A national backyard chicken movement is spreading its wings. Should this matter to the commercial poultry industry?

Food magazines and newspapers across North America are documenting the popularity of backyard chickens. This popularity isn’t limited to rural, or even suburban, locales. An estimate in a 2008 Newsweek article said 65% of major cities allowed urban chickens, and 40% permitted roosters. And the number of cities adopting ordinances allowing poultry continues to grow.

Chicago is among the major cities allowing backyard chickens. While it’s unclear how many households there raise chickens, an online community group called “Chicago Chicken Enthusiasts” claims 148 members. The group discusses urban chicken-keeping – from the logistics of coop construction to the nuances of city policies – via email and message boards. Some believe that group is a tiny fraction of Chicago’s poultry keepers, who also include many non-English speakers and people who want to stay under the radar.

The popularity of websites and magazines about backyard poultry keeping is soaring. One such magazine has a circulation of 75,000. And people line up for tours of chicken coops in major cities – in Atlanta a tour is named Chicks in the City, and in Austin, Texas, its The Funky Chicken Coop Tour. In Raleigh, N.C., there is Hen-side the Beltline Tour d’Coop.

Why the backyard movement matters

It would be easy to dismiss the growing popularity of backyard chickens as unimportant to the commercial poultry industry, but, in my opinion, that would be a mistake.
So, what does it matter that a small percentage of U.S. households grow a few chickens and consume the eggs they lay? Most backyard poultry keepers, in fact, don’t slaughter their birds for meat. These birds often are pets with names.

Backyard poultry keeping’s importance comes, in part, because it is tied to the local food movement. As one writer put it: “Apparently it is no longer enough to know the name of the farm your eggs came from; now you need to know the name of the actual bird.”

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In turn, the local food movement is tied to even broader cultural forces of importance to the marketing of poultry. The industry needs to understand the backyard poultry movement for what it is and represents.

Food vetting

Backyard poultry keeping, first of all, answers a consumer obsession over food and where it comes from. The Food Channel calls this consumer phenomenon “food vetting.” Call it food vetting or sourcing – the issue is that people are asking where their food comes from. And they have a strong concern over things like antibiotics and hormones in poultry.

In naming food vetting as one of the top 10 trends in food in 2010, the Food Channel explained, “You are what you eat! That’s what’s leading this trend – our constant need for assurance that we are eating the right things, that our food is safe, that we are not ingesting pesticides or anything that will someday prove harmful.”

Consumer issues

But backyard poultry keeping is more than that. It answers both utilitarian and soul needs of consumers – what has been referred to as a need for cultural legitimacy. Food is, in fact, a part of the social fabric. One poultry keeper tells that she no longer carries wine to the homes of friends but fresh eggs laid by her backyard chickens. Finally, backyard poultry keepers often are not only concerned about healthiness and freshness issues but animal welfare.

All of these are important consumer issues for the commercial poultry industry. Until it has successfully addressed them for consumers, it cannot afford to ignore the backyard poultry keepers. Backyard poultry keeping will influence consumer views and possibly, at some point, buying behavior for retail poultry products.