We farmy folk had a little bit of head start when the pandemic hit. Years of growing food gave us some practice with sacrifice and self-reliance, not to mention an abundance of farm chores to keep us busy when the world shut down. My husband and I guiltily admitted to each other that parts of that time were actually fun. Our 16- and 18-year-old boys, who for the past few years had been much too busy with sports and jobs and friends, were now trapped at home with us, so bored and deprived of social interaction that they actually participated in dinner table conversation, and yes, even livestock care. Shuttered hardware stores gave my handy husband the opportunity to use up the supply of staples and hinges he had hoarded to mend screen doors and pasture gates. Disrupted supply chains meant digging into the backs of freezers, counting packages of venison and preserved veggies, and planning meals around what we had.
We were feeling a little smug about our frugality, preparedness, and ability to cope. But, as late winter 2020 gave way to early spring, a time when egg production typically is at its most prolific, it became apparent that our hens were nearing the end of their laying cycle, and would need to be replaced with fresh layers. Since most breeds take up to six months to start laying, we needed to start raising our newbies soon, lest we be left without a supply of that readily digestible protein, and more important, the daily routine of getting up early to feed and tend to our flock.
Unfortunately, by late April 2020, our usual suppliers were entirely out of chicks, and unable to take new orders until the fall. Along with hand sanitizer and toilet paper, America had panic-bought all the laying hens. Something about the prolonged distress of a global pandemic makes even those of us who fancy themselves flexible thinkers a bit more susceptible to moments of irrational catastrophizing. Case in point: When my son broke our no-socializing rule during lockdown, I banished him to a tent in the backyard and took to my room, sobbing and convinced we were all infected and facing certain death. My husband had a similarly irrational, if less dramatic, reaction to an inability to secure chicks, as if our very survival hinged upon this one food source. He contacted hatcheries and friends, astounded that something we’d always taken for granted had become such a scarce commodity. But then, finally, while fighting a broody hen for the one precious egg in the coop, he had an epiphany — we have multiple roosters, and frequently witness them doing what it takes to fertilize eggs. The answer was right here in front of us. Why don’t we hatch our own? That night, he ordered an incubator online, and sacrificed a few omlettes for the promise of many to come.
Incubating eggs turned out to be the perfect activity for our anxious brains, an opportunity to exercise control over their little ecosystem when so much in our own world seemed beyond our control. My husband set up the incubator in his office, taking breaks between Zooms to check on his clutch of chickens-to-be. The incubator does most of the actual work, keeping a consistent temperature of 100.5° and the humidity around 55 percent. He added water when alerted to do so, and crossed off days on his wall calendar as hatching time drew near. He bought a special flashlight to candle the eggs and check on their development. Eventually, he was present to welcome the half-bald, damp, and exhausted little creatures to the world.
Once they all hatched, we moved them to a dedicated outdoor coop, due mostly to the pungent poop smell, but also to their reluctance to be contained in a series of increasingly bigger and taller cardboard boxes. We kept on visiting them multiple times per day, their boisterous voices and impossibly fuzzy butts a balm to our pandemic-weary hearts. We immediately made plans for another hatching. Despite how easy the process was for us, we had learned so much and felt a certain pride in our success, a hopefulness that had been missing from our lives for many months.
Two springtimes and numerous baby chicks later, incubating has yet to lose its charm. Our older son has moved out (to the “big city” of Vineyard Haven, but still … away), and the younger one has acquired a driver’s license and a pickup truck and all the corresponding independence. We’re mostly still home together, my husband and I, doing the same old boring, middle-aged farmy stuff we did before we ever heard the term “mask mandate,” just with a newfound appreciation for self-sufficiency and cooperation and the science behind vaccine development.
There is so much we are eager to leave behind: Zoom holidays, social distance, crippling anxiety … But we’ll hold fast to our new traditions. To fire-pit gatherings with friends (why did I waste all that time cleaning my house for cocktail parties before the pandemic?), and not blowing out candles on birthday cakes (what were we thinking? Just ew), to patience, to controlling what we can, and finding some sweet fluffiness to distract us from the things we can’t.