Mankind and poultry have enjoyed a long and storied relationship over time. The most noteworthy of these relationships, of course, is that of humans managing a domesticated animal for the production of meat and eggs. In recent years, the small size, numerous benefits and desire of some consumers to forge ever-closer connections with their food has led to a resurgence of a forgotten chapter in the history of poultry and mankind — the backyard chicken.
This spring that subject matter commanded the attention of a group of all ages gathered in a chilly room at the Pettisville Grain Company. The group intently listened to a lone man sitting on a stool in the corner with nothing but a microphone for two hours. The speaker, clad in bib overalls and a yellow hat, travels the country sharing the backyard poultry gospel to throngs of those passionate about their poultry. His name is Andy Schneider, but he is better known as the Chicken Whisperer. He has become the go-to guy across the country for anything related to backyard chickens.
There is no doubt that in recent years backyard chicken flocks have boomed in this country across nearly every segment of society. Schneider’s goal is to help educate novice (and not-so-novice) small-scale chicken owners about the more important points of responsible chicken management.
“You can’t pin this movement on one segment of society,” Schneider said. “I have even done several shows with some of the preppers who want to produce their own food. Education is a large part of people getting started in this. They want their kids to understand where their food comes from. They think if they know what goes into their chickens, they will feel better about what is coming out of them, whether it is meat or eggs.”
He said there are many different ways people get started with backyard chickens, but they generally pick out their breed or breeds of choice in one of four ways.
“The group I call ‘Researchers’ spends months trying to figure out what breeds they want. They want to learn everything they could possibly know about chickens. They don’t get buyers remorse because they learned everything before they bought them,” he said. “Then there are the ‘Sentimentalists.’ These people pick a breed because it is the breed their grandparents had when they were growing up. They want to carry on that tradition. The ‘Opportunists’ are soccer moms in mini vans and they have the kids at an activity and see chickens in someone’s backyard. The kids say, ‘We want to get chickens!’ Maybe she buys a book but then she forgets about it until they walk into the local feed store in the spring and there are baby chicks. The children say, ‘Ahh mom I want that one in the corner. He needs a friend. I love the color of that one. Look at the pattern on those wings. I want that hyper one it reminds me of my little brother. I am going to name him Chad.’ All three groups will probably be equally happy and satisfied. I also see people who say they had a friend just drop off some chickens at their house.”
Once these rural, suburban and even urban chicken owners secure their birds of choice, the modern chicken craze can manifest itself into relationships well beyond the bounds of traditional poultry ownership.
“People have told me that they thought I was crazy when I said that chickens could make great pets,” Schneider said. “Then those are the same people who later tell me they just built a $2,000 coop that matches the house and their wife is knitting chicken sweaters. The whole process from A to Z can be very educational. It just depends on what you want and how much money you want to spend.”
Chicken feed, supplies and other items have become big business as a part of the rise of a new breed of modern fowl fanatics.
“Big companies would not be spending big money on R&D making chicken pets and chicken toys if people were not buying them,” he said. “Some people feel like the nesting box needs to be like a spa treatment for the hens. People are buying herbs to put in nesting boxes for aromatherapy. There was also a fad for sewing curtains for chicken nest boxes. Hens do like a darker more private area for laying, but some materials can harbor mites. I had a lady tell me that she washes her chicken nest box curtains every Saturday.”
At the other extreme of the poultry boom spectrum, an entirely new form of high-end service industry has developed.
“You’ll have folks that do not want to do any work but want fresh eggs for breakfast. There are ways to rent a chicken,” Schneider said. “It is a primo price. There are people who could cut their own grass but they hire a lawn service and they could clean their own pool, but they hire a pool boy. This is along the same lines.”
Taking a big picture look at this trend, I think it accomplishes a number of very positive things for society. It provides the highly sought connection with food that has been absent in so many parts of our modern culture. With that connection comes an understanding (at least on a small scale) of the hardships that accompany the production of food. Though a freshly pressed nest box curtain may obscure it, the cycle of life that produces an egg for breakfast in the morning is not necessarily always pretty and idyllic.
I can say that our personal flock of backyard chickens has led to great lessons for our young children, delicious eggs and one more connection with Ohio agriculture that we really value at the Reese house. Our chickens are not really “pets,” but the children do have their favorites and they are part of daily life and duties (our daughter is responsible for egg collection and washing).
But when combined with modern society’s often-skewed view of animal agriculture, non-farm chicken ownership undoubtedly has some ill consequences as well. Just ask those families affected by salmonella derived from improper sanitation after handling baby chicks. It is possible, too, that the pet-ification of food production animals in a setting still very far removed from farms creates a false reality for the expectations of production agriculture. If a city chicken gets herbal infused aromatherapy, shouldn’t their on-farm counterparts get similar accouterments?
At the end of the day, I feel like the backyard chicken boom results in more good than harm. After all, whether in town or living in the middle of nowhere, responsible chicken ownership provides a glimpse into the sometimes-harsh reality that accompanies the production of the food we need for survival, even if the bird in question happens to be wearing a sweater.