Have you ever taken someone to your favorite restaurant, and you are so excited for them to experience the food and atmosphere that won you over? You kind of have this restrained anticipation, but you don’t want to gush over it too much and ruin their expectations. If the night goes well, you get that smiling contentment when they tell you it is now their favorite restaurant, too.
This is what I feel like when I run into a Permaculturist or homesteader who has not heard of Harvey Ussery. His book, The Small-Scale Poultry Flock, is in my opinion, the best book on the subject. It is comprehensive without being overwhelming, and Harvey’s writing makes the whole process of raising chickens seem entirely doable to those who have never done it, yet he has a lot to teach experienced homesteaders. With over 30 years of experience, he has a Permaculture mind toward simple, yet efficient systems that are natural and sustainable. I believe you would be hard pressed to raise healthier chickens using a different model.
When I had the chance to visit Harvey at his homestead in Virginia, I was thrilled. Unfortunately, the only time that worked with our schedules was the day after a small snow storm, so his homestead was covered in snow. The homestead was still in its Winter rest, but I didn’t mind too much. Most farms and homesteads not only look worse in the Winter, but beacuse of poor design and lack of good systems, they can be filthy, unhealthy places. But not the Ussery Homestead. The fact that I can visit a homestead at the end of Winter and still see healthy, happy animals living in good conditions is a testament to the poultry system that Harvey has set up which continues to care for his birds well in times that other farmers struggle.
After a cup of coffee and a pleasant chat at the kitchen table, we took a trip out to the chicken coop. After reading Harvey’s book, it was great to see the coop in person. And I don’t know how many chicken coops you have been in, but a traditional coop is not a place most people want to spend much time… because it stinks! I had read about how Harvey uses deep bedding in his coop which serves multiple functions (food, nutrients, scratching activity, dusting material, heat from the composting process, etc.), but I was pleasantly surprised at the complete lack of odor. I kept taking deep breathes through my nose, trying to get a wiff of anything bad, but I couldn’t. I told Harvey how thrilled I was that there was no bad odor. Harvey smiled at me, and said that is one of the most common comments about his coop. This reminded me of Joel Salatin’s statement that a farm should be an aromatically pleasant place, or you are doing something wrong. Well, here was more evidence of Harvey doing things right.
The coop itself is divided into three sections each containing a separate flock of Icelandic Chickens. He has a breeding rotation with this closed flock that will not require additional genetics for at least 20 years (if I remember correctly). I could go into more detail describing this breeding program, but Harvey has explained it so well in his book that I just tell people to learn more about it there. It is quite a simple system, but it works exceedingly well.
I also have to add that I may have been sold on the Icelandic Chicken as possibly the best homestead chicken breed for Temperate Climates. They are good layers and good meat birds. They are docile. They are good foragers. They are appropriately broody. They do well in this system, which I believe is a fantastic system for a homesteader. And they are a landrace. A landrace breed is a breed of animal that has developed from isolation and neglect. Most other breeds of animal have been selected for specific traits (color, size, shape, lack of broodiness, etc.) by breeders with a goal in mind… to create a chicken that lays the most eggs possible or to create a chicken that gains weight really fast. But a landrace is a breed that was kind of left to its own devices. The chickens that survived their environment were the ones that passed on their genes. Landraces usually end up being very hardy, disease resistant, pest resistant, and low maintenance. They often have a high degree of genetic variability as well, and this is the part I really like. In chickens, this means that some may be smaller and some may be larger, comb shapes will be different, feather color and patterns will be variable. This ultimately means that a landrace is often more adaptable to a wider variety of climates and environments, because the genetics are there… they haven’t been bred out of the breed. If you have a good breeding program in place, the genetics for adaptation to cold or humidity or wind or whatever can be selected for, and over time, you will end up with a sub-breed that is ideally suited to your specific location and conditions.
Again, there was a lot more to his chicken coop and runs, and my photos of snow-covered ground just don’t do it justice, so I will direct everyone to his book for more information (with photos and illustrations) about Harvey’s poultry set-up.
After the coop, we headed over to the hoophouse. I was rather cold after beind outside and walking in the snow, so stepping into the hoophouse was like stepping into a sauna. I had to immediately take off my coat and hat, and I had to wait about 10 minutes for the fog on my camera lens to clear. Harvey had just started putting out seedlings in the beds, so there was not much greenery. However, there was still a lot of life in there. Right down the center of the hoophouse are the worm beds. The worm beds are covered with wood to serve as a walkway. Organic material and kitchen scraps are thrown in to feed the worms. The worms provide decomposition of waste material, they provide worm castings (worm “castings” are just another name for worm manure… it is an amazing natural fertilizer, full of nutrients, beneficial bacteria, and enzymes that are wonderful for a garden), and the worms are a prized food supply for the chickens.
While I would love to visit again when all the plants are green and in flower and the chickens are at their prime, there was still a lot to see. We toured the snow-covered garden as well as his neighbor’s homested, before we went back inside. We defrosted a bit and then enjoyed a wonderful chicken curry prepared by Harvey’s lovely wife Ellen.
And I will recommend his website: The Modern Homestead
As a bit of a teaser to his book, I will also share a couple of links to some of Harvey’s writing on chickens from other sites:
- Providing Natural Poultry Feed (Mother Earth News)
- Homestead Chickens Increase Self-Sufficiency (Community Chickens)
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Photo References: All photos in this article are mine (except the first one of Harvey Ussery which is linked from the photo… how did I not take a photo with him?! ) If you would like to use any of my photos, please let me know!