It Quacks Like a Duck


The Happy Ducks of the Petaluma Urban Homestead

It seems a new lifestyle is taking shape, in part born of the ashes of the World Trade Center, the aftermath of Katrina, and the endless resource wars our country feels the need to fight. There’s a great desire out there to “do something” and a refreshing DIY spirit of self-sufficiency is beginning to emerge. Two of the indicators of this new lifestyle seem to be the mixture of poultry and bicycles, a combo that we seem to share with a surprisingly diverse group of people, including our bike activist friends at C.I.C.L.E. and our bike safety instructor Chris Ziegler.

A surprise phone call we received this week, after some musings of our appeared in Ripples Magazine, added one more bike/poultry fetishist to the list. The voice at the other end of the line was an old comrade of ours, one of the proprietors of Petaluma Urban Homestead, who we know from Mr. Homegrown Revolution’s post grad school sojourn in the dull city of San Diego. In the ten years since we lost contact it turns out that our lives have taken similar paths, including the appreciation of Xtracycles and poultry.

Except that the folks at Petaluma Urban Homestead have had the brilliance of exploring the world of ducks in addition to chickens. The Petalumans correctly describe the garden destroying power of chickens as “like having teenagers around”. As much as we enjoy our chickens we can confirm this. On their blog the Petalumans describe some of the virtues of the less destructive duck:

Bill Mollison once said something like, “You don’t have a snail problem. You have a dearth of ducks”. Well, he’s certainly correct. Our neighbors are now bringing us their snails and asking if they can borrow our ducks for a day. Even the kids at the local elementary school garden collect snails for us. It’s a family event to come through our back gate and feed the ducks what they’ve gathered.

We’ve added the Petalumans to our comrade list to the right so that you can keep up with their activities, which include a recent honey harvest from their backyard beehive. In the meantime we’ll get around to describing our theories of chicken housing and the construction of what we call “Chicken Guantanamo” soon.

An open letter to Trader Joes

Dear Trader Joes,

First off we’re not an animal rights activists, nor are we even vegetarians. We’re just people who like honesty in packaging. So let’s take a look at the carton for your Grade AA Cage Free eggs and assess the truthfulness of the illustration on its cover. Now conventional wisdom says that you are to be congratulated for selling only cage free eggs in contrast to many other food retailers who continue to sell eggs produced by hens living in cramped “battery cages“. Battery caged chickens do not have the ability to stretch their legs, run around, or roost–activities that come naturally to all poultry. But what exactly does “cage free” mean? Unfortunately the USDA does not regulate the term cage free so its definition in terms of the actual living conditions of the hens who laid the eggs is uncertain. Perhaps you could redesign your packaging to give us an actual representation of where these eggs came from to clarify a few issues for us.

To save your marketing folks some time we’ve done it for you:

First off we removed the chickens grazing in the open pasture since it’s highly unlikely that these eggs came from chickens freely wandering outdoors and feeding on vegetation and insects. This might be called “pasture raised”, though this is also a term not defined or regulated by the USDA (largely because the huge companies that control poultry farming in this country and whose political influence puts the USDA in their back pocket don’t want to acknowledge that pasture raised eggs are superior to factory farmed eggs). It’s a shame that your eggs aren’t pasture raised especially since, according to a study conducted by Mother Earth News, pasture raised eggs contain 1⁄3 less cholesterol, 1⁄4 less saturated fat, 2⁄3 more vitamin A, 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids, 3 times more vitamin E and 7 times more beta carotene. It’s too bad that the “all natural feed” that your package advertises does not provide the nutrients of a real pasture. And FYI–we also removed the rooster since that would signify that these eggs are fertilized, making us think that your package design folks were snoozing during their high school biology classes.

