Pigs & Poultry
Sometimes when I scroll through my Facebook feed or peruse the bookstore aisles, I’m struck by just how popular chickens have become. No urban agrarian worth their salt would be caught dead without a plucky flock of hens, and there are more how-to books about backyard chicken-keeping on bookshelves than a person could hope to read in a lifetime.
I’m not grumbling; I think it’s great, down to the rooster-themed merchandise filling big-box department store shelves. The idea of our family farm started out as a vegetable bed and four hens in a tight backyard, and I’m all for whatever softens people to the idea of growing food for themselves and their community. With doom-and-gloom predictions of a food-scarce future creeping into the news, increasing our sustenance independence is a pretty good idea. More gardens and farmers markets, fewer corporate grocery stores sounds nice to my ears.
It’s a Labor of Love
But there are some realities of chicken-keeping that aren’t completely acknowledged by that chicken coop photo shoot in actress/model Jennifer Garner’s Neutrogena commercial. There’s a lot of poop, for starters, and cleaning out even a small coop is a dusty and dirty affair that, by the 10th or so time, can start to feel like a chore rather than an adventure.
Chickens will destroy the grass in your yard and dig treacherous holes for their dirt baths. And it’s difficult to enjoy a night on the town when you know your chickens have gone to bed in an unsecured coop. Also, chickens are under constant threat of danger, whether from ailments such as bumblefoot and infectious bronchitis or the myriad predators that want to make a meal of your birds; keeping a flock safe from harm requires persistent, diligent attention and even with that, there’s still a decent chance you’ll say goodbye to a beloved hen before you’ve readied your heart. (As of this writing, Garner had, herself, just lost a chicken in an event documented on social media.)
Oh and that Sophie’s-choice moment when your hens pass prime laying age and you have to make an impossible decision between the chickens and the eggs? It’s rough stuff.
What I’m saying is chicken-keeping may be cool, but it’s also work. So why do chickens feel as popular now as when the U.S. Department of Agriculture printed flyers saying, “Uncle Sam expects you to keep hens and raise chickens” during World War I? As alluded to earlier with the food scarcity comment, there are plenty of heady conjectures one could make, but I believe all commentary can be hard-boiled down to one word: eggs.
The Incredible, Edible ...
Eggs! I love eggs, and my favorite meal is a simple salad of garden-grown ingredients with a pair of fried eggs on top. Many a hobby farmer has found his or her way into quasi homesteading based on the allure of a deeply golden-yolked, farm-fresh egg, and the appeal doesn’t
stop with aesthetics; hens with access to bugs and grass lay creamy and intensely flavored eggs that bear little resemblance to the dollar-a-dozen cartons at the local supermarket. (I know some taste tests have called the difference into question, but they’ll never convince me.)
And, while I understand that you can pick up pastured eggs from a handful of providers at the supermarket, there’s no retail alternative to a fresh egg, collected in the morning, then brought inside to fry or make into a frittata. On the health side, they’re much better for you, too, with studies showing that eggs from pastured hens are lower in bad stuff such as cholesterol and saturated fat and higher in good stuff such as vitamins A and E, omega-3 fatty acids and beta carotene. And freshness matters, too, as eggs lose protein over time.
You don’t need me to sell you on egg-laying chickens, though. What I actually want to address is what to do when you’ve got the small-flock thing down and start thinking, “Should I get more chickens?” And the answer, of course, is yes. There is inestimable value in producing your own sustenance, but once you dial things in for the best eggs ever, it’s good and smart to start producing more than you can use.
First, it’s good because by providing eggs to members of your community, you’re participating in a local food movement aimed at preserving the role of small farmers in an age of corporate food systems. Even if you just set out an “EGGS 4 SALE” sign in your front yard and move a few dozen a week, you’re giving people the option to eat better and support local agriculture, all while putting a face and place to the food they eat. That’s important.
And selling eggs is smart because you can sell or barter your eggs to lighten the financial load of keeping your feathered friends alive and laying. Between water, feed, grit, scratch, bedding and other necessary supplies, chicken keeping can get expensive, and it’s not a crazy idea to have your hobby generate some self-sustaining income.
Before you reach for the hatchery catalog, though, here are some tips for selling those eggs once your new ladies start laying.