“They just had to kill, like five million chickens, man. Eggs just doubled in price,” the guys behind the local coffeeshop counter are college students in the culinary arts program. Their breakfast menu features various omelets and egg sandwiches.
Influenza H5N2 has been breaking like waves across Minnesota, Nebraska, the Dakotas, Wisconsin, and Iowa. It sends ripples into our Upstate New York village. The current USDA numbers show over 47 million chickens and turkeys affected in the past six months. No humans have gotten sick, but I can only imagine the farmers’ suffering and the pending egg shortages.
Since May, our kitchen held a bunch of chickens. Forty meat birds arrived on the heels of our twenty-six bird, egg-laying flock, as they transitioned to life outdoors. Before they moved outdoors, our layers had become proficient at perching on the brooder’s edge, regularly peeking at me during breakfast. They sometimes hopped out onto the kitchen floor.
As I leaned into the brooder, replacing wood shavings to keep things as clean as possible, I wondered about birds and food and people and disease. Our meat and eggs will be exceedingly local, raised a few feet from the table where we’ll eat them. Our flock is a speck, compared with the Midwest’s commercial flocks, tens of thousands of birds. Do these facts secure our food? Are we exempt from disease?
These days, when it comes to food, we aren’t any kind of –vore or –tarian. We make gestures toward kinder, closer, fewer chemicals, less fossil fuel, but still shop at the grocery store. We make friends with our food, talking to the rainbow-colored chard and stroking the chickens. This is privilege. It’s also dirty hard work.
We won’t always have kitchen chickens. We can raise future chicks in the barn, when the junk filling it is gone. For our adult chickens, we build chicken tractors and use electronet fencing, trying to protect them while offering fresh air and new ground for scratching every day.
When I kneel beside the open chicken tractor door, a couple of my favorite young laying hens come running and jump in my lap. We pet them and name them. I have to tear myself away from their intricate feather patterns and curious behaviors to go mow or weed. I carefully latch the door, hoping that I’m keeping them safe.
In reality, our chickens might not dodge H5N2, if it travels our way. Perhaps, though, other flocks in our community could stay healthy. Perhaps smaller, more local, more diversified agriculture will help to secure our food. We can hope.