City hens need proper care too (commentary)

City hens need proper care too (commentary)

THE term "locavore" was coined in 2005 by a group of women in San Francisco, Cal., focused on protecting the environment from industrial agriculture. Over time, the term has evolved into a label for consumers that eat only locally produced food.

When shopping at farmers markets in the Washington, D.C., area, it is easy to spot the locavores. They know the local vendors and bypass the sometimes larger variety of products on third-party vendor tables.

FRESHFARM markets, a local nonprofit group that promotes local food with a face, a place and a taste in the Chesapeake Bay region, is one example of a local producer-only market. I found that, even though the food for sale is from local producers, shoppers are still skeptical about the actual amount of time between farm and fork, especially for eggs.

One of the egg producers told me he is concerned that his fresh egg business will take a hit because more of his customers are talking about getting a few backyard hens. His organic eggs were selling for $5.50/doz. that evening, and it's not unusual for him to sell 20-30 doz. four evenings a week.

Tight supplies of non-genetically modified grain are another concern for this producer, who is afraid that having to raise the cost of his eggs will encourage even more of his customers to producer their own eggs.

A few days later, I chuckled when I overheard a gentleman in a local hardware store telling the salesperson he needed to add windows to his hen pen. His question seemed a little odd because this hardware store is just across the Potomac River from our nation's capital.

The salesperson grinned when he saw me listening and said, "You need to talk to this lady. She is a real farmer."

Before I could explain that I had no chicken coop design experience and had grown up gathering eggs from hens with an attitude, I was in the midst of a serious conversation about city chicken farming.

Prior to the heat wave, this man's hens were producing an average of two-and-a-half eggs a day. Now, he said he is lucky to get one egg a day, which is not enough to meet the needs of his family. He said his flock is his stress reliever, and saving a little money each week at the grocery store is an added benefit.

His plan to solve the issue was to increase airflow by putting dropdown windows in the pen and purchasing two replacement hens as soon as possible. He had spotted some hens listed on Craigslist for only $12.00 each that morning, so he had to get moving.

I told him that animal health was always a priority on my farm and that we would never repopulate before consulting with an animal health professional. I suggested that he do the same before he purchase used hens on Craigslist.

Later that evening, I checked with friends in Louisville, Ky., and Minneapolis, Minn., who are involved in sustainable farming projects to ask if backyard chickens exist in their cities. Both reported that keeping hens is quite popular in their local areas.

BackYardChickens.com reports that its membership has increased from 50 members in 2007 to more than 200,000 in 2013 and continues to grow. The group's website notes that many cities already have zoning ordinances that allow for urban hen keeping, and others are considering supportive changes.

In Arlington, Va., supporters of the Arlington Egg Project have been encouraging residents and local authorities to embrace backyard chickens since 2011. They say the higher nutritional value of the fresh eggs and the use of chicken manure as fertilizer for lawns and gardens are two of the many benefits to backyard egg production.

On the opposite side of the debate, the recently formed Backyards, Not Barnyards group lists odor, dust, noise, predators and possible declines in the resale value of adjoining property as reasons to maintain the current laws that require a half-acre of land and a 100 ft. setback.

Over the past couple of weeks, proper poultry care and welfare has been added to the discussion as abandoned chickens have been found in Arlington and surrounding counties. Animal shelter officials and members of animal activist groups are now putting pressure on local officials to consider adding poultry care standards to new ordinances.

Supporting their concerns is a national news report focused on the rise in poultry abandonment across the country. The NBC national news piece, "Backyard Chickens Dumped at Shelters When Hipsters Can't Cope," contends that urban poultry producers are finding out that keeping backyard flocks is labor intensive.

It appears that bad actors are not restricted to conventional livestock production. It is too soon to determine if local animal activists will become actively engaged in the discussion of new zoning rules.

The serious backyard poultry producers, like the gentleman I met at the hardware store, will gladly comply with regulations. They do not view their birds as pets and understand that proper nutrition, care and housing are necessary to maintain a productive flock.

One fact remains: As consumer demand continues to change, backyard chicken farmers have a place in producing food for the world, even if it's just producing a few eggs for their families or their locavore friends.

*Joy Philippi is a fourth-generation Nebraska farmer and pork producer and partners with her parents in Philippi Farms. She has been active in agricultural advocacy for many years and is a former president of the National Pork Producers Council and Nebraska Pork Producers Assn. and a past board member of the National Institute for Animal Agriculture.

Volume:85 Issue:32

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