Sarah’s Chickens

Here Chicky, Chicky, Chicky

Here Chicky, Chicky, Chicky

Dear Reader:

This week while I’m laid up with a broken foot (don’t ask), I thought I would write about chickens. Yes, chickens. Following is my own, personal chicken-appreciation timeline. Enjoy.

1970’s: When I was growing up on the last dirt road in Carmel, “Grammy” Murray had a chicken pen up at the big white farmhouse on the hill. I don’t remember much about these chickens except a vague alarm that they might escape the pen. Someone may have used the words “rooster” and “mean” in the same sentence. I was young. It’s all pretty vague and misty. What I do remember is the not unpleasant, dusty, barnyard smell near the chicken pen and the homey clucking of the hens. At some point, the chickens disappeared, and I never thought about them again until much later.

1997: My husband and I moved to the quaint, western-Maine town of Norway where we purchased a hundred-year-old house not far from the center of town. Norway is one of those old-time, traditional New England towns that evokes Norman-Rockwellian nostalgia of the very best sort. There is a busy Main Street with a variety of shops along the sidewalks, a clock tower, quiet residential streets laid out in a sensible grid, the public library, and a bunch of white-steepled churches. It’s a walkable town, though the grocery chain moved over to the more spawlish Rt. 26 in the neighboring town of Oxford. Not to worry, though. I heard that the local food co-op, The Fare Share Market has expanded now to a larger venue right on Main.

I liked Norway. Every nice day, I would load my child into her stroller, and we’d walk a big loop along a couple residential streets before hitting Main and circling back home again. Imagine my surprise when I discovered chicken coops and yards on a couple of in-town lots! I’d always thought chickens were for farms, and farms were out in the country down old dirt roads, but here were these cute little cluckers contentedly scratching around in someone’s back yard. Cool, I thought. But even then, it never occured to me that I might raise chickens on MY large backyard lot. I was more interested in planting some evergreens to hide the housing complex behind us and revamping the flower beds around the house.

2001: My husband was studying engineering at the University of Maine, and I had taken a job as a secretary in the Continuing Education Department. One day while looking at the Bangor Daily News, I saw a big, full-color photo of a chicken along with an accompanying article. For some reason, I was so drawn to that picture that I cut it out and stuck it up next to my computer monitor . . . much to the horror of one of my work colleagues whose unhappy memories of egg-gathering chores as a child gave her an abhorrence of anything to do with raising poultry. She asked why I liked the picture, and I could only shrug and say “who knows?” Maybe I was missing my home in Norway. Maybe it brought back memories of those carefree days of childhood on my old dirt road. Maybe I just liked the looks of that chicken.

2002: My husband graduated, got a job. We moved to southern Maine. I forgot about chickens. We bought a home in a subdivision, and I contented myself with the creation of a few cottage-style perennial beds, Girl Scout leadership, library work, and writing romance novels.

2008: I read Barbara Kingsolver’s ANIMAL, VEGETABLE, MIRACLE. The world shifted. I learned about slow food, local food. I began to think about farmer’s markets and growing vegetables in my front yard. One book led to another, and I read about the superiority of raw milk over homegenized. I found a local dairy farmer from whom I could buy milk. His son raised chickens, the farmer said. Did I want to buy eggs?

Eggs from Sarah's chickens--note the little ecru one?

Eggs from Sarah's chickens--note the little ecru one?

These eggs were so different from their tasteless-by-comparison counterparts in the grocery store that I resolved then and there to always buy local eggs whenever possible. As summer went on, the eggs grew to giant proportions. Then a bluish or khaki-colored egg woud show up in the carton, the product of some unusual breed of fowl. I was hooked.

2009: Now I get my eggs from my friend, Sarah, who lives right here in town. The yolks are dark yellow and large. The flavor is amazing. For awhile, I boiled an egg every day for an egg-salad sandwich, but I’ve had to cut back due to my expanding waistline. I suspect the eggs weren’t the problem so much as the mayonnaise I was mixing into them. I love the eggs. I don’t mind paying for them. However, I’m not totally content . . .

Because I want to raise my own chickens.

I know this poultry obsession is ridiculous. For one thing, I’m not allowed to have chickens in my homeowner’s association/subdivision. Bent on creating a rustic, private, lakeside community of vacation and weekend homes, the association’s original developers nixed the mixing of humans and livestock within the confines of the development. Can’t really blame them. They were designing this place in the late sixties, when the space age was revving up, technology was going to solve all our problems, and zoning conventions leaned toward the separation of industrial areas from retail areas from residential areas from agricultureal areas. We had cars. Who needed to live within walking distance of work, stores, or farmland? Besides, nobody was going to live here full-time. It was now supposed to be vacation-land , not farmland. It was what people wanted . . . in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

Now, though, more and more people are coming to realize how important it is to support local agriculture and to grow and raise our own food. Chickens are making a comeback! In 2008, Falmouth, Maine–one of our state’s more upscale towns, by the way–changed its zoning ordinance to allow the raising of chickens for personal use. Read about it in this article from the Portland Press Herald.

