The Farm’s tofu dip: an old spring recipe revisited

When I got married I had my mother in law make a batch of this amazing tofu dip and pack it up for me with cucumber slices. I knew I wasn’t going to get to eat much of the mouth watering Allen and Son barbecue as we made the rounds, talking to our loved ones.

No, we aren’t even close to vegetarian, but this is my favorite dip. It has become lunch many times as I chase wild children and can’t stop to make food, and it keeps forever in the fridge (several weeks, you’ll see why). When I made my most recent batch we were all recovering from months of nasty colds and I realized it’s also a tremendous immune boosting food, when made with the fresh ingredients listed below.

I had her write the recipe down for me and she told me it was from her old The Farm cookbook. This has become a family favorite in the springtime when the snap peas are in full swing. This version is more nourishing and less sweet; I’ll explain the substitutions as I go. It’s just about the easiest thing I make.


even delicious with the sliced cucumbers your toddler spits back out–see above

What You Need

  • One pack of firm tofu, which is about 2 cups (I get a sprouted organic tofu that is still only a few bucks at the HoFo)
  • One smallish onion or half of a big one (I found some long forgotten perennial bunching onions in an overgrown corner of the garden and used one of those!)
  • As much garlic as you like (the original recipe called for 2 tsp garlic powder but I use 3 big fresh cloves)
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/4-1/2 cup olive oil (love me some Costco EVOO…and I usually end up using closer to a cup but start with less to get the consistency as you like it)
  • 2 tsp soy sauce (I use more like 2 table spoons)
  • 1/4 cup vinegar (the original recipe calls for white vinegar, who knows why. I use spring tonic when I’m lucky enough to have some of what my mama makes me each winter in good cider vinegar, but plain cider vinegar is also delicious)
  • A handful of fresh herbs. This isn’t in the original recipe and it’s fine plain, but I like to toss in a handful of something–basil, thyme and oregano, whatever is growing in the yard. It makes a pretty green color and spices it up a bit.
  • The original recipe calls for a pack of stevia, which I leave out because I am a savory kind of gal.

What You Do

  • Put the liquidiest and mushiest ingredients in the blender first and just dump it all in. Blend until it’s smooth. I break the tofu into chunks but if you have a good blender it really doesn’t matter.

If my toddler leaves any snap peas for the rest of us, they are perfect for dipping.

Happy spring!


Ten years of that life

A decade ago, today, I went to a bar I really hated. My sister was celebrating graduation from university and I wanted to support her. A blue cups bar with cheap beer and undergraduates; it was as awful as I expected, except for the company. My sister and her childhood best friend were celebrating together.

You were there because my sister’s childhood best friend is your sister.

I have known you, from afar, for about as much of my life as I can remember. Mostly I knew your family and your home, because video games were your life at age 11 and hanging out with your sister’s friends was so not cool. I remember hot dusty drives in our un-air conditioned station wagon down the long gravel road to your house in the woods. I loved that house.

I had a dream about you once and a crush on you for, like, at least two weeks in middle school. I asked you to dance to Stairway to Heaven at a middle school dance. You said yes to be polite, but you were a foot taller than me and the song was 7:58 long. You recused yourself partway through and I was mortified for at least 30 minutes.

For fifteen years I forgot about you except for some vague awareness that you grew up and did something with computers. But before the graduation party I had seen you one other time, six months before. I was out on the town with our sisters and we ran into you, out on the town with your friends.

I told your sister you were hot.

She told me you were getting married in May.

I reluctantly forgot about you again.

But on May 9, 2006 there you were, looking sweet. I laughingly told your sister so, with an eye roll in honor of your impending nuptials. She turned to me with an expression I couldn’t quite interpret and smiled. “Well you know, he’s not getting married anymore.”

I’m sure I excused myself politely. I can’t remember. I do remember the shirt you were wearing. And what a kind smile you had.

And there we were, you and I, wrapped up in conversation for the rest of the evening, all my senses on high alert. I could feel it.

Then the evening was over. I didn’t have your number. My sister was moving to Japan in a few days. I had no excuse to see you again.

