From Backyards to Factory Farms: The Evolution of Poultry Farming in America
Backyard Chickens Gain Popularity Once Again
“The evolution of the chicken industry over the past century has simply been an extraordinary demonstration of the power of science to transform our daily lives,” says Emelyn Rude, a food writer. Large-scale and backyard poultry farming seem to oscillate every couple of generations. Over the years, everyone from the Italian mob, P.T. Barnum, Uncle Sam, and Home Owner’s Associations (HOA) have had something to say about chickens. Rude adds that “Regardless of how you personally view the industrialization of the chicken industry, there is no denying that the humble chicken today is the most technologically advanced thing that we eat.”
It all started in the backyard … and in the basements of apartments and anywhere else you could keep a flock. Chicken keeping was tremendously popular in the 1800s as there were no such things as specialized chicken farms. Rude says that most people raised their own birds wherever they lived, in both the country and in the city. Having access to fresh eggs and meat was crucial because of the lack of refrigeration which wasn’t invented until the early 20th century. Productive hens were considered those that lay between 80 to 150 eggs a year.
As the cities become more populated, the attitude toward raising chickens changed.
“The New York City government undertook extensive campaigns to remove some of the poultry farms from the city, because of health concerns, but they largely failed because of their popularity,” Rude adds.
In November of 1849, backyard chicken enthusiasts gathered at the Quincy Market in Boston, Massachusetts, for the first poultry show in North America. John C. Bennett, a physician, and creator of several chicken breeds helped advertise the show when he wrote a letter to the editor of the Boston Cultivator. He said that perfect samples of full-blooded domestic fowls will be exhibited including Golden Pheasants, Plymouth Rocks, Shanghaes, Yankee Games, Cochin Chinas, Fawn-Colored Dorkings, Great Malays, Pearl White Dorkings, Great Javas, English Ravens, Wild Indian, and Bavarians.
Bennett said in the letter, “These comprise some of the most handsome and best fowl in the world.” He encouraged competitors and judges to come to the show. Surpassing expectations, 219 exhibitors showed 1,400 birds. However, this show and others kept ending with no clear winners as there were no judging guidelines.
In 1854 P.T. Barnum staged a National Poultry Show at his American Museum.
“Yes, indeed Mr. Barnum was interested in poultry,” Adrienne Saint-Pierre, Curator of The Barnum Museum says. “We find that he had an interest in almost everything.”
Barnum, the President of the Fairfield County Agricultural Society, was elected to the Connecticut State Legislature and served on the Agricultural Committee. Saint-Pierre says Barnum, as a museum proprietor, which long predates his career as a circus promoter, was always looking for ways to bring people to his museum. In addition to poultry shows, Barnum held the first national dog show and most famously, baby competitions. One of his poultry shows had 8,000 chickens gathered on one floor of the museum. People cherished the birds for their form, color, and behavior.
“To add further interest and humor, there was sheet music published with the title, Barnum’s National Grand Poultry Show Polka,” Saint-Pierre says. “Polka as a form of dance became very popular in this country in the mid-1800s. Coupled with the expansion of publishing in the 19th century, sheet music became a very popular, affordable addition to home entertainment in the Victorian era.”
In 1874, the American Standard of Perfection was adopted by the recently formed American Poultry Association, creating the first poultry standard in North America. John Monaco, President of the American Poultry Association says that the original standard had 46 breeds and multiple varieties. It was 102 pages compared to the current standard that is around 400 pages.
The New York State fair in 1908 started showing poultry. According to the current show organizer, John Pierce, at its peak, 8,000 birds were shown. Today, about 2,000 birds are shown over two rotations. Back then, the birds were mostly shown by string men and not the people who raised them. String men farmed the birds out and showed every breed and category they could. For each breed, they would show two cocks, two hens, two pullets, and two cockerels. Their livelihood was showing and winning in as many categories as possible. They would also sell many of the birds after the show. Pierce says that the biggest and best poultry shows were held at Madison Square Garden, Boston, and the New York State Fair, with exhibitors sporting tuxedoes.
Mobs and Flocks
Around this time and through the 1920s, the Italian mob were acting as goons for a host of kosher chicken kingpins who ran the distribution and slaughter of chickens in New York City. Rude says that this started for a whole host of factors, most importantly the huge influx of Jewish immigrants.
Rude adds that kosher chicken was one of the most violent rackets in New York City history with many chicken dealers getting murdered. With an influx of Jewish immigrants, there was an increased demand for kosher chicken. The police could not keep up with the rising population, and immigrants didn’t fully understand the laws and standards and therefore were easy to extort.
“So it was this perfect storm to create a really violent chicken market. There were bombings,” Rude says. “People would kidnap kosher slaughterers. Drive-by shootings of their competitors. All to get more profits on chicken.”