Even Portland is looking into changing their zoning to allow backyard poultry. Check out this news report by NECN.

So, even if the zoning and/or association rules could be changed, does raising your own poultry even make economic sense? Raising your own chickens isn’t going to save you money in the short term. According to an article for Associated Content by C. Jeanne Heida, chicks costs between $2.00 to $5.00. Between supplies, food, heat lamps for the chicks, feed, materials for a chicken coop/wire pen, Heida figures a back-yard poultry farmer won’t recoup (grin) her initial outlay for at least three years. However, saving money in the short run isn’t really the point. The point is eating locally. The point is knowing that what you eat is safe and highly nutritious. The point is knowing where your food comes from. Where better than from your own back yard?

Knowledge, or lack of it, is another hurdle. How does one learn how to raise chickens, anyway? Here is a list compiled by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension of places you can purchase chicks and other poultry information and supplies. It is called Resources for Small-Scale Poultry Keepers. It is not a comprehensive list, but there’s lots of information there.

Besides cost and a learning curve, what are some other perceived drawbacks to back-yard chicken coops? Smell, I suppose. Raising any kind of animal means shouldering a certain amount of responsibility. Cleaning up the coop and composting the straw and manure would be necessary in a suburban setting.

Noise. Even the new zoning ordinances prohibit roosters as they are preceived as being loud and obnoxious. I suppose they are, but how much more obnoxious than the neighbors hunting beagles kept in outdoor pens throughout the entire year? For that matter, what about those doggy droppings left on your front lawn? I’d rather step in chicken poop, thank you very much.

Repurposing

Repurposing

When I visited Sarah’s backyard chicken coop, I did not notice any smell. The chicken yard was a few yards from her back door next to the raised garden beds. The soft chuckling cluckiness of the different breeds brought me right back to the Murray farm, much more pleasant than the baying of the hounds at three in the morning. In fact, the entire back yard felt like a little, cozy haven of domesticity.

eggs in one basket

eggs in one basket

Inspired by my visit, I came right home and boiled and egg and made myself a yummy egg-salad sandwich on my homemade rye bread. I might not be allowed to keep my own chickens, but I am grateful that I can at least enjoy the wonderful flavor of these local eggs. Maybe one day my association will realize we are not so grand. If Falmouth and Portland, South Portland and Cape Elizabeth, Gorham and Westbrook can allow backyard chickens, why not here? After all, we’re rural over here.

We have the dirt roads to prove it.

* * * * * * * * *

pretty, pretty peas?

pretty, pretty peas?

I may not be allowed to raise chickens, but I have carved out a spot in which to try to cultivate vegetables. Out in the garden, things were not looking good last week. Two weeks of all rain and no sun had leached the nutrients right out of my raised garden boxes. I went down to my local hardware store and asked if they had any organic fertilizer. Off course, they did!

Plummer’s Hardware always has just what I need, each and every time. The employees are knowledgeable and helpful. It’s amazing and the best of all arguments in favor of local business over big box retail stores where you can look for twenty minutes for an orange-aproned employee who may or may not know where anything is in the giant warehouse of a store.

Anyway, I purchased a small bag of organic blood-meal–high in nitrogen–figuring it couldn’t hurt to amend the soil a little and see if my spindly, pale plants could somehow revive. I’m pleased to report that a week (and quite a bit of sun) later, most of the plants look better if not exactly lush. When I hopped out on my crutches to look at the boxes, I discovered pea pods hanging beneath the twisty pea stems and pretty little white pea blossoms!

The cucumbers are trying to grow, the beans look as if they are about to blossom, the pumpkins and squash look vigorous if small. The carrots finally took off, and their feathery stalks are growing. I even have hot peppers on the most stunted little plants you’ve ever seen. Poor peppers. I may pull out every spare plastic pot I can find in the cellar and garage and plant them all with lettuce and other greens, just to see what happens.

I’m also going to make a real effort to hit some farmer’s markets and farmstands next week, so hopefully I’ll have pictures and stories to share as well as some good, fresh veggies for my table. I still want to put up some pickles and some jam, and I noticed today that the local pick-your-own blueberry operation has already opened for business. Now, if I can only figure out how to pick berries while on crutches . . .

Do you have a poultry passion? A chicken story? Share with other readers by posting a comment. As always, I love to hear from you.

8 responses to “Sarah’s Chickens

  1. Shelley,
    Our chickens are flattered to be featured in your blog this week. They are also grateful that you found them not to be stinky! By the way, if anyone is wondering why the girls are missing so many feathers on their backs, it’s the roosters’ fault. Use your imaginiation! This really bothers me, but the good thing about the rooster is he keeps the girls in line, meaning he keeps them from turning on eachother and hen pecking. He also watches out for them during the months that they are able to free range, from roughly October – May. With a previous flock that we had we sent our rooster away because he was SUPER MEAN and attacked us frequently (everyone except my husband, must have been a guy thing). Unfortunately the girls turned on eachother after he left and we had quite a batch of bitchy hens to contend with!! We then introduced a new flock and new rooster and all is well, except for the feather loss.

