Years ago the occasional newspaper article referenced city kids who thought milk and eggs came in cartons from the grocery store rather than from cows and chickens on a farm. Although I was never much of a farm girl, I did find the urban concept laughable. My mere presence on our River Road farm afforded me a basic understanding of nature’s life cycle.
Watching cute, cuddly calves develop into no-nonsense bovine mothers served as a case in point. We drank their milk by the gallon and used their cream for hand-churned butter and homemade ice cream. We also knew that the roasts and hamburger covered in butcher paper and stored in the meat locker in West Liberty had once been an animal grazing in our pastures.
Our chickens provided similar lessons of nature. In the early 60’s Mother decided to sell eggs for extra income. A bunch of baby chickens arrived in a large, ventilated carton from Kirby Hatcheries in Urbana. Under the lid was every little kid’s dream: fuzzy fowlets frantically falling all over each other. The peeping chicks, just a day or two old, must have come to us during chilly weather because I recall a heat lamp during their first overnight with us on River Road.
Baby chick charm eroded, however, into strutting hens whose feeding became a tedious daily chore assigned to us kids. My father moved a chicken house to a spot across the fence from the clothesline in preparation for the eggs we would eventually be gathering.
A marginal farm kid at best, I was also a real fraidycat. I hated that chicken house. Whenever my father appeared, the girls of poultry recognized his authority and parted, so as not to impede his forward progress. Those same old-biddy hens, sensing my fear, crowded around my feet to peck at me; the resident rooster even chased me around a few times.
The egg-gathering chore became another sad story. Oh, it was simple enough to retrieve a brown-shelled egg from an unoccupied nest. But my father expected us to pull eggs right out from under roosting chickens! Those unhappy hens fought off my nervous-Nelly hands more than once with their sharp beaks; and the slate my father gave me for protection was not particularly effective.
Despite my ineptitude, the connection was clear. Mother’s chickens laid the eggs that she scrambled or fried for breakfast and also sold to her customers. From a big, sectioned box in the kitchen she filled orders for neighbors like Harriet Faulkner, who stopped by for fresh eggs – probably for less than the 39¢ a dozen being charged at Urbana grocery stores.
Long before the term “free-range” entered the national vocabulary, our fowl flock fit the “kept in natural conditions, with freedom of movement” definition perfectly. We kids also understood that we consumed not only the eggs from our hens but sometimes the hens themselves.
The delectable fried chicken Mother often served on Sunday began when my father brought her one of the chicken house residents – minus head, claws, and feathers. I would stand by the kitchen sink watching Mother wield her knife to prepare every part of the bird for the frying pan and found myself especially fascinated by the contents of the craw, which often included entire kernels of corn the chicken had ingested.
I also remember that my father once shot the ultimate “free-range” animal: a rabbit in our woods. After supper he proceeded to alarm me by pointing out that I had eaten the bunny’s hopper. I lay awake for hours that night waiting to be ejected from my bed by the “spring-mechanism” I had consumed. Of course, this was the same father who assured us – straight of face – that white milk came from three of a cow’s teats, while the udder’s fourth section produced chocolate milk!
In addition to our animals, however, there were other free-range experiences to be had in our rural environment. Our gardens never rivaled those of our grandparents, but my father did bring homegrown tomatoes and radishes to the table every summer. Mother floured and fried the morel mushrooms we hunted in the springtime woods, and butter dripped down our chins as we chomped kernels off the late summer roastin’ ears from one of the cornfields back along the lane.
We did not “buy organic” or visit farmer’s markets in pursuit of fresh produce, except for apples from the orchard on the way to Bellefontaine. We just used what was available, including maple syrup from the sap of the tree not far from the chicken house. And there was the summer the cherry trees went crazy: we kids plucked and picked that year’s unusual abundance of sour cherries while Mother worked through a multi-step process to prepare them for storage in her newly-acquired freezer.
So, if there are city kids – or adults – who still misunderstand or misidentify the sources of their food, I guess they should come to Champaign County. The farmer outside my living room window is preparing his fields as I write. There are the FFA members who take their tractors and animals to local elementary schools to share with the kids there. And the county fair, courtesy of 4-H and open class alike, boasts the best petting zoo and organic produce exhibition for miles around – in a free-range kind of way.