These chickens and those that were kept in the backyard were given the bare necessities. How to clean a chicken coop and other essential questions were not given much thought. “There was specialized chicken feed that many farmers purchased, often consisting of corn or other grains,” Rude explains. “Besides that, it was mainly kitchen scraps or whatever insects and plants the chickens could peck up from the yard.”
The Rise of the Broiler Industry
In 1918, a government poster read, “Uncle Sam Expects You To Keep Hens and Raise Chickens.” A flock of 400 birds at that time was considered very large, with most farmers keeping a handful to a dozen. According to the ASPCA, nearly all meat chickens are raised indoors in large sheds containing 20,000 chickens or more today. Back then, chicken meat was a delicacy and birds were butchered in the fall since many would die in the winter because of a lack of vitamin D. When researchers created vitamin D supplements in the early 1920s, a small revolution of poultry farming began. What to feed chickens to keep them healthy wasn’t a large issue anymore.
Although chickens have been classified by their function — egg-laying, meat, or dual-purpose — since the ancient Greeks, Rude adds that we didn’t get the hyper-differentiation of broilers until the meat bird industry of the 1920s.
One of the falls of backyard poultry farming may be traced to 1923 at the home of Celia Steele, a housewife living on the Delmarva Peninsula. “The legend is that she received 500 chicks from her hatchery instead of the 50 she had ordered, and instead of returning them, decided to raise and sell them all,” Rude says. “Her profits on this first batch of birds were tremendous, so the next year she doubled her hatchery man’s mistake, and doubled it again, and again until she was up to 20,000 birds on her property. Her neighbors saw Celia’s success and followed suit, making the Delmarva Peninsula the birthplace of the industrial chicken industry.”
The combination of advances in veterinary technology, breeding and chicken feed, the mild climate of Delmarva, and its prime location to chicken eating markets, allowed this region to become the center of the broiler industry. Birds started being raised in caged systems. Mortality of the birds dropped to a record of five percent and quality hens were laying up to 250 eggs a year. People cherished the birds for their ability to grow fast and cheap.
During the Great Depression, those lucky enough to raise chickens on their homestead would utilize every part of the chicken. The feet would be used to make stock, the gizzard would be a delicacy, and the feathers would be stuffed into bedding. And the evolution of poultry farming began to favor factories rather than backyard farms.
Following the Great Depression, those with land were encouraged to grow Victory Gardens to help support the troops. The government now starts to promote homesteading, including raising your own chickens. And the ebb and flow of poultry farming tried to go back to backyard chickens.
Chicken Meat Soars Off Shelves
In the 1950s and 1960s, chicken stopped becoming a delicacy but rather cheap, commercialized, easy-to-come-by food. The chicken nugget was invented and housewives and chefs no longer had to spend the time butchering and dressing their own chickens. Chicken became packaged and prepared. The farm and fork became separated. With government campaigns advertising the reduction of red meat, chicken was now considered meat and sold everywhere.
Poultry farming evolved the most during this time. Improvement in production resulted in lower labor requirements which made the price of eggs and meat unfathomably cheap. Many family-owned poultry farms went bankrupt. Home refrigeration was invented and allowed produce and chicken to be stored at home for much longer. Companies bought large industrial farms and flock sizes grew into tens of thousands.
HOA’s Squawk at Chicken Keeping
Up through the 1990s, factory farming had gotten so big that consumers started becoming wary. Animal welfare is brought to the attention of consumers and a trend of eating locally, organically, and naturally, increased. Individuals wanted to know where their food comes from. Backyard poultry starts becoming more favorable again, with some municipalities, neighbors, and Home Owner’s Associations fighting back.
Delphine Geraci, of Tampa FL., sadly had to get rid of her backyard flock. “They provided hours of entertaining fun for the kiddos and I loved hearing their gentle clucks when gardening,” Geraci recalls. “Even though there is a trend of going back to having backyard chickens, in many communities like mine, they are being discouraged. In our case, the HOA wrote new rules. In a community where all houses look identical and the lawns are perfect, chickens are a hard sell.”
She adds, “Eggs come from the supermarket and fertilizer and pesticides come from the garden center. There is no need for chickens. I would argue that we are making a backward step in evolution when we disallow liberty gardens and raising chickens. But more voices are speaking up to encourage backyard self-sufficiency. We just need to make our voices louder.”
Over the past 160 years, consumers and poultry farmers have changed the way we keep, eat, and care for chickens. The 19th-century fancier valued the beauty of the various breeds. Today, many laymen value low prices more.
As a chicken lover, farmer, and consumer of chicken goods you decide the next step in the evolution of poultry farming.