Yet somehow out of a stadium full of 75,000 people we stumbled across each other two days later at graduation. That kicked off a week of unlikely, just barely possible chances. And we took every one of them and spun them into a life as fast as we could. We had both been on pause after long spells of not-quite-right with someone else. We were ready for the life we wanted. A life I still think isn’t quite possible and can’t really believe is mine.

A life back on this marvelous land, in the home I loved as a girl. A life with you. With the babies we made together. With our families. A life of commitment with one of those maturing marriages that I’d heard of but never witnessed in person. The ones where you fight less over time and help each other become better. I always thought those partnerships were some kind of gigantic hoax.

Then, not long ago, I realized I was in one. May 9th was when we began.

It’s not always pretty, but damn, it’s good.


Lake Atitlán, Guatemala, on our honeymoon


becoming your mother

I didn’t become your mother the day you were born, nor the day you were conceived.

I become your mother bit by bit as we muddle our way through life together. Little by little. Day by day.

It’s when I let go of an unreasonable limit I was clinging to for the sake of consistency; when I finally see you and see in your face that the limit is not doing its job. It seemed like a life raft in a turbulent sea. If I hold on tighter things will get better! Except when they don’t.

And it’s also my unwavering commitment to the limits that really matter, no matter what.

I become your mother when I overcome my distaste for frolicking because you need me to frolick with you. And I realize that sometimes there’s nothing in the world better than chasing you through the grass. Your face is open like only a child’s can be. I see your love for me. It awes me and I grow a little more into motherhood.

It’s when I take time for myself while still looking you in the eye and acknowledging that it makes you sad when I won’t play with you because–in that moment–I value what I want more.

It’s singing bedtime songs about the conflicts we’ve had that day, using the well worn tunes to tell you how much more complicated my feelings are than I was able to show in the moment. And how sorry I am when I hurt your feelings.

Perhaps most especially it’s when people ask me how my mother’s day weekend is going and I say “pretty great” even though there have been several meltdowns, no sleep, half the naps needed, and nothing went according to plan. And it’s not a lie.

The story of my motherhood is also the story of your son-hood. Of how this year, for the first time, you’ve been really excited about the day–for me. Your love for me shines through everything we have done the past few days. How you wanted me to watch a show with you, but I wanted to visit the garden. I left and a few minutes later you came bounding out to sit in the clover and pick flowers while daddy mowed a circle around you. You picked an enormous bouquet of fragrant white clover blossoms and got your Grandma to help you find a vase. When I came to find you, you beamed up at me. “Mama, these are for you, for your special day!”

It’s mother’s day eve and like all days, I’m more a mother–more your mother–at the end of the day than I was at the start. When we got home from a long day out you went to find the picture you made for me. The one you’ve been talking about for a week. The one I told you I didn’t want you to give me until mother’s day. The one you hid somewhere upstairs where nobody would find it. But it wasn’t where you had left it.

Daddy quietly asked “did you find a rolled up piece of paper in the corner of the closet?” My throat felt dry. That’s the precise spot where I roll up your immense body of artwork to photograph and then recycle. I had just cleaned it out. I had grabbed a single item and, in a hurry, put it somewhere. I went through all the recycling. I went through the disgusting poopy diaper-filled trash. I looked through every pile. It was simply gone.

And it was past your bedtime. You refused dinner. I saw you unraveling. It was the biggest unraveling you’ve ever had. It was tiredness, hunger, and a deep feeling that I didn’t value your love for me and the effort you had put into my gift. Eventually you retreated upstairs to make a new drawing for me. I heard your sobs. They were heart-wrenching.

The meltdown had terrified the baby, who was nursing and recovering from his own tears. I started crying. I walked to the kitchen and handed your brother to my husband. He was still attached and objecting. I looked him the eyes and told him “your brother needs me. Listen to him. He’s very sad. I need to go to him.” He understood because you are the sun that rises and sets on his days.

