Buffy finally laid her first egg. It’d taken hours of coop building, brooding lamp adjusting and roosting lessons, but the birds that 6 months ago had been palm-sized yellow puffballs in our garage started earning their keep as backyard chickens. And Buffy’s “bawk-mitzvah” (h/t Kate) couldn’t be more timely — it coincided with the largest salmonella outbreak in U.S. history.
What had started as a hop onto the caricatured, often (and at times deservedly) maligned Bay Area urban homesteading bandwagon and an experiment in partial subsistence farming seemed eerily prescient. I’d been attuned to food politics since college, but it wasn’t until I started living with someone who’d worked on a Vermont farm that I had the encouragement to become an active participant, making the leap from consumer to producer. The road had been paved by feminist pioneers — women like Majora Carter, Alice Waters, and Novella Carpenter, urban farming posterchild and author of “Farm City” (which Miriam reviewed in January).
Ms. magazine’s summer issue cover story, “The Feminist Food Revolution,” profiled a handful of other women and women-led organizations that are charging ahead in the name of environmental justice, challenging the notion that the movement can be credited just to the Jamie Olivers and Michael Pollans and Eric Schlossers of the world. Janani at Racialicious explored this misrepresentation of the movement and media exclusion of women and people of color further in her article, “Sustainable Food and Privilege: Why is Green Always White (and Male and Upper-Class)”
While chicken raising didn’t start as an overtly feminist act for me, reading about all the other women who have been taking food production into their own hands (and many others who did out of necessity and before it was trendy — my mom included), it felt empowering and fulfilling in a way that’s been transformative for many others. The physical proximity to and intimate relationship with my food has brought forth a kind of hyper-consciousness that I couldn’t imagine possible with miles of road and sterile packaging between me and what I put into my body. It’s a privilege* (and a curse, ecologically and as far as awareness is concerned) to have that distance from what we eat in most of the industrialized world. Romantic as it may sound, there’s not a lot of glamorizing and window-dressing involved when food comes from your backyard.
When you take an egg out of a nesting box, it’s impossible to ignore that birds tend to shit where they lay. And that gets on the eggs you eat. Happily, chickens have a built-in antibacterial coating on the eggshells they produce to keep any hatchlings from getting sick. But on the scale of industrial agriculture, there’s no natural shield strong enough to prevent contamination — hence all those antibiotics. The Iowa factory farms forced to recall millions of eggs couldn’t care less about a little chicken shit — that’s just business as usual:
Inside the henhouses, investigators found live mice, infestations of flies and maggots, and eight-foot-high piles of manure. FDA officials also found that water that had been used to wash eggs at one of the farms had been tested positive for salmonella.
Now I’d wager that the conditions my chickens live in are better than more than 99% of the chickens in commercial settings, and even in smaller family-run outfits in California. It’s not surprising — I’ve only got 3 birds, and plenty of space proportional to what they require, for pretty cheap. I’m not trying to run a business here and make an obscene profit, I’m just providing eggs for the people who share my house. It’s a whole other ball of wax.
We built Buffy, Ruby and Petrie a two story coop made of mostly found materials. Boxy and unwieldy as it is (it’s the Borg cube of chicken coops, a real MacGyver job), it’s functional and relatively clean — lined with absorbent pine shaving bedding. They have an enclosed run in the garden where they can scratch to their hearts’ content, give themselves frequent dust baths, and sprawl out and sun themselves on their sides — legs splayed, wings spread. I’d never seen a chicken do that before and when I first discovered them lounging, I thought something was seriously wrong. But that’s just healthy chicken behavior – who knew.
