You can find out a lot of things about Ken Litscher by walking into his office. The white, signed replica football from the Packers’ 2011 Super Bowl win says he is, well, a Packers fan. The sheets of crayon-sketched pictures above and around his chair tell you that not only is he a dad, he is a proud one. However, there is one key thing you may not be able to find out just by looking at his work space.
“Here we go,” Litscher said as he turned his computer screen and gestured to a picture he had posted to Facebook last spring. In it were two silver metal funnels attached to a freestanding wooden frame in the middle of a yard. The thing that really caught my attention, though, was the caption: “Killing cones.”
Ken Litscher serves as the director of residence life at Union University. And he also happens to raise his own chickens.
His eyes lit up when I first asked him about them. Which, if you have encountered him and the infectious sort of joy he carries all the time, you know that is saying a lot.
The obvious first assumption (at least if you are me) is that this is a hobby that one is born and raised into. So I ask how he got started, fully expecting this answer.
“I don’t remember how it started,” he responded, at which point we both laughed.
In fact, with the notable exception of an aunt in Virginia, Litscher’s family does not have a background in any sort of chicken raising, for eggs or slaughter. Litscher does both.
“I started eight or nine years ago, I guess thinking, ‘Man, I’d like to raise some chickens for eggs,’” Litscher said. “I was working as an RD at Covenant College at the time, so it was not possible, but then it was a couple months later that we moved here.”
However, the Litscher family did not take the plunge and buy some egg-laying chickens for another four years. Litscher said he dedicated that time to persuading his wife and family that this was a good idea.
“I think most people, when they hear ‘raising chickens,’ they think of a big huge chicken farm that smells terrible, and so it took a long time to convince her,” he said, echoing the sentiments I had walking into this conversation.
But the first year was a success, as was the second. And two years ago, Litscher decided to take the next big step: meat chickens.
“After a year or two we were talking, some friends from church, about getting some of the hybrid-breed meat chickens,” said Litscher in about the most casual tone you can imagine. “We ended up getting a dozen and we went over one Saturday and slaughtered them” (using the aforementioned cones to hold the chickens in place).
Litscher calmly noted that it was their first time doing it, which sparked all sorts of questions in this pacifist. My first one was, “Where did you learn how to do this?” (“this” being the execution of the meat chickens).
“We watched a lot of Youtube videos,” he said, with another healthy laugh.
And he did it again last year. This time with 25 chickens and some help from other Union faculty members: Paul Mayer, the director of health services, and Bryan Carrier, the dean of students, who was accompanied by his family.
Of course the thing I had been wondering the whole time, but was not quite sure how to ask was, why choose this as a hobby?
“Part of it was a desire to know what my food eats and even for my kids to just know that chicken doesn’t come from the grocery store,” he said, “and to not be so far removed from the stuff that we eat and not understand what needed to happen in order for us to eat it.”
For Litscher, this was a chance to escape the horrors seen in mass chicken farms on food documentaries. But there was also something very natural and earthy about this passion.
“Part of it was I just wanted to know if I could do it. You know, fifty years ago most people, if they wanted a chicken, they’d go into the backyard, Grandma would wring its neck, chop its head off with an axe and that night you had chicken for dinner,” Litscher said.
A desire to tend creation as in the days of yore, coupled with a taste for fresh eggs fuels Litscher’s fire for raising fowl. This year, the Litschers, with Mayer and the Carriers, plan on raising another 80 meat chickens, a significant jump from the 25 of last year.
It was a passion eight years in the making. And it is shaping up to bring joy to Litscher and many others for a while to come.