The Washington Post – March 2, 2018 | by Peter Holley | Photos by Christie Hemm Klok
Johan Land has a life that stands out even among Silicon Valley’s tech elite: He’s the lead product manager at Waymo (formerly known as Google’s self-driving car project), a job that keeps him glued to computer screens and fixated on the future.
Excelling at his work, Land said, requires an obsessive focus on it. But maintaining that passion — especially with his fourth child on the way — means knowing when to detach. Land’s secret to success: relaxing with a glass of wine in the back yard alongside his wife, kids and the family’s 13 chickens and three sheep.
It’s mindless, he said, but far from banal.
“It’s a fascinating thing to sit and watch the animals because instead of looking at a screen, you’re looking at the life cycle,” Land said. “It’s very different from the abstract work that I do.”
In America’s rural and working-class areas, keeping chickens has long been a thrifty way to provide fresh eggs. In recent years, the practice has emerged as an unlikely badge of urban modishness. But in the Bay Area — where the nation’s preeminent local food movement overlaps with the nation’s tech elite — egg-laying chickens are now a trendy, eco-conscious humblebrag on par with driving a Tesla.
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.
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