Backyard chickens: Is the trend real or fake?

May 15, 2009 | By | Comments (21)

Charlotte I’m feeling ruffled. Jack Shafer, the increasingly cranky media critic over at Slate.com, wrote a column yesterday suggesting that raising backyard chickens is a bogus trend.

(Busting bogus trends is his thing—a point of pride.)

Shafer cited recent articles from newspapers around the country that he calls “all-feather, no-bone journalism,” including pieces from The Oregonian, Arizona Republic, Chicago Tribune, the Associated Press, and the one that I suspect pushed him over the edge, in his hometown paper, the Washington Post.

Tragically, he did not mention this blog or my chicken-raising story from our April issue. (Even if he’s calling us bogus, I’ll take the link!)

The problem with his column, of course, is that it is itself bogus.

 


Selling chicks as fast as he can hatch them

This morning I called Bud Wood, who owns Murray McMurray Hatchery in Webster City, Iowa.

Wood was quiet for a moment when I suggested that this backyard-chicken thing was just a puffed-up, fake media trend. “If it isn’t a trend I don’t know what we’re selling,” he said.

At Murray McMurray Hatchery (est. 1917), they raise 110 varieties of chickens, many rare and heritage, and they sell 100,000 chicks a month when they’re incubating and shipping as many chicks as they can.

Which, I might add, includes every month this year since February.

“Last year and this year, we have been running at full capacity, and we still have a 4- to 6-week wait to fill an order,” he told me. “Two or four years ago, we pretty much sold out every week but we weren’t running at full capacity and we would sell out a week ahead of time. Now, we are running the incubators as full as we can keep them.”

A few years ago, he would sell 100,000 chicks a month in March, April, and May; the rest of the year, he would hatch fewer chicks because he got fewer orders. Not this year. They’ve been selling 100,000 a month since February, and they’re sold out through July.

Plus, over the past 10 years, the size of McMurray’s orders of chicks has been steadily trending downward. (The minimum you can order there is 25, because when they ship chicks through the mail they have to keep each other warm.)

“We see our orders going smaller and smaller,” Wood says. “I used to sell a lot of orders in 100 boxes. Now 75 percent of our orders are boxes of 25. Ten years ago, the average order was 45 or 50 birds.”

Wood says that as order size has been shrinking, he’s concurrently been hearing about his customers dividing their boxes of 25 between three or four people, leaving each of them with a handful—perfect for a backyard coop.

 



Changing laws on behalf of a “bogus” trend?

Then there’s the matter of cities all over the U.S. taking up the issue of backyard chickens. Last summer, my go-to online chicken community, BackyardChickens.com, started a forum for people to discuss local chicken laws and how to change them.

Ahead-of-the-trend college town Madison, WI, was an early-adopter; their city council changed the law to allow backyard hens in 2004. Ann Arbor, MI, began allowing them in June 2008. Fort Collins’s city council voted to allow them last fall. Currently, Provo, UT is in the process of working through changing its law. In Salem, OR, Columbia, MO, and Knoxville, TN, citizens are lobbying for similar changes in city code.

Weird, all that political action on behalf of a fake trend.

Maybe the chicken advocates in those cities are only speaking in front of their city councils and boards of health for the benefit of lazy, bogus-trend-writing newspaper journalists?

 


This trend is too old? Thus it is not a trend?

The least convincing part of Shafer’s column is the way his argument makes a last-minute U-turn in the third-from-last paragraph:

If backyard hen keeping is indeed a trend, it constitutes such a
long-standing trend that it has ceased to be one. On March 29, 2002,
the Wall Street Journal ran a piece about the “McMansion” coops some chicken owners were building for their birds. The April 5, 2004, Arizona Daily Star noted
the high attendance drawn by Kim Fox at her chicken-raising speeches in
Tucson… The Sept. 14, 2003, Seattle Times explored the world of the city’s backyard chicken farmers. In the summer of 2003, both USA Today and Newsday profiled the author of Keep Chickens! Tending Small Flocks in Cities, Suburbs, and Other Small Spaces. “We sold 2,000 laying hens last year,” the owner of a downtown Houston feed store told the Houston Chronicle
for its March 30, 1993, edition. Dialing the Nexis machine back even
earlier, we find a syndicated Martha Stewart piece in the April 23,
1986, San Diego Union-Tribune oddly titled “Home-Grown Eggs—Can’t Beat ‘Em.”