I knocked. You were sobbing and holding the paper behind your back. I couldn’t keep back my tears and I wrapped you in my arms and told you how sorry I was. My sadness jolted you out of your own. You patted my head and said matter of factly “Can I show you the new one? The other one wasn’t actually very good. This one is better. It’s you. And there’s Ron, and Hermione, and me, and you know him, with the lightning scar.” We admired the new portrait and hung it on the fridge. We headed to bed and on the way in I saw, folded beneath a pile of outgrown clothes, a piece of brown butcher paper. I showed it to you.

“See, I told you the new one was better.”

I listen to your breathing. Your sadness is gone; your trust restored. I felt broken, but I’m not. I’m just a little bit more a mother than I was when I woke up this morning. And so it goes.

Following my bliss, inspite of myself

When I was young my mother used to talk to me about “following my bliss.” It was eye-roll worthy in the most adolescent way. I was a pragmatist and a realist and cynical and tough. I did not do bliss-following. I didn’t care if Joseph Campbell was some sort of genius. If my mother suggested it, it could not possibly be a good idea.

I still have a slightly allergic response to the phrase, perhaps because it just sounds so…mushy. I do not do yoga. I do not meditate. I do Useful Things and am Very Efficient. I am a planner; I always think wayyyyyy ahead. Following your bliss sounds like something a long haired hippy does while wandering barefoot through a field of wildflowers. The very image makes me itch. Who does that? There are chiggers and ticks and copperheads and how do you plan for health care needs or retirement just chasing bliss (whatever that is) wherever it leads?

Yet when I sat down to write this post about gardening (yup, that’s where this was headed. We get there eventually), I was surprised to find I had misrepresented my own story…to myself. My biggest and best life-altering decisions had, in fact, been made by following my gut when it was in sync with my heart, which is really the crux of what Campbell meant about following your bliss.

When I was 21 my then-boyfriend and I planned to walk the Camino de Santiago during the summer. Five hundred miles in 28 days across northern Spain. He was from the Basque Country and had walked parts of the Camino with his own father as a teenager. We trained together, walking 15 or 20 miles in a day along the roads and paths in our town. Then he found out he couldn’t get the time off from his lab. It was terrifying, but I decided to go by myself. It had become something I needed to do.

On the way to Spain I was robbed of everything I owned except my backpack of clothes and gear for the Camino. After a harrowing adventure securing a new passport and ticket with no identification and no money, I finally arrived…and promptly came down with the worst stomach virus I’ve ever had. I was forced to seek refuge with my boyfriend’s family, the only people I knew in the whole country. After 5 days in bed I had  lost all the stamina built up from months of training. His mother nudged me out of the house to walk around the village and I was exhausted and ready to crawl back in bed after ten minutes. But there was no more time. I had to go or not; I couldn’t postpone indefinitely. The trip had an end date.

I convinced my boyfriend’s sister to drop me off at the tiny village of Roncesvalles at the French border with no money, no cell phone, no credit card, and my insides glued together with Fortasec. I got up at 5am and walked 15 miles the next day. Other pilgrims offered me food because they thought my diet of plain bread was due to lack of money, which was also true. The first day a couple from Barcelona saw my feet and showed me how to sew a loop of thread through a blister after treating it with iodine in order to keep walking without getting an infection.

Going alone was the best thing I could have done. I saw in ways I would not have with a partner and interacted with others in ways I would not have, had I gone with company. The people I met became dear friends. Those 28 days remain the most formative of my entire life. It was–literally and figuratively–a moment of choosing a path, and one that would have been so, so easy to say no to.

Three years later, I made another unlikely, uncomfortable, path-shifting decision. I was about to move to Chicago to work with an amazing scholar in a PhD program I was deeply excited about. I had found a roommate and we were apartment shopping. But I had just fallen in love with a hometown boy. After two weeks dating we knew. He was going to commute between North Carolina and Chicago to be with me while I was in graduate school. I was on my path!

And then one day I was out for a run and, on the side of a busy road, I just stopped. My life with this person was the path. Why was I continuing on the old path as if nothing had changed?

I decided in that moment to stay in my home town and not go off to school. I felt my brain doing somersaults. All my plans and expectations shifted in the blink of an eye. A week later we moved in together. He was so excited he promised never to eat fast food again–a promise he has mostly kept (except on our wedding day when his friends kidnapped him and took him to Bojangles).

