About the Author

Brent Preston

Books by this Author
The New Farm

The New Farm

Our Ten Years on the Front Lines of the Good Food Revolution
also available: Paperback
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All happy chickens are alike; each unhappy chicken is unhappy in its own way.

It all has to do with the coop. If a chicken’s coop is too small, the chicken will be pecked and harassed by its coop-mates. If its coop is too damp, it might catch the flu and die. If its coop is too cold, it will get frostbite on its comb and the comb will start bleeding. Worst of all, if a chicken’s coop isn’t properly sealed, varmints will slip in during the night and tear it to pieces. But when I woke on that fine July morning back in 2005, I wasn’t worried about any of that. I had built a beautiful coop. I knew my chickens would be happy.

It was a Saturday, and still early. Gillian and the kids were asleep, so I got up quietly and eased myself down our squeaky stairs. Outside it was cool, calm and silent, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. In the backyard I stopped and surveyed my domain: flat, green farmland stretching off in every direction, an unbroken ring of forest on the horizon. I had that feeling I sometimes get when I’m up by myself in the early morning, that I’m lucky to be in this place, at this moment. We had been living on the farm for almost a year, and I was suddenly struck by the wondrous realization that we actually owned this place, that all this land was ours—a realization that struck me on a regular basis back then, and sometimes still does.

In a single year Gillian and I had gone from being relatively normal urban professionals living in downtown Toronto to owners of a hundred-acre farm outside the village of Creemore, about a two-hour drive northwest of the city. We had been taken by the aspirational dream of living in the country, but like many actual dreams, this dream was fuzzy and vague and didn’t make a whole lot of sense if you thought about it too much. We wanted to raise our own food, to have animals and a big garden, but we didn’t really know what we were doing. We were enthusiastic and idealistic and profoundly naive. If our current selves could meet the people we were back then, we would look on ourselves with a mixture of pity and amusement.

I had woken up early that morning in a state of excited anticipation. Our chickens had just spent their first night in their new coop, a structure that I had spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about, designing and building. I had spent so much time that the coop wasn’t finished when our chicks arrived, so they spent their first week of life in our bathtub, in the bathroom next to the kitchen.

I didn’t know anything about chickens when we first moved to the farm. But we wanted livestock, and chickens seemed like the obvious place to start. I had to learn a whole chicken nomenclature in the beginning. Chickens bred to lay eggs are “layers” or “laying hens.” Chickens bred for meat—“broilers” or simply “chickens”—are very different animals. We had been persuaded by the hatchery’s website to order Special Dual Purpose chickens that supposedly combined the best attributes of layers and broilers. The website told us that White Rock broilers, the overwhelmingly dominant meat chicken variety, had been bred into such freakishly efficient gainers of weight that they couldn’t walk properly and were susceptible to all sorts of diseases if raised without antibiotic-laden feed (a claim that we later found to be false). If we were aiming for free-range and organic, we were assured, the Special Dual Purpose was the bird for us.

Our batch of day-old chicks, fifty of them, arrived at our local feed store in a very small cardboard box. I began learning new things about chickens at a rapid rate. Day-old chicks are tiny and fluffy yellow and incredibly cute, but they are also very loud, mobile and assertive. They chirped loudly when the kids picked them up or when they were hungry (which was pretty much all the time) or seemingly just for the hell of it, all day long. We put down wood shavings in the bathtub and hung a three-hundred-watt heat lamp over them to keep them warm. It occurred to me that many chickens’ lives are bookended by heat lamps. Even Special Dual Purpose chickens have been bred to rapidly put on weight, so the chicks had an insatiable appetite. From day one they would frantically climb over each other to get at their food, and they also drank a lot of water. I would fill up their little feed trough immediately before going to bed, but they would eat it all during the night. Our bedroom was on the second floor, but their manic chirping was loud enough to wake me before dawn.

Any animal with such a rapid metabolism produces a lot of waste. Our chicks were shit-producing machines (birds don’t urinate, another thing I learned early on). The bathroom rapidly became very hot, very humid and indescribably smelly. It was like some sort of dystopian sauna in there, and the stench began to pervade the whole house. Gillian let it be known that my coop construction should be expedited. It takes about ten minutes on gravel roads to drive from our farm to Hamilton Brothers, considered by many (or at least by me) to be the greatest retail establishment on the face of the earth. Hamilton Brothers is a farm and building supply store, but it sells almost everything. I once left there with some plumbing supplies, a box of ammunition, 250 feet of bungee cord and a flat of eggs. I kept the handwritten receipt as a souvenir. It’s also the place where I bought my coop-making materials.

To say Hamilton Brothers is old school would be a serious understatement. I have never seen a computer anywhere on the premises, though I think they might have one in a back office somewhere, because the statements I receive in the mail appear to be created on a dot-matrix printer. Its many separate buildings and yards make up about half of the tiny village of Glen Huron, tucked under a dam at the head of the narrow Mad River valley. The river still powers the Hamilton Brothers feed mill, a five-storey steel-clad building filled with cobwebs, wooden chutes and giant drive belts that towers over the building supply store and the main lumberyard. Across the street is the farm supply building, and behind that is the welding shop and a big hangar where they keep the sheet metal, concrete mix and drywall. Around the corner and past a few houses is another building with tongueand-groove flooring and fence posts, and across from that is a second lumberyard, for all the pressure-treated stuff. When you call Hamilton Brothers, you have to ask for either the building side or the farm supply side, depending on what you’re looking for. The gas and diesel pumps are on the farm supply side. The staff sometimes travel from building to building by bicycle.

When I first started making trips to buy coop supplies, I was accustomed to the anonymity of big-box building supply stores, where I would pile everything I needed onto a giant cart and haul it out to my car without speaking to anyone. But at Hamilton Brothers, not much is self-serve, and I was forced to interact with the guys at the counter. These were all middle-aged men who evidently knew a lot about everything. They would ask me questions about my order that I often couldn’t answer. “What size chicken wire?” or “Ardox nails or regular?” or the one that always struck me with fear, “What you doing with all this stuff?” It seemed they were running my order through a vast mental database and determining that there was nothing known to humanity that could be built properly with the list of items I wanted. I was terrified of looking like an idiot, so I would blurt out an answer and end up back at the farm with the wrong thing, and be forced to return the next day.

After dozens of trips, one of the guys finally took pity on me and took me under his wing. Ivan is a giant of a man, probably six foot five, with massive hands and a huge head. I confessed to him that I was building a chicken coop but had no clue what I was doing. Ivan took me up into the loft above the store where the chicken wire was kept and helped me choose from the surprising range of options—rolls of different lengths and widths, with different size holes and different gauges of wire. After a while he would break into a broad grin whenever he saw me come in. “That must be some chicken coop you’re building!” he’d say.

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