Hang on here a second. I don’t think that any of this spring’s rash of chicken articles (mine included) is suggesting that we have invented the idea of raising chickens in backyards. Heck, I wrote about chickens for the first time in summer of 2006.

I don’t understand: The fact that people have been raising chickens in their backyards before doesn’t mean that there isn’t more interest in it now, right? What’s bogus about a long-simmering trend? This argument garners a FAIL from me.

Because here’s the thing: I’ve been involved in this backyard chicken thing for a while now. We got our hens in August 2007, and at that time, I was a leeetle bit freaked out about being responsible for the ladies. I mean, what did I know about chickens? So I Googled. A lot. I devoured other people’s anecdotes, searched for ideas to make our chickens happier, pored over accounts of chickens’ favorite snacks and foodstuffs that would make them sick. I lurked on the BackyardChickens.com forum for days and weeks.

There’s much, much more being written about backyard chickens on the Internet these days than even two years ago. They’re on blogs everywhere, there are classes popping up in far corners of the West, plus coop tours in places like Salt Lake City (June 27, peeps) and Tucson (May 23) and Fort Collins (it was April 18). Even forward-thinking Portland’s Tour de Coops, after which most of the city tours are modeled, is only 6 years old. It’s not that they were always there and I just wasn’t looking; trust me, I was looking. It’s that the chicken thing is catching on.

And Jack Shafer, that old rooster, can go crow about something else.

by Elizabeth Jardina, Sunset researcher

COMMENTS

  1. Mark Lewis

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    2- easy for beginners with little or no skiing experience .
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    .

    June 30, 2013 at 3:15 pm
  2. Walter Matera

    Gosh, here in Lakewood we’ve been allowed to keep up to five laying hens for as long as I can remember asking about it. My wife objects to the idea because 1) we have a terrier and 2) we like to travel and while you can leave a cat or a dog for boarding, who boards chickens? Still, I find the idea really appealing. It would go so well with my front-yard vegetable garden and my backyard orchard.

    April 9, 2013 at 3:57 pm
  3. wab

    March 19, 2013 at 8:47 am
  4. Kathi

    WE, THE PEOPLE OF MISSION VIEJO WISH TO CHANGE THE CITY ORDINANCE OF NOT ALLOWING CERTAIN BACKYARD ANIMALS, NAMELY CHICKENS. WE ARE PETITIONING THE CITY TO ALLOW A CERTAIN REASONABLE AMOUNT OF CHICKENS/HENS PER HOME. NO ROOSTERS.

    IF YOU BELIEVE YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO OWN PETS OF YOUR OWN CHOICE, PLEASE SIGN BELOW. WE NEED 100 SIGNATURES.

    PLEASE SIGN YOUR NAME, ADD YOUR STREET ADDRESS AND DATE IT AND PASS IT IN THE ENVELOPE TO YOUR NEXT DOOR NEIGHBOR TO THE RIGHT OF YOU. PLEASE KEEP THIS PETITION GOING. IF YOU DON’T WANT TO PARTICIPATE, PLEASE PASS IT TO THE NEIGHBOR TO THE RIGHT OF YOU.

    _________________________ _______________________ ___________
    Name Street Name Date:

    Print this up and circulate it throughout your neighborhood in Mission Viejo, and then deliver it to MV code enforcement or the City Council. Let’s see what we can do as a whole!

    February 22, 2013 at 1:22 pm
  5. Concrete Lifting

    This article is extremely fascinating. I am so happy I found your blog page.You made some good points there.

    July 27, 2011 at 4:23 am
  6. bruce

    I to live in mission viejo, and would desire to have chickens, just letting you guys know you not alone i think are alot of people in this area that would be interested in having chickens.

    May 28, 2011 at 11:02 pm
  7. Bre

    Glen, I also live in Mission Viejo and would like to add a couple chickens to my backyard- Hopefully we aren’t the only ones!!! Just wanted to let you know you are not alone! Action needs to be taken :)

    April 22, 2011 at 12:26 am
  8. Daniel

    We won’t be eating healthy chickens or eggs if it is a bogus trend. Keeping chickens is one of the effort of living a healthy lifestyle, and if it is a bogus, that’s the same of telling people that live a healthy life is bogus.

