Why no one mourns the loss of the family chicken farm

A short history of poultry in the Ninth District

Edward Lotterman | Agricultural Economist

Published April 1, 1998  | April 1998 issue

"I've never heard anyone bemoan the decline of the family chicken farm," observes Earl Fuller, professor of agricultural economics at the University of Minnesota. That comment, while humorous, reveals something about how society views different components of production agriculture. Poultry production is definitely lower on society's pecking order than milking cows or raising hogs. But the reasons may not be immediately clear.

The spread of large capital-intensive hog operations is perhaps the most hotly debated agricultural issue in the Upper Midwest and occupied center stage in the 1998 sessions of the South Dakota and Minnesota legislatures. Those who seek to limit the growth of such operations point to the danger to the environment they may pose, but also to the way in which they are a competitive threat to the smaller traditional family hog farm. Yet all aspects of farm poultry production—broilers, eggs and turkeys—went through an even more pronounced concentration over 20 years ago, with scarcely a nod from society as a whole. Why the difference?

Similarly, the decline of the traditional family dairy farm receives frequent and often impassioned comment in the public square. In Minnesota, the Legislature has repeatedly considered measures to prop up dairy producers' incomes by, in effect, imposing a tax on retail sales of milk, the proceeds of which would be funneled back to farmers. It is difficult to imagine something similar happening with regard to egg or turkey prices.

Again, why the difference? That question reveals much about the evolution of American agriculture and the degree to which the ethos of the farm remains embedded in American culture long after most Americans became city dwellers.

A brief poultry history

As settlement and agriculture spread across Ninth District states in the last half of the 19th century, most farms had domesticated fowls. But few sold poultry products other than on an occasional basis. Chickens and turkeys were subsistence enterprises, produced for home consumption. Before refrigeration and rapid transportation, if a family wanted fresh eggs or chicken, they had to raise them themselves. Poultry were an extension of the family kitchen, not a major business enterprise, for most farmers. Only on the periphery of large cities were there specialized chicken farms that sold most of their output to urban markets.

As the railroad grid filled in and with the advent of refrigerator cars, producing eggs and chickens became more of a cash enterprise on many farms, particularly in eastern areas of the district. In the first half of this century, farmers, especially farm wives, would raise more poultry than was needed for home consumption, taking the surplus to town to sell to local merchants, who often acted as buying agents for larger firms. At times, old hens could also be crated and sold in town to be shipped off for processing somewhere else.

But such activities generally were very secondary to other farm enterprises such as corn, wheat, milk, beef or pork. Poultry operations were a source of "egg money" and a chore for children; chickens were a backup of subsistence even when crops failed, prices fell and off-farm employment was unknown and unavailable, as during the Great Depression.

Farms grew in size and became less diverse in the post-war period. As farmers concentrated on fewer enterprises, chickens were often the first to go. For the first to abandon poultry, less innovative neighbors served as a handy source of fresh eggs and chickens. Eventually, people simply bought these products in town. Smaller families meant fewer children to do chores, and kids moved more rapidly into taking care of cattle or hogs.

But not all farmers stopped raising poultry. Some got bigger instead of getting out. Turkey production went down this road first. By the late 1950s, turkey production was concentrated on only a few farms with relatively large numbers of birds. Many producers entered into informal or formal agreements with processors, who often provided specialized medicines, ration ingredients and advice to their larger producers. While some continued to produce their own eggs for hatching, others specialized into producing chicks or fattening them.

Similar concentration went on in chicken production, where there was also increasing differentiation into egg and broiler production. Traditionally, most chickens that were eaten were old hens: Killing a young chicken tender enough for the frying pan was an uncommon luxury, not a weekly occurrence. But post-war affluence and technologic innovation in production combined to make the broiler, a young chicken bred and raised strictly for meat rather than egg production, a common part of many families' diet.

As producing eggs and broilers became separate specialized enterprises, units grew in size, and the relationships between farmers and processors or providers of inputs became more formal. For example, a feed company might supply chicks and other inputs in addition to feed, or chicken and egg processors might supply farmers with needed inputs and then guarantee to buy the output on some fixed or formula price basis. Soon such aid included financing for new facilities.

These linkages varied from firm to firm and from region to region. Some economists distinguish between "contracting" and "coordination." Others generically refer to all such arrangements as vertical integration. By the 1970s, most birds and eggs were produced under such arrangements, and cash or "spot" markets had ceased to exist in most regions.

These developments were not without controversy. Small producers felt the pinch as their farmgate price shrank due to large-scale competition, and as the assembly costs of traditional egg buyers ballooned with shrinking scale. Some decried the loss of decision-making autonomy that went with agreements that specified virtually all the details of bird and egg production. But in regions with processing plants, some farmers found that processor financing and management advice were a way for young farmers to build up a steady, if not spectacular, income.

As the size and scale of production units grew, their location changed. Southern states, with cheap labor and relatively favorable weather increased their market share. Within any state or region, production tended to cluster around existing or new processing plants, and wither away elsewhere. In states such as North Dakota and Montana, the sector shrank to a very few producers. Where most land grant universities had poultry science professors at midcentury, by the 1990s they were concentrated in a few states.

Some cultural variables

While history explains much about why we view the poultry industry differently than other livestock enterprises, some cultural factors enter also. "Your average chicken just doesn't have a lot of personality," says Marcella Van Dam, a southwest Minnesota farmer who occasionally works for a local hatchery. On family farms, cows were few in number, lived a long time and had physical characteristics that facilitated individualized identification.

Not so with chickens. Even on traditional family farms, there were usually more than a hundred if there were any at all. They lived only a couple of years or less before being sold or canned for soup. And virtually all looked and acted pretty much alike. Some "broody" old hens were conspicuous for their bad tempers, very few indeed were endearing.

In rural culture, there is a hierarchy of public esteem. Being a dairyman or cattleman carried more weight than raising hogs in some areas, and even raising sheep was a rung above chickens.

Some farmers, of course, liked their chickens. They tended to be the ones who got bigger as their neighbors got out. But on most farms, the farm flocks slowly melted away through the 1950s and 1960s. Eggs were just something else to put on the grocery list.

A few farm families still raise broilers for their own consumption. Chicks can be ordered for the spring, put into the old chicken house, and be safely in the freezer before the fall harvest begins. For some, the annual fall chicken slaughter is an exercise in nostalgia, a return to the simpler and more grounded life of their youth. For others, it is just a reminder of why they left the farm in the first place.