Melissa Harris-Perry: Welcome back to the Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry in for Tanzina. Today we're having a virtual field trip to the farm, and because we're doing this Takeaway style, we want you to expand your idea of what counts as a farm. For example, I live in North Carolina and my backyard is something of a farm, complete with 5:00 AM chores. It's actually my favorite time of day.
When I first get up, I usually check the raise beds. I've got a tonne of tomatoes on the vine, but they're all green. Need a little more sun to get them red. I've got sunflowers back here, eggplant, tomato plants back here. Lavender, I've got some cucumber, All right, that's me getting out the chick feed. We've got babies and they need a slightly different kind of food.
Then when I'm out here, I'm going to cut some lettuce. A work morning like this, that might be about it. The best part of my backyard farm are my girls. A few leaves of kale here too. I'm going to take all of that over for the chickens. Almost time to wake my girls up.
Oh, yes, I adore these chickens and if you've never heard of chicken math, well, let me tell you, it's real. I fell under their spell and in just a few short years, my backyard flock has grown from just three hens to 24 ladies and one feisty rooster, named Rakem. Raken and these girls. There, door open. Good morning, ladies. Oh, nobody's up? Too dark. Okay, here we go.
It turns out, I'm not the only one flocking these birds. During the Covid-19 pandemic, many people also started raising chickens and it's not just on farms, people in urban areas and big cities are also harvesting eggs with their backyard chickens. I like to call that the salad bar for the chickens.
Here to help us understand what we know about this growth in backyard chickens is Emily Shoop, poultry educator with Penn State Extension, and a farmer. Emily, welcome to the Takeaway.
Emily Shoop: Hi.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Emily, tell us about this growth in backyard chicken keeping that we've seen throughout the country during the pandemic year.
Emily Shoop: Well, I think folks really understood that they were going to have some time at home, maybe a little longer than what we expected in the beginning, but they invested in this home food movement and making sure that they could have a safe sustainable supply of eggs, that they produced on their own. I think that's really the big driver for why folks got into poultry in 2020 and into 2021.
Melissa Harris-Perry: For the industry, what has that meant? By industry here, I mean, the folks who are supplying those chickens to us.
Emily Shoop: It really was a great boon for them. Lots of mail-order hatcheries, farm stores, farm suppliers, sold out of chicks really early on in 2020 and even sold out into 2021, from some different breeds and varieties of poultry that people were interested in.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It is not hard to keep chicks and chickens in your backyard, but it does take a little bit of work and know-how. What I want to do is take a quick break and then when we come back, Emily, I want you to walk us through some of what folks need to know, if they are going to get themselves part of this big chicken keeping boom, but before we go, just what's your one biggest piece of advice to folks?
Emily Shoop: Plan ahead.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Emily, I want to start with asking you what it is that extension services do because I've got to tell you, you all have been so useful to me in my own chicken keeping adventures.
Emily Shoop: That's great to hear, that make sure that my job is useful. As an extension agent, we provide science-based education for everyone. Really, anything from livestock to horticulture to family consumer sciences, lots of different types of things, but this year, my job mostly has been dealing with backyard chickens.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Are chickens the starter sort of backyard farming possibility, or are folks also starting with ducks, pigs, what have you been seeing on that?
Emily Shoop: Yes, we've seen a lot of different types of poultry. Poultry, we kind of identify as anything that we can use for feathers, meat, eggs or those types of commercial things that we can use with birds, but seeing a lot of small ruminants, so goats sheep, as well as rabbits. Folks are getting into small flocks of rabbits now or herds, I guess, of rabbits. It seems like it's kind of the gateway animal, chickens are because they're rally low cost right now, not so much because feed prices are kind of increasing, but low input costs and they have a relatively small footprint for a chicken coop, versus if you were going to invest in like a dairy cow or beef cow or something like that.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Talk about the footprint. About how much space do you need, if you're going to keep some chickens in your backyard?
Emily Shoop: For an adult hen of average size, we say about two square feet per bird, linear square feet. You can always provide more, but we always say don't provide any less than that. That just keeps those birds happy and able to do their natural behaviors, like pecking and scratching and dust debating, sunning themselves, things like that.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Here's the question I'm consistently getting from my neighbors and by the way, I give away a lot of my eggs, which makes them a lot more tolerant of my rooster Rakem, but folks do ask me, "Do you need a rooster in order to have eggs?"
