The most amazing cultural event of the 21st century, at least so far, may be the rise of the hen. And Henny Penny is not squawking that the sky is falling, like humans are, but how locally produced eggs and fried chicken are a main part of the pot of gold at in the end of the food revolution rainbow.
Forgotten are our old cultural icons of milk maid and cowboy, replaced by the backyard gardener surrounded by a lovely little flock of hens. The egg has even weathered the condemnation of cholesterol paranoia and is once more as honored at the breakfast table as a glass of wine is at dinner.
You see chickens just about everywhere these days: on magazine covers, in television ads, and all over Facebook where humans show them off to their friends like they do new babies. Hens saunter demurely across the manicured lawns of suburbs as well as the manure-peppered barnyards of rural homesteads. You hear them clucking and cackling in the background when news reporters interview Afghan or Iraqi villagers on the radio. I imagine they are saying something like “Cackle, cackle, why don’t you clucking Americans go home.”
Chickens are winning over the world again, as they have always done throughout so-called civilization because they are such a cheap and easy source of good food. So handily can they produce eggs and meat on a very small scale that it is difficult to make them profitable as a commercial venture. If you raise the price to a commercially profitable level, more people will just get their own hens. The egg factories keep out of the red only by not paying the full environmental cost of their operations, by resorting to constant expansion in a vain effort to keep down the per unit cost of production, and by taking advantage of generous direct and indirect subsidies. Small commercial flock producers make a go of it only when they can charge more for their product than the going rate. The only really profitable way to produce eggs and fried chicken is to do it on a very small, not-for-profit scale. The hen is a distributist. Distributism is an economic philosophy that gained much attention a century ago and is now drawing attention again. It champions the decentralization of the means of production into small, privately owned enterprises, not owned or run by the state or private wealthy oligarchs. It is neither capitalistic nor socialistic. It is chickenistic.
Ironically it is the non-money kind of profit that makes chickens profitable. They can replace the garbage disposal by turning table scraps and garden surplus into rich fertilizer. By doing so they don’t have to be fed high-priced industrial grain. They are by far the most efficient grazing animal of all. A small number of them can get most of their food ration of bugs, worms, grass, clover and weed seeds from a bit of lawn, pasture or woodlot. If you dry lawn clippings like hay, they will make a goodly part of their winter feed too. And when their egg laying days are over, they make delicious chicken soup and coq au vin.
What’s also great about chickens is not so well-known. They make enjoyable pets. Honest. In the old agrarian world, a flock of hens almost always numbered fifty to a hundred or more, and in that situation, we never realized that as individuals, they would respond to love like a dog or cat. Our grandsons, raised in quite a different world, made pets of their parents’ dozen hens. The chickens loved being picked up and scratched under their wings. In fact they became kind of a nuisance at picnics.
Our five hens often join Carol and I when we are at work in the woods or garden. They even have learned to follow the lawnmower around because it scares up bugs for them. Blackie, our Plymouth Rock, constantly sings a most pleasant little ditty that is a soothing antidote to the idiocies of the evening news. I am seriously thinking of taping her performance. It just might sell to a recording studio company and make some real money.