In Montreal circa 1935, my mother tells me, backyard chickens were more common than head lice. “Nobody was too fussy about what they fed them – they seemed to mostly get scraps and eat bugs. They were just part of life when I was a kid.”
Now, we practically need a parliamentary committee to decide on the possible return of the backyard chicken to urban centres. From coast to coast (Ottawa’s no exception) and beyond our borders, those wishing to produce their own eggs are in a clamorous cockfight with others who think the little cluckers should stay down on the farm.
Google ‘backyard chickens’, and sites galore appear like www.urbanchickenproject.com whose sponsors include vendors of chicken pluckers and a place promoting recipes for chicken casserole. Cities like New York and Victoria, B.C. now permit some backyard egg production, while it’s estimated the United Kingdom has some 500,000 backyard chicken keepers.
Enthusiasm for urban farming is understandable. We mistrust industrialized food production, and are bombarded with messages about buying locally (the jury’s still out on that, by the way, with some claiming that more resources are consumed, and greenhouse gases generated, by producing food in a cold climate than by trucking the stuff in from sunny California). Plus, chicken poop, safely composted, makes nitrogen-rich fertilizer.
None of which necessarily makes backyard chickens a smart idea.
A staff member at a farm supply business told me recently that people with a few laying hens have more than once stormed into the store complaining they’d been sold bad feed. The real problem was that their clutch of chickens didn’t eat the feed fast enough, and it wound up deteriorating. “Would you let a loaf of bread sit around for three weeks and then try to return it because it was mouldy?,” the store guy asked me.
And if would-be urban egg producers think they’re going to save money, they better do the math. By the time they buy the chickens, a municipally approved chicken coop (and maybe a city permit) and feed, plus pay the cost of disposing of the bird when it reaches the end of its productive life (about three years) or when it’s inconvenient to keep it around, Freedom 55 will be no closer than it ever was.
As to nutritional value, when the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Marketplace examined organic, free-range and other types of eggs in 2007, it found little to recommend one over the other. The same study found no proof of pesticides in eggs, and points out that Canadian law forbids the presence of antibiotics and medication in eggs.
What we’re left with is the warm and fuzzy dream of returning to the land without really doing so. The dream of resurrecting the noble self-subsistence and rugged individualism that we imagine defined the pioneers, but without surrendering our day jobs, lawns and place in the community. Not that there’s a thing wrong with day jobs and the rest: people in their right minds do usually look for security and the like since they’re a precursor to survival.
What is wrong-headed is imagining an artificial construct like backyard chickens will do anything to relieve the discontents of civilization. When we’re bored or frustrated, we humans, kind of like chickens, have the disconcerting habit of picking up the first shiny, distracting object we spot. Alas, those glittering objects are no more sustaining for us than they are for chickens.
My advice – and I speak from chicken-raising experience – is, if you want a dozen eggs, go to the store.