According to our 2021 summer Everson Ranch volunteer, Miriam, "I went a little OCD on the chickens..."
I thought that a two-week stint volunteering at the Everson Ranch would be a bucolic holiday filled with, yes, lots of great gardening and chicken care -- but with plenty of time left over for me to work on my writing projects. Well, I was right about the first part of it.
It ended up that this 760-acres ranch at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo mountains was a turning point in my life.
I have loved the San Luis Valley ever since I first went there in the 1990s, coming down from Boulder to Valley View Hot Springs. An ancient Pleistocene lake bed, ringed with 14,000-foot peaks, the San Luis evokes something so vast, so serene, and so mysterious in its landscape and history, that it resonates with my very soul. Thus, I was extremely excited when I thought I would be able to take a 2-week "working holiday" at the Everson Ranch. It sits at the foot of the mountains, on the shoulder of the valley, in a wonderful land trust organized by the Orient Land Trust folks.
Sabine, the wonderful Ranch Caretaker/Garden Manager, informed me that my main duties would include the gardens and the chickens. I am an avid gardener, and also quite like chickens, though I have never kept them myself. (I have helped friends with their chickens – only 3 to 6 at a time, however.) Gardening is a passion of mine, so I thought I would be perfect for the job. I was slightly shocked when I saw the two chicken houses, both filled with chickens – 66 chickens to be precise. I was not, however, at all prepared for the chicken drama.
The Leghorns were the predominant breed. Pure white, tall and stately, with bright red combs, they arrogantly strutted around the field. "They tend to go in the chicken coop first, at night," Sabine guessed that this might be because they were more visible to predators at night. The other, darker-feathered chickens -- Rhode Island Reds and Barred Rocks – were generally more complacent, but would stay out pecking and scratching until late in the day – until almost dark, when dusk had pushed itself past a comfortable boundary. One evening a big storm was coming and I wanted to hustle all the chickens back into their coop. But no! The last two would not cooperate until it was almost completely dark, and kept obstinately running around scratching for one last bug. Finally, grudgingly and somewhat peevishly, they hopped into their coop. I shut the door.
My other job was gathering weeds out of the garden. There were lots of weeds – wheelbarrows full of weeds. It was gratifying to haul wheelbarrows overflowing with weeds over to the chicken coop where the chickens would greedily run up to the gate, crowding around and clucking, waiting for me to empty the wheelbarrow so they could see if there were any delicious goodies in it. I would strew the weeds around their pen and watch with fascination as the chickens raced around, gluttonously gobbling ragweed and lamb's quarters and excess dill and pigweed from the garden. "Even the ragweed!" I marveled. "How convenient that ragweed can be converted into eggs!"
But this ragweed-to-egg conversion was not so simple and straightforward. A few of the Leghorns, in particular, had developed a penchant for eating eggs – delicious, farm-fresh eggs, right out of the nest. My concern was that they would teach all the other chickens how to do this, and it would create total chaos in the henhouse. The problem was I had to collect eggs twice a day, anyway, but if I waited too late in the morning to pick up the nice, warm eggs out of the nest, the Leghorns would have cracked several and be hungrily guzzling up egg innards that were now running in a yellow spew all over the insides of the nesting boxes. All the other eggs in the nest would be coated with a near-impermeable, yellow egg-yolk slime. It was a mess to clean up, and not a good habit for the chickens to get into.
Now, I had another problem. I had to now gather -- or at least check on -- the eggs three times a day, or even four, to try and constantly spy on who was eating what eggs, and which hens were the instigators, and try to forestall the chicken pecking. In the case of the cracked eggs, however, it was always the chickens first, in terms of "who came first, the chicken or the egg." So we know the answer to that question!
Still, in spite of the chicken chaos, getting to go out every morning to the chicken coop and let the birds out of their quarters, listening to their soft clucking, and watching the sun rise magnificently over the Sangre de Cristos, was a delight in and of itself. The refreshing mountain air swooped down from the high peaks and there were no sounds (other than the chickens) to disturb my morning reverie. I bonded with those chickens, even though I had to spy on them; I learned how to pick them up and pet their funny little combs, and stroke their feathers, and I even tried to tie a string around the leg of the egg-eating boss hen so we could sequester her. (It didn't really help.) The Mountain shadows stretched elegantly and timelessly over the Valley. It was breathtaking.
It was a great gift to get to be in the silence of the majestic Sangre de Cristo mountains, the vastness, the wide-open spaces. I felt honored to have the opportunity to stay on the Everson Ranch, amazed at the beauty of the land and the amount of work that needed to be done there, yet with lots of educational opportunities and community outreach; I ended up, in fact, giving a small experiential seminar on Edible Weeds. And even more amazing, I learned to love chickens – lots of chickens. But I don't believe I will ever keep them myself – and I really don't care to eat eggs that much anymore.
By Miriam C.