect yourself.

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