Obama's Chickens in Every Back Yard

Signs of poverty foreseen.

During the 1928 Presidential campaign, the Republican national committee placed an ad in many papers which explained how the Republican administrations of Harding and Coolidge had "reduced hours and increased earning capacity, silenced discontent, put the proverbial 'chicken in every pot.' And a car in every backyard, to boot."  The ad argued that a Hoover administration would deliver continued prosperity.  To paraphrase a later Presidential campaign, "It was the economy, stupid!"

Mr. Hoover made a number of optimistic statements about the economy including "we shall soon with the help of God be in sight of the day when poverty will be banished from this Nation," making the same futile promise to eliminate poverty as most Presidents who came after him.  The fact that President Hoover was blamed for the Great Depression which started in 1929 illustrates the age-old lesson that making accurate predictions is difficult, especially if you insist on talking about a future that hasn't happened yet.

Even though he never promised "a chicken in every pot," Mr. Hoover was associated with the phrase.  When someone asked what's for dinner at a time when there wasn't much to eat, frustrated cooks referred sarcastically to "Hoover chicken."

As we've seen elsewhere, watching what people do is one way to figure out what they believe will happen in the future.  The most striking element of citizen behavior we noted at that time was that guns and ammunition were flying off the shelves.  That suggested that a whole lot of Americans believed one of two things: either that the government was about to take away their gun rights, or that the government would fail to keep order and each would have to defend himself.

We now see people starting to buy new chicken coops and other supplies so that they can raise "Obama chickens" for food in case the economy gets even worse.  The fact that so many people are taking on the unpleasant, tedious labor of raising chickens suggests that ordinary people do not believe that the economy will be strong enough to guarantee them employment any time soon.

Mr. Obama's Chickens Roosting

In "Keeping Their Chickens in Backyard Nests," the New York Times reports:

As Americans struggle through a dismal recession, many are trying to safeguard themselves from what they fear will be even worse times ahead. ...

And some raise chickens. Lloyd Romriell, a married father of four in Annis, Idaho, recently received seven grown chickens and a coop from a relative. The hens lay a total of about two dozen eggs a week.

Coops are popping up in Brooklyn, suburban Chicago, and in the rural West.

All is not sweetness and light in the world of Mr. Obama's chickens, however.  Some zoning regulations forbid keeping chickens, and cluck-averse neighbors who'd rather not live near a poultry farm are demanding that such rules be enforced.  Other areas are permitting chickens so long as owners practice gender discrimination against male chickens which are thought to be more noisy.

All in all, people who supply chicken-raising equipment regard the current boom as being grounded in widespread fears that the economy will get worse before it gets better.

Chicken hatcheries say that it is typical in a recession for their business to do well. But some hatchery veterans say they have never seen a year like this one.

Nancy Smith, whose family owns Cackle Hatchery in Lebanon, Mo., said there were times over the last year, as the economic news grew worse and worse, that her customers seemed to be "in a panic mode" to buy birds they could begin raising at home.

The Times noted that the spike in chicken sales accompanies continued strong sales of gun-related products:

Marie Reed, a sales representative for Ideal Poultry, a large Texas hatchery, said that managers of rural feed stores that sell the company's birds told her they had seen a spike this year in demand for baby chicks, along with an upturn in sales of garden seeds - and ammunition. [emphasis added]

It seems that many ordinary citizens are far more pessimistic about the economy and about the government's ability to keep order than the professional economists, at least those economists who write for the mainstream media.  Unfortunately, the fact that chickens are being raised in far more locations than before may lead to problems with poultry diseases, an unexpected outcome that has already happened with home-grown tomatoes.

Unexpected Side Effects

In "You Say 'Tomato,' I say 'Agricultural Disaster'," the New York Times reports that the New England tomato harvest has been greatly reduced by the worst invasion of tomato blight in many years.  This is partly because 2009 brought an unusually rainy summer - tomato fungus spreads best in cool, wet weather, a situation which would be alleviated by genuine global warming - but the blight also was helped because so many more people are planting their own tomatoes.

But this year is turning out to be different - quite different, according to farmers and plant scientists. For one thing, the disease appeared much earlier than usual. Late blight usually comes, well, late in the growing season, as fungal spores spread from plant to plant. So its early arrival caught just about everyone off guard.

And then there's the perniciousness of the 2009 blight. The pace of the disease (it covered the Northeast in just a few days) and its strength (topical copper sprays, a convenient organic preventive, have been much less effective than in past years) have shocked even hardened Hudson Valley farmers.

Part of the problem is that many people seem to have bought infected starter plants instead of growing their own tomato plants from seeds, a method which takes more work and requires a much earlier start.  As infected plants were scattered into many, many back yards, blight could spread via places where agriculture workers didn't know to look for it.

Here's the unhappy twist: the explosion of home gardeners - the very people most conscious of buying local food and opting out of the conventional food chain - has paradoxically set the stage for the worst local tomato harvest in memory.

Everyone who plants any food crop becomes part of the national agricultural system thanks to the same wind whereby everyone's CO2 exhalations become part of interstate commerce.  The more widely tomato plants are spread, the more hidden places where fungus, blight, and other diseases can multiply.

Chickens Coming Home To Roost

There are a great many different diseases which affect chickens - Googling for "chicken diseases and symptoms" gives more than 1,500,000 hits.  We have friends who raise chickens for eggs.  Under normal circumstances, the cost of feed accounts for more than half the cost of raising chickens.  Big operators buy so much feed that they get huge discounts; chicken products are often cheaper in stores than when grown at home.

Raising chickens turns out to be economical if the chickens can eat grass and bugs instead of chicken feed, however.  Our friends believe that bug-fed chickens give better eggs than chickens fed commercial feed.  They slaughter their chickens when the grass is covered by so much snow that the chickens can't eat it.

In the meantime, their chickens are vulnerable to all the diseases described in those 1,500,000 Google hits.  They recently had to kill some chickens who came down with a foot disease.  The closest known chicken flock was about five miles away; it seems that this particular foot disease can spread a long way through the air.

The explosive growth in Obama Chicken Coops has multiplied the places where chicken diseases can take root.  Amateurs are less likely than commercial growers to see early signs of disease.  Not only that, amateurs are often philosophically opposed to using antibiotics which help keep diseases in check.

As with tomatoes, the "Cash for Cluckers" movement will probably lead to unexpected spread of poultry diseases.  If human diseases start to spread through chicken coops, how will the authorities find them all?  Avian flu, anyone?

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for Scragged.com and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Economics.
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