I thought everyone would think I was crazy. Mostly they did. I had to arrange a meeting with my most beloved professor and tell him why I wasn’t going off to school, despite the wonderful letter he’d written me and all his advocacy on my behalf. He encouraged me to apply to the local R1 universities and find a way to make it work if graduate school was still what I really wanted (it was and I did).

I worried that my mother would worry about me giving up my life plans for a man. It was just about the least feminist thing a girl could do. But I should have known. My mother smiled and hugged me and said “I wondered whether you might consider staying.” She for sure figured I was following my bliss, but probably knew better than to say it.

I do not look back on these experiences and tell myself I should be a more impetuous and spontaneous person. They do not make me want to buy an open ended ticket to somewhere wild and hope it works out. Most of what has gone well in my life has been the result of good planning and research. But when it came to getting the really big, scary decisions “right,” planning and research only got me part way there.

There have been big decisions since then: choosing to have a baby while in graduate school, asking my family to uproot itself and travel with me for my dissertation, choosing to finish my program even after realizing that I did not want a career until after my children were bigger (if then), choosing not to work for money, having another baby…but all of these life choices were less loaded because the overall trajectory seemed “right.” The stakes were lower because of these pivotal moments where I gave myself permission to find out how strong and capable I really was and take a chance on what I really wanted.

What got me thinking about my mom’s well worn advice to follow my bliss was my gardening problem (told you we’d get here eventually).

Today I went to visit the backyard of our old house, which I fenced off when we let go of the house and moved further out of town. My gardening makes no sense. It is a liability. I spend way too much time on it, and when I am honest with myself I know this to be actually, truly true. My partner is more supportive than I could ask for and only periodically complains that on the weekends he doesn’t see me. I don’t need him to point out that paying for childcare so you can grow food is inefficient. Or that when I say “I just need to go grab a couple of herbs for dinner” it is for sure going to be at least half an hour. Or that maintaining a second large garden 15 minutes away from where we live is ridiculous. I tell myself and everyone else that it’s to save money, to be more self sufficient. None of that is untrue, but well, it kind of is.

What is real is that I don’t listen to the radio when I drive out there because my mind needs empty space. When I open the fence and stoop under the branches of the huge magnolia and into my secret garden, full of song birds and color, everything else disappears and my burdens fall away. Today I worked for three hours in a drenching rain. I worked until my fingers hurt. I didn’t think about anything except pulling weeds and planting sweet potatoes. It’s rare that I get alone time in the garden because I’m with my kids full time. When I head home after gardening alone it’s like coming up for air after being underwater for a long time.

I am not a religious person, or even especially spiritual. I find dirt and stars amazing and that’s enough wonder for a lifetime. I still don’t do yoga or meditate. Campbell suggests that doors will open to your path when you find your “sacred space” and give your mind uncluttered room to connect with your soul. I find it hard to get past all the mysticism, but once I do I can see the moments in my life when I’ve been in that place.

The long hours of solitude on the Camino were a concentrated dose of what I’d attained in fleeting moments throughout my childhood. Dancing vigorously. Doing physically arduous yard work for my dad. Sitting in the silent woods behind my mom’s trailer in winter. Playing hide and seek with my sister in the corn field across the road. Nights around a campfire in the mountains. The natural world and empowering physical effort were clearly at the heart of this. But now I’m busy so often I no longer make these opportunities for myself. Except that I’ve found a way: in my garden.

I’ve been “following my bliss” without realizing it, in spite of my disdain for the concept. I would call my mama to laugh about it together, but I think she already knows. Maybe I will anyway.



Dandelion Rosemary Shortbread

We are finally in the thick of real spring. There are no more frost warnings, no more chilly nights. I’ve closed the screen curtains on the porch as the babies sport the first pink welts of the season. Every rain washes the world clean of chalky yellow pollen and gives us a few days respite. I’m no longer caught off guard by shade where there was none a few days ago; the trees have fully leafed out, but are still fresh, super bright green.

