Kelly Rankin’s New Beginnings
One Man’s Journey From Confinement to Chickens
Reading Time: 5 minutes
Meet Kelly Rankin, a man who went the wrong direction several times, and is now building a good life, thanks in part to Backyard Poultry and Countryside & Small Stock Journal.
Kelly lived on a small dairy farm in Illinois until around nine years old. He carried those memories with him as he moved, joined the Army, and moved around even more. After the Army, Kelly moved to Florida to be close to his parents. That’s where his life went seriously downhill and he ended up in prison for check fraud.
When he got out he moved to Austin, Texas, where he started a photography and graphic design business. Then one night, he made another terrible choice. “I got drunk with my girlfriend, and we got into an argument that got out of control and I got a family violence charge.” Because of his prior charges, that argument landed him back in prison for seven years.
Is There Anything You Need?
While in prison, Kelly acquired a pen-pal. Soon after they started corresponding, she asked him, “Is there anything you need?”
More than anything, he needed pictures from life outside prison. “Pictures are a big thing in prison because you don’t have contact,” he told me. “You have TV and stuff, but you don’t have any contact with the real world. Everywhere you look there’s a fence, so pictures are a really big thing. So I would have her send me pictures and she had chickens, and a couple of goats, and some horses.” He loved them.
One day Kelly came across some junk mail advertising Backyard Poultry and sent it to her. “I said, ‘Hey, this is pretty cool, you know, If you’ve got an extra couple bucks I’d like to check it out.’” She sent him a subscription to both Backyard Poultry and Countryside. Inside the prison, the magazines got passed around. Guys who had never seen a live chicken before loved reading the articles and seeing the pictures. It was something new, something far from their world of concrete and steel.
Kelly’s Chicken Picture
Backyard Poultry asked people to send in pictures of their chickens, with the potential of featuring one on the cover. Someone sent a picture of a rooster. “And I thought, he’s pretty cool. So I drew the picture and I sent it to the magazine, saying, ‘I got your magazine. I love it, and here’s a picture that I drew. Maybe the person who sent in the original picture would like to have this.’”
In the next issue, they published his letter and drawing. A few issues later they published an editor’s note about people who had written back saying they wanted to buy Kelly a subscription. They gave him a year of both Countryside and Backyard Poultry.
“It’s hard to describe to someone who’s not experienced it,” Kelly said. “It’s a release; an escape from prison, if you will, just to know that it exists. When you’re in an environment that’s all concrete and steel, just to get reminded that there’s real, balanced, good life out there; it’s the most inspirational thing when you’re trying to get your life straightened out. They’re both very positive magazines and they were very well-read.”
Kelly realized that the Texas prison system offers a great education program. Based on his love for the life he saw in the pictures and magazines and his lifelong interest in growing his own food, he applied for a horticulture class. The prison transferred him to a new unit where he worked as an AutoCAD drafter for a stainless steel manufacturing plant and studied horticulture. When not at work he stayed in his bunk and studied. In addition to his classwork, he sent off for any chicken-related information he could find, including Stromberg’s and Murray McMurray catalogs. His teachers saw his avid interest and brought him extra information on chickens and chicken farming. He graduated in prison with degrees in horticulture and business management.
Freedom and Chickens
When Kelly got out, he moved in with his pen-pal, who, over the years, had become his girlfriend. She’d lost all of her chickens and goats in Hurricane Harvey. “We were just trying to get used to everything and then a friend of hers called and said, ‘Hey, I’ve got nine Rhode Island Reds that — I’m done. I don’t want to have chickens anymore,’” Kelly told me. “All we had was an old shed that they’d tried converting it into a chicken coop once before. My girlfriend’s son and I (he just turned 13) went out and basically rebuilt it. We put a new floor in it and set up a little run for the chickens, and boom we’re a chicken family now.”
Kelly discovered something called Chicken Math. Every time his girlfriend goes to the feed store by herself, they end up with more chickens. When I talked to him, just six months after he got out of prison, they had 40: a mix of Rhode Island Reds, Ameraucanas, Buff Orpingtons, and Australorps. The chickens share the one-acre yard with several guinea fowl, three geese, four ducks, and a pig.
“Chickens are just, they’re pretty cool, you know?” Kelly said. ”We have one that got attacked by a dog. My neighbor called and I went over, and her back was all tore up. We brought her in and she’s been in the house for the last two weeks healing up. She’s doing great. We’re probably going to put her back out next week. She loves me. She’ll come over and sit upon my lap. I’ve got her in a dog crate right now. We’ll let her out and she’ll jump up on my shoulder and talk to me. My girlfriend says, ‘I can’t believe you trained that d*!@%d chicken.’ Well, I did.”
Dreams for the Future
One of the hardest things for someone fresh out of prison is getting a job. While looking for steady work, Kelly did odd jobs and built raised garden beds and chicken coops for people. He built two moveable coops for their own chickens. When I talked to him, he had just started a job with a county road crew. Once he gets settled into regular work, he wants to send a couple of subscriptions to the prison. “The guys really enjoy it,” he said. “I’ve got friends in there that are not even eligible to get out for another 15 or 20 years.” Until then, he says, “I’ll go fishing or something and I’ll take pictures and send them back or we’ll go out to eat dinner somewhere and I’ll take a picture of my food and send it to them. Just try to keep their spirits up.”
Kelly plans to put in a big garden in the spring and learn to can his own food. Eventually, he would love to buy some land and have a small farm. He dreams of having about 2,000 chickens and selling the eggs. He told me, “You’re free. You’ve not been to jail not been to prison, whatever. You have what your version of freedom is. Well, if I can provide all my food for my family and not have to rely on anyone else, to me that’s being free.”
As for life right now? He says, “It’s cool. I don’t know, I can’t even describe it. It’s a whole different world than what I’m used to, and it’s like, ‘Man, what took me so long to get here?’”
Originally published in the December 2019/January 2020 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.