Something to Crow About

CeCe and I are rapidly wrapping up grad school.  Click here to learn what we intend to do next.

In the meantime I wanted to post a few longer form essays I wrote for Bill Cronon’s environmental history class last fall.  (You’ll know Bill from his recent and much-admired NYT op-ed on our political turmoil here in Wisconsin, if not for his award-winning books.)  Lately, Bill’s been busy swatting away overzealous Republican operatives.  Otherwise he would have already posted these essays, and those written by my classmates, including CeCe, on his website.

When that happens, I’ll let you know.  In the meantime, please excuse these lengthy digressions from the harrowing tales of modern travel that you’ve come to expect from Letters to Milo.

(Bonus points to savvy readers who catch the brief reference to CeCe’s grandfather’s research in the essay below.)

Something to Crow About:

Understanding American Agricultural History through the Chicken

“Next to the Dog, the Fowl has been the most constant attendant upon Man‚ in his migrations and his occupation of strange lands.” [1]


So wrote Rev. Edmund Saul Dixon in his 1849 Treatise on the History and Management of Ornamental and Domestic Poultry. In other words, chickens have long been our second best friend: a friend that we eat.

A leghorn chicken. Source: Detail from the cover of The Leghorns, Reliable Poultry Journal, 1904.

Chickens were perhaps the first truly global livestock. Some geographers argue that the chicken, an Asian native, somehow reached South America long before Columbus.[2] Today, chickens are everywhere.

But for much of its domesticated history, the chicken persevered in “happy anonymity”, in the words of chicken historians Page Smith and Charles Daniel, coevolving with humans to the mutual benefit of both.[3] It is perhaps because of this long, strangely comfortable history of domestication and consumption that chickens make an ideal animal subject with which to contemplate the history of American agriculture.

Perhaps more than any other animal, the chicken has been our more-or-less constant companion on dinner plates and menus nationwide.   Chickens have featured prominently on the tables of rich landowners, share croppers, new immigrants, urbanites, and, of course, fast food consumers. As the Oxford Companion to Food notes, there are few taboos or stigmas related to raising or eating chicken, relative to other key livestock species like cows and pigs.[4] (One important exception to this is the denigration of African-Americans as “chicken-lovers” and the association of chicken consumption and black poverty, as noted by historian Psyche Williams-Forson.)[5]

Black Minorcas, a example of one of the many chicken breeds common on American farms at the turn of the twentieth century. Source: National Geographic, April 1927.

Yet since colonial period, the methods of raising, processing and consuming chickens have undergone changes that have been nothing short of revolutionary. In many ways the changing status of the humble chicken mirrors many critical developments in the American food landscape over the past 250 years and provides a good lens with which to begin to understand those changes.

Industrialization and Boom and Bust–The Million Bird Farm

A striking example of the diversity of chicken breeds available to farmers in the early 1900s. Source: USDA, National Geographic, April, 1927

As recently as the early 1900s, chickens were just one part of a typical, diverse American farm that produced as many as a dozen crops and several livestock species. Chickens were much as they had been since colonial times. A 1910 farm census tabulated 280 million chickens, three chickens for every resident. These birds resided on nearly 90% of all American farms. And most of those chickens led lives similar to those of their colonial ancestors: free to roam the farmyard, they pecked and scratched for seeds and insects, their diet supplemented by the occasional scattering of grain dispersed from the farmer’s hands. Egg collection was typically the job of children. Breeding, although increasingly regimented, was a haphazard affair, it being difficult to identify the parentage of an egg found beneath the stoop or in a corner of the barn.[6]

Yet, change was at hand. As urbanization accelerated, cities’ demand for chicken eggs encouraged the intensification of production in order to minimize transportation distances. (Admittedly, urbanites had chickens of their own: one chicken per two city dwellers according to a 1906 estimate.)[7] But, as industrialization progressed, chicken farmers ramped up production in order to capitalize on economies of scale.

An early industrial incubator. Advances like this one made the million egg farm a reality by the early 1910s. Source: Joel M. Foster, Million egg farm: Rancocas Poultry Farm, 1910.

Early twentieth century developments in transportation and refrigeration infrastructure were critical to this process. At the same time, improvements in the incubation of eggs and in the care of maintenance of birds allowed farmers to specialize solely in producing chickens. The discovery, in the 1930’s, that laying hens respond positively to increased daylight ultimately lead to barns stocked with battery cages full of chickens laying eggs under lamps well past bedtime.

Farmers across the country began to transition from small scale farmyard poultry to larger operations using industrial machinery. Source: Homer Wesley Jackson, Artificial Incubating and Brooding, 1919.

