Luck and Work

chickens 2018

I know I’m lucky. Not everyone with a yearning to grow vegetables and raise animals gets to do it. I have access to land, a lot of infrastructure like irrigation and garden beds and a small barn already in place. Not to mention a house to live in! I am so fortunate that my circumstances match my passion.

It doesn’t mean I don’t also have to work. I work a lot.  I have to work a job at an office away from the homestead in order to keep the lights on. And on the weekends I work on the property, rehabbing barns and coops, prepping the garden, shoveling horse manure. The Fella and I haven’t had a vacation away from the place of more than two days in years.

You can be lucky and hard-working at the same time. You can be fortunate and also dedicated. You can have privilege and still have to get up in the morning and get it done.

This post was supposed to be about six chickens. And I guess it still is.

On Sunday the Fella drove about an hour up the mountain to meet someone from the local agriculture email group who was giving away chickens. Our layer flock was decimated by predators and was eventually whittled down to one solitary hen. I wasn’t thrilled about the idea of starting over with chicks at the same time as I start a meat-bird flock, because the meat chicks grow about three times as fast as layer chicks, and I didn’t want to have to deal with separate brooders and timelines and the long wait for eggs. So when a gal from the ag group said she wanted to divest herself of six perfectly good three-year-old layer hens, I was on it like pitch on pine.

Now the hens are back in the coop. They’re healthy and friendly, and there hasn’t been a single wayward peck or squabble between the new ladies and our old hen. Chicken people will understand what a miracle that is. We already got an egg, even! Did we just win the lottery or what?

And yet, this weekend was also a lot of hard work.  The barn rehabbing, manure shoveling, and so on. We did it even though the Fella’s back was hurting and I had a cold. We did it even though it was the weekend and we’d worked our jobs all week and would be back at them again on Monday. Luck and sacrifice, privilege and responsibility.

I wouldn’t be able to live the life I get to live if my great-grandparents – people I never met – hadn’t had the means to buy a chunk of land they themselves never lived on full-time. It was a second home for them. Now, by ‘home,’ I mean a literal shack, where the water had to be carried in buckets from a hand-pump well down a steep gully, the meals cooked on a wood-fired stove, personal business done in an outhouse, and no electricity for any of it. They worked hard to be here. My great-grandmother hand-built a huge rock wall, still standing today, with rocks big enough give a lumberjack a back-ache. That was hard, hard work. But it was still a second home. A luxury.

My grandfather became a professional musician. He went through World War II in the U.S. Orchestra. He supported a family of seven from his salary at the Los Angeles Philharmonic.  Just try and tell me that becoming a violinist with enough chops to play with the LA Phil didn’t involve hard work. He kept the property as a vacation place for the family, and my dad and his siblings and cousins spent summers here hunting and hiking and also carrying buckets of water up the steep hill. The cabin was still just a shack. The outhouse just as stinky.

My dad was able to go to the University of California. He also got drafted during Vietnam. He built houses for a living before going to graduate school. It was he, along with my mother and their college friends, who finally moved to the property full time. They built their own houses, using recycled materials and whatever else they could afford. They still carried buckets of water. But they had this land. They worked hard, and they were lucky.

Now there’s me. Sitting on top of so much hard work, and so much luck. My family has been affluent enough to pass land down through generations. Not everyone gets to have that. I happened to be born white, to college graduates, who inherited a piece of land down a dirt road in California. I won the lottery the day I came into this world. I am not self-made. Yes, I work hard, even when I’m tired. I shovel manure on my weekends and feel like the luckiest woman alive.


Chicks on the Way!

chicks day day 11

I placed our order with the Freedom Ranger Hatchery for 40 red broilers yesterday! Very excited to raise up some more pastured chickens. We skipped it last year due to everyone being so busy, not to mention the ‘pasture’ was basically a mud puddle right up until summer. When I found myself buying pastured chicken from another local farm last fall I really felt the sting of that decision.

