New old-fashioned chicken theory

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Permaculture and regenerative agriculture are full of innovators and experimenters, and some of them have found ways to do things – to do with raising food – that are vastly more efficient in their use of human resources, waste reduction, and building up nature than mainstream practices.  I mean, not marginal improvements on our current ways of doing things, but paradigm shifting revolutions.

Take chickens.

Back in the day, farmers and poor people used to keep chickens around the house, letting them eat scraps from the kitchen or scratch around on the manure pile.   The biggest care was to get them inside a coop at night (Here a Chick).  They absolutely did not buy food for them.   Today it’s the opposite.  If you’re trying to get your game on for a home-flock of chickens (like me), you’ll go to some workshops, read some books or websites.  Everywhere, the basic assumption is that you will buy feed for your chickens.  You will buy grains and scratch for them plus minerals and maybe you might give them some nice greens from the garden or scraps from the kitchen as treats.   Industrial as well as local farm-raised chickens are similarly fed grains and the high cost of feeding chickens is one reason it is so difficult to make money on them.

Chickens eating grain – photo from internet.

Some math: A laying, fed chicken eats 1/4 lb of grain per day so you need about 100 lbs of feed per year.  For the home-flock, a 50 lb bag of basic layer feed costs about $15 at Tractor Supply, or, about $30 per chicken per year.   Figure a chicken lays about 200 eggs per year, that computes to about $2 feeding costs per dozen eggs – about the cost of conventional eggs do in the supermarket.  But what if you’re trying to stay away from chemically farmed grains? Now you’re looking at $140 for your 100 lbs of organic feed per chicken.  Unless your organically-fed chickens produce more than 200 eggs per year (which they don’t), you’re going to pay more than $8 per dozen for your home-flock eggs!  Blimey!

There is a different way.

A few years ago, Mark and I visited Karl Hammer at the Vermont Composting Company   If you can’t visit, here’s a fun, short video.   Karl says the only reason we got into this crazy chicken-feeding regimen is because machine-farming made grains so darn cheap.  Back in the day when we harvested our grain by hand with a scythe, we did not feed it to chickens.  So here’s what Karl and his team do.  Local restaurants tip 1100 tons of food waste at VCC, where it gets mixed with barn manure, wood shaving waste and leaves into giant piles.  A flock of 600-1400 chickens works all day on the piles feeding themselves and turning the waste into superior chicken compost that Karl sells to local farmers.  As it happens, the United States produces enough food waste to feed all of our chickens in this way!  Imagine — so many problems solved!

In 2017, Black Dirt Farm researched the finances of Karl’s system with a USDA grant.  Their study included two flocks of 50 chickens, one conventionally grain-fed, the other using the composting system.  The results are an eye-opener to say the least. Between the tipping fees from restaurants to take care of the food waste, selling eggs, and selling the compost, the 50 compost chickens were earned the farm $10,000 in 6 months, compared to the 50 grain chickens losing the farm $1,600!   People, why do it any other way?!

But, who will heed my preaching the “new old-fashioned chicken theory” gospel from my armchair?  We need to try it out ourselves!

I did some math based on VCC and some other research (Edible Acres, James McSweeny) to scale the compost system down to a home-flock of 6 chickens and here’s what I came up with:

  • Kitchen scraps: 2 lbs per chicken per day   For a flock of 6 chickens, that is 12 lbs per day, which fills approximately half of a 5-gallon bucket.  That is about as much as 5 households produce, meaning I need to find 4 neighbors who will let me pick up their kitchen scraps.
  • Carbon materials: 110 leaf bags per year.  That’s about as many leaves as 5 households in the suburbs produce. Easy to pick up in a couple of weeks in the fall just on our block.  I would also throw in one truckload of horse manure bedding for the manure and the wood shavings.

