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The Chicken Story
A CENTURY AGO you’d eat steak and lobster when you couldn’t afford chicken. Today it can cost less than the potatoes you serve with. What happened in the years between was an extraordinary marriage of technology and the market.
September 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 5
Farmers began selectively breeding chickens as well, and breeds with wonderful names, like Plymouth Rock, Wyandotte, and Orpington (along with the Australian version, the Australorp). But because there were no fixed standards, the genetic chaos ruled. Each farmer had, in effect, his own breed of chicken. So in 1873 the American Poultry Association was formed to set standards and help develop chickens that could be relied upon to breed true. The purpose of this at the time was no more than to bring order and predictability to a popular hobby, but the result was the development of genetically reliable stock that would be used in the next century to utterly transform the chicken.
There are numerous stages between the apparently permanent gleam in a rooster’s eye and dinner. These are breeding, incubating, hatching, raising, slaughtering, dressing, transporting, selling, cooking, and eating. Of these ten steps, only the last is still handled the way it was at the turn of the century, and even that, at least in terms of where Americans eat chicken, has changed significantly.
The first change in traditional poultry husbandry was the introduction of commercial chicks. Before, people wanting to start a flock would either buy fertilized eggs from a local farmer and incubate them themselves (often in a warm spot on or near the kitchen stove) or buy a “trio,” two hens and a cock. After the first chicks hatched, nature was allowed to take its course.
In 1873 a man named Jacob Graves patented an incubator and offered chicks two to four weeks old for sale. But it was Joseph P. Wilson of Stockton, New Jersey, who turned the raising of baby chicks into a business. In 1887, using hot water as a heat source, he built his own incubator, which could handle up to four hundred eggs at a time. By 1892 he had begun taking advantage of the fact that newborn chicks, because they absorb the remnants of the yolk just before hatching, can go without food or water for up to thirty-six hours. Wilson started shipping day-old chicks as far as Chicago by railway express.
The advantages of using artificial hatcheries were soon apparent. For one thing, this new technique allowed the supply of chickens to be smoothed out over the year to more nearly match demand. This, of course, dampened price swings. By 1918 there were two hundred fifty hatcheries in operation in this country. Only nine years later there were more than ten thousand, and more than half the baby chicks produced in the country were artificially incubated. As their numbers grew (there would be a great shakeout in the early 1930s, however), these new hatcheries competed fiercely by offering not only lower prices but also superior chickens bred to reach selling weight sooner in life, thus requiring less feed and yielding a greater profit.
This drive for the ever-quicker-growing chicken has been instrumental in turning chicken from a luxury food into an everyday affair. In 1900 a newly hatched chick required sixteen weeks to reach two pounds, large enough for frying. Southern farmers prided themselves on having frying chickens ready for the Fourth of July. Today, chicks reach four pounds, big enough for roasting, in just seven weeks.
But until the mid-1920s the raising of chickens remained a sideline operation, run by farmers’ wives. Agricultural experts in the early years of the century thought the situation would never change, because it would not be possible to compete with a system that, in effect, utilized both free labor and free food and provided millions of farmwomen with a source of independent income they would be loath to part with.
The experts, however, were looking mostly at the Midwest, the leading area of the country for egg production at that time, where the farms were large and prosperous, thanks to the area’s incomparably good soil and usually benevolent weather. These farms tended to specialize in basic foodstuffs like wheat, corn, cattle, and hogs. The raising of chickens as a major crop would have been a misallocation of resources.
Other areas of the country, however, had very different economic needs. The Delmarva Peninsula, east of Chesapeake Bay, for instance, had rich, sandy, well-drained soil and a flat landscape. But its proximity to Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York had made it a natural area for truck farming. And truck farming is a feast-or-famine business, peculiarly sensitive not only to the vagaries of the marketplace but to the weather as well. A steadier source of income was most welcome on the Delmarva, and it was there that the chicken business really became a business.