Big City Economists Know Nothing


For years, we've had to endure the stupidity of people questioning the economics of the home vegetable garden–spoiled people like memoirist William Alexander of the $64 Tomato, who seem to feel that it's impossible to grow vegetables without first hiring a landscape designer and setting a five-figure budget.

Now, courtesy of William Neuman of The New York Times, we've got the same clueless economics applied to chickens. Yes, the conventional wisdom goes, the eggs and meat are better if you have the birds in the backyard–but anybody who thinks he is saving money in this downturn is fooling himself, because a hobbyist can never compete with a disgusting chicken factory for efficiency.

Nonsense.  Organic eggs are $4.50 a dozen at my supermarket, but my eggs from the backyard cost me almost nothing.  Why?  Because my hens don't seem to really like the organic food I buy and so eat almost none of it.  What they DO like are the kitchen scraps and garden greens I give them, bits of fatty leftover lamb, discarded cabbage leaves, the bread crusts my six-year old refuses to eat, and the dandelions I pull out of my flower bed. I no longer compost much from the kitchen.  I let the hens do the composting for me, and they do a much better job.

As for the initial investment in chicks, one of my hens got broody this summer–in other words, decided to sit on her sterile eggs until they hatched or kingdom come.  My country neighbor has fertilized eggs and would have given me a few to hatch out.  I thought about it, but we're going on vacation and I don't want to be fretting about tiny chicks from afar.

Next year?  I'll recognize the signs of broodiness instantly, and get my next generation of layers for free.

As far as the imputed cost of my labor is concerned, let's put it this way: My chickens are far less trouble than any other member of my household, and that includes husband, children, three cats–and four useless but ornamental backyard goldfish.  And none of the above gives me eggs.


  1. Economists and others tend to go on and on about up-front investments, and indeed, you probably need to sink some change into a coop if you want your own backyard flock. But amortize the cost of that coop over the life of the average egg-laying bird, and the generations that succeed her? Far cheaper for me to have yard birds than drive 15 miles each way to get organic battery-hen eggs. Far tastier too.

    Plus, Michele, if you do let your broody bird sit some eggs, you’ll have roosters to eat, nearly for free.

  2. Thanks for that good, healthy rant. My wife and I just worked on a successful campaign to allow citizens of Durham NC to have backyard hens. We’ll be getting our hens this fall. Soon as I build the coop, which I’ve been instructed shall be ‘pagoda’ style 🙂

    In a related vein, regarding the economists, I teach a politics class and one of the points I emphasize is resisting the temptation to think of the economy as being composed of numbers and money–as both of those things are merely symbols. What they symbolize and what an economy is truly composed of, are humans struggling to meet some pretty basic biological needs–food to keep from starving, a house to keep out of the weather, medicine to keep you healthy and, of course, chickens to make you happy.

    Frank Hyman

  3. I’d like to respectfully disagree. While I love your post, and appreciate the sentiment, and am sure it applies to your chickens, my first experience as a gardener has been expensive.

    To date, I’ve had to purchase seeds, tools (no donations were forthcoming), dirt (our clay is so clayey it breaks tools with impunity), soil amendments, watering tools, etc. etc. I’m sure many of these things must be amortized over many years, but for the first time it was definitely not cheap.

    I plan to do a tally of what my first year garden produces, and I’m certain it will be not far off the 64.00 tomato. Next year should be a good deal better. I do realize the many other benefits to gardening than cost though, like health, freshness, nutrition, heirloom varieties, but if say, I was a single mother I doubt I could afford to get into growing food without a generous mentor.

  4. Tatiana, there are definitely some start-up costs. But there are also ways to make gardening very inexpensive. Over time, I have turned into a complete minimalist. I rarely use any tool besides my shovel. I never buy fertilizer. For soil amendments, try raking fall leaves onto your beds. You would not believe how gorgeous this will make your clay. Buy a few bales of straw or non-weedy hay. Layer this on, too, and just push it aside in spring to plant your seeds. Get manure free from a horse stable.

  5. I agree that the first year can be a bit of an investment for chickens or gardens, but it a lot of it is up to the individual and the time they have and the creativity they use.

    I could have bought the $2000 coop, but instead, chose to build one myself with reused building materials totaling about $75. I too use tons of scraps to feed my chickens and have found that a 50lb bag of food will last me 3-4 months at $10 a bag. I got my $2 bale of straw from a local farmer instead of paying $10 at the garden nursery.

    The same thing goes for my garden. I used reclaimed lumbar to make raised beds. Scored my shovel, rake and hoe at garage sales for about $3 each. Spent $18 on a load of topsoil that i amended with free manure from a coworkers barn. I went in with a bunch of friends to order seed from High Mowing because the bigger quantities you order the cheaper they are. we just divided them up in envelopes. I also happened to score a flat of “frost bitten” starts from one of the local nurseries for free that have turned out to be just fine and a bunch of tomatoes from an overzealous coworker who had too many.

    The economy comes with simplicity and creativity.

  6. We actually tallied up the costs for our chickens. We bought 3 chicks for $2.50 each and a $20 heat lamp. Also $13 for a waterer. The lumber, chicken wire and nails needed to build the coop came to slightly under $150 — we attached it to an existing shed. The beer my husband consumed while building the coop was probably around $30. I buy a 50 pound bag of organic food and a 50 pound bag of rice hulls (litter in the coop) every 6 months – $30. And we buy hay once a year for the laying boxes. Like Michele, we feed a lot of kitchen scraps to the hens (and they eat whatever we put on the compost pile as well). So our initial cost was $220, and our annual costs are about the price we would pay for organic eggs in a year — under $100. Besides the “free” eggs we get, I never have to spray for bugs — the chickens eat them. Where do I throw the weeds I’ve pulled? To the chickens. Now, the comparison between hens and dogs frequently comes up in terms of noise, health hazard, etc. No one expects dogs or cats to be productive, and I’ve spent well over $1,000 this year already in vet expenses and pricey food for our 2 cats and 1 adorable dog. Chickens don’t go to the vet, if you catch my drift. They make food and happen to be great pets — yes, they come when I call them and they like to be petted (they even like being massaged, go figure). Like other people above said, the costs are amoritized over time. Like all those trips to the doctor when weird stuff happens to you from all the hormones in those factory-cheap eggs…

  7. I totally understand about turning into a minimalist with years, I did the same with cooking – now I can cook with one knife and one pan. But I still have a stocked kitchen compiled from the years before paring down.

