Backyard Bliss: The joy of keeping chickens

A flock of feathered friends brings so much more than just eggs

Every morning I wander into our backyard, cup of tea in hand, and find a sunny spot to spend a few moments soaking up the bliss that is poultry parenthood. I admire our six ‘girls’ enjoying their snacks, searching for hidden treasures and grooming their feathers. Every now and then they have an amusing interaction that warrants a text to my partner at work (Babe, wait till you hear about the cute things the girls did today!).

It’s not all scrambled eggs and cute clucking, but any chicken owner will tell you that they enhance your life in ways beyond the breakfast bench. One of my good friends swears by her chickens’ grounding powers. She says, “It doesn’t matter what’s going on for me. Whenever I sit and watch the chickens it just brings me back into the present and makes me feel good.” 

Organic farmer and founder of Byron Grass Fed, Andrew Cameron, knows the many benefits of keeping chickens. He says, “they fertilise your garden, help reduce fruit flies, scratch around creating a positive impact on your soil, help give life to fruit trees, make use of your leftover kitchen scraps, help make compost and give you fresh, delicious eggs every day! They’re also a great way to introduce children to nature, and just so nice to have around.” 

Before you buy

Andrew explains the importance of having the right set up before you buy your feathered friends. He says, “shelter, laying and roosting spaces, and places to forage on fresh grass and weeds and take dust baths” are essential. “Chickens love shade and scratching around trees so keep that in mind when placing their home…Make sure your chook pen is snake proof as well as having protection at night from any predators”, he says.

If you’re in it for the eggs, you’ll want to buy them at around 18 weeks (they start laying at around 20-22 weeks). In terms of costs, the chickens themselves will set you back around $25, and then it’s about $5 a month per chook for food. Apart from that it’s just the set-up costs, which will vary depending on how luxurious your coop is. 

You’ll need:

  • A safe and comfortable coop, with plenty of shade, roosting space and access to greens and dust
  • Comfortable laying boxes (filled with straw/wood shavings) that are dark and safe for laying
  • A roosting spot to perch on at night (high up from the ground, the right shape for their feet and level)
  • Plenty of space so that they’re not overcrowded
  • Easy access to food and water
  • Diatomaceous earth – add to their nesting boxes and dust bathing areas to deter mites
  • Pellets (in addition to food scraps)

Choosing your chooks

When choosing your chooks, you have a few options: Heritage, Hybrid or Retired. 

Andrew explains that heritage have been less impacted by commercial breeding and so hold more genuine characteristics of older breeds. They tend to lay less but live longer and are a good option if you’re thinking of eating them down the track (provided you don’t grow too attached like me!). Heritage breeds include Sussex, Australorps (Australian breed), Orpingtons, Anacodas, Pylmouth Rocks, Silkies etc.  

Hybrid layers are more common and lay a lot in the first year or so before slowing down. Some common hybrids include Lawmans, Hylines and Isa Browns. 

If you ask Andrew what he recommends, he’ll always say retired girls. By buying a chicken from a local, commercial farm or hen rescue group, you’ll give them a chance to live a longer life after doing their job for a farm, and you’ll still get plenty of eggs.

We’ve experienced many ups and downs along the journey of poultry parenthood – from angry neighbours who received a few too many visits from our feathered friends, to the sheer joy that comes with your flock frantically waddling towards you when they’re called. But one thing’s for sure – I wouldn’t trade my girls for the world. 

For more about Andrew and some cool resources, check out www.byrongrassfed.com.au

Words by Jessica Humphries for Being magazine

Parenting across the globe

What other cultures can teach us about raising well-rounded human beings

The proverb, ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ is a widespread sentiment throughout African cultures. Though there are many variations of the phrase, they all point to one philosophy: having an abundance of parental figures and influences is essential for raising happy, healthy kids. 

Let’s be honest, no matter where in the globe you reside, parenting can be a tough gig. I would know – I’m the world’s most hands-on Aunty to two wild little boys. I’ve been called ‘mama Jess’ more times than I can count, and spent more hours than I’d like to admit hanging my head in my hands, post toddler-tantrum, pouring over where I went wrong. I’m intimately aware that parenting is simultaneously rewarding and thankless; equally terrifying, boring, exhausting and exhilarating. And that’s just the beginning. 

