Dominiques, Brahmans, Buff Orpingtons, Wyandottes, Araucanas, and Barnevelders—these are Heather’s Heritage Hens. On a warm, clear day in early March the hens were chasing each other around the pasture, pecking everywhere, and basking in spring sunshine while the roosters crowed. The chickens Heather McKee raises are heritage breeds, which means they belong to chicken breeds that were recognized before the 20th century. Over the past 100 years, chickens (as well as other livestock and plants) have been crossbred to create animals that are productive, efficient, reliable, and uniform. The downside of this breeding means that distinct genetic variation is often lost. Heritage breeds retain some of that variation, which can express itself in traits that make a particular breed better suited to specific climates or purposes. Heather has specifically chosen to raise chicken breeds that will do well in Montana; most importantly this means they are cold hardy, but also they will lay eggs for 3-5 years rather than the standard 2 years.

Heather grew up in suburban Illinois. She credits her interest in animal husbandry with the Montessori school she attended as a child, where her class was responsible for taking care of a menagerie of animals including goats, chickens, and ducks. This early tactile experience with animals was influential, but she told me that maybe farming is also in her blood; her grandmother had a large egg laying operation as well as a dairy. Heather’s early interest in plants and animals, translated to a college degree in biology. After graduating she found she was also passionate about environmental education—teaching people about the world around them and their impact on it. Her chicken business was a natural outgrowth of her interests in environmental education and biology. She started the operation as part of her master’s portfolio project at the University of Montana. With the help of the Environmental Studies Program and Garden City Harvest she acquired the heritage birds and built the egg-mobile (a chicken house that can be moved to new pasture periodically), and since finishing her master’s degree, Heather has taken over full ownership of the laying operation.

Heather has about 200 hens and she sells her eggs through an egg-share in which customers pay in advance for a certain number of eggs each week (half a dozen, one dozen, or two dozen) and pick up their eggs at the chicken pasture. When customers arrive, they are invited to do more than just pick up a carton of eggs and drive off. On that bright, warm March Sunday many visiting customers took the opportunity to learn more about the chickens. Some people toured the mobile chicken house, where kids collected eggs with their parents, while other people just liked to sit and watch the hens go about their mysterious business. A highlight for most people, kids and adults alike, was feeding the chickens bits of day old bagels that Heather gets from a shop in town. A visitor tore off a piece of bagel and threw it over the fence. The chickens, in a noisy, wild mob, ran to find the bagel. As one hen picked it up in her beak and ran off, the others followed in close pursuit. Then another piece of bagel sailed over the fence, and mayhem again ensued as the chickens flocked toward the bagel, forgetting the hen that had snared the first piece. Everyone watched and laughed.

Part of Heather’s goal in raising chickens in Missoula is getting quality food into local people’s hands; the other part of her goal is teaching people about where their food comes from. “I feel like I am doing environmental education with the people that get their eggs from me because I’m telling them about the relationship between the environment and their food, and how I work with that to best enhance the health and happiness of the animals,” Heather said. At the chicken pasture visitors can have an up-close, tangible experience with their food.

Heather thinks about food a lot and her thoughts often go beyond her chicken business. “I think it’s rough being a laying hen in 99% of the world,” she explained. She went on to talk about the way many chickens are raised, in confined spaces where they are treated more like egg producing machines than chickens, which enables their eggs to be inexpensive. For Heather, though, treating animals poorly and selling cheap food doesn’t add up. “If we want to have healthy food for our bodies and we want it to be raised in a moral way, food costs more than most people are willing to pay for it.” And this is part of Heather’s dilemma; her work is labor intensive and good chicken feed, as well as other inputs, can be costly, which makes her eggs expensive. She is still figuring out how to make her business financially sustainable, but Heather is determined to keep pursuing her dream of raising and breeding chickens. Though there are struggles, she finds much about what she does gratifying, whether it be educating people, developing relationships with her customers, or working with the animals. “The old folks getting into throwing bagels,” she said at the end of the egg-share pick-up, “that’s why I do what I do. This was a great day.”