Irony In Garden Farming


A publisher asked me to read a manuscript, the diary of an Ohio farmer during the depth of the Great Depression. More accurately, it is a diary penned by a rather famous historian who spent a year trying to farm during the dirty thirties when he could not find a position in a university. I don’t want to jump the gun on the publisher, so I won’t identify the person or say much about the book except that it makes very absorbing reading.

One anecdote from the diary addresses what I like to call “farm irony.” The author and his family pin their hopes of bringing in money on a flock of chickens. They sell their corn and wheat at a low price (this is 1933) and then buy mash— milled grain— for their hens. The cost of the mash is such that they barely break even on the eggs. They have a lot of bookish knowledge about chickens and do a good job of raising the hens and eventually get fairly good production from them. But the author constantly complains that the income from selling eggs barely keeps up with the cost of feed.

So here’s the irony to my way of thinking. I have kept hens for over 30 years now, feeding them almost completely on whole corn and wheat. I could probably get a few more eggs if I fed commercial mash with all the supplements and vitamins that are supposed to be in it but I’m confident that the extra eggs would have been just about enough to pay for the extra cost of the purchased feed. My hens have the run of woodland and pasture, just as the diarist’s hens had. I am sure he would have made a profit if he would just have fed his own corn and wheat and accepted a few less eggs for doing so. Chickens can digest whole grains just fine. In fact I can make a case for arguing that hens eat too much on a mash diet and have a shorter life span.

So why, being obviously an intelligent man, didn’t the diarist at least try my alternative?

Ah hah. Now I get to philosophize. In this age when so many people, happily, are starting to raise chickens, I have tried to convince several families that they would get all the eggs they need by feeding whole grains to hens and letting them roam outside occasionally to eat bugs and grass. Maybe add some dried lawn clover clippings— high quality hay— for their winter diet. I have in mind in particular one family whom I dearly admire even if they won’t listen to me. They disagree with what I say about chicken mash just as they disagree when I say that I don’t think the Pope is infallible. They are so sure they are right on both counts that my contrariness doesn’t offend them in the least. They just smile indulgently. Old Gene is being difficult again. They reject my 70 years of experience in both cases. It says in the books that hens have to eat commercial mash to lay a profitable number of eggs. All the farming tradition they know about or been taught says you have to feed mash. Momma fed mash so don’t you dare insult her memory. Ditto for papal infallibility.

Most of us have been educated by this sort of “biblical method.” What has been written down in sacred books, be they of a religious nature or a secular nature, is the golden truth that no right-minded person dare dispute. Momma was a good woman and she knew what she was doing. And if you don’t believe her, it says right here in this book put out by the commercial feed industry: Thou shalt feed thy hens commercial feed if thou wishes to make a profit. Amen.

The same biblical method comes into play over the matter of whether to leave a light on in the coop at night. I don’t know how many times I have tried to tell owners of six backyard chickens that they do not have to burn electricity in their little coops at night to get all the eggs they need. For large scale commercial growers this practice might pay (I doubt it) but it is absurd for the backyarder. But again, Uncle Wilbur made money with hens and by heaven, he kept a light on in the coop at night. And it says right here in this bulletin from the electric co-op that with a light on, the chickens will lay more eggs.

It would be only amusing, I suppose, if it did not point to a much larger reality in the way society operates. Almost all the “expert knowledge” about farming is colored, shaped, sometimes downright fabricated, to make money for someone other than the farmer. And it takes no imagination at all to see how this same situation holds in other spheres of human activity.


Sounds familiar; my husband insists on not watering the garden in the middle of the day, not for the obvious reason (evaporation) but because plants will get SUNBURN (?!?) if watered when the sun is high. He says it MUST be true because he read it in a book. My parents have gardened in this climate, raised beds or regular, for OVER 40 years, and have never heard of the concept. I go by what I’ve seen, not read…

Thanks for that little gem Gene. After over 40 years of farming and living with the land here in NZ I strongly feel that the most overlooked quality needed by those of that persuasion is acute observational skills of the land, the creatures living on it and most of all the plant life. So many times I have read this or that twaddle in a book (and you can tell, done so with their hand over their heart) when a quick wander outside will rapidly show you different.
Awareness and observation are a rapidly dying art unfortunately and I am glad that you have raised it in your item here, even if unintentionally.

Cheers and keep up the great work.

Gene, wanted to share this post with you since you’ve been such a great treasure of inspiration to us and so many others:

Nature’s Harmony Farm

I realize that you answered part of this question (sorry, I was so excited to comment!) I can’t let my chickens roam because we are on the regular route of a coyote family who have had several chicken dinners on me. I can only let them roam when I am outside the whole time. They do have a large safe fenced area, though with lots of bugs but not too much greenery is left. But I get the daily compost from our local health food store deli so they get lots of vegetables. When you say cobs of corn, do you mean fresh or do you get it somewhere dried? Do you buy this from the grocery store or grow your own?

