In a manor most fowl: urban chicken farming

Not everyone gets to see George Clooney strut around in South Lansing. But Daedra Craig does. She says that George loves roaming around her garden, but can be difficult to put to bed at night, at least when the pickings are good.

"The funny thing is, no one realized that George was really a girl in disguise," says Craig of the ironically named hen that lives in her Lansing backyard. "The two neighbor boys named her George Clooney because of her gray feathers."

Craig is among a growing group of city dwellers flocking to the urban livestock movement. Both Lansing and East Lansing adopted ordinances in the late 2000s that allow residents to keep from four to five hens. In Ingham County, a newer ordinance is gaining traction to allow homeowners to keep up to two goats.

"I can’t imagine living without chickens," says Craig, who has decided to stay in Lansing after graduating with a master’s in horticulture from Michigan State University. "Hopefully I will always be in a municipality where I can have them. Living in Lansing is a treat."
 
Walking on eggshells
 
Craig's interest in backyard chickens is part of a larger social movement in which people want to control and know the origins of what they eat.

"Urban agriculture is a big part of my life," says Craig, as she boasts she has had a garden since she was 13. "Having chickens is just another way I can close the loop and provide food for my family." Craig’s mixed flock of breeds with names like buff orpington, black australorp and aracauna has the ring of a sci-fi novel, but the benefits of her egg-laying brood are not fantasy.

Chicken care, she says, is easy, and simply involves letting hens in and out of a ready-made, city-sanctioned coop and into a fenced yard or run. Craig’s garage is coop-suitable, and her fenced-in run passes muster with boundaries that are 10 feet from the property line and 40 feet from any residential structures.

Feeding is simple, too, and consists of a pre-made mix from a commercial feed store like Soldan’s Feed and Pet Supply. Craig says she regularly supplements the mix of corn, wheat and minerals with kitchen scraps, weeds and popcorn.
In return, each of her five hens lays an average of one egg a day, ensuring that Craig always has at least a dozen eggs in her refrigerator.

“I know a lot of special egg dishes now,” she says. “And it’s great having fresh eggs to bake with. The yolks are darker so it gives a rich buttery color to any baked good.”

Taylor Reid understands the motivation of many urbanites to be involved in raising chickens, keeping goats, and essentially, supplying more of their own food.

As the owner of the informational website Beginning Farmers, the MSU doctoral candidate in community, food and agriculture makes a study of the values and learning processes of first-generation farmers.
 
"It’s a neat thing to walk out every morning and get your breakfast from these animals that you interact with on a daily basis," says Reid. "It’s a relationship. It’s the same reason that community gardens have been growing so rapidly in cities. People are more interested in growing their own food and participating actively in the food system rather than passively as consumers."
 
Pecking orders

According to backyardchicken.org, about 1,000 U.S. communities in 20 states have passed chicken ordinances. Some, like East Lansing, charge minimal fees. Others, like Lansing, don’t. Each has particular stipulations on fencing, housing and proximity to housing and property lines.  
 
Neither Lansing nor East Lansing has immediate plans to adopt ordinances that would allow pygmy or dwarf goats within city limits. Goats, unlike chickens, would be regulated through the county and more than likely will require licensing.
"We’ve had hearings on the issue, and the response has been more positive than not," says Ingham County Commissioner Todd Tennis. "Mostly, we hear that goats make excellent pets, that they’re intelligent and sociable. The support is about two to one."

Chicken-wise, Lansing, East Lansing and some outlying townships and villages are becoming increasingly engaged with backyard fowl.

"We automatically grant permits," says East Lansing City Clerk Marie McKenna. "Our planning and zoning department goes out and inspects, and we don’t require background checks. Chickens don’t have any criminal histories and don’t generally poop where they shouldn’t poop."
 
Elizabeth Marazita hopes to join the 24 households including two of her friends who currently tend backyard fowl in East Lansing. She and her family raised Rhode Island Reds in Seattle and enjoyed building their own Chinese-style coop and observing fowl behavior before moving to the campus community.

"'Pecking order' is a true expression in the hen world," she says. "There are certainly leaders and followers in the flock. We had one poor younger hen who'd become 'hen pecked.' When she matured and outgrew the other hens, she became the lead chicken and hen pecked the others."
 
Lansing Eastsider Corie Jason is also a self-appointed neighborhood expert on chicken habits and behavior. Jason, her husband Matt, and three boys are the caretakers of five chickens of varying breeds and plumes.
Hawkie, the four-year-old veteran of the family flock, has been with the Jasons since they build a light-bulb heated coop from reclaimed wood. Michigan-tolerant bamboo provides shade for a covered chicken wire run that is deeply anchored in the ground to protect fowl from raccoons, possums and other wildlife.
 
"They can be really relaxing to watch," says Jason of the hens that pick and scratch and pull up worms and seeds from the lawn and garden. "They do follow the leader and establish a pecking order. They’re a lot of fun."
 
Jason ordered her "starter flock" over the Internet from a Michigan hatchery who shipped the two-day-old chicks special delivery to a nearby post office. She said that chicks are also available locally each spring from places like Soldan’s, Tractor Supply and Family Farm and Home.
 
Jason grew her connections with the hen world by becoming a leader in the local 4-H. She gives informal talks on poultry to homeschoolers and local community groups, and hosted the first coop tour of the estimated 30 Eastside homes with backyard chickens. She is also planning to make her "mad-chicken" themed fundraiser an annual event to benefit the Allen Neighborhood Center and Mid-Michigan Environmental Action Council.
 
"Raising chickens isn’t hard," says Jason of the few hours of care, cleaning and feeding required each week. "Chickens aren’t smelly and they’re not loud. The biggest thing is to be a responsible owner, especially when you’re so close to your neighbors."

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Ann Kammerer is a freelance writer for Capital Gains.

Photos © Dave Trumpie
 
Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.
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