by Stephanie Weiss
Regardless of where one stands on the age-old argument of which came first, chicken and egg consumption in the United States has evolved during the last century from small backyard extensions of family farms to large agribusinesses that together produced 8 billion eggs during May 2015 according to the American Egg Board.
In 1900, over five million farms produced about 90 percent of commercial eggs, according to Poultry Tribune. Flocks of 100 to 300 birds roamed freely around farms. Their diets consisted primarily of waste grain, weed seeds and insects.
This concept of the backyard farm continued as late as the 1940s, when people started to move from rural to urban areas. Fewer farmers were available to meet the growing demand for eggs. In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s per capita figures for 2015 show egg consumption at its highest in 30 years, according to United Egg Producers’ website.
To keep up with this demand, the egg industry had to change its approach and industrialize and consolidate egg production. Today, 80 egg producing companies raise between one and five million egg-laying chickens to provide at least 85 percent of the total production of eggs, according to United Egg Producers’ June 2015 “Egg Industry Fact Sheet.”
However, today a population in America is looking to go back to what came first – traditional cage-free chickens or backyard chicken coops.
“There are approximately 7,000 households across the country that are maintaining backyard flocks and the numbers are continuing to increase,” Dr. Catherine Woteki, Under Secretary of USDA Research, Education, and Economics, said in an April broadcast on USDA.gov.
Moving to the Country
One such farming newbie is Lori Bischof of Erie, Pennsylvania, who is a full-time English teacher, but decided to raise chickens this past spring after she and her husband Josh bought just under four acres of land in a suburb of Erie in 2014.
“I couldn’t have a garden at my house in the city because of light and space issues,” Bischof said, “and as much as I loved having neighbors the idea of having space and privacy really appealed to me as I turned 40.”
She joked that becoming what she considers a “hobby farmer” is her version of a mid-life crisis, but Bischof also saw raising her own vegetables, fruit, and chickens for eggs as a positive for her family of five. She believes it is important for her children to know where their food is coming from and caring for the chickens teaches them responsibility and respect.
“I got chickens to get eggs. I didn’t care much about the industry abuse,” Bischof said, “but now that I see my happy hens, I can’t imagine buying eggs from caged up animals. It seems barbaric.”
Bischof is referring to the use of battery cage systems set up on large poultry farms that have millions of egg-laying birds. These methods have come under criticism by animal advocacy groups. Bischof considers her chickens a hobby, but small farmers who are looking at their land as a business also see the benefits of returning to cage-free and free-range poultry farming methods.
Self-Sustaining Small Farm
Ami Gignac and Tim Fox own and operate Breakneck Acres in Revenna, Ohio, where they raise about 800 chickens who provide both meat and eggs to the local community.
Fox convinced Gignac to join him on the farming journey because he said he had a vision for his land and animals to be raised without chemicals. He could see the value of old-fashioned cultivation and sweat, the way he was raised by his farming family, and Gignac found that prospect so appealing that she left her corporate big business life to manage Breakneck Acres full time as a small business.
Gignac explained that on large poultry operations the chickens are not free to forage for their food. “They are going to give them feed that is going to make it possible to sell their eggs for 99 cents,” Gignac said. “Our eggs cost $5 a dozen and we are [spend] around $4 to raise them and feed them. I don’t know what [other chickens] are eating, but I can tell you they aren’t eating as well as these birds.”
Breakneck Acres Invested in a stone mill in 2011 that is used to process grains for whole wheat flour and cornmeal to sell to the consumer. Gignac realized how much byproduct she was wasting through the process, so she became interested in creating chicken feed recipes made with ingredients grown on the farm. This makes the farm more self-sustaining, something that appeals greatly to the modern small farmer and makes good business sense.
The Secret is in the Feed
Using resources within the farm as well as leveraging other local business partnerships within a small farm’s community also helps them to succeed.
John and Meredith Poczontek own a trucking company, but operate Gray Fox Farm, a small farm in Hudson, Ohio, where they offer local customers vegetable produce, eggs, and turkeys throughout the year as way to supplement their income.
Gray Fox Farm usually has a flock of 55 egg-laying chickens that Meredith said they move around the 14-acre property throughout the year. Their chickens help create compost for the vegetables they grow by foraging through horse manure from a neighboring farm, which also supplements the flock’s diet.
“They dig through and eat out the fly larvae and [we] mix it with chicken scraps as well as coffee grounds from a local coffee shop,” Meredith said. “If you can let them have whatever they want they are eating food for their own nutritional needs which just gets passed on to us. They eat bugs, leaves, dig in the compost [which includes] shells and kitchen scraps.”
Consumers who prefer free-range and cage-free eggs over those raised in the battery cage setting say the flavor of the egg itself in noticeably different. Meredith confirmed that the color of her farm’s yolks are affected based on what the chickens eat.
“We were juicing beets and carrots one week and those were the most orange-red yolks we had ever seen because they were eating the scraps,” she said.
The Chicken Addiction
Bischof, Gignac, and Meredith all admit that there is a large learning curve when taking on a flock of chickens, but it hasn’t lessened their enthusiasm for the end result.
Meredith currently only has four chickens pecking around in the electrified poultry netting that surrounds her coop because a combination of predators destroyed her flock. Her rooster was attacking her hens, coyotes and raccoons gained access to the coop one night when the fence shorted out, and opossums stole their eggs. But she has a batch of fluffy chicks in her garage that are growing to replace the loss.
These three farmers face the challenges of their coops by focusing on the future and the ultimate goal of their endeavors. Meredith warns anyone interested in raising a few egg-layers in their backyard that chickens tend to be a “gateway animal” that might lead a farming entrepreneur to raising other animals.
Bischof admits that the thought of fresh meat chickens appeals to her, as does the idea of a goat roaming around her field.
Meredith has already extended her flock to include turkeys and her husband is “trying to convince her that the farm could use some pigs.”
Gignac said, “I didn’t realize that I had such a passion for animal husbandry,” but her love of animals is seen by the multiple litters of hogs and three calves that have all been born on the farm in the last two years.