I suspect this pandemic will bring attention to sustainable ways of living that do not rely on complex global supply chains, or at the very least, can act to supplement our dependency on them. There seems to exist a deep yearning, a natural desire, for sustainability at the local and individual level; there is something viscerally satisfying about growing your own food. Martha Stewart has kept backyard fowl for years, and even media personality Kylie Jenner has opined, “When I’m, like, 30, I want to go off the map, have a family and live in Malibu with a farm, and just raise my own chickens.”
This year’s viral malady may serve as the spark that ignites this untapped desire. Headlines reporting toilet paper in short supply will conceivably engender widespread worry over shortages of a much more dire commodity: food. With this in mind, I believe that owning chickens, goats, and even honeybees in suburban neighborhoods will become more mainstream in the coming years.
My family has kept chickens for the past six or seven years on a third of an acre property in suburban Connecticut, so I thought I might offer a handful of my negative and positive experiences with backyard farming.
As my mother says, owning chickens is not necessarily cost effective. At any given time, we have between eight and ten hens, and between the pine shavings that serve as bedding and chicken feed, we’re usually ending each quarter in the red. Additionally, building a chicken coop is a serious undertaking; Fort Knox should come to mind. Despite living in a suburban sprawl, we get all kinds of predators including foxes, raccoons, coyotes, and opossums. It’s not uncommon to see a red-tailed hawk circling above their enclosure. Bearing that in mind, it is important to build a coop with strong chicken wire, extend the barrier at least a foot underground, and ensure that there are no inadvertent points of entry. Unfortunately for me, our first iteration of the coop was not impregnable, and one morning when I was in high school, my mom woke me up saying, “Brendan, you have to help me clean up the dead chickens!” To my chagrin, I spent the morning before first period shoveling the poor victims of a brutal and senseless attack into the trash barrel. Just when I thought I was finished, my mom pointed towards something under the hedge: a chicken head! (I’m still traumatized). We later learned that the perpetrator was none other than our neighbor’s beagle. Needless to say, my dad spent many hours reinforcing the coop.
Additionally, a minor, but nevertheless important drawback to mention is the embarrassment you, or your family member will feel when one of the chickens inevitably escapes and you are left to chase it around the neighborhood with a lacrosse stick.
However, despite the costs, and the potential for carnage, I have observed several upsides to keeping backyard fowl. One is that the eggs taste twice as good as anything you could buy at the store; and in stark contrast to the uniformity of their supermarket counterparts, they come in all shapes, colors, and sizes. We even occasionally get blue eggs. And if you do decide to get into suburban husbandry, you’ll be delighted when you receive your first double-yolked egg.
When I collect eggs in the morning, I experience a taste of what life must have been like on a homestead. I feel more connected to my ancestors, who, just a couple generations ago, would consider this act a normal part of their daily routine on their farm in Ireland. Maybe it’s because my parents forced me to watch countless episodes of Little House on the Prairie as a kid, or perhaps, as I mentioned earlier, it’s something innate, but raising animals as a source of sustenance is very satisfying.
If my dad is collecting the eggs, he will assuredly shout out how many were laid. “Eight eggs today!” Anyone else in the kitchen will invariably applaud the chicken’s production capability. In fact, I’ve noticed an increase in the number of eggs over the past several weeks. It’s unclear whether this surplus is owed to randomness, but, now that the price of eggs has soared, it is certainly an appreciated development.
For better or for worse, the national mood is souring on globalization, and we’re likely to see an acute shift towards sustainability and a repatriation of critical supply chains. Keeping backyard fowl is a relatively easy and rewarding step in this direction.