Chickens: An Interview with Kristen Simmons by Marie WilliamsPosted: October 17, 2012
Our first phase of research and outreach with the Garden Book is now in full swing, thanks to the hard work of Marie and Saira.
Marie Williams, a student and history major at Arkansas Tech, has been meeting with area growers and learning more about who’s out there, what they’re growing, and, perhaps most importantly, why they’re growing. We’re learning more about this living tradition and slowly helping to build resources to help it thrive.
Marie put together this wonderful post about her experience visiting withe Kristen Simmons and her amazing chickens.
Later in the week photographer Saira Kahn went out to take some wonderful photos and we’ll have those posted on Friday. Until then, Kristin has sent as a few shots of her beautiful birds (thanks, Kristen!)
If you’are a grower in the area we’d love to talk to you! You can email us at meredithmartin_moats (@) yahoo.com. To read a bit more about the backstory of this project, read a recent Seed and the Story column in the Post Dispatch and the Boiled Down Juice.
The windy October afternoon set the scene perfectly to interview Kristen Simmons. She lives down a dirt road, down another dirt road, about three miles from the small town of Dover. She lives in an ordinary looking brick house. As I walked up to knock on the front door I wondered where her growing operation was set up at. I saw no sign of a garden or of chickens.
Her husband answered the door and we found Kristen in the back yard. Now I saw the chickens, running free in the yard while a playful puppy chased them. Kristen was in the middle, mediating between the pup and the chickens, totally calm and in control. Now, this was what I was expecting, kind of. After friendly introductions we got down to business. When had she started growing?
“Since July of last year. All of these chickens I’ve acquired since March of this year. My first batch of chickens was a learning experience, it was not a success. So we tried again after I did a lot of research and looked up what I needed to know. We started out wanting about a dozen chickens. I have twenty-six now. I have an indecent amount of chickens, they’re addictive. People who have chickens call it chicken math, it happens.”
Twenty-six chickens. This information floored me. How did a twenty-two year old full time nursing student manage to take care of twenty-six chickens? Not to mention the rabbit, the dog, the cat, the husband, and the vegetable garden. She seemed bubbly and full of energy. Not the tired gardener, apologizing for the mess or fretting about the state of the yard. I had to know her secret. Her motivation for making her life invariable harder than it had to be.
“Well, it doesn’t, the chickens especially, don’t take up as much time as the average person would think. You can get away with five or ten minutes of work with them a day and they’ll be happy. They’re not hard to please.”
I was floored. How could all that be easy? She explained to me that watching the chickens in the morning when she fed them relaxed her. She would spend a few minutes with them and check on things and start her day off right. Collecting their harvest of beautiful eggs was always rewarding because she could not wait to see which hens had started lying and what the bounty for the day was. She described each chicken to me and what kind of egg they laid and why she had gotten that particular chicken.
“The red and white [chickens] are basically the breeds you’re going to get your store bought brown eggs from. They were bred for high egg production. This is a green egg. My favorite egg color is probably from those brown ones with the yellow necks right up there. They’re called Welsummers and they lay a dark brown egg with speckles so they look kind of like quail eggs. I keep all docile chicken breeds because it’s just easier.”
Her devotion to the chickens was obvious, even though she was not too attached. She chuckled as she explained to me that eating her chickens was something she had done and would continue to do. I learned that the roosters tended to be gamey if you waited too long to eat them, but the chickens would be good to eat their whole lives.
“It’s really interesting because they really do each have a personality but I didn’t think that when I got them. I thought they would run around and scratch all day. Half of it depends on what breed you get but they really do each have a little bit of personality. You have to look at it [losing chickens] as part of raising chickens because what doesn’t like eating chickens? I would suggest not getting too attached. We have eaten a couple of chickens before. It was a learning experience. I would say it was definitely worth it.”
I wondered why she did it. Why take the time to raise the chickens, collect the eggs, and commit her life to growing her own food?
