Kitchen Garden

Eggs and Indigent Living

Three Chickens
Three Chickens

LAKE MACBRIDE— Eggs play a role in a local food system, however, it is difficult to say anything new because the topic has been well covered. In 2012, Iowa led the country in number of eggs produced, with 14.5 billion, or 16 percent of the total U.S. egg production. The vast majority of these eggs were grown in mechanized, highly efficient, large scale poultry operations. Americans generally purchase eggs, along with most of their food, at a grocery store. It is hard to tell where an egg was produced from looking at it, but odds are that in Iowa it did not travel far from producer to consumer.

I picked three stories from personal experience to highlight my views about the relationship between eggs and sustainability, one each from rural Appalachia, Des Moines, and rural Cedar County, Iowa. I will present each story in a separate post.

In 1983, while visiting my father’s home place in rural Appalachia, my great aunt and uncle, my father’s brother, and my wife and I, decided to make a trip to my uncle’s four acres near Jefferson, North Carolina. Aunt Ruby loaded a basket of sandwiches and a cooler full of drinks, we piled into a car, and headed south on what seemed like a moment’s notice to see the property.

Situated above the New River, geologically one of the oldest rivers in the world, my uncle grew an acre of tobacco, and kept four cows. He had established a temporary residence by moving a mobile home to the summit of the property. He planned to build a permanent structure that could draw down into the earth via a system of hydraulic lifts so he could survive a nuclear holocaust, should that be necessary. He lived in Florida and had a local farmer tend his property most of the year. We paid a visit to the caretaker while we were there.

The caretaker was indigent, and by that I mean native to the area and living on a subsistence basis at the lowest end of any economic measurement. He invited us for a chicken dinner, and we could see the subjects of the proposed meal walking around his property. The offer of dinner was generous by any standard, but we declined. My uncle said it would have been a hardship for him to share some of his family’s chickens with us.

When people talk about indigents, the tone is often pejorative, meaning needy, or lacking some necessity. The indigent caretaker appeared to have most of what he needed to make a life.

His property was in a hollow with a spring at the top. The spring water provided much of what was needed to grow food and live a life. There appeared to be plenty to eat, including eggs and the aforementioned chickens, milk from my uncle’s cows and food from a garden. He had a government draw of less than $50 per month, which was apparently the only source of regular income. He was saving the money to buy a tractor, indicating government money can be used by indigents for capital expenses when their labor was providing everything else a family needed for basic living.

Reflecting on this thirty year old experience, all the talk about urban chickens, concentrated animal feeding operations and the impact of types of feed on egg quality seems a bourgeois concern. When people live at the edge of subsistence, and an extra person or two at dinner makes a real difference in how much food a family has to eat, an egg is an egg. The fortunate ones, like my uncle’s caretaker, have space to produce their own.

The bourgeoisification of egg production in contemporary urban society seems trivial by comparison to indigent living. If a person is hungry, an egg is an egg, and those who live close to the means of production have no choice but to produce their own.