Working the Margins

There is something deeply relaxing about watching a flock of foraging hens. Over the winter, I keep ours in a bright, airy coop with plenty of bedding to scratch around in, which keeps them happy enough. But once the snow melts and the weather warms I can tell they itch to get outside. So I accommodate them. I keep a section of semi-permanent electronet fencing set up around the coop, and on warm days I let them roam free.

This taste of freedom keeps them satisfied for a time, but as spring progresses they exhaust the possibilities of that little plot and start eyeing other parts of the property. Not long after, they remember they can fly (after a fashion and for short jaunts only), and soon they are hopping the fence and foraging all over the farm.

When that happens, I have noticed how the hens are drawn to margins. Around the foundations of the outbuildings. Along the edges of the compost pile. Maddeningly, through the wood chip mulch on the perennial beds. Quite often, where the brushy edge of the woods meets the yard. And also in the woods, where they happily scratch away through the pine needles and fallen leaves.

In Gene Logsdon’s final (and excellent) book, Letter to a Young Farmer, he wrote, “Perhaps our old cultural motto of ‘root, hog, or die’ will be replaced by ‘scratch, hen, and live.’” Here his topic is the past half-century’s model of conventional farming. “Get big, or get out,” was the advice, so farmers mortgaged their farms to the hilt, bought up their neighbors’ land, and expanded their operations. Which meant many other farmers had to “get out” to make way for a few to “get big.” In other words: “Root, hog, or die.”

As you might be able to tell, Mr. Logsdon didn’t think much of this new way of farming. Instead, he contrarily advised, “Stay small, and stay in.” This is a philosophy for the kind of farm he favored (and the kind of farm we run here), what he called the garden farm: smaller acreages farmed intensively and producing a wide variety of products sold directly to consumers. Farmers working the margins, working the angles, full of side hustles and crosswise thinking, all done literally in the shadow of the behemoth conventional farms. Farmers who find a different way forward, who stay small, and stay in.

Or as Mr. Logsdon exhorts, “Scratch, hen, and live.”