In the garden, this is the time of year I’ve been holding my breath for as I weed and mulch, water, harden off, and plant. There is a week every year, around the start of April, when all of a sudden things that were just inching along finally get moving. I harvest lettuce, spinach, herbs, and strawberries every day and try to keep up with the slugs.  The peas are taller if you look away for a minute. The carrots finally look like more than sprouts. You can almost see things growing if you stand still long enough.


It is salad season, our favorite time of year perhaps because it is so short lived. Just a few happy weeks of enormous bowls of garden greens before the lettuce bolts. But I’m not complaining. It wouldn’t be special if it lasted forever, and when the lettuce is gone it’s because it is time to harvest peas and potatoes, with cucumbers, basil, and tomatoes not far off.

This recipe was made for this kind of moment. You can’t make it except when the dandelions are blooming.

It’s also quite possibly the most satisfying baked good I’ve made in years because I know nothing about shortbread, did the whole thing with a toddler underfoot, and it was still fast, simple, and came out yummy the first time around.

I modified this recipe to use the ingredients I had on hand and speed things up, as well as be slightly less sweet (the original recipe is sweeter than traditional shortbread). This version is not GF but easily could be, as you’ll see. The honey, imo, is what makes this absolutely rock. Something about how it combines with the butter. My kitchen has never smelled so good.

What You Need

  • fresh Rosemary (2 T)
  • Dandelion blossoms (1/4 cup)
  • flour (2 cups)
  • salt (1/4 tsp or “a pinch”)
  • fresh ground pepper (obviously optional, 1/4 tsp)
  • sugar (1/3 cup)
  • honey (1/3 cup)
  • butter (2 sticks, one cup)
  • a flat cooking surface
  • a mixer, unless you like creaming butter and sugar by hand

What You Do


Go outside with your toddler and pick a bunch of dandelions (avoid the roadside and people’s RoundUp-ed yards). Two big handfuls should do it. This was the most fun. He kept bringing the mature seed heads and blowing them throughout the garden. Super helpful. I just remind myself every flower I pick is a few hundred fewer seeds for him to spread.

Use a pair of scissors to snip the bloom from the stem. It doesn’t actually matter if some of the sepal goes in. I use kitchen scissors to cut up the fresh rosemary too. Chop it all up with the scissors. I do it in a tall ramekin…it’s how most “fine chopping” happens around here. Looks like leafy green vegecide.

Preheat the oven to 325 and prepare a baking surface. I used lard on a cast iron skillet, but it’s not like this thing moves around so use whatever.

Blend the butter, sugar, and honey on low/med-low until creamy. I used sucanat and honey that had crystalized into a big lump because that’s what I had. If you want it more savory still, drop down to 1/4 cup of each. I let it mix for a good long time as I was worried about my wonky ingredients. Didn’t seem to matter. I also used salted butter because I love salt and that’s what I had. Heathen, I know.

Add in the chopped plant matter. I put in an extra pinch of salt and some freshly ground pepper. Add the flour slowly. I used sprouted white wheat flour. The original recipe called for rice flour. Use what you’ve got, didn’t seem to matter in the slightest. Well, I can’t vouch for coconut flour. That might make it mess-upable.

As soon as the dough is smooth, scrape it out onto your baking surface and shape it into a circle about 1/3 inch thick. Slice it with a sharp knife however you want the finished shape to be. A different recipe I read said to score it with a fork so I did.

IMG_20160424_114226802_HDRBake. The original recipe said 20 minutes or until just golden. But I didn’t use rice flour, dropped the cheese entirely, did not chill the dough or cut it into cute little circles. Mine cooked for approximately 30 minutes plus some time on the hot cast iron after and came out perfect. I think the sucanat takes longer than white sugar to do nice things and the sprouted whole wheat flour may also have made it take longer. It was fine, only an hour after the toddler should have started nap. He made a game of jumping off his rocker onto the floor. As an excellent mother, I suggested it would be safe as long as he jumped onto the rug instead of the concrete, then went back to baking.

