Sunday, July 10, 2011

Chickens for Poor People

I'm working on a research-heavy post, but it's not quite ready. The information contained therein will be bad news to some folks (maybe quite a few folks), but then again, a lot of news about the world seems very bad nowadays. Anyway, I've been a bit busy – so here is a short (and hopefully somewhat lighter) post for this week.

An urban gardening education outfit called Growing Gardens hosts an annual “Tour de Coops” as part of their program of promoting urban chicken-keeping in Portland. The Tour de Coops originally started out as a bicycle tour of various local chicken-keeping homes, but has since grown geographically to the extent that many people drive from house to house to view chicken coops. Around a year and a half ago I started building a chicken coop in my back yard, thinking I could knock out the project in a few weeks. But my life got very busy and I quickly ran out of inspiration as I remembered the warnings I had heard in the chicken-keeping classes I had attended – warnings which distilled in my head into the message that “you must do everything just right or your birds will die!!!”

“How do you build a coop just right? What does just right look like?” I wondered. So I bought a book of chicken coop plans and I thought back to the chicken coops I had observed during the Tour de Coops which I had witnessed. As I sought to implement the things I had observed, I couldn't help but notice how much money I was dropping at Home Cheapo for what seemed to be the requisite building materials. The plan I chose from the book I bought seemed to me to be very basic, yet it was still more elaborate than I would have liked. At times I fumed about the potential cost per egg over the lifetime of my coop.

That got me thinking about the various coops I had seen during the Tour de Coops I had witnessed, as well as the general tone of the chicken-keeping classes I had attended. A large number of the coops I saw on tour and in class were, shall we say, palatial, with electric lighting, ventilation (and maybe even heating in one case), and all built by yuppie or post-yuppie types who viewed their birds as cute, affectionate members of their extended family. (How is a full-grown chicken “cute”?) “Where do you find the time or energy to build all that?” I wondered.

Immigrants and people outside American upper middle-class culture tend to view these things very differently. When I told some of my immigrant friends about my chicken coop project, almost all of them asked why I didn't just pick up a coop for free from Craigslist. Only one of them has built anything that is anywhere near as elaborate as coops, American-style seem to be becoming. But that's not the best part. After I started my coop, I noticed during my travels on bicycle that several back yards had birds who were housed in very simple boxes with chicken wire on their fronts. I kept thinking, “I could have done that!

All of which brings up an uncomfortable observation. It seems that many who have been thoroughly marinated in American upper middle-class culture have a fundamental blind spot when it comes to trying to do anything simply and frugally. Some of us who look for strategies for sustainable living render those strategies unsustainable by turning those strategies into status symbols. So we have “fair trade” coffeehouses, sanctimonious hybrid vehicle owners, people who browse issues of Real Simple whenever they visit Whole Foods Market, people who try to balance stressed-out materialism with a few hours a week at a yoga studio, people who build chicken palaces with full utility hook-ups in order to make a statement about “sustainability,” people who take their cars to a Tour de Coops. And we have whole industries devoted to catering to the self-image of these people.

What's needed is chickens for poor people – along with a truckload of other survival strategies for people who have fallen (or have jumped) off the upper middle-class train. (There are more of us each day in this country.) We also need competent teachers of these strategies. Some of the coops featured in the Tour de Coops may lately have been sending the wrong message. Growing Gardens will probably never read this post of mine, but if they do, I hope they will bear with a bit of gentle constructive criticism from a friend.


Jerry said...

Yes, fads in general are frustrating but some people cannot see that their efforts are more like mockery.

Aimee said...

What a great post! Personally i think the palatial coop is as much an outgrowth of American middle class anxiety as status concioussnrss .

Anonymous said...

I build chicken tractors that are 4x8, made out of 2x2 wood, wood screws, hardware cloth and a corrugated plastic roof. Brand new materials (including two coats of exterior paint) from big box store cost around $100.

I now suspect substituting plywood for three of the walls (instead of hardware cloth) would significantly reduce the cost. However, the coop wouldn't be as portable.

The chickens then free-range and return to the tractor at night. Each tractor has 3 roosts that fit 5 chickens per roost.

Anonymous said...

I dunno, gosh, I love your blog, but I just attended the Tour de Coops and I saw a lot of very simple and inexpensive coops. How many did you visit? I know the folks who organize the tour (who do it as a fund raiser and NOT to promote chicken raising) try to provide good variety, but maybe you just happened to go to the more elaborate ones?

In my own experience as a backyard chicken raiser, if you are handy you can build even rather fancy coops at low cost. Part of the fanciness is usually to aid the humans--for example, laying boxes that are easily accessible.

Unfortunately I am not handy, but craigslist has helped keep costs down!