Which came first, an interest in sourcing our own food or having a lot more time on our hands? A generation planting victory gardens gave way to factory farms, and then to our reliance on stocking our pantries from grocery aisles. Soon, most people no longer knew where a cut of meat came from or the seasonal nature of the food we ate. One silver lining of the COVID -19 pandemic is family time and space to create a garden and learn the delicious fun that a flock of backyard chickens can bring.
Since Michael Pollen launched a national conversation with the publication of An Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food, the effect of food on our health has grown in our consciousness. Now our food supply is threatened by scarcity and illness. The increased interest in building resilience is the new “do-it-yourself” theme of suburban markets creating a new local urban farmer.
Spring weather combined with working from home has given gardening a big boost. (See Clover Carroll’s gardening story in this issue). More families are realizing that just a few chickens can bring a productive supplement to our home food supply. For the past two years, backyard chicken coops, raised garden beds and composters have been made locally by Cael Kendall, owner of Urban Garden Workshop (UGW) in Waynesboro. Kendal offers delivery and installation as an “essential business” and refers to himself as the “Wood Guy” from San Francisco’s Bay Area who relocated to Crozet in 2015. UGW uses sustainably harvested cedar from the east coast to craft rustic wood products. While less expensive coops, made in China, can be purchased at retail outlets such as Tractor Supply or Home Depot, Kendall is sure they are low quality and expects them to fall apart in a few years. West coast versions are made of salvaged redwood. Kendal describes his creations as the world’s first reclaimed wood backyard coop kits—made in USA—that can be shipped via UPS or FedEx. See more on Facebook or his website www.urbangardenworkshop.com.
A well-established source for the many types of backyard birds is the Murry McMurray company available through mail order. Their website, www.mcmurrayhatchery.com, offers educational information on all breeds and housing options. Since many new customers are backyard flock owners, this popular hatchery has a minimum order of six for select breeds of standard-sized chicks. Only certain breeds are eligible. Bantams and some rare breeds do not qualify.
Female chickens are known as pullets until they reach reproductive maturity and start laying eggs at 22 weeks old. Thereafter they are called hens. Roosters are for breeding or meat on the dinner table. You can purchase one or more pullets from the mail-order site. Once they become accustomed to their new surroundings, they will begin to lay.
Chris Morton is a life-long farmer, well-known as the Pullet Man (search under that name on Facebook). Morton raises two flocks a year with a variety of breeds and hybrids. He is now offering hens as young as 12-to-14-weeks-old due to strong demand and he expects to be sold out by October this year. He delivers to your coop.
According to the Virginia Cooperative Extension office, if you own property in Albemarle County zoned RA (Rural Agricultural), you have the right to have chickens. If your land is zoned Residential, then you do not have the right. However, if your Homeowners Association (HOA) has no restrictions, you won’t have an issue unless a neighbor complains. It’s a good idea to discuss plans with your neighbors and share some eggs. Check that any baby chicks have been “sexed” at purchase. The biggest reason for complaints is noise, a well-known feature of roosters.
Chickens love to forage on grass, eat bugs and are natural scavengers. A backyard coop can provide a certain amount of space to run but the available yard should be free of pesticides and herbicides as these chemicals stay in the soil and affect the health of the animals. Chickens can damage gardens and flowerbeds.
Feed is a vital component in the health of an animal and quality of its eggs. Jillian D’Aquino manages New Country Organics at 801 Second Street in Waynesboro, a local provider of certified organic, soy-free grains that are protein-rich from field peas, corn, milo, kelp, oats, wheat, alfalfa, and fish meal enriched with probiotics, vitamins and minerals. D’Aquino has noted an increase in questions on raising chickens in the growing business. Curbside pickup is available by calling ahead to (434) 933-3337 or online ordering. Certified organic by Commonwealth of Virginia, the business started twenty years ago as Countryside and now has global organic standing.