Friday, April 16, 2010

Urban Chickens and Conspicuous Consumption

new home for the chooksThe most often-asked question I hear from reporters or other curious folks is "how expensive is it to raise urban chickens?" My answer is always the same: it all depends on how much you want to spend on your coop.

The hens themselves are cheap, their food is cheap, straw/woodchips/water is cheap. The coop is ususally, decidedly not cheap.

And why is that? As long as our chickens have a dry, draft-free, safe place to sleep and a box to lay their eggs in (more for our convenience than theirs), they're fine.

We humans are the ones who insist on aesthetics. And the cost curve for aesthetics is steep as soon as you move away from the "homely, but it'll do" point and toward the "I'd be proud to show this off on a coop tour" end of the spectrum. So why bother?

The clue to this answer comes courtesy a blog post by Seth Godin (author of Linchpin, Tribes and the Dip, among others) where he revisits the notion of conspicuous consumption:
The reason you have a front lawn? It's a tradition. Lawns were invented as a way for the landed gentry to demonstrate that they could afford to waste land. By taking the land away from the grazing sheep, they were sending a message to their neighbors. We're rich, we can happily waste the opportunity to make a few bucks from our front lawn.
Which got me thinking about all the money I've spent over the years on landscaping for our homes as we've moved from one place to the next. I bought into the "tradition" each and every time by spending thousands to get a nice lawn and stately trees and perfect shrubbery.

Heck, when we first got into urban chickens, we bought an Eglu, which was definitely not the cheapest coop on the market (but I'd argue has been a great investment in terms of ease-of-cleaning).

But now that we have our chickens... I find I'm seeing the backyard lawn as the more wasteful use of money (ongoing thanks to watering, mowing, feeding, etc). And maybe that's the right way to be looking at things again.

How has owning chickens gotten you to re-evaluate your landscaping?

Photo credit: thomaspix on Fickr


Sarah said...

I disagree. Our coop is attractive. It cost more than throwing together a few old pallets, and less than buying something fancy over the internet. But making it attractive didn't add appreciably to the cost.
What making it attractive DID do was make the idea more acceptable to our neighbors. (and, honestly, not having a backyard of eyesore buildings makes it a more pleasant place for our family to spend time.) It has nothing to do with conspicuous consumption. (PS, the only money we've spent on landscaping has been on buying perennial groundcovers to slowly replace our grass. And putting in some fruit trees.)

Granny Annie said...

There is nothing very pretty about our hen house other than the birds themselves. But our hen house is hugely functional. Inside the door you find roosting poles that are hooked together in a way to lift them with one pull in order to clean under them. There is a built in brooder box for use when we move new chicks from an incubator to the coop and a drop down metal brooder where the chicks can hide once they are put in with the other chickens. Our nesting boxes are totally functional and instead of spending $300 per set, we bought a set of 12 bottomless boxes for $10 and my craft husband added floors. We keep fresh straw in the boxes and the hens are happy. Right now I only have 17 chickens and 19 guinea fowl. The guinea fowl roost in the chicken coop at night. Someday our entire barn will receive a new coat of paint and that will entitle the fowl to get a prettier coop at the same time. Meanwhile the eggs are as delicious from a functional surrounding as they are from a landscaped and groomed surrounding:) I keep trying to call myself an Urban chicken owner but actually we're four miles outside of town on 10 acres. The Urban part is "me" a city girl, former banker, turned chicken farmer.

jeffomatic said...

I am raising my hens cheeply. (lol) The run I made for them is not ugly because I bought nice wood, used light lumber and strategically braced it with scrap tin for strength then painted it. I used lots of recycled materials. The key to using recycled materials is craftsmanship. You have to apply more ingenuity and work to make those materials into something that looks nice. I made the waterer and feeder from tin cans. When they were chicks, I brooded them in my downstairs bathtub! Their heat lamp was a fixture from an old photo enlarger. Their litter was dry grass that I raked out of our lawn.
They now live outside, and I use a big cardboard box for a windbreak. I put the lamp on two bricks in there. The lamp heats the bricks and keeps the pullets toasty at night.

I have recently shifted to a more conservative lifestyle because of a layoff. It's not hard for me because I prepared by saving some money and storing food. My wife and I even grind our own flour and she bakes whole wheat bread.

Joan said...

There is a definite upsurge in the number of city dwellers who are looking for their own fresh and delicious organic eggs by having their own backyard chicken coop. At Backyard Chicken Coop Designs, we are seeing tremendous interest from our visitors in downloading and building their own chicken coop using easy to follow instructions and blueprints. Our detailed guides include a full materials list and are available with video instructions for the visual learner.

For people who are not into DIY projects, there is also the option of purchasing ready-made chicken coop kits which just need to be assembled. This is, of course a more expensive option than building your own chicken coop.

MM said...

I drew up a basic a-frame plan (my first structure plan ever!) and my brother built it out of mostly found lumber. We painted it with leftover house paint. Not super pretty, but nice and functional, and the ladies have a built in outdoor area for when they wake up before I do. The expensive houses kind of turned me off a bit, then I went through a phase where I felt guilty or unworthy since I didn't have a home for them that cost several hundred dollars.

Anyway, having the hens has made me that much more strict about the plants I put in the backyard. Nothing poisonous and it must be local or food if possible, and now it's gotta be able to withstand those birds.

I just came back from a month long vacation to a lawn that looks relatively decent. It had looked kind of scraggly this winter, but now is a mostly even green area of grass. I never water it, never put weird chemicals, and now that I have the birds, I haven't had to mow. I sometimes would like to get more birds (mostly when I get excited about a breed), but it would through everything out of balance and my grass couldn't sustain the greedy little fluffballs.

Jerry said...

It is funny how we can spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars to meet the needs of animals that really couldn't care less. I think I fall somewhere in the middle with a funky coop of mostly recycled materials that is secured with what turned out to be a very expensive automatic door of my own design.

I think as long as I am using my (and the planet's) limited resources in a way that works for me, that brings me enjoyment or utility, that is what matters. I like my garden and my chickens and my subscription to the chicken channel is still less than what I would be paying for cable TV. Of course the late night programming is a little sparse :-). So what if my gardening budget uses the money I would have paid for a gym membership or theater tickets? I get the exercise and theater all in the comfort of my back yard.

You can decide for yourself if you think I am consuming too much by visiting Knowing Happiness, but it is sure working for me.

Anonymous said...

The coops or tractors I've seen range from the "zero dollars because I built it out of stuff I pinched out of construction industry dumps" to the "near-thousand-dollar welded mesh tractor" like the one I've got.

I got one made of weldmesh because I wanted it to be resistant to foxes, magpies & children while still being portable, durable and ultraviolet stable. Metal will last much longer than plastic as long as I avoid corrosion.

It's not so much a case of conspicuous consumption as much as being aware of lifecycle cost. I buy relatively cheap chook feed because I'm growing barley, vetch, borage and other fodder crops in the garden (ostensibly as green manure, vainly hoping that the chooks won't eat it all).

A chook has a lifespan of a few years from cradle to grave. The housing for a chook will last a few decades - it's the one part of the equation worth getting right.

I agree with Sarah though - a good looking (even if it's engineering good looking, not Home & Garden good looking) coop or tractor will encourage the neighbours to accept the idea too.


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