A Review of Williams-Sonoma’s Agrarian Line

Last week upscale retalier Williams-Sonoma announced an urban homesteady line of goods they call “Agrarian”. A number of Root Simple readers responded to the news after I linked to a Wall Street Journal article about the Agrarian line. One reader likened the “Agrarian” items to Marie Antoinette’s 18th century cosplay mini-farm. Another hoped that mainstream acceptance of things like chicken coops and beehives might lead to fewer uptight home owners association restrictions. Yet another speculated that Ikea would come out with similar, but more modernist, options. But rather than delve into the cultural meaning of the Agrarian line (you are all welcome to do that in the comments), I thought I’d look at a few of their actual offerings in beekeeping, chicken coops, canning supplies and books.

Let’s start with the beekeeping supplies. The hives boxes they offer are very attractive but simply too expensive. If you want English style hive boxes like the ones Williams-Sonoma offers you can get them a lot cheaper at Brushy Mountain. The detailing on the Williams-Sonoma hives are better, but not enough to justify the price difference, in my opinion. Personally, I’d suggest saving even more money and going with the “migratory” boxes used by commercial beekeepers. Our local supplier, LA Honey sells them for a fraction of the cost of English style boxes. Three ten frame unassembled medium supers, a lid and bottom board run just a little over $100 at LA Honey compared with $500 for Williams-Sonoma’s three hive boxes. Hive boxes get smoked, weathered and banged up, so it’s not something I’d spend a lot of money on. Ditch the foundation and you’ll save even more money.

But it’s the veil in the beehive starter kit Williams-Sonoma is selling that bothers me the most. Like most of the other offerings in the Agrarian collection that veil is more about the image of the activity, in this case beekeeping, than it is about actual activity, i.e. beekeeping. This is, of course, the essence of modern marketing as pioneered nearly a century ago by Sigmund Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays (watch the Century of the Self to go down that left hand path). Use that stylish Williams-Sonoma veil and I’ll guarantee you that you’ll have a few angry bees crawling up the inside of the veil. Inexperienced beekeepers, such as myself, are better off with more protection. It ain’t stylish, but this one piece suit from Dadant has saved my rear on more than one occasion.

Dadant Bee suit. Prada it ain’t.

As far as Williams-Sonoma’s beekeeping books go, I’m not a fan of the ones they are selling. I’d get a copy of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Beekeeping and The Practical Beekeeper Volume I, IIĀ  and III: Beekeeping Naturally, both of which tell you how to keep bees without using chemicals and with minimal intervention.

An Upscale Chicken Coop
Williams-Sonoma’s “Alexandria” coop is mighty fine looking, but, like the beekeeping equipment, expensive. Just the coop will set you back $879. Add the $399 run and you’ve got some expensive eggs. Peaceful Valley Farm Supply has a decent looking $400 coop if you don’t feel like building one yourself. Update: Make sure to read Terry’s comment on this post for her thoughts on the sizing and weather performance of this coop. I completely agree with her.

Euro-style Canning Supplies
The canning supplies in the Agrarian collection are really nice. While the USDA only recommends using two piece Ball/Kerr lids, the attractive Weck jars Willliams-Sonoma carries have a number of advantages. There’s no BPA and the only piece you have to throw out and replace is the rubber gasket.

Of course if they were carrying our books I’d be writing a glowing review (just kidding, though looking at my taxes, maybe I’m not kidding!). There’s a few excellent books here, especially The Preservation Kitchen: The Craft of Making and Cooking with Pickles, Preserves, and Aigre-doux. Many of the other books suffer from the “Century of the Self” problem mentioned above–they’re all about image, which equals too many pictures and not enough actual how-to advice.

That a major upscale retailer is selling chicken coops and canning supplies goes to show how much things have changed in the past ten years. I take this as a good sign. Perhaps some of those Weck jars will trickle down to my local hardware store. Maybe Rem Koolhass will design a chicken coop for Ikea (though I pity the poor chickens who will have to live in it). And, someday those uptight HOAs will be so thick in goats they’ll resemble a small Afghan villages. Thank you great recession!

