Have you ever eaten an egg straight from the farm? An egg from a hen raised outdoors on kitchen scraps, grubs and grain? That diet, and freedom of movement, creates a product with taste and texture completely different from factory or battery chickens. The yolks are richer and deeper, and the whites thicker. The flavor can be almost cheesy,
But for many of us, getting eggs from a farmers’ market is at best a monthly rather than weekly event. Want to change that? If you have just 32 square feet of backyard space—and nice neighbors—you can become an urban or suburban farmer practically overnight:
When ‘local’ is measured by footsteps rather than food miles, there’s a reason why chickens have become the mascot for the locavore movement. But before you jump in with both feet it helps to do some homework.
Try to ignore the example set by Sandra McLean, former president of Slow Food New York, who confessed, “We did no research before getting our chickens. Our neighbors in Brooklyn had five chickens and offered us two. It happened overnight.” McLean did have some childhood experience with chickens: “We couldn’t have a dog, but a chicken for some reason was manageable. We kept it in the laundry room and took it on vacations with us.”
To learn more about raising chickens for eggs, I sat down with Mark Thompson, the co-founder, with his wife, Sharleen Smith, of Eggzy.net. Their company provides easy-to-use software tools to help people manage their flocks and find a market for surplus eggs and chicks.
Step 1: Does Your Community Allow You to Keep Chickens?
If you want to raise chickens, start by checking with your local health department or Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Even when it’s legal, you still need to make sure not to create a “nuisance condition.” You don’t want neighbors complaining about the noise or smell. Before you start, let them know what you’re up to; when your birds begin to produce, share a carton now and then. And: no roosters. You don’t need them to get eggs.
Step 2: If You Were a Chicken What Would You Be?
First, determine the best breeds for your climate and neighbors. As befits their cartoony name, Foghorn Leghorns tend to be noisy. Compared to birds that are raised primarily for meat, good layers are calmer, quieter, and less flighty. Here are some of Thompson’s favorite breeds for New Hope, Pennsylvania, winters:
Plymouth Rocks: Hardy, with historical significance in the development of our nation.
Delawares: At one time America’s most popular chicken; now the basis for the US meat industry.
Speckled Sussex: Originally bred for meat; so easy to catch that they’ll jump into your arms, delighting children and adults alike.
Rhode Island Reds: America’s best layers; the basis for many commercial breeds.
Ameraucana: Pale blue shells and small pea combs; hardy in Northern winters.
Buff Orpingtons: Calm, quiet, great pets. Francie Randolph, a Truro, MA artist, calls them “so darn beautiful, like they’ve jumped out of a Renaissance painting.”
At one time there were hundreds of chicken breeds in America. Many are disappearing due to industrial farming, which tends to reduce diversity. By buying heritage breeds, you can play a part in supporting biodiversity.
Step 3: Find a Reputable Hatchery
Thompson recommends buying from hatcheries that are certified by the USDA’s National Poultry Improvement Plan. Chicks are quite affordable— a few dollars per bird. Most hatcheries have minimum orders of 15 to 25 birds, which are necessary because the chicks need one another's body heat to survive their two-day journey. So band together with some fellow urban farmers to split an order, or check Eggzy for a lock owner with a surplus.
Step 4: Build or Buy a Coop
Like the breed you pick, your coop should reflect your climate as well as local ordinances, even the design of your home. Most people have a fixed pen, with compost ground covering that is changed regularly. An arc, basically a chicken house on wheels, allows you to move chickens around the yard but keeps them caged at the same time
You will need about two square feet of interior space per bird in the coop, where the chickens can sleep protected from the elements. One-and-a-half feet of perch space per bird is ideal, with a nest box for every four birds. Ideally you’ll have an outdoor run with space, about three square feet per bird, to scratch around and look for bugs. But beware if you let them in a garden filled with carefully tended plants. McLean says, “The pullets decimated my beautiful front garden in 36 hours. They ate everything but the boxwood.”
The best coops are well ventilated, easy to walk into and keep clean. A nesting box near the front door makes life easier. Chickens live outside all year, but don’t lay as much in the winter due to lack of light (rather than lower temperatures).
Step 5: Care and Feeding
Chickens will eat food scraps from the table. Most backyard farmers provide some supplemental grain for nutrition. A 50-pound bag of feed will last four chickens for three months. McLean’s son gives her chickens dog food, which they love and occasionally eggs. Then again there was some concern about cannibalism. There are a handful of things you shouldn’t feed to chicken, like eggs (cannibalism again) and raw, dry or undercooked beans, which contain a poison called hemaglutin, which is toxic to birds.
There are practical and existential reasons to raise chickens. You get fresh eggs, rich fertilizer, bug control and an essential part of your composting system. Before you plant a garden, you can use chickens to clear and fertilize the ground. They require little effort other than changing their water, cleaning out the coop and feeding them.
A Mother Jones analysis compared eggs from battery chickens to pastured chickens and found that pastured eggs were better for you:
One-third less cholesterol
One-quarter less saturated fat
Two-thirds more Vitamin A
Two times more Omega-3 fatty acids
Three times more Vitamin E
Seven times more beta carotene
There are “soft” benefits of keeping chickens too. Chickens, because of their social structure (the famous ‘pecking order’), are fascinating to watch. Children can learn to take care of them. Thompson even describes how a friend used chickens to calm a father suffering from nervous condition. Finally, it is rewarding to know that you can play a significant part in raising your own food.
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