“Did David Bowie bother you at sunrise?” Greg asked.
“Huh?” I said.
“What I meant was how did you sleep?”
“Oh. Wonderful,” I said. This was my first morning at Three Roods Farm, and I made sure to sound cheery and willing. I hadn’t a clue what chores might await me.
“I’m sorry, but did you say David Bowie?” I asked.
“Yes, but never mind for now.” Greg seemed pleased about something. He was the kind of guy who carried himself confidently without fringing on arrogance. “Well, we’d better go feed and water the chickens first thing. Nicole can give you a full tour of the farm later. She’s our summer intern—you’ve met her, right?”
“Oh, yes,” I said. “She actually showed me around last night.”
“Wonderful,” Greg said, as if that had always been the plan.
I trailed him in the morning dew out to the barn. The grass was tall and wet and irritated my legs despite my attempt to follow his steps.
“That means you’ll have some free time this afternoon. Maybe you and Nicole can go swimming at the nature preserve. And if you’re lucky…” he paused but didn’t look at me. “…you’ll meet Deer and Justice.”
“Who?” I asked.
He hesitated again, and I swear he winked at me, but I couldn’t tell. Greg frequently exhibited a shrewd yet mysterious smile and made you feel like a puppy awaiting a treat. He could have winked after every sentence without the gesture seeming inappropriate.
“The neighbors, of course,” he said at last. “But now, meet the kids.” He unlatched the gate to the chicken pin and held it open. “After you.”
The chicks were yellow, brown, and black, and at first, they ran away in terror, but then the cluster looked at me expectantly and approached with caution.
“These are my babies,” he said. “All forty of them. You can count them if you’d like.”
“Hmm.” I couldn’t think of anything else to say. In fact, I would say ‘hmm’ a lot during my stay at Three Roods. “They’re cool.”
“No, count them,” Greg said. “I need to know they are all here.”
I realized ‘if you like’ was Greg’s gentle way of saying ‘do this, please.’ Embarrassed, I began counting in my head, but I waved my fingers around like I was directing an orchestra as proof of my diligence. “I count forty,” I said.
Greg displayed his knowing smile again. “Me too.”
I reached down to scratch my legs, which still irritated me.
“Did you bring any long pants?” He asked. “You’ll want to wear them in the future.”
“Yeah, yeah, I’ll be fine.”
I remembered almost laughing at the sight of Greg earlier that morning, but now I understood his dress. He didn’t look ridiculous, he just looked like the typical farmer, pitchfork-in-hand, any child would envision while singing old Macdonald had a farm…
“Ok, well let me show you the operation I run here,” he said.
Rubber boots, denim overalls, patch of chin hair, glasses, tall and slender frame except for a rounded belly, and brown calloused hands—ee i ee i oh.
“When the kids grow up, which takes about six months, they start laying.” He picked up a wooden egg from a shelf. “These are for encouragement. But in the meantime, we feed them—a lot. Their poop is their most valuable product for now, so I keep them well stocked with an organic mixture of feed.”
“How come it doesn’t smell in here?” I asked.
That smile and ambiguous wink again. “I’m glad you asked.” He bent down and grabbed some of the bedding. “I get this hay from a friend over in Romeo County—no chemicals in it, he assures me. I add two or three inches to the floor each week, and by the end of the season, I’ll have three or four feet of compressed hay and poop—you can’t ask for better fertilizer.”
“So is that what makes Three Roods a permaculture design?” I asked.
“Well, its certainly part of it, but we strive for efficiency in all of our projects. And we have many.” He closed the gate. “I’ll have you change the water, add two scoops of feed, and spread some fresh hay in a minute, but first let’s see how our mothers are doing, shall we? Oh, and watch out for Schnitzel,” Greg said as I followed him out of the barn and around to the coop where the hens strutted up and down the run. “He probably won’t eat the chickens if he gets in, but he’ll scare them half to death.”
Schnitzel was young, tireless, and his wet nose came up to my belly button. Despite his size, he seemed friendly and didn’t scare me. “Good boy,” I said, patting him on the head. “You stay here.” I squeezed through the cracked gate and into the pin without breaking eye contact with the German Shepherd.
“So does Schnitzel have a specific function in the permaculture design, too?” I asked.
“No,” Greg said. “He’s just cool.”
I laughed. I was starting to feel more comfortable around Greg, even during long silences, and he seemed to enjoy my questions.
“Speaking of cool dudes,” he said. “This is David Bowie.”
I looked up to see a rooster with a large orange cockscomb staring at me. His head was tilted, his eyes black and piercing, and his left leg poised two inches above the ground. Without warning, he kicked up dust and ran around in circles shrieking frantically.
“Oh shut up,” Greg said, shooing David aside. “We’re here for the ladies.” Then he turned to me. “So Mike, have you ever collected eggs before?”
“Well there’s nothing to it. Only about six lay at a time, but we have eighteen.”
I lifted my finger and started waving it around again.
Now Greg laughed. “You don’t have to count them. They don’t go anywhere. Just lift them up gently with one hand and feel beneath them with the other. They won’t peck you.”
I timidly reached beneath the warm hen and pulled out three eggs.
“Great. You’ve got the hang of it,” Greg said. “When you make a dozen, bring the carton inside. And don’t forget to feed, water, and add hay to the chickens when you’re done. Any questions?”
“I don’t think so.”
The clever smile, the half wink, the approving nod. “I’ll see you at lunch then.”
[Inspired by an apprenticeship at Three Roods Farm, my mom and dad’s farm. Read the whole story: Three Roods Charm]
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[Larger photo of Farmer Greg, on Flickr]