22 August 2018

The Small Farm Ecosystem and the Essential Role of the Chicken

By Deanna Dames, PFM volunteer

‘Many farmers market shoppers go out of their way to purchase farm fresh pasture eggs from our farms because of their exceptional freshness, taste, and nutrition. But did you know that raising chickens means so much more to many of our farms than just fresh eggs every morning?

For farmers like Michelle and Steven from Bethel Springs Farm (one of our Kenton Market vendors), chickens are actually considered “workers”. They are marvelous and complex creatures whose everyday habits are essential to the overall health and ecosystem of the farm, paying their keep many ways that are often difficult to quantify, particularly when they are given the right lifestyle. Here are just a few ways that chickens help to bring a precious balance and sustainability to farms mostly dominated by plants, while also positively contributing to the environment.

Poultry Pest Patrol

Photo by Bethel Springs Farm

Forget nasty pesticides! Chickens are omnivores by nature and enjoy chasing down plant-destroying insects like grasshoppers, grubs, beetles, and larvae, ridding an area of potential pests in a very short time. Many of our organic farmers rely on their chickens as a natural “insecticide” for their flower and vegetable gardens. Michelle at Bethel Farms tells us “that one of the primary reasons we decided to add chickens to our farm was to eat the coddling moth larvae in our apple orchard. But we expanded their range with a mobile coop that we can rotate around the farm, so they can eat insects in different fields, as well.”

A Natural Fertilizer

Chickens poo. A lot. They can excrete waste up to 50 times a day, up to 1 cubic foot of manure every six months! Because chickens are omnivores, their manure is free of the diseases and bacteria found in the manure of meat consuming animals. Raising chickens on an organic diet also ensures that their fertilizer will also be free of any chemicals. Since this “black gold,” as some farmers call it, is very high in nitrogen, it needs to be broken down into a usable format. To do this, farms utilize their organic “brown” materials, such as produce clippings and leaves, to mix with the poultry manure. This helps to break it down into nitrates, creating a rich compost can be worked into the soil of their vegetable gardens to provide a brilliant range of nutrients for their plants.

Those Feet are Made for Scratching

While chicken manure contributes to a farm’s compost bin, the birds also enrich the farm with their feet! Chickens are ground birds, with strong, sturdy feet that are meant for digging and scratching in search of food. The eggs sold at market by small family farms are known as pasture eggs, which means that unlike large commercial facilities, they are from chickens encouraged to move around the farms to access fresh pastures. This is not only healthier and more humane for the chicken, but by allowing the chickens access to fresh pastures, they till the soil for the farmers with their feet in search of grubs, worms, bugs, tender shoots, and other tasty tidbits. All this activity will not only help rid the farm of insects that could harm their crops, but the busy chickens also turns leaf litter and dead bio-matter into the soil, providing an easy aeration solution and giving it a natural boost.

Healthy Chickens, Healthy Eggs

Chickens will keep doing their job long after they are able to keep laying eggs.  And while you now can better understand how the work chicken chickens do contribute to healthy produce you buy at the markets each week, the added “bonus” for shoppers is the fresh eggs our farmers are able to sell. The grasses and legumes pasture chickens eat contain Vitamin A and omega-3 fatty acids, nutrients that are known to reduce cholesterol. And because pasture birds have access to adequate space, fresh air, sunshine, and exercise, they maintain better physical health than confined birds. With more exercise, birds maintain a lower fat content, which is healthier for the bird, and in turn, healthier for you – the shopper!

But moreover, Steven at Bethel said that “We really like chickens, so doing the chicken chores is the fun job on the farm. On a given night, neither one of us wants to miss out on putting the chickens to bed (meaning, closing up the coop at night to keep them safe from predators). Spending time with our girls relaxes us”.

Happy farmers = happy chickens = delicious eggs!

Stay tuned for part 2 – how to hard boil an egg! We’re gathering up the most common ways to hard boil an egg (that results in an easy-to-peel egg) and we’ll share with you which methods work the best! Feel free to chime in below if you have a fool-proof method.