Commentary: The Farmer's Husband

  • Ken Chiacchia and his wife Heather's farm, where according to Ken, he has become the "farmer's husband." Photo courtesy Ken Chiacchia

November 21, 2012

I might as well just admit it: I am Lisa Douglas.

If you're not familiar with the classic 1960s TV sitcom Green Acres, let me bring you up to speed. It's about Oliver Wendell Douglas, a New York attorney who just chucks it all one day and drags his Hungarian princess wife—that's Lisa, played by the vastly under-rated Eva Gabor—to a farm in Hooterville. They never say what state. But it feels big and square.

The joke is that, though the farm is Oliver's boyhood fantasy, air-headed Lisa actually winds up being more functional and more able to accomplish things. Zen-like, she flows with the bizarre happenings in Hooterville, which only irritate and frustrate Oliver.

I don't want to exaggerate. My wife Heather, unlike Oliver, has accomplished a huge amount getting our little farm up and running. And unlike Lisa Douglas, I love our fields, pastures and woods.

But by the same token, farm life was always Heather's dream. It's been an adjustment for me. I feel a bit creaky getting up at 6 a.m. every morning to do chores before I leave for my day job as a science writer. But it's a pretty calming way to begin what's often a hectic day. I like the animals—chickens, goats, turkeys, Guinea fowl, rabbits. But it took me a good 10 years to really start understanding our dogs (Heather is a dog trainer, by the way). I can't take that long to understand our livestock. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say I don’t want to take that long; I want to be up and running, helping Heather manage them as soon as I can.

That's why I looked forward to spending a day with Heather at the Mother Earth News Fair in Pennsylvania in September. While Heather went to some of the more advanced offerings, I cruised the Livestock 101-type classes.

The chicken whisperer told me how to pick a chicken up without it panicking—you cradle a hand under it, face it toward you so it can see your face, and cup a hand over to gently tie its wings. I got a chance to try that last week, and it works pretty well.

The turkey presenter gave me some insight into why our experiment with fostering turkey poults—you call turkey babies poults, not chicks—by a chicken hen failed. Turns out that chicks mature more quickly than poults. The hen took them outside when the poults weren't ready yet, which is why they scattered and met with bad ends. Next time, no mixing chicken and turkey eggs.

Four years into our farm experiment, I discovered that I'm not such a newbie anymore. I found myself giving advice to other attendees as often as not. What really struck me, though, was how many people were there. The presenters, too, commented on how the crowds have steadily been growing year to year. This crazy adventure of ours isn't so unique; more people seem to be getting the idea in their heads that our great-grandparents had a better life than we do. And that it's good to know where your food came from.

Heather and I found ourselves together at the end of the day, converging at a talk on starting to raise pigs. It felt very right, to find ourselves on the same wavelength. A really knowledgeable married couple taught this one. They talked a big audience through a lot of simple steps that can make raising pigs a lot easier. It would have taken us years to discover this stuff on our own.

We didn’t wait to make use of what we learned. The presenters told us how they trained their pigs to load onto their trailer by feeding them on it. That saves a lot of time, effort and stress on the animals when it’s time to take them to the processor.  We started late, but a few days of feeding our meat chickens on our trailer resulted in a lot less work for us and a lot less stress for them.

Yes, it’s a tough world. Sometimes you eat your livestock. But the way I figure it, all of us get eaten by something. It’s the life you get to have until then that matters. The rejection of the values of factory farming and the desire to take back our food sources are clearly a big part of the homesteading movement. But ultimately, Lisa Douglas had it right: Rather than focusing on Oliver’s endpoints, she just enjoyed the ride.  Being a farmer’s husband is OK.  Being a farm dog is OK.  Even being a meat chicken is OK, provided you are allowed to be a chicken.

And maybe being a farmer’s husband—or a farmer—isn’t so off-base for a science writer. Maybe more science writers ought to be farmers.