It’s that time of year: downy little peepings are starting to be heard at feed stores across the country. Some of us are enlivening backyard flocks with a few new chicks (we are!) and many folks are thinking of starting urban coops for the first time. I’ll be offering encouragment and advice in the coming weeks (including a post on breed selection), but for now I wanted to revisit this early post, which I’ve updated. Lots of people ask me about the expense of chicken keeping, and how much we “save” now that we don’t buy eggs. Save??? Um, well. Not much. Probably not anything. But keeping urban chickens is about more than a straight monetary tally–I call this more expansive math Chickenomics.
In a post by our friends at Root Simple (the blog formerly known as Homegrown Evolution), I read a quote by the editor of Backyard Poultry Magazine, who said that whenever the economy tanks, their subscriptions soar. This doesn’t make common sense–after all, unless you are supremely resourceful, it takes some money to get set-up for a backyard chicken flock. The ongoing cost of chicken food isn’t that much less than eggs–and anyway, it’s certainly not buying eggs that is making or breaking us. The current popularity of chickens might have to do with the economy, but it can’t be just about money.
Wondering over this, I picked up the phone and called Backyard Poultry‘s editor, Elaine Belanger. “You’re right,” she told me. “On the surface, there is a myth that growing our own food will save money, and I get calls from these editors in New York writing chicken articles who think that’s what it’s all about. But if you’ve raised chickens, you know that it’s something else.” In troubled times with multiple crises–economic, ecological, global insecurity, swine flu–there’s a longing for community, healthy self-reliance, food safety, connection to natural rhythms, and idyllic living. Chickens give us a hands-on, tangible sense of satisfaction on all of these levels–it’s an emotional satisfaction. But Belanger points out that the current resurgence in “homestead”-style practices, including chicken-keeping, pre-dates the economic crisis by about a year. I believe we have just come through a long political cycle in this country that has left us feeling empty, and desperate for authenticity. We are finding, and creating meaning in the most truly grassroots of actions–those that begin with our own household grass (another chicken benefit–they are adept at grass removal!).
Is Belanger cynical about the sudden faddishness of chickens, when she’s been preaching this lifestyle for over 20 years? Not at all–she’s happy about it. Thrilled, even. And she’s quick to offer her own favorite reason for keeping chickens: “Because it’s FUN.”