The Washington Post
Tired of pricey eggs, first-time chicken wranglers are flocking to feed stores
The city slickers fed up with rising egg prices have had questions for Samuel Dodds. Questions best suited for a seventh-grade health class. “Well . . .” Dodds said, hesitating a bit before choosing the delicate words for the task. “I’ ll remind them of the human egg cycle.”
The fact that hens don’t need a rooster around to lay eggs is one of the many mechanics that patient — and occasionally exasperated — employees at country farm and feed stores around the nation have had to explain in recent weeks as urbanites seek to return to the land as backyard chicken farmers.
Dodds is a manager at the Tractor Supply Co. store in Poolesville, where the town commissioners reversed an old ordinance banning backyard chickens last month.
“It started picking up with covid, interest in raising them,” he said. “Now we’re getting people asking for chicks all the time.”
Customers across the region are flocking to feed stores and
seeking freedom from supermarket inflation, greeting chick shipments that come in with a pioneering, DIY spirit.
“Before we even opened last Friday, we had about six people waiting outside for chicks,” said Kerry Good, at the Southern States farm and feed store in Manassas. “I’m one of the bookkeepers, and I was the only one here. So I had to call in the girl who’s good with the chickens to help out.”
Even the hatcheries across the nation that specialize in mailing chickens — from simple Rhode Island Reds to cockapoo-looking Silkies that arrive to the post office in vented, cheeping boxes — are wiped out.
“Due to the increasing egg prices and egg shortages,” Hoover’s Hatchery in Rudd, Iowa, wrote to customers whose orders were canceled last month, “we have experienced a surge in demand, causing us to be sold out all the way through the end of April (might change to May).”
This happened after thousands of commercial flocks were wiped out thanks to widespread cases of avian flu, jacking up the prices of grocery store eggs.
Enter the fantasy of a little backyard coop with nesting boxes full of warm brown eggs. Buh-bye, $8-for-a-dozen cold white ones in squeaky foam cartons.
Not so fast, urban farmers. Beyond the refreshers on the facts of life, virgin chicken wranglers are being hit with the realization that keeping chickens takes hard work.
“It’s an investment of love and empowerment in growing your own food, baking your own bread, raising your own chickens,” said Elizabeth Carpenter, a hen keeper who spent months on petitions, meetings, advocacy and testimony to reverse the Poolesville ban — enacted decades ago after a town episode with a pigeon hoarder that still pains old-timers — on backyard flocks.
“And the truth is, it’s actually not cheap,” Carpenter said.
A food source in the old days, from nest to cleaver, backyard chickens are now considered to be pets by two-thirds of owners, according the American Pet Product’s Association’s annual survey. So the hens known as “meat birds” or “broilers” are less popular than the Golden Cuckoo Marans that lay cacao-colored eggs or pink-egging Salmon Faverolle.
“Yeah, I understand they’re cute now,” said Dodds, the feed store manager helping tutor many new chicken farmers. “I have people who want them to live inside with them. And it just doesn’t work like that.” There’s poop. A lot of it. And roosters. That morning cock-a-doodle-doo is real, and it’s not just a dawn thing. I’ ll never forget the 4 a.m. rooster of my college days in Los Angeles.
Yes, Los Angeles. Backyard chickens are a logical part of households around the globe — a part that often follows families as they immigrate. Chickens weren’t uncommon in my South- Central Los Angeles neighborhood.
Carpenter, the woman who had to fight for the right to keep chickens in Poolesville, a town that revels in its quaintness and where barn chic is the standard, first kept chickens when she was a renter. In Los Angeles.
“It was no problem back then,” she said. Then she had them when she lived in Connecticut.
Only after she moved to the town of farmhouse chic did she realize the custom coop her husband built for their three chooks was illegal.
So she began her chicken crusade. And after months of petitions, meetings, testimony and a hearing, she finally won.
“I feel humbled,” she said, after the 4-1 vote last month, one of the more hotly contested debates the town of 5,708 has seen, generated a new ordinance.
The results of her labor: A maximum of six chickens may be kept. Roosters are prohibited.
A chicken coop is required. (Lots of regulations on cubic and square footage per chicken.)
The minimum setback for coops is at least 15 feet from a lot line and at least 100 feet from neighbors’ structure.
A Backyard Chicken Keeper certificate, or equivalent, shall be required and submitted with any permit application.
Carpenter went to work. “I submitted my application,” she said. “But it’s been declined.”
Her beautiful custom-made coop was 72 feet away from the closest townhouse. And when she took a good look at her neighborhood, it was clear that very few homes would be able to have a coop. Her husband began building a newer, smaller one, close to their house.
So much for freedom.