For most of us, frequent trips to the grocery store are a necessary and common activity. It’s what we do, and what we’ve always done. When we get there we expect to find rows and rows of neatly packaged food stacked high, far, and wide. Hell, we demand it! Most people believe that it will always be like that, and of course it will be, right?
Well, maybe, and then again, maybe not. For the most part the supermarkets are still there. Yet, for some time now something seems terribly amiss. It has become harder and harder to fill that shopping cart with an adequate amount of high quality, nourishing food, especially if you take a moment to read the tiny print of indecipherable contents on the label. No doubt you’ve tried, and grown increasingly uneasy.
And it doesn’t take great powers of observation to conclude that the packages grow smaller while the price climbs higher with each successive trip. It’s the terrifying tale of the incredibly shrinking dollar, and it is probably not going to get better anytime soon. The effects are devastating and cruel, and it’s a painful thing to watch. It’s quite obvious that something’s gotta give.
From our point of view it is time to think out of the proverbial box, or in this case, the shopping bag. If you agree, think rabbits. They can help, and not just a little, but a lot. They are ready, willing, and able to work on your behalf. It’s what they do. Raising rabbits might be one of the best way’s to stretch your food budget, in the midst of what can only be described as a salvage economy left for the once great middle class.
Rabbits make a lot of sense for anyone that is interested in providing some, or most of their own food, for a variety of reasons. Here are just a few:
- They are quiet, easy to raise and care for, with minimum space requirements.
- One buck and three or four does can provide enough meat to satisfy much of a small family’s fresh meat needs for the year.
- Rabbit meat can help keep the doctor away, too. It is high in protein, Omega 3 Fatty Acids, B12, iron, and a wide range of minerals.
- It is remarkably low in calories and harmful saturated fats, and free of antibiotics and other chemicals. Rabbit liver is an “original” health food.
- The meat is nutrient dense and about twice as filling as chicken. A little rabbit meat goes a long way.
- Feed conversion rates are excellent for domestic rabbits. They convert calories to body weight much more efficiently, and cheaply, than other animals, particularly beef.
- You can supplement their diet with your table scraps or garden wastes, or what you might have growing in your fields or about your neighborhood. In fact, many people never have to buy any type of commercial feed product.
- They are easy to barter for other needed or desirable items, or sell as breeding stock to other people.
- They are easy to butcher, process, and package.
- Recipes for all parts of the rabbit abound. Stew it, grill it, bake or fry. The possibilities are endless, and it tastes great too!
- Their droppings are fabulous for your garden, and you can sell the coveted manure. They also provide great food for your worms.
- The rabbit skins can be made into many kinds of useful clothing.
Now you know why the rabbit has been called the ultimate homestead animal, or even “the new urban chicken”. I agree with each and every reason just mentioned, and can add a few more.
I despise shopping as a matter of principle anyway, and I consider any opportunity to avoid a trip to the market a celebrated victory. It saves money on gas and car expenses, which add up in a big hurry these days.
Why drive a car for several miles to pick up some groceries, when you can simply walk out your back door and grab some fine ingredients for your table? We like to pick some spinach and fork a couple of potatoes on our way back from the hutch. It’s called lunch, and we didn’t have to wait in a long line of frustrated people or suffer the indignities of a surly clerk. You might guess what we think of the self-serve scanning machine.
When you finish your meal, throw all of the leftover table scraps into your worm bin under your rabbit hutch. Bend down, and stir around until you have a pile of worms for your handy coffee can. Grab your trusty fishing rod, and head for the closest lake.
Have some fun, and relax. Spend a few hours in the fresh air and sun with a friend or a loved one. Catch a batch of scrappy fish for tomorrow’s meal. Save the offal and other bits from cleaning your fish, and give them to your chickens. They need some protein too, and it makes for happy and vibrant hens. Gather their bountiful eggs in the morning, add some selected produce from your garden in the backyard, and enjoy a comforting, leisurely breakfast.
Later, take a brisk walk along a quiet road to invigorate and tone. You’ll have the time, because you won’t need to shop for food. Be sure to wave at everyone else as they pass you on the way to the supermarket, and try not to flash a big, self-satisfied smile. No point in rubbing it in.
Well…, perhaps just a quick one, but not too big.
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Which came first, the chicken or the egg?
