The Chicken Story


In this wholly artificial—some would say cruel—environment, even the genes that the birds inherit have been determined by the process of artificial evolution called selective breeding. This process has been the biggest single factor in increasing egg production per bird and per pound of feed so dramatically. But the genes themselves remain unaltered for now (the new technology of genetic engineering will, without doubt, soon change that). And, unfortunately for the farmer, high egg laying and aggression are genetically linked. If you want the one, you have to take the other as well.

Aggression among the closely confined birds on a modern egg farm has been a major problem, as the birds sort out their social standings with their beaks. Other technologies have come to the rescue, however. Hatcheries now routinely remove a portion of the upper bill; this decreases the mayhem the birds can cause without reducing efficiency in feeding. In the 1950s it was discovered that red light suppressed the tendency to peck. But conditions with red light turned out to be too dark for human beings to work in. Tiny red spectacles for the chickens were tried, but although these produced amusing pictures for Life magazine, they proved hopelessly impractical. Recently, however, red contact lenses have been found effective.

They not only prevent pecking battles; they obviate the need for debeaking. As an unexpected bonus, red contact lenses also reduce feed consumption by 6 percent, thanks to reduced anxiety (nervous noshing, apparently, is not confined to humans) and slightly increased egg production. Altogether, red contact lenses for chickens have lowered production costs by a whopping third of a cent per egg in the flocks where they have been tested. In the highly competitive egg business, that is a veritable gusher of found money—not that competition will allow egg producers to keep much of it.

Today, we eat more chicken than beef. Capitalism’s invisible hand has turned a luxury into a commonplace.

WHEN THE UNITED STATES ENTERED World War II, the Delmarva Peninsula was overwhelmingly dominant in the breeding of chickens for their meat, producing about ninety million a year, up from seven million only eight years earlier. Its nearest competitor, the state of Arkansas, produced only about eleven million. With the coming of total war, though, the peninsula’s dominance of the chicken market turned out to be a liability, for the War Food Administration commandeered the entire production of the Delmarva for the use of the armed forces for the duration. As a result, the evolutionary center of the poultry industry moved south as the northeastern markets that the peninsula farmers had been serving looked elsewhere for chickens, which were never rationed formally but could be hard to find in the grocery store.

Delmarva is rich agricultural land, but the new areas for chicken production that burgeoned after the country entered World War II were marginal at best, and poultry production came as a godsend to the hard-pressed farmers. No small factor in the success of the new areas, however, was the energy and perseverance of the most important figure in the creation of the modern poultry industry, Jesse Dixon Jewell.

He was born in Gainesville, Georgia, in 1902. Gainesville is located in the northern part of the state, in the hardscrabble tag end of the Appalachian Mountains. The local farmers tried to make a living raising cotton, but with their small holdings, hilly terrain, and poor, red clay soil, they could not compete successfully with the rich cotton lands to the south and west.

Jewell’s father died when he was seven, and his mother tried to make a living running a small feed store, a business Jewell took over when he reached adulthood. In the mid-thirties, as depression devastated the American economy and a tornado nearly destroyed Gainesville, Jewell supplemented his income by going around to the local farms, buying chickens and eggs and taking them to Atlanta and other urban markets. It was a hand-to-mouth operation at first. Often he had to sell quickly what he had bought from the farmers in order to have the money in the bank to cover the checks he had written to buy them. But demand for both eggs and chickens was strong, and Jewell saw opportunity in expanding the raising of chickens in the area.

He recognized that these farmers needed nothing so much as a steady cash crop, but they lacked even the small capital required to raise chickens the modern way. When he tried to sell chicken feed to the farmers, few could afford it. So Jewell went to a feed company and made a deal to get feed on consignment. Then he went to the local bank and got a loan to buy day-old chicks.

He placed these chicks with the farmers, taking back a note secured by the chickens, and supplied the feed needed to raise them to market weight. When the chickens were ready for sale, Jewell would buy them, and he and the farmers would settle accounts.