Yesterday morning, Joe and I went to the chicken house early and separated out twenty hens to take to market. It’s a task neither of us relished but culling a herd or flock is part of living on a farm. These twenty girls had simply aged out of our egg production program. Young hens lay an average of an egg every 26 hours, but at two or three years of age, their ovaries slow down. Our customers expect eggs every week, so we bought some younger chickens. Feeding the non-productive hens was too expensive, so with heavy hearts we gathered up the old girls and placed them in crates. We lined the van with a tarp and then placed the crates in the back.
Joe had heard about a once-a-month chicken sale held in a parking lot on the edge of the city five mountains away. On this gravelly acre, chicken farmers gather with crates of birds to sell to any takers. In our area, those takers are usually Mexican or Russian families who buy the birds to butcher, or back yard farmers who buy the birds to take home. When we pulled up, the lot was full of vans and trucks. Their hatches were open and cages of birds were stacked up behind them. We parked beside a Ford Explorer. The owners, like us, had elected to transport their birds in their family vehicle, but unlike us, they had no tarp under their cages. The back was covered in chicken crap.
We pulled out our old-fashioned wooden crates and waited for customers. We soon discovered that most of the buyers had come and gone. Apparently, immigrant families rise at the crack of dawn to shop. The day was chilly and we blew on our fingers and stomped and then wandered around to inspect the other birds. On our left, a man was selling roosters. One was a big old New Hampshire doodler who surely could have taken on an eagle and won. The other was a banty, no bigger than a dove. They commenced to crowing when they saw our hens, and what the banty lacked in volume he made up for in shrillness and enthusiasm. I almost bought him just for his cocky attitude and good looks, but then remembered my chicken chasing cat. A bird that small wouldn’t have a chance.
Finally, a doting father bought one of our hens for his daughter. Then, another man, a backyard farmer, bought nine to take home and release in the woods behind his house. Just when we were ready to pack up the remaining ten girls and take them home, a young boy with his mother and aunt showed up. None of them spoke fluent English and the women wore head scarves. They might have been Indian, but we weren’t sure. We bargained for a while and they agreed to buy the remaining hens. One of the women asked in broken English if she could butcher them on the spot. I nodded squeamishly and watched as the boy opened the trunk of their small passenger car and pulled out a sharp knife and a large plastic pan. Then, unsure that on-the-spot butchering was allowed, they changed their minds. Instead, we found some string and tied the legs of the hens together before tucking them into the trunk of the car. I suspect that the family, who said they lived over thirty minutes away, stopped at the nearest picnic table and completed the job.
When the last customers drove off, we packed the crates back into our van. Because we had sold all of our birds, we decided to drive on to an orchard where we picked up a bushel of apples. My van now has a distinct bouquet characterized by the earthy odor of chickens overlaid by the acidic notes of ripe apples. Perhaps we can bottle and sell it to those who long to return to a simpler way of life.