Friday, April 8, 2011
The Chicken or the Egg?
Let's back up a bit. Despite the fact that Pittsboro, NC only has a population of approximately 3700 people, we are the home to a couple of agriculturally important organizations. One of these is the American Livestock Breed Conservancy, a national non profit group that works to protect heritage breeds of livestock from extinction.
There are many different breeds of livestock and you may have never thought about any particular breed as being important. You may not have had any idea that there are breeds of cattle, pigs, chickens, etc. that are on the verge of extinction. For generations, farms across the United States raised a myriad of breeds of livestock. Farmers in the north raised breeds that were better suited to harsh winters and farms in the south raised breeds that were tolerant of our long, hot summers. Heritage, or historic, breeds of livestock are those breeds that have been around for a very long time, many since the early days of American farming.
In recent times, "factory farming" has come to dominate agriculture in the U.S. The idea of factory farming began in the 1920's when Vitamins A and D were discovered. If you give animals these vitamins, they don't need exercise or sunlight to grow. You don't need to wait for summer and green grass - you can keep the animals indoors and just give them cheap feed. This is great for the bottom line. But when you do this to animals, disease tends to spread. What do you do then? You give them antibiotics. The conditions in which these animals are kept are horribly inhumane. This blog is not meant to be a rant about industrial farming so I'm not going to go into details here. I do, however, encourage you to become educated about where your food comes from. You can read anything from Fast Food Nation to The Omnivore's Dilemma, and there are many, many more.
All this affects livestock breeds because factory farms tend to use a very few, specialized breeds of livestock. A farm that raises tens of thousands of chickens for only seven or eight weeks until they are processed for meat only cares about how quickly a breed gets to processing weight and will choose it's breed accordingly. Heritage breeds of livestock are often more multipurpose, such as a chicken that is both a decent egg layer and a good meat bird. The American Livestock Breed Conservancy works to save these traditional breeds of livestock and thankfully, I stumbled into their office one day shortly after we moved to Pittsboro.
I found the ALBC online when I was researching heritage breeds and was delighted to learn they are around the corner from our farm. I stopped in unannounced one day just to ask them which breeds of chicken were best suited to our region. The next thing I knew, I had signed up to help with the Java recovery project.
Javas are a critically endangered breed of chicken. Estimates are that only about 2000 of them exist today, which is a comeback from a mere 200 birds in 1990. They are one of the oldest American breeds, dating to the early 1800s. They are the classic dual purpose bird and are great foragers. They're perfect for us! We've built our chicken house and our guys and gals will get to free range our 11 acres to their hearts' content. We'll use both the eggs and the meat in Brendan's restaurant and also hope to help contribute to the comeback of this beautiful breed.
So - the chicks! We were expecting to get our birds in May but got an email saying a clutch would be hatching this week and did we want them? Of course we did! Brendan quickly built the brooder box (with the help of the kids) and we waited for the call that they had hatched. Early Wednesday morning we got to pick them up. We have 5 black and 17 white (some may be mottled) javas living on our enclosed porch. Our dog, Sadie, thought they were interesting until they moved, at which point she ran, terrified, into the next room. It's a good thing we don't need a guard dog.
We're having the best time watching them. They'll stay in the brooder box until they are fully feathered and then they can move out to the chicken coop. I like to sneak up to the box and say "hello!" They all scramble like Chicken Little and it just makes my day. As you can see - I'm a huge dork. The kids absolutely adore them and there's just nothing cuter than a small child holding a baby chick. Now if I can just figure out how to add pictures to this blog!