Portage River Farm

  (Pinckney, Michigan)
Notes on our struggles and successes on our family farm in rural Michigan.
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Finally A Roof For The Coop....But At A Price!

In early April of 2009, I walked out into our back yard and pounded some stakes into the ground at the edge of our woods. I was marking where I planned to build a super-deluxe chicken coop. Driving those stakes was the first thing that we had done since moving onto our new farm that would permanently alter the landscape and begin the process of turning it back into a working farm. After more than 75 years of growing wild, the land would slowly be transformed to produce food once again.

At the time that this all began, I had no idea that growing commercially was in our future. My mind was full of dreams of self-sufficiency and the chicken coop was simply intended to provide eggs and meat for our family. Of course, if you were to see it today, you would wonder at it's size and the expense that it took to construct it for such a humble purpose. That's exactly what a number of my farmer friends appeared to think when they first heard of my overblown plans. The most common chicken coop design in these parts is a sheet-metal garden shed. Those who have known me for a while are aware that I don't do anything small or by half-measure.

The coop project absorbed much of my time and energy during that first summer. It grew in fits and starts as the days went by. With my attempts to protect my handiwork and the birds within from the elements it became quite an eyesore with its flapping blue tarps, white Tyvek and chicken wire. With plenty of help from visiting friends, the building gradually took shape and was eventually wrapped in attractive red and white sheet metal.

This past spring, as the still incomplete project moved into its second year, the thing that made its unfinished state most noticeable was the roof. In the fall, I had rolled out tar paper to protect the plywood roof beneath with the assumption that the sheet metal roof would soon follow. That was not to be and the winter winds eventually ripped it all off and threw great strips into the woods beyond. With the spring thaw our poor long-suffering hens did their best to stay dry as they dodged drips from the rain-soaked ceiling.

All of this provided handy material for the good-natured ribbing that my neighbor Tim passed out whenever our respective chores brought us within earshot of each other across the property line. What's worse, his property is neat and tidy with not one half-completed project in sight. Having no foothold for a clever comeback, I was reduced to defensive excuses about how many things I had going on. Somehow I just never was able to find a way to bring that project up the priority list.

Then my longtime buddy and favorite handyman Fred stopped by for a visit. He took a look around to see how he could make himself useful and said, "Hey, why don't we put a roof on that coop?". I jumped at the offer and we started right into it. We gathered up ladders, tools and extension cords and got down to business.

The building is quite tall, built on a slight slope and raised a few feet off of the ground on concrete piers. That means that even the lower edge is between 11 and 14 feet off of the ground. We worked our way around the edge installing white fascia covers. Having that complete, we climbed on top and began screwing down the heavy black sheet metal for the roof itself.

The work progressed quickly as we talked and joked to pass the time. The grade of the roof is quite steep and walking on it was tricky. We took turns gingerly creeping down toward the bottom edge laden with tools to place the screws into the lower portions of the sheet. No matter how hard we tried, we were constantly dropping screws, hammers and other tools. These quickly zipped down the slick metal surface and disappeared over the edge with our hopes that they miss any hapless chickens below.

Despite the hazards, the project moved along toward completion. Now and again we would straighten our stiff backs to look back over our progress and comment on how nice it looked. Although we only had a couple of sheets to go, we decided to take a break and head in the house for a drink.

As we relaxed inside for a bit, life returned to normal in the coop yard. Chickens are very curious by nature and will investigate anything left in their reach. As soon as we were gone, the birds rushed over to walk all over and peck at the last remaining sheets that we had left on the ground. Chickens are also messy. As they explored the strange new material, they scratched in the dirt nearby and chased each other on and off of the metal and relieved themselves a time or two for good measure.

When we returned from the house we urged our tired muscles into the task of placing the last few sheets. We noticed that a light rain shower had passed over our work site while we had been away. Since our break had gone a little longer than intended, most of the water had already evaporated as the sun heated up the black surface and only a couple of droplets remained. Thinking no more of it, we climbed the ladders for the last time to finish our work.

As it happens, it was my turn to do the dangerous bit of carefully walking down the roof surface to install the screws in the sheet while Fred held it in place. After getting a few screws in place to hold my weight, I stepped onto the new sheet as I had been doing all day to fasten down the far side. That is when everything went awry.