    The thing is, starting most new hobbies/activities is expensive, so if there is a way to ‘try before you buy’ to ensure you’ll stick with it, then do it. Then you’ll know if the investment is worth it. Luckily I enjoyed gardening, and will continue with it next year.

    But it’s still expensive to get started. Yes, I can run around farms picking up manure/straw, but the gas for the truck costs a great deal too, not to mention the time spent doing it, so to get an easy start I just got a delivery of garden soil and compost this year. I’ll start raking leaves onto the beds since I have some.

    Here’s what cost a fair bit to get me started: crappy climate, which necessitated a grow light, kelp and fish fertilizer to nourish the plants before they can go outside (we have to start our tomatoes in March to set them out in June, otherwise no tomatoes), tools like weeder, trowel, shovel, rake, pruner, some materials to build raised beds. Are all those things necessary? Probably not all, but they make life easier and we got them. Sure there are ways to scavenge materials and hunt garage sales, but time is precious too so we shopped.

    You all have great points, this is simply my experience in a hostile climate with a time/cost factor.

  8. Amy said, “I used reclaimed lumbar to make raised beds.”

    I’ve claimed a lumbar making raised beds!

    All joking aside, Tatiana has a point. I am in the city (so manure is kinda hard to get…go figure!) yet, overrun with deer.

    So I had to invest in a container garden for my porch. Some wise guy economist would also factor in the cost of the porch. Yes, it’s expensive, but having fresh, flavorful veggies and herbs steps away from my kitchen is a treat.

    Considering the serious coin I lay out for my ornamental landscape I just like knowing that some of it can be productive.

  9. I should also add that I have a friend who has a sizable garden that pretty much takes up part of her front yard and all of her back yard. She lives in DC. She has managed to cut her food bill in 1/2 between her harvest and trading her excess for items she doesn’t grow.

    According to her, “arugula is the new zuchini.”

  10. Hate to keep posting, but the neighbors and I were having a beer summit last Friday night and couldn’t figure out how you keep hens a-laying without having a rooster around. Given that most city ordinances prohibit roosters, isn’t this a problem?

    Perhaps another chicken primer is in order.

  11. Ah, the cost of chickens and gardens, the perennial topic that repeats annually.

    All the clucking and scratching for the right answer belies the reality that the seeds are in the desire to do and enjoy rather than the harvest, however meagre.

  12. Start up costs do have a lot to do with location. Here in Illinois, poke a hole in the turf and drop a seed in and it will probably grow, but in other places it takes a LOT more in the way of amendments, and other than manure the costs of amendments are up.

    I also agree with the author that a lot of the material out there really falsely represents need versus want. I could have put in my new garden area this year for a few hundred, but the wife’s considerations more than tripled the costs. A lot of it is personal taste.

  13. I’m a single mom (pregnant), with laying hens, two dairy goats, and an organic veggie garden. I built my chicken/goat barn all from materials that were being thrown away. I have a half acre, which I am able to manage myself. For fun, I have my flower gardens. I “tilled” my vegetable garden with a shovel!lol! Anyone can do it, and I eat very well for very little money.

  14. After the cost of the coop, raising chickens is super cheap. I think I paid a buck-fifty for my chicks. $11 for a 50-pound bag of feed, which is even necessary if your hens free range and get handouts.

  15. Want to get organic eggs (with the nice orange yolks instead of the anemic yolks from the grocery store) even cheaper? Let your mother keep the chickens and give you all her excess eggs. I still manage to fill up the fridge and give eggs to friends, for free. LOL.

  16. Martha, you got it right – the joy is in the doing, be it veggies or chickens.

    We have 24 hens – a bit much but I couldn’t control myself (Murray McMurray catalog = chicken porn). I’d say our biggest costs (besides the coop construction) are feed and bedding.

    Michele is absolutely right – they’re like little piggies when it comes to scraps. And they’re definitely not vegetarians.

    To suzq…the egg happens regardless. No rooster necessary.

  17. Liisa

    From the sounds of it, I’m sure your husband would have drunk the beer anyway, whether he was building a coop or not. Even cheaper. What the economists never factor in, apart from the sheer convenience, is the price of human happiness which is clearly evident from these posts.

  18. I don’t like bookkeeping and comparative accounting (just ask my husband after he looks at the checkook) but the problem I see is that while it is easy to tally the costs of a backyard flock, it is not so easy to get the figures for a commercial farms and slaughter houses espcially around costs of dealing with waste on both counts. Questions of humane raising of animals, and pleasure of their caretakers can’t be reduced to dollars and cents. I love my back yard flock, for eggs and meat. I suspect I am not saving money, but I am getting delicous meat,and beatiful eggs. And I’ve been giving my extra eggs to the local food pantry where they are much appreciated. My Plant a Row for the Hungry project isnt working out well this year so I’m especially glad to have eggs to share.

  19. can i defend city people for a second?

    the poultry specialist in that article that claimed that backyard gardeners cannot compete with big operations was from LOGAN UTAH- population under 50k.

    darn small town people always messin’ with us city folks…

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