Parents, be warned. Big endeavors often emerge from small ideas—a question or a suggestion. In this case, the question came when I was 11. At the time, we were living in Arizona, and a friend and I had just finished what was, for us, a rather monumental research project on birds—equipped with our own illustrations and strengthened by a trip to a notable avian sanctuary. This truly Montessori in-depth research project had sparked my deep, enduring, and passionate affection for feathered creatures of all natures (before this, I had been fascinated with dinosaurs, which really was an evolutionary continuation of interests…just spend some time watching turkeys).
Fifth graders can be rather precocious, so I had plucked up the courage one day to ask my mom, “Mommy, could I have a pet bird?” We had yet to have a pet anything in our house. Our lives had thus far been too busy and too absent from home to add a pet into the milieu. But my 11-year-old self remained optimistic. Surely a parakeet or a cockatoo wouldn’t be too much trouble. I could take care of it when I was home from school. Besides, I was 11, which seemed pretty grown up to me at the time. I could be responsible, surely!
I’m sure my hopefulness was glowing from face to sneakers, and my mother’s answer reflected her supreme sense of reality, coupled with her Montessori awareness of never squelching a child’s interests. “I’m afraid we can’t have a pet bird, Laura, because your dad is allergic,” she smiled reassuringly, showing with her eyes that this point was unavoidable. “But if we ever move to the farm, maybe you can have some chickens.”
The Farm was an old homestead my mother’s parents had purchased back in 1968. Way up north in the wilder reaches of Wisconsin, this had been the family retreat well before my time of memory. It was a place of wintry Christmases with a real tree cut from the majestic forests surrounding the old hay fields, of forts dug in the enormous snow banks beside the perilously long driveway, of Grandma’s roast turkey with dressing and pumpkin pie… It truly was the “over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house” type of place in an imaginative 11-year-old’s soul. There even was an old, weathered barn with loose hay to jump in and various dusty and forgotten nooks with antique equipment to explore.
Nobody lived at the farm, which the Steidinger clan had called North Star from the beginning. At least nobody did anymore. My juvenile understanding that the family retreat had once been a farm hinted that people used to live there. That once upon a time there had been horses and milk cows—their names scrawlingly carved above their respective stanchions. And pigs. Grandpa always talked about how one part of the hedge he’d planted years ago grew taller than the rest because that was where the old pig pen had been. And there must have been chickens.
Chickens! The thought stuck in my mind like a far-off promise. Chickens were soft, roundish birds that could be picked up and held. Chickens made curious clucking sounds and went exploring in interesting, small places—just like I was fond of doing. And chickens came in all sizes and shapes and colors… Chickens were cool!
And here comes the warning to parents. A seemingly innocent question, “Mommy, can I…” met with “No, but…” can change your life. Irrevocably. Unimaginably. And yet, it may spark a journey that propels you, your family, and even your community, into a movement that is critical to humanity both locally and globally—you just might one day find you’ve become a farmer.
It started with the library. With the thoroughness of a graduate student working on her thesis, I checked out EVERY book on chickens from the Phoenix Public Library (which is a pretty big library) and commenced my studies. Hopefully, this was not too alarming for my parents, who soon were receiving official reports on my scholarly discoveries. I even made a little hand-written book chronicling chicken diseases, their diagnosis, and treatment.
But a library book was still not a real chicken. Even a remarkably realistic stuffed puppet that participated in a costumed portrait of my sister Kara and me (which also included a stuffed dog toy, Kara’s animal desire) couldn’t flap, cluck, or lay eggs of its own—despite an eager imagination. The real chickens would have to wait…at least for a little while. But they never really went away.
Becoming a poultry fancier, however, opened a world of stories and history within the family. I began to learn that my maternal grandparents—who had always been a couple dedicated to small-town medicine in my living memory—had grown up on farms in central Illinois. They began sharing tales about how the team of horses pulled the harrow faster when Papa was nearby, or the corncobs that “jumped” out of the basked on their way across the yard to the wood stove. There were stories of outdoor summer kitchens, orchards that would make my mouth water, threshing with whole crews of hungry men, and pigs watered (or watermelons chilled) from the ever-gushing artesian well. It was a world unto itself.
Chickens came significantly closer to reality, when in 1998 Bert Fullington helped us move an old generator shack (which had once been a resort shower house) to the barnyard as the first coop. The next summer, we raised 25 broilers and a handsome rooster named in Bert’s honor before returning to Madison in the fall. The next summer, we returned to the farm again…and didn’t go back. To the chickens, we added sheep, then pigs, then turkeys and ducks and honeybees. Now we’re full-time farming—restoring the homestead and regenerating the land and its stories.
I still love my chickens very much—their individual characteristics, their sense of curiosity, and their marvelous propensity for turning kitchen scraps into eggs. Spending quality time with my feathered dinosaurs and a loaf of old bread provides its own sense of communion at the end of a long day on the farm. Sometimes I wonder where I might be today if not for the lure of these South-East Asian jungle fowl, their orange-rimmed eyes glinting in the late afternoon sun.
Sweet Pea, a Buff Orpington hen sidles up, clucking amicably and letting me stroke her soft, golden feathers. And I know that, down on the farm, we’re in this journey together…and it all started for the love of chickens.
Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. northstarhomestead.com