It is a heady and perplexing question, to be sure. Like the classical philosophers of old, I do not have an acceptable answer, either. I’m not even going to try.
However, for more and more people across this land, a more appropriate and timely question has evolved. They now ask themselves if perhaps they should acquire some chickens, which could provide some tasty eggs for their morning breakfast. People are now looking at their backyards with fresh eyes, searching for a handy and level spot to erect that new chicken coop. Unfortunately, the next question becomes all to prominent and leaps to center stage. “Is it legal, they ask”? Now there’s a question! Again, it is also not so easy to answer in simple terms. This can of worms is large, and it holds more slithering things than your well-tended compost pile.
For lack of a better term, the backyard chicken movement is exploding across the country, much to the chagrin of local jurisdictions and the faceless bureaucratic machine. It is a suburban, and increasingly urban phenomena. Well informed citizens are demanding high quality, locally grown food. Imagine that! The local food movement continues to gain momentum, with more followers and practitioners every day. It’s a national issue now, and it is not going away anytime soon. But it starts on the local level, and chickens are a big part of it.
For example, the city council of a small town near me, recently voted to consider new draft code provisions relating to chickens within the city limits and residential neighborhoods. Apparently, it is currently illegal to keep a chicken. Who knew? Well, several of the residents who testified did not. They had been keeping chickens for years, without issue. No one had bothered to discuss it with them. For some unexplained reason, it was time to come out of the chicken closet. They now wished to tend to their birds legally, with favor, and approval.
The city council was quick to state that it was a land use matter, and as such, falls within their purview. It’s all about zoning, you see, and it’s not about how you live, but where you live. It’s all about proper consideration, and planning. It’s about rules and regulation, and lawful ordinance. It’s about monitoring and control, enforcement, and penalty. I don’t think the entire, sordid show is about chickens at all.
Typically, an ordinance relating to poultry keeping will determine how many hens you can have, and where and how you must keep them. The birds must be contained and quiet, the coops must be secure. The installation of electric fencing can be required. One must mitigate for noxious odor, and control predators. The birds cannot be allowed to roam free and spread disease, or attract a wandering skunk. Above all, the noisy and offensive rooster is not allowed. They might disturb the neighbors, and it is simply too much for the controlling mind of the clerk. On and on it goes.
I don’t fault our nearby chicken keepers for trying, in fact I applaud them. It’s a noble and just cause, and they have done their best to work along the only route available to them. It is the manner in which we fight that disturbs me. The documenting newspaper article talks of how the group promises to play by the rules. One person is quoted in saying, “I’m confident we will be 100 percent in compliance”. “Compliant”, says she? The article goes on discuss the good points of chicken raising, of how it can educate children as to where their food comes from, while having fun. It touts the economic benefit that could be brought to the revenue of the hardware supply and the gardening store. It balances these ideas against the potential downsides and complaints, and makes the case that perhaps it is not a foolish idea, after all. “Foolish”, indeed. Imagine the foolishness of someone with the audacity to supply their own food.
The residents of Denver, Colorado begged for their right to keep animals some time ago, and now they live under some of the most draconian laws imaginable. Their ordinances require a permit to keep poultry on property. A fee is demanded, and stipulations must be met and maintained. Once permitted, the property is subject to inspection and multiple visits by more than one controlling agency. They arrive when they wish, without appointment. The property must be properly posted, and the neighbors so notified. Permits are subject to renewal, at the government’s discretion, with annual fees. Violators will be prosecuted. Does this sound like some type of preposterous science fiction movie, or a town, or city, near you? We are talking chickens here, and not about some dangerous and toothsome creature from outer space.
I want to know who gained the authority to decide that the chicken limit stops at four, five, or six. When did they decide that? Was I asked to voice my humble opinion? What made it so important to come up with such a law? Were the parameters based on some well thought out scientific study, funded with the public dollar, and performed by some chicken police think tank? Has anyone considered that roosters are an important piece of the poultry puzzle? If I am not mistaken, they are a vital and necessary component of procreation, and life. Though infertile, a willing hen will bless you with the miracle of an egg without the help of a male. A rooster is required if you wish to replenish your flock. Is it new life, that they despise?
