Most Americans are content to get their eggs from the grocery store, but more people have grown to appreciate the quality of fresh eggs from pasture-raised chickens on local farms. Organic and free-range eggs are available at farmers markets and local co-ops, but some local-food enthusiasts eliminate the middle man and raise chickens right in their own backyards.
About 3 percent of U.S. homeowners have chickens, and interest in raising small-scale homesteading has grown so much that percentage could double this year, according to an April marketing survey conducted for farm-and-garden retailer Tractor Supply Company, which has stores in Fulton and Montgomery counties.
At Agway in Johnstown, purchasing manager George Falk says demand for young chickens has grown in recent years, especially for breeds that produce brown eggs. On Wednesday, the store had dozens of chicks on display, including leghorns (white-egg layers), black sexlinks (brown-egg layers), and araucanas, which produce bluish-green eggs.
Kirsten Fredericks holds a chick inside a barn at her family’s farm in Glen.
The Leader-Herald/Bill Ackerbauer
Some people like to put chickens and other fowl, such as guinea hens, right in their gardens, because they devour grubs and bugs that can damage vegetable plants.
"They eat 'em right up," Falk said.
And chickens can help gardens flourish in another way - they produce ample natural fertilizer.
On the Net
A sampling of sites from around the web that offer information about raising backyard chickens:
Like growing vegetables in a garden, keeping chickens in the backyard is an easy way to produce some of one's own food, a growing priority for people concerned about nutrition and how their eating habits affect the economy and the environment.
Janis Freeman and her family have 10 hens on their property in the Rockwood area, in the town of Johnstown. They keep the chickens for eggs but not for the meat. Freeman said having control over a small part of her food supply is one of the reasons she keeps hens on her property.
"You can vote with your actions and your dollars," said Freeman, a family nurse practitioner who works at the Nathan Littauer Hospital's Primary Care Clinic in Caroga. She said more and more people want to avoid the chemicals in processed foods and get more of what they eat from local sources, and raising chickens for eggs is just one way to address that concern.
"It's just standing up for your health and your food," she said.
"My grandfather had them when I was a kid," Freeman said. "I had read a lot about it, and I told my husband, gee, I really want to get some chickens."
People who are new to keeping chickens can start small, with perhaps a half-dozen young-adult hens, Freeman said.
Raising baby chicks to maturity is more challenging, Freeman said, because "you really have to pay attention to them."
Baby chicks are available for a few dollars apiece from stores such as Agway and Tractor Supply as well as online companies such as the Murray McMurray Hatchery in Iowa, which sends them by mail in crates. The company has a minimum order of 25, however -more than is recommended for someone new to keeping chickens.
Falk said Agway recently conducted an educational seminar for people interested in learning more about raising chickens.
State law says anyone buying baby chicks must buy them in batches of six or more at a time, because they are animals that thrive in groups.
"They just want to be sure you're serious about it," Falk says. "I wouldn't want to be all alone. Would you?"
Although there is a long checklist of considerations - providing shelter and enough space as well as safety from predators - chickens are much easier than other food-producing animals, so they're a good starter animal for people getting into homesteading.
"They're happy if they see you twice a day to bring their food and water," Freeman said.
She said her birds have the run of the yard, but they always come home to their coop at night, and she is working on a "chicken tractor," a kind of mobile coop that can keep the hens safe and be moved around to different parts of the property.
Keeping a rooster is not necessary, especially for people keeping chickens on a small scale. Freeman said she has had two roosters, both of whom have passed on to the big barnyard beyond the sky. One fell prey to a hawk, she said, and the other one was a "big 16-pounder" who may have died of a heart attack.
Trial and error
"Start small, then your mistakes of trial and error will be smaller," said Kirsten Fredericks, who moved with her family to this area from Connecticut in 2007. They had been looking for an affordable farm property on which to set up their homestead and found one off Reynolds Road in Glen.
In addition to Fredericks, her husband, Carl, and their three teenage sons, the Fredericks' farm is home to several cows and pigs as well as 21 mature hens, a rooster and a new brood of chicks.
They started raising chickens four years ago with a small batch of hens, and one of their first "trial-and-error" experiences involved a raccoon who managed to get into the hens' shelter.
"You need to know your predators," Fredericks said. She lost one hen to a visiting dog, but she said the family's own pets are familiar with the birds and don't bother them.
A typical chicken's life is not a long one, and after a hen's egg production tapers off - typically after two years - the bird is likely headed for the soup pot.
The Fredericks' egg-layers are not a commercial enterprise, she said, but the hens produce more eggs than the family can eat - enough of a surplus that they have eggs to give away to relatives or trade to friends and neighbors. The pigs in the barn will occasionally get eggs as treats, she said. They gobble them whole, shells and all.
The difference between eggs from pasture-raised chickens and those from large commercial farms is visible in the color of the yolks. Fredericks said the vibrant orange-yellow yolks of fresh, locally produced eggs is product of the hens' nutritious diets.
"There's a real satisfaction in producing your own eggs," Fredericks said. "I enjoy keeping animals. It's been a real education for the boys ... and they're extremely entertaining to watch."
Legality in cities
While the sight of chickens strutting around the yard is associated with rural life, more and more cities and suburban municipalities are allowing residents to keep small broods of hens.
"Five hens can't make more of a mess than a dog," Fredericks said. "They're a lot less dangerous than dogs."
A recent Reuters report said 166 large U.S. cities permit backyard chickens, including Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and Atlanta. Closer to home, residents of several Capital Region communities have been fighting their municipal governments to get permission for keeping hens in small numbers. Roosters are not welcome in densely populated areas, where their ear-piercing crowing tends to upset the neighbors.
In the cities of Gloversville and Johnstown, chickens are not banned outright, but for all intents and purposes they are not allowed. Gloversville city code says farm animals, including chickens and other fowl, are allowed only on properties five acres or larger - which rules out nearly all the residential areas of the city. Johnstown's city code and zoning law don't specifically outlaw yardbirds, but city officials said the code enforcement officers do not issue permits for henhouses, and the zoning law may be revised to make the ban more explicit.
In Schenectady County, Niskayuna town officials took a couple to court for keeping chickens, and they were ordered to give up their birds. Now, John and Brenda Helm are circulating a petition calling for the town to allow "micro-farming" in certain residential areas of the town. For more information, see www.niskayunachickens.com.
If the local-food trend continues to gain traction, more municipalities around the region could hear from residents who want the right to keep hens on their small urban homesteads, according to Dennis Mudge, the University of Florida's agriculture extension agent in Orlando, Fla., which has begun granting chicken permits.
"Everything is moving toward raising your own food, and [keeping chickens] is just a natural way to do that," Mudge was quoted as saying in the Reuters report. "It's really picked up and, besides, it's so much fun."
Assistant City Editor Bill Ackerbauer can be reached at email@example.com