A chicken in every coop; Backyard farming alive and well in the suburbs.
Whitney Mikkelsen wanted her daughters to feel a connection to nature like she did feeding her mother's chickens and gathering eggs as a small girl in Princeton. When she took 7-year-old Zika and 3-year-old Joanna to an agricultural supply store last spring, a box of fluffy chicks was an irresistible lure; soon a half-dozen baby birds were ensconced in the pantry at the Mikkelsen's West Boylston home.
Three months later, the gangly fowl weren't so cute and when three of them started crowing, the family realized they were roosters.
By then Zika and Joanna were very attached to the chickens and had given them names. Lady Gaga and Lucy were favorites, even though Lucy was really a he. Although West Boylston is a "right to farm town" with no bylaws prohibiting the raising of chickens in backyards, roosters are personae non grata in most neighborhoods. The boys had to go.
"Even though we knew we couldn't keep them, we wanted them to have a good home," Mikkelsen explained. On Craigslist they found a farmer building a flock of meat birds who picked up their roosters and later sent photos from the farm.
The rooster incident led the family down another path they hadn't anticipated: an unexpected lesson in chicken sex education. "We had to explain to the girls why we didn't need the roosters for eggs," Whitney noted.
Among other lessons in backyard chicken farming, the Mikkelsens learned that not all neighbors appreciate the birds' tendency to seek out bugs and grubs in lawns other than their own. After one jokingly threatened to make stew out of any encroachers, the family has been cautious about letting the birds out of the coop and fenced-in run that Fred Mikkelsen built. "We let them out only in our yard while we're out there too," Whitney Mikkelsen said.
Most of the hens started laying in September, supplying the family with eggs for breakfast every morning. The Mikkelsen girls have visited neighbors bearing gifts of a half-dozen eggs. "They're really appreciated," Mikkelsen said. "Eggs make everyone happy."
Eggs from his prolific backyard chickens led Paul Boutiette to a profitable online business. He and his wife had a flock and a small petting zoo at a campground they operated in Manchaug, a village of Sutton. Boutiette wanted to sell some of his chickens' bounty and turned to the Internet to find a source for egg cartons. When he couldn't find a single one, he decided to do it himself.
Boutiette found a manufacturer of egg cartons in Palmer, one of only three in the United States. The company has since moved to Canada. "They reluctantly sold to me - they weren't used to small orders," Boutiette said. "I had to pay in cash up front and pick them up in my station wagon. My first order was five bundles of 250 cartons."
He registered a website: www.eggcartons.com and sold the cartons at 15 cents apiece. The first year he made $50,000. "I figured this was a good hobby business," Boutiette said. That was 12 years ago. Since then, sales to backyard chicken farmers have more than doubled every year. The business has nine employees and has outgrown several trailers and warehouses; eggcartons.com is now located in the Manchaug Mill complex. In 2011, the company made more than $2 million from sales of egg cartons and other chicken paraphernalia.
Even though he's in meetings most days, Boutiette still tends a flock of 21 chickens at home.
"I eat fresh eggs every morning," he said. "Sometimes I get them warm, right out of the nest."
Hannah Litt, co-author of "A Chicken in Every Yard," a guide to chicken keeping, grew up in Grafton and learned about chickens from family friends who lived down the street. "I thought they were the coolest thing," she said.
Years later, she and her co-author husband, Robert, had their own flock at home in Portland, Ore. The book is based on their experiences, which expanded beyond the backyard when Robert, who was studying for a master's degree in agriculture, wanted to provide a better feed than what was commercially available.
"Robert knew someone who had a mill, so they developed a batch of feed that had no animal byproducts in it," Hannah Litt explained. "We had to buy a minimum of one ton of feed, which we kept in the basement and sold on Craigslist. It went like hotcakes."
Three years ago, the couple opened a small storefront selling feed; it quickly grew to include more chicken merchandise. The Urban Farm Store has since moved to more spacious quarters where the Litts and their staff also conduct workshops on how to raise chickens.
"When we started, there weren't any books targeted at people who raise two or three chickens in the backyard," Hannah Litt said. "A Chicken in Every Yard" covers practically everything a first-time urban chicken farmer needs to know, from breeds to feed, shelter and protection.
Keeping predators - especially other family pets such as dogs - at bay is the biggest challenge, according to the Litts. "You need to have a fence that's high enough to keep dogs out," said Hannah Litt. "We have a 6-foot fence in our backyard."
A common myth the Litts are eager to dispel is the amount of time chickens require.
"After your initial time with chicks, it's really only about five minutes in the morning and five minutes at night," said Hannah Litt. "I thought I was getting into a major commitment of time and money, but it really hasn't turned out that way."
She describes her flock of 10 chickens as "pets that give back. They're enjoyable; their behaviors are delightful and they are pretty as can be."
Chicken keeping can be a neighborly thing, too. When two Shrewsbury next-door neighbors cooperated to raise a flock of baby chicks, it became the basis of a deep and lasting friendship.
