Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Extreme Hobbies

Recently, I was engaged in a lively conversation with a friend who called me, "extreme." To clarify, she thought that my raising pet chickens in our suburban backyard was extreme... as compared to planting a vegetable garden or bee keeping, other sustainable farming hobbies that are popular here in Westport, as well as the surrounding towns.

I guess the idea of keeping hens, aka farm animals as pets, may be a bit overwhelming for the typical suburbanite. In my defense, I find them easier than a vegetable garden, having grown up tending one in my parents' backyard. Now, that was work. Every day there was the weeding, the watering, the fertilizing, or another back breaking chore... bending over, and/or kneeling in the dirt was not my favorite activity for hours on end in the blazing sun. Seemed pretty extreme to me at the time.

We would gather our bountiful harvest at the end of the day, though, and enjoy scrumptious suppers with fresh spaghetti squash, lettuce, carrots, tomatoes, you name it. We reaped what we sowed. So now, I wonder, truly, why don't I have a large garden as a hobby, versus chicken keeping? I guess you could say, "been there, done that." The idea of watching vegetables grow just isn't exciting. I do keep a few pots on my patio filled with fresh herbs and tomatoes during the summer, but beyond that, my interest in veggie gardens wanes. I prefer to visit the farmers' markets and purchase my fill of produce there, from proud, local farmers who really know what they are doing.

As for bee keeping, I considered this. But alas, I am, quite simply, too much of a wimp to tackle stinging insects. I have the utmost admiration for friends and neighbors who brave the winged beauties to make that golden amber liquid, so sweet and wonderful, and the beeswax that is incredibly useful in myriad ways. I'm not sure as to the numbers of bee keepers as opposed to hen keepers, but I do wonder which is the more popular hobby in our area, and I guess it's a matter of perspective, but I insist that hen keeping is easier (and a lot less painful), though I could be mistaken.

Hen keeping is surprisingly simple. You feed the "girls" layer pellets each day, toss a few oyster shells into the mix, refresh their water, and clean the coop once every couple of weeks. Sure, there are other animal husbandry chores that come up periodically, but on a daily basis, there's not a lot to do. The most time consuming task is the coop cleaning, and that's only once every other week. And if you do free range your hens, as we do, it's wise to stay with them so as to prevent a predator lurking nearby from helping himself to a complementary meal. Thankfully, I have a willing accomplice in my dear daughter, who happily takes on this task each day, weather permitting. All in all, it's a pretty easy gig, and you get breakfast - on the house, courtesy of your efforts.

And like other hobbies, there's the social benefits. Now that my daughter and I have taken the road less traveled by with hen keeping, we've become a part of a community, an underground society, if you will, of chicken enthusiasts. Yes, I feel a bit eccentric having joined this subculture, but am feeling less so now that I see I am in good company, as it seems that chicken keeping is on the rapid rise, thanks to web-based sources of products and information, like My Pet Chicken and the Urban Chickens Network Blog, as well as Meet Up groups like the Southern CT Poultry MeetUp Group, which boasts 125 local members.

So, aside from the joy of plucking fresh eggs each day from our hens' nesting boxes and cracking them over the edge of the pan into some delicious dish, we now have a network of like-spirited folk with whom we can chat. Tomorrow, we "extreme hobbyists" are gathering at Cosi restaurant, in Stamford, to talk chicken. What's more, there's a massive Poultry Show in West Springfield, MA next weekend that my daughter and I are possibly attending... oh yes, to travel 100 miles to see hundreds of birds on display is our idea of a good time.

And doubling our flock of six hens while providing new and improved housing for our feathered friends is on the books for April. Extreme or not, we are having a blast, and isn't that what life is all about? Finding something about which you are passionate, and giving it all the energy you have to offer. You reap what you sow, whether its vegetables, bees, or chickens.
Here's to all the extreme hobbyists out there. Cheep Cheep!