I never grew up on a farm, or even around farm animals really. I grew up in the “country” on about two acres. I passed by pastures with cows in them on my way to school. We had German Shepherds…but that was about it. We weren’t even allowed to have “other” pets. We had gardens…nothing elaborate, but large enough that I hated weeding them as a kid during the summer. My father said farming was always in his blood…he just never found the acreage he wanted/needed to make that vision a reality. I often wondered why he said that it was in his blood, he wasn’t from a farming family either. He grew up in the quiet suburbs of a small town. Now that I’ve done it, I think maybe what he meant is that it just called to his inner spirit…and I can honestly say that I share the same feeling. It is in my blood.
Jadon (my autistic son) was about two years old when my husband and I decided that when we purchased our first home, we would get out of suburbia and look for a house with some acreage. I had always done organic gardening, but wanted to start raising our own food and figured chickens would be easy enough to start with. We had become increasingly aware of the political climate changing, in addition to the need for cleaner food. We had watched a few documentaries (Food Inc., being one) that opened our eyes to what we were consuming…and it was alarming. Little did I know a year later we would end up in Maine, in the foothills of the beautiful Appalachians, on 172 acres and embarking on our first adventures in modern-day farming.
Shortly after we had moved up there, I looked out at my old empty barn and decided now was my chance to make the leap and fill it up with some life. I sifted through a bunch of livestock ads and finally settled on an old, very rough around the edges “fahmah” (that’s some Maine dialect for ya). After making fun of me for showing up to his muddy farm in flip flops, he made me trudge back to the chicken tractors to pick out my birds. Honestly, I hope it was mud. It probably wasn’t since I know what I trudge through here, lol. Lesson learned. Anyway, Ben graciously took the time to help me out…show us the ropes in order to get off on the right muck boot (har-har). I had gone for chickens and came home with ducks and baby lambs too. Not too long after that came a few goats (I shoved three of them into the back of my Volvo XC90, along with four kids and an hour drive home. THAT was interesting. And well…what the hell, I ended up buying a llama we named Cusco a few months later. I did not cram him into the Volvo…he didn’t fit. He was delivered, lol.
It was definitely an experience, and it was one that I found I enjoyed immensely. I learned how to build nesting boxes for my chickens, how to clip sheep and goat hooves, how to incubate eggs, how to milk goats and how to butcher my own food. I had sworn up and down from the time I was a little girl, all I wanted was the pulse of a city. Maine changed that part of me. I miss it there terribly. We only lived there for a short year before my husband’s job called him to western PA, and being the only income…we heeded the call. We knew we couldn’t do this life with both of us working and Maine…well, if you live in Maine it is either your vacation home or you are dirt poor. There isn’t much in between.
When we came back to PA, we found a large home on ten acres. It wasn’t our ideal location, but it was what we needed to be able to carry-on this lifestyle. We brought our herd of Icelandic sheep with us, my goats and some of the chickens and ducklings that my kiddos hatched in their home-made incubator, lovingly dubbed “The Hatchinator.”
We’ve been here almost five years now, farming for almost six. Our farm has grown, as has our experience with the whole farming “thing”. It’s no easy feat running a full time farm on a part-time basis…but we manage it. We have added a cow to our menagerie, Daisy Crocket…the mini Jersey. I just bought her off a wonderful couple in West Virginia this past fall. She’s getting ready to have her first calf in the next month or so…and I will get my first opportunity to milk a cow. I’m really excited to have our own grass-fed dairy source, not to mention she is beta-casein A/2, A/2 (another post that is relevant to autism, coming soon).
A self-sustaining life-style takes a lot of hard-work, it’s not meant for everyone…but if you can do it, it’s beyond rewarding. Living on a farm teaches so much about life, caring for living things and what happens when you don’t. It teaches responsibility like nothing else can in my book. My kids gripe as they trudge out to the barn and coops, in the mud, the snow and the rain. But their faces light up when new life is born on the farm and they see that all their hard work in caring for our animals comes back to visit them in some pretty inspiring ways. They have learned the realities of the circle of life, and how to be truly grateful for what we eat. Food has taken on a completely new meaning. There is a profound respect there that you just don’t get when you are buying a prepackaged chunk of meat at the store. You lose the identity of it…everything that went into making that…well…food.