Following World War II, antibiotics played an increasing role, as ever more chicks were crammed together in close confinement and were thus susceptible to parasites.  To keep up with these developments and countless others, chicken farmers had to “get big, or get out.”  Once on what rural sociologists term the “treadmill of production,” it was full steam ahead to fully mechanized and sterilized chicken factories with tens of thousands chickens per shed.[8]

This process continues to this day. The 2007 agricultural census reveals a snapshot of 2 billion layers and broilers (chickens raised for meat) at any one time on fewer than 180,000 farms. That’s 11,000 chickens per farm. The largest 6,500 farms each sent an average of 1 million chickens to slaughter that year.[9]

What became of all of the millions of farms that had chickens in 1910?  Many of them surely specialized in something other than chickens. But many left the business altogether as a diversified farming income was largely no longer possible. The cycles of boom and bust and farm foreclosures that epitomized twentieth-century American agriculture did not spare the poultry sector.

An American girl with her chicken, 1941-1942. Source: Library of Congress, Farm Service Administration, fsac 1a34430.

Breeding: Turkey McNuggets?

This is not your grandfather’s chicken. Assuming you’re eating a supermarket bird, chances are your chicken is some variant of a Cornish Rock. Eggs for breakfast mostly come from Leghorns.   Many of the traditional breeds–the Wyandotte, the Rhode Island Red, the Barred Rock, the Cubalaya–have disappeared from farmyards by and large, and are maintained today only by niche breeders.[10]

Of course it wasn’t always this simple. Today’s chickens are a testimony to the remarkable skills of breeders to isolate the most commercially important traits at the expense of broad genetic diversity. The chickens play an important role too. As Smith and Daniel note, “There are few living creatures that offer the same astonishing combination of genetic stability and variability.”  In other words, chickens boast an impressive breadth of traits that have allowed the species to survive alongside humans in many different types of habitats worldwide. At the same time, chickens “breed true,” meaning that when bred with a partner that has the same desirable trait, that trait is passed on to all offspring.[11]  This, probably more than any other factor, is why McDonald’s menu reads as it does, instead of offering turkey or pigeon McNuggets.

Chicken and egg production was traditionally the job of children on many family farms. Source: National Geographic, April 1927.

In the genes of chickens, industrial breeders found a perfect medium in which to search for and establish traits that allow for the intensive production so critical in today’s highly competitive agricultural marketplace.


What traits do the breeders look for?  It depends on the end product. For eggs, Leghorns, which boast prodigious egg production and economic feeding habits, rule the roost. For meat, the Cornish Rock, known for its fast growth rate and low levels of activity, is top of the pecking order. This has meant the decline of dual-purpose birds, chickens that produced eggs and tasty meat both. Two of the permutations of this development deserve mention.

Farm workers examine their products. Source: Joel M. Foster, Million egg farm: Rancocas Poultry Farm, 1910.

First is the rise in importance of chicken sexers to the poultry industry. Sexers are employees tasked with the thorny yet economically essential task of identifying the sex of a newly hatched chick. It is a complicated, specialized affair that entails squeezing the chicken leading to the extrusion of feces which allows the sexer to examine the bird’s miniscule sexual organs. Professional sexers can process well over a thousand chickens per hour.[12] The same type specialization can be seen throughout the farming industry from the fields to the slaughterhouses.

A step towards mass production. Source: National Geographic, April 1927.

And why is sexing so critical to the industry?  Only female chickens lay eggs of course. As a result, only the females are needed. Historically males would be fattened and slaughtered for human consumption. Today, the egg industry views feeding male chicks as wasteful.[13] What happens to the birds that have the misfortune of being the wrong sex?  It’s best not to ask. But a quick Google search will satisfy the curious.

Broiler chickens on a modern industrial farm. Note the breed uniformity, cramped conditions and mechanized feed dispersal. Source: Wikicommons,

What’s true about the birds is also true for the farmers: specialization is the order of the day.

Protest and Backlash

Up to this point, the evolution of both the chicken, and the poultry industry along with it, seems a one-way street, with everyone marching to the beat of the same industrial drum.   But just as an examination of chickens lends itself to an understanding of industrialization, breeding and specialization, among other topics, one can also use chickens to understand the emergence of a dialogue over the merits of these trends.

Technology in transition. Source: Joel M. Foster, Million egg farm: Rancocas Poultry Farm, 1910.

During a stroll down the aisles of the local grocery store, one would be hard pressed to find many indicators of a product’s origins aside from the occasional idyllic, and probably largely imagined, farm scene on a package of butter. Large food conglomerates seem to do all they can to help you forget that your Doritos, or even your soda, began as corn on a farm somewhere. True, organic labeling is everywhere, but how many shoppers could put into words what exactly organic entails?