    Also, I wanted to say that we recoup a fair amount of start up cost by selling a few dozen eggs a week. The coup was build with all recycled or cheaply obtained materials. The benefits of having nutritious food in your back yard 365 days a year far outweighs the cost of keeping them, in my opinion.

    And, that book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, changed me too Shelley. It’s wonderful! So is In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan, have you read that? THe two together brought about some serious changes for us in the way we look at our food.

    This is, by far, the longest comment I have ever left!

    • Hi Sarah: I visited my friends Michelle and Jim up in Farmington, and their hens are wearing little protective vests:) I have read Michael Pollan’s books and highly recommend them to anyone interested in food and health. Feel free to write up a guest blog on organic vs. conventionally-grown foods . . . . . hint, hint, hint.

  2. You are not alone in your poultry obsession. I too would LOVE to have my own chickens but living in the same place as you I find I am out of luck. It seems ridiculous to me that I can’t have chickens here. I have the space and time to raise my own chickens so why shouldn’t I? Between the atvs running up and down my road, the barking dogs (mine is not one of them), and lawns piled with junk I don’t see how me having a few chickens would cause a problem. In addition to the other places you mentioned I know that in recent years South Portland changed ordinances to allow “urban chickens”. Anyway I have found a farm locally that will meet me in town to deliver eggs but I just haven’t gotten around to setting that up.

    Sarah, if you have more to sell, we eat about a dozen a week and would love to connect! I have a feeling I know who you are so I will send you a message in a more private way.

    • Hi Becky: Good points about the atv’s and dogs and junk! Our association has pretentions of grandeur that just don’t match up with reality. We are not a high-income neighborhood. In fact, many “off-lake” members are first-time buyers, lower-income buyers, and people who don’t want to spend 50% of their income on a mortgage (that would be me.) However, many people, especially the weekenders and retirees on the lake, count on those restrictions that appealed to them in the first place. I see their side of it, as well. The concept of growing/raising food on suburban lots is gaining momentum, however. We just need to keep talking and writing about these things, bringing them to the public’s attention.

      I read the following somewhere: Gardening Is The New Golf.

      Cute.

  3. Hello, Shelley! Loved your blog about chickens. I, too, would love to have chickens again, but the city ordinance won’t allow it where I live now. But several years back I picked up two dozen pullets and a rooster at the Cackle Hatchery (I noticed it was on the list you referred to–very nice place, healthy chicks and they give you literature to read so you know how to take care of the chicks). The rooster kept my girls in line just like Sarah’s. I never noticed them being all that noisy or smelly, for that matter. After they were raised to adults, the hens paid for themselves and more by the eggs they produced. Every once in a while, they’d lay a double-yolked egg, too.

    Ah, I really miss my girls. I’m just an old country girl who would give anything to be back on the farm with all the animals again. The whole mess of them altogether would make less noise than my neighborhood of dogs!

    Maurine

    • Hi Maurine! You never know, city ordinances are changing all around the country. In fact, I think it is easier to get a city to change than a homeowner’s association–go figure! It is so true about the chicken/dog comparison. Nobody seems to think a thing of smelly, loud, running-loose dogs but if someone sees a free-ranging hen on the lawn they throw a fit. Thanks for stopping in and sharing your chicken experience with us:)

  4. I am counting the days until I am able to get chickens. I had to call many people in order to find that it is no problem having chickens in my neighborhood. Deron promised me next spring would be the time. I am going to relocate my compost bin of two years and pull up some of the deck to house them. After we fence in the yard (spring as well) I will be all set to allow them supervised visits to my garden. I think I will allow them to roam around my side yard most of the time. I can’t wait. But as with you, I need to increase my knowledge of care for them before I get them. I guess that is what my winter is going to be all about!
    Animal Vegetable Miracle and Omnivore’s Dilemma were the two books that changed my way of thinking. I wish more people would read them.
    I think you should get a group of people together to start a push to change. I know it will be slow, but like your community garden space, I am sure it will happen eventually. You just need to get people use to a little change. That is what takes a bit of time! Good Luck.

  5. Hi Robin: Can’t wait to start reading about your chickens on your blog next year . . . vicarious living rocks!

    Getting people together to push for change . . . that’s a tough one. There are so many different values here, and I have a hard time pushing my values if it means stepping all over someone else’s. My approach is to educate and hope that more and more people come to the same point of view. I tried the community garden thing and just hated the way it stirred up all these negative feelings.

    One day at a time. One blog at a time. One letter to the editor at a time. One conversation at a time. It will all add up. Take care. Shelley

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