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She adores a penthouse view, but chicken farmin’ is the life for him

I had to sit down before I keeled over. My husband had just excitedly announced his intention to raise free-range chickens — CHICKENS! — to produce free-range, hand-gathered, organic eggs.

For a few moments, I was truly speechless. When I managed to choke out, “You’re going to WHAT?” he repeated himself, but, like Charlie Brown, all I heard was “wuwah, wuwah, wuuwwwaah.” As I later learned, Joe had chosen eggs because chickens are inexpensive, easy to manage, and need a limited amount of space — compared to cattle, of course.

Farmer Joe Ingle feeds his flock of karmically blessed, free-range hens, who, in a past life, must have done something right: They roam happily in the field, instead of being housed in cramped cages with their beak tips chopped off. (Photos by Mark Greenberg)

In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised. My husband is a farmer trapped in an Alamo Heights, middle-class, suburban body, who has always insisted he was born a century too late and is deeply interested in, hell, anything involving a plant, insect, or animal. I, on the other hand, insist that I was a bohemian socialite in a former life, hence my strong desire to host parties and an unshakable longing to live downtown, in the heart of it all.

Opposites certainly attract. But, you see, I hate chickens. HATE THEM! The few times I’ve been around them, they’ve pecked at my feet and let loose with deafening squawks and garish exhibitions of flapping that send feathers flying. And they stink.

My distaste for the bird — unless roasted on a spit — didn’t keep my husband from moving forward. He ordered his chickens on-line from Marti’s Poultry Farm in Missouri (as easy as ordering shoes from Zappos!), and several weeks later the U.S. Post Office called at the crack of dawn. “Mr. Ingle,” said the voice, “Your chickens are here. Please come get them ... NOW.”

Who would have thought a chicken breeder would use the postal service to ship its wares? As I understand it, the chicks are boxed up when they are a day old and shipped overnight, so they arrive at their destination alive and well, with their first hunger pangs.

Joe Ingle and his special friend

My husband retrieved his new investment — 600 live chicks — and raced them to their new home, a friend and business partner’s small ranch in Floresville. I had feared he was going to raise them in the backyard of our Terrell Heights cottage, but — thank goodness for small favors — San Antonio has rules about chickens in the yard. Apparently you can have up to 50 chickens — depending on how large your lot is and how far away from other businesses and dwellings your pens are — not 600.

This was more than seven months ago. Since their arrival, the chicks have matured into hens and their combs and waddles have turned bright red — an indicator that they are ready to lay eggs.

My husband has a favorite hen, Henny Penny, who follows him around, clucking and chatting away. She’s a Plymouth Rock hen, so she’s black-and-white speckled with a ruby-red crest, and is a reliable layer of large brown eggs. The majority of the flock consists of Rhode Island Reds, which lay large, brown eggs, with a few other varieties of hens such as Ameraucana, Black Australorp, and Plymouth Rocks thrown in for color .... literally, as they lay eggs that range from a light bluish-green to deep brown. Even though the hens are mature, only about 70-80 percent of the flock lays. For Joe, that results in approximately 300 eggs a day. Yes, you read that correctly ... 300 A DAY. To rip off Blue Bell Ice Cream, we eat all we can and sell the rest to several small taco houses, local restaurants and markets, and an assortment of friends and family. After all, a girl can only eat so many eggs before wanting to stab her eyes out, you know?

The most common question we get is, “Do they taste different?” Honestly, they do. The eggs have a rich flavor and velvety texture, and the yolks are almost orange in hue.

Joe’s chickens roam freely within a fenced-in area that keeps them from wandering off and safe from vermin, and they eat not only the grasses and seeds growing around them, but also organic grains. They spend the day milling about, pecking and scratching, cackling and laying, and generally doing what chickens do.

Yet they still demand a lot of work. My husband spends five days a week feeding and watering the hens, and then hand-gathering, washing, weighing, and sorting their eggs. His partner, who lives at the ranch, is in charge of weekends and nights, when he has to chase off the occasional egg-devouring thief, including an elusive skunk that kept the men up late into the night, waiting for a chance to, uh, eliminate the problem.

Chicken farming is an interesting career path, to say the least, especially considering that my husband’s job history has careened from horticulture to massage therapy to stay-at-home fatherhood to estate management. But if it makes my husband happy and has the potential to put our four daughters through college, more power to him. And when, as a reincarnated bohemian socialite, I find myself at parties, meetings, and school functions fielding the inevitable question, “So, what does your husband do?” The answer is certainly an ice-breaker.

By Beverly Ingle

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