Backyard Chickens, Part I: Animals in My House
Just before Kiddush on Shabbat, we read the passage from the Torah that mandates rest for the entire household. It’s a bit of a tongue twister as it identifies not only the long list of family members and servants, but also the animals in one’s household, who must be allowed to rest on Shabbat.
In an agrarian economy, both people and animals are responsible for keeping the system moving, by providing food, labor, fuel, or all three. Everyone earns their keep, and the “household” includes them all. The Torah is telling us that the relationship between people and the animals they keep is holy, and must be respected.
What would it mean for us to demand that our food and animal products come from animals who enjoy a day off a week (and whose keepers do so as well?)
Although I’m far from living in an agriculturally closed loop, I do in fact have some behematcha (animals) of my own: my husband Naf and I keep 19 chickens in our Brooklyn backyard for eggs. Our impetus for keeping chickens was simple: we wanted to take responsibility for (and enjoy!) the process of feeding ourselves, even in the urban borough of Brooklyn. We wanted, as much as we could, to understand the true costs of our food, to participate in the work involved of feeding ourselves, and in so doing, get to appreciate the miracles of producing food. And I’m happy to say, after six months of chickening, I do think of those ladies as part of the household (and fully entitled to their Shabbat shluf (nap) if they feel so inclined!)
For those of you whose households may not include lively little birds we call hens, here’s some of what we’ve learned:
What does it cost to feed a chicken? A bag of organic layer feed is about $20, which lasts us 2-3 weeks. We also feed them scratch (coarse grain), sunflower seeds, and compost scraps. The more vegetables we can feed them, the more orange the eggs are (from the beta-carotene vitamins in the vegetables). But collecting enough vegetable scraps to keep the birds happy is a chore – it’s much easier to just dump a scoop of feed on the ground. Yet we put in the energy, not only so the chickens are happy and healthy, but so that their eggs are nutrient rich and delicious.
What’s involved? Keeping chickens means I get to see and be part of a whole set of inputs necessary for my desired outcome (delicious, nutrient-dense eggs). I clean their coop, bring them fresh water, shovel out the snow for them and clear the ice off the ramp to their coop in the winter. I collect the eggs, even when they lay under the coop and I have to get down on my hands and knees. When a fence breaks, I repair it. I find satisfaction in the physical labor that contributes to my mental and physical health, and I feel good about being able to do the work necessary to produce some of my food.
Eggs are just a fact of life, right? Keeping chickens has once again opened my eyes to the miracles of creation. The birds themselves are amazing, laying two or three eggs each every three days. And our partnership is a miracle: I work to meet the bird’s needs in order to meet my own, and everyone ends up happy, healthy and well-fed.
In addition to keeping our chickens, both Naf and I are actively involved in advocating for systemic change in the food system, through my work at Hazon on our CSA Program, and Naf at Grow and Behold. In both cases, the first step in creating meaningful change is to uncover the processes that have up to now been hidden from us — in the case of eggs, finding out about the lives of the chickens who laid your eggs, or the workers who care for them, or how their food is grown and transported. Literally: what work is taking place in order to feed your household and would you want it in your house?
Even if you don’t have your own flock of egg-laying hens, your life is quite likely enabled by animal products at every turn, from food to clothes to cosmetics. That passage in Kiddush is a reminder that we are responsible for the animals in our household — whether they live in your backyard or across the country.
Backyard Chickens, Pt. 2: “This Shabbat was brought to you by…chickens!” – coming soon!
Anna Hanau is the Associate Director of Food Programs at Hazon, and co-authored “Food for Thought, Hazon’s Sourcebook on Jews, Food and Contemporary Life.” She and her husband Naf Hanau founded a kosher pastured meat business called Grow and Behold Foods in summer 2010, and she keeps a flock of chickens in her backyard in Brooklyn.