Hens Are Changing The Meaning of “Profit”


The most amazing cultural event of the 21st century, at least so far, may be the rise of the hen. And Henny Penny is not squawking that the sky is falling, like humans are, but how locally produced eggs and fried chicken are a main part of the pot of gold at in the end of the food revolution rainbow.

Forgotten are our old cultural icons of milk maid and cowboy, replaced by the backyard gardener surrounded by a lovely little flock of hens. The egg has even weathered the condemnation of cholesterol paranoia and is once more as honored at the breakfast table as a glass of wine is at dinner.

You see chickens just about everywhere these days: on magazine covers, in television ads, and all over Facebook where humans show them off to their friends like they do new babies. Hens saunter demurely across the manicured lawns of suburbs as well as the manure-peppered barnyards of rural homesteads. You hear them clucking and cackling in the background when news reporters interview Afghan or Iraqi villagers on the radio. I imagine they are saying something like “Cackle, cackle, why don’t you clucking Americans go home.”

Chickens are winning over the world again, as they have always done throughout so-called civilization because they are such a cheap and easy source of good food. So handily can they produce eggs and meat on a very small scale that it is difficult to make them profitable as a commercial venture.  If you raise the price to a commercially profitable level, more people will just get their own hens. The egg factories keep out of the red only by not paying the full environmental cost of their operations, by resorting to constant expansion in a vain effort to keep down the per unit cost of production, and by taking advantage of generous direct and indirect subsidies. Small commercial flock producers make a go of it only when they can charge more for their product than the going rate. The only really profitable way to produce eggs and fried chicken is to do it on a very small, not-for-profit scale. The hen is a distributist. Distributism is an economic philosophy that gained much attention a century ago and is now drawing attention again. It champions the decentralization of the means of production into small, privately owned enterprises, not owned or run by the state or private wealthy oligarchs. It is neither capitalistic nor socialistic. It is chickenistic.

Ironically it is the non-money kind of profit that makes chickens profitable. They can replace the garbage disposal by turning table scraps and garden surplus into rich fertilizer. By doing so they don’t have to be fed high-priced industrial grain. They are by far the most efficient grazing animal of all. A small number of them can get most of their food ration of bugs, worms, grass, clover and weed seeds from a bit of lawn, pasture or woodlot. If you dry lawn clippings like hay, they will make a goodly part of their winter feed too. And when their egg laying days are over, they make delicious chicken soup and coq au vin.

What’s also great about chickens is not so well-known. They make enjoyable pets. Honest. In the old agrarian world, a flock of hens almost always numbered fifty to a hundred or more, and in that situation, we never realized that as individuals, they would respond to love like a dog or cat. Our grandsons, raised in quite a different world, made pets of their parents’ dozen hens. The chickens loved being picked up and scratched under their wings. In fact they became kind of a nuisance at picnics.

Our five hens often join Carol and I when we are at work in the woods or garden. They even have learned to follow the lawnmower around because it scares up bugs for them. Blackie, our Plymouth Rock, constantly sings a most pleasant little ditty that is a soothing antidote to the idiocies of the evening news. I am seriously thinking of taping her performance. It just might sell to a recording studio company and make some real money.


We were fortunate in our area (northwest Washington state) to find a wonderful niche market for our chicken and duck eggs. There are more and more restaurants looking for local sources of ingredients, and in Washington, all it takes to sell eggs wholesale is a $30/year egg dealer’s license and an annual inspection. We’ve been selling our duck and chicken eggs to a local restaurant for five years now, and in the spring when our production is highest, we sell extra eggs at several small retail stores. We’ve come to see eggs as a seasonal product; we like to let the hens and ducks have their time off over the winter.

I agree with you David. I know how much years of keeping a small flock of laying hens has cost me just to satisfy my “good egg” fix–and believe me, it would have been a whole lot cheaper to have someone like you nearby to buy them from. The trick I imagine for you has been time, persistence, and word of mouth?