This will be our fifth round of chickens! Over the years we have done a little experimentation with different hatcheries, breeds, order sizes, feeding methods, and whether to vaccinate them or not. There’s a lot to tweak! For example, we found that by far the Freedom Rangers have the best survival rates and quality of meat over other broiler breeds and heritage breeds. They’re a hybrid, meant for eating, so they’re not going to reproduce very well or become your favorite pet chicken. There’s something romantic about the idea of raising a real heritage breed on our homestead, but the romance wears off when the birds start attacking and killing each other and take twice as long to grow out! Horrible!

Also, although I’m not against vaccines, we thought we’d try ordering unvaccinated chicks after reading an article about how rare Marek’s disease is and how easy it is to remove it from your flock if it turns up. For those of you who don’t know, Marek’s is a viral neurological disease that causes paralysis and death. It’s ghastly, and it requires you to cull the chicks when they start showing symptoms. We lost 5 or 6 chicks one year from it, and between the financial loss and having to break a tiny chick’s neck, getting them vaccinated is well worth the 5 or 10 cents a piece it costs.

Another thing we’ve learned over the years is that we can actually switch from the more expensive, higher protein chick starter feed to the regular adult feed a few weeks earlier than we’d read.  In fact, we found that both reducing protein earlier and also limiting access to food by not free-feeding actually produced healthier chickens and better yields.  That’s because these chicken will eat and grow themselves to death if given the chance.  Their legs cannot grow as fast as their muscle, and they become crippled. Supplements can help with this problem, but we’ve found that slowing things down a bit is still essential. We’re happy to let them grow for two or three weeks longer to reach market weight.

Things we don’t tinker with: organic feed from Modesto Milling, and access to pasture. Those components are a must for our little chicken operation. The chicks start in a nice cozy brooder until they turn from fluff to feather. Then, still peeping, they go into a fortress-like chicken tractor with a heat lamp to keep things comfy at night.  Once they’re tough enough, we open the door of the tractor and let them forage during the day, safely contained in an electric fence. We’ll move the whole set up periodically to give them access to fresh grass and forage.

Over the years, we’ve learned so much about how to raise a flock of broilers up right. I know we have even more to learn. For those of you who raise chickens, what tips and tricks have you picked up?

Happy Trails and a Magic Moon

When the alarm went off at 5:00 a.m., I had finally reached a deep sleep. But my dreams were strange. I was in New York City, a place where I lived about 20 years ago. Of course it was bizarro-dream New York, but the grey, crowded, anonymous rush of the setting was somewhat accurate. I was with friends. We were at a media event for the renovation of a crumbling old ballroom, and I stood there, looking out onto a mish-mash of crumbling stone, scaffolds, and giant screens projecting futuristic advertisements. In casual conversation I told one of the hosts that I didn’t like being there, and he muttered some eye-rolling dismissal. Then suddenly, we were out somewhere on Long Island, swimming in the ocean.  It was soupy and warm, the way the Atlantic always feels to someone used to the frigid brine of the Pacific. And there was a bright red tide, like the color of red clay, beginning to envelop us. No one else was alarmed but me.  I was trying to get into a boat, when a rogue red wave loomed momentarily over me, before crashing down.

And then I woke up. And went outside to look at the Super Blue Blood Moon.

Super Blue Blood Moon 2018

I’m no dream expert, so I have no insight for you on what might be going on in my subconscious. But it should come as no surprise that the red moon made me feel weird under the circumstances and rather than say some meaningful pagan prayer or other eloquent expression of reverence to it, I just went back to bed.


This past Sunday my best friend and I went on a wonderful trail ride.  It was a big deal. My friend’s horse — a mustang cross — shines on trail rides. She’s level headed and sure-footed, just like you’d expect from her breeding. She’s the leader, and you know she could go all day.

Then there’s Jasper. Oh, Jasper. He’s sure-footed enough. Despite his hulking size, his frying pan feet do very well through the muddy fields, rarely breaking the surface, like snow shoes. But no one has ever called Jasper level-headed. That horse can get himself worked into such a state over the smallest, silliest things. The distant sound of a gun firing. A startled dove. A pine cone falling from a tree.  All of these are potential death-omens to him. And once he been set off, it’s nearly impossible to bring him back down to earth.  We finish the ride with him soaked in sweat and blowing, all because of the gremlins lurking in his own mind.