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  1. It’s a good sign, and yet the coop makes me very, very worried. Chickens are not lawn ornaments. That coop is much too small for the number of hens they say it fits – and miniscule if you add in that huge roo (which, BTW, if you look closely at the pic has a bad case of scaly leg mites.) Each chicken needs a minimum of 4 square feet of interior coop space, and 10 outside. Without that you get pecking issues and other health issues. They also need roosts – 6 inches per hen. Also, in places with snow and rain, those hens will be indoors for long stretches, those “windows” closed up and it’ll be dark and not well ventilated. I could go on… I field questions weekly from people who get such prefab coops and think that keeping chickens is easy and pretty. It can be – done right. Done wrong and you have sick and dead hens and a backyard of packed dirt.
    -Terry at HenCam.com

    • Hey Terry–thanks for your input. My own experience backs up the square footage you suggest. I started with a coop that I built myself that was 4 by 12 feet. I put 4 hens in it and had pecking issues. Had to build a run to take care of the problem.

      Will do some linkage to your blog–lots of excellent advice there! Hope you and your hens are doing well.

    • Would appreciate linkage! My girls are good, but some are elderly and dodddering. I know you’ve written about the dilemma of the backyard chicken keeper when the hens get old. We all face it, and I seem to be doing a lot of posts about old hen health.
      BTW, I don’t have cats, but love them, so all of the Root Simple cat coverage is welcome. Enjoy reading it.

    • I have to say that I’ve kept hens for 4 years with no health issues and I’ve never had the luxury of giving them that much run space per bird. I do keep them in rotation daily, but the square footage per bird has varied between 7.5 and 4.3. We don’t see any significant pecking issues either. Only minor ones, and briefly, when introducing new birds to the flock. FWIW, Joel Salatin mentions 4 square feet per bird (as a minimum) for wintertime deep litter bedding.

      Not that I’m endorsing Williams-Sonoma’s products in any way.

    • I agree, I love the style of the coop but no way you could fit more than MAYBE 3 hens in there. Any more and they’d be fighting each other. I will build my own as soon as I can, am working the design now, and plan to give each hen roughly 5 sq. ft. of space, just so I can add to the flock if I need to but also so they have plenty of room. I’d rather err on the side of too much space than too little.

  2. The beehive really does look like it was made by Brushy. The top is made just like theirs. But, as you mention, that top is more for looks than function.

  3. Ah. I sort of figured that the Williams-Sonoma products were long on conjuring a dewy image of country living and a bit short on actual usefulness. I’m wondering if the buyers of these products are going to use them themselves or subcontract their bee- and chicken-keeping. I have a few well-to-do relatives and I’d gladly pay to be able to watch them muck a chicken coop. It would be interesting to check back on the W-S catalogue periodically and see how their selected country-chic items evolve – or disappear.

    For a fabulously funny read about the clash of upscale urban and down country life, I cannot recommend Jim Mullen’s book, “It Takes A Village Idiot” enough. It’s probably out of print at this point, but if you find it at at a used book sale, grab it! You won’t regret it. And you won’t stop laughing, either.

  4. I ordered the jars from Weck.com last year primarily for fermenting due to the rubber gaskets. They look pretty in my pantry where they usually just gather dust. Maybe I’ll get the plastic storage caps and then they will be more useful after the kefir is ready instead of messing with the clips all the time.

  5. Cannot recommond Weck jars enough!! Weck.com is the best place for the jars – just order early as they get back-ordered fast during canning season! We bought them primarily to avoid BPA and have found that we use them for EVERYTHING! You can re-use the gaskets (just not for canning) to create a good seal to store left-overs in the fridge, dry-goods in the pantry, etc (we draw an ‘X’ on the tab of the used gasket with a marker so we know not to re-use it for canning). And yes, the plastic storage caps are really good, just handwash them to avoid warping so you get a good seal. They also stack really well and don’t break easily. Bought a few to start with due to cost but have since bought a lot more due to their versatility. We’ve also started using Le Parfait jars (we got ours from Overstock.com) that are awesome as well with a latch instead of the clipsince I know now everyone likes the clips. Funny that they are being sold at WS now since I felt a little “uppity” using the fancy jars at first, haha.

  6. I think this whole line will be a fail for them. Most people who live this type of lifestyle can not afford items like this. People who can more often will pay someone to do this stuff for them

  7. What is the old adage? “A fool and his money are easily parted.” These don’t even seem well made! The chicken coop especially seems like it would be shoddy to me. Also it does not look predator proof (in addition to the size issues mentioned already).