In my family, the kids have more mum and dad-like figures than your average Joe. Just yesterday I asked Mr 4, “Who’s in your family?” to which he answered confidently, “Grandma, Aunty Jess, Mum and Dad.” Of course there are more, but this is the core crew – the every-damn-day parents. Each day the whole tribe bands together to get through this rollercoaster ride of child rearing. This is, however, a rare picture in our society, with many parents finding themselves far less supported on the journey.  

Not only do we tend to be more isolated than other cultures, but our approach to raising children is vastly different. We helicopter (helicopter!), wrap our kids in cotton wool, deny our intuition in favour of the latest parenting podcast and constantly acquiesce to our children’s ever-changing whims. The times are changing, and while we’ve definitely made some positive changes (when I was a little girl, a smack was standard punishment), there’s much to learn from other cultures and their traditions. 

How in the world do they do it? 

Like my own family, many societies approach child rearing in a community-focussed fashion. This is one of the major differences that paediatrician and author of Feed the Baby Hummus: Paediatrician-backed secrets from cultures around the world, Dr Lisa Lewis, has observed. She says, “One major difference that stands out is our push for independence as opposed to interdependence...Many countries around the world prioritise helping out family members daily, with extended family members living together on a regular basis. Commonly in the west, when a mother delivers a baby she is expected to go home and care for the baby on her own.”

In traditional Chinese culture, for forty-days post-partum the extended family follows a strict set of rules that involves helping out and nourishing the new mum. In her book The First Forty Days, Heng Ou says, “In traditional zuo yuezi, it’s said that birth leaves a mother in an extremely open state, more susceptible than normal to physical and emotional strain…The traditional justification for conserving and building chi, or energy, through rest and excellent nutrition is equally relevant today. Forty days of care today is thought to lead to forty years of vital womanhood tomorrow.”

Community, unity and questioning the norm

In many traditional African communities, the child is seen as not just belonging to the family, but to the whole society. Here, the entire extended family takes responsibility for raising the child and everyone is an aunt, uncle or grandparent. 

For Lisa, one of the greatest lessons we can learn from other cultures is to foster a sense of community and family unity. We could, for example, take a leaf out of the Batek people’s book and loosen our grip on typical roles. Lisa explains, “In Batek culture, there is no concept of a primary caregiver in the early years. Both mother and father spend a lot of time nurturing their babies. Batek husbands and wives together decide where to live and what kind of work they will do.”

Jessica Joelle Alexander (@jessicajoellealexander) is a Danish parenting expert, cultural researcher and author of The Danish way of Parenting: what the happiest people in the world know about raising confident, capable kids. One of the inspirations for her book was her observation of the differences between how Scandinavian countries and Americans raise children. She says, “In Italy children are allowed to stay up late and even stay out until 11 or 12 at night. In Norway kids are put to sleep outside in minus 20-degree weather. In Belgium parents let their children drink beer. For all of these cultures it seems like the “right” way and other ways seem strange. Being an American married to a Dane I always saw something special about the Danish culture. The children were so calm and serene and happy and I began to study the parenting model. I discovered many things that were very different from the American ways and when I had my own children I began to implement the Danish model into my own parenting with great success.” (See breakout box for details). 

What can we learn? 

The idea of taking notes on how other cultures parent feels a little ironic at this point – parenting isn’t just about ticking boxes and smashing goals. It’s deeply intuitive, requiring a sense of self-reflection and the curiosity to grow and learn as much as your children do.  

If we want to integrate lessons from other cultures into the way we raise our own families, we need to both philosophically resonate with the ideas of that culture and be willing to question (and possibly let go of) the norms of our own society. Lisa uses the example of how Japanese parents respond to crying babies to illustrate this point. She says, “Japanese parents respond very quickly to a distressed infant, and in Japan there is no concept of a baby “crying it out.”  Co-sleeping is common in Japan, as well.” If this is something that resonates with you, she says, then behaving in this way will come naturally, but it doesn’t mean you will go uncriticised (welcome to parent-hood!). She explains, “Often changes not widely accepted by society or a parent’s extended family can be frowned upon by others.” So what’s a girl/guy to do? “To this problem I would say gently educate those in your life about the importance of understanding both cultural and parenting differences. If a parenting style is not harming a child, why not respect the difference?”

