January 26, 2010

Exhibit Examines Poultry’s Impact on Agriculture

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The current lobby exhibit in Mann Library, entitled “Backyard Revival: American Heritage Poultry,” follows the transformation of American poultry production from early family operations into modern industrial giants.

Less than 100 years ago, Americans produced the vast majority of their poultry in small-scale businesses. Family-owned operations on rural farms and in local town communities bred small flocks of hens.

The exhibit presents the tools of early American poultry husbandry: homemade advertisements, scales that measure individuals eggs, how-to manuals for novice poultry farmers.

Many how-to manuals supplied women with the techniques to care for hens, breed poultry, and convert home-grown products into profit. The daily exercises of poultry husbandry frequently supplied women with separate, personal incomes.

According to the exhibit, women transformed their incomes into profitable enterprises.

However, the development of new agricultural practices during the twentieth century eliminated small-scale farming operations.

By mating different varieties of poultry, farmers created new types of chickens and hens with distinctive, advantageous traits. Farmers produced highly productive chickens, like the Buckeye chicken, the Rhode Island Red chicken, and the Jersey Giant.

Although highly productive, some hybrid varieties require extra maintenance. For instance, according to the exhibit, the Corrish-Rock Hybrid Broiler grows to market size in only six weeks. However, the high growth rate of the Broiler creates extensive strain on skeletal, muscular, and cardiac systems.

Highly organized, well-equipped industries could care for these hybrid poultry; small-scale operations could not compete.

Industrial poultry production began 4,000 years ago in Egypt and China, where incubation houses stored eggs. Eggs drew heat from central fire chambers while attendants turned eggs. By the late twentieth century, modifications to this ancient practice generated large American egg producers.

Currently, according to United Egg Producers, 205 companies possess flocks with 75,000 hens or more; according to the exhibit, this accounts for 95 percent of all poultry in the U.S.

Moreover, the U.S. currently contains 62 companies with flocks containing more than one million egg-layers and 12 companies with flocks containing more than five million egg layers.

Diminishing returns in food production caused by population growth and claims of animal cruelty has generated a resurgence in poultry husbandry. Revivalists believe that small-scale, home operations can sustain individual households and the American public. In addition, a resurgence of small-scale poultry-keeping may improve living conditions for poultry and recycle agricultural land for other purposes.

Original Author: A. Drew Muscente