The famous statement of Forrest Gump, you know, "Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what your going to get", always struck me as a little off. While it may be true that life has it surprises, I think a garden is a much better metaphor for life.
Think about it. Life involves choices, and choices have outcomes. A garden involves choices -
Well you get the picture. Every step of the way we make choices that effect the outcome of our garden, and we realize that, while the sun and weather are out of our hands and in His, we use what we have to be productive and fruitful.
I will give you an example from the Fife homestead. We raise chickens for meat and for eggs and have them pastured on the back portion of our property. We are somewhat surrounded by farmland, which invites predators who could decimate our flock. Early on, I decided to err on the side of protection and purchased an electric poultry netting that limits the chickens from getting into our tomato crop, but also keeps the pesky predators at bay. This investment allows us to maintain feed and water and move the chickens as needed, while keeping our productive property safe.
Another example lies in the potato patch. Potatoes are a funny plant that grows underground, unlike tomatoes which grow up. A potato crop will fail without mounding the soil around the base of the plant - and proper care leads to larger potatoes and more productive bunches. Maintaining a potato crop requires regular care and simply cannot be neglected. Choosing to grow potatoes means choosing to maintain potatoes. Is there a life lesson there or what?
Taking these two examples, and the fact that we are now in July and in maintenance mode with the lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers (actually canning now!), potatoes, fruit trees, chickens, and lest we forget, the lawn - we can see how life is truly like a garden. Our chickens teach us about raising children, and how we are called to tend and protect them - and our poultry netting is a solid lesson in proper boundaries for our families and the world. Our potatoes on the other hand teach another lesson, that proper maintenance is required and that the choice to raise a family means maintaining relationships and supplying for the needs of our families - spiritually, mentally, and physically.
So, while life may be like a box of chocolates at times - it is more like a garden...all of the time.
Time has come when the family garden is beginning to yield its bounty that needs stored away for winter time. The red raspberries and blueberries are tightly sealed in their freezer bags. The garlic is hanging to dry. The squash are in full production. The watermelon and cantaloupe are swelling on the vine. The tomatoes are getting the first hint of red. The corn is in tassel and the little ears have started to form. Is your mouth watering yet? It should be, as God gave us the senses of taste, smell, and sight, he also gave us hunger. We concentrate a lot on the food we eat, but do we focus on food for our starving souls, that hunger for God. We have both a body and a soul that hunger.
As a society and as families and individuals we concentrate on making sure we have food on our plate. My wife and I sometimes say we are “foodies”, enjoying the bounty of God’s green earth. Some people even consider themselves connoisseurs of wine or cheese, you name it. We spend hours in gardens or we go to farmers markets and grocery stores and pick out the best we can buy with the money we have. As a foodie, I work hard to make sure what I put in my mouth to feed my earthly body is not junk. All that effort is spent feeding a body that will some day die and become worm food. If I work that hard to feed a dying body do I work even harder to feed my soul and the souls of my family that are eternal?
As St John Vianney insists the only food to feed our soul is the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. Only God can satiate the hunger of our souls. I often try as many of us do to feed my soul with other earthly things. Our society and the evil one tells we can feed our souls with earthly things, but this only leaves us wanting more and feeling empty. I could give examples all day long of things that we can use to try to feed our soul that will leave us empty in the end. Television, mass media, internet, sports, food, cars, materialism, consumerism, pornography, fornication, and the list could go on.
Dr. G.C. Dilsaver states in the opening paragraph of his book The Three Marks of Manhood, “Dark Times, arguably the darkest of times in the annals of Christianity, have descended on both Faith and family at the eclipsed dawn of the twenty-first century. A full blown spiritual plague now rampages through the West and beyond. Pernicious and highly infectious, this plague is promulgated by governmental policies and commercial interests, and its pathogens ride the ubiquitous airwaves of the mass media and incubate in the passive minds of modern men.” Not only do we starve our eternal souls, but as Dr Dilsaver would suggest we endanger our souls with the ills of our society.
As my soul yearns to be fed, what do seek to fill it? The Eucharist, the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, is the only thing that can fill our souls and satiate them. In the Eucharist, we find the true presence of Jesus Christ, who in John 6: 53-56 says, “Amen, Amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.”
As a family we try to attend mass and receive the Eucharist more than just on Sunday. One of the beauty’s of our Catholic Church is that we can be fed daily by God. That doesn’t mean that as a family we make it to Mass every day. As St Frances DeSales suggests in his book The Devout Life, we must respect our state in life and provide what is best for our families. I find that we try to balance feeding our souls at Mass with feeding our bellies with work. On days that Mass is not an option there is always an Act of Spiritual Communion. What matters is the desire to have God in us and allow Jesus Christ to feed our souls.
Just as squash and melons grow in the garden, so must my soul grow an ever increasing desire for Jesus Christ, to love him, to adore him, and to please him. He is the perfect example for which we can follow carrying our crosses toward life after our earthly death. From a place of love for Christ all our earthly struggles begin to take on a new perspective and if tomatoes get a virus it doesn’t matter nearly as much as if my soul catches one. Strive to have more passion for the Eucharist than you do for the food you put in your mouth.
Chanticleer strutting his stuff
When I tell folks that I live on a farm, they inevitably ask, "What do you farm?" My first and joking response is, "Children!" After we share a good laugh at the expense of my large family we finally get around to talking chicken. While we live on nearly 30 acres, the only farm animals we are allowed to raise are chickens and rabbits.
Chickens are an excellent entry into raising animals for food or profit. Pound for pound, chickens have one of the best conversion rates for feed to pound of finished meat. Chickens are also fairly easy to handle, do not require a large expense to start raising, and are easy to butcher at home. While I have been a part of a large-scale commercial poultry operation, growing poultry on the small scale for home consumption is where it is at.