For Jessica, it’s all about being open minded enough to take a closer look at your own social programming, and seeing how the way you were raised deeply influences your own beliefs. This is the way, if we choose, to implement the positive changes that resonate with us.  She says, “I always tell parents to try to choose two things they would like to change for their children from the way they were raised. Whether that is not spanking or being less controlling or being more affectionate or more empathic-everyone is different. But only by examining these default settings and doing some introspection can change ourselves and the future for the better.”

Without judging our own way of being, there are so many gems of wisdom available to us through observing the parenting styles of other cultures. The one thing we all have in common? Love for our children! Jessica puts it perfectly, “I think the belief is that- if I am doing things right (breast feeding or not breastfeeding, working or not working -just to name a few of the big divides) then I am ok. But the truth is we are all struggling in this magnificent journey and there is no right way to parent. The more we connect in empathy and vulnerability, the more connected and happy we will be.”

Lessons from the Danes – Advice from author of The Danish way of Parenting

  • Don’t overschedule kids lives. They need time to play. This is how children learn and build life skills.
  • Be honest and don’t over praise.
  • Build a growth mindset-teach them they can do anything with hard work and that intelligence is not fixed.
  • Help them reframe. That is -how to find the positive details in an otherwise negative situation. This becomes a habit they can use for life.
  • Don’t ever use physical punishment and try to yell as little as possible. We can’t expect our kids to control themselves if we can’t control ourselves.
  • Be empathic. 
  • Practice “hygge”-the Danish art of cozying around together. It’s not mindfulness-it’s “we-fulness”.
  • Teach respect, be respectful and you will be respected.

Words by Jessica Humphries for Being magazine

Surrender to simplicity

How living with less can create more

I still vividly remember a conversation I had with my best friend 10 years ago. We were on a six-month sabbatical from our corporate jobs and travelling through Southeast Asia. One night, whilst sitting on our bungalow balcony, she looked at me and asked, “How much money do you want to be making in ten years?” I considered the question and answered something along the lines of “Probably around 80K.” But then I paused, considered a little more and piped up, “Wait, no. I don’t think I care how much money I make. I just want to be happy.” Epiphany had! 

Less than a year later I left my 9-5 city job in Sydney and moved to the humble Northern Rivers of New South Wales. Ten years later and I’ve barely looked back, slowly transitioning from ambitious career-gal to part-time yoga teacher, writer and Aunty. Each morning I wake up, do my yoga practice, perch myself in a sunny patch in the backyard and watch my chickens frolic, then go about my day pottering around the house, helping my sister with my nephews, visiting family and friends, taking care of life logistics and occasionally (about 10 hours a week) writing a story or teaching a yoga class. This earns me enough to pay off a humble mortgage with my partner and generally get by. Occasionally I’ll have a busy week or two (or three!) where the sun’s shining and I make hay. I’ve had to overcome a lot of insecurities along the way but it’s a good life, let me tell you! 

While I know the simple life is not for everyone (I’m sure many people would find it impossibly dull), if you’re craving simplicity, it’s absolutely yours for the taking, and not nearly as terrifying as you might think (or others would have you believe).  

Even for those of us who crave a simpler existence, somewhere in the evolution of our crazy consumer culture we’ve managed to convince ourselves that more is less. We buy the books that tell us how to simplify, the storage solutions to tidy our space and the label maker so that we know what everything is (no judgement – I actually did this last week) only to look around a few months later and realise that not only do we have more “stuff”, but we’re no closer to feeling peaceful than we were at the start of our simplification goal. But you see, the goal in itself is part of the problem. For as soon as we fulfill one desire, another one promptly appears to fill its space. So, instead of working so hard to accumulate all the things so that we can finally relax, wouldn’t it be easier to minimise our material cravings? Trust me, I say this as much for me as for you (I have been known to drift off at night dreaming of homewares): simplifying is a largely internal job. 