I have always found a good niche market selling premium quality eggs at a premium price. It takes a lot of knowledge, time, expense and some experience to produce exceptional eggs, consistently, throughout the year. Many people give it up or simply prefer to pay me a premium because they know that they will get a consistently delicious and more nutritious egg. I refuse to advertise fresh eggs but instead premium eggs. Factory farms do a great job of delivering very fresh pale, runny, bland eggs. There IS money to be made in chicken and eggs, Gene, but there are no shortcuts.


I’m an illegal chicken owner and proud of it! And I make the analogy all the time about all the Rovers around here, big and small, that bark endlessly and leave their deposits everywhere. I have nothing against dogs, but what does my City Council have against chickens and clothes lines for that matter. The CC doesn’t ban clothes lines but there are many, many subdivisions here that do. CC once again refused to change the code to allow chickens in the non-agricultural areas of the city. So we and our three hens will quietly and illegally go about our business. Delicious eggs, good fertilize and outstanding bug and weed eaters. Thanks for your books, posts and common sense Gene.

To be successful farming you need to be able to utilize your assets and fit your number of whatever you raise to match what you have on your farm and not get into buying too many high priced off farm assets so it means every situation is different.

Thanks for the useful reminder. I sometimes like to put the cart before the horse. Individuals I know are trying to farm for the long term. Individuals are buying what they produce. Rather than counting chickens, maybe I should wait and see. And do what I can.

Still, I always liked those math problems where one train leaves the station …


Bert, Beware of all studies about big farm vs. small farm. In my experience it all comes down to the person(s) involved. There are small commercial farms, like a diary with 40 cows, that do quite well. There are others that go broke. There are large farms, let’s say 3000 cows, that do okay and there are others that go broke. There is no way for studies to factor in the human part of the equation. Gene

Please excuse this awkward way of asking a more general question about profitability. I buy milk from a local dairy and pay a premium for the quality, and I don’t mind paying a little extra for how the milk is produced. But the free market dominates and I expect that the workload for the small dairy farmer and their need to charge roughly double the rate for generic milk will eventually put them out of business.

A pork CSA I know offers about 40 lbs of meat at about $6/average pound per subscription.

My question: Are you, or someone you know, doing some kind of explorations about how and/or when small local farming can come close to competing with industrial farming at market prices (keeping in mind that quality should be factored into the price).

By comparison, the line for alternative energy costs crosses the line for fossil fuel costs as the supply of non-renewables diminishes and those energy prices rise.

Is it possible at some near future that transportation costs for industrial farming will allow local farmers to beat ‘supermarket’ prices?

Too much for this forum, but I anticipate that someone is working on these questions somewhere.

Keeping chickens in your back garden is very popular here in the UK as well. Interesting how even the ‘little brown jobs’ have individual personalities when allowed to…

I just bought a nice-sized old ranch in coastal Oregon, and I’ll move in before year’s end. Sometime in the 90’s the previous owners once raised ostriches, so there are two good sized coops that I hope to renovate for chickenizing the fallow [read: neglected] pasture area. I’ve taken to telling some folks that I’m going to be raising “ground eagles”.

There is a food/farm revolution going on in the US especially on the Coastal states East and West and no better symbol than the Chicken to rally around.People are wanting to control their food again and its a great thing in my opinion.Industrial Ag has long tried to label us interested in good food as being radicals on the fringe of society,whacked out etc but when an issue like GMO labeling is going up for a vote and Industrial ag feels it needs to spend
$Millions top stop it they realize its becomig serious business.I realized just how much this local food business had gotten traction when I went to look at a garden tractor for sale here in Charlottesville at a residence about 2 blocks from the campus of the University of Virginia and the people in the middle of an old expensive home neighborhood had a flock of chickens in their backyard.Said the neighbors not only liked the chickens they bought eggs from them.

How true Troy! If you put pencil and paper to it, chickens don’t make sense. Add predation, which is heavy here, and I call the new starts “chicken nuggets,” the free rangers are “free lunch,” and any cooped birds become “boxed lunch”! But I’ve kept them for years and would miss their antics and eggs if I didn’t have them.