I let it cool for maybe 10 min in the skillet, but didn’t want the bottom getting soggy so as soon as it seemed firm I dragged it carefully onto the drying rack. Voilà!


barre off

I haven’t danced in 13 years, but today I went back to class. Not to a modern class, where I would have been more comfortable, but to ballet, where I knew I’d make a fool of myself. I didn’t want to go easy. I needed to see what all had atrophied after two babies and more than a decade away.

My younger self–the teenager who went to a boarding school for professional dancers-in-training–could never have imagined going a week without dancing, let alone a year. Or a decade. Periodically that old self peeks in and tries to ask why I quit. I have closed the door in that me’s face every time.


In class at the American Dance Festival in 1996

There was nothing special about today, except that I opened the door when my old self came around…because I could. For a long time I couldn’t, and then all of a sudden it wasn’t scary anymore.

Dance and choreography were my life. I had potential but I always had to fight for technique. I loved the fight. Ballet was my weakest area and my favorite. For years dancing made me happier than I’d ever been. It was ferociously physical and I felt strong and powerful. But eventually poor nutrition took its toll and I broke bones first in one foot, then the other a year later. It stopped being fun.

When I quit, I quit completely without looking back because it was necessary. My favorite dance teacher telling me how lovely and skinny I looked when I was at my sickest was the memory that for years floated to the surface whenever I contemplated going back. I didn’t dance because I was in some combination of mourning and withdrawal. Dancing and I didn’t deserve each other until I could go back with joy.

Later, I was traveling and focused on scholarship. Then I was focused on my marriage. Then my family. I fell in love with gardening and mothering. I make excellent exercise out of both these things, but there were long periods of pregnancy and nursing where I just felt sort of swollen all the time and that was not how I remembered feeling while dancing. I liked the idea of going back sometime when my body felt more my own again and I wouldn’t pee on myself or start leaking milk in the middle of class.

Perhaps I’ve been ready for a while, but I started noticing a new tightness in my hamstrings when I leaned over to pull weeds. I felt the urge to stretch my legs and point my toes. Rocking out with my kids in the living room was suddenly insufficient. I felt this voracious hunger. It surprised me because the feeling was so familiar, but I hadn’t felt it in such a long time. I needed to dance.

But would I have forgotten everything? Would I completely embarrass myself? Would it be miserable because I was so bad? I picked a non-professional studio with drop in classes to minimize the odds of being in a room full of teenagers. I remember what I thought of the saggy middle aged moms in my dance classes when I was that age.

Today was the day, so of course the elder child who sleeps like an angel woke up coughing at 3am and no one ever got back to sleep. I pulled on my slightly musty smelling pink tights, one of the beloved leotards that our seamstress made for us by hand at my dancing school, and my stiff slippers–none of which have seen the light of day since I was in college–and tossed back one more coffee.

And yes, it turns out I had forgotten quite a lot. I was pretty embarrassed. It would be a stretch to say it was fun. But I felt great afterward (even though I can barely walk), and I only fell once. I was almost late because…kids…so I didn’t get to set low expectations with the teacher before the start of class. Being almost late also meant I was at the end of the barre and therefore had no one to stare at when I couldn’t remember what to do every time we switched sides.

But there was some magic, too. I am not the same person that I was the last time I stood in front of a studio mirror. I spent years memorizing every line of my own body, comparing it ruthlessly with what the movement ought to look like, what the instructor looked like, what the better students looked like. I know what I used to look like. But I haven’t put on a leotard and tights in a long time. I don’t look at myself with that kind of scrutiny anymore, thankfully. But it meant I was starting out with no idea what I’d find when I stepped up to the barre.

And there I was, looking just fine. I have a more solid middle than I used to, but I find I like my new shape. I feel sturdy. My arms are stronger and have more definition from carrying heavy children around for 6 years. Those arms that used to be the first part to tire at the end of class didn’t struggle at all today. My body remembered so many little lessons, along with poignant images from amazing teachers and classmates I haven’t thought about in years.

Perhaps most surprisingly, I just didn’t look in the mirror much. I was too busy trying to dance. It was perfect, and I can’t wait to go back.



