The Simple Decisions of a Complex Life

Want to know why I really keep backyard hens?

The eggs are great, the chicken TV is a blast, and the deep-litter compost might actually make our hens a financially reasonable investment.

But that’s not really why I have the girls.

I keep laying hens because the sum total of the work involved in feeding, housing and tending to them – including dealing with the occasional prolapsed vent and Mean Girls style bickering – is still easier than trying to make a fucking purchasing decision in the egg aisle of a well stocked supermarket.

Free range, cage free, vegetarian fed, Omega-3 enriched…blah blah blah. I have been struck immobile by egg-decision-making paralysis more than a few times.

It’s a dangerous thing, having a little knowledge. And that’s all I have: a little knowledge about the food system, the industrialization and commoditization of how we eat. It is a full time, full energy job to be a truly informed consumer. There is so much bullshit marketing to sort through and claims to compare and various components of “good” to weigh.

An ethical eater with only a little knowledge juggles the often-competing issues of time, food cost, health claims, food miles, organic certification, animal welfare, farm worker rights, GMO crops, degrees of food processing, family farm support, heirloom produce and monoculture agribusiness every time they buy enough groceries to make a sandwich.

Me? If I’m going to spend that much energy on a damn sandwich, I’d rather just grow the lettuce and bake the bread, you know what I mean? Then the only landmine to navigate is where to buy meat I can feel ok about. And if you’re a vegetarian, you don’t even need to do that.

In many ways, an urban homesteadery life is quite complex. Finding the way to incorporate food production on a city or suburban lot on top of everything else we all manage in our modern lives adds a lot of fullness. Planning and scheduling crops so they are planted and enjoyed at the right time is a logistical juggle.

But in another way, growing as much of my own as possible simplifies my decision making tremendously. There is no political, César Chávez back story to my lettuce or my broccoli. I grew it, I picked it, I ate it. If it got fertilized with something or sprayed with something, I know what, how, when and why. No migrant laborers were poisoned with pesticide drift so I could have iceberg on my sandwich.

My purchasing isn’t snowy white, of course. Dig a little deeper and non-organic cotton fills my closets. Non-fair-trade coffee sneaks in, transporting its plantation exploitation for thousands of gasoline-fueled miles before arriving like a hot little blessing at my lips every morning. Plastic trays from take-out sushi made with fish I shouldn’t eat anyway clutter the recycling can.

Imperfection abounds.

It’s a process, a sometimes exhausting process, getting to better, getting to more sustainable, getting to ethical, and it never ends.

But now the only egg choice I confront is, brown or green? white or tan? and making breakfast has never been simpler.


  1. Melissa says

    I totally agree! It is so much easier to grow your own food than to be mad and frustrated in the produce aisle. Depending on the level of insanity you finally find yourself in , it may also be a time savings. As far as a monetary savings, I think it depends on your crop and climate. Of course we all know it just tastes better.

  2. says

    This is such a timely post for me. I was pouring my heart out (along with half my brain, I think) to Shane the other night about just this topic. Wading through the food-sourcing information is just so overwhelming. Not only can I not come to a clear decision much of the time, when I do decide, I sometimes can’t implement it because of cost or availability.

    Where do I draw the line, when it’s clear I can’t make every right decision all the time? Some things are very obvious (Twinkies are a no, eggs from my friend’s pastured chickens are a yes). But what about that raw milk that’s 30 miles away? Is the health benefit worth the carbon output to drive there? What about that non-fair-trade coffee you mentioned? What about avocados and coconut oil that are healthy, but just aren’t ever going to be local to Missouri?

    The frustration is enough to make me want to scream at times, but what can we do…other than produce what we can ourselves and then do the best we know how with the rest of it?

  3. Saskia says

    Do you guys know about Camano Island Coffee Roasters? We go to the shop when we’re out at Camano and discovered a few years ago that they have a monthly coffee club. We control how much and when, and they ship it to us–fair trade, organic, shade grown, % of profits given back to the community, etc. and we like that it’s a “local” roaster (when we’re up there, anyway.) Kevin is extremely picky about his coffee–this is nice and strong, like Peets, and tasty.

  4. says

    amen! in the amount of time i spend glassy-eyed, jaw half-open, staring at things in the grocery store aisle and researching it on my phone while people bump me with carts, i could’ve started at least another 50 seeds of my own food.

  5. says

    Amen! I have been known to cry in the egg section of the grocery store, though I now get my eggs from Skagit Valley Ranch and feel (mostly) happy/safe.

  6. Amy says

    “like a hot little blessing at my lips every morning.” Sipping my coffee, enjoying your post, thanks :)

  7. Danielle Jones says

    I looked up the cornucopia institutes ethical eggs list and went to three grocery stores without finding any of the listed farms or companies in the Eastern Washington area but the natural foods store is just too expensive most of the time. It’s very frustrating! I just want to get my moving over with so I can get my own hens!

  8. says

    You have summed up my existence right now. It is all a lot of work to eat ethically these days! Exhausting to be down right honest. But once you have the knowledge you just can’t go back to being blissfully ignorant any more.

  9. lisa says

    I was defensive when my vet told me I fed my dog better than most people eat. I still feel defensive. And disheartened, and frustrated and angry. When you pull the least little thread on our food chain, and Pink Slime is just the latest grossness, the whole thing comes tumbling down. If I, with my culinary background, have to spend five minutes in the dairy aisle parsing definitions like Bill Clinton, then how is the average American ever going to catch on, stay interested and get frustrated and angry? Yes. I feed my dog better than most Americans eat. Because I feed myself better than most Americans eat.That’s not something I’m proud of, it’s something I have to do. Because I really, truly don’t trust the people that feed me, the gatekeepers or the policy makers. I trust the person I talk to every week at the farmer’s market who invites me to come check out their operation.

