Other types of composting - and chicken tractors!

On Sunday evening, I attended a"food and film night" organized by Path to Freedom, aka the Dervaes family of Pasadena, who call themselves "urban homesteaders."

The Dervaes family have a mini-farm in their backyard, on about one tenth of an acre - the same size as the garden in which I've been helping out on weekends. In this limited space, they grow vegetables and raise chickens, ducks, and pygmy goats to provide eggs and milk to feed the family. Furthermore, they run a number of businesses from their home, including
selling their produce to local restaurants, and the online Peddler's Wagon shop retailing products for "green living."

When I registered for the food and film night, I browsed around on the Dervaes' "
Little Homestead in the City" blog, and noticed that they practice Bokashi composting at home. I was looking forward to chatting with these experienced urban farmers/eco-pioneers about their tips on using Bokashi, but they really had their hands full with what seemed like a successful event!

I attended with the gardener who I have been helping, and brought my (now signature) zucchini bread made from one of her organically-grown zucchinis picked last week. I have heard some people lament that organic practices produce lower yields than conventional farming. This zucchini must have been the exception to the rule - it was at least 16" long, and about 5" in diameter - you would never find something like that at the grocery store! It produced 5 loaves of zucchini bread, which I shared at work, a Christmas party, the film and food night, and with other friends.

My gardener friend also practices composting at home. The main compost heap runs between her home and a fence, and is piled with branches, trimmings, and other traditional yard waste. This heap is basically left to itself to slowly decompose over a period of many months.

She also has a "Tumbleweed" compost bin such as the one pictured below, which is designed for speedier composting. By tumbling the compost rather than leaving it to sit passively, air is worked into the decaying matter, and the different materials are also mixed more evenly. Last weekend, we deposited newspapers (carbon) covered with fresh chicken droppings (rich in nitrogen) from the chicken coop into the Tumbleweed bin and gave it a spin.

At the gardener's house, there is no need for a worm bin or Bokashi bucket because most food scraps are fed to her grateful hens. We also toss the hens piles of fresh, green yard waste like weeds, overgrown herbs, and grape leaves. The chickens have a large wooden coop in which to lay eggs and roost at night, and also a wire-enclosed run where the green scraps are tossed.

In addition, each day two hens are selected for a few hours in the "chicken tractor." The chicken tractor is essentially a small, mobile, bottom-less chicken coop. Inside, the hens happily scratch, dig, and forage for grubs, bugs, grass, and weeds. In an urban environment, the last thing we need is for the little flock to get demolished by dogs, hawks, or cars - or for the little garden to get demolished by free-roaming hens! The chicken tractor is a nice compromise that allows the hens to forage, while protecting the chickens from predators and preventing them from eating areas of the garden that you do not want uprooted.

(A whimsical clip-art representation I pieced together)

Chicken eggs are supposedly more nutritious (higher in Omega-3 fatty acids) when chickens are allowed to feed on a mixed diet - and not just fed commercial chicken feed. If you are trying to shop for humane, more nutritious eggs, look for those labeled "pastured." Labeling is confusing, as "cage free" doesn't necessarily mean the chickens were truly free-range - just not kept in cramped factory cages. Also, "vegetarian" means the hens were fed a commercial chicken feed that doesn't contain animal parts - a good thing, but not ideal, since hens are omnivores and are happiest when they have access to live grubs and bugs.

I do believe the fresh eggs from my gardener friend's hens are truly more nutritious. The beautiful light-brown shells are strong and harder to break, and the yolks are firm, very deep yellow, and are not runny. The eggs taste noticeably different too - no strong "eggy" flavor, but meaty with a satisfying texture. I am very happy to have a local source for such delicious eggs!

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