On Sunday morning, I hold a live chicken. Often, I fall even deeper in love with 100 Interviews because it forces me to do things I wouldn’t normally do. Part of the reason I started the project was to break out of the monotony of macaroni and cheese, beers and 30 Rock reruns. Not that […]
On Sunday morning, I hold a live chicken.
Often, I fall even deeper in love with 100 Interviews because it forces me to do things I wouldn’t normally do. Part of the reason I started the project was to break out of the monotony of macaroni and cheese, beers and 30 Rock reruns. Not that I don’t love all three of those things, but I wanted a reason to go out of my way on the regular and interview people with totally different lives and priorities.
Anna Hanau is one of those people.
Anna is a backyard chicken farmer in Brooklyn. She lives far out, in the notoriously Jewish Crown Heights area, in a large, kitschy apartment on the first of two floors, with her husband, Naf. Their backyard is fenced in two parts; one has mulch beds with flowers and small herbs growing and the other, in the far back, has eighteen full-grown, yapping, pecking chickens.
On Sunday morning, Anna and I make our way past the wire surrounding the chickens’ area into their muddy, poop-filled playground. They’ve got a wooden coop that looks like a house from a fairytale about dwarfs and some other wood pieces to climb on. A tricycle rusts in the corner.
Anna is 29 years old and originally from Vancouver, Canada. As a kid, she had a pet rabbit and was a Girl Guide (Girl Scout in the US) but that was the extent of her exposure to the wild, despite reoccurring emphasis on environmentalism being “super important” in Canada. When she came to New York for college, she started learning about the industrial food system and local food markets. She decided to spend a summer working for a Jewish farming program in rural Connecticut called Adamah (“ground” in Hebrew).
“While I was living in New York, I was always talking all about farming,” she says. “But I grew up in the city, so I thought, ‘I’m not gonna be a farmer. I can’t be a farmer. I’ll leave farming to the people that know that.’”
While working on the Connecticut farm, Anna fell in love. She decided to stay for the next three years, especially after she met and married her husband there.
“It all really came from being on the farm,” she says. “I learned how to do it and it was really fulfilling. I didn’t have to go to gym at the end of the day, I felt super strong and I felt connected to what’s going on outside. You get really good food and you can eat as much of it as you want because to get it, you do all this physical activity.”
Anna’s husband is away at an ecological conference for the day so it’s just Anna I speak to. She’s got a Pam-from-‘The-Office’ natural prettiness with freckles and loose, brown curls, that you know isn’t manufactured. She’s wearing a red plaid button-down and black rubber boots.
We stand outside, chicken poop sticking to the bottom of my high-top Converse sneakers. Anna picks up one of the golden chickens. There are many types outside — some are black, some are fluffy, some are sleek, some are a warm brown color, some are white. Anna says she and Naf bought them each as pellets (or teenagers) on Craigslist for 10 dollars from farmers in the countryside.
Here on Anna’s makeshift, urban backyard farm, the chickens have a ton of room to run around and they do; pecking at the soil in front of us, squawking, flapping their wings, brushing past my legs. Anna says she’s happy to rescue these from a life cooped up in a factory. And for the most part they’re well-behaved.
At night, Anna says, the chickens line up and roost cozily on the bars of the coop and in the morning, they file out of the house like in a cartoon.
Cute as they are, the chickens are not pets, Anna says. They don’t have names. They’ll lay eggs for two or three years and then stop, at which point, Anna says she and her husband might use them to make soup.
But there is love there. She looks them over, appraising, and says, “But not yet,” when I ask about eating them. “They are animals that are part of household. They are our flock. So to just throw them away is not totally respectful,” she says. “I have to say, ‘How am I fueling my life?’ and I want these lives to do as much good in the world as possible. So I’ll take care of them, and eat their eggs, and make soup, and, you know, the cycle continues.”
It’s a sort of ‘Use every part of the buffalo’ situation.