My rooster loves to be pet right above his ears, along the comb and wattles. He also loves neck rubbings, chickens have two almost bald spots running along the neck thats one of his favorite. He also likes belly rubbings but not all the time. I would deffinetly say that under the wings and the chest are his favorite place to get rubbed.

Oh, Russ, that is just precious—- fowl verbiage. And yes, Karen e wood, still all these rules against hens tn the yard while giant sized Rovers bark all night and crap all over. Gene

I’m with you Brian – chickenistic deserves to be in the next Webster’s. There may even be political undertones present in this discourse with fowl verbiage about those “clucking Americans”. I think you now qualify as a contrary chickenista Gene.

I recently heard that our state capital allows its residents to keep backyard chickens if they file for a permit and have their hens inspected by a licensed vet to guarantee that they are healthy. If true, then it is an interesting example of the workings of bureaucracy.

I figure that by the time a young group of hens start to lay there is about a hundred bucks or more in each hen, even without a lot of store bought grain. And birds for eating maybe 25 bucks or so a bird being much younger. I am pretty sure no one is going to pay me 30 bucks a meat bird. But the farm would be useless without them for all of the above mentioned reasons.
Many a day wife and I sit down after work outside just to watch the hens maybe one of her favorite hens or roosters in her lap and think ” Ahh, the good life.”

Yep. Hens rule. I havent fed them grain in over a year. Purple top turnips and what ever they can find.

“Chickenistic”. Gene, you kill me! Love it! 🙂

One of our neighbors gave us a few hens, back when my daughters were preschool age. We let the hens loose in the farmyard during the daytime, and noticed that they would chase the girls’ green inflatable ball, like a team of feathery soccer players, whenever the children and their cousins were rolling it around the yard. This was endlessly amusing to us…

Finally I asked our neighbors about it. The wife said that they had extra cabbages in the garden, and would occasionally roll one into the chickens’ pasture. Our birds had learned that round green rolling objects are (usually) good to eat.

Chickens have numerous benefits. We had a tick problem a few years back before we started raising birds. The next year we started out with about a dozen free range layers and a dozen broilers. No ticks since. Go chickens!

It is ironic that Ohio cities like Bowling Green have folks fighting to keep out backyard hens, just as hundreds of other towns have welcomed them– people living by the golf course are afraid that BG will appear too rural and homey if hens are legal– guess they did not hear hens are cool!

I remember watching a flock of chickens with a friend one day. He asked me “What if chickens had hands instead of wings?” I bring this up for no particular reason, other than having very few opportunities to tell the story. Myself, I think a flock of chickens with hands could destroy a homestead in a few short hours. As far as raising eggs for money, I can only refer people to “Love Among the Chickens” by PG Wodehouse.

Chickens can also be hysterically funny. Much better than going to the movies. Our Delaware rooster is the spitting image of Foghorn Leghorn, the bombastic, gabby, self-centered, slightly cunning but rather dumb rooster on the Saturday morning cartoon shows. Watch a bunch of three-week-old chicks going outside for the first time: “OMG, the door’s open!” “It’s awfully bright out there…” “Maybe if I just sneaking up on the ramp…” “Hey, this thing is slip-p-pe-e-r-r-y OOF!” Not to mention that at the end of the day the little bird-brains can’t figure out how to get back in and have to be caught and chucked into the coop. Chickens are a laugh a minute!

So so true. You didn’t mention the other entirely free benefit chickens provide. No, not poo.

I swear that a flock of chickens is calming for humans. Watching chickens inspires a sort of quiet reverie, an effortless contemplation, a poultry-induced state of meditation. Our flock of nearly 60 free ranging birds (including too many roosters and geriatric hens) have also inspired plenty of family conversations about (human) behavior, politics, relationships, and education. That quiet clucking may just be an antidote to all the self-important frenzy that characterizes the age we live in. Yay for chickens.

Under their wings, Gene? I hadn’t heard of that. where else do chickens enjoy being scratched or petted?

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