The message they wish to send is clear. How dare you think of enjoying a private egg or two, for yourselves, in peace? You are a criminal of the worst kind, guilty as charged until proven innocent. Your fine, and punishment, is what we say it is. And oh, by the way, the chickens now belong to us.
It is a proverbial, in your face case, of the foxes guarding not one, but all of the hen houses. I like foxes, and I would prefer to preserve their good name. The truth is, they are not foxes anyway, as that would be too tame a description. Bloody tongued wolves would be more like it, circling impatiently in the dark night, eager to blow your house down. The devil is always in the carefully crafted details of the hidden contract, and they administered and diverted our rights away many years ago.
Yet, the wheels are wobbling on the fatally damaged, corporate driven shopping cart. We are taking our chicken coops back, one backyard at a time. They know it, and they cannot allow it. They are desperate, and they grow more terrified every day. We know the truth, and can see the madness of their souls. They hold power over us because we empower them. We didn’t even show up for the fight.
My advice is uncomplicated. Don’t give it all up to them so easily. Refuse to grovel before the beast. It’s sad and pathetic, and it makes us look small. Compliance is not an option, and the monster’s cravings are insatiable. Do not give them the satisfaction of obtaining what they seek, nor allow them the sustaining succor of our fear.
It is time to bypass the lowly denizens of the city council, and their ilk. The time has come to dress down the petty and falsely officious policeman of your subdivisions, and expose the multitude of local tyrants and self-important snitches.
It is time to ignore the directives from the “authorities” on high, or the blather of the party line. They do not have our best interests in mind. If they did they would encourage and help, and not preclude or impede. It’s time to stop playing their dishonest game. Why should we? They don’t play fair, and they never have.
It is time to slip the chains of the oppressors, and throw them back at their flimsy facades. Take a stand, and stare the predator in the eye. Do something disobedient and bold, today. It’s been done before, many, many times. Our acts cannot be separated from the revolutionary history of the sleeping giant, the once free people of our United States.
Let us rise from our knees and stop asking for their permission. It is not their’s to give. It’s that simple. Go out and get a chicken or two, and perhaps a rooster to go with it. Let its morning crow announce to the world that you are awake, and ready. It all starts with a chicken and an egg, on the home grounds of an independent, proud, and defiant people.
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The state of New Jersey was nicknamed the garden state in 1876, apparently because it was so obviously filled with so many good things to eat. Later, it became famous for it’s truck farms, which supplied a wide variety of agricultural and dairy products to the large appetites of New York City and Philadelphia. It was still pretty farmy and rural in 1958, when I came along. This was especially true of the southern part of the state, where I grew up.
We moved into a wonderful old house when I was about four years old, on what had once been a working dairy farm on the edge of the Wharton State Forest, and the soon to be protected Pine Barrens. The previous farmers had long since moved away, and the property was sadly neglected and over run with brush and debris. I don’t think my parents thought it was all so wonderful, considering the great work at hand needed to make a proper home for my bothers and sister and I. But it was more than wonderful to me, a young boy with adventure, and nature, close at hand, and just outside the big farmhouse windows.
It was a big, big world to explore, and our immediate acreage kept me occupied through the change of several seasons. After all, our towering and decaying dairy barn was full of pigeons and starlings and rats, and unknown animal moanings. Cottontail rabbits bolted from behind nearly every brush pile, and if I was lucky and quiet I could find a deer under our apples trees in the back lot, late in the evening. Every day held the promise of some new momentous discovery, and I was eager to escape the watchful eye of my mother each morning.
We built forts and played army, hide and seek, and tag, and other games. We fabricated crude animal traps and sat for hours in waiting. I don’t believe we ever caught anything. We hung upside down from trees, and dared our fates. We chased lightning bugs in the early summer evenings, and put them in jars, and watched them light up. We giggled and laughed for the fun of it. Sometimes, we just laid on our backs in the tall green grass and counted big puffy clouds. We did what all kids do when left to roam free, and the hours melted into time and childhood memory.
My mother let us have our heads, with some rules, of course. The big rule was that we were not to leave our property, or play by the roads. That worked just fine for many months, as I had no desire to leave her protective cover or test her motherly patience. That is, until the day I did.