We replaced the picturesque barn with a windowless industrial shed to show the most prevalent housing for poultry and, more than likely, where these cage free eggs came from. The family poultry farm alluded to in your cover art has long since been replaced by huge industrial operations housing thousands of chickens in enormous sheds. Our relatives, living on a nearly century old family farm in Missouri, can no longer make a living from raising livestock and must supplement their incomes with construction work.

While we’re happy these eggs do not come from hens dosed with antibiotics, when you pack that many chickens so close to each other you have to practice extreme bio-security. This is why we’ve added the image of the man in the clean suit which has replaced overalls as the modern poultry worker’s garment of choice. Ironically this worker (probably an underpaid immigrant) must be extremely careful since these hens don’t get antibiotics.

Here’s a picture of one of our four backyard hens. When she starts laying in a few months we will no longer be customers for your eggs. To use an old Italian expression, we like to “know our chickens”. We suspect many of your customers share our concerns and will soon be joining our homegrown poultry revolution.

Perhaps we’re wrong in our speculation about the conditions that produced these eggs. If so please send us a photo of the farm and we’ll post a correction.

Regards,

Homegrown Revolution

The Chicken and the Egg

Back before we relegated the television to a junk pile in the garage we used to channel surf the obscure reaches of cable television creating our own mood-leveling visual mix of Korean melodramas, infomercials and the ongoing freak show that is Los Angeles public access television (click for some Francine Dancer!). Now instead of television we just pull up a chair in the late afternoon and watch the four chickens that populate our backyard in their ongoing search for seeds, bugs and the need to sort out the pecking order. After many hours of poultry behavior viewing it’s no surprise to us that some anthropologists believe that the chicken was first domesticated to provide entertainment (through cock fighting) rather than eggs or meat.

But more important than the entertainment value backyard chickens provide is the far superior taste and nutritional value of eggs from poultry allowed access to pasture. Mother Earth News has an ongoing study comparing supermarket eggs with the eggs of pasture raised poultry and the results are astonishing. But first some definitions. Pasture raised poultry are allowed access to bugs and vegetation. The USDA’s definition of free range is just “Allowed access to the outside”. This can mean a door leading out of a massive shed to a patch of lifeless concrete or barren dirt. “Cage free” hens more than likely spend their entire lives inside and never see the light of day or breath natural air. Most eggs, however, come from chickens that live in cages, and don’t get to move around at all. The shameless flacks at the American Egg Board (AEB) like to mislead the public into believing that “free range” is the same as pasture raised and that there is no nutritional difference between free range, pasture raised and caged chicken eggs.

According to evidence from tests conducted by Mother Earth News Pasture raised chickens have 1/3 less cholesterol, 1/4 less saturated fat, 2/3 more vitamin A, 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids, 3 times more vitamin E, and 7 times more beta carotene. The AEB along with their cronies in the USDA continue to spread the lie that there’s nothing wrong with confining poultry to crammed, inhumane and unsanitary conditions and that eggs produced by factory farm hens are no different than pasture raised hens. As Mother Earth puts it,

“It’s amazing what a group can do with a $20 million annual budget. That’s what factory-farm egg producers pay to fund the American Egg Board each year to convince the public to keep buying their eggs, which we now believe are substandard.”

Now we haven’t counted our chickens before they’ve hatched. Pasture raising chickens, even in a small backyard entails more risk (mainly from predators such as hawks and loose dogs) than confining them to a cage. It’s definitely easier and more economical for commercial producers to confine chickens.

But consider the consequences of the economic and quality race to the bottom of factory farming’s economy of scale–an abundance of cheap, tasteless and nutritionally deficient eggs that like the endless flood of shipping containers full of plastic crap from China poisons both our bodies and souls.

Here’s a list of questions to ask the folks who provide your eggs.

And more Francine Dancer for those without chickens.

Chicken Cannibalism!

We caught our Rhode Island Red pecking at the base of our Araucana’s tail this weekend. Fortunately we stopped this act of cannibalism before it got past a small wound and a few missing feathers and we’ve been able to isolate the victim from the perp until she recovers. Cannibalism is common amongst chickens and there are a number of theories as to why it happens including dietary inadequacies, genetics and simple chicken boredom. The most plausible theory in our opinion is that cannibalism results from insufficient opportunity to forage.

