When I was a boy growing up on suburban Long Island in the 1970s, my grandfather had a chicken coop enclosed behind a mesh wire fence in his West Babylon backyard. Like many of his generation seared by the 1930s depression, he developed a self-reliance and waste-not ethic (dare I leave food on my dinner plate) before it became fashionable to live off the land and reduce your carbon footprint.
When my brother and I would visit our grandparents we were sometimes recruited to help sweep the chicken coop. This disabused me of ever wanting to have a chicken coop of my own later in life. If you have not grown up on a farm and you have never worried about having enough food to eat, and you have cleaned a chicken coop just once in your life, then you know what I’m talking about.
The act of sweeping out the feathers and chicken shit while trying to hold your nose and ignore the frenzied cacophony is not for the dainty. But it seems that backyard chicken coops are the latest fad for moderns seeking a taste of the rural idyll. Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal reported on the “modern homesteader” craze, which includes a demand for $1,300 ready-made chicken coops. (I’m pretty sure my grandfather built his own.) From the WSJ article:
“We’ve definitely seen the shift,” says Rob Ludlow, owner of BackYardChickens.com, an online community of about 170,000 chicken enthusiasts. “People wanting to be self-sufficient and eating locally grown food is synonymous with people who are affluent.”
Homesteaders say their back-to-the-land activities go beyond mere hobbies and provide emotional nourishment and a certain inner peace. Eliza Zimmerman, 55, and her husband, Peter, a 57-year-old architect, tend vegetable and herb gardens and three beehives on their 10-acre property with an 1890s farmhouse in Chester Springs, Pa., outside Philadelphia. On the agenda for spring: chickens.
“It’s what I did with my grandmother—the chickens, the gardening, the canning, the bees,” Ms. Zimmerman says. “It is my Zen—a memory of what made me feel safe and good and warm.” And jars of homemade honey make great gifts, she adds.
That’s called nostalgia. (As some have observed, including the geographer David Lowenthal, “The past is a foreign country.”) I have lots of wonderful childhood memories, too, but none of them are about chicken coops. So I’m not surprised to learn, via Jayson Lusk, that for the uninitiated, tending chickens has not turned out to be a warm and fuzzy experience for everyone.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for having a green thumb and reestablishing a connection to nature. I’d like my own kids to have a better (even visceral) understanding of the farming life and where their food comes from. And it’s not as if growing one’s own herbs and vegetables is some new chic activity. When I was a teenager my mother and stepfather had a lush garden outside our house. I remember it fondly (except the weeding part). Today, backyard gardens in suburbia are ubiquitous.
But I’m willing to bet that the sudden interest in backyard chicken coops will be a passing fad. After all, there’s a reason why when I was a boy I was the one behind the mesh wire sweeping out my grandfather’s foul-smelling chicken coop, not him (on days I visited). Trust me when I say I cannot summon up any zen-like feelings from those times.
[UPDATE: Readers have made me aware of this recent post on "abandoned chickens" and this excellent essay on the food movement's pastoral romanticism. And here's an NBC story titled, "Backyard chickens dumped at shelters when hipsters can't cope, critics say."]
Naturally, I am a big fan of free-range chickens.