Dealing with desire: Wise words from Buddhism 

According to Buddhism, desire is the root of much suffering. By craving pleasure, material goods and immortality, we inevitably put ourselves in a position to suffer by becoming attached to things that are impermanent. Imagine if, when you went to buy something new, you considered what condition it would be in in another 10- or 20-years’ time. That shiny new toy may one day be the same object that arouses contempt as it’s thrown in the ‘throw-out pile’. The Buddhist points out that everything you are attached to is temporary, and ultimately the source of great suffering. Anything that we crave, desire and attach ourselves to is temporary, and so its loss creates pain. Attachment, of course, cannot realistically be completely avoided (except, perhaps, for the monk who spends his life in a cave) but exploring our attachments may allow us to become less tied to them and therefore, in a sense, freer. 

Embracing less

Annie Raser-Rowland can vouch for the benefits of living simply – she even co-wrote a very entertaining and inspiring book on the topic. The Art of Frugal Hedonism is all about how to lead the best life without selling your soul and giving into the grind. The best parts of choosing to embrace living with less (money, that is!)? “Getting to do work you love doing because you don’t need much income really is indescribably luxurious, taking holidays at least three times as often as most people, and staying healthy – because home cooking with whole ingredients plus no car really makes that much more likely”, she says.

Don’t worry, I’m not suggesting you get rid of your wheels – just maybe think twice next time you go to buy yourself a treat after a long week at the office. Annie agrees, “Don’t fall for the ‘treat yourself – you deserve it’ spin that has become a mainstay of advertising these days. Usually, the treats being marketed make you feel somewhere between unfulfilled and distinctly worse once you’ve consumed them. Most people actually find greater satisfaction in pushing themselves to do something challenging than they do in consuming yet one more product that our planet can’t afford and that our ancestors would’ve considered obscenely extravagant.” Hear hear! 

The quiet life

One of my favourite modern philosophers, Alain De Botton, has dedicated an essay in praise of the quiet life(aptly named, In Praise of the Quiet Life)via The School of Life (www.theschooloflife.com). In it, he says, ‘There are for many of us plenty of options to take up certain career paths that carry high prestige with them. We could have something deeply impressive to answer those who ask us what we do. But this does not necessarily mean we must or should follow these possibilities. When we come to know the true price some careers exact, we may slowly realise we are not willing to pay for the ensuing envy, feat, deceit and anxiety. We may – for the sake of true riches – willingly, and with no loss of dignity, opt to become a little poorer and more obscure.” 

We are, it seems, in a bit of a habit of piling an endless amount of stuff on our plate and then wondering why we’re overwhelmed. This ‘stuff’ is not always material, but exists metaphorically in the workplace, in our social lives and at home. We over-commit ourselves because, perhaps, we’re a little bit scared of what other people might think if we don’t appear very busy or own lots of nice things. But in order to reap the rewards of a simple life, we must be willing to look into our psyches, and realise that these concerns are actually kind of silly when it comes down to it.   

You don’t need to give up all your worldly possessions and move to Byron Bay to embrace simplicity. You might turn off your phone for a day in the bush, spend a little less time with your notoriously unreliable friend, or swap your Sunday morning café brunch for some bacon and eggs around a backyard fire pit. Or, you might completely change your life. Either way, at the end of the day, you won’t regret it – I certainly never did. 

Words by Jessica Humphries for Being magazine

Lessons from the Blue Zones

What the world’s longest living cultures can teach us about the good life

Recently, I’ve found myself absolutely enamoured by communities that are renowned for longevity. In my mind, these broad-smiling Italians sit in humble courtyards on low to the ground seats (glass of wine in hand and a cheese platter nearby), surrounded by family and friends. They take slow strolls around their neighbourhoods, while away the hours in the garden, enjoy daily siestas and never ever rush. They don’t count calories, write to-do lists or keep a journal of the things that they’re grateful for – because gratitude is just a natural part of their existence. They’re not pushing or striving to live long, healthy lives by stocking up on the latest super food powders and walking the perfect number of steps each day. They’re not striving for anything – they are simply being, in the most delightful sense of the word. These are the people that we, ironically, aspire to be. 

