Urban Chickens *Are* Normal

Interview with Joel Salatin by Genevieve Rajewski

Featured in Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma and the documentary film Food, Inc., Virginia farmer Joel Salatin has won national attention for his innovative farming practices. At his Polyface Farm, Salatin’s grass-centered approach includes moving chickens in portable coops across pastures that have just been grazed by cows.

In his latest book, This Ain’t Normal Folks, Salatin argues that all American households—rural and urban alike—would benefit from the addition of a few chickens. Edible Boston caught up with Salatin at the Concord Museum, where he was speaking as part of its recent Farm to Lectern Series, to get his thoughts on urban birds.

EB: Why should we all keep chickens?

Perhaps the most fundamental reason to keep chickens at any home is for garbage disposal. That was historically the normal function for chickens. Otherwise what would you do with kitchen scraps in the days before landfills and indoor plumbing?  Today, a lot of the waste stream out of kitchens is plastic packaging and Styrofoam. But 100 years ago, people were cooking from scratch at home, and kitchen waste included vegetable peelings, as well as the blemished parts of fruit that were removed before eating.

As omnivores, chickens remain the perfect garbage disposal. Chickens will eat virtually anything, including meat, fat and sour milk. In City Chicks, Patricia Foreman writes about a Belgian village that offered to buy three chickens per household. They had 2,000 households sign up, for some 6,000 chickens, and the city reduced its decomposable waste stream into landfill by 100 tons … in the first month!

I also promote chickens because, to me, they fundamentally represent an integrated food system. They get rid of your waste, and they also produce eggs from that waste. And if we keep our own chickens, suddenly we can shut down the factory egg farming system. That’s critical for localization, food security, integrity, and transparency—all things lacking in the segregated food system the U.S. has now.

EB: Do urban environments really have enough space for chickens?

In the last year, I have had so many urbanites come up to me and say, “I want to keep chickens, but I have a postage-sized yard and my husband doesn’t want to walk through chicken manure.” So since writing the book, I’ve refined my thinking to create an urban recipe for chickens.

I am now encouraging city people to forget the pasture idea. Forget the idea of moving a coop all over your lawn. That’s what you do if you have a farm or a lot of land in the suburbs.

If you are in a confined space, just go with the deep-bedding concept. You can easily put three to six chickens in a coop that’s 4 feet by 5 feet if you have at least 12 inches of bedding in there. Now, this bedding can be sawdust, peat moss, bark shavings, leaves or wood shavings  — basically any kind of high-carbon bedding that’s at least 12 inches deep. Remember, it can’t be 2 inches deep; you want it to be really deep, because what you are actually doing is put the chickens on a composting bed.

The bedding will grow its own worms and bugs. The chickens will go scraping through the bedding for these snacks, which will oxygenate the bedding and further maintain its decomposition. And the bedding acts as a huge carbonaceous diaper for the chicken’s manure, which is absorbed and adds nitrogen, which further helps decomposition.

This approach is far more sanitary than a stationary coop with a dirt or wire floor.  And the chickens will be very happy, because it gives them a natural environment and really important stuff to do: all that scratching and digging.

EB: How important is it that city dwellers be able to not only raise chickens, but sell the eggs, too?

I’m pretty libertarian regarding food commerce. That’s because an integrated food system must include the ability for neighbors to interact with each other in this way.

For example, we hear a lot about food deserts (neighborhoods with little or no access to grocery stores selling affordable fruits, vegetables and other healthier foods) being a big problem. Yet there are possible entrepreneurs living in those food deserts—people who could remake vacant lots and the three-foot strip of grass between houses and the sidewalk into edible landscaping. If a person could start harvesting eggs, and vegetables from those spaces and selling them to their neighbors, or even making quiche in their house and selling it to people in nearby apartments, suddenly you’d have food self-sufficiency.

The problem is as soon as someone tries to do that, five bureaucrats show up on the front steps telling them that they need a license, the food police to check them out… and on and on and on. Well, once you have to comply with all these compartmentalized licenses and requirements, a fledgling idea for a food business suddenly has to be launched at a large scale. But in order for innovation to come to a community, ideas have to be birthed embryonically.

No one is asking for a Campbell’s Soup to be located in a residential unit in a food desert. But imagine the power of all those vacant lots if they were able to produce food for an embedded, indigenous commerce.