How About a White House Chicken Flock?

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Photo by ktylerconk/Flickr CC

Michelle Obama made front-page news late last week when she broke ground on a new White House vegetable and herb garden. We join the sustainable-food advocates across the country who are cheering loudly. And now we suggest the logical next step: a flock of egg-laying hens for the White House grounds.

The idea may sound far fetched, but is it, really? At the dawn of the 20th century, chickens were literally everywhere. Census figures show that 88 percent of farms had chicken flocks. Even in urban areas, there was a chicken for every two people (You can find the full citations for these numbers on page 40 of my book, Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms).

Fueled by a desire to reconnect with the source of one's food, as well as to regain control over its safety and healthfulness, there is already a small but growing movement to re-establish backyard poultry flocks in many parts of the United States. Like vegetable gardening, tending a chicken flock can produce the freshest, tastiest food available, and gets you outdoors and in motion even more reliably than dog walking. [Curator's note: Carol Ann Sayle's account of her relationship with her chickens, particularly one tough hen, could inspire anyone get started.] So to Michelle Obama and the White House chefs in charge of the garden, we say: Great start -- keep going!

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Bill Niman and Nicolette Hahn Niman are ranchers in Northern California. Nicolette is also an attorney and writer, and Bill is the founder of the natural meat company Niman Ranch, Inc. More

Bill Niman and Nicolette Hahn Niman are owners and operators of BN RANCH, a seaside ranch in Bolinas, California, where they raise their son Miles, grass-fed cattle, heritage turkeys, and goats. They were featured in an August 2009 cover story in TIME about the crisis in America's food system.

Nicolette is a rancher, attorney, and writer. Much of her time is spent speaking and writing about the problems of industrialized livestock production, including the book Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms (HarperCollins, 2009) and four essays she has written on the subject for the New York Times. She has written for Huffington Post, CHOW, and Earth Island Journal. Previously, she was the senior attorney for the environmental organization Waterkeeper Alliance, where she was in charge of the organization's campaign to reform the concentrated livestock and poultry industry, and, before that, an attorney for National Wildlife Federation. Nicolette served two terms on the city council for the City of Kalamazoo, Michigan. She received her Juris Doctorate, cum laude, from the University of Michigan and her B.A. in Biology and French from Kalamazoo College.

Bill is a cattle rancher and founder of the natural meat company Niman Ranch, Inc. He was a member of Pew's National Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, which released recommendations for reform of the nation's livestock industry in April 2008. Niman has been named "Food Artisan of the Year" by Bon Appetit and has been called the "Master of Meat" by Wine Spectator, the "Guru of Happy Cows" by the Los Angeles Times, "a pioneer of the good meat movement" by the New York Times, "the Steve Jobs of Meat" by Men's Journal, and a "Pork Pioneer" by Food & Wine. The Southern Foodways Alliance named him its Scholar in Residence for 2009, stating that he was "this country's most provocative and persistent champion of sustainably and humanely raised livestock." Vanity Fair magazine has featured him in its "Green Issue," and Plenty magazine selected him as among the nation's five leading "green entrepreneurs." He has been honored with the Glynwood Harvest Good Neighbor Award. Bill co-authored The Niman Ranch Cookbook (Ten Speed Press, 2005), which was selected as one of the year's best cookbooks by the New York Times, Newsweek, and the San Jose Mercury News.

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