Photo by thomas pix/FlickrCC
In the early part of the twentieth century, my grandmother had chickens pecking around her farm house at her tenant cotton farm. She loved them. My mother, her daughter, in the antiseptic 1950s--our dog and cat were not allowed in the house--out of nostalgia perhaps, allowed us kids a trio of brightly colored Leghorn chicks for Easter. As they shed their dyed fuzzy feathers (green, pink and purple), they grew up to be roosters, and since we were not the "killing kind," preferring grocery-store chicken corpses, my brother and I had to cart the three young cocks down the caliche road to the neighbor lady, who wasted no time in prepping a meal of tasty fried chicken. With us watching in silent horror, she stood on our pets' wings and chopped their heads off with a hatchet. Headless, the rooster bodies ran in a dusty circle until they dropped from deathly exhaustion. I disliked her for the rest of my childhood.
As an adult, I became a throwback to my grandmother and acquired my first flock of hens in 1982. I've had chickens ever since, chickens with names (many share group names), and I now prefer them to other types of pets (they don't need to sleep with you). My flock numbers between 60 and 100 at various times, and always, several of these hens will be so smart and personable that they become special pets. Lately, my flock, through old-age attrition, is on the small end of that scale, and I need to replenish it, but, alas, chicks are getting hard to come by in Austin. Our local feed store, Callahan's General Store, now sells out of a thousand chicks a week, as there is a "boom" in interest in backyard chicken flocks. At least in Austin.
Jack Shafer, a writer for Slate, who apparently likes to dispel notions of popular "trends," recently stated firmly that there is no trend of people raising chickens in their backyards. To be specific, he says, it's a "bogus trend." He further states that "there exists no bird more diabolical and ruthless than the egg-laying chicken."
Well, excuse me, Jack, but in Austin, and I think throughout the country, there is serious interest in devilish chickens. Not just that hundreds of thousands of people are building coops, playing with chicks, buying organic feed (an average of $29 per 50 pound bag in Austin), composting manure and harvesting fresh eggs, but a heck of a lot more are having this experience than in the last 25 years. Does a trend have to reach some magical number to be noticed? Well, here are some numbers:
• In April, the "First Annual--the organizers are hinting there will be a repeat--Austin Funky Chicken Coop Tour" drew 1,000 "unique" visitors with overall attendance of 6,000 ogling approximately 20 coops and their inhabitants.
• This past weekend, I led the Fourth Annual Chicken Seminar at the national-award-winning, cutting-edge, organic Natural Gardener Nursery. These seminars attract an average of 200 attendees.
I think this intense interest in keeping chickens for their wonderful eggs, and compost making abilities, as well as their uniqueness as pets with considerable personality, has surfaced with the concern about our corporately-controlled food supply. These "chickenists" are also putting in home gardens. I don't know if Jack thinks there is no trend in vegetable gardens either, but at our Austin farm stand, we counsel new gardeners every week, and more of them don't buy our squash as they are growing their own for the first time!
Who knows how long this "trend" will last, either for chickens or vegetables. Trends can poop out suddenly, without warning. A lingering drought, horrid heat, and an insane quantity of bugs can end backyard gardening trends, and predators can wipe out hen flocks. But even if this happens, there will be a lot of folks who now know what a truly excellent egg tastes like; ditto for fresh vegetables. And they will likely experience a real fondness for their feathered pets. Their children will learn to nurture and care for them--a valuable lesson for youngsters. The chickens may even distract them from television and computer games. And, equally, now that they know what goes into these two trendy passions, they will have more respect for those farmers who persevere at both for their living.
Who knows, maybe citizens will regret ever having gardens and coops. Perhaps, but later I bet they will reflect upon the "bogus trends," with great nostalgia.