The Silkie chicken, a fluffy creature with tufts that fall over her eyes, dreamily struts about as if she just emerged from the pages of a book by Dr. Seuss. The Araucana, with its human-like sideburns, lays eggs the color of turquoise. Elegant French Marans chickens lay eggs that look like dark chocolate. American Plymouth Rock hens wear their black-and-white feathers like a cape.
“All the chickens are beautiful,” Assaf Stern of Luly Farm in Kfar Blum, scolds visitors who are debating which is the loveliest of all, and then murmurs gently to one chicken who follows him around like a faithful puppy. “Their personality depends on the breed – some are more sociable and some less so, but the more the chicken is shunned by the flock, the more attached it will get to humans. I had one, she was blind in one eye, who would jump on me the minute she saw me. And just look at Marie,” he says, pointing to a gray-plumed chicken with a tilting posture reminiscent of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. “She’s not the most popular gal in the group, so we have a special bond.”
Stern, who works in high-tech, raises purebred chickens in his spare time. As so often happens with hobbies, this one has been taking over his whole life. “I won’t deny it – there are lots of times when it comes at the expense of the kids and the family,” he says. “The kids want to go on a trip, but I have the chickens and chicks in the coop to look after. You can’t just take a day off whenever you feel like it. It’s intensive work. Raising chickens is good for the soul. Anyone who raises chickens, or any kind of bird, knows how absorbing it is. They look like simple creatures, but they have an amazing survival intelligence. Caring for animals is a kind of therapy. My wife isn’t so into it,” Stern admits. “But she also appreciates it – better chickens than having to go to a shrink.”
More and more people, especially in rural-style communities, have started raising laying hens. With three or four hens, a spacious coop (the chickens often scamper about freely in the yard until the evening), a few egg-laying chambers, and you’ve got yourself high-quality eggs for breakfast. Once you taste these wonderful eggs, with a beautiful orange yolk that’s a result of the chicken’s natural nutrition, you’ll have a hard time going back to the anemic taste and plastic texture of the eggs produced by intensive industrial breeding.
The flavor of an egg depends on its freshness, the conditions in which the chickens were raised, the type of chicken (to a lesser degree), and above all on the chicken’s diet. There’s no way that the taste of commercially produced eggs can compare to that of eggs from a free-range chicken raised in relatively spacious conditions and with a much richer diet.
Among the thousands of people who raise chickens in their yards, there are a few dozen who are dedicated to raising purebred fowl. “We call ourselves professional backyard growers,” says Stern, whose phone frequently buzzes with messages and photos sent on the WhatsApp and Facebook groups devoted to chicken breeding.
In some countries, raising free-range chickens has become very popular, and breeders compete in contests to show off their purebred poultry. An amusing documentary, “Chicken People,” about this colorful subculture was recently released.
There are not likely to be any professional poultry shows in Israel anytime soon. A chicken-breeders’ association, established to promote the importation of additional chicken species to Israel, did not last long. “We’re very limited in Israel,” says one breeder who preferred not to be named. “The regulations in Israel are friendly mainly to the big commercial growers, and the barriers to importing other genetic material to Israel are nearly insurmountable. So there’s nothing really for the association to do. But the breeders – Arabs and Jews, men and women, rich and poor – still keep in touch and help each other, trading chickens and knowledge and so on.”
“In the 1950s and ‘60s,” says Stern, “a time when many people here still kept a little farm of some kind, two American breeds – Rhode Island and Plymouth Rock – were raised here for meat and for eggs. Today, all the male chicks are cruelly destroyed after one day, but in the past chickens were bred that were good for producing eggs and meat. Most of the battery-cage hens used here today are Leghorns, originally an Italian breed, one that has been highly modified. In developing breeds for modern industrial agriculture, the main concerns were the quantity of eggs laid and the quantity of food consumed by the chickens. The industrially bred chickens lay a lot of eggs and consume very little. Generally, around the world, brown eggs are more popular, but those eggs have a greater tendency to have bloodspots, which are a problem for kashrut, so in Israel the white ones are preferred.”
Stern, born in Kiryat Shmona in 1976, raised chickens in the backyard as a child. “Ten years ago, when my eldest son was born, I wanted him to grow up with chickens like I did. I bought a few battery-cage hens and then I added some Baladi hens, also known as Arab hens, which are mixed-breed hens. The more I read up on it, the more I started shifting to raising purebred hens from different breeds and different countries. Intellectually, I think they should also be eaten, and not just raised for eggs, but I can’t bring myself to eat my own chickens.”
Last year, Stern began to sell chicks – five-week-old males and females that have had their inoculations (in some markets in Israel, you can also find young chicks for sale that have not been inoculated, and which are not likely to live long). “It’s not a for-profit enterprise,” he says. “I breed both males and females – We don’t kill the males, of course – in good conditions and with close veterinary supervision. There are costs involved, and so [the sale of] the chicks covers the costs. I’m more concerned with spreading knowledge, and the love of doing this. Raising egg-laying hens in the yard is easier than people realize. This is what a chicken should look like” – He gazes affectionately at the Marans chicken beside him – “round, plump and happy.”
Ten minutes from Stern’s house, in She’ar Yeshuv, Einat and Avigdor Rotem raise purebred hens that produce eggs for the family’s own consumption. In a beautiful coop set amid citrus trees, they have Brahma chickens whose feathery legs make it look like they’re wearing boots, brown-spotted Sussex chickens and noble-looking Marans chickens with gold necks. “The joy of raising chickens and eating good, fresh eggs every day is similar to the pleasure you get from growing a vegetable garden and eating the food you grow yourself,” says Rotem, who is a co-founder of Slow Food – The Upper Galilee, a convivium, or local chapter, of the worldwide Slow Food movement.