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The newbies duck in a dark corner, acutely aware that they are the lowest in the pecking order. They arrived this morning. At first they trod gingerly in the garden, nervous but also relieved to have escaped the night’s raid.
When we brought them in with the others, they knew that more trials were awaiting them. The other hens have been living here for over a year. They look fat and healthy, and they take their privileges for granted. Usually they can swarm out not only around the garden but all over the farm, picking worms and exploring sheds and thickets. Today they are suddenly locked into the shed with these fearful invaders, small terrified hens whose bare flesh shows clearly between some rumpled feathers that have remained.
Outside, beyond the garden fence, huge tractors and carts move noisily over the farm, bringing loads of new potatoes. The potato harvest has been going on for several weeks, but it is only these days that the barn opposite is being used. A handful of helpers line the conveyor belts, picking out green, small, mouldy, or weirdly shaped potatoes. The remainder is carried up into wooden boxes on the second floor of the barn. The roar hanging over the scene comes from a huge fan installed there so that the new potatoes can dry a bit more, to prevent them from rotting.
When one of the new hens, which looks almost normal apart from its almost white crest, dares to come nearer, the others peck vigorously at her. Even Gwendolyn, heavy but shy, joins in. Until yesterday it used to be her who was mobbed. In fact, Gwendolyn and the other established hens all looked similarly bare when they arrived a year ago. We propose Polyester as a fitting name for one of the four new chicken that looks only half-plucked. Polly will have to start working on her outfit before the winter sets in.
The hectic work outside intensifies. It is the last day of the potato harvest. We go to visit the workers out on the field, where a huge red machine ploughs up and down the land. Irritated, the driver waves us to hurry up to the second floor. A team of five is busy throwing out stones and twigs from between the potatoes that the machine is digging up and transporting to the top. After this first sorting, they fall into a crate.
“Say, if we have 350 acres, and on each acre we harvest about – no, that should be hectares. How many hundredweights per hectare, do you reckon?” Karl, the owner of the potato rooter, gets entangled in his numbers and traditional measures. “I think we do about 40 tons per day” he concludes finally when we climb down from the iron dinosaur.
The next day, when we open the flap to the outside world, the old chicken team sets out into the garden. Thorsten, the rooster, crows energetically, and soon the hens are at work frightening the local worms. The newcomers stay in, but at least they get some food and some rest, and they start laying eggs as soon as they can grab a seat. After all, that’s what they have been bred to do, and they can’t help laying an egg at least every other day. Although they are survivors from an organic farm, the hens are genetically programmed to produce more eggs than their bodies can manage even with the high-tech power food they are fed. Huge group numbers and a lack of space add to their stress. After a year or two, when their productivity drops below market requirements, the whole stable is cleaned out and the hens are taken away to be made into chicken stock. Polly and her friends have managed to hide somewhere during the evacuation. Thus they have earned their ticket to this refuge opposite the potato barn. H., the friend for whom we are house-sitting, offers them a Retirement Residence without egg-laying pressure. “Just because it’s so nice to see them run around.”
Congratulations, Polly: Lifelong Learning means that you will soon figure out what a worm is.