The Poverty of Food Deserts in Central Appalachia

I am not and will never be a ‘food blogger’. It’s hard for me to take the time to look up a recipe, much less pick one out, document my attempt in a series of pictures that showcase it in a myriad of half formed stages and then somehow dream up witty remarks to write about it.

Major props to those who are, but I’d rather just eat my experiments in peace, thank you very much.

But don’t think that means I’m not interested in food. I have a passion for foodstuffs that forms the foundation of many of my deeply held values. I pursue environmental sustainability and self-sufficiency because I care so much about where my food comes from and because I want to get it from as authentic a source as I can, especially if that means raising it myself. (See: Raising Meat Rabbits).

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piece by peace

Peace by Piece: The Midyear of Notre Dame AmeriCorps

To be brutally honest AmeriCorps was not something I had strong, if any, feelings about until this past weekend. Though Ian and I have been working for the organization since September, I merely saw it as a way to make living and working at the Big Laurel Learning Center economically feasible for us. The day to day impact of being part of the entity that is AmeriCorps rarely seemed to extend beyond biweekly meetings and lots of paperwork. The four hour drive between us and our team members in Cincinnati prevented us from seeing much of them, making it easy to forget we are part of an organization bigger than southern West Virginia. But this perspective has changed dramatically for me after a four day Notre Dame AmeriCorps midyear conference in Baltimore, Maryland.

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coop 2

Reclaiming an Old Chicken Coop Part 2

Oooooh chickens. To my count, this is my third blog post focused purely on extolling their virtues. The first was in Thailand when I was responsible for slaughtering one for a village meal and somehow managed to let it literally slip through my fingers and dash into the woods. Did I spend the rest of that afternoon chasing it through the forest with a slingshot and a ten foot bamboo pole? Yes. Did I even get remotely close to recapturing it? I’ll let you think that one through. (Hint: lets just say I was teased about my “ba gai” or forest chicken for the rest of the semester.) My second post about chickens is from my time living and working on a farm on the Big Island of Hawaii. There, one of my jobs was to tend to the feathery flock of 30 layers. There wasn’t always a lot to do on that farm so I spent a lot of time plunked down on the ground, watching the ladies. It’s actually one of my better pieces, so I’ll probably repost it someday.

And what’s not to like? Little lumbering dinosaurs that clumsily scratch around their mud pens in an ever preoccupied hunt for tidbits of food. If only all our lives could be that simple. In their ten thousand years of domestication, it’s apparent intelligence was never a sought after trait. Frankly, I think it’s been just about bred out of the little suckers. But their simple dumbness is a large part of their charm for me. My chickens ask for little besides a mud yard to scratch around in, some food scraps, and a couple of roosting perches. In return I plan to get hours of entertainment and in all likelihood over a dozen eggs a week. I get as much enjoyment out of chasing them around the yard as Wendell does, and they give me a great captive audience to practice my crazy voices on. Unlike Wendell, they can’t run away and hide when I get too high pitched. I tell myself they secretly enjoy it.

But back to the basics. After our chicken yard was completed, Ian and I packed the dog crate into the back of the nuns’ pickup and drove the half mile past Big Laurel to our neighbor’s, who had agreed to sell us six chickens at five bucks apiece. Craigslist wasn’t offering me any better deals, so we accepted. A true mountain man, our neighbor has quite the set up. His ridgeline property boasts several gardens and at least three chicken runs jammed full of birds. He also has multiple dogs and is raising two sows with his grandson. My ears perked up when I heard he was going to get them bred; if all goes well our neighborly livestock purchases could soon extend to a piglet!

The chicken catching process was simple. After we were told which birds were off limits (all the pretty ones) I was let into the coop to “gather” the ones I wanted. Thankfully I’ve had some experience catching chickens since that fateful day in Thailand and I quickly snagged five. But, not wanting to have all the fun, I made Ian catch the last one. Though his massive hands and feet didn’t do him any favors, Ian managed to catch just about the ugliest chicken in the coop. But ugliness is no indicator of egg laying ability, so we kept her anyways. After we stuffed all six into the dog crate and drove back up the bumpy mountain road to our place, we released them into their new home.