Across the road stood an ominous tangle of tall, matted grass, impenetrable bramble, and forbidding brush that stretched to the forseeable horizon. It was dark and scary looking, and I had been warned many times not to go in there. Still, it beckoned and called, and I began to stare at it, and study. What was in there, I wondered? It begged to be investigated, and conquered.
I remember disappearing into there with another friend, one big, summer day. We steeled ourselves on the edge of the abyss, and dove in. We planned to stay together, for moral support, and of course immediately lost track of one another. I called a time or two with no result. My fear rose in my throat, and I wanted to spin around and jump back out. But my curiosity was stronger, and after some deep quick breaths I continued on, to face whatever lurked ahead.
Another step, and I was totally lost in a magical world of new life and unknown creatures. Any thought of time or past concerns receded into the hot and sticky air, and the sweat poured out of me and stung my eyes as I tried to take it all in. Insects buzzed in my ears. Small birds of all shapes and colors flitted all around me as I worked my way through the brush, and small things scurried in the leaves. Catbirds and mockingbirds called incessantly, pulling me on. A bobwhite quail flushed at my feet, disappearing through some unseen window into the open sky. There were so many birds it was impossible to see them all. Bluejays and meadowlarks called just ahead. Everywhere was birdsong and animal noises, so loud it was nearly deafening. I could not get enough. I had to hear and see it all. Nothing could stop me.
Still, fear was at the edge and began to pick at my adventure. Big black and yellow garden spiders hung in wide, embracing webs, and made me pause. Branches whipped my face and stung me silly. I tripped a few times and fell down. At times it was so thick I had to drop to my belly and slither like a snake. I hoped that I did not meet a real reptile, face to face, at least not then. Once, I became entangled in clawing vines so thick and sharp I began to panic and cry, as small spots of blood appeared on my skin. I wondered what in the world I had gotten myself into, and if I would ever be able to get back home. I thought of my mother, and what she would do if she knew I was here. Where was she? What had I done? Why had I left my house?
I freed myself from the briars and made one last push forward. I saw a clearing just ahead, and my excitement and sense of adventure returned instantly. I was fearless. I was brave, and I had won. A few more steps and I was clear of it, as I knelt to brush spider webs from my hands and pull leaves and prickly stickers from my collar.
I rubbed the sweat from my nose, then stood, and looked ahead. I could not believe my eyes, and the breath left me all at once! I gasped like a goldfish plucked from his bowl for the first time, with no past experience to cushion the shock of it. I had been transported to some other special place, in fact some other planet in a galaxy far, far away. It was the beauty of it all that grabbed me. It reached in and shook me, all the way to my toes.
Chickens of all shapes, and colors of the rainbow scratched gloriously in the yellow glow of the late morning sun. An iridescent rooster strutted about his hens, head high, and watching. Some bright, white ducks waddled across the yard heading for who knows where. A big blue peacock unfolded his massive tail and danced, in front of a hutch filled with giant, splotchy rabbits. Sparrows chirped and hopped about, no doubt looking for waste grain in the dirt. I saw a small pony in a stall in the shade of a big maple tree.
My feet could not move, nor did they want to. I knew I had stumbled upon an undiscovered country of limitless bounty. I stared at the dilapidated, drafty barn and the irregular lines of an old ramshackle house. Strange smells hung in the breeze, and the pIace had a feel all of it’s own. It was all so new that I had nothing in my small experience to compare it to. My mind struggled as it downloaded massive amounts of new data, racing to correlate and associate each new piece of information.
The place had the look and feel of a broken down but comfortable pair of old work boots.The buildings and yard had no doubt been hacked from brush like I had just come from, and was now losing the unending battle and melding back into nature’s turmoil. Vines and small trees grew under and through old farm machinery and scrap. Farm sheds were starting to list and fall, with sagging doorways and slipped siding.
Still, every aspect of this eternal homestead bursted with sound and smell, and life. I was mesmerized. I wanted to know what was behind the next outbuilding, and explore every nook and cranny of that place. I wanted to become part of it, and maybe stay there forever. Or wrap it all up, with all it’s parts and pieces, and take it home. It was part of me, already.
Emboldened now, I took a step, and it all changed in a big hurry. Just one step, and the big rooster spied me and let out a warning cackle. He clucked to his hens as he gathered them up, and steered them towards their coop. A cow bellowed from the deep shadows of the barn, as a small herd of kittens stopped their shadow boxing with each other and turned my way. Morning doves stopped cooing from the tops of the huge oak trees above us. I heard a goose let loose, honking loudly from the back of the barn, followed by the strange and stuttering exclamations of some spotted guinea hens as they lept for the trees.