He’ll always be a little bit off. This excitability is the most logical explanation for how such a beautiful, relatively young horse could end up being fired from his job on an Amish farm, rescued at an auction after everyone but the kill-buyers had passed him up, and then returned to the rescue after he scared his first adopter out of having horses altogether. He’s a lot to handle, sure. But he’s mine now and I’m committed. He’s not going anywhere.


Back to the trail ride. It was a breakthrough. Jasper was calm and cool the whole time. He was clearly enjoying himself, as we wended our way down familiar trails and bushwacked some new ones. Such a joy! And it really crystallized in me something that I’ve been pondering about this big, skittish horse for a while:  He needs more space.

I rent a stall for him at my uncle’s barn, but no pasture space is available. I try to get him out as often as I can, but at maximum that’s only twice a week, especially in winter. The poor fellow is bursting at the seams in there. Of course he’s a ping-pong ball when I ride him. But the day before this particular ride, I had the opportunity to turn him out into the large arena, and he’d been able to stretch his legs and take in a bit more of the world for a full 24 hours before I’d asked him to get to work. The result? Relaxed, cheerful pony. Of course there were a few minor spooks. We’re still talking about Jasper, here. But he calmed down right away and kept moving forward, happy to go where I asked. And let’s be clear, a ride like that isn’t simply more enjoyable, it’s also a much safer one.

So that settles it. I’m going to have to build him a pasture. Don’t know where, don’t know how, but I have to make it happen.

This Little Gal


I couldn’t possibly love this little dog more. She’s approaching her 14th birthday, and still runs and plays like a puppy.  She’s quirky, and getting quirkier still as time goes on. She came into my life as a rescue off the streets, deeply traumatized and unable to trust anyone, even me. But she adjusted, first to life as a city dog, then as a ranch dog.  Now she is the boss of the house, confident, feisty, and full of opinions. She has a small army of stuffed babies that she both dotes on and disciplines. She doesn’t bat an eye at the goats or the chickens, and I’ve watched her lecture a 16 hand Andalusian stallion about his manners.  She sleeps a little more than she used to, and on cold nights her old bones require a roaring fire to snooze in front of by no later than 5 pm. But that’s all fine by me. Better than fine. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Fry up


These are not potatoes I grew myself and the eggs that will soon join them are not from my own chickens. We’re down to a single hen after the rest of our flock was picked off, one by one, by foxes, hawks, coyotes, and raccoons. The predators had us dialed in last year. Nearly every time we let the gals out to forage, we’d lose one.  Anyone who knows the qualitative difference between a foraging hen’s egg and a confined hen’s knows why we kept trying. Not to mention the look of absolute fury on their little chicken faces when we wouldn’t open the run door for them in the morning. A face like that will follow you the whole day, I’m telling you.

So no Ranch eggs. And no Ranch potatoes. We didn’t grow them last year. With a very long and muddy winter followed almost immediately by a blazing summer, there wasn’t much time to get a garden in. We bought a handful of well established tomato and pepper plants and called it good.  The Fella and I were both working so much we hardly noticed. That is, until August, when our tomatoes got blight and we both shook our heads and realized that if we aren’t going to take the time to do it right, there’s not much point in doing it at all.

Don’t worry, we aren’t quitting. Far from it! We’ve already started, by getting out there and cutting back all the brambles we allowed to get a little too thick around the garden fence. We’re harvesting grape vines and flexible saplings to make trellises.  We’re strategizing ways to entertain and supplement a new flock of hens in the safety of an improved run. We’re drawing up plans for better garden infrastructure. And of course, pouring over the Peaceful Valley seed catalogue.

Like anything worth doing, homesteading is about not giving up. Do your best, make mistakes, do better next time.  Potatoes weren’t grown in a day! So on this chilly Janaury morning, as the ice on the porch slowly melts in the sun, I am feeling quite motivated by my store-bought fry up to do things right this year.