The People’s Choice for Fresh Healthy Eggs
As I work in my home office near Boulder, Colorado, I hear a soft, “Cluck-cluck-cluck,” from outside the window. Soon, it will crescendo into a piercing, “Baaaaaaawk,” as the largest of our seven hens—a plump Rhode Island red named Rojo—drops a warm, beige egg into her hay-filled nesting box. When my daughters, ages 8 and 10, return from school, they’ll tromp through the snow to our A-frame coop, fill their basket with a colorful assortment of bluish-green, brown and lavender eggs (some still warm) and skip off to a neighbor’s house to trade them for piggy bank cash. Such is the life of a backyard chicken farmer.
Once viewed as the realm of rural poultry farmers and commercial egg factories, raising chickens has become a growing trend, with everyone from urban foodies to thrifty suburban housewives erecting makeshift coops, logging on to how-to websites and mail-ordering fuzzy, day-old chicks. Some are lured by the firm, buttery, nutrient-rich yolks and enhanced nutritional quality (a study by Mother Earth News found eggs from pasture-raised hens to contain twice the omega-3 fatty acids, three times the vitamin E, and one-third the cholesterol of conventional eggs). Some simply want to know where their food comes from. Others long for a bucolic touchstone in their frenzied city lives.
“I see chickens as a critical piece of my landscape,” says Greg Peterson, co-author of Fowl Play: Your Guide to Keeping Chickens in the City. “They eat all my food scraps. They eat the bugs and the weeds. They produce nitrogen-rich fertilizer for the garden. Then they give me eggs.”Peterson keeps 15 chickens in his 80-by-160-foot yard in the heart of Phoenix, Arizona. His monthly local how-to-raise-chickens courses currently pack in 50 to 60 people,from tattooed and pierced 20-somethings to retirees. Meanwhile, Rob Ludlow’s BackyardChickens.com, which started in 1999 as a coop-design clearinghouse, now boasts more than 50,000 members, who submit 7,000 posts a day.
“We have doubled our production from five years ago, and it just keeps getting better and better,” says spokesman Jeff Smith, of Lebanon, Missouri-based Cackle Hatchery. The 70-year-old chicken hatchery used to cater mostly to farmers wanting large orders of baby chicks for meat or egg operations, and the occasional 4-H club. Now, it ships 140,000 freshly hatched chicks each week to unlikely farmers in urban centers like Seattle, Phoenix, Jersey City and Reno.
“There is a little bit of fear out there about the economy, and people are looking at being more self-sufficient,” says Smith. “People are also interested in making sure the birds are being fed right, and not kept in a cage all of their lives.”
Not all are fans of the urban poultry-farming boom. Disgruntled neighbors have called upon government leaders to either uphold or implement ordinances that view chickens as farm animals and ban them in urban areas. Some have complained of smelly coops and rodents (all avoidable via regular coop cleaning, proponents say). Others have squawked about noise. But in dozens of recent cases, the hens and their owners have won.
In September 2008, for example, the city of Fort Collins, Colorado, passed an ordinance that allows city residents to keep up to six hens, as long as they buy a $30 permit, provide their birds with a ventilated, predator-resistant coop with two square feet of room per chicken, and keep the birds at least 15 feet from the neighbors. No roosters are allowed.
Within the first year, 36 people had gained permits, including Connie Meyer, now the proud owner of four feathered friends. She likes that they follow her around as she works in the yard, eat out of her hands and provide her with eggs to trade for her neighbor’s fresh produce.
“People assume it is going to be so much work, but they are incredibly easy to take care of,” she comments. “More than that, they are fun. It’s easy to get attached to them.”