Thursday, July 7, 2011

the happy hen house farm

One of the things I love best about my annual visit to Interlochen is the opportunity it gives me to check in with the local food scene. The year it was published, I spent much of my Interlochen week reading Barbara Kingsolver’s wonderful book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle from cover to cover and the rest of the time scouring the local farmers markets and turning out pretty delicious (if I do say so…) local meals in our tiny cabin kitchen. That was four years ago and the local food scene was really taking off. Food has always been an important part of local culture, from the springtime morel harvest to the fresh lake fish to the abundant orchard fruits to the marvelous lake effect vineyards on the Leelanau and Old Mission peninsulas. (More on the agricultural heritage of this area to follow in another post!) These days, you can visit a local farmers market any day of the week if you’re willing to drive a few miles. The list of restaurants focusing on local, sustainable food products is long enough that you could easily get through an entire vacation of lunches and dinners and never eat local at the same place twice.

The closest of the farmers markets takes place every Sunday morning in the parking lot of Earth and Hearth, a health food/sandwich shop on M-137 south of Interlochen Corners. It generally draws only a few vendors, but Hank and I always make a point of paying it a visit on my first Sunday more as a gesture of support for the venture than as an efficient means of stocking up. There is always at least one maple syrup vendor, a honey and honey products vendor, berry growers and a guy who sells plant and worm castings. Sometimes there are a few veggies: mostly greens, new potatoes, radishes this time of year.

I can always tell what the weather has been by where we are in berry season when I arrive. Ideally, we catch the last days of strawberry season and the beginning of blueberries and cherries. This, it turns out, is a pretty ideal year.
"...picked last evening..."
Last Sunday, this is what greeted us when we stepped out of the car. The vendor also had jugs of maple syrup and bins of fleshy spring onions. While he and Hank talked maple syrup (and Hank purchased a gallon jug) I photographed the strawberries and onions.

Two quarts and two bunches later, we moved along.

Looking around, we spotted her: a pink-faced, sturdy woman in an apron, standing between the bed of a pick-up truck stacked with egg cartons and a display table lain with brochures and an open carton of multi-colored (blown out) eggs! Great excitement! Hank and I made a beeline for her and immediately struck up a conversation. Lorie (short for Hannelore) told us that she had been raising chickens since last spring and had about 50 of them. I shared a little of my sad tale with her and she reciprocated with some stories of her own.

The Happy Hen House Farm is based in a barn that once housed Clydesdales. Lorie has turned over four stalls (so far) to her girls. She also built them a fenced run much bigger than most chickens ever enjoy, but when her flock quickly devoured all the grass in the run, she let them range freely in the surrounding pasture as well. Which was fine, except the girls also liked to “play” in the adjacent woods, eating bugs and tender understory plants. One afternoon, Lorie heard a commotion and went out to check, arriving in time to observe a coyote lunge out of the woods, grab a bird, and leap back into the dark of the woods, all within about 15 feet of where she stood. Lorie realized that the coyote now had its dinner and was unlikely to kill again that day and she despaired of ever getting all the chickens back into the barn (herding them is not so easy, although they do naturally “come home to roost” at nightfall). So she left the flock where they were and went off to consider what to do about giving them the grazing they needed while keeping them safe. Not too long after, she heard another commotion. This time, she arrived to see what she described as “the most beautiful red fox” execute, essentially, a repeat performance of the coyote’s act. I guess word gets around when there’s a new restaurant in town. 

[Side note: Hank and I have encountered a few red foxes both in the wild and on our evening perambulations and have been completely blown away by their beauty and unique energy. In fact, one crossed the road in front of me today as I left Lorie's place and I stopped to look after it as it trotted into the woods, eyeing me with a kind of wary bravado. So I completely understood how Lorie could be so glowing in her description of the fox while recounting his destruction of one of her birds. And hearing her talk about it that way, I knew Lorie was a kindred spirit.]

So, Lorie related, she and her husband rented a trencher (!) and spent a thousand dollars (!!!) on fencing to give her hens about an acre and a half of fully fenced pasture to call their very own. This is when I really knew we were kindred spirits. The final dollar figure for my total investment in coop and run will follow me to my grave, although, as Hank exclaimed (with some relief), “Wow! She’s got us beat!” Of course, she’s also got a lot more birds. Naturally, I asked Lorie if I could pay her a visit and check out her set-up. And just as naturally, she warmly encouraged me to come out. After picking up a dozen eggs and a quart of fresh local blueberries, Hank and I headed back to the cabin for breakfast:
This morning, after calling to confirm she’d be there and up for visitors, I headed south through Karlin, toward Copemish. The Happy Hen House brochure included a handy map that made it look very convenient. What the brochure doesn’t reveal is the fact that the last couple of miles are travelled on a winding dirt road over rolling hills that had me thinking apprehensively about what the winter driving must be like. The views, of mixed pasture and woods, are lovely and the sense of isolation and calm are extreme. It’s not for everyone to live like this, but, as Michael Pollan says, describing a scene of “meadows dotted with contented animals, the backdrop of woods, a twisting brook threading through it all” in his excellent book The Omnivore’s Dilemma (this summer’s reading),  “[o]ur culture, perhaps even our biology, disposes us to respond to just such a grassy middle landscape, suspended as it is halfway between the wilderness of forest and the artifice of civilization.” Personally, I think we’re hardwired to be drawn to such a mixed landscape because we intuitively know that’s where we’ll likely find the greatest diversity and abundance of foodstuffs.

