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opinion

Here a cluck, there a cluck: Backyard chickens bring satisfaction, challenges

I grow up on a North Dakota farm with beef cattle and small grains. No chickens, though, which was fine with me. Chickens are noisy and messy, and I wanted nothing to do with them. Still don't, never will.

But a growing number of Americans think otherwise. Although firm statistics are tough to come by, there's an explosion of interest in "backyard" or "home-raised" chickens across our country. One small measure of that: I regularly receive emails from public relations folks promoting a new book on the subject.

Home-raised chickens are so popular that assorted celebrities are publicly extolling their own backyard flocks. Some of that interest, no doubt, is sincere and long-lived. And some is trendy hipsterism designed to attract media attention, with the celebrity quickly moving on to a new fad. Regular readers of this column, all three or four of you, know that I'm no fan of trendy hipsters and posturing celebrities.

Backyard chickens appeal in several ways to people who aren't hipsters or celebrities. The list includes:

• They provide fresh eggs, and some people enjoy raising their own breakfast or other meal.

• The daily chores of caring for them can teach children about responsibility.

• They're an alternative to mass-produced chickens and eggs, which some people think are immoral or unhealthy or both. (I'm not among those people.)

• They can save money at the grocery store, at least in theory. (Is the cost of establishing and maintaining a backyard flock less than the cost of buying chicken and eggs at the store? Yes in some cases and no in others, I'd guess. )

Whatever the benefits and satisfaction of backyard flocks, they bring challenges, too, especially in urban areas.

Raccoons and other urban predators have taken a heavy toll on some home-raised chicken operations, according to published reports.

Developing city ordinances that balance the concerns of backyard flock owners with the concerns of their neighbors isn't easy. Cities nationwide are struggling with the task.

Most troubling, at least to me, are public health concerns associated with backyard flocks. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts it, "Owning backyard chickens and other poultry can be a great experience. However, children and other groups of people have a greater chance of illness from handling live poultry or anything in the area where they live and roam."

Here's a link to a CDC report, "Human Salmonella Infections Linked to Live Poultry in Backyard Flocks."

No, don't write me nasty emails. I'm not saying backyard chickens are unsafe or dangerous. I'm not saying it's wrong or foolish to have them. I'm simply stating that there are challenges, sometimes substantial, in raising them.

Selfish reason to support

If you raise backyard chickens and enjoy it, good for you. If you're thinking about starting a backyard flock, do some homework; if it works out, good for you. Though I personally have utterly no interest in raising chickens, I don't fault folks who do.

A final thought: Those of us involved in mainstream agriculture have a selfish reason to support home-raised chicken operations.

Non-farmers with backyard flocks may learn that raising animals is harder — maybe much harder — than they thought. They may learn that our conventional meat production system is better — maybe much better — than they realized.

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