Lessons learned from Backyard Chickens

It’s been two years since we drove up the Mabel Lake road to a small hobby farm to pick up our two fledgling Plymouth Rocks, Keelee and Hailey. I’ve learned a lot in those two years, including some unexpected lessons in peacekeeping and community.

backyard chickens2

On a little fieldtrip while I work in the garden….

I had decided to get some backyard chickens, despite the mixed message I was getting about the legality of it all, for the wholistic benefits for our family. I wanted the girls to know where their food came from, and to build some of my own self-sustainability skills. I’d never farmed any kind of animal, and I figured two little cluckers wouldn’t be much work.

It turns out that I was right on all counts. The girls now know where eggs and meat come from, although they’ve reacted in different ways. Sugar wants to become a piscatorian when she grows up, and Spice wants to have her own farm and slaughter the animals to sell and eat. Ok, then.

backyard chickens passive solar coop

My animal husbandry skills have come a long way… I’ve built enclosures, including our passive solar chicken coop, checked the cluckers daily for eggs and kept their food and water fresh. The gooey side of chicken raising has been a bit yuck. I have my sister, the first to have chickens, on speed dial for such things.

Twice my hens have had mites, and I’ve had to dust under their wings and wipe down their blowholes. Ew. As much as I enjoy talking to them, I don’t really like handling them. They feel like a store bought chicken breast warmed up and wiggling. I’m not eating a lot of chicken these days, either, btw.

What didn’t I expect?

dogs and backyard chickens

Well, it was very hard at first to get the dogs acclimatized to the pullets. Maggie especially, our cocker spaniel, tried with all her might to lunge at the chicken tractor. We have to sit beside that enclosure with the dogs on the leash, on and off, for days. Finally, the only thing that trained Maggie to leave them alone was the citronella bark collar. We put the collar on her, and when she lunged at them (and barked) it sprayed citronella in her face. After a few times of that, she lost interest. Yeah for citronella. (PS, we sell these miracle workers at our clinic.)

backyard chickens3

This morning in the back yard….

Now, as you can see, the chicken and the dogs peacefully coexist. Our naughty cairn terrier Laughlin is a huge defender of the alley, barking and running up and down the fence when people pass by. Keelee and Hailey don’t even look in his direction, they are so used to it.

Sometimes I open the gate of their hens’ yard and let them run around our lawn and garden. The dogs pay them no mind whatsoever; however I have to say that Keelee does peck Laughlin a little if he comes in to steal her food.

There are way more people with backyard chickens than I ever imagined. Within a two minute walk of our house, there are at least three yards with chickens. And we are right down in an urban residential neighbourhood, by the way. Backyard chickens are indicators of a larger sustainability movement, and we’ve met some interesting people just by having cluckers in common. For instance, we found the best caterer when my friend with the organic grocery business offered leftovers to the caterer and myself (for our repetitive garden garburators). There is also a certain social caché to having chickens… People know that you are extremely committed to local food, even if you have to be a little subversive about it (all true.)

Hmmm… What else?

I didn’t expect them to be so loud. Dang it, I bought Plymouth Rocks because they are supposed to make eggs and live a super long time (four years) and they were supposed to be a quiet, winter tolerant backyard breed. Poppycock. I have the most obnoxiously loud chickens ever. I couldn’t keep them from the neighbours if I tried to! Fortunately, none of my neighbours give a rip. I think when I put the clothesline up seven years ago, they knew what they were in more. Every time I come out in the yard, the hens start yelling at the top of their lungs. Just for me, btw. They know who the sugar mama is.

But seriously, the neighbours don’t care. In fact, we’ve had five different neighbours look after Keelee and Hailey when we are away, even for weeks at a time. Many have thanked us for the opportunity after… Not only for the eggs, but the chance to care for animals in a way they haven’t done since their youth. (And a huge thank you back!!)

Arnica Rowan backyard chicken

Lastly, I didn’t expect to like them so much. I thought “livestock is livestock,” very different than pets. But I can say honestly that my two Plymouth Rocks have become my pets. I visit them every day out in the yard, have a chat with them, and care for them. My daily visits in the fresh air and sunshine have also been a small dose of nature therapy each morning. The days I spend a little time outside chatting with the chickens always get off to a better start.

I hope this little article encourages more of my friends and readers to consider backyard chickens. A great mentoring resource, if you don’t have a friend with cluckers on your block, is AlbertaChickensEtc, an online community with over 20,000! Members in western Canada, all who have backyard chickens.

