What Can Chickens Teach You About Food Production?

Chicken farming and keeping has taken over social media recently but people forget what chickens teach society about food production on Future of Food

 

I had been living in West Africa for over a year when I decided the time had finally come to start a chicken farm.

As a Peace Corps volunteer, everything I did was an oddity to the community that hosted me, and my approach to chicken keeping was no different. In my small village of mud huts and dirt paths, livestock roamed everywhere, making their meals from foraged food scraps and insects. Fences were a rarity at best. The implicit trust that one’s animals would return home each evening un-stolen and fully fed was something my brain struggled to comprehend.

So, in 2009, when my bird-rearing days were finally upon me, my approach instead mirrored my idealized vision of the classic American farmstead. Chicken coop. Fence. Dried corn for feed. Cue the Green Acres TV show theme music. My goal was bigger chickens who were less likely to succumb to illness. What I got was a myriad of strange looks and chickens that ended up about the same as (or worse than) everybody else’s. Silly American.

I can’t help but reflect on that experience now that chicken keeping has hit trendiness critical mass on social media. Scrolling through images of pastel eggs and urban gardens clucking with poultry, my thoughts turn to the members of the far-off community I once called home. What would they say about our growing fascination with chicken keeping? As a society, we’re not so far removed from whatever fanciful American homestead influenced my own approach to raising these birds. And yet, we seem to be developing a wholly new relationship with chickens in our modern life. How does this changing perspective relate to our broader ideas about food and food production?

To explore the question, I looked to the kinds of people who are keeping chickens. From popular chicken blogs, social media, and visits to farms, it seems to me that there is a divide between those relatively new to the pursuit and those who’ve been doing it most of their lives. Again, I see my own attempts reflected in this divide, a certain newcomer’s enthusiasm. The enthusiasm of someone who’s never cleaned chicken droppings from the inside of a rather pungent coop.

Believe me, I understand that enthusiasm. Chickens are, by many measures, pretty cool birds. Under favorable conditions, even a modest brood of hens can produce enough eggs for a daily omelet. And those eggs can indeed be a fanciful mix of colors that would be as at home on Easter as they would on a breakfast plate. Not only that, but the plumage of some chickens is nothing short of dazzling. If you’re looking to care for an animal that serves a purpose beyond “mere” camaraderie, you could do far worse.

That’s not to say that chickens can’t provide companionship as well. Indeed, it seems a hallmark of the Instagram chicken keeping community is its insistence that chickens make good pets. I have nothing against the idea that a chicken can be a lovely friend. It wasn’t my personal experience, but I will admit to being more than a little “aww”-struck by photos of chickens snuggling with kids, playing fetch with their owners, and generally being a whole lot smarter than we give them credit for. I will note, however, that the concept of chicken-as-companion is a sharp departure from how we’ve historically viewed these animals, namely, as livestock.

Which leads me to the second type of chicken keeper, one I can’t help but dub the old-schooler. When I was conjuring up an image of the fantastical American farmer during my own forays into keeping chickens, it was the old-schooler of whom I was thinking. These are the farmers who’ve been keeping chickens for the better parts of their lives. Often they come from a family of farmers, or they’ve at least spent years building their chicken keeping credentials. To be sure, it’s a status that’s as rooted in my imagination as it is in any measurable metric, but there are still some common traits amongst the people I’d classify in this manner.

On the whole, old-schoolers are more likely to treat poultry-rearing as a way to make money, rather than as an adventurous pastime. They’re also more likely to be in tune with the harsher realities of keeping chickens, of which there are many.

For instance, eggs, considered by some to be the “whole point” of a chicken, can often be slow to appear. If days are too short, space is too limited, hens are too old or too sick, egg production may dry up altogether. I spent many a day stomping around my coop, frustrated by a lack of eggs. For me it was a disappointment. For a professional, it could be financially ruinous.

Chickens also require plenty of infrastructure. A coop large enough to give each chicken some space for themselves is key as is an outdoor run for even more space. And even for those who may harbor ambitions of keeping their birds “free-range,” there is still the unavoidable necessity of fences, if for no other reason than to stave off the ever-present threat of predators.

It’s not just knowledge of chicken keeping practices that separate new from old, it’s also how that knowledge is gained. Though I wouldn’t consider myself a farmer, I did grow up around my fair share of them. I remember copies of The Old Farmer’s Almanac, replete with its whimsical cover art, spread on coffee tables belonging to friends’ parents. For the parents more inclined toward the lifestyle of the flower child, it was Mother Earth News instead of The Almanac.

By contrast, modern chicken keeping neophytes tend towards the internet as a jumping-off point. While there’s information there to be sure, it often doesn’t tell the whole story. Chicken keeping blogs and social media on the whole often have a style that is designed to capture attention with flashy imagery and narratives. It’s a form of communication that is trying its hardest to rise above an ever-present din of global information.

Now, despite my critical rhetoric, I’m not against social media or anyone who pulls advice from it. Not only is it a great tool for exposing us to new pursuits in life, it can also be a helpful teacher. It also provides a great way for the old-schooners among us to connect with a new audience and perhaps create additional revenue streams for themselves, such as mail-order portions of farm-grown food or merchandise promoting their farm’s brand. After all, if many of us are looking to social media for an idealized portrait of modern agrarian life, who better to profit than the people who’ve been immersed in the lifestyle for years?

However, I do see some perniciousness in the attitude towards food production that social media can breed. It’s an attitude that implies that the solution to modern food production is simple: we just need to grow it ourselves. That we may all be best served by backyard farms with a personal supply of poultry. It’s an attitude to which I am certainly susceptible.

In fact, I often fantasize about starting another little chicken operation, this time in the patch of grass behind my Los Angeles house. I dream of a backyard urban paradise where I can meet all my food needs in the manner in which I choose. A world in which I’ve wrestled control for my food future away from the large corporations who have claimed it as their own.

It’s easy to be swept away by this idealized vision of what our connection to food can be. I’ve fallen to pray to such idealization and neglected sound advice in its pursuit. I’ve seen many of my peers pursue it as well, only to be discouraged by the enormity of what it entails. It’s a whole lot easier to peruse an instagram feed than it is to house, feed, and clean up after even a small brood of hens. That’s not to mention the soul-crushing middle-of-the-night crowing of an overactive rooster, should you own one.

If the thing that we are idealizing is self-sufficiency and sustainability, then I would argue that these type of burnouts do a disservice. Each failed foray into food production risks the further cementing of the idea that food is made by companies, not people.

To fight this idea, I advocate that we arm ourselves with information along with idealization, such as books or periodicals intended for people keeping chickens as their livelihood. That we blur the line between new-school and old. That we strive for a society in which we take a greater interest in the origins of our food, while also seeking a deeper understanding of the specifics of keeping livestock, planting crops, and the laying of an egg.

As my friends from Peace Corps might observe, our cultural approach to this understanding has at times been cause for head-scratching. We have a tendency to bound into this pursuit full of exuberance unmatched by experience. This unfortunate paradigm has left many of us searching for a firmer grasp of what our relationship to food can be. For my part, I don’t think my chicken keeping days are over. But the next time I find myself building a coop or buying bags of feed, it will be after a lengthier exploration of what I’m getting myself into. Most likely that will involve some enthusiasm gained from social media, some information gained from farming resources, and some introspection gained from independent thought. With that kind of balanced approach, I hope my next foray into chicken keeping will bring not only eggs and robust birds but also a more holistic appreciation for the food I eat.