The egg cooler is the exception, where high priced “free-range” or “cage-free” eggs beckon with images of happy chickens pecking contentedly in a farm yard somewhere. The egg is perhaps the one product where food marketers hope to transport the consumer to the landscape that produced the food. No matter if free-range isn’t what one would picture. It is here where the urban American eater can first begin to explore the origins of his or her meal.

Joel Salatin's pastured chickens. Source: http://commons. at_Polyface_Farm.jpg

Accordingly, the chicken and the egg have been one of the battlegrounds of those looking to return American food to its agrarian roots. An educated and concerned shopper soon learns about the manure disposal problems, cramped chickens in battery cages, the antibiotics, the disposal of male chicks, and searches for another option.   Farmer and activist Joel Salatin, writing in 1993 to promote his small-scale approach to chicken farming, noted “The poultry industry’s factory farming methodology, its automated processing plants with concomitant Salmonella and sickness outbreaks among consumers have completely adulterated the product…Many consumers want to exit conventional food channels… Pastured poultry offers an alternative to all of these consumers.”[14] Soon these customers are bound to ask: Why not pastured bacon to go with the free-range omelet?

Recognizing the limitations of the industrial food system, many have even taken production into their own hands. Gardening is the logical starting point, but those who want to produce their own animal protein start with chickens. In recent years, many municipalities have enacted legislation to once again permit urban chicken rearing. And the resources for those that choose to raise their own continue to proliferate.[15]

Thousands of chickens, one farmer: A large operation in Texas in the 1950s. Source: http://commons.wikimedia. org/wiki/File:Chicken\_coopbattery_cages_in_the_1950s.jpg

Industrial Agriculture and its Animals

The chicken is perhaps the best exemplar of the rise of the industrial animal, somehow remaining anonymous despite its ubiquity. Yet to greater or lesser degrees, the other animals upon which our society depends can also be used to illustrate the most important trends in the history of American agriculture. Some questions to ask about the meat on your plate include:

  • Has the species in question become more or less common in the factory farming era?
  • How common in the past was today’s most popular breed?  Would you have found that variety on your grandparents’ farm?
  • How have the standard living conditions of an animal changed over the last hundred years? How does the animal’s contemporary diet compare with its traditional diet? What are the implications of those changes on the physiology of the standard animal?
  • What’s the ratio of animals to farmer and how has that ratio changed?  Can the farmer identify each animal by name?  By number?
  • Can you close your eyes and picture where that animal was reared?  How it was transported from birth to slaughter?  How it was killed?
  • How closely does your mental image correspond with reality?
  • How easy is it to find answers to these questions?

Asking why our agricultural system has chosen the animals and the breeds it has helps reveal the traits most valued in modern livestock. These questions and their answers also provide key insights into the strengths and weaknesses of the modern American food system for those beginning the journey of learning where, exactly, their food comes from.

A USDA photo illustrating mail order chickens arriving at the barn in which they will spend the rest of their lives. Source:

For Further Reading

Dixon, Edmund Saul. A Treatise on the History and Management of Ornamental and Domestic Poultry. Philadelphia: E. H. Butler & Co, 1853.

Salatin, Joel. Pastured Poultry Profit$. Swoope, Virginia: Polyface, Inc., 1993.

Smith, Page and Charles Daniel, The Chicken Book. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1975.

Toussaint-Samat, Maguelonne. A History of Food. Wiley-Blackwell, 1994.


1. Edmund Saul Dixon, A Treatise on the History and Management of Ornamental and Domestic Poultry (Philadelphia: E. H. Butler & Co, 1853), 40-41.

2. George F. Carter  “Pre-Columbian chickens in Mexico.” In Man Across the Sea: Problems of Pre- Columbian Contacts , edited by C.L. Riley. (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1971).

3. Smith, Page and Charles Daniel, The Chicken Book. (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1975), 125.

4. Alan Davidson, Tom Jaine, and Jane Davidson. The Oxford Companion to Food. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 167.

5. Psyche A. Williams-Forson, Building Houses out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2006).

6. Smith and Daniel, 233.

7. Smith and Daniel, 233.

8. Smith and Daniel,  ch. 12, 232-249.

9. USDA, 2007 Agriculture Census Report, Ch 1, Table 27, Accessed December 15, 2010.

10. Smith and Daniel, ch. 15, 307-246.

11. Smith and Daniel, 205.

12. J. H. Lunn, “Chick sexing.”  American Scientist, 36 (1948), 280-287.

13. Smith and Daniel, 281.

14. Joel Salatin, Pastured Poultry Profit$. (Swoope, Virginia: Polyface, Inc., 1993), 2-3.

15. See or for examples.


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