Everywhere I looked was some animal head peeking from in and around countless hiding spots. They had me dead to rights, as if some great spotlight caught me in midstride and lit me up for all the world to see.
I heard a small dog yap, and then a screen door slam, as I saw her. On the barn side of the house stood a large, plump women, with an ample bossum, held in threadbare cloths. She stared ahead from across the barnyard, framed by the vibrant green of tall cornstalks with yellow tassles. She was middle-aged or more, matronly, and perhaps a little near-sighted as she searched for the cause of the commotion in her barnyard. Something was amiss, and she would find out what it was.
She knew the sounds and tone of her world on a normal morning. It was etched within her consciousness, and any change was as obvious to her as a brass marching band in her living room. There was a disturbance in the field and fabric of their existence, and an intruder in their midst. They were tightly connected, one and all, communicating perfectly through various and mysterious means.
The little terrier growled and shook, as it glared at me from between the safety of her stout legs. She wrang her hands on a dish towel as she methodically assessed the situation. Still as a statue, I hung with one foot in the air and waited.
apparently, I was not too hard to find. No doubt she just looked where every other animal in the world was staring until she found me. I remember seeing her see me, as a bit of surprise, and annoyance appeared on her face. I have no way of knowing what she thought, but I am sure I was not what she expected to find.
My exhilaration and thrill of discovery had instantly vanished, and I remember feeling that I had somehow violated her space in a way most painful. I was a varmint, an uninvited party crasher, a barbarian at the gate. This was her kingdom, and I was far past the edge of my realm. At any rate, I had already exhausted my supply of courage. It was all too much for a young boy on his first expedition from home.
Before she could move or even say a word, I broke and took off like a cannon-shot into the world from which I came. I charged like the fox ahead of the hounds, and I scared the bejeebers out of a lot of birds and little creatures as I crashed headlong through the heavy understory. I don’t remember much about the journey, except that I completed the return trip a lot faster than the first one, and some skin was lost in the process. It took some band aids and a lot of hydrogen peroxide, together with some tender loving care from my mother, to make things right again.
I don’t think I ever told her about my true adventure or the woman in the barnyard. At the time it was far to big to capture and explain within the limited vocabulary of my youth. But, like all mothers, she already knew that I had been somewhere that I should not have been, yet had to be. It was a boy’s adventure, and mine to own, and hold. It is still there, when I need it.
I never did see the woman again. By the time I was old enough to freely wander the neighborhood, she was gone and her farm abandoned like so many across the south of Jersey. I never knew what became of her. I only knew that she was gone, and that somehow a way of life had vanished along with her.
I can still see her standing there in that place, with her animals all around. I wish I could talk to her and come to know a little of her life. I would like to know how long she had lived there, and if she had found herself alone as the homestead fell down around her. If I could, I would ask her if she had raised a family there, and where they had gone. I would ask her if she had raised a young boy or two of her own, and if they had brought her contentment then, and later, in her old age.
Most of all, I would apologize for my intrusion and hope it was not too much of a burden to bear. I would love to explain to her how she has stuck in my mind, and that I have not forgotten her.
Looking back, I wish things remained as simple and true as the bond between a mother hen and her chicks, or a mother and her boy. It would be grand if life was as safe and protective as an undisturbed barnyard, and as comforting as a farm at peace. I think I have hunted and searched for her barnyard ever since.
I will find it one day, somehow. I hope a small, wild child of a boy is just around the corner, and he will find it too.
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Challenging economic times call for ever more creative survival strategies. Food costs have exploded across the land, forcing families to squeeze every last penny from their rapidly devaluing dollars. Housing costs are another matter altogether and a home mortgage can be a terrible burden to bear. Just ask anyone who has lost their home through random hardship or the disappearing job. At times it seems a most unsolvable puzzle.
A man named MC (“Radiator Charlie”) Byles of West Virginia had a solution to these type of problems in the early 1940’s. In this case his answer was large and red and proud, and particularly delicious on a slab of steaming homemade bread with salt and mayonnaise.