Keeping backyard chickens even though it’s totally not worth it

It’s spring! Don’t you want chicks? Everyone wants chicks! When you first start considering backyard chickens (So cute! Eggs! I’ll save a fortune!), you find all the posts about the amazingness of backyard chicken keeping. If you are lucky, before you actually do the deed you’ll find the other posts about what a horrible idea it is and how expensive. About the predators. And the poop. And the having to be there to put them to bed every night. But what makes no sense is that people keep doing it. So here’s my honest take on why I keep chickens even though it’s arguably not worth it (my husband says it falls just on the far side of not worth it, I say it falls just on the near side of not worth it).



To be fair, the reasons have changed over the 4 years I’ve kept hens. I am a researcher by trade and I did my homework before getting my girls. I browsed around a lot on my favorite homesteading forums and on the backyard chickens website. I knew I probably wouldn’t save any money. I knew I’d probably confront predators. I’d seen my soft-hearted sister have to nurse a hen back to health after a fox tore into her coop and ripped off its wing before she could chase it off. In the middle of town. Since I was halfway through graduate school, with a two year old, I don’t remember many specifics about what was going through my head. But I was obsessed with homesteading and I considered hens a gateway livestock investment to figure out whether I had it in me to care for the sheep I really wanted someday.

This is an excellent reason to have chickens, though not one that applies to most people: if you dream of keeping livestock, small poultry are the best way to figure out whether you can handle it. You WILL have losses to predators or illness or accidents, but you probably won’t need a livestock vet and for whatever reason, bleeding and dying big animals are just more intense than small ones. It’s more manageable. If you can’t handle a dying chicken, you definitely can’t handle a dying something bigger. The requirements on your time are intermediate, but consistent enough to give you a taste of what actually being a small farmer would be like and probably make you think twice about it. But that’s the kind of thing you want to know before hand, so it’s a useful lesson.

But you probably don’t dream of being a farmer. The reasons most people want backyard chickens are for their kids, for the eggs, for the cuteness. I had a kid. I wanted eggs. They were cute. So once I had them, what were the pluses? It’s a little hard to say, which isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement.


“I’m gonna eat chickens!”

My toddler wandered up to the pen naked and got nipped in a very unfortunate place, which he remembers vividly to this day. They are not pets in our family, in part because I planned to eat them eventually and in part because I couldn’t tell them apart. Our dogs would break into their pen and eat their food (luckily not them, as domestic dogs are the biggest predators of backyard chickens). Housing them in a way that kept them safe and kept them healthy and clean took a lot of experimentation. I wasted a good bit of money.

My 4 buff orpingtons were not ideally suited to the heat of southern summers and one of them never laid again after having some kind of heat stroke her first year. They ate all winter without laying. It took a while for me to iron out the kinks in my feed system because I was committed to feeding them in a way that minimized waste and maximized nutrition, so I made an organic sprouted whole grain feed myself. And it wasn’t cheap. They required a whole different kind of pet sitting if we wanted to go anywhere, and we travel a lot. One time I let them out of their enclosure into the (enclosed) vegetable garden to clean up the late-summer bugs and weeds (supposedly one of the best things about them) and just as twilight fell heard a strange sound. I ran into our backyard in central Durham and saw a pile of feathers in the garden and a raccoon running away into the dark night. Luckily I’d been fast enough and she was just in temporary shock and missing some feathers, but the nights were never the same after that. Whatever time of day sunset was, someone had to be home before that to lock them up.


But I’m really committed to keeping chickens, and I’ve had to think about why, given all the downsides. Because the downsides are big and obvious and in your face, especially if your partner thinks your homesteading notions are thoroughly unromantic.

My eggs are the best eggs I’ve ever had. They are orange yolked and delicious. I know exactly what’s in them and feed them to my kids with pride.

Keeping hens forces me to appreciate how labor intensive the production of animal protein is and how to use it more sparingly and not take it for granted. The inputs required for keeping a flock of layers in good health, with pasture, is substantial in terms of space and feed. I know that nothing I ever get at the store, even those $8 a dozen pastured organic eggs from Whole Foods, comes close. Currently my 8 hens rotate around on 1/4 acre of land and they wear it down in the blink of an eye. We gobble up eggs and chicken without thinking twice about the tremendous amount of inputs it takes to grow that animal. Doing it ourselves has been humbling and sobering, which I value for myself and my kids.

