This is going to be a long post, and very rambly I'm sure. I've been kicking this around in my head for a long time. Maybe it will help me to air it out.
I have been raising and showing chickens for twenty-two and a half years. That's nearly as long as some of the "old timers." For many years, it was my life. My world revolved around it. It seems weird to say that now, but the shows were the absolute highlight of my existence. I used to raise hundreds of birds per year. I got into tinkering with color genetics in the early 90s and bred to a pretty high level several colors in Rosecombs that either never existed or hadn't been seen for a long time. I sometimes feel uncomfortable when someone says it, but I know that I have made major contributions to the breed. I have awesome chicken coops, and have raised some amazing birds. And I've made friends with some of the best people in the world along the way.
My level of involvement started to change when the Exotic Newcastle Disease outbreak struck CA in the early 2000s (2003 I think?) The shows voluntarily shut down for an entire season (some never started up again) and I didn't hatch more than a handful of birds that year. I started to see that there was life outside of poultry shows. I got more involved with horses. I devoted a lot more time to art (you know, like my job and stuff). I allowed weekends to be taken up by other things. At first, I had every intention of getting back into it with full enthusiasm when the shows started again. And I tried, but something had changed. A little bit of the spark had gone away. It wasn't quite what it used to be, it seemed more subdued to me. But I carried on, hatching under 200 birds per year, showing as much as I could, doing my best to perfect my birds.
In the last couple years I've approached hatching season with a sense of duty but also one of... not dread, but resignation. Like, okay I need to do this but I kind of don't really want to. I love the chicks, they are so darn cute and adorable, and I could sit by the brooder and watch them all day. But raising them, finding the space to raise them, keeping them in condition over winter, it's hard. If chickens are the focus of life, it takes a tremendous amount of time and energy, and in the year off I had channeled that time and energy elsewhere. I never really found enough spare time to devote that much of it to the birds again.
And then things went downhill in the club I used to be heavily involved with. I saw some bad politics and some nasty personalities and a lot of disrespect. I didn't want to be part of a group that worked that way, so I resigned and I no longer show with that club. That really changed things. It soured the show experience for me. I don't think that will ever go back to how it was, I've seen the dark side and I can't forget it. It changed the dynamic of my relationship with a lot of people. There are several I really would rather not see again, but of course I will and do run into them. I was pretty public with my resignation, and I think that was the start of my feeling somewhat distanced from the main crowd. But, one door closes and another opens, and though I severed my ties with some people, I became better friends with others.
I used to show eight times a year, back when my life revolved around it. Between October and February, there were stretches when I would be gone every other weekend. Last year I think I showed twice. So far this season, once. I went to a show this weekend for the first time since last February (unless you count State Fair, but I really don't, it's not a normal show). When I pulled into that old familiar parking lot early Saturday morning, I didn't feel excited. I felt apprehensive, nervous. Who would be there, what would they say, would people be happy to see me, had anyone even noticed that I haven't been around... Well, turns out a lot of people really have missed me and really were genuinely happy to see me, and I'm getting all teary-eyed writing this because that REALLY means a lot to me. I had a good weekend, my birds did well (Best RCCL on a Black pullet, nice to know I still got it, lol!) ;-) I had a great time hanging out and chatting with the people I did hang out and chat with (you know who you are!) and yet I left there feeling sad that I barely talked to some of the people I miss the most, people I used to talk to all the time, or perhaps I should say people who used to talk to me.... I'm sure some of what I feel is all in my head, I'm pretty prone to reading way too much into things and taking people the wrong way, but I feel a distance there that I think isn't entirely imagined. I don't feel like part of the old crowd anymore (I mean the old crowd of friends, not the old crowd of people I don't want to hang out with), I feel like an outsider. Not that they wouldn't graciously accept me if made the move to put myself in with the group, but something has changed, some subtle shift I can't really put my finger on. I want things to be the same as they used to be. I stood at the door of the "chicken party" last night, hearing my old friends laughing and having a good time. I couldn't knock, I felt like I didn't belong. I don't know if I'm imagining that or not, but it's weird, and it pains me how much I miss a few people who I have known for most of my life. Sigh.
So I guess the big question is what to do, and there's a long term and a short term aspect to that. What to do the rest of the season, and what to do with the birds. I REALLY want to go up to Eureka for their 50th anniversary show. But what used to be my poultry show travel budget is now my art/engraving show budget, and I'm likely going to be making some BIG trips this year and simply find myself unwilling to spend money going to poultry shows. I can't do it all. Honestly I probably should not have shown this weekend, but it felt important for me to do it anyway. I have an idea for how to get to Eureka, I just need to ask someone for a favor, and of course it might not work. Fresno, well, that's an easy enough day trip, I can do that. I don't want to lose my connections with people I have known so long.
