Backyard poultry have become a big business in the last few years—a cottage industry, if you will.

Many municipalities have passed ordinances allowing residents to maintain as many as four to six mature chickens within city or township limits (as long as no roosters are involved). Thousands of people have bought pre-fab chicken coops, hauled home sacks of feed and began collecting fresh eggs—and shoveling plenty of manure, too.

In fact, in the fairly typical residential area where I live, a neighborhood mix of older homes (like mine), newer condos and duplexes, where kids are roaming around on their bikes and splashing in wading pools as summer vacation gets underway, there are no fewer than 16 backyard chicken coops just within three adjacent blocks.

Now, the one element that doesn’t get discussed is what happens when your chickens get older and stop laying eggs every day. Most backyard growers I’ve talked to are a bit queasy about that part.

Nevertheless, it’s a healthy trend, one that not only directly connects people with food production, but keeps animal agriculture involved as part of the fabric of society, not some distant process—like manufacturing electronics—with which we only worry about the end product and never even consider the costs and consequences of the production end of the business.

A legacy of efficiency

Here’s even more interesting news about that trend: A “new” bird on the block has arrived, called the Coturnix quail. Although that name draws a blank from even veteran backyard chicken growers, these quail have been raised around the world for centuries as a highly efficient food source. Thanks to equally remarkable efficiency of modern poultry production, “exotic” birds, like quail and squab, which used to be common on farms and homesteads around the country, have fallen out of favor.

But thanks to a new campaign emphasizing hands-on, local food production, these quail are making a comeback.Coturnix products—including pickled and hard-boiled eggs—are becoming a popular in Europe, China and elsewhere in Asia.

According to Mother Earth News magazine, the Japanese call the birds uzura, and have raised them for centuries. Early American colonists called them “Bible quail” and they proved to be economical providers of protein. According to several online references, these small but prolific birdsoffergrowers several important benefits:

  • They require no more care than do chickens
  • They mature faster
  • They produce more eggs in less space than chickens
  • They need less food and less space thanother domestic poultry
  • They require a ration of only 20% protein
  • They begin to breed and lay eggs at only six to eight weeks old

Of course, head out to a white tablecloth restaurant, and quail is marketed as an “exotic” entrée. It’s very dark meat, compared with chicken, and does have a stronger, more “gamey” taste. But nutritionally, quail meat is lower in fat, higher in protein and has more minerals and vitamins than broiler meat.

Now, nobody’s predicting a huge surge in what is essentially a hobby: raising quail or other egg- and meat-producing birds. But it is interesting that of all the activities available to people to fill up their spare time and their available backyard space, poultry “production” is perhaps one of the more meaningful.

Certainly, the trend is driven by economics, but the side effects extend beyond merely mitigating one’s grocery bills (which, honestly, it doesn’t). It re-connects people with the most fundamental of human activities: Producing our daily sustenance. It imparts truly significant lessons about the commitment it takes to embrace even a tiny slice of what it’s involved in farming.

And most importantly, raising birds on your own property with your own tow hands ends once and for all most of the claptrap vegans love to pronounce: That “industrial agriculture” is too distant—although they have no problems with consuming unlimited tropical foods and ingredients—too impersonal—although substituting grains grown in South American for meat raised locally is perfectly acceptable—and too destructive of the environment—although commercial production of the wheat, soybeans and produce that comprise the bulk of a vegan diet is just fine and dandy.

Having your own source of animal protein roaming around your own backyard is probably the very best antidote to the absurdities of the vegan philosophy that it’s possible to imagine.

And if quail are about to join the flock, even better.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.