Sunday, January 17, 2010

rethinking the chicken thing

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. :-)


Unknown said...

I know EXACTLY the dilemma you are going through. Except I had only been doing the "chicken thing" for 12 years, while you've had more time to really get established. It still hurts from time to time - I miss the birds, the people, the sense of involvement, the fun. But like you, it had started to become work with all that conditioning for shows. And though I loved the chicks, in addition to what you said, I always felt super guilty that I had to hatch more than I could possibly keep, and let them go to other homes where I couldn't care for them at my high standard.

I hate the fact that I had to sell the majority of them off, because I knew every bird as an individual. And it hurts even more to learn that some of the people I sold extremely [genetically] valuable birds to LAST YEAR with the promise of breeding them have ALREADY dumped them and moved on. Or that I sold them unwittingly into a pox-infested home. >:(

But when it came down to it, I was just moving in a different direction. The shows and breeding had somewhat lost their "spark" for me because it was something that was expected of me by other people. I didn't have time to do the other things in life I was feeling called toward (like finding a mate and moving out of my parents' home). I had a full-time career starting but could FAR from afford my own place with land to put the birds on. And because of all this, I wasn't doing the birds or the breed all the justice I would have liked to in a perfect world. The chicken thing had to give, for me to live true to myself. So, though it was one of the hardest decisions I have ever made, I said my apologies and pulled out of the hobby. And it has been a positive decision for my life.

I do want chickens to be a part of my life in the future, I just I don't know if I'll ever go back to breeding and showing, at least as heavily as I was (and I was a lightweight compared to most in the hobby!). Alden is excited to build us a chicken coop someday when we have a house (yay for an engineer husband!).

Anyway, this was all just a roundabout way of saying that you're not alone, and support is here if you need it. Your heart knows what it needs to do, and you won't have peace with this dilemma until you heed your heart's calling. You did say it exactly with, "I just want it to be fun and enjoyable and a relaxing hobby." No one can blame you for wanting enjoyment in your life, especially from a hobby, something that's SUPPOSED to be enjoyable! ;)

Anonymous said...

I know it was hard for you when the "people" aspect went south in the club. You are an honest and straight-forward person, not into politics. For you, my dear, when the people were not there for you, then I can understand your feelings. I appreciate the genetic work you have put into your birds. Also, the fancy needs younger persons, such as yourself. But when the fancy turns into what it did in the club, then I understand your feelings. Best of luck with your decisions. -BMc.

Jan Blawat said...

Well, I'm at the ideal time of my life to continue showing chickens - on the cusp of retirement with plenty of time and enough money (I think) to do it justice. There were always problems with the birds, culling them was hardest on me, with raccoons a close second. But it was something I worked around because I really enjoyed the shows and the people. But as you said, the club was totally subverted by self-serving idiots. OK, you didn't say that, I did, and I mean it.

When you look back 40 years from now, you'll see that life isn't a straight progression, it's a series of episodes. I have, for example, in the "fun" category: the horse show years, the competitive trail riding years, the Raider rooter years, and the chicken show years. You start a hobby, learn all you can about it, make new friends, give it your best shot, and then for one reason or another move on to the next challenge.

I still have horses, though they're just pasture decorations, and will always have a few chickens as well because I love them. And I still have the friends I made along the way. Take lots of pictures, it's fun to look back and see how far you've come, to savor your accomplishments and think about the "what ifs." One of mine is "what if I'd had Dusty when I wanted to ride the Tevis?"

Whenever you're dealing with animals, I think there's guilt involved, as Sarah pointed out. You want to guarantee the best for them, but once they're out of your hands you've lost that power.

Anonymous said...

Jan - you said it ever so better than I! Thank goodness for your common sense and wisdom. -BMc.

Anonymous said...

I currently keep my rosecombs only as a hobby (no showing), but beware of having too few birds- for some reason I have hatched almost twice as many roosters as hens and now somehow have six roosters and no hens :( (Well, I have brahma hens, but this doesn't help any...) I can't say I've contributed anything to the breed but I love my spunky roosters and they are great as pets too! -ALS

Anonymous said...

I was reading through all the comments and thinking about your post, trying to figure out what to say.....
Sarah did a good job of explaining what's involved with raising show chickens (BTW Sarah, we are, at least, one family who still has birds we bought from you last year!They are doing well and were safely protected from this storm we just had, thank god).

My son (who is in high school) has been going through a simular situation - trying to balance school and other activies ("life") as well as chickens. He wants to improve the breed he raises, but the fact is, there are only so many hours in each day! He has other priorities such as studying for tests, finishing homework, etc. (or else his mom would kill him, haha). Birds do take alot of time, more than people might realize when they first get started....especially if you have found a breed to love, cherish, and develop.

It occured to me - if you look around at shows, who do you see? It's almost always young children with their families (doing 4H) or the "retired crowd". Very rarely do you see people in their mid-years (20, 30, 40's). Jan had it right when she said she is reaching the perfect time to start showing more.....because our mid years are filled with jobs, families, relationships, kids, and just "life" in general - things like chicken shows are no longer something most people have time for. When we finally DO have the time to concentrate on the hobby like we want to, it will be in the years following all the drama (haha). "Episodes" was a perfect word for it!

I know my son will always have chickens, but the actual number of chickens will change over the years. The trick is keeping enough to sustain the work already put into the project....

In the end, I think it's more about life than chickens, and the changes we go through and what we can fit in. There will be times in each person's life when chickens can no longer be a priority, and that's ok - we can look forward to a time in our lives when we can spend more time on our birds (and sometimes things like bad politics and self-serving people make it a little easier. They will all die off eventually! Opps, I shouldn't have said that.....)