Backyard chickens: Are they worth the effort?

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There are six of them. They are hilarious, messy, and unnecessary. Any day now we’ll get our first egg.

Our little society of Wyandotte ladies has become a happy and mildly challenging part of our lives this summer as they have grown from downy chicks into leggy athletes. Opening the coop in the morning and watching them burst out with an ungraceful but enthusiastic combination of squawking, flying, and running is an amusing way to start the day. Hour after hour they progress around the yard, hunting, pecking, excitedly clucking over something invisible and then plopping down together to take a dirt bath.

Trend-watchers spotted the “backyard chicken movement” several years ago, linking it to everything from the locavore food fad to the onset of hard times to a late-blooming baby boom desire to get back to the land. (For a report on the urban agriculture movement, click here. To read about the education of an urban farmer, check this link out. And trend-watcher Susan Orlean writes about them in the current New Yorker.) I’m not sure what motivated my wife, Robin, and me.

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Everyone says free-range eggs will be great, yet I’ve never been disappointed in eggs – at home, at diners, poached, scrambled, smothered in picante sauce, bought at the supermarket, pulled from the back of the fridge. People say it’s frugal to grow your own food, but the stylish coop we acquired, the special feed, and other accouterments have wrecked any economic justification. Good for the environment? I’d guess neutral at best – and definitely messy for the bottoms of shoes.

Maybe a chicken is just a chicken. I recently caught up with one of the most senior backyard chicken specialists I know to try to understand the trend. He is better known for his expertise in foreign policy, but when I first interviewed him 13 years ago, I discovered that for years he had been raising Rhode Island Reds behind his house just off the town green in Lexington, Mass., a suburb of Boston. Joseph Nye, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, is often quoted and consulted, especially in the use of “soft power,” meaning economic and cultural leverage as opposed to military might.

Soft power is hard to calculate. It doesn’t involve gross tonnage or throw-weights or boots on the ground. Persuasive as Professor Nye’s thesis was, what struck me was that after we had talked, he walked into his backyard, reached into his chicken shed, and pulled out two warm eggs for me to take home.

The Nye family has had chickens more or less continuously since 1980. They’ve dealt with raccoon raids, egg surpluses, and road crossers. They were, as the saying goes, “early adopters” – so early in fact that the trend didn’t come along until more than two decades after they were on it. Why raise chickens, I asked him? Nye was aware of the backyard chicken movement, but he couldn’t come up with a big theme. His answer had to do with liking eggs.

I recently came across a 1919 book titled “The War Garden Victorious,” which chronicled the World War I backyard farming effort. There were 5.3 million victory gardens in the US by Armistice Day, part of a massive mobilization effort that was replicated during World War II. Like most writers, the war-garden author tried for larger perspective: “The community war gardening which sprang up in so many parts of the land accomplished more, far more, than the production of so much provender, useful as that strictly utilitarian end undoubtedly was.”

What did it accomplish, exactly? It made people feel they were doing their part.

We turn a hard eye toward return-on-investment in much of life. But not everything works that way – not tomatoes ripening on the vine; not dogs rolling on their backs; not chickens cozying into their brooding boxes at the end of the day, a cloud of warm feathers and contented coos. Soft power is hard to quantify.

John Yemma is editor of the Monitor. You can read his "Open Source" column first in the Monitor's weekly magazine. For an earlier post on John's poultry adventures, click here.

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