Chickens and Jews

Chickens and Jews

By Jessica Nordell

The sky was gray and feathery white the morning of the Backyard Chickens workshop with the Jewish Farm School, an ag-education organization that offers classes on the Farm at Eden Village near Cold Spring, north of New York City. The workshop had attracted a motley crew– a homeschooling family from Jersey, a young couple from the Bronx, a woman who'd acquired some land that "came with chickens," and me, a city visitor up for the weekend to breathe clean oxygen. I'd spent that morning watching the mist lift off the lake and was ready to learn the difference between a brown egg and a blue one. The lake shimmered like a black sheet of glass with long sugar maple trunks reflected in its mirror.

We all trundled into a cabin festooned with tapestries to listen to Debra Rich, the school's farm manager and-educator-of-all-things-chicken. Deb sat down in front of a white board and scrawled the word "Why?" Why raise chickens? Why indeed? Why build a coop, scatter scratch, check for disease, and contend with all the other elements of a chicken-filled lifestyle? Fish are easier. Dogs love you back. Chickens shimmy in dirt and peck at your shoelaces.

Hands shot up. They're fun to watch, said one participant. Fresh eggs, said another. Deb averred, and added another use: chickens' body heat can be used to heat up greenhouses. (Who knew?) A homeschooled kid named Noah raised his hand and said, shyly, that a good reason to raise chickens was "The fun and responsibility of caring for them." Voila: a mensch-in-training. All agreed with Noah's summation, and we headed to the farm's small "mobile coop," a shed-on-wheels with a handy trap door in the back for retrieving the eggs. Four Rhode Island Reds clambered out to meet us, and Deb began describing the whats and hows of raising chickens: the space they need, the food they eat, and the fact that a chicken's bright red comb is the only place it can sweat (!). We learned that because chickens have no teeth, they store stones in their gizzards to masticate whatever they eat. I pictured having to eat pebbles in order to chew, and silently thanked G-d I wasn't born a chicken.

But the drama came later, at the farm's large coop, where a cavalcade of chickens paraded freely on the grounds. JFS's chickens are so free-range they sometimes wander off into the nearby woods, but all ten came scurrying to meet us: the Barred Rock, a tweedy black and white; the Ameraucauna, charcoal gray with an orange-red sunburst from its head to its tail; the Wyandotte, a striped-neck beauty with bright white body feathers outlined in ink. We peered into their large coop, where a pure white bird sat hunkered on some straw. Then there was a soft thud and suddenly, a soft blue egg. We oohed, and Deb explained that this is rare: the egg-laying process happens so fast you almost never see it.

Back outside the henhouse, Deb fielded questions from newly-hatched poultry-philes, and we crouched down to pet the birds. A few participants got close enough to hold them until they protested and fluttered back to the ground. The workshop over, we scattered out to explore the farm, eat smoothies fresh from a bike-powered blender, and try, one last time, to hold a chicken in our arms. I failed at that, but one day soon. Next time I'll offer it a delicious pebble.

*Check out the attached Chicken Resource Informational document

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