These people have witnessed 900 chickens on pasture… and lived to tell the tale.

Every weekend for the past 13 years, I have willingly woken to the 4 a.m. alarm clock, sometimes staggering, sometimes sleep-walking towards my market truck, before drowsily driving into the city. For most of my adult life, this has meant maintaining an ‘anti-schedule,’ one where I work all weekend long, year round, forsaking Friday night parties, my beloved Mountaineer football games, and lazy Sunday mornings with the Washington Post spread out all over the bed.

I take Tuesdays off instead, intentionally lounging at the Berryville coffee shop, sometimes playing tennis on the Clarke County public courts, allowing the frenetic bustle of the real world to go rushing past. Farmers like to chillax as much as anyone else, and we must invent ‘weekends’ for ourselves whenever we can.  (Yes, I just typed the word ‘chillax.’ Chillax, okay?)

There are lots of reasons why I forsake delicious sleep to drive to farmers markets each weekend. For one, it allows me to interact with my fellow farmers, exchanging agricultural ideas and insights, continuing my education under the tutelage of the most qualified teachers around. Secondly, markets provide me with a healthy change of pace. Since there is truly never an end to farm work, the reliable schedule of weekend markets forces me to pause, temporarily setting aside whatever project consumed my attention all week long.

Most importantly, I genuinely enjoy seeing my customers each week (except for that ONE customer… you know who you are. Just kidding. Maybe.). I like receiving our customers’ suggestions and feedback, and watching as their kids grow up on the food our farm has provided. From a customer’s point of view, having the ability to talk directly to their farmer hopefully trumps the experience of a 1-800 automated call center located in Sri Lanka, or dealing with the service kiosk at the neighborhood box-store. If I’m not providing a valuable service by personally showing up at market each weekend, someone please tell me: statistically, I still have plenty of time to catch up on years of snooze-alarm opportunities.

This is, more or less, what 900 hens on fresh pasture looks like. That’s Bosca, our Anatolian guard dog, in the middle. Every few days, these hens will get a fresh block of grass to enjoy, while the grazed, pecked-over pasture is allowed several months to recover and grow.

I enjoy the intellectual challenge of constantly being quizzed. Shoppers ask questions about our farming methods and philosophies, request cooking suggestions, or seek clarification regarding different cuts of meat. Showing up at market each week requires me to stay on my mental toes.

Naturally, I can’t help but notice when some of these questions are repeated over and over again throughout the years. In particular, there is one question that is not only frequently asked, but also draws the same response from customers each time I answer it:

Question from customer: “How many laying hens do you raise?”

Response from me: “About 900.”

(Author’s note: The answer is actually “about a thousand,” since 1,000 is a nice round number for us to keep track of here at the farm. I’ve discovered, however, that the number ‘one thousand’ simply carries too much linguistic gravity. ‘Nine hundred’ seems to soften the impact a little.)

Response from customer: (Pause. Deep intake of breath.) “900!?! Seriously? That’s… that’s so many chickens!

(At this particular point, I’ve found it’s best to intentionally understate my response, allowing the number 900 sufficient time to sink in. Although 900 seems like a big number at first, once the customer starts doing some elementary math, I’ve observed that 900 starts to gradually become comprehensible.)

Response from me: “Oh.”

Customer:  “So…. 900. Wow. 900? 900.”

(After they have repeated ‘900’ two or three times out loud, they start to calm down a little  Their breathing typically begins to regulate, as the autonomic nervous system kicks back in). “Really? I mean, that’s a lot, right? Why so many?”

Me: “Well, each hen lays about 5 eggs per week, on average. So combined, that’s about 4,500 eggs a week. Divide that by a dozen (I gesture to a nearby egg carton as a visual aid), and you’re down to, say, 400 dozen. Then, divide that by the seven farmers markets we attend each weekend, and….”

Customer: (An understanding look begins to dawn across their face.) “Right… divided again by all the customers at each of the markets. Huh. I get it now. So that’s why you sell out of eggs so quickly each week.”

Me: “Exactly.”

Customer:  (Thinks for a moment.) “Hmm….  You know, maybe you should think about getting more chickens.”

Here, widely-spaced hutches, with a field of verdant pasture, await a new season of free-range chickens.

Back at the farm, nine hundred or so chickens isn’t necessarily a lot of hens, as long as they are properly managed (here is a video of me with the hens: VIDEO). In fact, it’s a pretty arbitrary number, only chosen based on our own farm’s market demands.

Flocks of wild birds, easily numbering in the multi-thousands, move through our farm nearly every day, so it’s not as if nature has anything against large groups of birds. As free-range grass farmers, it’s our job to make sure our chickens are properly rotated onto fresh pasture, in effect ‘migrating’ them ourselves (for more on this, check out my previous blog here: Free Ranging Chickens Year-Round).

Still, for some reason, the idea of 900 chickens is consistently startling to our customers.  It might be helpful to take a moment, and put this number in perspective. Remember that sequence in Napoleon Dynamite, where he works inside a confinement chicken house?  (Watch the video here: Movie Clip). In this scene, as is common practice, thousands upon thousands of laying hens are stuffed into small cages.

Is it because we are never allowed to see these birds, packed inside anonymous, enclosed buildings, that makes it so hard to conceptualize large flocks of chickens walking around outside? Perhaps we have been unwittingly trained to only imagine a half-dozen hens at a time, pecking around in a white-washed, rustic barnyard. As lovely as that image sounds, six chickens can’t feed a hungry city.

The opportunity to explain and clarify numbers like ‘900’ is one of the main reasons I drag myself out of bed each weekend, and head out to market. For a field-to-customer farmer like myself, an educated shopper is one of my greatest assets. My job must always involve answering questions about our sustainable farming practices, making them vividly transparent and understandable to those who want to learn.

If the thought of 900 hundreds of chickens running through the pastures seems mind-blowing to most people, well… that’s okay with me. Honestly, my bigger concern each day is that my chickens (or my lambs) don’t get eaten by a coyote.

Customer: “A Coyote!  Really?! You guys have coyotes?!?”

Me: (Sigh.)

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