The decision to move back to New York and raise backyard chickens came when Anna and Naf decided to start their own kosher pastured meat business. On the farm, Anna says, they were surrounded by organic meat farmers producing delicious grass-fed beef and heritage breeds (the idea of which is that it is dangerous to consume the same breeds of pork and chicken and so new breeds are cultivated for meat). The problem was Anna and Naf couldn’t eat any of it because it wasn’t kosher. (The couple is Jewish and kosher meat requires the animal be killed in a specific, humane manner.)
“If you keep kosher and you want to eat good, ethical, sustainably raised meat there aren’t a lot of options,” Anna says.
Their kosher company is called ‘Grow and Behold.’ Anna and Naf contract with mostly Amish farmers raising chickens and turkeys for them out on a pasture, where they are fed lush, fresh grass every day. Then, Anna and Naf handle the processing and delivery of the chicken and turkey to New York and around the world.
To keep up with the business side, they had to leave rural Connecticut for the big city.
Anna looked into city chicken programs and message boards on urban agriculture, which she abbreviates to “urban ag.” She knew if they moved back to New York, they’d need a backyard big enough to keep a chicken farm. The farm had made them used to having chickens and goats around. They didn’t want to give that up.
Anna brings me over to the side of the coop and shows me one golden chicken snuggled alone, who is in a foul mood. She tells me the chicken is “brooding,” or sitting on her eggs waiting for them to hatch. Unfortunately, Anna’s farm doesn’t have a rooster so the golden chicken will be waiting indefinitely. Anna says the chicken doesn’t quite get that and will literally sit there until something hatches.
“We actually ordered eggs from a hatchery,” she says.
I gape, “You’re going to trick her?!” For some reason, I’m indignant for this chicken.
Anna nods, “A little trick,” she says, calling the chicken “honey” when she pets it.
Earlier this morning, Anna did another interview with a podcast called “Bucky Buckaw’s Backyard Chicken Broadcast.” Bucky is a well-known urban chicken podcaster who gives tips on how to raise chickens in the city. For a little while, Anna was online researching often because her chickens had begun eating their own eggs. She found out putting eggshells in their compost was causing the chickens to get a taste for eggs. At the message board’s recommendation, she switched to milk and sunflower seeds. The chickens stopped.
But other than those little problems, the chickens are more relaxing than stressful. Every morning before work, Anna says she goes outside and collects the eggs the chickens laid over night. I tell her I imagine collecting eggs serves the same purpose as yoga; it’s a natural and relaxing way to start the day. She says her husband sometimes sits with the chickens to relieve anxiety.
“I say a little prayer,” she smiles. “It doesn’t matter the weather, I have to go outside and take care of something that’s not me. Whatever I’m stressed out about, it doesn’t matter. They’re pretty much worried with three things,” she gestures to a clan of chickens in the corner. “They want to eat, they want to scratch, and they want to poop.”
Later, she calls the chicken coop an “oasis” and laments that it used to be commonplace for people to live with animals. (I mention her flock as being almost biblical.) Her neighbors, she says, enjoy peeking over their fences to see the chickens. One neighbor’s father told Anna, “I’d heard about people like you!”
“Yep,” Anna laughs, “we’re those people. But it’s more common now and almost trendy to have backyard chickens. We’re not trendy, we’re just into it. We want the eggs and we want the experience and we want the connection.”
By the connection, she means to erase the disconnect between human beings and their food.
For example, Anna says, crops are grown in cyclical seasons that correspond with the Earth. Normally, a person thinks, “What do I want to eat?” and then goes to the supermarket and buys those ingredients, fresh or not, in-season or not. By contrast, on a farm, people think, “What do I have that grew?” and then they make food based on that.
“You think, ‘What’s ripe? What do we have a lot of? Okay, what are we going to do with it?,” Anna says. “It’s starting with what you have.”
The idea is simple but it makes a lot of sense. One way to mimic that cycle is to purchase a Community Supported Agriculture Crop Share. A “CSA” allows a person anywhere to buy shares in a farm and receive weekly deliveries of produce throughout the year. Participants pay upfront (so the farmer has the cash in case a tractor breaks down or an animal gets sick) and then whatever crops the farm produces, are sent to the donors in gratitude.
