Meredith: Do backyard chicken coops put the "fun" in farming?

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Do backyard chicken coops put the “fun” in farming?

Apparently not.

Despite visions of quaint coops, happy birds and cheap eggs, the growing trend of raising backyard chickens in urban settings is backfiring, as disillusioned city dwellers, eco-enthusiasts and hipsters are running from their coops as fast as their Birkenstocks can carry them.

Over the last several months, there have been dozens of articles written about how  hundreds of chickens are being abandoned at the nation’s shelters from California to New York as naïve urbanites discover that—surprise, surprise—farming is actually hard work and takes a lot more knowledge and skill than they anticipated.  

Raising poultry can be noisy, messy, labor-intensive and expensive.  Want to take a vacation? Who’s going to care for your flock? It’s 5 degrees below zero in your neighborhood today: Who’s going out to check on your birds and see to their well-being and comfort in inclement weather? Predator on the loose? Fox got your chickens?

There are reasons why our food is produced by less than two percent of our population— (a) not everyone has the skills, knowledge and understanding of what it takes to raise animals for food; and (b) not everyone has the time, patience, wherewithal and inclination to grow their own food. That’s where farmers come in—they’ve made a life commitment to the near herculean feat of producing food for an ever-expanding population.

We’ve all heard the statistics: by 2050 we need to feed 9.1 billion people. Having a backyard flock may be a fun hobby (albeit short-lived for many), but guess what? Those 9.1 billion people aren’t going to be fed by a smattering of chicken coops scattered among high-rise apartments and city brownstones.

I’ve had many conversations with people about why certain trends take off so enthusiastically. The food revolution, the” locavore” movement, or being a “foodie,” are all examples of popular trends that sweep people up and cause them to think about things and make decisions they otherwise wouldn’t.

This “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality is nothing new for Americans. It’s what causes us to build a better mousetrap, buy a bigger house and drive a faster car. It’s also what causes some Americans to wake up to a rooster crowing in their backyard when they thought they had sweet, innocent, egg-laying hens. (Didn’t anyone tell those hipsters that chickens are notoriously hard to sex?)

This past Sunday was National Grandparents Day and while I was thinking about my grandparents, I reflected on the differences in their upbringings compared to today. My grandparents, for instance, only grew up one generation removed from the family farm, instead of the nearly four generations today.

More than that though, my grandparents came of age in a more grateful time—a time when wars plagued foreign shores and the name of the game was “going without.” There weren’t dozens of labels on products at the grocery store. Food wasn’t trendy; it was a basic necessity.

Sacrificing luxuries in lieu of basic staples caused my grandparents to raise a grateful brood of over ten children (six on my mother’s side and four on my father’s). When my Grandpa Richard worked the night shift in the Marinette, Wisconsin Scott Paper plant, my mother and her siblings ate cereal or pancakes for dinner. When my grandpa was home it was Salisbury steak and mashed potatoes. Meat was a luxury. Milk and eggs were necessities.

My grandmothers bought what was on sale in the grocery store and didn’t question anything besides the price.

Today, it sometimes seems that consumers question everything, and while not all of those questions are bad, I can see how those questions don’t make you—out there every day producing our food—feel appreciated.

Sadly, I think we’ve become a more ungrateful nation than a grateful one. Many of us—myself included—don’t know what it means to go without. September is National Hunger month but not enough Americans actually think about those within our own borders who go hungry every single day.

Many are too worried about “going local,” or trying the next great restaurant. And some are too busy finding someone to remove that chicken coop mistakenly bought during a moment of trend weakness.

While I often write about how we in ag need to do better, this week, I want to take a page from my grandparents and simply say thank you.

I know that all of you farming, ranching—those of you otherwise connected to the food industry—are worried about hunger every single day, because it’s your job to do so.  So thank you for stocking my grocery store shelves and meat counter with countless options so I can pick and choose what to buy based on my own personal preferences.

And thank you for worrying about how to feed those 9.1 billion people.

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Bob Baarsch    
LeRoy, MN  |  September, 12, 2013 at 11:29 AM

Meredith, Thanks again for another interesting topic. I think the chicken phenomenon is deeper than we all think it is. People are searching for opportunities to improve their lives. It is a amazing that people think their locally produced products are more wholesome than something that is purchased down the road. I don't think that is the case in China today, but some day it will if everything progresses in China as it has in other developed countries. It is just part of cynical complex life we live, I guess?? I think if everyone had a backyard livestock farm experience, understanding of our commercial farms would increase 1,000 fold. I believe it is a good thing all the way around. We should embrace it. It is a lot like gardening. Remember what Norman Borlaug said about gardening. "Farming without a profit motive is called gardening. At the end of their backyard experience they will inevitably become more appreciative of the wonderful bounty of food we American food producers deliver at affordable prices.

Thom Katt    
Midwest  |  September, 12, 2013 at 03:05 PM

America's locavore\foodie movement proves out the axiom that well fed people have many problems while starving people only have one problem.

John B.    
Oregon  |  September, 12, 2013 at 06:37 PM

Knowledge is important to do a good job, knowledge not of only poultry 101 but also an understanding of what racoons, rats, foxes etc. can do to an urban chicken coop. You have to work at it and be committed to using common sense, laziness will cause it to fall apart. Fresh eggs from chickens allowed to roam in a back yard taste so much better than those bought in a store just as fresh home grown tomatoes in comparison to store bought.. If you want quality control and a quality product that tastes good you either have to buy from a local farmer that has free range chickens and buy from him, as the eggs coming from the caged commercial chiken farmers will never taste as good. As a kid growing up in Scotland, we had bacon, pork and ham that tasted like fish, eggs that tasted like fish, chicken that tasted line fish, I wonder why! they were using fish meal in all the feed as it was cheap and we did not have soybean, or corn on the cob. Commitment to quality ends up with great taste, however comes with a price tag, most do not want to pay the price, it also takes knowledge, experience, time and talent to produce the best in food value, taste, and a poor chef can mess what could be outstanding to a disaster. Quality versus Quantity production! I have found most of us in the USA go for quantity not quality and always want to buy it as cheap as possible except for the top one ( it used to be three) percent and the really don't care what they pay! Some people eat what they have to to survive, some people are lucky to be able to eat but within a restricted budget, some people are lucky enough to eat whatever they like. Malnitrition verus obesity! Common sense prevails but it seems our society has lost it!

New York  |  January, 31, 2014 at 02:01 AM

My coop is fully assembled now and my flock is happily living inside. Yet to do is painting, adding rubber roof over the roof sheathing, and installing hardware cloth around the run. We are keeping 4 large chickens and 3 bantams in here, but the free range around through farm fields and our yard during the day. this click this chicken coops for sale ..

Ranch Supply    
January, 31, 2014 at 02:03 AM

My coop is fully assembled now and my flock is happily living inside. Yet to do is painting, adding rubber roof over the roof sheathing, and installing hardware cloth around the run. We are keeping 4 large chickens and 3 bantams in here, but the free range around through farm fields and our yard during the day

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