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First drafted March 27, 2005
On the first of our two chicken farms, my father built one structure that sticks in my memory: a high barn-like building with an A-frame roof (if that’s the right term: my knowledge of architecture, like that of music, is abysmal). I have a memory of siding that was a very soft material, not wood, a few times the thickness of cardboard. I have no memory of what was inside the building, though probably chicken feed and farm equipment; I just remember the presence of the building (probably much smaller than it looms in my memory), which my father dubbed The Monstrosity. I think it was years before I got the joke—to me, “The Monstrosity” (probably always mentally capitalized) was the name of the building as a rural English home might be called The Brambles.
Somewhere along the line I became involved in farm chores, though I don’t remember at what pace. Chores included filling metal (probably zinc) buckets with one of two types of food (a gray-green mash or a grain mélange, dominated by corn kernels, called “scratch”), loading them onto a wheelbarrow, struggling to wheel the barrow to the coop. I have the sense that to save myself trips I loaded the barrow as full as it could be (3 or 4 buckets on the barrow itself, one each slung over the extended handles that you gripped to lift and push) rather than making the push easier by keeping the barrow contents to just a couple of buckets. As far back as I can remember, minimizing the amount of time required to do any work has been a priority. (When my parents forced me to take piano lessons—about 4 years, around age 8-12—the knowledge of the unchangeable timer ticking off my practice hour weighed on me. Perhaps that was at least in part a heritage of this driving force to do as little work as possible and compress it wherever I could.)
The mash went into “hoppers,” long metal troughs, much narrower than pig troughs, with roosts running the length on either side maybe a foot off the floor. The scratch was scattered over the mixture of manure and some kind of straw that covered the floor—but you were supposed to distribute evenly, waving the slightly tilted bucket in all directions so that the scratch made a thin film on the surface.
Cleaning the water pans was, I think, the most hateful task. The structure I remember was this; though it may have applied only to our 2nd farm, where my father built the coop himself: There were 6 pans in each room. Each pan was suspended with at the rim of a concrete cylinder maybe 12-18 inches high. The cylinder was mounted over a drainpipe. The pan obtained water via a float mechanism not unlike a toilet flush bob: a flat metal strip maybe a half-inch wide and 6 inches long had a hollow metal “float” (the shape of a tuna fish can and a bit smaller) at one end and was attached to a water valve device at the other, which in turn was attached to a vertical water pipe that connected to a pipe below the coop. When the float was low enough, water would trickle into the pan. When the water buoyed the float high enough, the water stopped. Above the pan and float mechanism was a conical mesh cover made of strong wires that allowed the birds insert their heads and drink without climbing into the pan.
Chickens make incredible amounts of dust (and I was allergic to dust, so summers would be especially miserable for me). The water pans would fill with a layer of wet dust at the bottom—at times probably close to a half-inch deep. But in addition there would usually be chicken turds embedded with the dust. To clean the pan you made a circular motion either with the palm of your hand or with a brush like a dishwashing brush. You got the watering swirling at a good speed without sloshing over the top of the pan and onto the coop floor, and with the right timing you lifted the pan and let its contents pour within the cement cylinder and down the drain.
Problems? The water would freeze in winter. (I don’t remember if the pipes ever froze or why they wouldn't). The conical covers could get knocked out of alignment or even pushed open so that birds could splash in the pans; I have the sense that sometimes these covers were missing altogether. A bird sitting in the pan might sit on the float and keep it down so that it flooded indefinitely onto the manure on the floor (sometimes the float would stick of its own accord and have the same effect) so that a few or several dozen square feet might be drenched, with chickens tracking the muck everywhere. Sometimes the drain down which you threw the dirty water would become clogged. I don’t remember how you fixed these problems—only that they were disgusting.
The coop had five rooms. The center one was the “feed room” and contained supplies like feed and egg-sorting equipment. Within it was a smaller room walled with dry wall. It had a thick, heavy door, and without any mechanical device I can remember, it retained a relatively low temperature, which was especially important in summer. Except when you were sorting them, here is where you kept the eggs until they were picked up by a middle man in what was probably a panel truck or small van.
The base of the coop on our second farm (the coop my father built) had concrete-block walls maybe five feet high. The roof sloped from maybe 15 feet in front to perhaps 6 feet in back. In the four rooms that held chickens, above the concrete blocks the front of the coop had wide and high open frames covered with chicken wire; the back wall had a low version of the same principle. Against the rear, from one side of the room to the other, was a wooden roost with wood supports every several feet to hold up the several parallel perches. The side walls of each room had multiple banks of three-tiered (or was it four tiers?) metal nests; each tier probably held five or six discrete nests large enough for one chicken to sit contentedly but too small for two birds. Hens were supposed to lay eggs in the nests. When it came time to collect eggs—twice a day, I think—you might find several eggs in a single nest. You might also find a territorial hen that refused to leave the nest and pecked viciously at your hand when you reached in; you learned to move your hand quickly with such birds, first at the heads to shove aside the beaks, then behind the neck to grab the bird in the angle her wings formed with her body and pull her out in a single motion. Hens might break or crack eggs in the nest, and they typically loved to eat the insides. And when collecting eggs, it wasn’t enough to check every nest; you also had to scour the floor, because some birds might lay eggs anywhere. The worst was if they lay the eggs in the rear of the room beneath the perches: to get there meant crawling under the roost or picking your way over it and then reaching down.
You collected eggs in round metal baskets about 18 inches high and two feet in diameter, usually with rubber covering the metal wire. Even with such cushioning it was easy to break or crack eggs in the basket—all you had to do was move the basket a little too fast and get the eggs rattling against one another. An egg with a cracked shell (called a “crack”) was edible but unsaleable except at a low price, so usually you'd segregate them for the family to eat. You’d fill a basket two-thirds—about 100 eggs—and then tote the basket to the feed room, You'd fetch another basket and keep going until all eggs were collected. You did this twice a day.