Raising free-range chickens catching on with families

What?s a guy from South Chicago doing with a chicken flock in Marion County?

Even more important, what he does with chickens to understand nature (also known as food production), and to be self-sufficient (food production again)?does it affect the rest of us?

Let?s just say, cliche in cheek, that the chickens are coming home to roost when it comes to Tim and Mindy Richmond?s small flock of free-range chickens south of Hillsboro.

The couple say they?ve helped convince at least a half-dozen other small-acreage-owning neighbors to begin raising chickens, too.

The Richmonds and the neighbors don?t seem like typical Kansas farmers at all since they come from different backgrounds and the Richmonds work white-collar professional jobs.

Many farmers and ranchers can remember the days when flocks of chickens roamed every farmyard as mainstay producers of eggs and meat. The loss of profit with chicken flocks, and the growth in farm size, combined with specializations, all but did away with all of that.

Farmers have been forced to consider the political realities of doing business in a nation that has become an urban majority. Now, they may discover that flocks of suburban small acreage chickens may do them more good than the thousands of public relation persons and lobbyists paid for by farm organizations.

Tim, a chemistry and biology professor at Tabor College, grew up in South Chicago with no acquaintance with chickens. His parents were academics in a small college.

Mindy, a math teacher for Canton-Galva schools, grew up at Pretty Prairie with her father connected to agriculture as an engineer for Agco. Her family did keep free-range chickens.

After their marriage and schooling, the Richmonds lived in Seryven, Belgium, where Tim completed advanced studies before coming to Tabor. They were surprised to find that in Europe it is the norm, even in large urban centers, for people to keep small flocks of chickens for their own sustenance at their homes.

So, when they came to this area, and were shopping at a farm store, they looked at the spring baby chickens on sale and bought eight fuzzy Production Red chicks, which are cross bred for egg production.

Of course, they did it for their children, too. That was evident driving up to the home when Mia, 5, met the visitor in the car to ask, ?You here to see our chickens?

?Well, they?re over there,? she said, pointing to where red hens with a large red rooster?one of the original eight and named Big Red?scratched in an after-harvest field across Kanza Road by Ebenfeld Mennonite Brethren Church.

Carmen, 2, was equally enthused, actually bubbly with delight in trying to explain ?her chickens.?

Their brother, Miles, 4 months, smiled.

Mindy said, ?The girls love the chickens. We have five hens laying, the rooster and 11 meat chickens we hatched in the incubator.

?The girls were just glued to the incubator waiting for the eggs to hatch. They watched the babies pecking out of the eggs, the whole process.?

Tim said the chickens go beyond teaching the girls affection for animals to teaching the entire family the importance of growing their own food and the cycles of nature.

The chickens? diets range from various insects, even ones that live under the cedar trees, to gleaning the roadside ditches and neighboring fields.

Tim?s efforts at recycling have expanded even to bringing home food scraps from the Tabor cafeteria for the chickens to eat.

Tim said another important factor is that chicken eggs and meat are provided to them at low cost with very little feeding, except in winter.

Betsy Walker, a Wichita nurse, with husband Gregg, a band and music teacher, have raised their older children on a small-acreage farm south of Hillsboro with free-range chickens for nine years. She said people like the Richmonds will find the impact of learning how to care for chickens remains strong with their children.

Walker said, ?It teaches the kids responsibility, feeding, watering and cleaning.?

Her children learned business principles by selling eggs at the farmers? market and on the farm.

At one time, she said, the Walker flock varied from 75 to 100 hens, including mostly Rhode Island Reds with occasional Buff Orpingtons and Silver Lace Wyandottes. The egg money also bought the feed for three horses and a goat plus it bought the family milk supply, she said.

The Walker children?Sarah, 28, Ben, 25, Ruthie, 19, Peter, 17, Naomi, 15, and Rebecca, 14?all enjoyed the chickens to some degree.

She recommends home free-range chickens for any family, and shares a belief with the Richmonds that fresh eggs and meat are better for consumers.

?I also enjoy the sound of them, the happy chickens, the way they sing when they are satisfied,? she said.

Mindy Richmond extended that audible enjoyment to the explosive clucking a chicken does when it lays an egg.

?Then they all join in, like they?re making an announcement,? she said.

In regard to the topic of moving into the chicken meat-process business, the Richmonds hesitated only for a moment. Tim said he and Mindy talked about it briefly. Then they went out, killed four chickens and skinned them. He still prefers skinning to plucking.

The meat, he said, was delicious.

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