Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Creative
Read Caption
Buff Orpington hens wandering in the grass in Glen Rose, TX, are just some of the animals finding homes in suburban backyards these days.
Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Creative

Old MacDonald Had a Yard: Animal Care in Suburbia

Yard-to-table eating is all the buzz. Last week a yet-to-be-invented invention made an Australian father-and-son team the overnight stewards of millions of crowdfunding dollars—and the good intentions—of the good-food movement. It was sort of like becoming instant pop stars, but more quickly and with more serious implications.

The invention, Flow Hive, is a beehive that allows a backyard-hobbyist to collect honey from a tap without the “mess” and “fuss” of being in contact with bees. We of the first-world good-food movement (I include myself), rich in intention but poor in spare time, are eager to purchase a little piece of redemption to fix the food-system problems we see everywhere. Even if it means owning a colony of animals we don’t know how to care for.

It’s the logical extension of the modern food-producing-animals-in-the-suburbs trend from people who can afford to buy accessories like the $1,500 Williams-Sonoma chicken coop but might not have the time/energy/stomach/knowledge to care for farm animals. But a beehive is more than a bottomless keg replenished by little cogs doing gee-whiz stuff, which is inevitably what some will view it as.

By the end of its first day, Flow Hive was crowdfunding site Indiegogo’s most successful project ever, with $2.18 million (now at $4.8 million and counting; the campaign ends April 5). Beekeepers are raging over the Flow Hive, and I’ll leave to the experts questions of potentially deleterious effects of its plastic (not wax) honeycombs and whether its faucet removes too much honey at one time.

Generally though, animals have real physical and social needs, and they are at risk of being stewarded by people who have no intention to attend to those needs because the marketing includes phrases such as “no mess” and “no fuss.” Can this flavor of yard-to-table animal acquisition really be good for humans’ relationship with the environment or does it actually further disconnect us? I’m not vegan (many vegans won’t eat honey because it’s an animal product) or even vegetarian and I don’t feel specific compassion for bees, but I generally want to prevent good people (including myself) from supporting things that are bad for animals in the name of good food. And even though I love the idea of running to the backyard for fresh, raw honey from a tap, taking on a colony of animals probably means I should want to “mess” and “fuss” with them.

Long before Flow Hive, rooftop beehives were springing up all over the world. Many hobbyist beekeepers saw a single hive as a way to help the environment, with the dramatic global reduction in honeybees known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) becoming a threat so real that President Barack Obama formed a Pollinator Health Task Force. But even with groups who will tend bees for you and many beekeeping courses available in urban areas, beekeeping remains a labor-intensive and potentially painful operation. Urban beekeepers currently know this.

Paying $60 now to have an unlimited, no-fuss source of quality honey, and a little contribution to saving the planet, seems like a great deal until I start wondering if it would really improve my connection to the land or the bees’ lives after six months or more. For about a year, I paid for a service that picked up my compostable scraps at home. I could have thrown them away with my other trash or sent them down the disposal or even started my own compost pile but instead I paid someone to drive (which probably offset any carbon benefit the composting gave) to take away some scraps of food. I canceled because I realized that my $8 per week was ultimately about calming my guilt for a lifetime of unrecycled water bottles, not about making the food system better. Our deepening carbon footprints play with our consciences in strange ways.

Likewise with chickens and eggs. Backyard chickens are the new rage in urban and suburban areas with no tradition of keeping farm animals at home. Ease of animal care is tops on many amateurs’ minds (and why wouldn’t it be—amateurs by definition don’t know what we’re are doing). But all animals have icky or ouchy parts that we don’t want to touch so I’ll say it in my sternest mom voice: An animal is a responsibility, not a toy. Still, husbandry newbies take on backyard animals with an eagerness that could be used to some real benefit elsewhere in the food movement. Read much more on this by writer James McWilliams, introduced to me by my colleague here on The Plate, Maryn McKenna.

The Flow Hive inventors don’t seem like bad guys and the fate of the planet and backyard animals don’t rest on them. They will have a difficult enough time filling orders for more than 10,000 investors this year without worrying about being overnight spokespeople for the good-food movement. Some people with spare cash have wonderful impulses to spend on something worthwhile. Hopefully it will become clearer what is worthwhile to spend money on.

When we talk about food ethics and a sustainable food system, the discussion must be more nuanced than the shorthand of (bad) larger-scale production vs. (good) smaller-scale production. Flow Hive’s Indigogo site proudly states: “Beekeeping used to be a labour of love.” Indeed. Is it coincidence that with the evolving technology of backyard animals, both the labor and the love seem to be optional?