Emily Shoop: No, you actually don't. Hens will lay eggs on their own. If you want fertile eggs, you do need a rooster. If you're going to plan to hatch those eggs and want chicks for maybe next year and chicks out of your own flock or out of your own girls. You don't technically need a male in your coop in order to have eggs.
Melissa Harris-Perry: When you are getting calls from folks who are starting on their adventures, what kinds of questions are they asking you about this process of keeping chickens in their backyards?
Emily Shoop: A lot of what I get right now is disease issues. Not that poultry or disease-ridden animals or anything like that, but folks may have some issues with birds that just aren't acting or feeling themselves. They'll call me and we'll discuss those issues. A lot of times it is a management-time thing, just the way that they're caring for those birds and then sometimes it does require a veterinarian. Unfortunately, I'm not one, but I have lots of friends that I work with, so I can refer those to our veterinarians.
Melissa Harris-Perry: One of the things I have found kind of most surprising and maybe even distressing at times, has been predators and even though we do all the things you're meant to do, there's no way to be four or five years into some serious chicken keeping, and not have lost some chickens to everything, from raccoons to hawks to most recently, quite a wily Fox, which it took us a while to secure against.
What kinds of things do you tell folks who are having predator problems? I mean, we really live like in town, and yet we have all of these.
Emily Shoop: Absolutely. I have a friend actually, that works in Cornell. She's an extension agent, and she's had issues with Fox this year. It really depends on the animal that you're after, the predator to be specific, but I always tell folks to get in contact with their local game warden. There may be ways that they can trap or remove those animals that are a nuisance without having to harm that animal. They can release them back into the wild, the true wild, not the suburbs.
When it comes to aerial predators, that seems to be the one that's big in my area, where we're talking about eagles and hawks and things like that. There are permits that you can get to trap or remove those animals from your property. Just get in contact with your local Game Commission. Those folks are the experts in that field.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We found a little bird netting over the top of the run area, also worked pretty darn well to deter those hawks.
Emily Shoop: Yes, that works great.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Can I ask also about another predator, which is humans, and maybe not so much predatory, but it certainly is true that some municipalities are not friendly to chicken keeping. What kinds of things do folks need to know, as a legal matter, before they start keeping and what are our options to maybe expand the legal footprint for this fantastic backyard activity?
Emily Shoop: The big thing is to check with your local municipality, whether that's your Township, your city, your HOA, whatever your most local zoning authority is, before you invest in poultry. It's never a good idea to run to Tractor Supply or another arms store supplier. Grab chicks, come home and then go look that up. It's that [inaudible 00:09:17]. I try to drill that home every time I talk, but planning ahead, making sure you're in contact with those folks and that you understand the rules because some zoning ordinances may say you can only have so many hens, no roosters, or something like that.
Some places are a lot looser with their restrictions. Some people just outright don't want backyard poultry of their neighborhoods and that's understandable. However, is a great activity, especially for kids and when I see ordinances that really prevent kids from participating in this project, that makes me sad. Ways to fight against these ordinances is that if you do have a chicken coop in existence, that's maybe out of regulation, making sure that that coop is clean, it is well kept, is not an eyesore for the community. That tends to make folks a little more receptive to changing that ordinance.
Then, not to plug my own work, but taking some classes with Penn State or getting familiar with your local extension service and what they have to provide, because that education piece is really important so that your township zoning authority, or wherever you live, they understand that you know what you're doing and that you're going to do this right, and do it right by the birds as well.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Speaking of doing right by the birds, I'm a little worried. We know that pandemic puppies are being dropped off now at many shelters, as a result of folks going back to work. Are your pandemic chickens okay, if you finally get a chance to take a summer vacation?
Emily Shoop: Yes, just make sure you have somebody to feed and water and monitor their behavior, while you're gone, neighbors, family members, something like that.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'll say it again, free eggs go a long way to making your neighbors happy and sometimes even your city council folks happy. Emily Shoop is a poultry educator with Penn State Extension, and a farmer. Emily, thanks for joining us.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.