Simply letting our flock out of their run to free-range throughout the backyard seems to have taken care of the problem. Sure we may lose a hen or two to hawks and cats, but that seems a better fate than being eaten alive by one of your own kind. We’ve also switched to a higher protein feed to see if that will help as there is a minority opinion in poultry farming that chickens resort to cannibalism as a result of protein deficiencies.

Most commercial poultry farms take care of cannibalism by cutting off beaks when the chicks are around 4 to 6 weeks old. We believe beak trimming along with the associated practice cramming chickens in “battery cages”, as pictured above, to be inhumane. For more on the behavior of corporate agriculture read about the Humane Society’s Factory Farming Campaign or better yet start your own backyard flock.

We’ve taken the flowers out of our hair

Homegrown Revolution is back from San Francisco with a couple of random observations from our trip:

1. The picture above of a gas cap spotted in the Mission District demonstrates, that even in a bike and mass transit friendly city many folks take their cars a little too seriously. Let’s remember folks, we suspect that Jesus rides two wheels and takes the bus and does indeed look anguished every time we open the gas cap.

2. We took our bike with us and enjoyed the numbered bike routes that take you north-south and east-west. While not perfect (we would have preferred a few more signs to point the way) these routes help a cyclist navigate thought the city taking you down more bike friendly and less hilly streets. The San Francisco bike map (pdf) shows the routes in addition to signage on the streets.

3. Raising chickens made us appreciate San Francisco’s strident health food store, Rainbow Grocery which has a chart in their egg section to show how the chickens that produce the eggs are raised. We meant to get a photo of this elaborate chart but unfortunately we forgot the camera. Posted on the refrigeration cabinet, the chart tells you which of the brands they carry clip beaks or wings and whether the chickens have access to pasture. Rainbow Grocery was the first San Francisco retailer to carry only cage free eggs.

4. Unfortunately we didn’t see this exhibit by photographer Douglas Gayeton at Petaluma’s Singer Gallery, but you can view images from his slow-food related photo essay about Tuscany here.

5. While Homegrown Revolution promises never again to get into celebrity gossip, we’ll note that we spotted gravelly voiced alt-rock singer Tom Waits gassing up his Lexus SUV at a filling station in Berkeley. More exciting to us was discovering that our base of operations in the Mission was a mere block from the infamous Symbionese Liberation Army safe house where heiress Patty Hearst became urban guerrilla Tanya. We have a feeling we’ll see the return of revolutionary noms de guerre in the coming few years and when that happens we’ll see Tom ditch the SUV for two wheeled transit on Berkeley’s many bicycle boulevards.

Why Urban Farm?


Nicolas Poussin’s “Et in Arcadia ego

It’s been a challenging week at the Homegrown Revolution compound. We lost one chick, bringing our nascent flock down to two. We decided that since chickens are social animals to add two more in case of other unforeseen problems bringing our total up to four. Such are the cycles of life and death on the new urban homestead.

Bryan Welch, who raises livestock and is also the publisher and editor of the always informative Mother Earth News, wrote an editorial in the February issue called “Why I Farm” in which he says,

“There’s a Buddhist wisdom in the stockman’s cool compassion. The best of them seem to understand that our own lives on this Earth are as irrefutably temporary as the lives of the animals, and that we should provide as much simple comfort and dignity to our fellow creatures as we can. After all, aren’t simple comfort and dignity among the most important things we wish for ourselves and our children?”

It is with this desire to know the food we eat–if just for eggs in our case–that we’ve begun our own urban small stock journey. Welch concludes his essay eloquently, “I have a lot more death in my life than I did before. And, ironically, that’s part of the reason why I feel like I have a lot more life in my life. That’s why I farm.”