UIU professor reminisces on raising chickens

An essay on chicken farming by Bissel Professor of English Dr. Douglas McReynolds was published last month by the The Wapsipinicon Almanac. On the magazine’s 19th volume, Dr. Reynolds reminisces on family farming in Iowa and how dozens of chickens clucked their way into his life.

I am as distressed as anyone to see the number of Iowa’s Congressional districts continue to dwindle, from as many as eleven just eighty years ago to the present five and, by next election, down to four.  It is downright disheartening.  But I do not fix the problem where many do, and I am not one to wax nostalgic over the demise of the family farm, nor is my brother.  Oh, we continue to hear much about the values instilled through direct participation in the agrarian life and the country school; about the physical and psychological health benefits of whole family involvement in the tilling of the soil; about the unparalleled sense of earned self-esteem that goes with the showing of a hand raised market hog at the county fair… but we no longer pay much heed to such airy-headed wills-o-the-wisp.  You see, we were raised on a family farm, and we know better.

I suppose that, as for an osmotically acquired sense of fundamental ethics, there may be something there, however slight.  For it is true that neither my brother nor I, nor any of the little sisters who kept appearing at regular intervals along the way, has actually spent more than a couple of successive nights in a county jail, and we are all on the down side of fifty now, so it seems increasingly unlikely that any of us ever will.  But that’s about as far as it goes.  What we learned mostly in those days was chickens, and chickens have precious little to do with earned self-esteem or improved psychological health, especially Mother’s.

It was Father’s idea to raise them in the first place.  Most things were his ideas, and the rest of us followed gingerly along as best we could.  We were, after all, a family, and it happened that the family farm he had bought for us featured a sprawling hen house and fenced in chicken yard and, as well, a smallish brooder facility that he figured would be perfect for starting a few hundred chicks that would, in due time, mature into a continuous stream of coq-au-vin, eggs Benedict and cash income.  Such are the dreams of men.

Unfortunately, when the first batch of five hundred day-old chicks arrived from the hatchery on December 28 of that year the brooder facility wasn’t quite ready to receive them and so, to avoid freezing them, we fenced them into the living room of our own house.  This was good for the chicks and great fun for the children who, after three days, were beginning to tire of our Christmas toys anyway, but it exacted something of a toll on Mother.  Her voice began to take on a shrillness we were not accustomed to, and some of what had heretofore been treated as mild transgressions of familial decorum—removing a baby sister’s socks, for example, and encouraging her to step barefooted into fresh chicken droppings—suddenly were provoking reactionary punishment which seemed completely out of proportion to the reputed crime.  Father could avoid it all by absenting himself to the brooder house, making “final preparations” in anticipation of whatever missing necessity had yet to be delivered, or he could find some pretext for driving into town for an afternoon.  The rest of us were stuck.  For the most part my brother and I spent our days chasing down escapees and separating bullies from bullied while our sisters planned funerals for the inevitable casualties and Mother dreamed of her girlhood far away among the Houston and Beaumont gentry.  She never spoke of it, but she must often have wondered what had possessed her to give up college for a trumpet player who aspired to agriculture.  In a few days the brooder house was readied, the chicks removed and our ordinary lives resumed.

Alas, that was not the end of it.  At length the days warmed and the growing chicks outgrew their facility.  They were transported to the henhouse where they were sexed and separated.  The males would in due time go to slaughter and the females would begin producing eggs—twelve or fifteen dozen a day, every day, Sundays and holidays included—a steady and perpetual stream of cash income. It would be like picking money up out of the road, almost.

Not quite, of course.  For one thing, none of us knew the precise steps that transformed a wary and bad tempered young rooster, complete with razor sharp bill and a pair of nearly lethal spurs, into a brace of drumsticks and a wishbone, seasoned and floured and ready for the skillet.  But we were willing to learn, to develop a process; at least our parents were, and the rest of us had little choice but to go along, and here were some two hundred chances to get it right.  Surely if there were something about the farm that shrieked, “Family!” this would be it.

And so, one Monday morning, we began.

