Last week I knew I had a three day weekend coming up and I didn’t exactly know what to do with it, so I thought I’d offer my help to anyone who needed it. Amazingly, the very first person I asked was willing to take me up on my offer and asked if I wanted to drive up to Bonifay to help out on the farm and build a chicken coop. Can’t say I’ve ever done it, but I’m always up for something new. I was asked to meet up at the farm around 6:30 AM to grab some breakfast before we got started.
Renee Savary, who owns and operates the certified organic farm, is originally from Switzerland and has been living in Florida for the better part of the last two decades. Prior to buying the farm three years ago and changing her life forever, she was living down in Miami working as a real estate broker and stumbled upon the property she now calls home completely by accident. Renee is a Master Gardener who has always enjoyed what she calls “real food” and is shocked that we Americans happily shove “scary stuff put in jars” and random additives down our throats without a second thought. Since starting the farm and producing her preserves (all made using local, organic fruit) she has made it a point to try and explain to anyone who will listen about the fact that they’re being misinformed about what they’re eating. One additive she hates is Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C), which you see in your store-bought preserves, as isn’t being squeezed in from oranges and is instead created in a lab and imported in from China.
I rolled up to Twin Oaks Farm just as the sun was rising and could barely make out the details of the farmhouse in the layer of fog that was clinging to everything. Renee met me outside, thanked me for coming and ushered me in to the house where she was both cooking breakfast for me as well as making breakfast for her many cats and new puppy, Maxwell. While waiting for breakfast to cook, I met the one animal allowed inside, Carrot Top the cat, who really enjoys as much attention as you can give him.
My breakfast was three chicken eggs (raised on the farm, of course) some homemade sourdough and homemade preserves… had to get my energy up for the day ahead! After breakfast, over which there was much discussion, we headed out for the start of the work day. First up, we had to feed the cats, which was simple enough, then it was time to get the feed ready for the chickens and ducks. Renee filled about 10 large buckets with certified organic soy-free feed and I carried them over to the tractor, and once finished we headed down to the field. While Twin Oaks sits on over 90 acres, currently only a portion of it is being actively used, though Renee sees herself eventually scaling up as her requests for eggs have jumped up enormously over the past year.
Coming up on the grazing area was beautiful in the fog, and as we got closer we saw a visitor waiting for us, Maxwell, the 3 month old Great Pyrenees. He might be small now, but these guys get very big and are used as livestock guardian dogs, which is just the reason he’s here. Lately there has been an unwanted visitor sneaking in and eating chickens and Max has been brought in to make that stop. Once we disabled Renee’s new solar-powered electric fence, it was time to let loose the chickens and ducks for breakfast and a day of wandering the property. One thing I learned was that ducks are a bit more neurotic (as Renee calls it) compared to the chickens. When the coops are opened, the chickens come running out, spread out and start eating… they pretty much ignore you. The ducks, however, travel in a tight pack and quack loudly when seeing a person, tending to immediately run in the opposite direction.
Once the animals were out and fed, it was time to head up to the house and start building a new chicken coop. This coop wasn’t some Ikea-type chicken coop that you may be thinking of… there was no “Insert Part A into Part B” here, this was gonna be built using planks of wood, steel fencing and chicken wire. With Renee cutting, me drilling and both of us tackling the actual building, we got the wooden bottom and metal upper frame bent and secured into place just in time for a quick snack inside. I was treated to a bowl of granola from Raw & Juicy, topped with homemade yogurt and homemade preserves, simple and delicious. We decided to check on the animals to make sure all was well before getting back to work, and one quick look later we were back at it.
The next couple hours whizzed by as we built the rear supports and hammered it into place. Once that was all done we built the front supports and the door frame. During this time Renee got a visitor so I took a moment to take some pictures of her ducks who had made it up to the house. Now, one very interesting thing that you’ll notice in the pictures is that these ducks are hanging out in an in-ground pool that has been converted for them to use. Let me tell you, never have I see happier looking ducks, splashing around and grooming… they were so involved they didn’t even notice me sneaking up for the pictures. Soon it was time for lunch and we went in and Renee gave me a real treat. She decided that since she knew I liked them, she’d make me some sauteed chicken livers and onions in a red wine sauce over brown rice along with a fresh salad and homemade vinaigrette. Now let me tell you something, I could honestly eat that meal once a week for the rest of my life and never get sick of it. Once lunch and conversation was over, back out we went for the final push to get the coop completed before it was feeding time for the animals.
While it doesn’t seem like it, covering the coop with chicken wire took the longest part of the day and in the end we completed everything except installing the door and covering the coop with a tarp. Not too bad. As the sun was starting to set we decided to go feed the animals and gather eggs one last time (which I got to do myself… was pretty fun, you should try it if you never have) before I headed home for the day. Max was quite happy to see us, as were the chickens… whenever Renee came by with food they formed a line and began to follow her.
In the end, even though I was on the farm from sun-up to sun-down, it was a great experience. I think that everyone should spend a day like this if they get a chance to just get their hands dirty and to see what it takes to get the food from the field to the plate. Not only would a day like this benefit you, it’d also help the farmers, who usually can always use a spare hand here or there. I’d really like to thank Renee for the food, conversation and for allowing me to photograph some of the everyday goings on at the farm. I have a feeling this won’t be the last time I’m there. If you’d like to see some more photos from my time out there, please click here to go to my full gallery: “Not Farmville” Gallery