Chicago family volunteers at a hen houseThursday, November 21, 2013
A while back my sons and I volunteered to collect eggs at the Prairie Crossing Learning Farm in Grayslake. We visited the farm once a week to collect, count and candle the eggs laid by their flock of free-range chickens. We were part of their Hen House Helper program.
Each week, we collected 70 to 120 eggs - it felt like a real-live Easter egg hunt. We cleaned each egg in a special cleaning solution, candled each egg (shone a light behind the egg to look for small cracks and other abnormalities), counted the eggs, put them into egg cartons and delivered them to the organic farm store next door to be sold. Occasionally we fed the chickens and always watched out for unusual things like chickens running loose out of the yard (I had to chase some chickens down and toss them back in a few times) or dive-bombing hawks.
On our training day, we arrived to find two hawks swooping down into the chicken yard attempting to procure their "dinner." Our trainer assured us this was very unusual, like, had never happened before unusual. After 30 minutes of trying to scare away the hawks and round up the chickens into the mobile hen house, the hawks realized they wouldn't be dining at the farm and flew away. We completed our training.
We learned a lot while volunteering at the farm. We learned about farms and chickens and chicken temperaments. We learned how free-range chickens live, which encouraged us to research how caged chickens live. We learned how to be careful with the eggs and the chickens. And we learned exactly what goes into getting an egg from the chicken to our refrigerator.
Even though my kids learned about being careful with the eggs, I was still concerned that they would get broken as we collected them each week. And they did. But the trainer assured us that the program was designed with kids in mind, to educate them, so breakage wasn't a big concern. The kids were encouraged to be careful, but she understood that kids are kids. Typically we broke two to three eggs each week; one week my son dropped an entire dozen. The eggs sold for five dollars a dozen, but they never charged us and even let us take a couple eggs home each week.
Another thing that kept us on our toes was the anticipation of getting pecked by the chickens. While their pecks didn't necessarily hurt, the sudden movements of the chicken's peck left us on edge. The chickens didn't mind us unless we had to reach under them while they were sitting on a nest - there were typically eight to 10 nests being occupied of the 48, while the other 90 or so chickens were out traipsing in the yard, probably trying to lose the trail of those pesky roosters.
One of my sons refused to help with collecting eggs that were currently being sat on by chickens after being pecked the first week. Fortunately, my other son was fearless and had no issue with reaching his hand under the hens' nesting rumps to search for fresh eggs. He thought the chickens were soft and enjoyed petting them. I opted to use the large, heavy-duty rubber gloves they supplied to prevent me from having any actual contact with the chickens.
We haven't volunteered at the hen house for a while. We took a break when we adopted our daughter. She's very active and I knew it would be too difficult to watch her while collecting and counting the eggs. But she is four-and-a-half now and my sons have been asking to go back to the hen house. I think we'll be calling soon to see if they need our help.
If you're interested in becoming a Hen House Helper, contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.