The city of Austin is going to help everyone to have a chicken (or several) in their own back yard.  Just sign up for chicken raising classes (free from the city), buy a coop, and get a $75 rebate. The chickens will eat your waste and turn it into eggs for you.  (There’s no mention of chicken killing classes, so if you want the chickens in your pot you will have to figure out how to chop off their heads or wring their necks by yourself).

The dream of the good life for centuries. A chicken in every pot.  Henry IV who ruled France from 1589-1610 is reported to have wished that every peasant in his realm could enjoy a chicken on Sundays. Well, if wishes were horses, beggars would ride, and peasants would have chickens in their pots. So would Americans, suggested a Republican campaign post in 1928, not apparently as is frequently asserted, the candidate Herbert Hoover.

Now the city of Austin is going one better. A chicken in every backyard.

Yes. I am just a tad cynical about this.  I’m all for people learning a bit more about where food comes from. And I like fresh eggs as much as the next person.  I grew up on free range eggs laid by our bantams.

Our bantams, though, also scratched up the vegetable patch, left their own waste as droppings on the lawn, had to be given honorable burial when they died since they were pets (more waste), and had a way of celebrating their prowess before the first light of dawn. And we lived a mile from the next house in the middle of hundreds of acres, not in a suburban neighborhood.


Hens and cockerels outside the back door in early Spring

So if people want to keep chickens, fine by me. But as a way of dealing with waste, the offer smacks more of a gesture than a good way to spend an (admittedly small) fraction of my soaring property taxes.

But don’t just take it from me.  Two well-informed friends have spoken about this.  Addie Broyles, food writer for the Austin-American Statesman, tried keeping chickens in 2012 only to decide it wasn’t worth it. She reposted her article explaining why when Austin announced its new policy.

“I gave away my chickens. . . Up until a few months ago, we were really enjoying the arrangement. We give them food, water and shelter; they give us eight to 10 eggs a week and some backyard entertainment. . .

But recently, life with backyard chickens started to get out of balance. The squawking got louder and started earlier. In an effort to shut them up so they wouldn’t wake up the neighborhood, I’d let them out of their coop and they’d promptly poop all over the yard, including on tables and chairs.

A pair of baby raccoons recently figured out how to get into the coop to get to the water and food scraps, which prompted middle-of-the-night and early morning clucks so loud that I knew neighbors within earshot had heard them, too. . .

I decided I was done. For now.”

The agricultural economist Jayson Lusk is a good bit blunter.

“There are a lot of really bad food policy proposals.  But, this one takes the cake.  Apparently the city of Austin, TX is subsidizing backyard chicken coops.  . . .

A few questions come to mind.  What happens to the waste that comes out of the chickens?  Does this waste (and the smell and the sound) impose externalities on neighbors?  What happens to the hens who have reached the end of their egg-laying life?  What happens to the hens who, whoops, turn out to be roosters.  Bird flu?  Will the chickens be protected from predators and extreme weather conditions?  How much does it cost to maintain the chickens and how expensive is supplemental feed and veterinary care?

I’m not necessarily trying to discourage backyard chickens.  I just want to know why taxpayer A should be required to pay for person B’s chickens?  If the problem is food waste, and supposing it causes some unmentioned externalities, why not just increase the price of garbage pick-up?  Then households can respond in whatever ways they find most effective and convenient.  I doubt, for most, that chickens are the optimal solution.”

So bah humbug to the City of Austin.

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