Photo by Carol Ann Sayle

Day seven and the aroma in the kitchen is getting a bit rich. But enduring it is apparently the cost of a good rain and some cooler weather.

We've hesitated all year on whether or not to get a number of chicks to boost production in our Hen House. There's the looming specter of the National Animal Identification System (NAIS), which could make owning even one chicken more time-consuming than it already is.

And ironically, there has been a real scarcity of chicks at the feed stores and the hatcheries in Central Texas, as so many folks are now into backyard chickens. It's partly my fault for the latter development because I have given a chicken seminar every year for the last four years. Attendance at each of these has been between one and three hundred "chickenists." There must be hundreds of backyard flocks in Austin now! (More help to fight NAIS!)

The result is that my flock, which normally numbers 100 hens, is, by attrition, down to 50, plus Rusty Roo the Rooster, but neither he, nor the 25 who are retired--being between eight and 15 years old--is interested in laying eggs. Their main product is poop for the compost pile and reassurance for the younger hens that they too will get to live their full natural life.

We closed our bedroom door to mute the peeping and planned the construction of a big, safe cage that can be placed in the barn and finally inside the Hen House.

This is all very nice, and our customers appreciate that we don't execute our hens when they quit laying eggs, but golly, folks coming to the farm stand want some good eggs! To meet the demand, I buy organic eggs from a local producer, but the summer has been hard on his hens, and he cannot meet the market's demand.

Thus a couple of weeks ago, when the weather was still very hot and dry, we ordered 75 chicks. Three varieties: White Leghorns, Production Reds, and Americaunas. The whites and the reds are the best layers, doing their job in cold or hot months. The Americaunas, though they are not prolific layers, produce the green to blue eggs, and that makes up for any laggard tendencies.

Two weeks passed, and finally the chicks arrived. All were perky except for one yellow chick, and she was a flattened "rug." The other chicks, jostling for position in the travel box had trod her to death, but as insurance, the hatchery had packed five extra chicks (likely roosters). I buried her (or him) near the farm stand. Once the survivors were in their cage on the back porch, we received two inches of rain and 70-degree weather. We were thrilled with the weather change, but it meant that the kitchen table is now the wee chicks' home.

The first night, installed in their cage complete with waterers, feeders, a light bulb dangling from the ceiling of the cage, and a yellow flannel sheet draped over it all to keep the warmth in, the chicks peeped as any immigrant orphans will after so much excitement--the trip, the cage, their first taste of real food, their first drink of water. The reality of no mama hen. Oh. The light bulb would have to do.

We closed our bedroom door to mute the peeping and planned the construction of a big, safe cage that can be placed in the barn and finally inside the Hen House. We slept well, while the chicks peeped.

The next morning, I asked Larry, "Have you checked on the chicks? Are they still alive?"

"No," he said, "I don't have the nerve." So I--co-mama with the light bulb--lifted the yellow sheet and 79 little fuzzies looked at me and started peeping again. All alive.

Each day they grow bigger, and drop more poops. The poopy straw must be exchanged for fresh straw daily. They also eject poop out of the cage, so I'm obliged to clean the wooden floor. Thank goodness we are anti-rugs here. But apparently the big hens are not.

Yesterday, as I was visiting with two new farmers, a hen dug up the little yellow rug, which after days in the dirt was a bit dingy, and holding the rug by her (or his) head, she raced away, the two tiny legs flipping this way and that, with several of the other hens in pursuit. Well, the new farmers understood: "That's farming."