Having this direct point of reference, being able to see the living conditions of the animals that provide my food, and being responsible for their well-being gave me a different perspective on the far from bucolic reality of agribusiness. This idyllic scene is a far cry from the farms where caged, cage free, and even free range birds are typically raised. A recent illustration in the Sunday New York Times painted a stark (and startling) picture: even if you buy cage free (which makes up just 2% of the egg market), the birds still are crammed together into giant warehouses with only a few more inches of space than the birds debeaked and cruelly confined to battery cages with floor space the size of an 8 1/2 x 11 sheet of paper. Even though I thought I’d been doing the humane thing, odds are, cage free birds are still suffering. It’s a helpless feeling as a consumer, and it reaffirmed my commitment to this whole project. If I hadn’t already gone down the path of chicken-keeping, maybe that would’ve been the tipping point for me. Perhaps it was for others who have access.*
I worked with The Humane Society of the United States on their Yes on Prop 2 campaign to ban battery cages in California in 2008, and while at the time I felt a strong sense of compassion for factory farm animals and moral outrage at their deplorable treatment by big agribusiness, it’s only now that I have tangible proof and I’ve really started to unequivocally connect the dots about my dietary decisions and the suffering that so often goes into how we sustain ourselves.
I’d like to believe that if I choose Nieman Ranch, an extra few dollars makes a difference in the way animals are raised and slaughtered — while I’m conscious of the socioeconomic reality that it puts it out of reach of the vast majority of Americans. Jonathan Safran Foer, author of “Eating Animals” says that it still doesn’t make a big difference:
According to an analysis of U.S.D.A. data by the advocacy group Farm Forward, factory farms now produce more than 99 percent of the animals eaten in this country. And despite labels that suggest otherwise, genuine alternatives — which do exist, and make many of the ethical questions about meat moot — are very difficult for even an educated eater to find. I don’t have the ability to do so with regularity and confidence. (“Free range,” “cage free,” “natural” and “organic” are nearly meaningless when it comes to animal welfare.)
But even beyond taking humane treatment into consideration, I arrived at a mind-numbingly simple realization that my veggie and vegan friends have known intuitively and espoused for years: no matter how you cut it, there’s no getting around the fact that an animal dies when you eat meat. I’ve had the luxury of keeping this truth out of sight, out of mind, even when I’d dabble in vegetarianism for more ecological reasons.
We’d bought our chickens expressly for laying, but when one of them sprouted spurs and started crowing at dawn (and mid morning…and midday…and in the afternoon), my farm-enthusiast housemate — who had slaughtered birds herself — suggested we eat him. But at that point Florentine was a friend (a nippy, aggressive one at that), and I couldn’t bear the thought, even if the plan was to use every part of the bird. It was too close to home, literally. But wouldn’t everyone who eats meat and is so far removed from the source benefit from having that deep understanding of exactly where it comes from, what goes into raising an animal, how it’s killed, and how it’s prepared — from cradle to plate? I didn’t have the stomach for it, and it made me second-guess my dietary decisions in a fundamental way.
For now, I’m still questioning as the eggs pile up and grow larger each day — I’m considering weaning myself off meat entirely (chicken breasts are just too reminiscent of Buffy’s downy underside), and I’ve got a newfound reverence for and connection to the women who have led the charge in self-sustainability and increasing access to good food. And sometimes I still hear peeping when I open the garage in the morning.
* A word on privilege: I could devote a separate post to food deserts and access to fresh produce and the privilege of being able to afford more expensive organic, sustainable luxury items. The Racialicious piece did a great job of calling out the over representation of whiteness in the movement. I refuse to be another young white hipster eagerly making blanket prescriptions of backyard farming as the panacea for our broken industrial food system. I don’t have illusions that sustainable agriculture in its current manifestation will save the world.
It’s critical in all of this self-congratulation that we see the possibilities through the lens of privilege and with awareness of the fact that not everyone has access to a farmer’s market, or chickens — much less a backyard. Not everyone has access to food period, with $1 billion people in the global south living on less than $1/day. But my hope is that by expanding access to organic and humanely grown/raised plants/animals, and by advocating for some fundamental changes to regulatory agencies and agriculture subsidies, we’ll all be able to enjoy good food — here and abroad — and can afford to make conscious choices as consumers and producers.