We didn’t tell everyone what had happened. Not on purpose, really, though it might have been a subconscious decision to remain mum, at least until someone noticed or it came up in conversation some other way. It was a couple days after the Thanksgiving break before Vicky suddenly asked, “Where’s Miss Black?”

I smiled a little apologetically. “John had to, um, put her down.”

Vicky and the others knew Miss Black hadn’t been doing well, and that in the days prior to Thanksgiving she’d stayed huddled underneath the nest boxes, unable to stand. Each day she was like that John and I were sure it would be her last, but she kept hanging on.

Finally, on that Tuesday evening, John felt she’d suffered enough. I was cleaning up the salad sink area after the harvest had all been packed away, when I saw him walk past the open door with the gun and a shovel. I agreed with his decision.

Vicky asked what I thought farmers in the “old days” did with a sick chicken, and I told her that most likely Miss Black would have been fried, or become part of a stew, long before her mysterious illness hit. Back then (and even now, at most farms) a hen’s worthiness was limited to a couple good years of egg-laying before the farmer’s wife would either wring her neck or…well, let’s not dwell on that. The thing is, every chicken was ultimately destined for the pot, and the deed had to be done while the bird was still young and tender.

It isn’t that way here. While Farmer John and I do indeed partake in a chicken dinner from time to time, it’s never one of our own. Seems kind of crazy, considering the fact that we know beyond a doubt that our birds are raised humanely; yet because they’re so humanely kept, they become our pets. Not livestock.

The Baby is a good example.

Despite her name, she’s actually the oldest hen we have. She’s the sole survivor of the flock of 30 Brown Leghorn chicks we bought in the spring of 2003, a year after we’d brought home 25 Production Red chicks. Because the Leggers were the youngest, we always referred to them collectively as The Babies. At 7-1/2 years old, this last Baby is well into henopause and hasn’t laid an egg for us in ages.

The Baby will never grace our dinner bowls – and bowls it would have to be, since she’s no doubt a tough old gal (literally) and would require a substantial amount of boiling time. Although she’s always been a skittish little bird and to this day is distrustful of us, we’d never dream of killing her while she’s still healthy. She may no longer be of use, edibly, but she’s still our pet.

With the loss of Miss Black, we’re down to five hens…

…and no eggs, even though Daisy, Lylie, Marty and Miss Red are all still of laying age. This time of year, when the days get shorter and shorter, hens have a tendency to slow down on their egg production. Adding insult to injury (for us fresh egg aficionados, anyway), fall is the time of the molt, and a hen lays nary an egg while molting.

Miss Red’s new feathers are finally growing in. Had you seen her three weeks or so ago, however, you’d have been sure the poor thing was going bald for good. Recently, we’ve noticed that Marty’s feathers are getting that ragged look to them, as well, signaling a molt in her near future.

Combine The Baby’s age, Miss Red’s recent molt, Marty’s upcoming molt and Daisy’s & Lylie’s observance of winter, and you’ll find John or me in the egg aisle of the grocery store on a weekly basis. Had we lived in the “old days,” we wouldn’t have allowed this to happen. Spending good money on chicken feed and getting nothing in return? No sirree! These five girls would have flown to Hen Heaven long before their farmers found themselves without an egg to fry.

But Farmer John and I don’t eat our pets, even after they stop providing us with eggs. Consider Pablo.

At eleven years old, he’s never given us anything edible. (He prefers to keep the occasional bunny or vole to himself.) Still, we haven’t seriously thought about frying him up for dinner.

Although he is a meaty little guy….

* * *

Oh don’t worry…we won’t eat our cat! We prefer vegetables anyway, like the ones we’ll be bringing to the farm stand this Wednesday. Here’s what we’ll have:

More big, beautiful broccoli (possibly the last of it for a little while!); our all-lettuce salad mix; bags of arugula; baby Asian mustard greens; escarole; Butterhead lettuce and other head lettuces; bulk sweet white turnips; green onions; fennel; watermelon radishes; Napa cabbages; nutty-sweet Farao cabbages; bunches of Dinosaur kale and Curly kale; bunches of chard; bunches of Brussels greens; cilantro; the first of our small crop of fall “new” potatoes; and some of this or that (but no cats!).

Jo Dwyer
Angel Valley Organic FarmFarm stands:
Saturdays 9:00-1:00 in Jonestown on FM 1431 at the blinking yellow light; and
Wednesdays 10:00-2:00 in NW Austin at the Asian American Center, 11713 Jollyville Road (1-1/2 blocks north of the intersection of Jollyville and Duval)