Coop to Table

With backyard gardens and clucking hens, the urban farmer’s homegrown dining lifestyle is less about plate presentation than it is about rich flavors, simplicity, and the satisfaction of a bright orange egg yolk on a Saturday morning. It’s the rebellious among us who demand integrity in our food. Achieving it is to raise our own livestock and gardens, and to buy sustainably grown products our farmers sell at market.

Growing rogue in Louisville means finding different ways to support our local economy, and ourselves. In the face of fast-food conglomerate Yum! Brands and Kentucky’s intriguing loyalty to Col. Sanders, the chicken coop is a political stomping ground for the progressive peeps who care about the welfare of the animals that grace our dinner plates.

Commercial food suppliers have tried to convince us that the origins of mass-produced food don’t matter, and that our time is too valuable to do something so antiquated as slaving over the stove. Eating as locally as from one’s own backyard is the ultimate protest against our homogenized food system, where bland flavors, food products and subsequent ill health reign.

Advocating for sustainably grown foods is a response to the lack of choice we feel when facing industrial food producers. Seeking richer flavors, we not only look to the restaurants cooking with regionally grown livestock, produce and traditions, but we take it further by eating from our own backyards. Urban farmers are the novice chefs creating simple, whole-food meals in our kitchens. We’re serving some of the finest meals in town.

Backyard farming was once a necessity, and the federal government marketed the work to the public as a patriotic duty. It was meant to relieve demand on the once-fledgling system that now relies on us to consume as much as possible. Today it’s hip to have a passion for the origins of our food, and our coops full of chickens are symbols of our investments in nutrition and sustainability.

For those of us growing food, raising livestock and supporting small farms, we demand intrinsic value in our food — we expect the patience and energy required to produce it to be meaningful, at least some of the time. Omnivores often make choices about animal products on principle, but perhaps only when we can afford to. Sometimes, we pay a premium for a smaller heritage-breed chicken slaughtered at 18 weeks over a factory chicken grown twice the size and slaughtered at just 6 weeks of age. Broilers grown to maximum weight in such a short time will live miserable lives if they’re not killed for the dinner table, most notably suffering heart attacks, breathing difficulties and broken legs. Quality of life and integrity in farming beg a steeper price.

Aside from the integrity absent in factory farming of animal products, uniform industrial flavors don’t challenge how we experience food in the way local food can. Our grocery stores offer consistent abundance, but without connection to the food or its growers, eaters tend to overeat in search of satisfaction, and we’re careless with our food waste.

With the majority of us overfed, we have enough food to throw away, and more waste for us to consume. Americans, on the whole, throw away 30 to 40 percent of the food supply into landfills every year. In 2010, that accounted for 133 billion pounds, according to the USDA. In 2008, we wasted $380 per consumer for that year, just from food we threw out at home; that figure doesn’t account for restaurant, grocery or school food waste. Our chickens devour edible food waste and churn our compost into the humus that feeds our gardens. Backyard farming is an environmentally proactive solution to divert our personal food waste from landfills.

While flavorless industrial foods feel disposable — and make up a significant amount of our personal trash — the nourishing value of fresh, whole foods tends to pack an emotional punch. Flavorful, fresh foods grown with care are almost never wasted.

Those who shop farmers markets in Louisville and reach out to acquaint themselves with the farmers who produce their food can’t deny that our growers are an essential part of the small-town atmosphere throughout our city. Farmers markets are where political ideals between urban and rural locavores might collide — but despite our differences, we rely on each other. 

At the market, I’ve watched my kids dressed in jeans play with rural kids in Amish dress, as if not one suburb separated them. A chicken that clucked on a farm last week roasts in my oven this week, and it managed to bring those kids together to play. That’s community, and that’s the power of local food.

The urban chicken farmer makes his or her way to the market a little less often, with the bottomless nest box of eggs in the backyard coop. With exclusive access to one of the most wholesome protein sources possible, our kitchens are rich in flavor and nutrition. So, we labor to construct coops with reclaimed materials and collect heritage chicken breeds like growlers of our favorite craft beers, cultivating biodiversity in a homegrown food system. 

The chicken egg, gathered from under the warm body of a broody hen, finds its way from the coop to the table in a social protest of factory food. With every recipe, from scrambled eggs to birthday cake, urban farmers actively protest the food system that sees us only as blind consumers, not the engaged and growing group of activists we are.  

My own flock of urban chickens lives peacefully in my small yard, unaware of its noble status in the realm of food politics. s


Rachel Hurd Anger is a Louisville writer and regular contributor to Urban Farm and Chickens magazines.