September 22, 2014
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Cluck Over This: The Chickens of Southwest Florida

More and more, people are raising chickens in their backyard and reaping high-quality eggs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you listen really carefully—over the sounds of the traffic and the pedestrians enjoying a walk in downtown Old Naples—you can just make out the gentle clucks and coos. Inside the confines of a white picket fence, a little hen scratches at the dirt with her spiny foot. She mumbles quietly as she scratches, as if she’s reminding herself not to forget the dry cleaning or to pick up bread for dinner.

     The yard is shaded by fruit trees and has a deep blue pool. In the driveway a glossy black BMW sits like a patient, purebred lap dog waiting for its master to return. The hen is oblivious to it all. She doesn’t notice the traffic swishing by or the smell of the saltwater spray coming off the Gulf—just two blocks away. And she certainly has no idea that she’s scratching and pecking at some of the most expensive real estate in all of Southwest Florida.

     Her owner—who declined to speak with us because his chickens are technically illegal—is clearly not a farmer. He comes to the door in pressed khakis and loafers, looking suspiciously as if he’s just stepped off a yacht. His nailbeds lack even a speck of dirt, and trying to imagine this man fixing a tractor or tending goats is like trying to conjure up an image of Yo-Yo Ma playing the jaw harp: It’s completely absurd.

     But that’s the point. Chicken-keeping is moving from barnyard to backyard, with families flocking to acquire their own hens. This man is just one of many Americans trying to slip—even just a little bit—off the grid. Uncomfortable with our country’s dependency on largescale factory farming and unconvinced that supermarket food is the best we can do for our families, people like this well-groomed gentleman are opting for a do-it-yourself approach to eating. Because of them, the backyard chicken coop is quickly becoming this season’s hottest new garden accessory.

Bonita Doesn’t Chicken Out

     On December 5, after a months-long debate, the Bonita Springs City Council voted 6-1 in favor of a two-year backyard hen pilot program. The next morning, Jennifer Duff ala Hagen—the city planner spearheading the pilot program—found a line of interested would-be hen owners waiting outside her office. Some were new to urban chickens; others had previously owned birds that were confiscated. They all were itching to get their hands on one of the 25 permits up for grabs.

     Duffala Hagen says that she introduced the programafter receiving widespread community requests for suchan initiative. A few years ago, Bonita Springs adopted a sustainability resolution that emphasized creating more local food systems. Duff ala Hagen figured that backyard chicken coops fit neatly under the umbrella of creating local food systems.

     Here’s how it works: Any single family home or duplex that is not part of a gated or deed-restricted community may have up to four hens. Roosters are not permitted. “The ladies,” as Duff ala Hagen likes to call them, must be kept in approved coops. They may not be “free ranging” chickens. Coops must be 20 feet from any abutting residence under separate ownership (i.e. your neighbors), and you may sell neither your chickens nor their eggs commercially. The city also has the freedom to cancel the program anytime within the two-year pilot phase.

     Bonita is the first residential area in Southwest Florida to approve a backyard hen program, but it joins many other Florida locales that already permit the practice. Sarasota city leaders have allowed urban hens since 2011 (although somewhat ironically, citizens in Sarasota’s suburbs are still fighting for the same clucking rights), and Orlando and Miami both have programs in place.

     Duffala Hagen says that Bonita’s pilot program was closely modeled after the one in Orlando. “I knew that if I was going to stick my neck out for this—no pun intended— that basing our program on another existing program in another part of Florida was going to be important.”

     The Orlando initiative was ratifi ed in May of 2012, so it’s still new, but Jason Burton, the Orlando’s chief city planner, says so far there have been no real complaints. Although Orlando is far more densely populated than Bonita Springs, Orlando hen proponents had a clear advantage in getting their legislation passed: A city council member with a personal desire for her own hens helped hatch the plan.

     Patty Sheehan, who represents District 4 in Orlando, is a self-proclaimed edible landscapes nerd. “When I travel, I love to go on urban coop tours,” she says. “I had some friends who had chickens, and I started doing some research. And I found that even some really dense cities, like New York and L.A., have programs.”

     Sheehan and Burton put together a plan and presented it to the Orlando City Council. “They were a little freaked out at first, I think,” remembers Sheehan, adding, “The men on the council especially were concerned that roosters were necessary for this, and I think they were a little off ended when they found out roosters were not actually necessary.”

