The mental health of chickens8/31/2016
“Chickens go insane over watermelon,” according to Lee Ford.
As an urban farmer living just outside Des Moines’ city limits, he should know. Ford grew up in East Los Angeles, and, as a youth, he didn’t know how his life would play out. Sizing up the sanity of chickens wasn’t even on the radar of things he would do.
But plans change.
Three years ago, Ford and his wife of 35 years, Cindy, moved to the Des Moines area to be closer to their family and two grandchildren.
The couple purchased a 15-acre piece of property just outside of the city limits, and even though they didn’t have a lot of experience with agriculture, they transformed it into an urban farm.
Ford said he’s learning the craft as he goes. He’s teaching himself, and it isn’t always easy tending to 60 chickens, 13 goats, nine pigs, three dogs and two cats.
“Cindy has always had a garden,” he said. “But we’ve never had animals like this. We’re trying to figure out how to best utilize this land. It’s been interesting to see how to feed and water them, to take care of them, but it’s been rough trying to figure out all of this on the fly.”
Even so, the couple is enjoying the challenge.
They have a garden for vegetables, and they grow a variety of fruit-bearing plants including blackberry and blueberry bushes, as well as apple, peach and plum trees.
In the past, Ford has planted crops, but he said they aren’t growing any this year.
“The 12 acres up front are in a flood plain,” he said. Too often, he added, the plantings have been washed away.
Despite the struggles with Mother Nature, the Fords are happy with their endeavor, and they have had more successes than failures.
“It’s just about everything we wanted,” Ford said. “Except for the flooding.”
Ford says they’ve seen other fruits from their labors: farm-fresh bacon, egg and ham.
“And don’t forget the ribs,” Ford smiles. “I love smoking ribs.”
The husband and wife look forward to sharing their bounty, and they are getting ready to host their annual hog roast.
“Once a year, we put on a hog roast,” Ford said. “We’re involved with a bike ministry called Bikers for Christ. We invite them and our church and neighbors — whoever wants to show up.”
How many hogs will they cook?
“One or two,” he said. “It depends how many say they’re coming.”
Lee and Cindy host the affair on the patio they installed near the pond. They’ve made many other improvements to their property as well. They put siding on the house, laid new flooring inside and pieced together a chicken coop for the hens, which they named “Triple F Eggspress.”
“It was going to be ‘Faith, Family and Friends,’ ” Ford laughed. “But (depending on the day) it might be the Ford Funny Farm.”
Another nugget of knowledge Ford has acquired has to do with washing eggs. If you don’t wash an egg after it’s laid, it doesn’t need to be refrigerated.
“The United States is about the only country in the world that washes an egg,” Ford explains. “When you wash the film off the egg, within a few days, if you leave them on the counter, they’ll go bad.”
Ford refrigerates his eggs after they’re laid, and his 60 hens ensure his refrigerator is usually full of them. The Fords eat all they want and sell the leftovers.
The difference between store-bought and farm fresh eggs is noticeable. The yoke is quite a bit darker in farm fresh, free-range chicken eggs, and Ford said they taste different and better.
But the best part of their adventure is spending time with their grandkids, who also like the farm.
“My little grandson, he isn’t afraid of nothing,” said Ford. “It’s been an interesting three years. It’s not for the faint of heart. It’s hard.”
Ford — now in his mid-60s — never predicted that he would end up living happily ever after on a metro-area acreage near the edge of Iowa’s capitol, but he’s content evaluating the mental health of chickens while treating them to watermelon from time to time. He’s enjoying the unexpected.