I have been reading your blog for a couple of months now. I just have to ask for more details about how to feed chickens. I have been long suspecting that there is something better than the expensive pellets that I buy (my chickens eschew mash). Considering that we generally avoid processed food as a family, it seemed a little ironic to be feeding our chickens processed food. But I feel completely ignorant about meeting their dietary needs and I have been able to find very little about how to feed them more naturally. Can you recommend any resources? Or just tell us what you do?

thetinfoilhatsociety May 30, 2010 at 10:44 am

We do feed layer crumbles, but it’s because they don’t get to free range outside of their 20 x 40 enclosure (except when they escape and tear up my garden). Even at that, they get all our leftovers that we forget about, scratch, and treats from the garden. I would love it if I could get waste from the couple of restaurants near us, but I haven’t gotten up the courage to go ask yet (and I’m not sure I can handle the amount of waste they might be willing to get rid of). I recycle the egg shells both for the garden and to give them back for their calcium needs. We don’t use a light in the coop because I read that, while it does increase egg production, it also ages them quicker and they ‘burn out’ and die younger. I’m willing to accept fewer eggs in term for longer term productivity, since they are as much pets as a dinosaur relative can be 😉

I do sell eggs to co workers, but I always stress that our needs come first, and that I can only sell when I have a surplus. Still, I always have a waiting list for my eggs. It pays for their feed, so I basically get my own eggs for free. And the Chicken TV is priceless!


WOO HOO! I’ve been a Gene Logsdon fan ever since I discovered “The Contrary Farmer” and have been recommending it on my site ever since! Imagine my delight to find that you have a blog.

Gene, my son is about to graduate Salutatorian from high school (he got an A minus in Latin and another in college Calculus, so that dropped his GPA) and he grew up listening to me read aloud from your book. And howling with laughter at his favorite parts. Between you, Yeager and all the history books, great literature and every Calvin and Hobbes comic ever written, he entered high school with a well-rounded homeschool education and he knocked their socks off.

Anyway, I agree with the feeding of chickens. Even though I’ve only been doing this for about 10 years, this Momma reads books, thinks about it, and makes decisions based on logic and reason and gut instinct, and the constant question, “how is it done in nature?” Nobody is grinding feed for chickens in the wild. Nobody is shearing sheep in the wild. Yes, there are some adjustments to make because we are keeping our livestock on a small farm rather than let them roam, but keeping the “how does Mother Nature do it” question uppermost in mind. This has served us well through the highs and more recent lows in the economy.

I’m so glad to have found you!

Eric, The other breeds that I have found to do well on this program out here in the West are the Australorp, the Speckled Sussex (although they are not as good for egg production as the Aussies) and pretty much any bantam breed. I think the key is to look at the older dual purpose breeds. We have to consider heat resistance as well as the other factors, as it’s not uncommon in summer to have a long string of 100+ temp days even at our elevation of 2200 feet.

I just found your blog a few weeks ago and really like the common sense approach you take to things. I’ve had chickens for a couple years and have found that they like lots of garden weeds in summer, cabbage in winter, and sprouted grains all the time. I still feed commercial crumbles, but the hens wait by the fence everyday for their weeds and sprouts and don’t eat much ‘regular’ feed. Do I think I could make the jump and ditch the commercial feed? Not yet – guess I’m weak. Another site I read recommended growing stinging nettle and comfrey for the hens. Well, neither is as popular as the weeds or sprouts and nettle is nasty stuff. I guess I got taken in by an ‘expert’.
Keep up with the common sense stuff, Gene. Maybe, in time, I’ll learn to do things simpler and sort through the garbage info out there.

Anna, our chickens range over about an acre of woodland and a bit of pasture and some lawn. Sometimes they are right outside the window here wondering what I am going to write about next. They like to be where I am and would come right in the house if I let them. In addition to about a dozen hens and a rooster, we raise 20 meat birds every year from June to August and I do feed them some commercial mash mostly to get them fattened in a hurry and out of here. But the laying hens never. I give the hens oh about four ears of corn every day (breaking and partially shelling them)or a quart of wheat. Maybe more in winter. I watch how they eat it. If like now, they have plenty of bugs and grass to eat, they won’t eat much grain. I sort of let them tell me how much to feed by how rapidly they eat what I give them. In winter I also feed them a little high quality clover hay or lawn clover clippings. And of course they have oyster shell grit all the time.
Eric T. we have good luck with Rhode Island Reds, Buff Orphingtons, and Golden Comets. But we have raised other breeds and almost all seem amenable. For some reason, we find white chickens be they Leghorns or the heavies to be too wild for us. Also Barred Rock roosters have been especially vicious. Our current Buff Orphington rooster is a gentleman. Gene

I’m glad you posted about this! I’ve been trying (and failing miserably) to find information about raising chickens in just this way. Do you have a rough estimate of how large an area your flock ranges over and how many chickens you have? How much corn and wheat you give them? What breeds you’ve raised successfully this way? (Have you ever tried it with meat birds, or did you just eat the roosters from a laying breed?)