As I pulled in, I could see the barn and chicken pens ahead. Lorie showed me around her vegetable gardens first: beds full of cabbages and potatoes; rows of tomatoes growing side-by side with basil and parsley; sequential rows of cucurbits with cucumbers giving way to scallop squash giving way to acorn and butternut squash; a row of poblano peppers and one of sweet peppers; and more cabbages! 

The garden is only for her and her husband’s consumption, she tells me, and for her girls. For a moment I think she must be referring to adult daughters who live nearby but then I realize she is talking about the hens. When I ask her whether she plans to make sauerkraut with all that cabbage, she says no, they can get excellent artificial preservative-free kraut locally but she plans to try putting the heads of green cabbage in her cellar and storing them to use as winter “toys” for the chickens. Winters are long up here and bored hens apparently love nothing more than an entire head of cabbage or a halved winter squash to occupy them when the snow (which they disdain) has covered their regular forage space. A winter squash will be reduced to a paper-thin shell when a flock of hens has finished with it, she tells me. We stand in the garden, discussing animal manure as fertilizer, companion planting and Eliot Coleman. After admiring the raspberry bushes and the herbs, we move on to the main event.

Let me just say this up front: if I ever have the opportunity to return to this earth as a chicken, I dearly hope I’ve earned the privilege of doing so at the Happy Hen House Farm. “House” really doesn’t do it justice. As a former home for Clydesdales, Lorie’s two-story barn is capacious and each former stall is a “house” unto itself. Lorie has three stalls on the south side of the barn dedicated to most of her flock and a fourth on the north side for her “broodies”, the hens that want to sit their eggs and hatch them. One stall is set aside as the infirmary/nursery, where the less-well-adjusted and arthritic mix with the newly-added juveniles. A second stall is the quiet room, outfitted with an impressive array of nesting boxes and perches.

The third stall is an all-purpose day room with a cut-out door to access the quiet room.

From these rooms, the hens can range freely out into the enormous pasture and are safe from ground predators thanks to a 6-foot fence, sunk one foot into the ground. There is no barrier to protect against aerial predators like hawks, but Lorie has that covered with two guineas, which she refers to as chicken police. Guineas will sound the alarm at the first sign of an aerial predator and send the entire flock running for cover in the barn. It must work, because Lorie hasn’t lost a bird to a hawk yet.
A beautiful Golden Laced Wyandotte
In addition to her chickens, Lorie and her husband Harold, both retired from management jobs with Chrysler, are raising ten pigs “for the freezer” for themselves and several friends. They have been assigned yet another stall and a pen of their own, although they get visits from a couple of the hens, the Araucanas in particular. The pigs, too, look utterly contented, snuffling and rooting in the soft dirt of their pen.

At Chrysler, Lorie and Harold helped set up new manufacturing operations and change-overs from one product line to another, so it doesn’t surprise me that she has a very methodical approach to raising chickens. She has read extensively on the subject and keeps track of their production. She calculates that based on the breeds she has, she should be expecting an average of .67 eggs per hen per day. At a rate of about 30 eggs a day for her flock of 50, she’s about on target. We talk frankly about how long her (and my future) hens are likely to lay (2-5 years, depending) and what to do with them afterwards (some live to be 15!). Will they be too old to eat by the time they're done laying, I wonder. “I imagine a chicken of any age would make a pretty good soup,” she observes. I think she’s right, although I expect I’d have a very hard time butchering one of my own hens. But when the time comes, I hope I will have the fortitude to do so, and to make an exquisite broth with her.

With any luck, that broth will be as good as the one that infused the risotto Hank and I enjoyed last night at the Cook’s House in Traverse City. We finally set aside an evening to celebrate our 19th wedding anniversary and lucked into a reservation at this tiny, "90% local and sustainable" restaurant. We were seated next to a refrigerated display case separating the kitchen from the dining room and brimming with cartons of local eggs, small deep red strawberries and glass bottles of Shetler’s milk and heavy cream ("Our cows aren't on Drugs, But they are on Grass"). We opted for the five-course tasting menu with wine pairings and never looked back. Although it was all exquisitely done and delicious, highlights included a pureed asparagus soup with bits of shitake mushroom, the afore-mentioned risotto with shreds of slow-roasted lamb and spinach chiffonade and a duck egg crème brulee. The wines, a mix of far-flung unique varietals and local gems, were also first rate.

After dinner, we walked off a few of the calories and a bit of the wine by meandering around the neighborhood of mostly Victorian-era homes to the south of the restaurant. In the course of that walk, I spied, from across a street and through a fence (that’s just how good--or obsessed--I am these days), the tell-tale signs of chickens in the backyard of a particularly grand Victorian dame. In a coop outfitted to match, reside at least a dozen mixed young hens, all clearly hatched this spring and still growing.

The sight of it made me itch to get back to work on my coop and run, readying it for our new flock. As I told Lorie when I left her idyllic spot this morning, I look forward to visiting with her again next year and seeing her progress. And perhaps I’ll have some happy hen house stories of my own by then!

No comments:

Post a Comment