Mother Earth News Fair: Herbal Tinctures, Goat Milking and Cider Making


A couple of weeks ago we drove down to the Washington State Fairgrounds for the Mother Earth News Fair, organized by the famous granola-crunching magazine. I pitched it to my husband as a learning trip: he would get to listen to other herbal medicine professionals and learn to make his own tinctures and extracts. But it turned out to be a blast for the whole family.

For those of you that aren’t familiar, Mother Earth News is a magazine focused on self sustainability and environmental action. It’s chock full of articles on frugality, organic gardening, urban and rural homesteading, renewable energy, sustainable communities, social and environmental issues. Not surprisingly, the readership has blossomed in the last few years, while other magazines are falling behind. We pour over our issue every month, and I got my dad a subscription for his birthday this year.

Back to the fair. It was a combo event… There were the traditional country fair kind of activities, such as checking out livestock. Since many of the attendees run very small farms or have varying degrees of urban homesteads (like us) everything was focused on bantam (small) breeds, from the chickens to the cows.


We ate fair food…


…and due to the general animal craziness of our family, spent an inordinate amount of time watching herding dogs. Kinda neat though… I’ve actually never seen an Old English Sheepdog or a Corgie work before!


The second part of the fair was a trade show, where booths showcased everything from organic seeds to solar panels. The girls has just as much fun as us exploring and asking questions. Here is Spice learning to play old games at the heritage society booth…


And we also found a few suppliers for our businesses and home. For example, we spent way too much time at the Mountain Rose Herbs booth, picking out herbal tinctures for our veterinary hospital and oil herbal infusions of or the new line of creams I’m developing for Africa Sleeps.


We also met a lot of awesome people at the booths over the weekend. It’s was an interesting mix of rough and tumble farmers, tie-dyed hippies, yoga moms, uber conservative Christians, tattooed alternative parents and knobbly kneed gardeners. Fun crowd!


And finally, the reason we went in the first place, were the workshops. Jason went to several herbal and natural medicine workshops. Some of them were amazing, according to him. He also said that one or two were a little flaky. But overall, he definitely felt it was worth his time, and he picked up a lot, especially from one intensely knowledgable lady.


The girls has two favourite workshops. The being keeping turned out to be way too young for them (Sugar’s pick) but Spice’s goat milking workshop was awesome. I can tell you, we have been asked many times for a goat in the last few weeks. I’ll remind you that we live in an urban neighbourhood, but they don’t seem to get why I keep saying no…


The other surprisingly amazing workshop was drawing animals. I tell you, you could have heard a pin drop for 1/2 hour while the forty kids learned how to draw animals using geometric shapes. After the lesson, the kids hung around and made a few friends… Fun to connect with people from different walks of life!


My favourite workshop, by far, was the cider making workshop. I’m determined to plant some cider apple trees this summer, and try my hand at it a couple of years from now! With my wine background, I could understand the process in depth, and feel I’ve got a good handle on cider making now… Theoretically, that is 🙂


And each morning en route, we did a little homeschooling, so the girls wouldn’t fall behind on their reading. The cutest part was their learning journals, though, chronicling what they learned at the museum in Vancouver and at the Washington fair. They are such science buffs!


Overall, it was a lovely family weekend. I highly recommend it! There are three fairs across the USA. We will certainly go back again, if not next year, then the year after!


Mother Earth News Fair… Here we come!

Next weekend, we are so excited to be going to the Mother Earth News Fair in Washington. It was a crazy idea that my husband went along with…


First, we will be spending three days in Vancouver. We are researching herbal dispensaries, for our new integrative veterinary hospital. We are also going to visit some suppliers, including a little factory that makes the first ever whole foods veterinary prescription diet. Then after three days, we are heading down for the weekend south of Tacoma to the Mother Earth News fair.


For $20, you get in for three days. What a deal! We are going to countless workshops on homesteading, herbal medicine, organic gardening, and general self-sufficiency. It’s a granola crunching paradise!

And for those of you that are surprised that Jason even agreed to going, remember that there are just as many farming exhibits as their are canine sessions. It’s not so very far from the fairs he grew up going to… Just with a smaller scale, organic focus.

The girls are super stoked about their kid sessions. Sugar wants to go to beekeeping, and Spice wants to learn to milk a goat. I know after the fair, we will have to tell her countless times how the neighbours may put up with backyard cluckers, but they sure as heck would draw the line at a goat. The bees, on the other hand, Jason already had a plan to start next spring, so Sugar won’t be as disappointed.

And as for yours truly, I’m happy to be floating around from canning and cooking sessions to meeting some amazing entrepreneurs. When the first issue of our Mother Earth News magazine arrived, I remembered Jason seeing an add for Bob’s Red Mill and exclaiming, “look! He’s a real person!”

