Home & Design August 31, 2010

A New Pecking Order

The extraordinary, humble, colorful chicken makes a comeback

Drive along Hailey’s back alleys and you may spot a new kind of backyard pet. In this sleepy town, chicken coops have popped up where just a year ago there was nothing but open grassy lawn. Listen closely, and you may even hear the contented clucking of free-range hens. In backyards valleywide, urban chicken farmers are redefining the idea of local food.

  Chicken coops have popped up in Hailey.
A Place to Nest

This chicken revolution is about the food we eat. But it’s also about rediscovering once-common household practices. It’s about small changes that mean big things. Backyard chickens are about homeowners reclaiming their rightful place in the food chain.

Rounding up some eggs for that favorite omelet recipe is as simple as rolling out of bed, throwing on a robe and walking out the back door. There’s something deeply satisfying about eating an egg whose journey from chicken to plate can be measured in paces.

Over the comfortable span of years, we forgot that raising chickens isn’t a complicated task best reserved for professional farmers. Nor are chickens fragile creatures poorly equipped to survive harsh winters. Far from it. Their basic requirements are not so different from our own: food, time with other chickens, and shelter from weather and predators’ nighttime raids.

Anyone with average construction skills can slap together a suitable coop.

Anyone with average construction skills can slap together a suitable coop. Ah, but in our Valley there is style to consider. Our chickens’ environs should be as creatively considered as our own. Some are elaborate, some simple.

Take the modified Airstream trailer that houses a dozen or more hens just south of Bellevue. Or the simple but sturdy wood-frame-and-wire-mesh coop built by 9-year-old Elliot Sweek of Hailey with the help of his dad, John.

Not convinced that backyard eggs are for you? The proof may lie in the coop. >>>



Pick of the Flock

These are not your average poultry. The Valley’s chickens are a much more fashionable sort.

Want an attractive, consistent egg layer? Try the Rhode Island Red. Once a backyard standard-bearer, it was designated the Rhode Island state bird in 1954. According to Storey’s Illustrated Guide to Poultry Breeds by Carol Ekarius, the “Rhode Island Red is one of the best dual-purpose breeds and a super choice for backyard flocks.”

Or how about an elegant bird that’s friendly and cold-hardy to boot? Bred in the United States, the Plymouth Barred Rock is a charcoal-and-white mottled showstopper. This consistent egg-layer was once the most common breed in America.

And then there’s the Araucana, a Chilean breed of chicken developed in the early 1900s. Known for its blue and teal eggs, it’s sometimes called the Easter Egg Chicken. These are just a few of the dozens of “heritage breeds” available to urban farmers. Faced with a crisis of indecision, most locals go for a diversified chicken portfolio.

The birds are more than just egg producers; they’re also entertaining pets. Some even become a part of the family, much like the family dog. “Everyone should have chickens,” said Kristen Coulter, whose chickens roost in a a lavish backyard coop. “They’re fun to watch and, of course, they’re givers,” she said. >>> 



Egg Money

In the old farmsteading days, women often kept a jar stashed atop a tall kitchen shelf full of “egg money.” The money, raised by selling excess eggs, was used to purchase necessities and pay the bills. Egg money also helped empower pioneering women by giving them a stake in their family’s financial well-being.

While the hard-bitten settlement days have passed, the value of home-raised eggs hasn’t. Gannett farmer Dick Springs—whose infectious personality and encyclopedic knowledge of poultry-raising has made him invaluable to the Valley’s new chicken set—explains that backyard eggs are far more nutritious than your standard, store-bought variety.
“The two eggs are not even in the same food group,” he said.

Ever the poultry evangelist, Springs helped found the Wood River Sustainability Center in an old U.S. Forest Service building in Hailey. The center’s motto is “Grown Right, Right Nearby.”

The difference in backyard eggs comes down to how the hens are fed. Factory-farmed eggs come from chickens stuffed into tiny cages, often rendered totally immobile, eating nothing but processed grains and pellets. Backyard chickens have the run of the yard, a veritable buffet of fresh green shoots and scurrying little bugs. Their eggs’ rich-orange yolks and sturdy shells are signs of healthy birds—not to mention one heck of a tasty egg. >>>






Food’s Backyard Roots

For the Valley’s new generation of chicken keepers, local food truly starts at home.

Though covert operations may have existed for some time behind dense shrubbery, the practice wasn’t made legal until April 2010. That’s when Hailey leaders, approved an ordinance allowing Hailey homeowners to keep three chickens apiece.

Though the city has no official census of just how many chicken coops have sprang up in the months since, they definitely number in the dozens. The surge parallels a larger, nationwide phenomenon. It’s been prodded along in part by visionaries like best-selling food author Michael Pollan and the international Slow Food movement.

People are increasingly fed up by the troubling rise of food safety alerts announced by federal food safety officials.

Which sounds safer to you? Eggs collected from a straw-lined nest in a backyard coop or eggs produced in assembly line fashion at a massive factory farm? Each new coop built in someone’s backyard is a vote against the modern industrial food system and a return to a simpler, healthier way of living. “We’re riding the crest of a huge wave,” said Springs, a true urban food guru. “It’s really an empowering action.”

Children stand to benefit as much or more from urban chicken farming. Seeing eggs laid by the family’s flock of backyard chickens and brought to the table for breakfast is a valuable teaching tool about self-sufficiency and personal responsibility. Any three-year-old child is capable of gathering the morning eggs, said Springs. “That is meaningful responsibility.”


Hailey residents: stay apprised of current regulations regarding chickens at http://www.haileycityhall.org/planning/CurrentIssues.asp


 And, don't miss Jenna Resko blogging about her chickens in Fetch: http://www.sunvalleymag.com/Blogs/Fetch/Summer-2010/Country-Legends/


This article appears in the Fall 2010 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.