Our chickens were never actually acquired for their eggs. The chickens were originally meant to be like animal-husbandry training wheels for our children. The idea being if they could take good care of chickens, perhaps sometime in the future, our family could welcome a dog.
Four years later the dog is asleep beside me, the kids are dutifully in school, and before west-central Wisconsin is swallowed by a historic snowfall, someone needs to visit the chicken coop to collect eggs, freshen water and top off feed. When I write “someone,” I do so hopefully. I hope that “someone” remembers the chicken chores. But more often than not “someone” is me.
Harry Truman famously had a placard on his desk that read, THE BUCK STOPS HERE. Donald Trump once said, “The buck stops with everyone.” When you’re a parent, there is no need for a sign reminding you of the proverbial buck’s final resting spot. The buck is forever stopped wherever you may be. The buck isn’t just stopped, it is double-parked with four flat tires.
According to FRED, or the Federal Reserve Economic Data website (a sobering way to fritter away time and feel the pinch of inflation), the average cost of a dozen eggs in January rose to an all-time high of about four dollars and eighty cents. In places like New York City or San Francisco, prices for a dozen eggs have been reported between seven to 12 dollars. It wasn’t so long ago that a dozen eggs could be bought for less than a dollar.
But now, in some markets, each egg might be worth a dollar. No doubt those fancy eggs were marketed as “free-range” or “cage-free” or “responsibly-raised,” all good adjectives for the eggs also being produced in our coop.
At the moment, our flock consists of 10 hens and one rooster. Some of those hens are from the original group we picked up from David Grote’s farm in Iron River. I don’t suppose they’re laying much these days, but on average, I could collect anywhere from four to six eggs a day, and this in darkest winter, without much opportunity for foraging or free-ranging beyond their run.
Four dollars and eighty cents doesn’t sound like much, but for a young family that might eat through a dozen or two eggs a week, that’s almost 10 dollars. Ten dollars multiplied by fifty-two weeks in a year and now the cost of eggs is over five hundred dollars. That’s not nothing. That’s just eggs. Not milk, butter, bread, pasta, cheese or any of the other kitchen staples so many American families depend on.
When we first started raising chickens, a few people I know scoffed at the idea. I think they thought that no matter how many birds we owned, what we were doing wasn’t serious. The scale wasn’t large enough. We never claimed to be farmers, nor we would have dreamed about calling what we were doing “farming.” That would be a colossal overstatement and an insult to all the hard-working Wisconsin farmers who actually depend on their crops, cows, pigs or birds. The biggest cynics might have remarked that we were “playing farmer.”
But playing farmer changed the ways in which I thought about our food system. I had never considered all the inputs that go into something as unremarkable as an egg. The electricity that heats our coop in coldest winter. The water. The feed. The straw. The fencing. The labor. In the past, I possessed what I now think of as a purely urbane or theoretical perspective on predators. I thought of coyotes, foxes and fishers as wondrously beautiful creatures crucial to our ecosystem. I still see them that way, though now it is occasionally while I’m reloading my Remington 12 gauge and following a trail of feathers into the forest. The variety of heartbreak you feel when you lose an animal that you have worked so hard to raise is a very specific pain. Everything a person knows scientifically about predators instantly evaporates into a protective rage as you watch a fox kill chicken after chicken, leaving their motionless bodies without so much as a bite of breast meat.
I imagine the biggest deterrent preventing people from raising their own chickens is simply not knowing. Chickens and eggs come from farms, people think, and I’m not a farmer. But the truth is, until very recently historically, we were all, in some small ways, farmers. Or of farmers. Chickens would not have seemed exotic or unknowable.
A giant storm is rushing towards Wisconsin as I type. It has been described as “historic.” I know that if I visited a grocery store this afternoon, it would likely be pandemonium, and one of the first items customers would reach for would be eggs. This storm isn’t a metaphor, but I imagine other scenarios that would push consumers to buy, or even stockpile, foodstuffs as we experienced early in the first days after the COVID pandemic began. But that panic, that uncertainty, and yes, the inflation, might be reduced if so much didn’t depend on what was for sale, but rather, what was farmed, or perhaps more precisely stated, grown at home. And who knows? Maybe the more youthful members of your household will learn a thing or two about personal responsibility, the supply chain, our food system, and the pleasure of feeling a warm egg in your cold palm.