Boonsboro has the right idea on chickens

July 08, 2011

Three naturally raised hens will lay about a dozen eggs or more a week — more in summer, less in winter. For many people, three hens in the backyard would fully supplant their need to buy factory-raised eggs from the supermarket.

A hen will squawk when she's getting ready to lay, and chatter proudly after she has produced. Other than that, they're mostly quiet, unless alarmed. A hen will make far less noise than your average car-driving, lawn-mowing, music-playing, leaf-blowing, TV-blasting human.

The manure produced by three hens will make a wonderful side dressing to vegetables and flowers. If hens are enclosed in a wheeled cage and moved daily across a green lawn, they will put Scotts Turfbuilder to shame.

Chicken manure will only smell bad when an overabundance of chickens are confined in too small a space, as happens in commercial farms. It's the ammonia in manure that produces odor, and that's easily counteracted with carbon — a handful of straw, or a sprinkling of sawdust, for example.

The Town of Boonsboro proposed an ordinance this week that would allow three hens to be kept in backyards within town limits. To me that's too weak; I would make raising chickens a requirement.

In fact, an absence of backyard hens is a fairly recent phenomenon in America. Time was, everyone had a few chickens, in town or not. In the '40s and '50s, backyard chickens were common on Capitol Hill, and there's a current movement to return to those lax chicken-law days of yore.

Simply put, keeping a few hens is something to crow about.

To a large degree, we've lost control of our food supply, and as such we've lost control of our nutrition. Factory-raised eggs are produced by hens that see no green grass, fresh air or sunshine. Color is a strong indication of nutrients, and many factory hens must be fed dye so that the yolks of their eggs will appear to be more yellow than gray.

Chickens that see the sun and have fresh grass clippings tossed their way will have an orange or bronze yolk that's lower in fat, has up to six times the vitamin D and has 10 times the amount of omega 3s as store-bought eggs. If you have cholesterol fears, have your doctor do some research on pasture-raised eggs (or grass-fed meat of any kind) and then get back to you.

Unfortunately, wholesome food isn't as cheap. It's the feed of the factory chicken that's subsidized by the government, so the product that's nutritionally inferior in every way will cost half as must as a dozen eggs raised the right way. Somewhere in the halls of Congress, this model makes sense.

Worse, the people who need good food the most tend to be the ones who can afford it the least. Giving them, and everyone, at least the opportunity to produce some good, healthy food on their own is a logical, forward-thinking thing to do.

I wish it were more than three hens; I would make it six. That way, you would be able to give a dozen every now and then to an elderly neighbor, or a family next door that's having a hard time. A lot of poor eating habits can be mitigated by a pastured egg. It's not a miracle food, it's just food the way it's supposed to be.

And chickens can be raised on a handful of corn and a whole lot of nothing. They will happily eat lawn waste, stale bread, melon rinds and table scraps. Believe it or not, they catch mice and they will gorge on stinkbugs. (Fear not; the egg tract and digestive tract are two separate mechanisms.)

Boonsboro is to be congratulated for raising the issue, especially in these times when so many people are so afraid of so many things. I understand that the knee-jerk reaction is to be horrified that you might find a chicken sharing the same block.

But if people could actually see the conditions in which factory eggs are produced, they would realize that it is there that the real horror lies.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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