Down by the swamp off Duck Lake Road, in the former Belanger farmstead, Loretta Helwig and Dwight Clapp are raising two young boys to be men. Aaron Helwig, 12, and his brother Kyle, 14, are 4-H members who raise pigs and lambs to take to the Northwestern Michigan Fair. They already know a bit about hard work and loss and being depended on. They also know how to take care of chickens.
It’s a cold Friday evening before a school basketball game, and the whole family walks over to the wood-and-stone coop in the backyard, the original chicken house on their 113-year-old farm. Dwight swings open the door to reveal a rush of warmth, one hen busy laying, and a motley brood of 14 others promenading in the sweet straw on the floor and talking to each other with peaceful clucks.
There are a few black australorps, a couple of black leghorn bantams, but most are Isa browns. "They’re just the friendliest chickens," Dwight says, while finding the eggs in the straw and placing them in a clean Electrasol dishwashing detergent bucket. Friendly for the most part. Aaron points out his show chicken, Chicken Little, a pretty little thing perched above the rest of the chickens on a roost. She’s a two-time champion at the fair and has a life lease at the Helwig house, Loretta says, but the other chickens don’t care about her ribbons. She’s low on the chicken pecking order, and so stays apart from the rest to avoid getting bullied.
Aaron picks up his prized bird, turns her over and shows me how to tell if a chicken is actively laying, by placing a couple fingers in the soft space between her pubic bones — when the bones are opened up like that, it creates the passage for the egg. Both boys eagerly dispense more egg wisdom: Good layers produce an egg per day. The color of a hen’s earlobes reveals the color of egg she’ll lay.
Generally, hens with white earlobes make white eggs, while hens with red earlobes make brown eggs. Hens that don’t lay get the ax. Kyle and Aaron clearly understand the life cycle. They are part of it. On the farm there is no question which came first — this is food, and this is where it comes from.