Know Your Stuff

     Mistaken notions about roosters are not the only misconceptions that people tend to have about chicken-raising. Robert Hallman, the Collier County Extension Agricultural Agent for the University of Florida, insists that education is important. Though there may be a temptation to view hens as little egg-vending machines, he emphasizes that hens are animals and they require specific care.

     “I think it’s important to get educated before you commit to it. I don’t think someone should go out and get chickens without taking a course,” says Hallman. For the most part, people are taking his advice. Hallman has noted a huge uptick in interest for his basic poultry classes. The enrollment in his last “Poultry 101” class was so outstanding that he’s planning to add a “102” session soon.

     “We always have a few chickens in the course that people can hold, and a lot of people find out they’re actually allergic to chickens,” he says. “Once they get next to them, they realize they can’t really be around them.”

     But sometimes, they also realize the opposite: They can’t not be around them.

      That’s what happened to Jovan Sage, a leadership manager for Slowfood USA. The first time she ever held a hen, she was hooked.

      Sage is the non-profit advocacy group’s resident employee “in love with all things chicken,” and it shows. Her enthusiasm for the birds is pure and infectious. The quotes from our interview read somewhat like a Shakespearean sonnet. Had the Bard himself ever been hen-obsessed, these are lines he could have written.

      Sage describes holding her first hen like this: “I cradled her and she was soft, and something in me just settled and this peace came over me.”

     And her experience is one that local chicken keepers echo. The birds are surprisingly soft and instinctually smart, and more often than not, people end up falling in love with them. Debby Van Prooyen, who lives in Naples, says her favorite thing about her backyard birds is that they are loving, intelligent creatures. “I love having a cup of coffee on a Saturday morning with my chickens; for me, that’s Heaven.”

Love Those Eggs

     Chicken keepers don’t just fall for the birds—they also fall in love with the eggs.

     A source who asked to be anonymous due to the unclear legal status of her hens offered me a few of her fresh eggs, swearing they’d be the best I’d ever tasted.

     In my mind, eggs were the cheap protein source I’d relied on through the financially lean times of my life. They were utilitarian at best—the kind of thing you eat and forget. But these—these eggs with their lovable brown speckled shells and their imperfect ellipse shapes—were unforgettable.

     Split open a freshly laid egg and the difference is visible. Both the white and the yolk are much less viscous than supermarket eggs, the particles in each clinging fiercely together and forming a richer, thicker end product. But it’s the color of the yolk that will most surprise you: school-bus orange but with the luminosity of a fine gem. A quiche or omelet made with farm-fresh eggs ends up an entirely different hue of yellow. If a regular egg is a fast food hamburger, a freshly laid egg is a wagyu beef burger constructed by a Michelin-starred chef.

     And that’s what this is ultimately about: creating and enjoying worldclass food from your own little plot of land. It’s about eking out something good with your own two hands (and a hen). It’s about answering that primal urge to provide.

     This is why this movement cuts across so many levels of our society and the demographics are so difficult to pinpoint. The backyard coop is no longer the domain of the rural poor; instead it’s a symbol for a new movement. Even ritzy kitchen retailer Williams-Sonoma is selling ready-built coops plush enough to tempt high-end hen raisers. The most luxe of their offerings will set you back $1,300 .

Local Prospects

     While legal chickens are currently restricted to agricultural areas, the estates-zoned areas of Golden Gates Estates and Bonita Springs, things may be changing soon elsewhere. Curious to see whether the City of Naples would consider a project like Bonita’s, I reached out to Mayor  John Sorey. When his administrative assistant asked what I wanted to interview Sorey about, I casually said, “Whether he thinks urban hen-keeping is something that Naples might consider.”

     Her response was telling: “Oh, God no. But of course I’ll set up a time for you to talk.”

     In reality, the mayor was more sympathetic to the idea than his assistant gave him credit for. Born and raised outside of Nashville, Sorey had goats and chickens and other farm animals growing up. He understands the draw. However, he doesn’t anticipate it being debated in Naples anytime soon, saying, “I don’t see it happening here in Naples. I’d be somewhat surprised with our demographics if it was something our residents were into.”