I’m not sure what I was expecting. More of an adjustment period, I guess. Heck, we’ve had Wendell for two weeks and he still flinches at every noise in the house. But it took those birds all of two minutes to feel right at home in their new chicken palace. And a palace it is. I guess we had forgotten just how small chickens actually are when we were constructing it, because the coop that holds six looks like it can comfortably hold 35. Talk about exciting goals for the future! Within two hours every scrap of greenery in the yard had been pecked away, and I’m sure most of the worms and bugs as well.

So far the birds have been pretty quiet. We aren’t going to let them out of their pen for a few weeks to allow them to get a sense of home. In their pen they keep to themselves and move around in two flocks of equivalent ages. They go crazy when we threw them some moldy bread, but it’s a reserved kind of crazy. Three of them are still fairly young and won’t lay eggs for a few months. The way Wendell has been getting excited around their coop, he will probably try to kill a couple. But that’s an acceptable risk for us. It’s strange to be entering this new relationship of animal ownership, moving from having pets to livestock. I’m going to love having these chickens of course, but I fully intend to eat every one of them if I can. They will be pets only so long as they are useful- after that point they will be dinner. Funny that I think of our new dog as a farm animal as well, but a similar fate for him would be unthinkable. The boundaries we impose on what is acceptable and what is abhorrent can be strange indeed.

The completed coop in all its glory
None of the chickens have done anything distinguishing enough to deserve actual names yet, but I’ve so lovingly nicknamed this one Demon Chicken.
A more flattering angle of the gal
The chickens seem to love scratching through all their cedar chips
The one on the right? That’s Ian’s chicken. I’m calling him Fugly for pretty obvious reasons.
The expansive coop is a chicken palace for sure.
Just a reminder that West Virginia is a pretty beautiful place.

I bet your dog walks can’t compare!! 😉

coop 1

Reclaiming an Old Chicken Coop Part 1

Finally, FINALLY we are real homesteaders. Before we were just playing around, thinking that canning a couple pears and owning some useless cats and a farm dog qualified us. But no longer do we have to pretend. Because… we have livestock. More specifically, CHICKENS. I have been desperate to own poultry for years now, and one of the requirements that I made when we decided to move our here was that I would get my own birds. Half the work was already done for us, because our Knob property had a massive chicken coop in good condition. To make it functional, we needed to build an enclosed yard that would keep the chickens in and chicken killers out. It’s been a long project, but I’m very happy to say that the final results should keep out even the most persistent predator.

Before: the chicken coop was choked with a weed forest and the door couldn’t even be opened. It took my dad and Ian a full morning to weed wack the yard enough to access the area around the coop.
Using the circular saw to cut out a new chicken door and ramp for the coop.
Perfectly functional little chicken door.
We just had to assume the birds wouldn’t be too chicken to go up and down their relatively steep and high ramp. The disadvantage of building on a slope!


Poll: who makes a better chicken, Ian or Lydia? Cast your vote in the comments!


The answer’s obvious, right?


Lucky for us, we had plenty of work groups come over several weeks that were able to help us with different stages of construction. Without them, the two of us would be slogging through the snow trying to get that yard done.

Wheeling Jesuit gentleman helped Ian dig and plant posts for the coop, possibly saving our marriage in the process by ensuring the two of us didn’t have to do it by ourselves.
We conveniently got to put the Noyes family to work by having them bury slab boards around the coop’s perimeter to prevent predators from digging their way in to the coop.
Terry helped to set cement over a nasty root that proved impossible to dig through.
Pepper was our constant building companion…at least until we adopted the dog.
One post was a litttttle too short, so we had to screw on a small block to top it off
Our Americorps coworkers came over for a weekend retreat and helped us with various tasks with the coop, including painting the exterior.
The completed frame
Wendell and Ian, the two men in my life! <3
I spent a lot of my time twisting multiple layers of the poultry wire together to seal the gaps.
I’ll probably have callouses on my fingers for weeks now.

And suddenly…the coop was complete and move-in ready. Check back in a few days to read about our adventures buying chickens from our neighbor, releasing them into the coop, and seeing if we can get their moist little bodies to produce eggs for us after all.