Are you bedeviled over the egg shortage that has cast a shadow over Israel like the plague of darkness, forced to scramble from market to market in the hopes of finding a golden dozen? Ready to tear your mask off in anger at yet another empty grocery shelf?
There’s a simple way to (almost) never be without that yolky goodness: raise your own chickens.
As Israel headed into the egg-heavy season of Passover, the country was facing a shortage of some 30 million eggs. Government officials contend this was prompted by panic buying and hoarding as the country shuts down for the coronavirus, rather than an actual shortage in eggs, but nonetheless: the holiday is nigh and the eggs are scarce.
In recent days, the Agriculture Ministry has scrambled to airlift eggs from Europe and send cargo ships laden with eggs steaming toward the coast, but it still may not be enough. In Rishon Lezion this week, police were called in to deal with an egg-induced riot.
It’s no secret that in times of crisis, people often turn to gardening or other ways of being self-sufficient. Pamphlets during World War I and World War II urged young American women (the men were otherwise engaged) to stick a spade in the ground for patriotism.
Victory gardens ended up providing almost 40% of the nation’s food supply during the war years.
Too chicken to raise your own? Think it ova. It’s a lot easier than it seems.
Though your ladies probably won’t be laying in time for this Seder, here are a few tips to get you thinking about whether or not backyard chicken farming is right for you, even if space is tight.
Why did the chicken cross the road? She didn’t – she stayed in your yard because she needs less room than you think
On average, you need about 0.2 to 0.3 square meters (2 to 3 square feet) per chicken. That means you can have up to five chickens – a good amount for a 4-person household – if you build a 1 square meter (11 square feet) coop. Obviously, the more room you give them, the happier the chicks will be. But like Netflix to those in quarantine, some things keep even small coops copacetic — such as yogurt. Or kitchen scraps. Or love and affection. It’s possible to have a very content flock on minimal land, so don’t let a small courtyard get you down.
Some people keep chickens on rooftops, but it’s important to make sure the ladies aren’t getting too hot up there. Shade is essential. Even if you are a city dweller and don’t have your own yard, consider getting together with some neighbors in your building to see if there’s interest in a shared coop. Even the smallest of areas under apartment buildings can be a good chicken home with the right alterations.
Each chicken lays about five eggs per week, less in the winter when it’s cold. Depending on your egg consumption, a small flock of two could be sufficient for your egg needs if you live alone. But chickens are social animals, so never keep a lady lonely.
The grass is greener on this side of the fence
Have a paved over or tiled courtyard? Not a problem. In your coop, you can use sawdust (free from your local carpenter) to provide a soft floor that keeps odors down and minimizes flies. If your coop is built over tiles, rather than dirt, it will require more frequent maintenance. This means taking out all the old sawdust and putting in new sawdust about once a month. Bonus: sawdust with chicken manure is pretty much pure gold for gardeners.
It’s important that your chickens have somewhere to give themselves a dust bath, which is a natural grooming technique that helps chickens stay clean. But even if you don’t have an area in your chicken run with a dirt floor, this can be as simple as a big laundry bucket with dirt in it.
Pipe down out there, I’m trying to sleep!
Contrary to popular belief, most chickens are usually not noisy. The party animals that stay up all night (and consequently make you stay up all night) are the roosters. While it’s technically legal to keep roosters in many Israeli cities, it’s not a very neighborly thing to do. The vast majority of backyard flocks are made up of ladies only (that’s why it’s called a hen party!).
And before you ask, no, a hen does not need a rooster in order to lay eggs. She’ll be fine with just the ladies. It is good to check in with your neighbors before bringing the ladies home, but usually it takes just a few dozen free eggs to quiet even the most crotchety of neighbors.
Raising chickens also requires very minimal time commitment. Once the coop is built, it’s just a matter of tossing them some food every morning, making sure their water is filled, collecting your egg bounty, and cleaning out the coop once a month. No walks to the park every day and no house training needed. Some people have invested hours teaching their chickens to do tricks, but that’s a personal call.
It’s not cheap, but it’s not eggspensive
I kept chickens for five years in Tel Aviv, and found that my financial outlay for raising chickens was almost exactly what I would have been paying for organic, free-range eggs. If you’re only concerned about cost, it will be much cheaper to buy regular eggs as the supermarket (once they’re available, of course). But if you’re already paying extra for organic eggs, raising your own chickens is financially comparable.
You can buy a laying hen – a mature, female chicken that is already laying eggs – for about NIS 50 ($14), which isn’t actually that much more expensive per pound than a dead and cleaned chicken. It’s cheaper to buy young chicks, but chickens start laying at about nine months, and I never had that type of patience.
A big, 50-liter bag of enriched chicken food with all the vitamins needed is good for 5-7 chickens for about a month. That costs between NIS 50 and 100, depending on where you get it, and is cheaper outside the cities.
There are plenty of places you can buy coops in Israel, with fancy coops nicer than some apartments I’ve lived in, that cost upwards of NIS 1,600 ($450). But the best way is to build your own coop from wood scraps (free) and a roll of chicken wire, which costs about NIS 12 per meter ($1 per foot). Sawdust can be obtained for free from local carpenters, especially if you bring them half a dozen eggs every once in a while. And your chickens will eat all of your kitchen scraps and then some, creating an even more efficient composting system. Just don’t feed them onions or avocados, a lesson I learned the hard way. RIP, Marsala.
Gimme some of that co-eggsistance
One unexpected aspect of raising chickens that I hadn’t considered before I dove into this beak first: it’s one of the few places that I’ve found true examples of coexistence between Jews and Arabs, with a free flow of information, goods, assistance, and tips. The Facebook groups are full of wonderfully knowledgeable people across the country who have years of experience and can diagnose problems, often with a single photo.
The Kfar Qasem bird market on Saturdays is by far at the top of the pecking order when it comes to where to buy hens, and is frequented by an equal number of Jews and Arabs, some of whom have struck up decades-long friendships around raising birds. Some people would ask me, isn’t it dangerous going to Kfar Qasem? To which I would reply, “You have no idea. One time, I went to buy chickens, but the baby ducks were so cute and so cheap I ended up buying two. Cheese and Quakers. That place is incredibly dangerous!”
Omlettin’ it slide this time…
There’s nothing more satisfying than cracking your own locally grown eggs into the frying pan. Once you hear that first sizzle, you’ll never be able to go back to store bought eggs. Have you seen a fresh egg? The yolk isn’t yellow, it’s bright, traffic cone orange, and it tastes completely different from its pale, depressed, supermarket cousins.
Going away for a few weeks? (Remember when we used to do that?) Neighbors will be beating a path to your door to be the ones to care for your chickens and take the bounty home.
With a small garden, it’s possible to regularly make full meals that come from a three-meter radius of your kitchen, something that’s increasingly attractive the longer this pandemic goes on.
I came into chicken raising by accident, when a house I moved into in Tel Aviv came with two resident chickens. But before long, I had scaled up to six chickens and a brief duck residency (my landlord put his food down at Cheese and Quackers).
Throughout my time as a chicken mama, one of my favorite moments of my day was coming home and letting the chickens out to forage in the yard while I made a cup of tea, watching them munch away at the winter weeds, scratching away and making adorable clucks when I emptied the scrap bin in their coop.
Like plunging your hands into soil and watching vegetables grow each day, there is something grounding and humbling about raising your own food. In questionable times, when everything seems up in the air, there is a quiet stability in knowing that you can simply walk outside and collect your breakfast. After all, the chickens don’t know there’s a pandemic going on. I mean, who ever heard of an avian flu?