The call came early Friday afternoon. I knew what it was even before I answered. My friend, who happens to be an international chicken influencer, had a lead on a commodity that has recently sold out across the United States. Over video chat, she said the exact words I had been hoping to hear, “Do you want to go in on a chick order with us?”
When I left the city and moved to the country 18 months ago, I had no intention of becoming a “back-to-the-lander,” raising chickens or doing any gardening beyond maybe some hobby herbs and flowers my kids could enjoy.
I took a moment to consider the baby chicks — as the daughter of four generations of Midwestern farmers I’ve seen firsthand the hard work that goes into any sort of farming venture. Regardless, my reply came quickly and impulsively. Do I want in on the hatchery order? “Yes, I’m in.”
And yes, I am nervous about the food supply.
I’m not alone in my anxiety-fueled impulse farming; text messages and emails with friends urban and rural are peppered with anecdotes of sprouting squash seedlings, building raised beds, and yes, the acquisition of backyard chickens. We are all seeking a sense of control over our destinies and those of our families in a seemingly powerless situation.
With good reason; the food system is showing its cracks. Mountains of produce suddenly have no distribution channels to take their products to at-home consumers. Picking up milk or eggs at the grocery store now requires protective gear. One of the biggest agricultural companies in America has warned, via paid advertising, that the food supply chain is breaking. There are big corporations, many human beings, large distances and a lot of logistics involved — all vulnerable to coronavirus related disruption.
In response to these failing systems, a collective movement toward personal farming is taking shape. These individual choices made at the level of backyards and the kitchen table, when bound together, have the power to reimagine a food system that is more diverse, resilient, and rooted in place.
What at first glance seems impulsive or even naïve — I do not have the skills to feed my family of four for a full year from a few raised beds and three chickens — may actually turn out to be brilliantly effective at system reform when practiced in concert, all across the country.
In contrast to the model of the Victory Gardens in the 1940s, when citizen agriculture ramped up to replace up to a third of the nation’s vegetable supply, the potential of this moment for structural change does not lie in whether or not personal farming can replace the current food system.
Rather, the potential lies in whether or not a whole bunch of people, putting their energy and their money in a different direction than big agricultural interests want them to, will reform the food system. This different direction includes emerging trends of backyard farming, increased patronage of smaller, diverse farms that have more easily pivoted to increased direct-to-consumer sales, and even food banks that are contracting directly with regional growers to distribute food to local communities.
Let’s suppose that this year, there is a surge of Americans getting their hands dirty in the soil, tending to vegetables and backyard chickens, and having a direct experience of the relationship between the land and caretaking and the growth of food in return. As a collective, this experience has the potential to retrain our minds and our values.
We may begin to deeply understand, through our own bodily experience, where our food comes from, who farms it, and what it takes to sustain its production.
Emulating the care we take of our own food efforts will inform our food choices moving forward — how we shop, what we buy, and who we buy it from. If our need is for a more secure local food system, we can create this system by living the solution at home first, creating change from the ground up.
The chain is already disrupted; we have a choice in how we will put it back together again.
But first, I am madly researching how to care for chickens. Despite my four generations of farming heritage, I have no idea what I’m doing.