I met Linda Thompson on a crisp morning at her house just outside of the tiny town of Florence, Texas.
She recently moved to this location and says that it wasn’t easy finding a landlord that was open to her raising hens, even though she is several miles outside of the city. Many places, like nearby Austin, have passed laws limiting how many hens you can have within city limits, but outside urban areas are less restrictive.
I approached her and noticed many chickens circling about her. She looked like a chicken-whisperer, something she often calls her 14-year-old son Dylan, who helps her care for their chickens. Skipping introductions, she immediately started telling me all about her chickens, who on that day were feasting on pumpkins—remnants of Halloween.
She tells me that it’s easy to start raising chickens—they can be ordered online and delivered right to your doorstep. Six years ago, Linda bought a dozen chickens to have as pets. As she fell in love with them, she kept acquiring more and now, she has about 150, including several varieties—ones that lay white, brown, and even blue eggs.
Even though she has a few roosters, she never breeds her hens. She places an order every spring and fall for baby chickens, or chicks. But just the females arrive. Right after birth chicks go through a process called, sexing. Because only the females, or hens, can lay eggs, the male chick serves no purpose and are destined to death.
What started out as a hobby has morphed into a learning experience and, more recently, a business for herself and her son. When their friends and family told them to stop bringing them eggs—they’d had enough—the Thompsons decided to sell them at the local farmers market.
The family business has taught Dylan, now in high school, valuable life lessons: you have to work for your food, you have to work for your money and nothing is ever easy.
Raising chickens is not a modern get-rich-quick scheme but a business steeped in a hard days work.
Raising hens doesn’t just include days, it includes nights – sleepless nights. There were nights that Linda lay awake wondering if the howls she heard would eventually find and kill her hens.
Linda has to worry because her hens are truly free-range. She used to let them roam 24-hours a day, until a mountain lion started to consume mass quantities of them. Constantly worried about their safety, she decided it was time to start locking them up—at least at night. Linda still expects to lose some to predation and thinks that is fair, pointing out, “We’re on their [wild animals’] property, they’re not on ours.”
Ironically, when Linda moved onto her current property, it already had several small hen houses. As we wander towards them, I notice they are unused and overgrown with weeds.
She has nothing but disdain for them, calling them “chicken jails.” This is the way most egg-laying hens are raised in the U.S., where commercial farms cram billions of hens into small spaces and force them to lay eggs, sleep, and defecate in the same spot. The egg industry compensates for such unnatural conditions with painful procedures such as beak trimming and forced molting.
When I point out that it is cold for this time of year in Texas, Linda is ten steps ahead of me. She says that she already knew it would be a cold winter because her hens molted early. Molting is a natural process when hens shed old feathers and grow new ones, anticipating the upcoming colder weather.
Hens also tend to lay more eggs after they have molted. The commercial farming industry has found a way to simulate and exploit this process to keep hens laying eggs longer. Forced molting often kills the hens and, if they survive the process, their reward is to live until the next forced molting. If not, they are ground up for dog food or used in soup stock. Neither one presents a great option for the industrial hen.
Linda allows her hens to molt naturally. “The forced molting is one of the most barbaric things I’ve ever heard of,” she says.
When hens stop laying eggs, commercial farms kill them for consumption. Linda’s hens are not just animals and not just a business—they are her pets. Once her hens stop laying eggs, they enjoy their retirement living on the land until they die and then are buried.
She smiles and explains, “You wouldn’t eat your dog, so why would I eat my chickens?” She is connected to her food. Later, when I got home, I cracked open some of her eggs to eat and felt connected too. I took pleasure in truly knowing where my food came from and being a part of that cycle.
Originally published on Food Politic January 3rd, 2014.
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Editor: Rachel Nussbaum
Photo: courtesy of the author