  10. laura says

    Amen! It is so hard to shop these days and I have all but given up going to a chain grocery store. Sickness has brought about food education in our home and it has been an eye opening and frustrating journey.

  11. says

    No kidding! I am trying to be an ethical, slightly-informed read/eater, but it costs too damn much. *Country here we come!*

    So how do those eggs work with dye?

  12. says

    Right on, Erica, Kate, Lisa, and friends! I just blogged about grocery-store paralysis myself this week. And on a side note, did you notice that we’re all girls commenting here? Is it time for a Million Mom March, a new food revolution to save ourselves and our kids?

  13. says

    I just wrote a little bit about this, homesteading/getting our own food but I felt like it went above most people’s heads. *they* went on the defensive. It was weird.

    I just try the best I can with what I’ve got at the store and slowly work up the nerve to ditch things that I shouldn’t buy anymore. I am luckily able to buy local eggs but I don’t always remember, which is ridiculous because I can get them from someone down the road but usually choose from an antique place that is only open on weekends.

    I hate reading labels…it just depresses me.

  14. Lady Banksia says

    E –
    Couldn’t agree more. The more I learn, the more afraid I become.
    I want some chickens… and some land… and a barn… and farm stuff.
    Am behind your every effort to live independent of the organized system. Stay true to your self and your mission.

    Thanks for the post!

  15. Kimberly C says

    Great post!

    I dream of the day that I can have chickens. My partner isn’t even overly opposed to chickens, but we have an awful asshole neighbor who’d make every moment frustrating if chickens showed up in our neighborhood. I’ve loved reading the Wayward Spark blog ( where she went ‘off-the-grid’ with chicks by acquiring a broody hen to hatch and raise her chicks, no incubator required (she did house them in a greenhouse though).

    I read all the labels on everything I purchase at the grocery store and avoid corn syrup as much as humanly possible, and yet I still drink a couple cans of coke each week and cave into eating nuggets at McDonald’s about once a month. I *totally* get the “it’s a process” and believe that change is more permanent if done gradually and thoughtfully.

    • says

      It’s a thoughtful post, Kimberly; thanks for sharing. There’s a lot of elitist nonsense here in Seattle, too. Ignore the neighbors. And it *is* a process. I’ve been baking all of our own bread for 4 years now (since our youngest was born). Lots of failures, and only now I’ve honed in on a good recipe. I think it applies to everything including chickens, bread, cheese, knitting etc. Pick some things you like and work on those. The others will follow.

  16. David says

    This, along with rising fuel prices is why we left the ‘burbs 18 months ago.
    We now have 12 acres of trees and have cleared about 2 acres for fruit, berrys, veg & chickens (pigs & cow are coming in the next few months).
    Our priorities are focused on sustainable food production so much that we live in a tent (we’ll worry about the house …………later)
    We have gone from 100% stupidmarket consumers to milk (only until the cow gets here) and coffee (coffee plants grow so slowly) buyers.
    This has got to be the best decision the wife ever made.
    My advise don’t dream about it, make the move.

  17. says

    That’s why I have my eggs delivered by my milkman- so I can stare at the computer screen instead of standing in a grocery store. That and they are obtained from a local farmer in Olympia so at least I know what city the ladies live in. That’ll have to do until I get my own flock!

  18. says

    One friendly way to turn people on to mindful eating is to invite them over for dinner. Our neighbors came over for dinner and took a stroll in our backyard. They were greeted by the hens, loved the earthworms in the compost, and could not get enough of our fresh from the garden eggplant parmigiana. The next weekend they called us up and asked for some earthworms because they were starting their very own compost pile! I also took over some tomato plants that we had grown from seed so they too could enjoy fresh tomatoes. Offer a helping hand when asked and you will be amazed at how fast people will become mindful about what they eat.

    • says

      Wow, Nicole, that seems like a great way for Kimberley to make a difference! Though inviting a**hole neighbor to dinner might be awkward. We have mixed neighbors. Some have open ears, some are more challenging.

  19. says

    Reading this post reminds me with my mother. How wise she is in looking on matter. You have such a great point of view for others life. Thanks for this “awakening” post :)

  20. Stefanie says

    Just the other day I did the walk of self shame out the grocery store because they only had generic eggs and I bought them, but only after a good two minute rummage through labels and staring into space debating my moral obligations. I can’t thank you enough for your blog, I have been living on it for the last couple days and it has made me laugh so much while being very informative. I even cried while reading about your garlic rust. And your post on the Healthy Eater made me feel a little more normal haha thank you so much for the time you put in!

  21. Dawn says

    I love the ideas behind your commentary…you make a whole lot of sense! The only thing–the foul language is really distracting for me. For me anyway the message would come through even more powerfully without the bad language. I’ll keep reading you because your topics are timely and insightful but I confess I will tire sooner when I stumble over certain words. Keep on writing! :)

    • says

      Love the egg assessment. The Araucana hen delivers a green egg which a number of eaters think it’s better for you simply because it’s green but I like the idea of no having to decide which of 20 different brands should suit you. A company once set up a stall in a supermarket giving shoppers a test of their 17 different jams. That day there was a huge spike in peanut butter sales. Why? Because people simply couldn’t or couldn’t be bothered deciding which of 17 jams they wanted. Lets use the KISS theory.


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