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Food & Drink

Grassroots enthusiasm and new legislation propel healthier chicks and eggs

Photo: Illustration by Chuck Kerr, License: N/A

Illustration by Chuck Kerr

The age-old debate over which came first seems close to being resolved in favor of the chicken. After years of hens being treated as little more than egg-dispensers, concern is rising for the well-being of the layers themselves. Meanwhile, the practice of personal flock-keeping is on the rise. Across the country, and in many parts of the world, chicken-first approaches are supplanting the simple quest to create the cheapest eggs possible.

In the industrial egg factories where most of America's eggs are laid, the newly introduced Egg Products Inspection Act would, if passed, make life easier. The bill grew from a compromise between United Egg Producers and the Humane Society of the United States. It would mandate replacing the nation's 280 million chicken-sized battery cages, as they're called, with group cages equipped with amenities like dust baths and perches, while banning some of the cruelest practices associated with egg farming.

While bonds may be loosening for the jailed birds on life's lowest perches, the ranks of the privileged few are growing. Chicken society's one-percenters, the personal flocks of subsistence and hobby chicken farmers, have reached a size that actually resembles a percentage point. And now, finally, the scattered tribes of backyard flocksters have a bible to call their own: The Small-Scale Poultry Flock by Harvey Ussery, with a forward by his colleague, the outspoken chicken farmer Joel Salatin.

The exact, or even approximate, number of flocksters (Ussery's term) in America is not known. "I've looked for some government census type info for years, but apparently backyard poultry enthusiasts fly under their radar," Backyard Poultry editor Elaine Belanger told me. For what it's worth, she offered that the magazine's circulation has quadrupled to 80,000 in the last four years. A representative from Murray McMurray Hatchery, the go-to chick supplier for many hobbyists and small farmers, told me via email they ship 1.7 million baby chicks per year. "Seventy to eighty percent of those would be egg-laying," said the rep, who didn't know his company's market share.

The Small-Scale Poultry Flock is oriented toward an ideal integration of flock and homestead, to whatever degree context allows — be it a two-hen Brooklyn roost or Ussery's spread in the boondocks of Virginia.

The essence of chicken farming is working with what you've got, and Ussery makes the point gracefully, dropping practical knowledge on every page. Whether you feed your girls purchased mix, homegrown grain, collected acorns, or crème brulée, the eggs will grossly surpass any store-bought version. And Ussery has a lot to teach about accessible ways to improve your birds' nutrition. I may not need to know how to grow amaranth or other chicken feeds, but Ussery's information on soaking and sprouting grains, especially in winter to provide extra sustenance when foraging is slow, got my wheels turning.

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