The chickens are out of feed. Before they can make a dash through the coop's open door, I hoist the round metal feeder from its hook and squat-walk backward until I can stand straight again. I turn my back on the flock, fill the feeder and crouch back into the coop.
I am one-twelfth of the Chicken Tenders, a Tucson chicken-tending attempt at collective urban homesteading. Months before, we'd each contributed $90 to cover the costs of building three backyard coops at three host homes, bought chicks from a local farmer, weeded out the males as their maleness became apparent and set a rotating tending schedule: Once a week, each of us would visit one of the houses, refill feed and water, tidy the coop and go home with a carton of fresh eggs.
I joined the Chicken Tenders because I like eggs and knowing where they come from. I'd failed to consider the possibility that I might not like chickens. That, in fact, chickens kind of freak me out, with their feathers fluffing and souls a-strut. When I reveal this to my sister, she asks, "Then why did you join a chicken cooperative?"
I work as the managing editor of a local food magazine. I'm a longtime member of a community-supported agriculture program. Two years ago, I stopped buying processed food and started doing it myself. Instead of going to the grocery store for bread, I made my own. Instead of buying chocolate, I made it myself. I gardened. So when the invitation arrived, I thought: Yes! I should definitely join a chicken cooperative.
My kind of do-it-yourself food prep has exploded over the last decade. You can take canning classes, attend butchery workshops or blog about how to make salt from the sea. (I have.) The reason is simple: As we divorce ourselves from producing food, we become helpless, dependent, and ignorant about its origins. We subsidize factory farms, waste energy and imbibe chemical additives. So, the logic goes, we should bake bread, make cheese, butcher a pork shoulder. We should raise chickens.
But there is a limit to this way of thinking. My do-it-yourself devotion taught me this: We cannot play a role in determining where all of our food comes from, not if we want to edit magazines, order tacos from carts or travel to Mexico.
I was mostly a vegetarian until, paradoxically, I spent two harrowing days helping to butcher a sheep. Instead of turning me off meat completely, the experience elicited a surge of respect and gratitude for the ranchers at the farmers market who, week after week, muster the necessary reverence to deliver the animals they so carefully raise to local slaughterhouses and follow them through the butchering process. I didn't want to process a sheep again, but I decided I could eat meat, as I realized, viscerally, one reason we humans clustered into communities was to specialize, to choose different paths and perfect our endeavors.
There is, in short, a legitimate space between DIY and outsourced food production. Money spent on sustainably, mindfully produced local goods has a power that multiples and ripples through communities. According to a study by Local First Arizona, if a community the size of Tucson shifted 10% of its spending to local businesses — a 10% shift, not an increase — within one year, it would create nearly $140 million in new revenue for the city. Spend $100 at a local business and $73 of it will stay in your community, meeting payrolls, covering rent, creating accountability; spend that same money at a national corporation and only $43 sticks around.
At the Tucson Food Conspiracy Co-op, $5 buys me a dozen eggs produced at ReZoNation Farm, where Jaime DeZubeldia and his wife, Kara, struggle to turn a profit on their 300 foraging heritage chickens and 100 beehives. My $5, week after week — along with other people's $5 — helps to keep these small farmers in business and ensures that their land, about 25 miles from Tucson, will remain farmland.
Back at the Chicken Tenders coops, I struggle to endear myself to the chickens but finally give into my suspicion that my time is better spent elsewhere. At the very least, it is more enjoyably spent earning egg money at the job I am so lucky to like. I write a long, pained email to the group, expecting to be lambasted for my lack of commitment. Unruffled, they simply adjust the schedule.
There are many examples of successful chicken cooperative programs across the country. It is not a bad idea. We should all join more cooperatives, should all be linked to one another in more enduring and accountable ways, and connected to our food. (Allie, another Tender, beams when she recounts how one of the chickens laid an egg into her outstretched palm.)
That said, investing in small-scale professional producers through the everyday dollars we spend is as important a step to building strong local food systems as is producing food ourselves. Money spent on eggs, vegetables, meat and cheese made well and made in our communities will support and empower the farms and businesses that are integral to building sustainable, secure local food economies.
After all, we don't all have to like chickens.