This of course is a picture painted in my own mental landscape – but I’m not the only one charmed by the idea. In fact, people have been actively studying ‘Blue Zones’ since 2005, when Dan Buettner coined (and trademarked) the term in his National Geographic article, The Secrets of a Long Life. Here, Buettner shared five regions in the world where populations live healthier and longer lives than others. These regions were: Okinawa (Japan), Sardinia (Italy), Nicoya (Costa Rica), Ikaria (Greece) and the Seventh-day Adventist community of Loma Linda (California). Since then, Buettner has integrated the ideas of these societies into other parts of the world, creating outstanding results. Others have also jumped on the bandwagon of longevity curiosity, and there’s now an abundance of research that delves into the secrets of long-lasting health and happiness. 

So, what’s the secret?

Kale Brock is one such Australian researcher who has written a book (The Longevity Book) and created a documentary (The Longevity Film) exploring the topic. During his research, Brock observed four main pillars of long-living cultures: Nutrition, movement, community and mindset. He says, “People in these cultures are eating a seasonal, local, organic and whole foods diet with very little or no processed food. Most often they grow their own!” He goes on to explain that the individuals in these societies get most of their ‘exercise’ from incidental movement that’s constant throughout the day, as opposed to many of us who smash out a quick gym session before sitting at a computer for ten hours. Brock also noticed that people in Blue Zones are very community focussed, “With an open door policy and a very socialistic mindset, humanistic engagement is rife throughout these places and smart phones are not. People talk to each other and smile, they hug each other and dance or sit back in a rocking chair to watch the afternoon go by as they sip a glass of red wine or a coffee”, he says. Finally, there’s a grace in ageing and an all round attitude of gratitude. Brock muses, “I would say most of the people over 90 that we met had an affable cheekiness about them that was very attractive…These people don’t take themselves too seriously. They’re not prone to panic or stress about the small things; there is a prominent sense of stoicism and pride amongst these people as they grow older and wiser.” 

In his 2009 Ted Talk How to Live to be 100 + Buettner explains that lifestyle impacts longevity far more than genes. Although the study of longevity genes is a developing science, it’s clear that lifestyle can impact longevity in a significant way. Therefore, if we can find the optimal lifestyle for longevity then we can come up with a formula to follow ourselves. He says, “The best science tells us that the capacity of the human body is about 90 years, but life expectancy (in the US) is only 78.” However, in the Blue Zones, people are living well into their nineties and beyond. The secret? For Buettner, it’s how societies are organised. In Sardinia, social equity tends to increase with age, and therefore older people are very respected and valued, giving them a strong sense of purpose and belonging. In Okinawa, they eat a mostly plant-based diet with a big focus on moderation, have strong family relationships and a deep sense of purpose. And, in the American Adventist culture they dedicate 24 hours a week to devotion, nurturing their social networks and taking walks in nature. Buettner’s research uncovered nine evidence-based commonalities of the Blue Zones, known as the “power nine”. 

The power 9: Top tips for longevity 

Moderate, regular physical activity: There’s very little formal exercise in the Blue Zones, but incidental exercise is a big part of daily life. Lives are set up so that people are constantly nudged into physical activity. They are consistently moving between sitting and standing, walking up and down stairs, strolling to the store or to friends’ houses. When they do participate in intentional activity it’s something they genuinely enjoy. 

Slow, mindful living: Everything is practiced slowly and mindfully, leaving little room for stress. Blue Zone inhabitants are often found with a glass of wine in hand, enjoying time with family, taking an afternoon nap or generally indulging in a slower pace of living. 

Purpose:  The Japanese even have a word for it: ikagai – your reason for waking up in the morning. For one woman interviewed by Buettner it was her great great grand daughter. People in the Blue Zones have a strong sense of purpose that they practice in their daily life, which often revolves around family and community.

Sustenance: Diet (in the sense that we use it) isn’t even a concept in these cultures. Food is about sustenance and is often fresh from the garden. Blue Zoners tend to eat a mostly plant-based, colourful diet that’s very low in processed foods and high in seasonal fruit and vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts and seeds.  

Moderation: When they do eat, they tend not to over-indulge. In Okinawa they have strategies for over-eating, and eat only until they are 80% full. 