The scraps and carbon need to go in big piles for the chickens to rummage around in, and that stay warm during the winter.  A person may need to keep piling as the chickens will flatten things out, and needs to make sure there is enough carbon to keep the scraps+chicken poop from getting smelly.  Plus water.  Will this work?  I don’t know, but I am super excited to try this out, and we’re building a big chicken hoop-house to get started!


Screw it!

Hey, anyone wanting to read up on another fun and funny (crazy?) back to the land project, check out this blog on the post-undergrad summer-in-a-tent written by Charlotte, our oldest daughter!

Post-Grad Tent-sion

IMG_8456 Squaring a floor joist.

Well here we are.

What started as an odd tongue in cheek idea about a month or two ago has materialized into a full blown platform on some friends land, around $500 spent (and many more saved, we hope), and two impassioned (or crazy) post-grads embarking on the next phase of our life.

Some questions in our minds as we approached the end of undergrad:

Where to live?

How to spend the summer?

How to save money?

After being in this academic race (yes that happens too in very alternative liberal arts colleges) how could we find some clarity? How could we become grounded again?

Robin was having trouble finding  place with his friend, Saul, and Charlotte really just did not want to pay the $600 rent for her (lovely but janky) college apartment room.

Neither of us are huge Thoreau fans or aficionados but…

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A lot can happen in between seasons

The last time I wrote in this blog, it was September 2018; today, it is the end of May, 2019.  At that time, we were looking back at the wonderful season of putting together our Bigfoot Food Forest  – cutting trees and branches; laying out the paths; taking the Applied Permaculture course with David Homa; working with Ruby, Dana, John, and Mik; putting in polycultures; bringing water to the back of the garden; building the sheds …

It was exhilarating, but you know what: in all honesty, then the first frosts hit, I was really glad that the quiet season of Winter, when nothing grows above ground, had arrived.  I photographed frost-bitten leaves and mind-wrote a blog post about the inward turning of Winter, which brings the farmer and gardener precious time for rest and for other interests (mind-writing is when you put all the words down in your head but they don’t get on paper or in the computer).  I was planning some some winter painting jobs inside the house.


The Grim Reaper visited and I moved up a generation.  My mom passed away on December 16 – just like that – and I spent a lot of time in the Netherlands with family.  She left an enormous hole, and into that hole we all sped to be closer together and in a desire to fill it.  She departed as she wanted to, in the middle of life, without illness or pain or even knowing; it was just a bit sudden for the rest of us.  Her spirit roams with us all.  I miss you every day, mom!  Wish you were here!

Mark and I became landowners.  Having done such a bang-up job building a food forest on 1/3 acre, I felt confident to take on 36.  Mark did recently point out that our new farm is 100x bigger than our yard here, hm….. The land is near Greenfield and Mark’s mom and John.  Hooray! We will now have a Bigfoot lab site in Needham, and the Bigfoot food forest farm in Montague.  My mom would have loved it and I hope it’s possible to read blogs in the Hereafter.

CERES Community Environmental Park in Melbourne – 30 years of community permaculture!

I retired from one career and started a new one.  After 25 years as an economic demographer and consultant on global education issues, I completed my last gig in Australia in February.  It was a great time, plus, I was able to visit some 30-year old permaculture sites, as the Australians started long before we did in the US.   Part of the career-switch is working as workshop coordinator for the Boston Food Forest Coalition.  In February, we started the PDC teacher training seminar, and the Applied Permaculture Series, inspired by David’s in Maine.  We also did a mini-workshop on chickens – aha, more on chickens later!


Our two daughters graduated from college.  Having taken quite different paths, each fitting to the wonderful unfolding adults they are, Charlotte and Josephine both walked the stage on the same weekend (but different days, phew!).   Mark and I were exhilarated and proud parents, and oma was riding on my shoulders (much simpler to join as a wee spirit than to fly over in an airplane).  We wish both young women godspeed and the best of luck in their next adventures!   Check out Charlotte’s blog postgradtentsion and Josephine’s circus instagram account.

As I said, a lot can happen in between seasons.