     But, perhaps Sorey shouldn’t count his chickens before they hatch. Whether he realizes it or not, backyard hens—and the people who love them—are already here.

THE SCOOP ON CHICKENS

Six commonly asked questions about chickens:

Are chickens loud? Roosters are loud. Most urban chicken programs (including Bonita’s) are hen-only. Studies have shown that the noise made by a typical hen is about 70 decibels, which is similar in volume to two humans conversing.

Do chickens carry bird flu? Yes, they can; however, it’s rare for a domesticated chicken to get bird flu. Avian influenza is much more common in wild birds and waterfowl; domesticated chickens in small-scale agriculture setups are unlikely to contract the virus unless they are in close contact with wild birds.

Will putting an Easter egg in a coop inspire your hens to lay more eggs? This is an old myth and it’s not true. Hens will lay without an egg to inspire them—it’s their bodies’ natural process.

Do they smell? Chickens are no more or less odorous than any other pet. When cared for correctly, birds can emit little to no odor.

How many eggs will they produce? This varies, but most hens produce between 1 and 3 eggs per day.

How can I tell their gender as babies? In general, you can’t. If you end up buying a chick that grows into a rooster, you’ll have to find it a home or send it to the stew pot. (However, the Bonita program prohibits slaughtering your chickens on site.)

—AC Shilton

FILLING YOUR HEN HOUSE

BEFORE THEY RUSH TO BUILD A COOP, HOPEFUL HEN BUYERS SHOULD consider a few factors when choosing its residents. The No. 1 restriction in sunny Southwest Florida? Not surprisingly, our hot, humid climate. The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy says chickens that best tolerate this environment are light-colored, lightweight birds with larger combs and wattles (the funky fleshy growths on the top of the head and under the chin) to help dissipate heat. Also, most backyards will be conducive only to calmer breeds that do well with limited space. Beyond those limitations, decide what is most important to you in your flock—bird size, appearance, rarity or temperament; egg size, color or lay rate … even a knack for pest control.

     While backyard chickens have become popular enough that you have the option of browsing countless breeds through more than a dozen determinants with an iPhone app, Pickin’ Chicken Breed Selector ($2.99, Mother Earth News), we’ve narrowed it down to a few interesting heat-hardy choices:

Leghorn and Minorca: These compliant Mediterranean varieties are reputed excellent egg layers, the former producing pearl-white, medium to large eggs and the latter extra-large, chalk-white eggs.

Rhode Island Red and New Hampshire Red: The heavier, dual-purpose (eggs and meat) breeds are well-adapted to small areas. Arguably the finest in flavor, the RIR is considered the best of the best for brown eggs. Its descendant, the “curious” NHR, offers comparably more meat and fewer eggs. Barred Plymouth Rocks and Australorps are friendly dual-purpose alternatives.

Sultan: This rare, striking white bird is just for show. Once kept in the gardens of sultans in the Ottoman Empire, it is tame and bears confinement well. Another ornamental option is the more active Sumatra, with beetle-green plumage and a purplish-black comb and wattle.

Turken: Though it’s not a turkey-chicken cross as its name implies, the Turken is nicknamed “Naked Neck” due to its turkey-like lack of feathering. The bird lays creamy light brown, average-sized eggs and does well in confinement.

—Cayla Stanle

WHAT ELSE CAN YOU RAISE IN YOUR BACKYARD?

Area residents living in agricultural  zones have plenty of pet options beyond the standard cat or dog. Chickens not your thing? Maybe one of these would make a better addition to your fauna family.

Bees: Southwest Florida has more than 200 registered beekeepers between Collier and Lee counties. Requiring little space and maintenance, bees pollinate your backyard blooms and, of course, mean your own store of honey and beeswax.

Goats: They need little shelter and keep weeds in check, and some yield an increasingly coveted milk. You can own up to two hoofed animals (including cows and horses—pigs are a no-go) per acre in Collier County’s estates-zoned areas; Lee County permits farm animals outside Fort Myers city limits on properties larger than one acre.

Llamas and alpacas: Quiet and easy to handle, they bond well with other livestock. Their coats can be shorn every year or two (the alpaca’s fleece is much more desirable), but owners often keep the animals simply as quirky companions.

—Cayla Stanley

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