How to turn a groundhog into a chicken

I was a guest at the house of Gerald and Sara Shenk on Sunday. They are part of the leadership of a relatively small Mennonite Church that started in 2007 here on the university campus at Harrisonburg. They call themselves ‘The Table’, and are centred around hospitality and community.  When the church was in its early days, they decided that they wanted to practise hospitality in two particular ways: a weekly celebration of communion, and a weekly shared meal.  (This is very different to the usual Mennonite practice of celebrating communion just twice a year, at Easter and in the autumn).  

Since a weekly celebration of communion has always been a part of my practice, I was keen to experience this in a Mennonite setting, so I walked the short distance from my dorm to the beautiful setting of the church, a small building on a hill overlooking the campus, with views over the Shenandoah valley to the distant mountains.  The service reminded me a little of childhood experiences of worship, centred around singing, scripture readings, silence, and reflections from different members of the church. It felt good to be there.  

After the service we walked to the home of Gerald and Sara Shenk for a delicious lunch of chicken casserole and rice. (Gerald had been my teacher in the first week here, and Sara also teaches at the university).  It was at the meal that I learned some interesting things about Harrisonburg and chickens. Harrisonburg is something of a ‘chicken capital’ in this part of the world.  Although the population today is only 45,000, Harrisonburg received the title of ‘city’ early in the 20th century,  and like many towns this size it has universities and is an important business and commercial centre for this part of the Shenandoah Valley.  Chickens are reared intensively and processed all around the area, which has led to an influx of workers, notably from Mexico and Central America.  Probably as a direct result of this, English is taught as a second language to more children in Harrisonburg schools than in the outlying districts of Washington D.C. (Washington is a very multi ethnic city)

This enterprise contributes to the economic growth that Harrisonburg has experienced even during the recession, but there are some rumblings of discontent.  The chicken industry rears just one breed of chicken on the grounds that it is easier to prevent disease if you only have one breed.  In fact the city has passed a law that no one is allowed to keep chickens within the town itself, for fear that people will rear other breeds which may pass on diseases to the intensively farmed chickens.   At least one person, keeping a variety of breeds within the city limits, has had his chickens taken away.  One of the things that interested me about this debate was that it seems to be centred around the issue of freedom to rear chickens as you wish, rather than on the animal welfare issues for the intensively farmed birds.

One young couple sitting round the table – Ryan and Janey – are just starting to rear chickens, and had some questions, which resulted in the following discussion: The chicken coop should be moved regularly, every two or three days, to ensure that the grass in the back yard is not permanently killed by the chicken poop.  There was the added problem of flies.  When the coop has been moved, flies gather around the remaining pungent chicken poop, and the smell gets a bit rich.  There was some discussion as to what might help deal with this awful smell.  Ryan had been especially concerned to know the answer to this question after their next door neighbour had commented on the smell, and asked if something might be done.  After some research, Ryan was advised to put some lime on the offending poop.  So far this seems to be working.

Kirk offered the fascinating information that chickens love to eat maggots, and will eat them in preference to grass.  So one way of preserving the grass is to provide some maggots!   Kirk had a friend who offered this tested method: get a 5 gallon plastic drum.  Drill holes in it, especially all around the bottom.  Put a dead groundhog, skunk, or possum into the drum.  The flies will come, feed on the groundhog, lay their eggs which after three days will have developed to maggots.  The chickens can feed on this rich feast of maggots through the holes in the bottom of the drum.

Another tip was to use the chickens as a means of pest control.  Their preference for maggots and other bugs makes them a very effective substitute instead of chemical means of control.  let the chickens loose in the garden, and they will eat up the bugs.  And because chickens prefer bugs to greenstuff,  they will eat the bugs before they start in on your carefully tended veg in the garden!  However, timing is an issue.  Leave them loose in the garden for more than a couple of days, and you will soon see them tucking into your precious lettuce etc.

And finally.  Winter rye makes a good crop apparently for chicken feed.  Towards the end of the season, plant some winter rye, and when it gets to  about 4/5 inches, give the chickens a run in the garden as they feed on this winter banquet!  P.S.  This last gem applies to the climate here -I don’t know if winter rye grows in all climates.

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