Do you have an acre of land? Does your borough or homeowner's association allow chickens on your property? If so, I encourage you to start with a few chicks and try raising them. Here are a few keys to starting on the right foot:
1. Decide if you want to raise "broilers" (for meat) or "layers" to have eggs. Modern broiler birds can be full grown and ready to process at 8 weeks old. Layers on the other hand must be raised much like a family pet for possibly up to 6 months before they begin laying eggs. While you can start with both as chicks, for your first attempt I would pick one or the other. If you choose layers, you can also purchase 16 week old birds that have gone through the brooding phase and saves you the hassle of handling chicks. These birds cost a bit more, but can be worth the expense so you don't have to set up a brooder (a warming box for the young chicks)
2. Decide how many birds you can handle - considering housing, feed, your property, and caretaking. Six broilers are nearly as much work as 30, but at processing time the quantity can present a big challenge for the inexperienced. Having six laying hens for a family will produce about 3 dozen eggs a week during full production. We made the mistake once of raising 50 laying hens. That meant 300 eggs per week...which meant gathering, washing, and crating 300 eggs per week. In the end, it was just too much for our children to handle and so we ended up giving away most of the birds. To start, it is always best to start small.
3. Build your coop. There are multiple sites online where you can find plans. If you are able to build a movable "chicken tractor" it will provide the chickens with fresh ground to forage on. Broilers simply require ground, and so a perch is not necessary in their coop. Layers on the other hand need laying boxes and perches. To get some ideas - check out Backyardchickens.com
4. Gather your supplies. You will need feeders, waterers, feed, and something to store your feed in (otherwise you are inviting rodents to a feast, for they love chicken feed). Stores like Tractor Supply and Agway carry a supply of both chick feeders as well as feeders for the full-grown birds. Waterers are a little more complicated as you can choose from manually filled, where you would need to constantly tend it, to the automatic, which can run off of gravity from a large bucket, or off of your garden hose. As I use a fixed coop, I love the automatic waterer because I can be sure the birds will never run dry, especially in the hot summer. Again, Backyardchickens.com is an excellent resource here.
5. Find your feed supplier. This can be a real challenge depending on where you live. I am blessed to live near Lancaster County, home to numerous Amish farms. I happen to live within a few miles of one of the best feed mills in Lancaster County...with the best pricing on chicken feed. Since feed comes in multiple varieties for the different stages of a chicken's life, you will want to ask for the appropriate feed for that stage. Chick, pullet, layer, finisher, etc. come with different protein contents for the different needs of the chicken. You can also choose between mash and pellets, which simply comes down to a personal preference and your style of feeder. I prefer mash for broilers and pellets for laying hens. My supplier in PA is here.
6. Plan your timing. If you are ordering broilers, you will raise them for about 8 weeks from day old chick to processing weight. This means if you want fresh chicken for July 4th, you will need to have your chicks arrive no later than May 9th. Depending on the hatchery, you may need to allow a few weeks for them to ship your order. Call your hatchery and see what their schedule is like. Also consider brooding time. Newborn chicks require heat in their first few weeks with no draft. This means starting them around 95 degrees and decreasing it by 5 degrees each week for the first four to five weeks. Ordering chicks to arrive on January 1st in the frozen tundra of Minnesota is not a good idea. Also, ordering chicks in the heat of the summer in Georgia can quickly turn into a disaster for the chicks are also susceptible to heat exhaustion and dehydration. This year I wanted to process my broilers before the heat of the summer so I ordered early and my chicks arrived at the end of March. This works for me since I have a barn that is fairly secure and I use heat lamps to brood my birds. Layers take anywhere from 4-6 months to start laying, however winter can throw that cycle off and they may postpone laying until spring.
7. Order your birds. With the myriad of breeds available, it can be hard to decide what to order. I prefer a good producer so I use White Cross Rocks for my broilers and Rhode Island Reds for my layers. Don't be afraid to experiment and order something different, unless you are frugal like me and just want solid meat and egg production. You will also need to decide on "straight run" (males and females mixed) or a male only or female only order. A straight run is less expensive, but if you are ordering chicks for laying eggs, you may want a specific quantity of females, and one or two males if you want that handsome rooster waking you up at 5am! On that note, roosters can be both a pain and a savior. They protect their hens and are a necessary part in creating more chicks, but they also can be ornry, mean, and foul (ahem...) I have had roosters that I loved and despised. But in the end, they always realized who the bigger rooster was!
8. Consider the downside. Rodents, flys, odor, caretaking, etc. These are all important things to consider. Your chicks will arrive and you must pick them up at the post office asap. There is no waiting until you are done with work, or until it suits you to pick them up. Also, the birds will need to be fed every day for the duration of their life...no exceptions. This means either being home for that duration, or having someone fill in for you if travel is necessary. Rodents are probably the biggest problem facing the backyard poultry farmer. We have lost chickens to foxes, raccoons, skunks, and believe it or not, hawks. I have had family members loose an entire flock in one night to a family of foxes. In our area this has forced me to rely on my barn rather than a portable chicken tractor. Electric poultry fences work wonders on rodents, especially for the movable coop. Flys and odor are just part of the process, but can be kept down using portable coops, fresh litter, and keeping coops fairly clean. I recommend avoiding chemicals to combat these problems, for they create worse problems.
9. Jump on in. In the end, can you really go wrong with trying out growing a few chickens?
In order to more fully demonstrate the patriarchal ideal in the practical realm, we have decided to add a blog centered around a truly patriarchal agrarian lifestyle. We invite you to take part in the blog through adding comments to the posts and hope that this new endeavor will bless you and your family. God bless.