    Also, what is wrong with the Ball/Kerr canning jars that have been around forever? I don’t get it.

  8. Wait, there’s BPA in ball canning jars? ::returns from screaming into a pillow:: any-who, could you do a post sometime on goats milk? I have a short list of uses in my mind but I’m betting I’m missing plenty: goats milk, goats cheese, goats milk soap, goat caramels (also at Williams-Sonoma! Woo!), a cure for powdery mildew … what else?

    • It’s not in the jars themselves, but in the plastic that coats inside the metal lids. That said, this is far fewer square inches of BPA-tainted, plastic-lined interior than in a can of commercially processed food, so it’s still better.

      I’ll use up the stockpiled Ball canning lids I have on hand and then will switch to Tattler’s reusable canning lids that claim to have no BPA. The company has a website of its own (reusablecanninglids.com), but I ordered mine from Lehman’s in Ohio. Maybe Ball will respond to customer preference and make BPA-free lids in the future.

    • Yep. It’s better than using store bought cans, but still annoying.

      Then again, plastic is so ubiquitous in our culture it’s hard to escape. BPA is just one of its many faces. I don’t know if it’s worth getting upset over the canning lids if, simultaneously, you are also drinking milk from plastic jugs, water bottles, using plastic cups, etc. But, yeah, still–you’d like to think canning was clean, right?

      On the bright side, I’ve heard rumors that Ball is developing a BPA free lid.

    • We’ve used both the Weck jars and the Tattler lids for a couple of season now and I have to say that they don’t seem to seal quite as reliably as the ol’ metal lids. ‘Course that’s based on my completely unscientific observation of several hundred jars!

  9. I don’t think it will be a fail for them because it caters exactly to the kind of playing house that people with little time to spend at home want. Even if they are paying people to do the actual ongoing maintenance.

  10. Hi Erik,
    I have been buying Weck jars and the only place you can buy them that is not online is Crate & Barrel. They are a bit cheaper too, plus no shipping. The only thing they don’t sell is the rubber replacement pieces. Those you have to order.

  11. Okay, I’ll represent the “others” and say that I think the coop is adorable and it looks plenty big enough for a flock of three or four hens, especially if it gets tractored around or if it has a larger run than the one pictured. I have an Eglu Cube that I purchased despite all the pooh-poohing of relatively expensive pre-built coops, and I’m so glad I did because it’s extremely easy to clean, it doesn’t smell, the hens are perfectly happy in it, and I didn’t have to build it myself. I’m not going to knock the Williams Sonoma coop – it may have been in contention for my own backyard had it existed a few years ago.

  12. I have to say that I purchased the Alexandria chicken coop and run over two years ago for my first flock of chickens. I started with five hens and now have four. I added a huge additional walk-in run to the existing run with roosting bars since I have to keep my chickens confined due to predators. I have never had an issue with the coop. It’s easy to clean and my girls are very happy. A year ago I added an Elizabeth with extended run and modified the run so I could walk-in, since I hate bending over to clean. I have seven hens in that coop and it’s awesome. They have everything they need, plenty of dry, well-ventilated space and no pecking issues ever. They are expensive but they are made with great materials and Dan over at greenchickencoops is a pretty awesome guy who will spend time on the phone answering all sorts of questions. I also have the Victoria tractor, which I use as a bachelor pad for my over-amorous rooster and which I intended to use as an injured chicken coop. We have snow where I live and my chickens do not stay in their coop once I clear it out of the run. They have shade cloths in the spring and summer and really only spend time in the coop at night when they are sleeping and when it is torrentially raining. There are six roosting bars inside my Elizabeth and they all crowd together on one. There are also six nesting boxes, but they like to wait in line for the same one, sometimes sitting on top of each other to lay eggs. They are expensive but we considered it an investment and we firmly believe the investment has paid off.

  13. Just stumbled on this, but wanted to comment on the Weck jars. I have used Weck jars for quite some time now and reuse the rubber gaskets over and over. Eventually, they do need to be replaced, but it’s easy to tell when that time has come. I have talked with the guy who fulfills online orders for the U.S. Weck site. He is the one who told me the gaskets could be reused. Thought those of you who currently use them or are interested in using them would find this helpful!

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