Why Raise Your Own Chickens?

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In an earlier post we suggested that the Obamas add chickens to their White House vegetable garden. The piece, which the Huffington Post linked to, was met with a mix of enthusiasm and derision by readers of both The Atlantic and Huffington Post.

It seems that those who have no direct experience with keeping a backyard poultry flock consider the idea absurd while those who have flocks or have friends with flocks are generally wildly enthusiastic. Recently we learned that the largest grocery store chain in the UK is now selling newly hatched chicks in response to the rising interest in raising poultry.

Tuesday's New York Times had an article documenting the backyard flock trend sweeping the United States. But the article also raises the question of whether it makes economic sense, quoting a USDA poultry specialist saying that given the cost of feed you can buy eggs cheaper in the grocery store.

Everyone we know who keep their own poultry flock is passionate and proud about their birds.

Our experiences on our own ranch and with friends who have backyard flocks confirms that run-of-the-mill grocery store eggs and chicken meat can be purchased more cheaply than raising your own. That much is true. But it seems to us that, as is so often the case, USDA is missing the point here; it is comparing apples and oranges. In other words, the eggs and meat you get from raising your own chickens are tastier, healthier, and much more satisfying to eat.

Consider the following: arsenic, antibiotics, manure, and slaughterhouse wastes are all common poultry feed ingredients. And who really wants those in their food chain? We sure don't. Moreover, the vast majority of U.S. eggs come from hens who live in cramped cages and never exercise or breathe fresh air, making them uniquely susceptible to all sorts of infectious diseases. Meat chickens, meanwhile, are raised in intensely crowded total confinement buildings. A recent FDA food safety study found poultry to be the most commonly tainted food item of all.

Keeping your own flock of meat chickens or laying hens, on the other hand, has many advantages. It allows you to ensure that your poultry are only eating things you feel comfortable having in your food chain. And it allows you to keep the animals in clean, healthy environments, making it more likely that their meat and eggs will be untainted with food borne illnesses. Perhaps most importantly, it's just good fun. Everyone we know who keep their own poultry flock is passionate and proud about their birds.

So to all the skeptics out there we say: "Don't knock it til you've tried it."

For more on the advantages of raising your own chickens, click here.

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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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