Enjoy a glass of wine: Again, moderation is key, but it’s not uncommon to find people in Blue Zones drinking a glass of wine with dinner. The Sardinians regularly enjoy a red wine rich in flavonoids, and always with friends. 

Faith/Community: People in Blue Zones tend to belong to a faith-based community, with strong social ties and rituals related to their religion. 

Engagement in social life – with the right people: Belonging to a tribe that is happy and healthy, whether you are born into it or actively seek it out, is an essential pillar of long-living cultures. 

Family first: There’s a big focus on family in these communities, and researchers even found a strong connection between these relationships and lowered rates of chronic illness. 

Happiness and longevity

There’s no denying that happiness and longevity go hand in hand. Those things that support us into our nineties, like good relationships, good food, a sense of purpose and a delicious drop of red undoubtedly contribute to our overall sense of joy in life. Brock agrees, “In the longevity cultures there is an omnipotent sense of contentedness that I’ve never seen or felt anywhere else in the world. These people operate with a deep present state awareness in all that they do, regardless if it’s a chore or a fun experience. If you have to work for ten hours today on the farm, that’s okay, there’s no rush or reason to stress – everything will happen when it’s meant to.” 

Creating your own Blue Zone: Integrating the lessons into our lives

As well as writing a number of articles and books on the topic, Buettner is also the founder of Blue Zones – an organisation committed to providing information on long-living communities and integrating them into other societies. He has created a number of successful community projects in the US that utilise philosophies from the Blue Zones to enhance the wellbeing of its citizens. One such project was recently undertaken in Fort Worth, Texas. In 2013, Fort Worth was one of the lowest ranked cities in the country for health and wellbeing. This was based on the American Well-being Index – a system used to assess Americans’ perception of their lives and daily experiences through five interrelated elements – purpose, social, financial, community and physical. Five years after the project began, the overall wellbeing of the town’s inhabitants had risen, bringing them to the top 20% of the country. In 2019, residents were reporting higher levels of city pride, exercising more, socialising more and smoking less than when they embarked on their Blue Zones Project journey. 

The project was designed to make healthy choices easier through permanent changes to the community’s environment, policy and social networks. Creating things like active transportation, safe routes to school, tobacco-free zones, spaces to de-stress, school gardens and corner-store transformations as well as free cooking demonstrations and purpose workshops all worked to gently nudge people towards healthier choices. The project’s outcomes included an increase in physical activity, residents reporting greater levels of happiness, and an increase in produce consumption. Of course, it costs to implement these changes, but millions were saved as health and work productivity improved. 

Similar projects have been rolled out in a number of US cities with equally promising results. Overall, the country has dropped in reported levels of wellbeing, however, in the Blue Zone project areas wellbeing continues to rise. 

Not all of us are fortunate enough to invite the Blue Zone Projects into our own cities, so I ask Kale what advice he would give to someone living in Australia who wants to integrate some longevity habits and philosophies into their own life. He says, “Tweak your life so that small changes become much easier to integrate into your regular routine. Instead of driving to work, why not walk? Or cycle? Or car pool with a friend to enjoy some conversation along the way? Got a work meeting? Make it an active one by walking and talking along the way to a local cafe. Grow your own vegetables and fruit or visit your local farmers markets to source seasonal, local, organic and whole food produce. Engage with your local community on a regular basis by volunteering or starting up a service-based business which gets you talking to people. I honestly now believe that the conversations I have as I walk down the street are as nourishing to me as my green smoothie in the morning.” 

While it may not always be practical to take a daily siesta or invite the whole family over to dance as the sun sets, we can make movements towards being more socially connected and healthy. We can roll out our yoga mat each morning and commit to enjoying the sensation of moving freely. We can call our sister for a daily chat over a glass of red. We can eat more vegetables, ditch the supermarket for the farmers markets where possible, and find a sense of purpose in the work that we choose to do. We can sing in the shower and count our blessings daily, even when it feels as though the world is crumbling around us. And we can let that hug linger just a little bit longer. Because, regardless of whether you live to be 50 or 100, what is life without connection? 

Words by Jessica Humphries for Wellbeing Magazine

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