It’s easy to remember the three kinds of symbiosis if you apply them to your past relationships.
Parasitism is where one species benefits and the other is hurt. Commensalism is where one species benefits and the other is neither hurt nor helped. Mutualism occurs when both species benefit.
In addition to human romance, symbiosis is applicable to agriculture. For example, properly grazed cattle aerate the soil with their hooves.
Grazing cattle also press grass seed into the soil, provide natural fertilizer through manure and shorten the grass as they graze, which helps reduce wildfire spread.
This is a natural, mutualistic relationship between the cattle and the land.
Chickens, like cattle, can be raised in mutually beneficial relationships with plants and people. Dawsonites who are lucky enough to purchase local eggs from Willow Peerenboom, Nick Timms and Tanja Westland’s farm, Westland Willows, are part of this kind of happy plant/animal equation.
“I grew up in Dawson and my mom always kept gardens, and I learned about dog running, fishing, trapping. I’ve always been an outdoor person,” says farmer Willow Peerenboom.
She has been gardening and farming professionally in Dawson for roughly seven years. She and her husband Nick Timms started their enterprise after Peerenboom apprenticed in farming and herbology in Victoria, BC, for a year when she was 19 years old.
Peerenboom’s farming practice expanded to include poultry in 2010 when she “bought a few chickens on a whim.” Since then, she has kept up to 220 hens with five roosters.
Currently, Peerenboom raises Ameraucanas hens, known for their blue-gray eggs.
“They winter well here because they don’t have a comb or a wattle,” says Peerenboom.
Wattles and combs circulate blood to cool chickens down, a feature they don’t need in the Yukon.
In addition to Ameraucanas, Peerenboom keeps Red Sussex hens (brown eggs), Red Rock hens, Brahmas hens, and meat turkeys. She also rents space on her acreage to a co-operative raising meat birds (another mutually symbiotic relationship).
Mutually beneficial relationships abound between Peerenboom’s flock and the plants on her land. The hens feed on wild plants such as lambsquarters, fireweed, grasses, rosebushes and raspberry. They also eat leaves Pereenboom trims from her market garden plants, including broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and kale.
“They have digestive systems of stone — they can eat things that would poison us,” says Pereenboom of her fowl that also eat small amounts of cracked corn, ground oyster shell beet greens, and plants leftover at the end of the growing season.
In addition to turning all this feed into eggs every day, the chickens provide fertilizer through their manure.
Pereenboom composts the chicken poop using a well-organized layering method, before using it in her garden. She also gives the compost away to lucky folks who can come and collect it. These hard working chickens also specialize in pest control.
“I have zero ants or spruce beetles on my farm,” she says.
Peerenboom works hard to keep mites off of her birds with natural remedies such as lavender and diatomaceous earth (a soft powder that kills pests by dehydrating them). She surmises that mites are a greater problem in the Yukon due to the dry climate.
The climate creates other difficulties too.
“Cold winters are also a challenge,” she says. “At –40°C, the coop has enough hens to inside to stay warm with one light bulb. The temperature never drops below –16°C in the coop. But, chickens drink more water per body weight than any other animal, and water definitely freezes at –16. In the winter, I change the chickens’ water four times a day.”
Egg-collecting is also a challenge because eggs can freeze, and then crack quickly. Peerenboom keeps frozen, cracked eggs for baking.
“Know what you are getting into, and be prepared for how much work it is to keep the coop clean,” she cautions would-be chicken farmers.
An animal lover at heart, Peerenboom treats her fowl well and In turn they are great pest controllers, wastes eaters, fertilizer providers, and oh yeah, they lay eggs too.
To learn more about purchasing eggs from Westland Willows, email GruntAction@gmail.com.