In my perception, the next few moments crawled by in slow motion. Once events began there was little I could do to change course. Although I could swear that the surface of the newly attached sheet looked clean and dry, the moment that I transferred my weight to the foot I had placed there, I knew that it had been a mistake. The foot whipped out from under me and I began a slow-motion flail for the security of the roof as gravity reached up from the ground like a gigantic invisible claw to drag me helplessly out into space.

By this time both of my legs were out from under me and I hit the roof surface with a bang. Fred's face became animated with alarm as he reached out from above in a vain attempt to save me from my fate. Actually, it is good for him that I was a couple of feet out of reach or he too would have found himself helpless in the clutches of the gravity monster.

The clarity of moments such as this and the speed at which your mind hunts desperately for salvation is amazing. I twisted toward the roof surface and made a few scrabbling attempts to find purchase only to rip my palms on the heads of a few screws as I began the long slide downward. Finally realizing that there was no other solution for it, I twisted in the other direction to face the peril before me as I slid helplessly downward and over the edge.

Time began to thaw and take on speed once again as I ramped off of the roof and flew through the air beyond. The ground rushed up at me with grim resolve to deliver the final blow for my carelessness. Unlike the long moments of my dance with possible rescue upon the sheet metal above, I was now helpless to do anything other than brace for impact and hope for the best.

I came to earth in an upright posture with the ball of my left foot absorbing much of the shock. I fell forward to the ground and lay there face down for a moment while Fred raced down the ladder to my aid. Not too long ago, I was in a serious head-on collision that totaled my car and left me with cracked ribs, a cracked sternum, a cracked nose and a dislocated jaw. In both that instance and this, my brain urged me to get back on my feet and insist that I was fine when in truth I was too shocked to conduct an accurate inventory of my parts.

As I walked it off and laughed at myself, I could tell that all was not well with my foot. In response to concerns from Fred and my family that I should probably go to the doctor, I insisted that I would be fine. I said that I would go to the doctor if it didn't stop hurting in three days time. Of course, in three more days it felt sufficiently better that I revised my pledge for the doctors visit to give myself more time to heal. In the end, I never went.

Later that day after Fred had gone home and I was fuming to myself in the living room. My foot was hurting but I just couldn't stand to waste precious weekend hours because of an injury. I asked Freya to bring me crutches and I made my hobbling way out to the field where I had long overdue tilling to do.

We have a 1970's vintage Troy-bilt Horse tiller that weighs a ton but it gets the job done. Once I had it going I found that I could leave the crutches behind and keep up with the machine as it made slow progress across the field by mostly standing on my good foot. I wasn't able to wear a shoe on the injured foot so I was grateful for the soft earth that the tiller left for me.

I worked out there for quite a while before I noticed that Janet and the children were standing in the driveway looking at me with expressions of disbelief. I shut down the tiller and insisted that I was fine and could still get things done. In attempting to convince them, I likened holding on to the tiller handles to using a walker. My son Aidan knowing how much the tiller jumps around, responded by saying, "Yeah, if your walker was powered by a jackhammer!".

It took fully three months until I could say that the tenderness had finally gone away. Unfortunately it has also become apparent that I did indeed break one of the fine bones in there, from the feel of it I would say that it was the third metatarsal. To this day, when I arise each morning it is very apparent that the break did not heal correctly. It takes several minutes of hobbling around until things stretch out enough for me to hide my new limp.

This all may sound foolhardy and I assure you that it is. What began as a resigned belief that there was nothing that the doctor could do turned into a dread supposition that the only thing that could be done would be to rebreak the badly healed bone in order to align it properly. In hindsight I should have handled it differently, but at this point I'd rather just limp.

In any case, the end of the story is that we finished that darned roof and I'm as proud of it as can be. I think it's a beauty of a coop and I paid for it dearly. Recalling my father's admonition to climb right back on the horse when I'd been bucked off, I scaled the ladder to the roof and only Fred's kind insistence that he could finish the last sheet on his own prevented me from hobbling back up there.

In the end the chickens are drier, the neighbors are happier and I'm just a little bit wiser. Maybe next time I'll use some safety ropes or at least give in when those around me say that perhaps I should let somebody "take a look at that" instead of being so stubborn.
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