They eat all my kitchen scraps and almost-too old leftovers. I am a compulsive food not-waster. It hurts me in a deep, physical way to throw food away or let things go bad. But if you have kids you know that they will mush things around in ways that make it no longer edible to any other human and then reject 80% of it. No guilt, the girls take care of it. While you don’t want to give chickens things that would make a human really sick to eat, there’s a lot that technically wouldn’t hurt us that we don’t eat. Nothing gets wasted here. I will admit to keeping edible compost in a ziploc bag in the cooler or mini-fridge when we travel domestically and bringing it home for the chickens. My marriage has taken a beating, but my soul is in good shape.

I get free fertilizer for the garden. This is a huge one for me. I have a big garden and as it has grown I have struggled with the notion of purchasing and shipping in soil amendments. Now I just buy a big load of straw every few years and use it for their bedding, then compost it in the garden when I clean out the coop. My soil is so so happy and unlike anything I buy, I know exactly what my girls eat and what’s in their manure and it’s exactly what I want in my compost.

My family is probably healthier. Living among livestock is one of the few clear correlates of decreased asthma and improved immune health (here’s a nice lay person’s summary). At the very least when I was 9 months pregnant and cleaning out the coop I told myself the poop smell was good for baby and it became more bearable.

It’s a lesson in long term planning and commitment. Most of the investments and wasted money are upfront, so you really lose money if you don’t keep going once you’ve set up housing and learned the ropes. I’ve got my feed system rolling efficiently now. I maximize their consumption of weeds and scraps to minimize food costs. My eggs are half the cost of pastured organic eggs at the store, even factoring in my original set up costs. I do save money now.

We learn to be humble about the challenge of taking responsibility for life. Chickens have just about zero capacity for self preservation. If you have a rooster, he’ll help out, but there are a host of other challenges that come with him, like having enough hens so he can ravage them all the time and not wear down more than the feathers on their backs, or your neighbors hating you. The decision to keep backyard hens begins a pendulum swinging back and forth between protection and freedom. If you want to give them any freedom, you take the risk of something eating them. You and only you bear the responsibility for that when it happens.

I did a bad job of trying to integrate my flocks when I expanded and lost a hen to fratricide. Two years in a row when the hawks were trying to feed their own new babies, I lost a hen to their hunting. I caught them in the act the second time and explained to my son, who was with me, why I was recovering the decapitated body of my hen and throwing it out in the woods near where the hawks roost. I wanted him to understand that they have to feed their babies too. That if I’ve already lost her, they will be less likely to return if they can finish their meal. That we don’t let a life be lost for no reason and in nature, nothing is wasted. We don’t put light bulbs in the nesting box to kill the black snake that steals eggs in the summer, even though it’s super scary and makes me cringe to think of the lost investment. Sharing is a part of life. The black snake eats rodents that damage our garden. And baby copperheads that could kill my children. These have been poignant and valuable lessons for him, particularly when so much of the world is presented to children as a fallacious black and white.


nothing to see here, just dinosaur cannibalism as a hen cleans up the bits and pieces of her sister that the hawk left behind

Keeping hens connects me to my (and most of our) roots. Most farms were diverse and had chickens before the industrialization of our food supply beginning in the interwar period. Pretty much everyone has rural roots, if you go back far enough, no matter what your culture. I’m not mystical about this stuff, but there is something grounding about doing some dirty, real, work in your own backyard the way your ancestors did.

To most friends who ask about backyard chickens, I give it a resounding and honest no. But if any of these reasons resonate with you and you are willing to have their lives in your hands, then give it a shot. Try and do housing on the cheap (I find a homemade roost inside a craigslist dog kennel with a nice kitty litter dome for nesting works great to start out). I’m still doing it and, perhaps surprisingly, finding it more and more satisfying as time passes.