Six years ago Celia Brown and Terry Lunt joined forces to help replace chickens at Heifer Project's Overlook Farm in Rutland after a fire destroyed the livestock barn and many of the animals.
"We ordered day-old chicks from the Cackle Hatchery in Missouri. When the box of 26 arrived at the Shrewsbury post office we all went to pick them up," said Brown.
The three Lunt children: 7-year-old Caroline, 5-year-old John and 2-year-old Mary Kate were captivated by the baby birds.
After six weeks of attentive care, 20 young chickens went to Heifer Project; the families kept six. The children's favorite was Big Mama, a White Brahma breed that became a pet. Brown and the Lunts continue to keep about a half-dozen laying hens in their spacious backyard coop.
The coop construction was another cooperative venture. Brown designed it; her husband and Lunt's were the builders. Another neighbor donated windows and a door. Unlike many backyard coops, this one is big enough for humans to stand up inside. "It makes it so much easier to clean and to gather eggs," Lunt noted.
Learning to care for a backyard flock involves some trial and error; Brown and Lunt recommend taking a workshop on raising chickens before starting. There also are several chicken forums and blogs online. (See sidebar for resources.)
"The birds generally lay through two moltings, about two years," Brown explained. "If you want to have a steady supply of fresh eggs, you have to replace the flock. The problem is, the children get attached to them and moving the birds out is hard on them."
Last year's flock developed a pecking problem. "We spent a good part of last winter painting chicken wounds with antiseptic," Lunt said. Brown researched and found a source for problem birds: the Aviculture Exchange Farm in Westford where retired schoolteacher Tom Doherty cares for and sells chickens.
Over the years Brown and Lunt have developed a system of shared responsibility for their chickens, alternating weeks of coop cleaning and egg gathering. "It's not a lot of work, but you need to care for them every day," Lunt said. "Chickens are fairly easy but they need to be dry, draft-free and have food and water."
Brown, whose sons are both grown, enjoys helping the Lunt children become comfortable with the birds. Caroline Lunt, now 13, is adept at calming skittish hens and often can be found in the coop observing them. "When you get to know them, it's so rewarding," she said. "The chickens trust you; they know you're their caregiver."
"It's very rewarding for all of us to experience the natural order of things, watching the chickens grow and develop," added Caroline's mother.
The current flock didn't start laying until Thanksgiving and the Lunts were away for the weekend. "No one in my household was particularly interested in the appearance of eggs," Brown noted, "but when the Lunts returned, I ran over with the news. Finally someone got excited."
Research before you fly
Intrigued by the idea of eating local? Salivating at the thought of fresh eggs for breakfast? Daunted by the process of producing them? If you're a prospective urban chicken farmer with the emphasis on urban, you should educate yourself before buying a box of fluffy chicks.
There are websites such as www.backyardchickens.com, www.urbanfarmstore.com and www.citychicken.com with advice and links to merchandise. A popular chicken blog is www.raising-chickens.org; www.citygirlfarming.wordpress.com also has recipes and tips on how to make your own soap.
"A Chicken in Every Yard" by Robert and Hannah Litt is an informative and entertaining book with beautiful illustrations of popular breeds. "Chick Days" by Jenna Woginrich focuses on the early stages of chicken development with lots of great photos. Backyard Poultry Magazine is chock-full of chicken advice.
If hands-on learning is more your style, contact the Northeast Organic Farming Association at www.nofamass.org for information on chicken-raising workshops.
Local advice on raising chickens with a strong dose of common sense is the message at a popular workshop by Jassy and Tom Bratko, owners of High Meadow Farm in Hubbardston.
The Bratkos have been raising chickens for 20 years; they have a flock of 12 layers and also raise 100 meat birds following organic practices. They will conduct a three-hour workshop at their farm on April 21. The workshop is sponsored by the Northeast Organic Farming Association (www.nofamass.org); register online at the NOFA website.
A renewed interest in eating local and concern about food safety motivate most of the novice chicken farmers who take the three-hour class. "Some of them don't even know how to hold a chicken," Jassy Bratko said.
Other questions she's frequently asked:
Do you need a rooster for an egg-laying flock? (No) Are chickens allowed in backyards? (It depends on the location; some towns allow them, others don't. Check with the town clerk before buying chicks.)
One of the most important lessons is how to keep your flock safe from predators. Bratko notes that means not only wildlife such as raccoons, foxes and coyotes, but more commonly the neighborhood (or your own) dogs.
"You need to plan for housing," Bratko said. "You have to protect your chickens."
CUTLINE: (1) Jassy and Tom Bratko (2) Fred, Joanna, Whitney and Zika Mikkelsen, with chicks Honey Pie and Dot Dot, at their house in West Boylston. (3) The popularity of raising chickens has led to a profitable online business for Paul Boutiette, who operates eggcartons.com in the Manchaug Mill complex in Sutton. (4) Mary Kate, Caroline and John Lunt of Shrewsbury have shared responsibility for their chickens. The Lunts and their neighbor, Celia Brown, alternate weeks of coop cleaning and egg gathering.
PHOTOG: PHOTOGRAPHY BY TOM RETTIG