Well, Bob will be there, so I’m determined to meet him. There are also lots of other socially driven business people I can’t wait to share ideas with.

Next week – blog posts from Vancouver and Washington!

Defend our Communities on Saturday

This Saturday I’ll be protesting, along with thousands of other people across the country, against the development of new pipelines and the reckless, rapid expansion of the oil sands. Just because our BC premier has sold out in a tentative agreement with Alberta (never saw that coming… Ha!) doesn’t mean that we can’t stop Enbridge and voice our discontent with the oil and gas industry’s subsidized overdevelopment. I hope you’ll join us!

From Black Out Speak Out:

This Saturday, Nov 16, at over 100 events across the country, Canadians are gathering in their communities to help build a united wall of opposition to more pipelines, reckless tar sands expansion, and runaway climate change.

From Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline to Keystone XL, Kinder Morgan, Line 9 and Energy East, the federal government and big oil are working together to triple the size of Canada’s tar sands. To do this they are undermining our democracy and gutting our environmental laws to ram their pipelines through local opposition.

This is a crucial moment. Over the coming weeks and months, our federal government will make decisions about pipelines that would do permanent damage to our communities and push the world toward runaway climate change.

Now, communities from coast to coast to coast are coming together like never before in a growing movement for solutions, before it’s too late.

We’d love for you to be part of this. On November 16th, thousands of Canadians will join together with environmental, First Nations and community groups for the “Defend our Climate, Defend our Communities” national day of action.

Will you join one of 100 events on November 16th? Use this map to find a rally close to you, then be sure to RSVP so we can keep you updated.

There’s a better way. Imagine if people from across Canada came together to build a clean, just, and safe energy economy that we could be proud of.

Will you pledge to stand up in your community on November 16th? Click here to find a rally close to you.

Wine Wednesdays: Fetzer and the whole organic thing

20130829-164205.jpgFetzer was my introduction to the world of Gewürztraminer, long before I came to the Okanagan or discovered Alsace. Believe it or not, it’s so widely distributed, I could get it for the price of $11 a bottle in our little Albertan town of 4000.

Fast forward, er, many years… And I still think its a great winery. Maybe one day I’ll visit!

I bought this bottle of Fetzer Gewürztraminer in the US for $7… A heck of a deal. It’s a pale yellow colour with refreshing aromas of the tropics (papaya and that typical lychee,) some grassiness, and some light floral notes as well. It’s medium sweet, but has a good acidity to hold it up. Medium body, and great approachability. It even has some of that typical oiliness of Alsace, which went so well with my fish.

The thing with this wine is that almost anyone will enjoy it, but even a wine snob won’t turn their nose up at it. It’s really balanced well and is a nice simple wine. Should all affordable wines be this good!

Now, since I started drinking Fetzer, they’ve changed their marketing dramatically. Now their slogan is “the Good Earth Wine.” They’ve had quite sustainable practices for a long time, including farming organically, being wind powered, etc.

So what’s the deal with is whole organic or biodynamic wine thing? Des it make better wine? Is it really necessary? Is it just a gimmick?

For those of you that don’t know, my day job is as a business professor, and I specialize in sustainable business. It may surprise you to hear this, but in my opinion, NO, organic farming doesn’t make better wine. I’ve had too many unfortunately examples of bad wine, farmed organically and conventionally. It doesn’t make a big difference, and their are so many other factors that go into making good or great wine.

But that’s not to say that organic and sustainable winemaking is not important. It’s so important. Think of the impact any farm makes on the natural environment, with soil erosion, water use, etc. if you can lower the water intake by planting groundcover and not eradicate insects and birds from the vineyard… Well, that has value to me. That’s the point of organic farming, after all. It’s not about us. It’s about the rest of the beings on is planet.

Now, as for the gimmick part, I have some professorly advice. Read the details. It’s the only way to know if a company meets your criteria for sustainable, responsible or green. I’ve read the details on Fetzer, and I think they are one of the sustainability pioneers in their industry that continues to improve their practices.

S my rating on this wine is an 8… With bonus points for sustainability!

I had my first glass of this bottle flying solo with Jason and the kids away. A glass of wine at lunch (instead of supper) is one of those small pleasures introduced by the French to the rest of the world. I made green cilantro curry sablefish, creamed carrots, a radicchio salad and some fresh tomatoes from the garden. Yum!

Wine Wednesdays… Ok – I admit upfront that I love wine. I also have been expanding my own wine knowledge, completing my Advanced level of the WSET (Wine and Spirit Education Trust) course in 2013. So what better way (other than in person, over a glass of wine) to share my love of with you, than to have a series dedicated to favourite wines? Cheers!