C&B Notes

Flock of Fools

We’re amused that what was once a thrifty means to fresh eggs is now a status symbol in Silicon Valley.

In true Silicon Valley fashion, chicken owners approach their birds as any savvy venture capitalist might: By throwing lots of money at a promising flock (spending as much as $20,000 for high-tech coops).  By charting their productivity (number and color of eggs).  And by finding new ways to optimize their birds’ happiness — as well as their own.  Like any successful start-up, broods aren’t built so much as reverse engineered.  Decisions about breed selection are resolved by using engineering matrices and spreadsheets that capture “YoY growth.”  Some chicken owners talk about their increasingly extravagant birds like software updates, referring to them as “Gen 1,” “Gen 2,” “Gen 3” and so on.  They keep the chicken brokers of the region busy finding ever more novel birds.

“At Amazon, whenever we build anything we write the press release first and decide what we want the end to be and I bring the same mentality to the backyard chickens,” said Ken Price, the director of Amazon Go, who spent a decade in San Francisco before moving to Seattle.  Price, 49, has had six chickens over the past eight years and is already “succession planning” for his next “refresh.”

“We’re moving toward a more sustainable cost structure,” he noted — zeroing in on the chickens that produce the most eggs with the least feed.  While the rest of the nation spends $15 on an ordinary chicken at their local feed store, Silicon Valley residents might spend more than $350 for one heritage breed, a designation for rare, nonindustrial birds with genetic lines that can be traced back generations.  They are selecting for desirable personality traits (such as being affectionate and calm — the lap chickens that are gentle enough for a child to cuddle), rarity, beauty and the ability to produce highly coveted, colored eggs.  All of it happens in cutting-edge coops, with exorbitant veterinarian bills and a steady diet of organic salmon, watermelon and steak.

New owners might start off with a standard breed like a Leghorn, a Barred Rock or Rhode Island Red before upgrading to something more exotic and ornamental like a Silkie, a Jersey Giant, golden laced bearded Polish chicken or a Dorking, an endangered British breed with a sweet disposition and roots that stretch back to the Roman empire.  Also popular are Easter Eggers, a type of chicken with a gene that allows it to produce pale blue eggs.

A typical flock is around four or five birds, but those who “go crazy” can end up with 15 or 20.  In pampered Silicon Valley conditions, owners say their birds can live more than a decade.

Instead of cobbling together a plywood coop with materials from the local hardware store, the rare birds of Silicon Valley are hiring contractors to build $20,000 coops using reclaimed materials or pricey redwood that matches their human homes.  Others opt for a Williams-Sonoma coop — chemical free and made from sustainable red pine — that has been called the “Range Rover of chicken cribs.”  Coops are also outfitted with solar panels, automated doors and electrical lighting — as well as video cameras that allow owners to check on their beloved birds remotely.

Bill Michel, a chicken owner in Redwood City, enjoys sharing videos of his cluckers inside their coop with anyone who will watch.

“Best time is ‘bedtime’” Michel advised by email, pinpointing one of the video’s climactic moments. “They jostle for position before settling down.”

Riveting.

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What they want most of all, she said, is a “rainbow assortment” of beautiful, colored eggs in various shades of blue, olive green and speckled brown.

Why?

“Because it shouts out, ‘These eggs did not come from Whole Foods or Walmart — these eggs came from my back yard,’” Citroen said.  “It’s a total status symbol.”  Citroen’s 19-year-old son, Luca, who grew up around the family business, puts it this way: “Being able to say you have chickens says, ‘I have a back yard,’ and having a back yard says, ‘I have space.’  And having space means you have money, especially when it comes to Silicon Valley real estate.”

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