It took about twenty minutes for my brother and me to corner the first bird, and it probably would have taken longer but for the fact that he was a somewhat dimwitted specimen more-or-less shoved out to the fore by his peers as a sort of gambit.  We could at least get close by pretending to offer him feed; still, he was less than anxious to have Father lop his head off, and he made sure we knew it. I’ve always pictured Katherine Howard, the redoubtable Henry’s Vth wife, as having gone in much the same way.  In our naïveté, my brother and I took for granted that once the head was gone that was the end of it, but we were mistaken, and this fact came to light as, after the axe had come down, we released our hold and watched the headless corpse take wing and rise to the roof of the henhouse where it fluttered about for several minutes before falling off in indignant surrender to the inevitable.  It would be interesting to know whether Queen Katherine similarly surprised the witnesses to her removal from office.  I remember looking at the remaining herd, now fully attentive, and thinking that this could turn out to be a very, very long day.

Eventually we had a dozen or so unevenly dispatched birds ready for the next step in our developing familial process.  Mother had a large kettle of water boiling; our job was to grab each carcass by the feet and dunk it until it was thoroughly scalded and the feathers loosened, then get to plucking.  That part was really kind of fun, and even those little sisters old enough to be of use joined in.  Originally the plan was to separate out the softer, down-like breast feathers and later use them to stuff pillows with:  these birds were not going to provide us with food and cash income merely, but with the very means for restful slumber at the end of each family farm values laden day.  Everything is useful; nothing goes to waste.  I don’t know why it didn’t occur to Father that we might market the feet to a Voodoo supplies wholesaler somewhere.

Mother was in charge of gutting the carcasses, washing the giblets, packaging and so forth.  She was also first to realize that (a) no matter how soft and downy they might be, and they weren’t particularly, chicken feathers smell like chickens, and the bedroom is a refuge from not a continuation of the fowl enterprise; and (b) the amount of feathery material we children were likely to deliver in a month would not stuff a good sized pincushion, let alone the family pillows.  The project was subsequently abandoned.

Still, by the end of that first day we had a dozen or so plump birds ready for the oven.  Unfortunately, we were all so olfactorily saturated with the various redolences of chicken blood, chicken feathers, chicken guts and chicken poop that no one felt much like eating.  The experience was not as traumatic as when, later, we tried to eat the family pig, because these chickens had no names, nor had they been anybody’s particular pets, but nevertheless we all felt that a couple of years in the freezer might do the birds some good.  One hundred and eighty-eight, more or less, to go.

For the next round, Father surmised that shooting the birds might prove a more efficient means of dispatch than running each one down and chopping off its head.  My brother and I were only too glad to see the new procedure tested, as the old one had had a truly wearying effect on us.  As it turned out, however, Father was wrong.  We discovered almost immediately that twenty-two caliber birdshot served only to rile the young roosters up, and actual bullets were out of the question as they would tear the meat up pretty thoroughly unless the huntsman were an accomplished enough marksman simply to shoot the head off each time, and, although he was certainly a better shot than my brother or me, Father was not in such a league as that.  I don’t know what we’d have done if a neighboring farm wife hadn’t happened by that morning to share some news of an entirely unrelated matter.  She sized the situation up at a glance and marched us all straight to the henhouse where she grabbed the nearest chicken by its unsuspecting neck, gave a quick and businesslike snap, and that was that.  It was a highly educational moment.

Father picked up the technique in short order and at the expense of only a couple of outraged birds whose necks were stretched and whose heads lolled more or less permanently after the process but who escaped otherwise unscathed.  Soon he was snapping necks as if he had been born to it.  The disassembly line was straightway reestablished, and for a while it looked as though something good might yet emerge from the wreckage.  We were old hands now, and those of us at the plucking stations no longer had even to worry about separating feathers from down as we worked.  Things were humming right along until Mother paused to look around her kitchen and see what each of her children was actually up to.  Probably she shouldn’t have.

Whichever one of the little girls was just less than two years old at the time, and so unable to assume a meaningful role in the production line, had figured out a way by which she could participate at least analogously in the common occupation. From somewhere she had amassed a collection of hairy caterpillars, including some surprisingly large and healthy ones considering the time of year, and these she was plucking assiduously on the kitchen floor, albeit without first having wrung their necks or scalded them.  For their part, naked and embarrassed and more than a little put out, the caterpillars were doing their best to undulate the hell out of Dodge, so to speak, and into whatever dark kitchen corner seemed to offer haven. My sister positively beamed in earned self-esteem, but Mother had to sit down.

And that was pretty much the end of the chicken packing business on our family farm.  The next day a truck came and carried away the remaining young roosters, and I never saw them again, nor was I ever informed as to whether that subsidiary of the larger family enterprise had turned a profit.  But this did not make a great deal of difference to me because now there were hens to be dealt with, over two hundred of them, and the hens were to prove more than adequately diverting on their own.