    Daniel

    Chicken coop plans

    November 24, 2010 at 4:41 am
  9. Margo True

    Glen, I’ve just received a newsletter from the invaluable backyardchickens.com, and you may want to check this out:

    Uncle Sam Expects YOU To Raise Chickens!
    Having a hard time getting your local city officials to approve chickens? Maybe they need to see this: http://www.backyardchickens.com/forum/viewtopic.php?id=351110

    It’s stirringly patriotic.

    You can also follow an entire thread on one of BackyardChickens’ forums, entitled “Local Chicken Laws & Ordinances (and how to change them)”:

    http://www.backyardchickens.com/forum/viewforum.php?id=37

    Good luck.

    June 1, 2010 at 3:31 am
  10. Margo True

    Hi, Glen. I’m sorry to hear that. Perhaps if you cite all the other cities that allow them? You might try calling another city, such as Sacramento, that recently changed its ruling to allow chickens and ask what factors tipped the scale in chickens’ favor. I wonder whether Mission Viejo realizes that you don’t need a rooster to have chickens. Many cities allow chickens, but not roosters (Menlo Park, where Sunset is based, has this rule).

    Good luck!

    May 28, 2010 at 2:13 am
  11. Glen

    Help!!!! we are not allowed chickens in Mission Viejo, CA. I called the city and they said there is no way to have chickens and that the director I spoke with had already talked with his staff and they are unanimously against having chickens. What do we do?

    May 27, 2010 at 5:41 pm
  12. Kelly Wellington

    New York Times covered it this month. Byline was William Neuman. August 7, I think it was.

    I got three in 2007 myself. It was to trial a non-toxic pest control method on cutworms. I was dubious.

    I now have six hens and raise chicks each spring.

    Soon they may have to implement backyard chicken 12-step programs.

    August 22, 2009 at 5:25 pm
  13. pedroza family

    We got chicken (and a duck) as an Easter gift in 2007 and have since kept purchasing chickens. Some of my neighbors own them as organic pest controlers.

    If bellbottoms come come back as a trend, so can chickens!

    June 24, 2009 at 8:32 am
  14. Barry

    I live near SJSU. This past winter two families on my street alone got chickens. It is a trend and it is real. Did a lot of people used to have chickens so it’s not a new idea? Yeah, but doesn’t mean it’s not a trend.

    June 15, 2009 at 6:02 pm
  15. elisabeth

    I don’t quite see how you could ignore that backyard/urban chicken keeping is a current trend. I have chickens myself and I am absolutely amazed at how many magazine articles, news stories, blog posts and fellow chicken keepers I come across. I don’t think I’ve ever been so on-trend in my life before my chickens came along.

    June 3, 2009 at 2:18 am
  16. Patricia

    I have noted chickens in my neighborhood (Santa Rosa CA) since I moved here in 1973. In the papers we got when we purchased our house there was a clause stating chickens were grandfathered in.
    There are now problems with predators so the population is declining.

    May 22, 2009 at 4:10 pm
  17. Hank

    Sacramento just changed its laws to allow backyard chickens, and I can attest by personal anecdote that at least a half-dozen people in my circle of acquaintances have started coops in the past year.

    It used to be that only hippies, Hispanics and immigrants raised backyard chickens. Now I think it is becoming mainstream — especially here in California following passage of Prop. 2 last fall.

    May 20, 2009 at 8:24 pm
  18. whitney

    We’re in the process of making this happen in Buffalo, NY. FYI!

    May 19, 2009 at 1:57 pm
  19. Sheila Schmitz

    Baby chicks — through the mail?????

    May 16, 2009 at 3:40 am
  20. AO

    I think this really says it all.
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/35435787@N00/3524056116/

    It’s a photo of our 2nd round of chicks. Ensuring a supply of laying chickens for the coming years.
    AO

    May 16, 2009 at 2:37 am
  21. colleeeen

    Count me in as a mindless trend-follower! Of course, the fact that I’ve never had a backyard before now kept me from joining the chicken trend sooner. It seems to be a trend even here in Orange County, CA. The local feed & tack was all sold out of chicks when I tried to buy them, so I had to go outside the county to get my flock. I’m seeing lots more chicken-related ads on Craigslist. Sounds pretty real to me!

    May 15, 2009 at 9:43 pm

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