RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Hens Bring It Home

There’s a pretty interesting brouhaha in the county seat about 20 miles from here. The subject is hens. For the last year or so, a citizens’ group has been working to allow them in the city limits. There are a few illegal ones already, but this group wants them out of the basements and into the backyards.

After hours of gatherings, arguing with Realtors (Property values! Property values!) and hen-misunderstanding-ers (The sky is falling!), the citizens finally saw the ordinance pass, allowing six hens and no roosters on each residential lot. And now, the movement is being examined by the far-right radio listeners in morning drive time. A caller said he’d seen the huge metal buildings outstate where eggs are raised and he’d even been around after they’re cleaned out. The dust, he said, hangs in the air for days. He didn’t want to be around that again. Clearly, he couldn’t separate the nightmare of thousands of hens packed into a building from the reality of a half dozen hens living in a backyard house. Visualization of the real thing is hard when you’ve never seen it.

Then, he pointed out, eggs are only 88 cents a dozen at the grocery store, so why would anyone shell out money to build a hen house and fence it? Had anyone checked on the cost of chicken feed?

On the other hand, another listener pointed out, if you knew that the air around a hen confinement building was poisonous, why would you want to buy eggs raised in that way? Confined Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs, are hotbeds for bacteria that must be controlled by the constant addition of antibiotics. Wouldn’t you rather have eggs that you have raised yourself, from hens raised in little communities and fed the food that you provide? (Note: In my chicken yard, hens eat the same things we do, our leftovers, plus a little grain when we run low on scraps.)

There are chances for humor here, but as the chatter develops on the far-right talk radio, it’s clear folks are afraid. Clearly, they think, the chicken lovers are taking over. It’s a red alert. Every one of their neighbors is going to buy six hens next week and use them to torture pit bulls and scatter feathers all over the sidewalks. Also, you’d think that hen ownership is purely a financial decision.

In fact, knowing where your food comes from is anything but a financial choice, and it’s high time we bring some other ideas into the equation. Kudos to the citizens of every city that allows hens and vegetable gardens, harbingers of civilization. Dogs, who can be noisy and extremely messy, are more trouble than hens, who cluck quietly for the most part, and don’t need walking. And hens help kids know where their food comes from, and, wow, those eggs sure taste better than the store’s.

For decades, we’ve had a cheap food policy in this nation and what we’ve gotten — surprise! — is cheap food. Our kids are bloated by fat hamburgers, diabetes is rampant because portion sizes for sodas has crept up from 8 ounces to 68. Families, especially in poor neighborhoods, are fueled by food from the quick shop and schools have gotten rid of their kitchens. They hand out pre-wrapped muffins and drinks that pretend to be milk. These are the cheap, subsidized choices, but the end of real milk spells the end of our family-owned dairies. Dairies in every state are in big trouble.

And check out the ingredients in those muffins — stuff you can’t pronounce plus artificial flavorings. Cheap and easy to transport, the factories want powdered milk, powdered eggs, powdered vegetables.

Even though studies show that people eating fresh food are healthier, and raise kids with better attention spans, we insist on building government policy that races us to the bottom, economically and nutritionally. It’s not just city ordinances. The state and federal governments have helped industrial agriculture at every turn, offering subsidies and tax breaks.

When folks speak out against families raising food, it’s a voice against self sufficiency and even national security. Those voices suggest that it’s better to be dependent on food that comes from centralized growing fields and factories. We can imagine a society where wheat is raised in one giant monoculture, tended by robot-controlled planters and harvesting machines and nurtured by chemicals. Cows are raised in another giant monoculture, tended by robots and milking machines. Eggs come from a third giant monoculture.

Each of these huge zones would be off-limit to the public, of course, on the premise that people spread diseases. And there’d be big fines if you broke that law, ducked through the fences and took pictures of the way food is raised.

Then, to package each of the products, there’d be giant warehouses full of extruding machines. A squirt of mashed potatoes from this pipe, a rush of peas from that one. Plop plop! Supper is ready to ship to the monoculture of humans.

Now there’s a funny image.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, March 1, 2010

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