It was after World War II in the U.S. that my cousins became science experiments. There was a contest in nearly all the states, called Chicken of Tomorrow, which evolved into a national competition to create the plumpest chicken, sponsored by a supermarket chain.
Although women and people of color had been tending to chicken flocks for hundreds of years, this Chicken of Tomorrow team consisted of white men who wanted to capitalize on creating bulky chickens as fast as possible. In 1951, the vice president of the U.S. gave the winner a $5,000 check in front of thousands at an arena in Arkansas.
The winning breed was twice the size of the typical chicken — fattened in a small cage, and bred with a genetic mutation that affected its metabolism. This mutation was later used to breed generations of my cousins who lived indoors. Hatcheries, slaughterhouses, chickens, feed, and antibiotics became large industries, with owners named Tyson and Perdue. Frank Perdue once said, “It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken.” In fact, according to 2014 data, half of the country’s 250,000 poultry plant workers are women and half are Latinx.
In many places today, tens of thousands of us chickens are packed together without access to light, air, or even movement. Yet, like most animals, we need sunlight to process vitamin D, which happens when we wander around outside seeking our own food. It is no wonder there are so many illnesses we succumb to such as ascites, which is thought to be caused by the inability of our hearts and lungs to keep up with our rapid and unnatural skeletal growth.
I am one of the lucky ones. I am a Heritage Chicken who grew up on a 100-acre farm in Northfield, at the Main Street Project. My human friend Rocky, along with farmers Antonia and Maria, are among those working together to create sustainable futures for rural immigrant farmers across the Midwest. They are developing a profitable market for chicken meat. Crops like hazelnuts and elderberries are transforming what was once degraded soil. Wetlands helped my land go from barren to lush in ten years. At this farm, “free range” actually means we are able to wander for 15 hours a day. In other places it might only mean chickens have access to the outside for a few minutes.
These humans are building an ecological, economical, and socially viable farm based on indigenous practices. They provide solar heating, nutritious grains, and classical music to calm us. My kin eat the weeds and bugs, so we do not need pesticides and fertilizers. The soil absorbs carbon, which reduces our greenhouse gas emissions. Our manure fertilizes perennial crops. When the time is right, our meat is offered in a community- supported agriculture (CSA) network.
Life was not perfect. Chickens are mean to smaller, weaker, sicker kin, and I was pecked on in our flock of 300. But I bonded with one of the humans, and sat on Rocky’s shoulder or head during chores. I rode to nearby parks and schools — I liked sitting in the passenger seat — and was part of conversations with kids about the harmful effects of bullying.
For me, life is about reminding humans that the most resilient and healthy ecosystems include humans, animals, plants, and soil.
Hen Solo was an egg-laying chicken at the Main Street Project in Northfield until 2018, when she was adopted by someone in the community. She outlived all the hens who pecked on her.
Do not be lured by the words “free-range” and “cage-free.” Research the company to see how those words are put into practice.
Purchase eggs produced locally because you are more likely to understand the product, the farm conditions, and the producer.