Friday, August 21, 2009

How Do You Want Your Eggs?

Today's post was written by guest blogger - David Aron

If you live in the city, the answer may be “as fresh as possible.” The “Urban Chicken Movement,” where city dwellers feed and house chickens in their backyard, is gaining momentum. Several news outlets have reported on this, including this story from Newsweek, which reports that local ordinances against chicken farming have been overturned in several cities as a result of this movement:
“Over the past few years, urban dwellers driven by the local-food movement, in cities from Seattle to Albuquerque, have flocked to the idea of small-scale backyard chicken farming—mostly for eggs, not meat—as a way of taking part in home-grown agriculture. This past year alone, grass-roots organizations in Missoula, Mont.; South Portland, Maine; Ann Arbor, Mich.; and Ft. Collins, Colo., have successfully lobbied to overturn city ordinances outlawing backyard poultry farming, defined in these cities as egg farming, not slaughter. Ann Arbor now allows residents to own up to four chickens (with neighbors' consent), while the other three cities have six-chicken limits, subject to various spacing and nuisance regulations.”
Interestingly, some city dwellers are even keeping chickens in violation of their local ordinances, as reported by this story in the Christian Science Monitor
“Citing unsanctioned henhouses in Denver, Boston, and other cities, Worldwatch’s Ben Block notes that an ‘underground ‘urban chicken’ movement has swept across the United States in recent years,’ flouting authorities’ concerns about noise, odors, and public health.”
What is going on here? What is the origin of this intense desire to raise chickens in city, even to the point of defying local ordinances? The following quote from the previous story lays it all on the line:
“According to the website BackyardChickens, considered authoritative in the online urban-chicken-enthusiast pecking order, three hens will net you, on average, two eggs a day. And the eggs are said to be tastier and more nutritious than the ones you can get at a supermarket.”
Let’s recap.
Residents of cities and suburbs are buying live chickens in increased numbers, housing them, feeding them and caring for them in order to get fresh eggs. These people should not be viewed as odd or weird, but rather as individuals that are taking control of their own food supply. Moreover, the rise in urban farming is not only isolated to chicken farming. Backyard gardens are also on the rise in urban areas, with grassy lawns being converted into vegetable gardens yielding fresh, organic produce.

So what’s the big deal? So people want fresh food! Why is this important? To understand this movement, we have to take a step back and consider a crucial economic concept: the Division of Labor.

Division of Labor is the idea that certain people specialize in producing certain goods. For example, instead of someone producing all the food, shelter, clothing, heating, etc… that they need for themselves under a system of self-sufficiency, they specialize in one area and produce only that good (ie. shoes). Then they engage in trade with others who have specialized in other areas (ie. butter) in order to obtain the items that enable and enhance live. By specializing and engaging in trade, both parties are able to produce much more than was originally possible under self-sufficiency. They are able to take advantage of economies of scale that help them provide those goods to others at lower costs. Moreover, since individuals are specializing, they are able to gain technical knowledge and to innovate, which allows for increased productivity. As you can see, the division of labor bestows numerous benefits upon society, in the form of increased productivity and lower cost goods. This in turn allows the society to support a larger population, as well as increased leisure time and support of activities (such as Blogging) that do not serve any direct physiological human need. In fact, no economy can function properly without the division of labor.

Now back to our urban chicken/gardening movement. Who are these urbanites that are raising chickens and growing their own food? Are they farmers? No. They are lawyers, doctors, insurance agents, teachers, TV repairmen, etc… They are everyday people, who are slowly eschewing the division of labor and returning to a life of self-sufficiency. By growing their own food they are making a statement.

That statement is:

It is more cost effective for us to grow our own food and raise our own chickens in order to obtain the level of quality we desire from our food products than to purchase those food products from the existing corporate agricultural establishment, which has the benefit of economies of scale, time-saving farming capital equipment and specialized technical knowledge.

And you know that statement is true!
Compare fresh eggs to the ones you will find in Stop and Shop for $1.50. Even the organic eggs at $4.00 a dozen are not as good as the ones freshly gathered from the backyard hens. Think about it, these urbanites are taking time away from their own businesses in order to grow food. They are saying they can do it better than the farmers can. It means that the division of labor is breaking down and that the benefits of trade are slowly evaporating.

But why? Why can’t the market provide the same or better quality of food than those people growing it for themselves? You guessed it. Government Regulation.

All of the federal, state and local programs out there aimed at farms have created such a high regulatory burden that the free market simply cannot offer consumers the quality of food they want anymore. Moreover, existing programs effectively create a cartel of large agri-businesses. Without competition from smaller farms, these large corporate farms are able to maintain profits in the face of government regulations by using artificial growth hormones, harmful pesticides, genetic modification, and other techniques to try to keep their prices level.

Consumers responded to the agri-business cartel by demanding higher quality. So were born the local co-ops and the independent farms that began the organic food movement in the 1980’s. The fact that consumers were willing to pay almost twice the price for organic food showed the desire of the public for a better quality food supply.

Of course, the argi-business cartel soon realized the threat of the organic movement. Beyond co-opting the “organic” label into their own products, argi-business and their friends in Washington DC were able to bring organic farming under the purview of the US. Dept. of Agriculture. In a FAQ sheet distributed by the Barberry Hill Farm CSA of Madison, CT, the assault on the organic movement was made clear as the owners explained why they cannot call their food “organic”:
“Starting in 2000, only farmers whose growing practices meet newly minted USDA standards for organic production can call their produce "organic." Previously, independent certification agencies certified farmers as organic, using a set of standards upon which the current USDA standards are based. The transition from the old independent certifiers to the monolithic USDA certification process was such a chaotic mess that most except the largest opted to drop out until the dust settled.”
With the organic movement being slowly co-opted into the corporate agri-business structure, consumers are again demanding higher quality. With nowhere to turn, they are resorting to growing their own food. But of course, our friends in DC just cannot leave well enough alone. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), has introduced HR 875: The Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009. This bill, if enacted, would introduce even higher federal reporting standards for food production at every level, penalizing small and independent farms, and may even regulate even backyard farms, as discussed in this blog post on the Campaign for Liberty site and in a previous blogpost here at this blog.

Moreover, local authorities are not helping much either. Combating the urban chicken movement, cities and towns have confiscated hens on the basis of noise and odor concerns. Some public officials even worry about the spread of Avian Flu, despite reports indicating that these fears are unfounded for small-scale chicken owners. Will more regulations follow? Special Use Permits? Mandated Avian Flu vaccines for those owning chickens? Minimum standards for care? Where will consumers go for quality food when they cannot even produce it for themselves? And what society will we live in if people cannot even grow their own food? How can we call America the “land of the free” or her government one of “limited powers” at that point?

We have a major problem in our society when farmers cannot deliver quality food to us better than we can produce it ourselves. The problem is exacerbated by a government that continues to throw favors to their friends in the corporate agri-business cartel while shutting down small farms and even backyard gardens and coops in an attempt to eliminate competition! The fact that our society is regressing in self-sufficiency in the area of food should be a sign that the existing government regulations have burdened the industry to the point of eliminating the advantages of the division of labor. If we can clean up the mess the government has made in agriculture, we will go a long way towards restoring liberty, prosperity and constitutional republic to America