Jonathan O'GuinComment

Quick Tip 43 - On Agricultural Biodiversity. ...What?

Jonathan O'GuinComment
Quick Tip 43 - On Agricultural Biodiversity. ...What?

That’s a pretty highbrow title right there, ain’t it? Well, if it’s any consolation, you should know that today’s topic was provoked by a fat little asshole and a vampire. If that doesn’t make any sense to you, good, because it was a weird place for this to start.  I’m Jon O’Guin, this is Kitchen Catastrophes, and let’s get down to the farm!

So, last weekend my family made a trip to a local farm to donate our roosters. The farm itself was an amazing little affair, with several hundred birds of varying species on site: turkeys, peacocks, ducks, geese, chickens. There were a couple goats, the farmer’s dogs, and vegetables, all on maybe 2 or so acres.  The owner was talking about the roosters he gets in, and his plans to expand, pointing out a breed or two as he went, and he mentioned having just gotten in a couple Russian Orloffs.

Orloff, if you have a life and therefore don’t immediately recognize it, is the Russian word for “Eagle”. I happen to know this word because it’s supposedly what inspired the name of Count Orlok, the vampire in the classic silent film Nosferatu.


Very Eagle-like, yes. 

Well, in the film, they call him “The Bird of Death”, so it’s a pretty direct thing. It would be like naming a werewolf Lupin or…You know what, let’s move on. Now, at the time, I had never seen a Russian Orloff chicken. And, as he mentioned it, I turned to find a rooster eyeing me up.

Let me be clear about the emotional investment here, in case you’re unaware: Roosters are the TEMPLATE from which we draw the movements of arrogant assholes in our interactions. Whenever a rooster first meets a person, you can almost hear them drawl out, as they look you up and down with one beady eye: “And who in the Hell are you?” Other acceptable tough guy catch phrases include “Well, well, well. What do we have here?” and “Looks like you got lost, city boy.”


It takes big balls to side-eye somebody while in a wheel chair that looks like a baby carriage, but roosters do not give ANY fucks. 

And I laughed. For one thing, I am easily 10 times the size of your average rooster, so them eyeing me is pretty damn funny. Like if a ten-year old tried to mean-mug Shaq, you ain’t doin’ shit, little man. But the main thing I laughed at was the rooster’s build: this little dude was built like a refrigerator. I wish I had had my phone on me to take a picture, but we’re talking perfectly rounded shoulders off a squat, wide body. This dude was a star linebacker of the chicken world. He was a pretty little dude two, with a lot of golden hued feathers around his neck and shoulders.  These Orloff guys were alright by me.

Hours later, I was reading a magazine in the bathroom (If it feels like this first section is strangely crass, well, we get pretty dry and technical later, so I’m just trying to emphasize the strangeness of how I came to this.) And I noted that Orloffs are actually in Critical conservation status. And here’s where we have to start getting technical


I went to Conservatory for this?

 First, let’s be clear: there are a CRAPLOAD of Chicken breeds. The American Livestock Breed Conservancy recognizes 65 distinct breeds, but worldwide, people estimate there are likely more than 100. Yes, 100 different types of chickens. And they can be REAL different: A Jersey Giant can weigh 13 pounds full grown, fat enough to crush its own eggs, while a bantam Silkie has five toes, black meat, and will never grow over 3 pounds.


Nor will they ever stop looking like God got drunk and made Cotton Balls that lay eggs.

And the thing is? NONE of these breeds are the commercial breeds used by large-scale farms to produce hundreds of eggs a year. They’re not counted, because of a variety of legal and medical issues. So, when you learn that there are 20 chickens on the planet for every person, you may think they’re doing pretty good. But the majority of those chickens AREN’T recognized breeds with histories and distinctive traits. Those chickens tend to be found in small patches, on the quaint little two-acre farms, instead of churned out like living Nugget machines.

So the ALBC tracks the recognized breeds, and note when the numbers of one drops low. Their rankings are meant as a warning: “Watch” signifies a breed in slight risk of dying off, “Threatened” means there’s a moderate chance, and, of course, “Critical” means they’re in notable danger. How much danger? To be ON THIS LIST, the breed has to be classified as Endangered globally. “Critical” condition means there are roughly 500 breeding chickens of that breed in the entirety of America. That’s 10 per state. The 2 roosters that farmer I met had? That’s 20% of my State’s Orloff reserves.


While not the same bird, this picture is pretty close to right. 
Which is how I learned that whatever rooster I was looking at, it was definitely NOT an Orloff. They look nothing like this. 
So this whole post is because I misidentified a chicken. 

And learning this reminded me of another fact that I had read recently, that broadened the scope of the issue.



Now, I just covered that there’s probably over 100 breeds of chickens in the world (some say even more, but let’s use that as our base number.) So, let’s try a quick comparison: chickens, at least, make sense to have a variety of breeds. Cold places need chickens with more feathers, different predators react to different color schemes, etc. So, how many varieties of Tomatoes do you think there are? I mean, I can think of like, 5, off the top of my head: beefsteak, cherry, plum, normal, heirloom…That sounds about right. And sure, maybe I’m wrong and those are like “classes” of tomatoes. So there’s a couple varieties of each type. Like, 5-10. Let’s err on the side of caution, and say 50 breeds of tomato. Does that sound like a reasonable number?

Some of you probably nodded. 50 different types of tomato? I could believe that. Anyone who’s actually grown tomatoes, though? They started laughing.

Paint with all teh colors.jpg

You could earn this earth and still
All you'll own is earth until
You can paint with all the colors
of the Vin. 

