Small is the Next Big Thing

Local Eggs Fill Needs During Pandemic Shutdown

Small is the Next Big Thing

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Backyard chicken keepers support standard and heritage breeds with their small flocks. Supermarket chicken comes from industrial producers that raise hundreds of thousands of proprietary genetic birds. The coronavirus pandemic showed how important small flocks are to production as well as breed conservation. 

Small flocks, like vegetable gardens, give their keepers a measure of self-sufficiency. You’ll always have eggs! 

Circle of eggs 

The coronavirus shelter-in-place exposed issues of how American food production works or doesn’t. Local sources became more important for putting food on the table. Community Supported Agriculture farms, farmers markets, growing your own, and appreciating your local farmers, became the 21st-century version of Victory Gardens. 

When the Covid-19 shutdown disrupted commercial food supplies, small flock keepers stepped into the breach. I found myself connecting the backyard and small flock keepers with my circle of friends, picking up and delivering eggs. What a great way to impress on consumers how important it is to support farmers and small producers! 

Photo by Shelley Oswald.

“Everybody can be a part of making this change that’s going to be better for future generations,” said Shelley Oswald of Old Time Farm in Pennsylvania. She and her husband sell heritage breed Milking Devon beef, Partridge Chantecler chickens, and Standard Bronze turkeys, and related products. “The consumer has the power to make the change.” 

Food system hiccups 

The coronavirus crisis stretched the commercial food distribution system. Shelves in grocery stores emptied. Distributors were unable to meet consumer demand. As supplies arrived, stores adapted by limiting purchases to share the short supply with as many customers as possible.   

Egg shortages showed up right away. Consumers bought out supermarket supplies. But although the industrial egg producers who supply eggs to restaurants and institutions lost those high-volume customers, they could not step in to supply grocery stores because they didn’t have the cartons and equipment for individual consumers. They were faced with destroying their eggs, or even whole flocks, for lack of a way to sell them.  

In one case, a small flock egg producer, Timi Bauscher of Nesting Box Farm Market and Creamery in Kempton, PA, who has 1,700 hens and sells 80-100 dozen eggs a day, partnered with a commercial producer to sell eggs. She heard about Josh Zimmerman’s operation, 80,000 hens laying 60,000 eggs daily, which he sold entirely as liquefied eggs to cruise ships, hospitals, and school cafeterias. With those not operating, he had no outlet for his flock’s eggs. Without a market for eggs, he’d have to euthanize his flock. 

 Ms. Bauscher connected with him and used her social media connections to advertise the eggs. Hundreds of buyers wanted them, so she arranged to relocate from her farm stand to a local community center. Volunteers helped out.  

Old Time Farm eggs

The episode illustrated how smaller operations could adapt quickly to changing market conditions. Industrial operations are stuck. They can only conduct their operations one way. If that’s blocked, they come to a full stop.  

“We’re like Lucy and Ethel on the candy line,” Ms. Oswald said. 

The distribution outlets, the grocery stores where the end-user buys them, are far from the egg production farms resulting from farm consolidation. Giant producers controlling the source of production in a few hubs make sense to corporate executives focused on the financial bottom line, but concentrating production is a liability in a crisis. 

In the pandemic, processing plants became centers of infection as workers got sick and infection soared. Senator Corey Booker’s Farm System Reform Act, introduced before the pandemic in December 2019, gained support from Sen. Elizabeth Warren and companion legislation in the House by Rep. Ro Khanna during the pandemic. The bill would outlaw the largest CAFOs by 2040 and support small and medium-sized CAFO owners in transitioning to smaller, more sustainable forms of animal agriculture. 

Living History produces 

With museums closed to visitors, members of the Association of Living History Farm and Agricultural Museums reported at their annual conference that they were donating their crops to local food banks this year.  

Colonial Williamsburg estimates it may donate as much as a ton of food this year. “We’re also providing something else: self-reliance,” said Ed Schultz, supervisor of rural trades. “Along with that comes a feeling of freedom. And isn’t that what we’re all about?” 

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Backyard flocks 

The pandemic shutdown was the right time for people who had been on the fence about starting a backyard flock. Now is the time. At our local feed store, we lined up and took a number to buy a few chicks.  

The chicks available included standard breeds — I got a Dark Brahma, a Black Wyandotte, and a Spangled Orloff. They also sold hybrids.  

Backyard chickens became a thing in the early 21st century. Little did anyone suspect that raising chickens in small flocks could be a harbinger to food systems changes.  

Small flocks focus attention on the humane treatment of domestic livestock. As backyard keepers learn about their chickens, their hearts are softened to the suffering of chickens that live in cages so small they can’t flap their wings, chickens that never see the sun or scratch in dirt. Keeping a backyard flock makes it hard to ignore the gritty realities of concentrated animal feed operations.  

The requirements of large production facilities relegate concerns about animal welfare to the profit and loss sheet. The suffering of animals doesn’t fit into those considerations. Small flock owners who watch over their birds can allow themselves more latitude in caring for their birds beyond the basics of health and disease into quality of life.  

Ms. Oswald’s Partridge Chanteclers forage on green fields.

Small flocks are an excellent teaching tool. The Museum of Science and Industry uses hatching chicks in its Genetics exhibit. The exhibit hatches Java eggs for Garfield Farm Museum in LaFox, Illinois, which helped them improve their Java flock. The museum was able to hatch far more eggs than Garfield Farm could have hatched on its own. 

Classroom chickens introduce children to chickens and help them understand that food has to be grown and raised. It doesn’t magically appear at the grocery store.  

Young chicken keepers — and their parents — learn about standard breeds. They may join 4-H, The Livestock Conservancy, The American Poultry Association, or the American Bantam Association.  

As backyard chickens have become more popular, communities have eased restrictions to allow them. Austin, Texas, even offers a $75 rebate to support backyard flocks. It’s part of the composting element of their solid waste reduction program. 

Better food from local people gives small flock owners a marketing advantage. The experiences consumers had during the Covid-19 crisis may influence permanent changes in American food systems after the pandemic is over. 

Small flock keepers will save the world! We’ve long been out in front of the pack.  

Originally published in the February/March 2021 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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