by Laura Parker Roerden
Best Investments in Sustainability
Many of us have seen movies like Food, Inc or others and learned horror stories about the antibiotic and hormone laden poulty coming out factory farms. Yet buying chicken and pastured-eggs at Whole Foods can be quite expensive. If you care about your food and where it comes from, consider raising your own–even if you only have a small backyard in which to do it. Not only will you be able to benefit of controlling how your food is raised, you’ll be embarking on one of the greatest adventures of your lifetime.
Even though our fifth generation farm was once a poultry farm, I did not come to chicken keeping easily. A famous story in our family is of the littlest grandchild (ME) collecting eggs in our double-decker chicken barn. My father always laughed whenever he told the story of me chucking eggs from a distance into the wire frame basket, breaking a couple dozen eggs in a few particularly hard flung tosses. But I recall him being pretty angry at the time. I myself think I just had a brilliant sense for conserving energy when farming, or perhaps an even better sense for how to get out of farm duties.
My nephew and our fifth-generation farmer Ed was the one who reintroduced chickens to our farm. At the outset we purchased twenty-five Rhode Island Red chicks from our local feed store because it was the breed my grandparents had kept. Rhode Island Reds are good layers and bred for the long New England winters.
The first year, we kept our young chickens inside our farm’s big red barn with a small concrete-based chicken wire enclosure to qualify as outdoor space. Despite the fact that our farm had once supplied eggs and poultry to the entire Blackstone Valley, we were hopeless novices.
I remember that first fall noticing that a lone hen had gotten out and was roaming my vegetable garden. I panicked. I could imagine hawks circling and was pretty sure that with dusk setting in our young chicken would not make it through the night. (I had watched enough Looney Tunes cartoons as a child to know the dangers.)
I enlisted our babysitter and children to help. There was utter pandemonium as all five of us ran around our yard and hayfields with towels and sheets, flinging them at the terrified bird as she ran for cover under brush.
It was almost dark when I announced that we were giving up. The hen could not be caught. We all went back in to the farmhouse where I poured myself a glass of red wine and pondered the fox or hawk that would soon also be having dinner. I was sautéing onions when I glanced out the kitchen window to see the escapee Rhode Island Red casually cross the street to the red barn. She was putting herself back in for the night.
I laughed out load. In that moment I learned that it’s true: chickens do actually literally come home to roost. From then on we allowed our chickens to roam our pastures and yard freely, knowing that they would always come back at dark.
But I had also learned an even more important lesson:
You can take expensive chicken keeping workshops and order fancy chicken coops online. But the best way to learn about chickens is by keeping them.
So if you have been thinking about having some backyard chickens, just do it!
Here are some very simple guidelines I can offer:
Build your own coop Chicken coops need not be expensive; they simply need to provide shelter from the elements and a place to roost and lay eggs. So build your own. Here are some inspired ideas for upcycling and to get your creativity flowing.
Buy Sexlinks or have a plan for re-homing roosters You can buy baby chicks through your local feed store such as Tractor Supply or online in the spring. You will receive the chicks when they are only a day old, which means that your supplier will be sorting the chickens by sex when they first born. Even though you can order all females; it’s likely that your supplier will make some mistakes and you will receive at least one or two roosters with your run. Many towns have ordinances that forbid roosters because they might be considered a nuisance to your neighbors, so consider ordering Sexlinks (a breed of chickens in which females and males are entirely different colors, thereby virtually guaranteeing females) and as a backup have a plan on how to re-home your roosters. Or if you can keep roosters in your community, consider doing so! There are many benefits to having a few roos in your flock.
Free-range or provide an enclosed yard with both dirt and grass access Pasture-raised eggs are so much healthier for us, because of the diet the chickens are eating outdoors. You’ll want to provide your hens with a habitat that has worms, insects, and sufficient dirt for the birds to take “dirt baths”— an important part of their hygiene. For a complete discussion on the benefits of pasture-raised eggs, see Pass the Pastured-Eggs, Please.
If you sell your eggs, sell them at competitive prices THIS might be the most important advice I can offer. Chance are if you’re thinking about keeping backyard chickens, you’re a friend of the local-vore movement. So don’t undercut professional farmers in your area by offering your eggs at a lower price just because you “only need to cover your expenses.” You’ll be doing more harm than good by out competing the local food providers, who are likely struggling to keep in the game.
And lastly: Put away the blankets and towels. Your chickens will thank you for it.
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Learn more about the bi-monthly column From the Shaker: Best Investments in Sustainability. Simple solutions can sustain us!
Laura Parker Roerden is the founding director of Ocean Matters and the former managing editor of Educators for Social Responsibility and New Designs for Youth Development. She serves on the boards of Women Working for Oceans (W20) and Earth,