CARING for his 42 beloved chickens and keeping their precious eggs safe keeps 22-year-old Michael Howard’s days filled with both fun and enjoyment, plus a multitude of challenges.
For Michael, the delicate tasks of plucking the eggs from their nests, carefully transferring them from coop to house to box and store them ready for sale, has been a process requiring plenty of guidance, practice, and a great number of broken eggs.
Michael has autism, and dyspraxia – a condition causing difficulties in co-ordination and movement and resulting in general clumsiness. The irony of the delicate nature of his now daily work does not escape his parents.
Speaking from the family farm in Awakeri, Michael’s parents, Leanne and John Howard, say it’s two years since they began helping their son carve out ‘Howard’s Happy Eggs – Eggs by Michael’ – a venture they hoped would provide him a focus in the years ahead.
Michael had been preparing to leave Trident’s Special Eduacation Centre, the familiar realm that he’d attended daily for years. “A big transition was looming at the end of last year,” Leanne says. “We needed to have something in place for him, and because he’s always loved animals so much, we came up with the idea of keeping chickens.”
Michael started off with just three birds, slowly learning how to feed and care for them, to give them feed pellets regularly and feed their favourite food, silver beet, on certain days.
He learnt to let them out of their fenced area, free ranging to feast on the grass and the insects beneath it and learning how to catch them again if necessary. And eventually, he learnt how to collect and handle the delicate eggs.
“He loved it all,” Leanne says, translating the excited enthusiasm communicated by Michael who is bright and happy and chatty, though speaking at such a speed it is often hard to catch.
The number of chickens and the coops to house them grew quickly. Today, there are 42 chickens across several coops (of which Michael helped to build). There are pictures on the door of each coop which match pictures on a chart, helping Michael to know which coop of chickens to free range on which day. There is a wine fridge in the house, just the right size to store eggs, and paid for by Michael from his egg sales. And the chickens are happy, healthy, tame, and well used to their owner. Many of them are named.
“We try not to have them named actually,” Leanne says. “Occasionally, of course, one of them dies and it’s always sad.”
In fact, she says, death has been one of the many things Michael has learnt much about in the time since he left school, and not just the death of his chickens.
“It’s been quite a year for him,” Leanne explains, with Michael’s pen friend dying, and then, recently, his beloved “Nana Wells” passing away too and leaving a big space in his life.
Nana Wells had regularly helped Michael with his chickens. Fortunately, Leanne says, “Grandad Wells is still nearby and helps on Fridays,” Michael’s favourite day of the week.
While some customers collect their eggs from the farm, others get theirs in the special Friday delivery. “Michael loves Fridays. He’s very social and so he looks forward to catching up with lots of family friends and former teachers and caregivers that buy his eggs. He just loves it.” (Unfortunately, she says, there is no chance of accepting further customers at the moment. “There are only just enough eggs to go around as it is.”)
Michael is kept busy with his chickens. “He’ll spend hours with them, and he can look after them on his own now. It’s been a wonderful thing and he’s learnt so much.”
But when Michael isn’t busy with the chickens, there’s a host of other activities keeping him busy, too. He helps feed the calves on the farm, “patient with the sick ones that take a long time to feed,” says Leanne. He goes to speech therapy and swimming and art. He loves his dance classes and he especially looks forward to a weekly trip to a café to shout his caregiver and himself a cup of hot chocolate, “his favourite drink in the world,” Leanne says. And he is currently training to take part in this year’s Toi’s Challenge.
Training was underway last year, Leanne says, when two weeks out from the event, an incident occurred which is not uncommon in the Howard household. “Michael tripped on a mat.” Only this time, the trip had resulted in a broken ankle, spelling the end of his Toi’s Challenge dream for another year.
While it’s clear that life is filled with challenges for Michael, it is also clear that his enthusiasm and love of life are undimmed. “He’s like a ray of sunshine,” Leanne says.
“Everyone loves him, and we wouldn’t change him for the world.”
And what does Michael like to do with the money coming in from his egg sales?
“Buy cups of hot chocolate,” Leanne says. “And more chickens.”