Backyard Farmer: Keeping Chickens
My neighbor keeps four brown hens in her suburban backyard. Occasionally they cross the road to peck in nearby lawns and act as speed bumps for locals who drive too fast.
Following a nationwide trend, more and more Rhode Islanders are bringing chickens home to roost. Raising poultry to supply eggs for their own consumption is becoming a popular hobby, especially for young families with children. Backyard poultry farmers know that the scrambled eggs on their breakfast table come from free-range chickens with no hormones or antibiotics in their diet. And in a depressed economy it is comforting for people to know that they can produce some of their own food.
Christine Chitnis bought four Ameraucana chicks through Craig’s List in early spring of 2009. Chitnis and her husband are expecting their first child in November and they care deeply about eating locally grown, organic foods. A farm educator at Casey Farm in Saunderstown, Chitnis decided that she could raise healthy chickens in her garden, which is about the size of a two-car garage, on Providence’s East Side.
“Chickens don’t need a lot of space,” she says. “They are easy, lowmaintenance and people-friendly. They’re not noisy, and they provide fertilizer and bug control.” Neighborhood children loved to come by to look at the hens, and their parents loved the pretty blue and green eggs that Chitnis shared with them. “It was a win-win situation.” But her backyard chicken coop ruffled someone’s feathers. It is illegal to keep chickens in Providence and when a neighbor complained, an animal control officer gave Chitnis three days to move them out. They are boarding now at what she hopes will be their temporary home—Seven Arrows Farm in Attleboro.
But Chitnis didn’t give up the fight. In July she presented a petition with more than 700 signatures asking the city council to change the law. PECK (People Encouraging Chicken Keeping) in Providence and the Southside Community Land Trust support the drive to allow city residents to keep up to six chickens—and no roosters. The amended ordinance is working its way through the council’s decision-making process and a ruling is expected in the fall.
Chitnis and others are convinced that many Providence residents keep chickens on small backyard plots, especially in immigrant neighborhoods. Some city homeowners may be concerned about the effect of chicken coops on their property values, but NIMBY neighbors are not a problem for Asher Schofield of Warren.
Raising a few chickens in his backyard has provided delicious teaching opportunities for his two young daughters. “It’s a way for them to learn where their food comes from and to have a fun little pet. You feed them and every day there’s an egg to eat.”
His chickens, an Australorp and two Plymouth Rocks, spring out of their coop in the morning and follow 4-year-old Flavia and 2-yearold Hazel around the backyard. The girls love to dig for worms to feed the chickens. There was one unfortunate incident with a fox last year, but “these things happen. They’re pets but they’re livestock too,” says Schofield. Another teachable moment for Flavia and Hazel.
Ordinances on keeping chickens vary from town to town, and sometimes even in the same community. Warren takes a relaxed view of the trend. Just down the road in Barrington backyard chickens are not welcome but the town may change the ordinance at the urging of several residents. Newport doesn’t allow backyard coops except on a few selected properties with at least four acres of land. The Warwick and Cranston zoning boards require a minimum number of acres, even for small flocks. InWesterly backyard coops must be at least 100 feet from neighboring homes.
Like Providence, Woonsocket prohibits the practice but that didn’t stop a resident who was raising chickens and turkeys in a three-decker neighborhood on Diamond Hill Road, according to Glen Thuot, the city’s animal control officer. “He wanted the eggs for his family and the turkeys for Thanksgiving,” said Thuot.
In South County, where the country life is celebrated, Christine Herron keeps 32 hens and two roosters on slightly more than an acre. Herron says she has always been fascinated by the poultry displays at country fairs. So last year she bought a flock of Rhode Island Reds, Wyandottes, Bantum Ameraucanas and Buttercups from a breeder in North Kingstown.
“It’s kind of nice having them troll around the garden,” she says. “They’re entertaining; they have personalities.”
Chickens create their own ecosystem and that’s fine with Herron, who is trying to create a simpler, more sustainable lifestyle for her family. After the investment in a coop, she says that backyard poultry farming is a low-cost enterprise. Her birds eat vegetable scraps, though they must have chicken feed to produce eggs with hard shells. They eat bugs and help turn over the soil and they even put themselves into the coop at night. She admits that foxes and hawks are local predators and she’s lost quite a few of her flock to them.
Neighbors, however, are not a problem even though the roosters crow several times a day. “If you live in an upscale neighborhood where ordinances tell you what kind of a mailbox you can have, I can see where chickens wouldn’t fit in. But we don’t live in that kind of a neighborhood,” says Herron.
There is a lot of how-to information on the Internet about building coops and raising chickens. RaisingBackyardChickens.org is one of many good sites. But for most suburbanites it’s still an exotic hobby. To encourage novice chicken farmers, Herron and her husband, Andrew Gilmore, organized a spring tour of backyard chicken farms in Wakefield and Narragansett. About 80 people, young families to older couples, turned out on a weekend inMarch for their Habitat for Hens tour (habitatforhens.org). The visitors wanted information on how to build coops and the time and costs involved. Gilmore says he didn’t bother “staging” his coop. “Chickens are messy and I wanted folks to see and smell them.”
Despite predators and the occasional pesky neighbor, backyard chicken farmers agree that store-bought eggs can’t compare with the taste of their own very locally produced eggs. “If I ever have to use supermarket eggs again, it’s going to be a sorry omelet,” says Asher Schofield.