Used to be every farm in Kansas raised chickens along with cattle and swine. This wasn?t just country folks either. Town and city families often raised their own chickens, too, especially if they lived in rural areas.
I?ve been visiting farms across our state for more than 30 years and I can count on one hand the number of working chicken coops I?ve seen during that period of time.
Times have changed. Today?s colossal chicken farms are a sight to behold and a far cry from the small, one-room coops we used when I was a youngster. Modern poultry farming is efficient and allows meat and eggs to be available to consumers in all seasons at a lower cost than free-range production.
While today?s automated, mechanized facilities house thousands of birds, our small chicken coop was home to about a couple dozen hens.
One of my first responsibilities on the farm was to carry the garbage out to the chicken pen and dump it for our flock. This is one of my most vivid memories and, as I recall, I was not quite 4 when my mother assigned me this task.
Our white chicken house was no more than 20 feet long by 12 feet wide. It had windows across the south side for sunlight in the winter and a breeze when opened in the summer.
These were the days before the phrase ?free-range chickens? had been coined. We didn?t keep the chickens cooped up during the day and they could wander around in the fenced in yard picking up gravel, clucking and scratching in the dirt. The chicken houses were really just roosting and nesting places.
Some farms didn?t bother to keep their birds in a fence and their chickens could wander anywhere. This created a lot of interesting situations when we visited my Uncle Charlie in Phillips County.
You had to be really careful where you stepped in the yard and even the front porch.
Gathering eggs was my second major responsibility when I turned 6. This was always a real adventure. Most of the hens didn?t make much of a fuss when you coaxed them out of the nest and reached in for the egg. There was always one hen that didn?t want you messing with her most cherished possession.
Another chicken-related activity that never made my ?top-10 list? was preparing a fresh fryer for a family meal. This didn?t involve darting to the grocery store and buying a dressed bird. Instead, it was stepping into the chicken yard and chasing down the victim, wringing his neck and picking and dressing him.
While I hated to do this, I loved eating a fresh, tender young chicken fried in butter in Mom?s cast-iron skillet. Add mashed potatoes, gravy, freshly picked beans from her garden and home baked bread. Nothing tasted better.
My most memorable experience was putting an end to the giant red rooster on my Uncle Bernie?s farm. This hellish devil weighed in at close to seven pounds. He ruled the roost and most of farm.
This crazy rooster couldn?t wait to chase, scratch or claw you with his long black spurs. This demon scared my sister and girl cousins to death. They sometimes cried at the very sight of this evil bird.
We boys steered clear of him as well until I reached the age of 8. That?s when we decided to dispatch this bird once and for all. It was him or us, and good triumphed over evil that day. In the process we defended the valor and honor of the fairer sex.
Back then it took us about 90 days to produce a fryer that would dress out at a pound and a half. Today?s modern commercial poultry facility produces a bird nearly twice that size in one-third the time.
And while we thought back then those fryers were mighty tasty and delicious, if we compared one of those with the chickens we buy today at our local supermarket, I?m certain we?d agree our modern birds taste just as good as those from yesteryear.
John Schlageck is a leading commentator on agriculture and rural Kansas.