Monday, March 5, 2012

Why My Chickens Matter

Anytime I bring up the fact that I have backyard chickens, I am generally met with one of two reactions: either people love the idea of the chickens or they are completely baffled. I've had lots of questions as to why I would want to have chickens in my backyard. Well, let me explain why my chickens matter.

I grew up on a farm in East Alabama. My daddy, his two brothers, and their uncle (my great uncle) all worked on a farm together raising feeder calves. For the uninitiated, feeder calves are baby cows that my family would fatten up to be butchered. However, the calves weren't fattened up with corn in barns where they had no room to roam around. All of our cows were pastured. They were all grass fed. And the only medicine they received was for de-worming. My family wasn't on the forefront of the grass-fed movement. They just couldn't afford to raise the cows any other way. And, according to my daddy, only sick cows need medicine, not well ones.

I helped with the cows from as early as I can remember. My sister and I even got to name the cows (the ones having babies, not the ones that would be don't name an animal you're going to eat). We had cows such as Apple Eater and Apple Eater's Baby (yes, we were very, very original). I can remember getting up to see snow on the ground only to have my daddy load us all up in the truck to go check on the cows. I can remember driving around the pasture counting the number of cows that were pregnant, or just counting the cows in general in the event that a coyote had been spotted in the pasture. Our cows were (and still are) treated well.

Of course, that's not why my chickens matter. There's more to the farm story, obviously. Before I go on, I would like to say that I've not seen any of the movies or read any of the books as to why factory farming is bad. I don't have to, because I lived it for a couple of years. When I was in high school, a friend of my daddy's who had some chicken houses got to an age where he could no longer take care of them himself. So, he hired my daddy to do be in charge of the chicken houses. If you're not aware of what a chicken house is, it's kind of like a barn, a little over the size of a football field, that usually had about twenty thousand chickens in it. Since my daddy was in charge, my sister and I got to help (I say got to help as if we had a choice in the matter). When the chickens first get to the houses, they are tiny little babies and have plenty of room. After about four weeks, the chickens are full grown (thanks to the food full of hormones they are eating). So, just imagine, 20,000 full grown chickens running around with basically no room to run. It wasn't pretty. So, every day, my mom, sister, daddy, and I would head over to the chicken houses to pick up the dead chickens. We would also have to check through the chickens to see if there were any with deformities or limps...because we would have to kill them as well. It wasn't a glamorous job. And I'm not exactly sure why my daddy took it to begin with, other than the fact that we probably needed the money. It was years after the chicken houses were sold before my sister and I could eat chicken again. I still am unable to eat chicken that has a bone in it without gagging a little.

So, why do my chickens matter? Well, I like to know that the animals that I'm relying on for food are treated well. I like to know that my eggs aren't laid by chickens that are full of drugs. I like to know that every day, my chickens get to run around the yard, scratch in the leaves, eat my grass, and chase after bugs. I don't like the way animals in our food chain are being treated, so I'm putting my money where my mouth is. And you can too. You don't have to raise chickens in your backyard, but you can vote with your dollar. Only buy from sources that raise the animals in humane ways: cage free, free range, grass fed, pastured, etc. The only way we can make a difference is to force the market to change. My chickens matter, because I have made the choice to have the change that I want to see start with me.