I know nothing about selecting chicken stock and breeding them and because of that I am entirely dependent upon others to provide me with new chicks.  This mostly means that I am dependent upon large hatcheries to ship me chicks from Iowa or Missouri.  My situation is not very different from most other people trying to do what I am doing—I know of very few people who breed their own chickens.  Most simply order them from a hatchery, and if they are laying hens, they kill the older hens every three years and order new ones.

Chicken breeding and the recovering the lost art of self-sufficient living

We must recover the lost arts of self-sufficient living (image by J Fowler)

This situation is a far cry from that of our recent ancestors.  Only two generations ago it was still common for people to keep and breed their own stock and that stock was bred and selected for local tastes and needs.  Most farm families knew how to judge a good breeder and understood more about genetic heredity than most biology students today.  There were clubs and magazines dedicated to the breeding of certain chicken varieties or certain types of turkeys.

I was reminded of all of this yesterday as I listened to a talk given by Frank Reese.  Reese is the man who is responsible for the resurgence of heritage turkeys and he is at work doing the same thing with chickens with the help of P. Allen Smith and the Heritage Poultry Conservancy.

What Reese presented was the history of the systematic destruction of diverse chicken breeds in the name of a uniform industrial system that is controlled by a very few large scale hatcheries.  It is the old agricultural history of local independence and control being usurped by the industrial, international, and uniform.

As Marx was right to say, freedom is dependent upon controlling the “means of production.”  When even small farmers are unable to breed their own chickens those means are utterly lost.  The same thing is happening in the world of seeds as well.  How many of us who grow crops even know how to preserve our seeds?  In the name of ease we lose our independence.

If we are to recover the agrarian virtues of self-reliance and free ourselves increasingly from the bad valuations inherent in the money economy we are going to have to not only grow our own but breed our own.  This will be difficult work, but it is also urgent work.  There are few people who know how to judge poultry any longer and we need to learn as much as we can from them before they are gone.  The same goes for plant breeding and many other forms of farm stock.

Once we know how to breed stock and plants we will be able to preserve not only particular breeds and varieties that are threatened with extinction, but also we will preserve the tradition of creativity and innovation that generated the agricultural diversity that once marked our landscape and farmyards with Rhode Island Reds, Narragansett Turkeys, Florida Cracker Horses, and Gloucestershire Old Spot Pigs.

Ragan Sutterfield

Ragan Sutterfield (M.Div. Virginia Theological Seminary) is ordained in the Episcopal Church and serves a parish in his native Arkansas. is the author of 'This is My Body: From Obesity to Ironman, My Journey into the True Meaning of Flesh, Spirit and Deeper Faith', 'Cultivating Reality: How the Soil Might Save Us',and the small collection of essays 'Farming as a Spiritual Discipline'. Ragan works to live the good life in partnership with his wife Emily and daughters Lillian and Lucia.

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