Chickenomics: It’s More than Money

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.”

13 Comments

  1. People do seem to have fun with it. It seems to have a particular appeal to people with advanced skill sets, maybe it fills a need to reconnect with the basics of food cultivation. I liked to tease my friends that after so many generations of farmers in the family, they finally got people to college, and then these grads go and buy homes and set up a little garden and take up farming again!

    1. lyanda

      Yes, all true. I’ve seen very old photos of my German and Norwegian great-grandmothers in Iowa–with chickens! Then of course my parents didn’t raise poultry…But years ago, when we had our first hens at the little house, my grandmother, now in her 90s, was visiting. She said, “Honey, I’m so proud of you for having chickens.” I thought that was so funny and sweet.

  2. Lucia

    I have two friends who are getting chicks this year, and we have three. It has been such a great thing to do with our young kids. They do have fun with it, and I think they’re learning so much from it as well. And it’s cheap as far as entertainment goes!

  3. One day I came home from a weekend retreat and my husband and then 7-year-old daughter had built an amazing chicken coop – we called it the Coop D’Ville. We used to love to sit out on our porch and watch the chickens. We could do it for hours. Then we moved back to suburbia where we couldn’t keep chickens. We tried watching the pool sweep but it just wasn’t the same. Now that we’ve moved again (kids all raised and gone) I’m looking forward to having chickens again sometime soon.

  4. I’m a member of a p-patch and we were just meeting to discuss how to get rid of the cutworms in the garden. Then I realized chickens love cutworms. Do you think we could borrow your flock for an afternoon? Do you know if there is any sort of chicken exchange in Seattle for this purpose?

    1. lyanda

      Waverly–sorry to take so long, this comment got lost somehow. I actually don’t know of such a chicken exchange–interesting idea. But I wonder–chickens DO eat cutworms, but they eat everything else, too–not just invertebrates, but plants. They scratch and dig, and nibble everything in their path. Lettuces, carrot tops, veggie starts, squash leaves–all down to nothing in no time. So depending on the state of the garden, they could do more harm than good!

  5. Gaylene Meyer

    Looking forward to your post on choosing chicken breeds. The boys really want to hatch their own eggs, is this a reasonable undertaking for a novice? Where should we start? And what would we do if we ended up with roosters?

    1. lyanda

      Hi Gayle. How exciting. Since a 5th grade duck-hatching science project, I have had no experience incubating eggs, so can’t really advise you, but I am sure there is a ton of good advice on the ol’ interweb. But yes–roosters are a concern, and it’s good to have a contingency plan. We got a rooster (from a sexed chick run!), and we found it a home “in the country.” For backyard chickens, you can’t do better than Buff Orpingtons. I’ll try to write about that this weekend! Let us know how it goes, especially if you decide to hatch.

  6. Pingback: Buff Orpington: Our Favorite Bakcyard Chicken Breed

  7. I’m going to start my own flock this year, and reading your website has got me so excited. I’m jumping on the backyard chicken bandwagon because in these uncertain times, it’s nice to be able to do something that seems self-sustaining.

  8. Pingback: The Tangled Nest Urban Chicken Roundup

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