On the farm Anna worked at in Connecticut, she had a CSA with 40 families in White Plains. The CSA caused her to plan out her winter of planting.
“I had to think about how often they would get scallions, and how many scallions,” she says. “You plan and you plan and on paper, you’re a great farmer and then the season happens,” she smirks, woefully. “It rains or it doesn’t rain, plants grow or they don’t. With the CSA, you’re sharing the risk with the farmer.”
For example, the 2009 tomato blight meant nobody got tomatoes that year. To make up for it, farmers grew a lot of spinach and broccoli. You use what you have.
“It’s a connection we don’t have anymore when you can just go to the store and buy it,” Anna says. “Crops do ebb and flow and there is a time when all you eat is chard and beet leaves and you think of a million different ways to eat chard and you’re excited the first time you eat it and then you’re sick of it the next week but that’s what there is to eat,” she says emphatically. “Until a few weeks later when you have string beans.”
Anna says she looks forward to the different seasons – the time to eat peppers and the time to eat tomatoes. One CSA she was a part of when she first lived in New York gave her an egg share. During September, when the chickens get supplemental feed, they produced twice as many eggs. Anna made custard and pudding for weeks.
“People talk a lot about, ‘Can organic agriculture feed the world?’ and I think with certain things like wheat, you can grow it somewhere and refrigerate it, but with other crops? You know, maybe everybody should grow their own tomatoes or herbs. Get a pot. I think it’s a reconfiguration of what we expect we need to produce for ourselves.”
Anna and Naf sell some of their eggs to neighbors and co-workers, who then tell her they made an “amazing frittata” or “delicious shakshouka” in a way that no one who buys eggs at the supermarket relays what they cooked. It’s a communal aspect to food that has been almost entirely lost.
“It’s food with a story,” Anna says. “It’s not based on being full. I see food as having great potential for how it connects people and communities. People would come to the farm and say, ‘These are the best potatoes I’ve ever had’ or ‘These are the best carrots.’ That may or may not be true but I think it’s true for them because they pulled that carrot out of the ground.”
In contrast, food companies, Anna says, are in the business of making money and not in the business of feeding people. “Once you realize that, it’s kind of sick,” she says, wrinkling her nose.
The solution is then to grow your own food, raise your own chickens and/or pay more for organic food at local farmer’s markets. Anna says it’s important to be paying people an honest wage for food production instead of paying companies that exploit workers.
“Go to a farmer’s market and talk to the farmer and buy their stuff,” she says. “Pay for it because it does cost more. It costs a lot more, but these are the people who are doing it right so they can support their family.”
One neighboring farmer during her tenure in Connecticut drove up in early spring with a truck full of ramps, a wild garlic/wild leek combo that are foraged for, like mushrooms. He’d found the ripened mother lode, more than he could eat, and was driving around dropping them off at neighbor’s and friend’s homes — sharing the bounty. “There’s a lot that you’re sharing,” Anna says.
In the spirit of sharing, Anna gives me a package of six eggs straight from her chickens’ egg chutes to take home with me. I am in awe. I hold the eggs, all different sizes and colors, delicately in my hands. Anna tells me to put them in my backpack, but I’m nervous they’ll break; not because I don’t want yolk on my Kindle, but because I feel, for some reason, like what she’s just handed me is precious. More precious than anything I’ve ever bought at Stop & Shop. Is it because I just saw the chickens who made these?
At the farm in Connecticut, Anna tells me she’d grow a single tomato, watching it ripen from green to red. Because of the Jewish tradition of sacrificing the first fruits, however, she’d pluck that first tomato and put it on a small altar at the farm.
“You worked so frickin’ hard and all you want to do is take it and bite into it,” she says. “But you have to recognize that actually nothing that I do is making this tomato,” she pauses, looking down at the frolicking chickens and softening her voice. “That’s a miracle.”