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The Silicon Valley elite’s latest status symbol: Chickens

Christie Hemm Klok for The Washington Post

Matt Van Horn’s chicken, “Bear,” is held by his 2-year-old daughter, Sadie.

By Peter Holley Washington Post 

SAN FRANCISCO — 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.

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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.

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‘‘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.

New owners might start off with a standard breed like a Leghorn, a Barred Rock, or Rhode Island Red before upgrading to something more exotic and ornamental like a Silkie, a Jersey Giant, golden laced bearded Polish chicken or a Dorking, an endangered British breed with a sweet disposition and roots that stretch back to the Roman empire.

Also popular are Easter Eggers, a type of chicken with a gene that allows it to produce pale blue eggs.

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A typical flock is around four or five birds, but those who ‘‘go crazy’’ can end up with 15 or 20. In pampered Silicon Valley conditions, owners say their birds can live more than a decade.

Instead of cobbling together a plywood coop with materials from the local hardware store, the rare birds of Silicon Valley are hiring contractors to build $20,000 coops using reclaimed materials or pricey redwood that matches their human homes. Others opt for a Williams-Sonoma coop — chemical free and made from sustainable red pine — that has been called the ‘‘Range Rover of chicken cribs.’’ Coops are also outfitted with solar panels, automated doors and electrical lighting, as well as video cameras that allow owners to check on their beloved birds remotely.

Bill Michel, a chicken owner in Redwood City, enjoys sharing videos of his cluckers inside their coop with anyone who will watch.

‘‘Best time is ‘bedtime’ ’’ Michel advised by email, pinpointing one of the video’s climactic moments. ‘‘They jostle for position before settling down.’’

Riveting.

Michel uses ‘‘Coop Tender,’’ a system that allows owners to control their coops via smartphone, dictating temperature, ventilation and lighting.

The system includes an automatic door and ‘‘predator motion detection’’ that turns on a security light and sends owners a text when danger lurks. Despite their relative privilege, even these chickens are circled by predators like hawks, coyotes, raccoons and bobcats.

At least one owner plans to transform his coop into an Airbnb for humans once the abode’s feathered inhabitants die, according to Scott Vanderlip, whose annual Silicon Valley tour - Tour de Coop - has drawn as many as 2,500 participants some years.

‘‘My timber framed, Gingerbread coop is gorgeous: wired for electrical, plumbed for water, incorporating vintage windows and doors,’’ Laura Menard, a proud owner from an upscale Silicon Valley suburb, noted over email.

Silicon Valley chickens are often considered ‘‘members of the family,’’ explained Moira Hanes, noting that she refuses to eat baked chicken from Whole Foods in front of her three birds. A Berkeley professor registered her one-eyed special needs rooster, Gwennie, as an emotional support animal. Because of his cross beak disability, she feeds him baby food mixed with grain. He also gets a weekly bath and a blow dry - ‘‘which he LOVES,’’ she said in an email.

It’s not uncommon here to see chickens roaming in their owners’ homes or even roosting in bedrooms, often with diapers on, according to Leslie Citroen, 54, one of the Bay Area’s most sought after ‘‘chicken whisperers,’’ who does everything from selling upscale chickens and building coops to providing consultation to backyard bird owners. Her services cost $225 an hour. Want a coop and walk-in pen (known as a run)? You can expect to pay $4,000 to $5,000 for a standard setup.

Citroen has had thousands of customers over the years, she said, giving her a front-row seat to the Bay Area’s growing obsession.

A 2002 study (the most recent available) by the California Department of Food and Agriculture put the number at 62,000, but some experts believe the updated figures might double that number thanks to the ‘‘chicken-mania’’ that is ‘‘sweeping the Bay Area,’’ as the Mercury News put it.

At least one of Citroen’s clients has a personal chef who cooks for her chickens. Because they eat their birds’ eggs - if not the birds - chicken health is a top priority, Citroen said. Her clients spend ‘‘thousands’’ for surgeries and X-rays to keep them alive after predator attacks and illnesses.

Sometimes, of course, nothing can be done, like when a beloved chicken met its end in a backyard pool in Marin County.

‘‘The owner called me crying,’’ Citroen said. ‘‘She was devastated.’’

Citroen’s clients are usually men in their 30s and 40s, with young families. After spending their days in front of computers, they long for a connection to nature. What they want most of all, she said, is a ‘‘rainbow assortment’’ of beautiful, colored eggs in various shades of blue, olive green and speckled brown.

Why?

‘‘Because it shouts out, ‘These eggs did not come from Whole Foods or Walmart - these eggs came from my back yard,’’’ Citroen said. ‘‘It’s a total status symbol.’’

Citroen’s 19-year-old son, Luca, who grew up around the family business, puts it this way: ‘‘Being able to say you have chickens says, ‘I have a back yard,’ and having a back yard says, ‘I have space.’ And having space means you have money, especially when it comes to Silicon Valley real estate.’’

‘‘We’re obsessed with chickens and it’s embarrassing,’’ said Amina Azhar-Graham, a Costa County investigator who credits her family’s 10 birds with squelching her desire for more children with her husband, Justin, a software engineer. ‘‘We spend an insane amount of money. We thought we’d feed them leftovers, but our chickens end up eating grilled salmon, steak, fresh lettuce and organic watermelon.’’

Watching the chickens is one of the family’s favorite activities. They call it: ‘‘Hillbilly television.’’

‘‘We’re typical Bay-area people,’’ she added, ‘‘we’ll spend anything if it’s labeled ‘heirloom’ or ‘heritage.’’’

There was a time, not long ago, when Matt Van Horn and his wife, Lauren, would arrive at a dinner party with a nice bottle of wine in hand — usually a zinfandel from their favorite vineyard in nearby Napa.

But lately the Van Horns are more likely to offer something they consider more impressive. They come bearing a six-pack — of eggs.

Not just any eggs, but a handpicked, coffee-colored collection laid by Queen Elizabeth, Bear, or one of the Van Horns’ other heritage breed chickens, inhabitants of a cozy coop on the family’s backyard deck overlooking Sutro Forest. As a final touch, each carton is stamped with the family’s specially designed seal of approval: ‘‘VH SF Eggs.’’

It’s very earthy and artisanal. Not what you might imagine from this otherwise type-A, tech-industry power couple.

She worked on strategic partnerships at Facebook before quitting to raise their 2-year-old daughter full-time. He co-founded June, which makes Internet-connected ovens. The couple have eight Alexas in their home. Van Horn — who calls himself an ‘‘entrepreneurial futurist’’ — live-streamed his marriage proposal to his wife.

But like Johan Land and other high-stress, high-success tech insiders, the chickens do more than just bawk.

‘‘It’s really nice to have this tactile feel of filling the chickens’ food, filling their water, feeding them and petting them,’’ said Van Horn, who was introduced to chickens by his company’s senior electrical engineer. ‘‘Experiencing them is a way of getting away from the technology that is in our lives so much of the time.’’