Many times I have crossed paths with people that tell me how they would love to do this but can’t because of this or that. I tell them that they can. If you are reading this and are feeling the same way, then I will tell you that you can too. Check with your local township about keeping chickens…most places, surprisingly, allow for it. Chickens don’t need much space, believe it or not there are ordinances in cities (like Pittsburgh) that allow people to raise them…and they do it on rooftops! When you get the green light…start with a hen or two. You don’t need a noisy rooster to get eggs, hens lay regardless. Craigslist always has chickens up for sale. And again, as I mentioned, they don’t need much space, and as long as they are well taken care of they will give you an egg a day (depending on their age and breed). If you have kids, they will probably love to go out and collect the eggs every day.
The difference between store bought eggs and home-grown is nothing short of incredible. Plus, the protective coating (called the bloom) is still on the egg which keeps the egg fresher longer, and safe from external sources of bacteria (i.e. salmonella). The bloom is a clear coating that is deposited on the egg when it is laid by a hen. The coating dries and seals the pores of the egg to protect it from dirt, manure, and bacteria that could enter the porous shell otherwise. This enables the tiny life that will grow in it, (if fertilized and incubated) to make it to hatching. Life is about survival and every living thing is equipped with the ability to do so.
Eggs in the store come from hens fed poor diets, left to live in filthy, cramped conditions. The eggs are washed in a chemical bleach solution (removing that protective coating) and they are irradiated to destroy bacteria and disease. All so they can feed the hens poorly, house them poorly and still sell you their eggs because of the chemicals and processes used to make them “safe”. All of this is degrading our health, not to mention potentially leaving us vulnerable to bacteria and disease as a result of that protective “bloom” coating being removed (this is why salmonella is prevalent in eggs). Food should be medicine…and it is no longer, thanks to corporate greed.
We are an organic, grassfed, and non-gmo farm. I would humbly suggest that if you keep any farm animal, try to stick to the same concept. If you want healthy food (especially if you are raising autism) then this is absolutely the best (only) way to go. Chickens eat grain, bugs, and grass (and sometimes a garter snake or a mouse…yes…shockingly I have seen it). When you buy their grain, look for non-gmo and organic. My thought is, if you are going to the lengths of raising your own food, it is so important to not allow your hard work to come undone by toxic, genetically modified grains. If you are unable to raise chickens but want healthier eggs, there ARE healthier options available. You can find local people selling eggs on craigs…but you would want to find out what they are feeding their hens (non-gmo feed etc). There are farmers around too, and farmer’s markets as well. Just recently, in the grocery store I found eggs that were organic, cage free and the package notated that the hens’ feed was non-gmo, which was awesome to see showing up on the shelves! I definitely understand that not everyone has the means to just start raising their own food for one reason or another. But if you are able, it is very rewarding and worth a shot (regardless of having no prior experience).
Often my husband has said to me, it seemed a waste of money and time to move up to Maine for a year to then just turn around and come back. But to me…Maine was one of those crossroads we come to for one reason or another. It was where I made decisions that I knew would impact the rest of my life. It was when I crossed over into a completely new lifestyle. One of which I had no experience to draw from (or other family that had any either). A blank book waiting to be written, crossed off, and rewritten. I became a person with new goals, and new perspectives. I became a new mother in so many ways…a mother that would teach her children lessons that she didn’t even realize they needed. I learned so much there…even if it was only a year. I believe we are put on paths that shape us into what we are meant to become…and sometimes it’s not evident right away. Maine gave me the foundation that I needed to stand on so that I could begin my journey with Jadon. Looking back, I have realized that our time there set the things in motion that needed to happen in order for me to deal with J’s diagnosis and to begin the process of his healing.