May 13, 2012

two farmers, 350 chickens and a hurricane

Ever heard of Greenhorns?

What follows is an essay I wrote that was just published in the new Greenhorns book. The book is a collection of stories from new farmers and my story is about our first tragic event. It happened 5 years ago, before I even started this blog. 

I cried while writing this story a year ago, and Nate cried yesterday when the book arrived and he read it. There have been many other events that have hurt us since then - some have been worse - but being our first, it was so traumatic for us, that the memory of it is as vivid as that day in 2008. 

They really did a great job on the book. Pick one up here!

Here's the book trailer.

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Two Farmers, 350 Chickens and a Hurricane

It was eight o’clock in the evening and I was doing my rounds in the brooder, caring for the baby chicks, while Nate was doing his rounds with the older broilers outside. I could hear the wind picking up and remember saying to the little chicks, “Be glad you’re safe and cozy in here, little ones. It sounds wicked out there.” 

Just then, Nate came blowing into the brooder building. “It’s crazy out there!" he said. "We’re going to lose the covers on the broiler pens if we don’t do something.” So we ran out to see what we could do.

I have never experienced weather like this before. An eerie darkness had taken over the farm, painting everything a deep purple. Our broiler pens were made of two cattle panels, bowed over to make a hoop structure and covered with recycled billboard vinyl. The ends of the vinyl were loose so that we could roll up the sides during the day and roll them down at night. The wind was blowing so hard that the ends were flapping, threatening to pull off the vinyl and make it fly away. Every time the wind blew, the chickens, terrified of the flapping noise, would cower in the corner and pile on top of each other. We knew we had to do something fast or they would smother each other to death.

Nate acted quicker than I’ve ever seen him move before. He punched holes in the ends of the vinyl sides and tied them to the pens so they couldn’t move. We had four pens of broilers, so he had to do everything quickly. The wind howled and roared while Nate worked and I tried to weight down the sides with cinder blocks. Running out of blocks, I threw my body across the last one and waited for him to finish. The wind blew so hard that it even moved me. 

We were in a pasture flanked by woods on two sides, and the trees were blowing around so fiercely that they were bending and creaking. I started imagining the worst, and I closed my eyes and said a prayer while Nate worked frantically. He finally finished, and the broilers seemed stable. It was well after 10 o’clock when we accepted that we had done all we could and there was nothing more to do but wait it out. 

I didn’t want to leave our animals - that was our livelihood sitting out in that field - but it was starting to become dangerous for us. Branches and debris were flying everywhere. We barely slept that night, waking with every howl of the wind. It broke my heart to think of the animals being so scared. We didn’t know it yet, but we were being hit by hurricane Ike.

Morning came and we were afraid to walk outside. 

This was our first year farming, and the learning curve was steeper than you can imagine. It was demanding, stressful, frustrating, exhausting, dirty and beautiful all at the same time. When we took the leap into farming, overnight we became responsible for several hundred tiny little lives, and the weight of that responsibility was heavy. No matter what, our days were filled with hard work, and now the thought of anything being damaged and requiring more work was overwhelming. We couldn't afford a setback at this point in the game. 

We hopped on the four-wheeler and drove over to the animals. Our first stop was the layers. We had recently moved our first batch of hens into the Eggmobile that Nate had finished building only a month before. We weren't prepared for what we were about to see.

In all the chaos the night before, trying to save the broiler pens, neither of us thought to secure the Eggmobile. Ninety-mile-per-hour winds had lifted it up off of the trailer it was on, rolled it 360 degrees, and crashed it down, right-side up, with all hundred of our girls inside. Hours and hours of Nate’s work, smashed. 

I thought he would lose it right then and there. Still on the four-wheeler, he turned to look at me, his face white. Tears streamed down my face and I couldn't breathe. This was a huge blow. We jumped off to check on the girls, hoping they were okay. Amazingly, every one of them had survived.

Once we knew they were alright, anger overcame Nate as he began to realize how much work lay ahead. And it wasn’t like the work could wait. Those hens needed their home to be fixed so they could sleep in it that night.

We moved on to the broilers, to find that they too had survived the night, with minimal damage to the pens: a gift, a small bit of mercy, from the hurricane.

Nate and I looked at each other, looked over our battered farm, and breathed deep. There was nothing to do but rebuild.

We gathered our tools and began again.

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