My wife had done her research, and that research led us to an enchanted property outside of Iron River where a celebrated chicken-breeder preserves the genetic integrity of Icelandic landrace chickens (once almost extinct). Why my wife pined for Icelandic chickens with such intensity, I could not say. Neither of us had ever seen one before. Without a great deal of fanfare, the breeder scooped 35 little chicks into our gigantic Tupperware bin, accepted our payment and bid us adieu. We drove home that night choking on ammonia fumes as those little chicks filled that Tupperware with fragrant manure. Arriving home, we brought the chicks into a bathroom, turned on a vent, aimed a heat lamp at their little bodies and hoped for the best.
That was more than three months ago, and our flock has shrunk to 27 without a single egg being harvested.
In terms of economic boondoggles, this chicken experiment ranks high on my list of poor personal financial decisions. You see, after we arrived home with our 35 chirping chicks, we realized that we had no good coop to house them. Luckily for me, and those chickens, my beloved father-in-law, Jim, began construction of a coop which he neatly fit into one of the three homely pole buildings scattered around our property. This coop would have: a cement floor, electricity, running water and a rather large run defined by a tall wire fence. A chicken palace, really. For weeks, Jim handed me a receipt from his latest run to a local hardware store: lumber, insulation, screws, wiring… The costs kept mounting and I could not help but think that the rest of the world raises chickens on a shoestring, or no budget at all. Our chickens were being treated like royalty.
I had thought chickens would act as our In-Sinkerator, vanishing our table scraps and subsisting on worms and blades of grass. And increasingly they have, growing more independent as foragers. Though, I am still making regular visits to area feed mills where I engage in long conversations about the protein content and components of various chicken feeds.
“Do you want organic feed?” some kindhearted mill employee will ask me.
“I don’t know,” I’ll say. “Maybe.”
“How do you feel about soybeans in their feed?”
“I’m not against it,” I’ll say. “Should I be?”
“What about fish? You think it affects the taste of their eggs?”
“I don’t know,” I’ll answer, “they haven’t produced a single egg, yet.”
Every day, I enter the coop, searching their nesting boxes and the hay bedding for an egg. Every day I am disappointed. People who know much more about chickens than I do assure me that eggs will indeed come, but right now, my morale is fairly low. I keep thinking of that first egg, of how much effort and how many resources have gone into it. I am afraid to admit that it truly is a rather absurd sum. When that first egg arrives, I imagine it being the most expensive egg in the world. I imagine how I’ll carry it carefully, lovingly, into our kitchen, how I’ll cook it, how its taste will equal all of our chicken-related efforts, how it will be the tastiest egg in the world. My mouth waters thinking of that egg.
Sometimes a friend or family member will ask, “What are you going to do once those chickens start producing? That’s going to be a lot of eggs.”
“Maybe we’ll sell them,” I say. To be honest, I have difficulty imagining all these forthcoming eggs. It seems utterly unbelievable.
“How much would you charge for a dozen?”
“Probably about $100,” I’ll respond, half-joking.
Alright, maybe not $100, but like gardening, the costs aren’t exactly logical. The coop was expensive, feed is expensive and bedding isn’t cheap. But now that all their infrastructure is in place, our costs have plateaued. Sometimes I’m approached with another line of questioning:
“Do you think it’s all worth it?”
My answer so far is, a clear-eyed “yes.” I think despite the costs, this little experiment has been a success. Watching our two children muck out the coop brings me a great deal of pleasure, absolutely. And sometimes, in the cool of an evening, I will sit beside the chicken run with my wife and simply watch those beautifully colored and idiosyncratic birds. They are sort of fascinating. I have also had the responsibility and the displeasure of dispatching sick or injured birds, which, ultimately, has given me greater respect for our farmers, and the very animals that become our food. What my family is doing is essentially a hobby, a lark. But for farmers around the world these issues are the difference between success and failure, life and death.
A hundred dollars for a dozen eggs? Of course not. But ultimately, the idea isn’t totally wrong. Too much of our food is way too cheap, and as a consequence we think nothing of what we eat. What ingredients are in a box of Cap’n Crunch? Where did those ingredients come from? Who grew those ingredients? What effort went into that product? Or your pizza? Your can of soda?
When that first egg does arrive, you better believe I’ll know where it came from.