Seven Trees Farm recently lost some prime laying hens to thieves.
You might think ‘big deal, just replace them’, but it doesn’t quite work like that. From egg to point-of-lay pullet takes about 6 months, and it’s a few more months until a hen is really in her prime laying phase. Up to that time, it’s all input. Feed, care, lighting, housing….all in expectation of at least 18 months of egg production and a good stewing hen at the end.
Good hens easily bring $20 each when offered for sale, and 1 year of egg production at a low average of 65% rate of lay for heritage breed hens works out to another $80. Spent hens can sell for $5 each, but are often more valuable in our own freezer.
Replacing the hens isn’t a viable option either. We are downsizing our laying flock to work on breeding stock, and had kept back just enough hens for our own egg supply, plus a few long-time customers’. Getting that level of production back would mean either starting over with new chicks, or buying someone else’s grown hens. Both of which won’t work due to economic and biosecurity reasons. By the time chicks are laying, we’d be out too much cash, we’d still be short eggs for 6 months, and our flock management schedule would be way out of whack. Buying older birds solves the timeline problem, but is still not economical, and we’d run the risk of introducing disease or pests into our closed flock.
Chicken-thieving sounds like an old-timey crime, but the popularity of backyard flocks, combined with economic upheaval, echoes the circumstances that led to hen house raiding in the turbulent times from post-Civil War through the Great Depression. In the UK, where many people keep & breed rare poultry on allotments, theft is rampant, with knowledgeable thieves targeting irreplaceable breeding stock. Most modern chicken-stealing in the US seems directed toward food (meat & eggs) procurement, but specialty breeders always run the risk of poaching whenever there is a hot market for ‘hot’ poultry.
In those days a flock of laying hens wasn’t a hobby, it was critical to a household’s survival (check out this first-hand recollection of neighborhood chicken-thievery). Large hen houses provided cash and employment. Smaller flocks, often the jurisdiction of the woman of the family, were the source of eggs, meat, and cash, and losing a few laying hens to thieves could mean hard times. A New Jersey man shared his memories of that period:
In the early 1930s, there were two chicken thieves going around in the middle of the night. They were going into hen houses and gassing the hens and putting them in sacks. Many hen houses were broken into and every hen was taken. They got mama’s hens and some of our neighbor’s lost all their hens. After a few months, they got caught. It was two community men. After the hens were taken they were loaded up and carried to Maryland and sold. During this time, the local women would have no eggs to eat or sell. These were lean times for people who counted on selling eggs and chickens.
Chickens were “gassed” via sulfur candles burned in the hen house until the fumes knocked out the hens, making them easy to stuff in to sacks for hauling. Chicken thieving was so endemic and problematic that farmers banded together to protect their flocks, and eventually some state authorities stepped in to assist with a sytem of tattoo identification and rewards for the capture of chicken thieves.
Some state passed forced sterilization laws for habitual criminals, but only for certain crimes. A three-time chicken thief could be castrated, while white-collar criminals were usually sentenced less permanently. Farmers didn’t rely on passive methods either. The car pictured below was used as a getaway in one theft attempt and was riddled by bullets in the process.
Hard times bring out negative aspects of people in other ways than stealing from one’s neighbors. Fear and ignorance made minorities an easy target for harassment and outrageous stereotyping. African-Americans were seen as the default example of chicken thieves, and pop culture & advertising of the early 20th century is chock full of offensive imagery.
(Check out this amazingly fascinating collection of images depicting stereotypes, not just of African-Americans, but many other ethnic and socio-economic groups as well. Seeing image after image of how a certain core group of people viewed “others” is quite a learning experience.)
There are more positive lessons to be learned from those hard times though, hence the renaissance of backyard flocks, DIY living, and grow-your-own food preservation. Reading first-hand accounts of life during the Great Depression is a good starting point, and the humans of Seven Trees Farm have gleaned some successful methods of raising productive flocks from those pre-factory-farm days. Now we’re also reading about low-tech ways to protect our feathered investment from future depredations.
One of our missions is to integrate useful practices of the past with useful technology of the present, and if the saying “necessity is the mother of invention” is true, we’re about to get very inventive.