It’s just after 6am when 14-year-old Brianna Knight steps into a chicken coop in her backyard. Her hens are happy to see her, clucking and pecking as she works quietly, giving them food and fresh water and releasing them out into the yard for the day.
This is just the beginning of Brianna’s duties as caretaker of three flocks of laying hens on her family’s small farm, Three Creek, in Earlysville. Brianna is head of egg production and sales, an official-sounding title because this is more than a backyard hobby—last year, Brianna sold 220 dozen eggs at $4.50 each, bringing in almost $1,000 for the family.
“It’s all part of family entrepreneurship,” says her mother, Jennifer, who, along with her husband, Scott, moved to the farm in 2011 to not only teach Brianna and her two younger siblings, who are all homeschooled, the responsibility of work, but also to educate them about caring for other living things.
“Kids don’t know where their food comes from anymore, that a carrot comes from under the ground, or what grows on a tree, and it was really important for us to have that experience of being a caretaker of creation and animals,” Jennifer says.
Brianna says she decided she wanted to raise chickens after watching Food Inc. and learning more about the egg production process.
“It just horrified me that these chickens are being kept in cages, stacked on top of each other… I was very upset with how they were being treated,” she says. On her 7th birthday, Brianna got her own flock of hens.
From the beginning, Brianna had a special connection to her birds, Jennifer says. “When we first got them, they weren’t friendly with people, so Brianna would take a milk crate and go into that chicken coop and sit there until they would come and sit on her lap. They would smell her shoulder, and she would swing on the swing set with a chicken on her lap,” she recalls. “We call her the chicken whisperer.”
Brianna says paying close attention to her charges is key to their health and safety.
“Some people ask me, why don’t you listen to music or something while you’re doing your chores? But a big part of it is listening,” Brianna explains. “The chickens will come up to me and just look at me, and I can look at them and figure out if anything is wrong… I can tell if a predator has been close, or if I see a chicken with watery eyes or looking kind of droopy or not drinking then I’ll look at them, look through their feathers, in their mouth and eyes. Or if one is stuck or getting pecked on I can hear them.”
Jennifer adds, “Things that I wouldn’t see, she is very aware of. She just has an ability to see and care for animals that I feel is very unique.”
Brianna’s dedication shows in the product she sells. The family has a waiting list for their brown, white and blue-green eggs, from a variety of chickens raised on non-GMO, soy-free feed from Sunrise Farms, in Stuarts Draft. “They’re the kind of eggs we want to eat,” says Jennifer.
The hens are free-roaming and moved every four to six weeks in the mobile chicken coop Brianna and her father created out of a friend’s trailer. They produce three to four dozen eggs per day in the warmer months, but they get a break in the winter.
“Some people put a light on their chickens in winter so they keep laying,” says Brianna, “but it’s just not natural and not healthy or kind to our animals. So even though we are letting our customers down and not making as much money, we just let [the chickens] have a break.”
But it isn’t all eggs, all the time for Brianna either. In addition to her Classical Conversations schoolwork, she spends her time acting in plays at Blue Ridge School or at worship team practice at her church (she sings and plays guitar). She is interested in medicinal herbs, and loves to forage in the woods near her house for tea ingredients.
She also cares for the family’s rabbits (raised for the family’s consumption) with her 10-year-old brother, John, and is responsible for breeding them in the summer. “We get as many as 30 rabbits sometimes,” she says. Last summer, she tried her hand at dairy goats but soon realized they weren’t the docile French Alpines she was expecting, but pygmies instead. “They would jump on me and I’d fall over, so they had to go,” she laughs. But Brianna is undeterred. Grinning, she says, “Next, I want to do pigs.”