A Free Range Escapade

Laura Haverland

Laura Haverland › Laura Haverland is a beginning farmer in coastal Rhode Island. After years living in New York ...

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(Also known as “The Escape of Pollo Blanco” or “The Fastest Way to Meet Your Neighbors: A First-Year Farming Adventure”)

At the wise old age of six weeks, the white chicken blows the coop as my husband Andrew moves the chicken tractor to fresh grass on our side lawn. Andrew chases the wayward bird around the coop 4 or 5 times and almost catches it before the little guy slips right through his hands.  At that point, the little chicken bolts to the corner of the fenced-in yard and out through the poultry netting. Isn’t that why we bought the expensive fencing? To separate the outside-the-fence predators from the inside-the-fence vulnerable young chickens?

Andrew bursts in the house where I’m having breakfast and asks for help in trying to corner the escapee. Pulling on boots over my PJs, I join him in the yard and we try to direct the chicken back towards the coop to rejoin his friends. It soon becomes apparent that we have a formidable opponent: the chicken takes advantage of our marital bickering over strategy to run straight into the chest-high poison ivy on the edge of the yard. It’s a scene straight out of a Looney Tunes reel featuring Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner, except this is my real life, and I’m holding a shovel instead of a shotgun, hoping none of our neighbors are witnessing this spectacle (my pajamas are an especially embarrassing feature).

My husband, whose middle name should be “Determination,” spends much longer trying to catch the little guy than the cost-benefit ratio per chicken should allow. I, whose middle name should be “Impatience,” give up after twenty minutes, feeling only slightly disappointed at the loss of one of the hundred chickens we are raising for meat and eggs. (Heck, the hatchery sent us five extra chicks for free, so who cares if this one goes free?) By the end of the day, with the chicken still on the loose, we both figure he’s a goner, a quick and tasty meal for a coyote or fox wandering by.

Day Two: a glorious Sunday dawns after a week of rain, and the whole neighborhood turns out for a stroll to the beach, passing directly by our house. The little white chicken – whom we’ve ceremoniously named Pollo Blanco for his strength and prowess – appears to have fared just fine on his first night. Our neighbor Donna walks up the driveway to tell us about the chicken she’s spotted on the roadside, and we give her the long version of the story, including his escape and our unsuccessful pursuit.

It turns out Donna is just the start of a parade of neighbors who notice Pollo Blanco. We’ve created some friendly neighborhood chatter since erecting a chicken coop in our yard a few weeks ago à la The Beverly Hillbillies, but now it reaches a fever pitch. When the next couple approaches us about the chicken, we say yes, that one’s ours, but we’ve given up on him.  Still, they offer to try to flush him out with their dog: spooked by the dog, Pollo Blanco comes tantalizingly close and then flies across the street. No dice. One after another, neighbors we’ve never met arrive, asking if we know there’s a chicken by the road. We live in a rural area, with plenty of farms and backyard animals, but Pollo Blanco still creates a stir. It’s great to meet everyone after our first long winter here, but as far as first impressions go, I think I’d rather make a different one.

Mid-day, we get a voicemail from our neighbor Dick, wondering if the chicken he saw near our house is ours – he suggests we count to see if we’re missing any. By late afternoon, after a few more knocks on the door, we make a decision: we need a new story. The next person who asks, we’ll say the chicken is not ours; we’ve entered the denial stage. While we’ve met more people today than we saw all winter in our tiny town of 3,900 residents, we’re tired of admitting our rookie farmer mistakes.

Day Three: Monday. Amazingly, Pollo Blanco has survived another night. Our neighbor Skip, a veteran vegetable farmer and chicken keeper with 32 years of farming under his belt, arrives in his truck just as Andrew is trying, again, to chase Pollo Blanco through the brush and up the driveway. Andrew tries to play it cool, telling Skip, “That chicken is dead to me,” but it’s clear that he’s still in hot pursuit of the wily bird. Skip, always generous with his accumulated farming wisdom, has some words of advice for us newbies: “You should install a webcam!” he proffers, chuckling gleefully as he drives away.

Day Four: Tuesday. Still alive, Pollo Blanco lurks enticingly close to the driveway, stealing bites of grain at his convenience from the feeder we’ve placed near the house as bait. We agree to ignore him, but I’m sure Andrew secretly chases him while doing chores. I continue to be largely disinterested, maybe because I’m just a few months away from my old office job and still calculating time in dollars and cents.  Andrew, who left his desk job almost five years ago to begin his adventures in agriculture, has both more and less perspective on why Pollo Blanco matters. He knows that raising animals isn’t as simple as adding up numbers in a spreadsheet; that chasing some harebrained creature around in circles until you’re dizzy is par for the course; that sometimes, you feel like the animals are herding you instead of the other way around; and that still, at the end of the day, this is what he wants to be doing. But he also knows that as far as Pollo Blanco is concerned, he wants to win.  And when my husband gets fixated on something like this, I know to buckle my seatbelt and cancel my plans for the rest of the week.

Day Five: Wednesday. We didn’t think Pollo Blanco stood a chance on his own for one night, much less four. When people ask us what predators live on our farm, we spend the next five minutes listing the dozens of critters that would all enjoy a nice chicken dinner on our dime.  But today is not a good day to be a lone chicken living off the land. A spring monsoon seems to have arrived, and Pollo Blanco has taken cover in the low juniper hedge by the driveway. Against my better instincts, I get drawn into the pouring rain for what Andrew promises will be the last capture effort.

First I go into the hedge from the side, get within an inch, and… it’s a miss. Andrew tries from a slightly different angle two minutes later, and… victorious! The legendary Pollo Blanco is ours! He is wet, tired, and hungry – in sum, he has given up.  We quickly transfer the fugitive into a box in our garage to dry off and warm up for a little while before returning to his more timid friends out in the coop. In our hands, our cunning adversary looks like… a sad, small, wet chicken. While we certainly haven’t felt very competent the past few days, this small triumph feels significant in our first-year adventures of farming on our own. Even I, a reluctant participant in the chase, can admit that it’s better to be a new farmer with all your chickens in the coop than someone who gave up on a bird named Pollo Blanco.

Lesson learned: the fastest way to meet your neighbors? Lose a chicken. Or, if you prefer not to share your farming blunders with the neighborhood, do the chores as a couple, keep all the chickens in the coop, throw a BBQ, and invite everyone within a mile.

Do you have any funny “first year” adventures to share? Tell us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Laura Haverland