A homespun gardener and inveterate tinkerer, he wanted to build a better, and bigger tomato. And build it he did. After several years of propagation his tomato plants could produce, mild, meaty, and delicious fruit of immense proportions. People flocked to his door for a look at a 3 pound tomato, and he was happy to accommodate them. Never one to miss an opportunity, he sold his seedling plants for $1 each and paid off his $6,000 home mortgage in a few short years. He named his new creation “the mortgage lifter”, and a backyard gardening legend was born.
That legend lives on today, and for good reason. Imagine paying off your property with the fruits of your backyard labor. Think about what life would be like without a house payment, or a weekly grocery bill large enough to choke a horse. It’s an inspiring and encouraging idea. It gives me hope. It can be done. Marshall Cletis Byles would tell you so, if he could.
I tip my gardening hat to him, and to the unbounded energies of his creativity. I’d say it’s time for many of us to take another look at his game changing idea. Perhaps it’s possible to follow his example and do our very best to lift the grinding weight of the mortgage from our backs. It may be an overly ambitious or unrealistic plan, but like him, I must try.
There are many ways to get there, and perhaps you have already begun or are well on your way. Our version of the “grocery lifter” comes in the form of rabbits and squab. Others beat back their bills with a small flock of geese, which possess the marvelous ability to efficiently convert grass to many pounds of tasty meat. The addition of a few pigs can provide miraculous results for your larder, particularly if you are a fan of pork and pig fat. Pigs, like tomatoes, have often been refered to as mortgage lifters. My neighbor has added a couple of steers to his small pasture and plans to keep one for the freezer and sell the other to cover his costs.
You may have an entirely different idea, but the intention is the same. I think it can be any animal or plant that works for you and fits your particular set of circumstances or comfort level.The important thing is that we all do a little to help ourselves and contribute to a more self-sufficient life. Every bit of food we can produce at home takes power form the corporate controlled food model. It gives us a reason to get up in the morning and keeps us grounded in the small satisfaction of a job well done.
So let’s hear it for the backyard gardener, the keeper of hens, the canner, and the prepper. Give thanks to the independent farmers and agricultural workers everywhere. Let’s revel in the joys of animal husbandry, fish farming, or beekeeping. Put a little bit of the farm and the old-fashioned barnyard back in your everyday life. You won’t regret it.
We can do it. We are doing it. Let’s decentralize, and unplug from the controlling grid. We must put our heads together, and our families and communities will follow. Let’s keep our friends close, and our enemies at bay. It’s the mortgage lifter revolution, because the very definition of mortgage is death and we must throw off the chains of that grim and unforgiving reaper of sorrows.
The spirit of MC Byles, like his seeds and giant heirloom tomatoes, live on. It can be seen in the successes of backyard entrepreneurs across the continents. Sometimes the path to independence and the bounty of a joyful life starts with a simple seed, planted in the welcoming and living earth of a backyard garden.
Long live the mortgage lifters and the backyard heroes, and the unlimited promise of a new day!
———-Do you have a backyard hero? Tell us your story…
“There’s nothin’ in the world that I like better than
Bacon, lettuce and home grown tomatoes
Up in the morning and out in the garden
Pick you a ripe one, don’t get a hard ‘un
Plant ’em in the springtime eat ’em in the summer
All winter without ’em’s a culinary bummer
I forget all about the sweatin’ and the diggin’
Every time I go out and pick me a big’un
Home grown tomatoes, home grown tomatoes
What’d life be without home grown tomatoes
There’s only two things that money can’t buy
That’s true love and home grown tomatoes
You can go out and eat ’em, that’s for sure
But there’s nothin’ a home grown tomato won’t cure
You can put ’em in a salad, put ’em in a stew
You can make your own, very own tomato juice
You can eat ’em with eggs, you can eat ’em with gravy
You can eat ’em with beans, pinto or navy
Put em on the side, put em on the middle
Home grown tomatoes on a hot cake griddle
If I could change this life I lead
You could call me Johnny Tomato Seed
I know what this country needs
It’s home grown tomatoes in every yard you see
When I die don’t bury me
In a box in a cold dark cemetery
Out in the garden would be much better
Where I could be pushin’ up home grown tomatoes”
From “Home Grown Tomato”, By Guy Clark, Sugar Hill Records, 1997.