It was my job each morning, and my brother’s, to gather eggs, clean them and pack them away in crates to be picked up every few days by the buyer who carted them off in a black panel truck to wherever one carts eggs.  It was the hens’ job each morning to lay those eggs.  What nobody apparently had considered was synchronizing our job with the hens’ so that the eggs themselves would be in position to be gathered when we made our appointed rounds.  True, one entire wall of the henhouse had been lined with nesting boxes, rows upon rows of them, and a few hens had discovered these and laid claim to them.  Mostly, though, the hens simply wandered about the house and yard and actually seemed surprised when caught in the pursuit of a particularly tasty looking grasshopper, say, with the unavoidable urge to pause in mid stride and eject from her nether regions a large and uncomfortable white ovoid.  As often as not the process would crack the egg, rendering it immediately unsalable and attracting the attentions of fellow travelers who would rather share a made-to-order omelet than chase down worms and grasshoppers anyway.

I recall reading in, I believe, St. Nicholas Anthology Howells’s story of a little girl who wished for Christmas every day and the horrors which ensued when her wish was granted.  Well, instead of Christmas we had an Easter egg hunt every morning, and there were many dozens of identical hidden prizes to be accounted for, and no one knew exactly how many or where they might be found or even whether a particular specimen had been deposited where it was discovered yesterday or six weeks ago.

Not that collecting from the nest boxes was any more enthralling.  The hens who had commandeered these had done so with a purpose, and that purpose was to protect any eggs one might be concealing from the timorous fingers of six- and eight-year-old boys.  Vicious, gimlet-eyed things whose faces reminded one vaguely of spinster school teachers.  Usually a hen’s evil stare was enough to persuade us to pass her throne, for a tentative reach would inevitably result in pecked fingers and a mental note to avoid this nest on the morrow.  Sometimes one of us could lure a bird from her clutch with a handful of chicken feed while the other quickly scooped the eggs into a gathering pail, but again there was no way really of telling which, if any, of half a dozen dubious prizes was actually fresh and which she had been hoarding since the last time we had been able to dislodge her a week or a month before.

It was not long before the egg buyer began complaining of uneven freshness among his purchases, and the labors of my brother and me were doubled.  Now we were required to find every egg, every day, no matter how long it took, and if that meant sticking our hands under angry hens, well, that’s what it meant.  At least we were given canvas gloves to soften the blows, but—and this perhaps is another important Family Farm Lesson we learned without particular reflection—the thought of being pecked turns out to be as nervous making as the reality of it.  (Later, in college, I had to read Sons and Lovers, and when I got to the part about the boy and girl becoming aroused by the erotically sensuous pecking of chickens at their flat and outstretched palms, I wanted to throw up.  D. H. Lawrence was obviously never close to a real chicken in his life.)

The egg buyer also complained about unclean eggs.  Because my brother and I had no reason to suspect anyone ever actually looked at our work, we had concluded that as long as the top layer of the eighteen dozen ova that went into a carton seemed shiny and bright, the underlying ones would be assumed so as well, and a desultory brushing away of the most egregious deposits of fecal matter or clotted straw would suffice.  Actually cleaning a hundred and fifty or so eggs is tedious labor, and we understood that the less handling a particular specimen was subjected to, the less chance there was of cracking or breaking; it seemed pretty obvious to us that the packing system which required the least human contact with the egg was the most successful one, and we proceeded accordingly.  Let whoever bought the eggs wash them more thoroughly if such was their desire, for it certainly wasn’t ours.  Besides, once the eggs were delivered to a warehouse, would anybody know the exact farm source of a particular batch?

The answer to that last question turned out to be “Yes,” and after a conference between Mother and the egg buyer, my brother and I found ourselves in the embarrassing position each day of having to present each layer of eggs in each carton for a thorough motherly inspection before we could proceed to the next.  As was easily predictable, increased breakage ensued, and before long the whole relationship between profit and labor seemed wholly out of balance.

By this time Father had lost interest in the operation anyway, and of course Mother had never been its champion.  Gradually the hens found their numbers dwindling as the combined depredations of coyotes, skunks, old age and the Sunday pot took their various tolls, and eventually the egg buyer quit coming around altogether.  No replacement chicks ever appeared, and Father refashioned the brooder house into his private study, but it would be three long years more before we sold the farm and moved to town.

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