“We [her husband James and her] got into homesteading because I am tired of hearing about all the nasty things that go on in the factories and all the chemicals that get put in our food. There’s a big increase in people getting sick and I think it’s partly because of that. We wanted to get back to the way things used to be and I can tell you that fresh eggs are incomparable to the eggs bought in the store. I think the best part about doing this is knowing that my food comes from a clean source and is chemical free. It’s also fun to just come out here and watch them, it’s really peaceful. I think it’s important to know where your meat comes from, and you know, meet your dinner.”
Now that was interesting. A homesteader at twenty-two? We talked about what this meant for her and her husband. The immediate plans were the chickens and the eggs and the small vegetable garden. In the future there would be a goat for milk and rabbits for breeding and for meat. Oh and of course they ate the chickens too. Eventually she would produce every bit of food that her family would consume. She would know where it came from and what exactly was going into her body. This was impressive. What a realization for someone who had no background in farming. Wait, what? That’s right, neither she nor her husband have a background in farming.
“I was new to all of this. I didn’t know anything when I started. My dad’s parents kept chickens and they had a hog farm when he was a kid. When I was a kid we didn’t have any of that, they wanted to buy it [food] at the store. My dad was pretty sick of keeping hogs so we never had any farm animals when I was growing up and neither did James really. We didn’t get interested in this until a year or two ago. We didn’t think to ask, we just read up. Before I started doing this I thought there might be like five different types of chickens but there are like two hundred different types. It’s a real eye opening experience, I’ve learned a lot about not just how to keep them but why I keep them.”
She and her husband decided one day that they would do this, on their own, with no physical examples. She truly is self-taught. A scholar of growing that actually makes it work, even if it has taken a few tries. She explained to me how some of her chickens and rabbits died as well as how much of a failure the first garden was.
“I started out with eight of them [bright white roosters] earlier this year, but then we had the owl problem. I think the owls just went for the bright white feathers because they ate all of them except for him. We did have more [rabbits] but we lost them in the summer heat. The gardening has come along a lot slower actually then keeping the animals. Last year, we had our first garden and it was a miserable failure. It was not good because we didn’t do our research on it. This year it turned out a lot better. We felt like it would have been a really good garden if it hadn’t been for the drought. We’re going to definitely try again next year.”
Talk about perseverance. Not only does it cost money to buy the animals, it also cost time and energy. She was able to overcome the initial disappointments because she knew the final gain would be worth it. What about her husband though? Had he been swayed from their goal after their initial failure?
“No. He specializes in the gardening, he really likes to grow things and I don’t care for that as much as I do taking care of animals. It really works out great. I focus on the animals and he focuses on the gardening. It’s really a team effort. If you have a spouse or a partner a step in the right direction would be getting them involved. There’s things here I couldn’t do even by myself, I know how to do them, but at the same time a lot of these are two person jobs. You’ll get overwhelmed very quickly. We’ve been lucky because we both decided to do this at the same time.
Kristen has started selling her eggs, eggs that technically can’t be called “organic” because they don’t meet the strict FDA guidelines. She does not buy them organic feed, but buys feed from Tractor Supply and they are free-range, meaning they eat what’s in the earth. How much more organic can you get? I can vouch for Kristen’s eggs. They are delicious. Her chickens are free-range and well fed. Her operation may be small but her mission is clear.
“It [getting the chickens] was mostly to get the fresh eggs and sell them to people but obviously it grew into something more than that.”
“You can do this and still live an ordinary everyday life.”
This is the message Kristen wants to share. Homesteading, growing your own food will not keep you from living a full life. You are tied to the land in that you have to have someone look after your place if you want to take an extended trip but other than that her life is exactly what she wants it to be. Her chickens and homesteading goals have not kept her from doing or achieving anything.
Kristen decided that she wanted to know what exactly she was putting in her body and acted on it. Hopefully her story can be an example to a generation. You do not have to have a large homestead to grow your own food. One of Kristen’s resources, The Backyard Homestead by Carleen Madigan, teaches its readers to sustain themselves on a quarter of an acre. How amazing that in such a little space, so much can be done. You do not have to have a background or any knowledge of farming. You just have to be interested and take the time to learn. Kristen would like to share any information or advice she can with people who are interested in homesteading, raising chickens, or growing in general.