by Marion Nestle
Feb 5 2010

Backyard chickens: an art, a science, a social movement

Just before it closed last weekend, I got to see the delightful exhibit on the history of backyard chickens in the lobby of Cornell’s Mann Library.  Cornell, it seems, houses a major collection of items on chickens in its Rice Poultry Collection.  This collection, named after James E. Rice, the first professor of poultry husbandry in America, contains more than 800 pre-1900 volumes on poultry science.

These were fun to see in this wonderfully curated tiny exhibit.  The few cases displayed books, pamphlets, photographs, and some enviable chicken-raising collectibles, old and new.  The early 20th century books on backyard poultry raising look just like the ones being produced today.  In between, of course, came massive industrial chicken production, as the curator’s notes explained.

The curator, Liz Brown, says the library is working on a permanent, online version, which should go up on the Mann Library site sometime this summer.

In 2002, I was lucky enough to be invited to speak at the Yale conference on “The Chicken: Its Biological, Social, Cultural, and Industrial History from Neolithic Middens to McNuggets.”  That conference, keynoted by a then relatively unknown journalist, Michael Pollan, made it clear that chickens were a key component of the food revolution and well worth the attention of activists and advocates, as well as scholars.

You think this idea is too far-fetched?  I have to admit not quite getting it until Sabrina Lombardi, a student in my Food Sociology/Social Movements class at NYU last semester, wrote a terrific paper on chicken raising and pointed me to the new magazine, Backyard Poultry (“have you hugged your chicken today?”) and the Chicken Revolution website.  This last comes complete with a logo that says it all.   Happy weekend!

  • Anthro

    I’m so excited about this post! I used to keep chickens, which was legal where I lived (Seattle area), and now keep them (illegally) because they bring so much to my life (beyond the eggs) that I do not want to be without them.

    My first trip this year will be to see this exhibit. Thank you for all the links as well. I need all the support I can get. There are rumors that backyard chickens will soon become legal where I live, but one of the nearby suburbs tried it last year and got a very vocal smack down from the “it will ruin property values” crowd.

    I think I will go out right now and give my hens a hug–and a few mealy worms.

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  • Industrial chicken farming has become out of control. This reminds me of something I read yesterday about how Philadelphia’s Wing Bowl (a yearly event revolved around the Super Bowl) requires 2,250 chickens…for one day of pure debauchery…oh if Americans could only got back to the Earth.

  • Emily

    Viva la revolution pollo!

  • In my hometown Portland, Oregon, many people keep backyard chickens–organic, free range eggs are never hard to come by at farmer’s markets and co-ops!

  • I have been keeping backyard feathered friends for 9 years now and have now become old Farmer Moe with my hens and backyard fruit and vegetable. I have helped many folks set up backyard flocks and am so happy to see that this trend is continuing and flourishing.

    How I wish the exhibit were closer. I may just have to make a trip…

  • My husband’s first business venture as a 6 year old was selling eggs to his dad’s colleagues from his 25 backyard chickens. We’re hoping to give our little girls the same experience in the next few years. It’s a nice bonus, and a richer educational opportunity, to be part of a Social Movement!

  • Joanne

    Thank you for your blog, Marion. I’ve become a regular reader since Uncle Malden alerted me to it.

    We don’t have chickens, but here in Beaverton, Oregon, our back fence neighbors have four red hens. They’re something to show our little granddaughter when she comes. (I just looked up the policy, and apparently they are not legal here, although the city is looking at the issue.) There must be limits, of course, because lot sizes are quite restricted. But on a small scale this seems to have benefits. In our neighborhood, roaming cats are more of a problem.

    In Redmond, Washington, our daughter benefits from having a farm within biking distance that’s open to the public and has activities for kids. All these things can have value both for food policy and for urban education. But Oregon clearly is struggling with the issues. Given a land use policy that puts a legal boundary between urban and rural, they are having difficulty defining what kinds of farm animals should be permitted in the city and how much income farms can derive from educational activities and entertainment.

  • Marion

    Joanne: So nice to hear from you! I’m betting that the chickens will win this one eventually. And your uncle is reading a book on chicken raising even as we speak!

  • We’ve joined the backyard chicken revolution as well. Two hens provided us 2 eggs per day and kept the yard free from pests.

  • Great blog! We source our Chicken from Ed Hill & Eggs from Napoleon Ridge Farms & Nature Perserve. The Relish Restaurant Group is leading the way in Cincinnati & Northern Kentucky. We must change the way our food is grown & sourced. BUY LOCAL! Gotta go heading to Bardstown KY to pickup 4 large black hogs from Fiedler Family Farm! Gotta love Local Heriloom Pork!

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