Sharon April 3rd, 2008
The first livestock we got, a few months after we moved out here, were chickens. That was 6 1/2 years ago. Most of my family thought it was weird. Little did they know that poultry carry a dangerous disease…the chicken pax. Its major symptom – the sudden desire to have your own chickens. Symptoms include praising egg quality, paging through the Murray McMurray catalog and craning your neck to see if that thing in your neighbor’s backyard is a coop or a shed. No one, no matter where you live, is immune.
It started with my mother and step-mother. My mother was at first grossed out by the idea of us eating eggs that came out of the chicken’s butt (I’m not clear on where she thought the supermarket eggs came from – I think the part that she liked about them was that they didn’t make her think about it at all), but eventually had to admit that my chickens were kind cute. But Susie, my step-Mom, well, she really liked them. So much so that she started working on my Mom to let her get chickens. Eventually, Mom caved.
Well, last spring, when I ordered chicks, we got some for Susie. She built a coop that my mother grumbles cost more than their house (she exaggerates, but it is one heck of a nice coop ;-)), and reared her four “girls” (one of them had a little gender issue, and had to be replaced, but I’ll save that story for Susie) and now my mother likes their backyard chickens just fine, happily eat the eggs - and Susie loves them. She says they changed everything – got the neighbors engaged, gave her a new passion, was a source of just endless pleasure. Last week my Mom was on her way out, when a little girl she’d never seen before rang the bell, and said, “I saw the chickens before – can I go show them to my Mom?” My Mom went out, the little girl and her Mom went back into the yard, and the beginnings of a new relationship were formed!
After the chickens came, a neighbor girl started visiting regularly to help with the hens. She even came down to the garden with my step-Mom, ate strawberries and began to learn about gardening – all because of the chickens. The girls have made such a difference that Susie has now taken on the project of helping other people become backyard chicken raisers. She’s got a blog - she’s new to it, and there’s only one post yet, but I thought a few comments might encourage her to write more . Now she has a mission – changing people’s lives, one hen at a time!
But it doesn’t end there. Due to that little bit of chicken gender trouble, one of the babies came to live at my farm (once called “Cora” now “Cory” rules our flock with an iron hand), and had to be replaced. So Susie and my Mom went off to a poultry auction last fall, and brought my brother in law, Billy along. Now my sister Vicky (married to Billy) doesn’t like birds. Billy does. I’d offered them some chicks, mostly in the spirit of affectionate driving one’s sister crazy, but they’d never quite taken me up on it. But off to the poultry auction Billy went, and home he came with 9 chicks and two ducks. A coop was constructed, and my sister has almost forgiven my brother in law for the incident where the poor ducks got cold and Billy put them in the bathtub. Unfortunately, 7 of the 9 chicks turned out to be roosters, and thus my farm becomes the home for unwelcome roosters, but that’s what pesky big sisters with farms are for. And there’s talk of their raising more chicks this spring…
Now my other sister, Rachael doesn’t have chickens…yet. She wants the Polish kind, the ones that look like they are wearing hats. Not this year – they have to build a coop, and she and her husband aren’t the haphazard sort. They are going to do things in the right order. But they are coming. In the meantime, my mother tells me that Rachael is going on a “Coop Loop”- a walk to visit all the chickens in a suburban neighborhood near her.
It doesn’t end there. One of my best friends from college called me up last week saying they are going to get their chickens, and asking what kind to get! Guess who’ll be ordering them and taking back any roosters ? And then there’s the friend in a neighborhood of Boston who is checking with his zoning committee, and the grad school girlfriend who is building a coop in a mid-sized city in Indiana.
All of which suggests to me the simple truth that chickens are contagious. And it is one heck of a good disease to get – because the answer to factory farming is not just to buy sustainable eggs. Oh, that’s good, and some of us can’t keep chickens. But the reality is that if small organic chicken farms get too big, they’ll stop being able to give the chickens what they really need – enough air, pasture, light and nature – and those compromises are bad for chickens and bad for the environment. Some more farms will be created by demand, but one way to balance supply and demand with ecological concerns is to bring chickens into our yards. We don’t want monocultured chicken farms that raise only poultry – monoculture is never a good thing. We want diversity – of crops, of livestock, of chicken breeds.
Which means that the best way to stop factory egg farming is this – for people to raise a few chickens in their backyards whenever possible. 3 chickens create less mess and trouble than a dog, eat your pests, create manure for your garden, keep wastes out of the garbage stream, provide you with rich, healthy eggs and enormous pleasure. 3 million chickens in an egg farm are an ecological disaster, a health hazard, a risk for avian flu and an animal lover’s nightmare. 3 million of the same kind of chickens together means the potential extinction of valuable genes designed for backyard flocks.
The chicken pax is the answer to a host of horrors – if you can keep chickens, and you like them and eat eggs, you probably should. After all, they change everything.
BTW, in July we’re planning to add Nigerian Dwarf milk goats, courtesy of our wonderful friends Jamey and Carol. Among the reasons we picked this breed is that they are the perfect sized milk goat for suburban lots – and we plan to help get them there. Don’t tell my Mom, but I’m pretty sure that cute little milk goats may be highly contagious too !