Three THOUSAND. There are three thousand known varieties of tomatoes in current cultivation. Out of the FIFTEEN THOUSAND varieties in total we know about. And those numbers were from my first source! The USDA says there are 25,000 varieties! And you can play the same game with basically any kind of farmyard animal or plant: how many types of cows do you know? And no, “Normal” and “Brown” aren’t the answer. Side note, and I really hope I’m not the first to tell you this, but it’s a weirdly enduring lie: BROWN COWS AREN’T WHERE CHOCOLATE MILK COMES FROM.

But here, I’ll lay out my own ignorance for you: I know the names of…maybe 7 breeds of cow. Angus, of course. Then Holsteins, they're the typical black and whites. The fuzzy Scottish Highland cows. Texas Longhorns. Um…Jerseys, which I remember because any time there’s a place-name in a breed, people misunderstand. Oh, shit, Wagyu is a breed. Ummmm. I want to say “Spanish”, because I know Ferdinand the bull is none of these breeds.


Is "Smug" a breed?

Yeah, as you might have guessed, given that my list was mostly American, with one Asian and 2 European, I’m WAY off. I don’t even have any INDIAN breeds, remember, the dudes who WORSHIP cows? I got less than 1% on that quiz. (Though, in my defense, Ferdinand IS in a different breed, called “Spanish Fighting Bulls”.) But yeah, COWS come in over 800 varieties.

By this point, you’re probably a little bored: “Yeah, Jon, we get it. There’s a bunch of varieties of farm stuff. Who cares?” Well, firstly, a lot of people, and secondly, I haven’t covered an important part: those numbers are missing a key concern: they’re all stupidly low, compared to what they used to be.


Say What Now?

Analysts suggest the that overall breed diversity in the marketplace, and in most farmers, has dropped by 90% in the last century. Commercial seed vendors in 1903 sold 544 varieties of Cabbage. In 1983, the United States National Seed Storage Lab had 28 varieties. 463 types of radishes dropped to 27. Those are both losses of ~95%. Remember the American Livestock Breed Conservancy from earlier? The guys who track and rate how at risk a breed is? Yeah, they’re back now.

That Critical rating that said there had to be less than 500 of a chicken in the US? For livestock, that number drops to 200.  And there are 9 Critical Cattle breeds. There’s a Critical DONKEY breed, named “American Mammoth Jackstock”, and isn’t that just a hell of a name? That’s one of my big worries: there are so many good names at risk of dying out. There’s a breed of cows called “Florida Crackers”! AND a breed of Sheep with the exact same name! BOTH are in Critical condition!.


And that's a pity, because this might be the most down-to-earth and reasonable picture I've ever seen of a Florida Cracker of any species. 

These are legitimate pieces of our shared history that may be lost. And you may think “Jon, I’m not a farmer, why do I care?” Firstly, because genetic diversity makes better food. Do you know tomatoes taste WORSE now than they did 50 years ago? Yeah, because we started breeding them to “look right” rather than taste good. Secondly, because genetic diversity makes SAFER food: Back in the 50’s, 90% of the Banana crops were destroyed by a fungal infection. How did it get so many? Because we were only using ONE breed of banana! And, fun fact, that infection seems to be returning, mutated to hit our CURRENT solo breed of bananas.

Lastly, and this one can be weird: the food you eat, the breeds we have, really do connect to culture. Here’s a silly example: Right now, on the “Threatened” list, there is a breed called Chantecler. It was bred in Quebec. It is the first breed of Canadian chicken. And it is named for a character in fairytales. Specifically, Chantecler the Rooster, from the Reynard stories of the 1100’s. And many of you may have just felt a twinge somewhere in their soul. “Chantecler the rooster…why do I know that name?” And I have the answer: Because you watched an animated movie made by Don Bluth in 1991 about a Rooster becoming Elvis, and a young boy turning into a cat to save him. That movie is Rock-a-doodle.


Yes, that is a Rooster Elvis and Davy Crockett Cat. It makes sense in context. 

Or, less likely, maybe you’re thinking of the play Chantecler, written by Edmond Rostund, author of Cyrano de Bergerac, a play I am on the record in multiple instances as labeling my favorite play of all time. But, again, it’s more likely you’re thinking of the 1991 animated film. Which is, actually, a loose adaptation of the play, plus, you know, the whole Elvis angle, so it’s still kind of both.

Now, I know that personally that movie meant a lot to me as a kid. I even quote it every now and again as an adult. And I’m certain Canada is at least vaguely proud to have a breed of chicken that originates from its lands. Notably, there are only two chicken breeds of Canadian origin. This breed serves, in a small, quiet way, as a bridge between the 1100’s Europe and America in 1991. A quiet source of national pride. And it’s in danger of vanishing just as quietly.


"I'll just see myself out of existence, then. Wouldn't want to be a bother."
Definitely a Canadian chicken.

We can’t all just start raising chickens, cows, or American Mammoth Jackstock, of course. But you know what we can do? Support local farmers a little more. Buy the veggies and fruit that might look a little weird, taste a little different, to keep them on the table. It may not be easy, every time. It might cost a little more, take some more time. We built the current system to make our lives easier, and that’s why these things have fallen to the wayside.  But if it costs me an extra $10 a month to keep fat little asshole roosters, Elvis-knock-off Roosters, and Florida Crackers in America, well, maybe it’s worth it.

As always, and in keeping with our “support the little guys” message, please share our content with your friends, like our posts, and consider supporting us on Patreon! If just 2 people donated $10 a month, this site would become self-sustaining. Or, at least, not actively cost Alan and me money. I can’t promise I’d use that money to buy American Mammoth Jackstock, but it will go to nominally good causes. Thanks, and have a great day!