The friendships and social connections are just one aspect though, and perhaps the bigger question is what should I do with my birds. For the last few years I've been cutting back little by little, trying to avoid what seems to be inevitable, but I can't really put off any longer the fact that things need to change. I can't devote the time and effort to raising and showing so many birds anymore. Even with half of what I used to have, it's still too much. I can't do it. I don't do it. Don't get me wrong, they are well cared for, but I don't put the time into training or conditioning and I don't see that changing back to how it used to be. I keep going back and forth about what to do and I still don't know. I thought I had it figured out last year, I was going to sell all the Brassies and Blue Brassies, and keep the BBReds and Blacks. But I couldn't do it, so I backed out and kept them, but raised very few birds. It still feels like more than I can deal with.
I guess I kind of don't feel like I'm doing them justice. I have awesome birds, rare stuff that you won't find anywhere. But if I only show once or twice a year, and don't hatch in large numbers, I'm NOT helping the breed because I'm not promoting or selling any. I think it's time that they be in the hands of people who can show and raise a lot. And yet the thought of selling all my years of hard work, well, it's scary. There's no guarantee as to what would happen to them if they leave my hands, I don't want the bloodlines to be lost. I want fewer birds, but I'm scared to make that leap, which is why I have put it off for the last few years.
I've talked to a handful of people about this, and the immediate response is always concern that I won't show anymore, that nobody will see me again. That's not the case. The lack of showing... that has already changed over the last few years. I already only show once or twice a year. I'd like to keep doing that. I'm okay with that number, I don't think I could show eight times a year anymore. Two is okay. That has already changed, the bird population just hasn't caught up with the drop in showing.
I DO want to keep some birds. I love them. They are beautiful, I enjoy seeing them, and in smaller doses they are a lot of fun and can get quite friendly. That is what I miss. I miss them being fun. Now, they are work. I don't know them, there are few that stand out as individuals. They are the flock, and I want few enough to know them individually.
I've tossed around a lot of options, trying to decide how to handle this. These are all the options, even the ones I don't like:
1) Sell everything. I don't like this, I want to keep some (15-ish sounds good to me, I have somewhere around 60 or 70 right now).
2) Keep everything, and do one of the following:
-same as the last few years, hatch about 75, show once or twice, not have many to sell, just keep doing what I've been doing. This doesn't really help anybody though
- hatch a few hundred again, everybody wants them, I could sell a lot of babies if I raised them. (Ugh, I don't want to do this, plus it's become really hard for me to raise the babies since I have out-of-town obligations in spring and summer, and to raise chicks I really can't ever leave)
3) Sell one or two varieties. I have Black, BBRed, Brassy Back, and Blue Brassy Back. I tried to do this last year, I planned to sell the Brassies and Blue Brassies but it broke my heart because the Blue Brassies are my favorites, and I couldn't do it. The Blacks are the most competitive, they make sense to keep for showing. The BBReds are my pride and joy, how could I think about not having any of those. But to raise BBReds I still need the Blacks for occasional crossbreeding to improve type. See, it's really to the point where they all work together and I can't have one without the other.
4) Sell some of each variety, and keep a small number of each, still keep them purebred and raise a small number. This is a definite possibility, but I sort of feel like I've already reached the point where I have as few of each as I can without running into problems inbreeding them. I don't think I can cut back each individual variety much more. Plus the whole breeding pen thing is kind of a pain in the butt, I really don't have any desire to do all that this season.
Side note here, but I guess I need to talk a little more about my show goals. I don't feel competitive anymore. I'm not in it to win. Yeah, it was very very nice to get a bird on Champion Row this weekend, but I didn't expect it and wouldn't have cared at all if it didn't happen. I really don't care about winning anymore, I just want it to be fun and enjoyable and a relaxing hobby. I think that right there was probably the most important sentence in this ramble.
5) Keep my favorite birds, assorted colors, 15-ish of them. No more breeding pens, no more purebreds. This is Random Rosecombs after all. Keep them all together, or maybe in two or three groups (mindful of what colors are together and what colors they could produce, but keep them MIXED). Hatch some, maybe let them go broody and do the work themselves, who knows what I would get! That was one of the fun things early in the development of the varieties, I never knew what I would get. Could be fun. I am leaning toward this very strongly as my favorite option. Even in mixed flocks they are all the same breed (body type) and can still produce showable offspring in assorted colors. This allows me less birds, a potential for showing, and a little mystery. I would sell the rest. How exactly to sell them is also a pickle. Because of their rarity and the work I've done, I want to be sure they go to reputable homes. But, well, I'll just say it, I want to get a good chunk of money for them. If this is the final sale, they aren't going to be cheap.
So... it's not easy, and I keep waffling. But I think something needs to change, and if I'm going to sell a bunch that needs to happen soon. It's hard to let it go because it's been such a huge part of my life for such a long time. But I'm hoping that it can remain a small (but important, and fun) part of my life for a long time. After all, they call me the chicken lady. :-)