Do backyard chicken coops put the “fun” in farming?

Apparently not.

Despite visions of quaint coops, happy birds and cheap eggs, the growing trend of raising backyard chickens in urban settings is backfiring, as disillusioned city dwellers, eco-enthusiasts and hipsters are running from their coops as fast as their Birkenstocks can carry them.

Over the last several months, there have been dozens of articles written about how  hundreds of chickens are being abandoned at the nation’s shelters from California to New York as naïve urbanites discover that—surprise, surprise—farming is actually hard work and takes a lot more knowledge and skill than they anticipated.  

Raising poultry can be noisy, messy, labor-intensive and expensive.  Want to take a vacation? Who’s going to care for your flock? It’s 5 degrees below zero in your neighborhood today: Who’s going out to check on your birds and see to their well-being and comfort in inclement weather? Predator on the loose? Fox got your chickens?

There are reasons why our food is produced by less than two percent of our population— (a) not everyone has the skills, knowledge and understanding of what it takes to raise animals for food; and (b) not everyone has the time, patience, wherewithal and inclination to grow their own food. That’s where farmers come in—they’ve made a life commitment to the near herculean feat of producing food for an ever-expanding population.

We’ve all heard the statistics: by 2050 we need to feed 9.1 billion people. Having a backyard flock may be a fun hobby (albeit short-lived for many), but guess what? Those 9.1 billion people aren’t going to be fed by a smattering of chicken coops scattered among high-rise apartments and city brownstones.

I’ve had many conversations with people about why certain trends take off so enthusiastically. The food revolution, the” locavore” movement, or being a “foodie,” are all examples of popular trends that sweep people up and cause them to think about things and make decisions they otherwise wouldn’t.

This “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality is nothing new for Americans. It’s what causes us to build a better mousetrap, buy a bigger house and drive a faster car. It’s also what causes some Americans to wake up to a rooster crowing in their backyard when they thought they had sweet, innocent, egg-laying hens. (Didn’t anyone tell those hipsters that chickens are notoriously hard to sex?)

This past Sunday was National Grandparents Day and while I was thinking about my grandparents, I reflected on the differences in their upbringings compared to today. My grandparents, for instance, only grew up one generation removed from the family farm, instead of the nearly four generations today.

More than that though, my grandparents came of age in a more grateful time—a time when wars plagued foreign shores and the name of the game was “going without.” There weren’t dozens of labels on products at the grocery store. Food wasn’t trendy; it was a basic necessity.

Sacrificing luxuries in lieu of basic staples caused my grandparents to raise a grateful brood of over ten children (six on my mother’s side and four on my father’s). When my Grandpa Richard worked the night shift in the Marinette, Wisconsin Scott Paper plant, my mother and her siblings ate cereal or pancakes for dinner. When my grandpa was home it was Salisbury steak and mashed potatoes. Meat was a luxury. Milk and eggs were necessities.

My grandmothers bought what was on sale in the grocery store and didn’t question anything besides the price.

Today, it sometimes seems that consumers question everything, and while not all of those questions are bad, I can see how those questions don’t make you—out there every day producing our food—feel appreciated.

Sadly, I think we’ve become a more ungrateful nation than a grateful one. Many of us—myself included—don’t know what it means to go without. September is National Hunger month but not enough Americans actually think about those within our own borders who go hungry every single day.

Many are too worried about “going local,” or trying the next great restaurant. And some are too busy finding someone to remove that chicken coop mistakenly bought during a moment of trend weakness.

While I often write about how we in ag need to do better, this week, I want to take a page from my grandparents and simply say thank you.

I know that all of you farming, ranching—those of you otherwise connected to the food industry—are worried about hunger every single day, because it’s your job to do so.  So thank you for stocking my grocery store shelves and meat counter with countless options so I can pick and choose what to buy based on my own personal preferences.

And thank you for worrying about how to feed those 9.1 billion people.