Friday, January 30, 2015

10 years with chickens

Backyard Poultry magazine editor Ryan Slabaugh asked me to write some thoughts on the occasion of the magazine's tenth anniversary.  It was a good occasion to reflect on how Americans have changed their relationship with chickens over the past decade. Here's what I wrote:

When I wrote my first book, How to Raise Chickens, in 2007, I was excited about chickens. But as I told people about it, they didn’t react with the same enthusiasm. “Chickens?’ they would say. “Is it a cookbook?”

The idea of keeping a small flock in the backyard was unusual, even quirky. Now, every person I talk to is either raising their own or knows someone who is. It’s been a revolution in livestock. The chicken, little considered except on our plates, rose up and arrived in public consciousness as the mascot of the Local Food Movement.

The concept of food miles entered the conversation, and carbon footprint. Both are ways of weighing the environmental impact of food. Fresh eggs from a backyard flock is as local as you can get!

Editor Elaine Belanger’s initial expectations for a magazine about backyard poultry flocks were modest.  I was excited, with my first book about chickens set to be published. Backyard Poultry’s first issues sold so quickly that it was clear she was on to a good idea. How to Raise Chickens sold well. In 2009, How to Raise Poultry, going beyond chickens to ducks, geese, turkeys, guineafowl and other fowl, was in readers’ eager hands. Chickens were suddenly hot.

Chickens in family life have come a long way since I got involved in the 1980s. My daughter persuaded me to buy some chicks at the feed store. Growing up in the suburbs didn’t prepare me for raising poultry. They started life in a plastic laundry basket in our living room, and we were launched. Soon friends were confiding, “I’ve always wanted to have chickens.”

At that time, there simply weren’t any books about backyard flocks, or much about heritage breeds. The American Poultry Association was active in 4-H, county fairs and other exhibition venues, but my background didn’t cross their path. As the chickens grew, I saw the need for a book. Eventually, I wrote it.

Backyard Poultry magazine was a welcome partner. I would have welcomed it back when I started! It has filled that role for many eager beginners since.

Those first chicks my daughter and I got introduced me to the idea of chickens as domestic birds, but they also introduced us to the world of heritage chicken breeds, poultry shows and poultry meat and egg production.

The Local Food Movement was picking up speed. Consumers were peeking behind the curtain of secrecy drawn by corporate agriculture on how crops and animals are raised. What we saw wasn’t pretty. High levels of chemicals on crops and fed to food animals, disgusting living conditions for the animals and exploitation of laborers. Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma in was published in 2006, picking up on the growing interest in how food is raised and how it gets to our tables. Although the conditions of livestock were awful, not everyone was willing to become a vegetarian. Backyard and small flock raising offered a middle path. Humane treatment, clean conditions, and voila! Better tasting food.

The increase in small flock poultry raising for production has inspired the APA to revive its Flock Inspection Program. The APA performed this service back in the 1950s, but the program lost ground as corporate industrial flocks dominated the market. In the past ten years, small poultry producers have found there are always more buyers than their small flocks can satisfy. Standard breed producers want to sell to consumers who appreciate their products. The APA is revamping its program for APA-certified judges to inspect flocks and award them APA Certification. Soon consumers will be able to buy Standard Barred Rock, Rhode Island Red or any other Standard breed a producer cares to raise.

Many remarkable people have come into my life during the Decade of Chickens. One is Frank Reese, an advocate for heritage poultry from his Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch in Kansas. He’s seen his sales of chickens and turkeys go from a few thousand to tens of thousands in the past ten years. He mentors other farmers to raise poultry to his high standards.

Frank Reese and some of his turkeys
He’s raising awareness of how modern commercial broilers have been bred to grow fast, beyond their physical capacity to support themselves and be healthy.

Temple Grandin, an authority on cattle behavior, turned her attention to industrial poultry in her Animals Make Us Human, published in 2009. “Chicken welfare is so poor that I can’t talk only about the core emotions in this chapter. I have to talk about chickens’ physical welfare as well.”

Temple Grandin and friends
Growing awareness led to laws banning the worst of crowded industrial chicken cages. California led the way with a proposition approved by voters in 2008, followed by a law from the legislature. Industrial poultry welfare – California also banned foie gras because it requires force-feeding ducks and geese -- will continue to rouse controversy, but small flock raising has changed the conversation in the last decade.

Backyard chickens have become popular enough for hatcheries to develop hybrids targeted to the backyarder, but heritage breeds remain the best choice for small flocks. Heritage breeds have demonstrated their ability to adapt to local conditions and reproduce naturally. They are vigorous and long-lived. The most humane living conditions won’t help birds that have lost their innate natural behaviors.

“This is why it’s important to preserve the old breeds of animals and poultry,” Dr. Grandin writes. “Keeping the classic breeds alive is the only way to preserve genetic diversity and to save animals that have valuable genetic traits breeders may want to breed back into commercial lines in the future….Fortunately, many of the older breeds of poultry and livestock are being raised by local farmers and sold in farmers’ markets or to gourmet restaurants. If a serious disease ever kills commercial broilers or layers, the entire world will be thanking the small producers and hobbyists who have kept the old breeds of chickens from becoming extinct.”

We’re all beginners in some sense. I learn something about poultry every day. Heritage breeds connect your backyard flock with the past and the future. Dominiques are the first American breed and Dorkings date back to the Roman conquest of Britain.

Jim Ward's lovely Dominique rooster
The next step in that history has catapulted chickens into family life in the past decade.  Issues that weren’t even on the radar ten years ago are now in people’s backyards, on their tongues and debated in houses of government. Backyard Poultry magazine has been part of our expanding involvement with chickens and other poultry. The changes have been so amazing that they have given me hope that other changes will open opportunities in the next ten years.

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