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Keeping Their Eggs in Their Backyard Nests

Source: The New York Times
Date: August 3, 2009
Byline: William Neuman

As Americans struggle through a dismal recession, many are trying to safeguard themselves from what they fear will be even worse times ahead. They eat out less often. They take vacations closer to home. They put off buying new cars.

And some raise chickens. Lloyd Romriell, a married father of four in Annis, Idaho, recently received seven grown chickens and a coop from a relative. The hens lay a total of about two dozen eggs a week.

“It’s because times are tough. You never know what’s going to happen,” Mr. Romriell said. Although he manages a feed store, he had not kept chickens since he was a child. “If you lose your job tomorrow, you’ve still got food.”

As a backyard chicken trend sweeps the country, hatcheries that supply baby chicks say they can barely keep up with demand. Do-it-yourself coops have popped up in places as disparate as Brooklyn, suburban Chicago and the rural West.

In some cities, the chicken craze has met with resistance, as neighbors demand that local officials enforce no-poultry laws. In others, including Fort Collins, Colo., enthusiasts have worked to change laws to allow small flocks (without noisy roosters).

For some, especially in cities, where raising chickens has become an emblem of extreme foodie street cred, the interest is spurred by a preference for organic and locally grown foods. It may also stem in part from fear, after several prominent recalls, that the food in the supermarket is no longer safe.

But for many others, a deep current of economic distress underlies the chicken boomlet, as people seek ways to fend for themselves in tough times. Even if spreadsheets can demonstrate that raising chickens at home is not cost-effective, it may instill an invaluable sense of self-reliance.

“I’m not into that organic stuff,” Mr. Romriell said. “I think people in bigger cities want to see where their food comes from, whereas us out here in the West and in small towns, we know the concept of losing jobs and want to be able to be self-sustained. That’s why I do it.”

Commercial hatcheries, which typically ship baby chicks around the country by airmail, say they are having one of their best years, on top of exceptionally strong sales last year. Most of the birds go to farm supply stores, but many hatcheries are increasingly making small shipments directly to people who want just a few birds for a backyard flock. The postal service said that in the first six months of this year, it shipped 1.2 million pounds of packages containing chicks (mostly chickens but also baby ducks and turkeys), a 7 percent increase from the comparable period last year. That volume equals millions of birds, as the average chick weighs slightly more than an ounce.

Marie Reed, a sales representative for Ideal Poultry, a large Texas hatchery, said that managers of rural feed stores that sell the company’s birds told her they had seen a spike this year in demand for baby chicks, along with an upturn in sales of garden seeds — and ammunition.

“People are buying up guns and chickens and seed,” Ms. Reed said. “That tells me people are wanting to depend on themselves more.”

Yet, even as many people see raising chickens as a hedge against hard times — and a way to get tastier eggs and meat — they often acknowledge that it is not really a way to save money on food.

“You can buy eggs in the grocery store cheaper than you can raise them,” said David D. Frame, a poultry specialist who works with the Utah State University Extension. “You’re not saving money by doing it.”

He said that feed represented 75 percent of the cost of raising a bird. Commercial poultry operations that buy huge amounts of feed at wholesale have much lower costs per bird than the backyard chicken enthusiast can typically achieve.

Jasmin Middlebos, 36, a librarian who lives with her husband, a sheriff’s deputy, and their three children in a rural area outside Spokane, Wash., began raising chickens last year. She now has 26 birds, which produce up to two dozen eggs a day. (In hot weather, production can drop by half, and in winter it can stop altogether.) In September, she began selling some of the eggs — she gets $2 to $3 a dozen — and started keeping track of her income and expenses.

Since then, Ms. Middlebos said, she has taken in $457 from egg sales and spent $428, mostly on feed. That left $29 in the Mason jar where she keeps her earnings, to spend the next time she buys feed.