What a great post. Last fall I switch from commercial feed/free range to sprouting a mix of grains (corn, oats, barley, and BOSS)/free range. I also gave them fish meal during the winter as well. I did not notice any decrease in egg production. Anyone have thoughts on breeds of poultry that would do better on a simplier diet or free ranging and whole grains?

Heh! I’m in grad school for agriculture right now (don’t laugh: I know what the limitations of this education are ; ). It’s a pretty new degree designed to teach how to, say, look at an actual field situation and figure out what problems exist and how to solve them, rather than just do research.

This is all a pretty thrilling new direction for Official Scientific Knowledge to take– so thrilling that the USDA and Monsanto now want to fund our program. Nuts. Several of us students are getting together to make sure that future students will at least have an option to learn other things besides the Bible of Oil-Based Agriculture.

Paul Griepentrog May 26, 2010 at 3:17 pm

There is one thing I learned long ago, chickens among other domestic livestock can’t read, don’t care to learn and aren’t any worse of for it. Our yard birds live on what they can find around. Bugs, waste grain, and even the dog food and milk set out for the barn cats. They raise their own chicks the old fashion way and if there ends up being to many roosters there is a cure for that as well. Soups up! When the sheep come into the barn for winter lambing the egg production picks up from leaving the lights on, but the lights are more for the ewes and lambs.

Teresa Sue Hoke-House May 26, 2010 at 11:15 am

Amen! I live in wheat country and I go to the elevator and get wheat screenings for my chickens. It’s very affordable. They get grass and goodies from the garden also. When it’s really cold in the winter, I give them some corn too.

I have decided it’s not really worth my time to try and raise enough eggs, produce, etc to sell on a regular basis. It is more productive for me to raise good, no, make that, excellant food for me and my family.

Amen to that! I see it in medicine all the time: the latest research (sponsored, of course, by the drug companies) says that the older generic medicine is not as effective as the new, patented, and expensive stuff. Mind you, there have been no independent trials of the two drugs in a head to head trial, and of course we won’t know for sure if the new stuff has long-term nasty side effects until we try it on a bigger population (think Vioxx and heart attacks)… The really sad thing is the unwillingness on the part of so many to even try an experiment. Why not feed half your chickens mash and the others your own grain, grass and whatever bugs they can rustle? My bet is the difference in production would be minimal, and the quality of the eggs from the “home feed” group would be better! Why not adjust the amount of grain you give the milk cow to get the amount of milk you need and can use instead of feeding what “the book” says you should feed? I wonder if some of this reluctance to learn from experience and experimentation is rooted in the old respect for “book learning”? Of course, there were plenty of books written many years ago that were just as slanted or manipulative as anything a drug, feed or electric company puts out today. Maybe we’re dealing with a basic facet of human nature; advice from a stranger is better than advice from someone we know, just because it’s different. Maybe it’s just laziness–it is easier to open a feed sack. I don’t know about you, Gene, but I see too many people who don’t understand that if they can’t apply a little critical thinking to a situation; can’t evaluate the claims made by an interested party who claims to be educating you; can’t dispassionately analyze information–well, the fact of the matter is, they are dependent on the system and doomed to stay that way.

Gene – This is a good reminder that we should examine all our assumptions and practices. Do you know Rick Saenz’s blog, “Dry Creek Chronicles?” He regularly blogs on that idea.

However, I do wish to clarify the Catholic doctrine of papal infallibility. It does not mean that the Pope is free from sin or error. It is a technical term that refers to his pronouncements about formal Catholic theology. I’m not sure how your “70 years of experience” contradict this doctrine since it has only been used ONCE since promulgated in 1870. (That was in 1950 in regards to the Assumption of Mary, body and soul, directly to heaven upon her death.)

Here is Wikipedia’s first paragraph on papal infallibility, which is as good a definition as any I’ve read.

“Papal infallibility is the dogma in Roman Catholic theology that, by action of the Holy Spirit, the Pope is preserved from even the possibility of error[1] when he solemnly declares or promulgates to the universal Church a dogmatic teaching on faith or morals as being contained in divine revelation, or at least being intimately connected to divine revelation. It is also taught that the Holy Spirit works in the body of the Church, as sensus fidelium, to ensure that dogmatic teachings proclaimed to be infallible will be received by all Catholics. This dogma, however, does not state either that the Pope cannot sin in his own personal life or that he is necessarily free of error, even when speaking in his official capacity, outside the specific contexts in which the dogma applies.”

I realize it might have been beyond the means of a Depression-era farmer, but do you see any value in purchasing a simple burr mill?

As a kid, I recall my Dad cracking corn for the animals. He bought the simple mill separately, then mounted it on a work bench and connected it with a couple pulleys to an old washing machine motor.

For chickens and pigs, he set it very coarse, just for cracking. (He set it finer when it was to become corn meal for our use.)

Seems to me that for a very small investment, this would combine the best of both worlds — cheap whole-grain feed, and better digestibility.

Wouldn’t it be cool if we had an Agrarian Pope who raised chickens… I would love to read Genes’ responses to The Encyclical Decrees coming from such an His Holiness.

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