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City dwellers flock to backyard chicken farming

A homegrown urban agriculture movement has gained momentum in recent years, as evidenced by the growing number of books and Web sites dedicated to the subject. Raising backyard chickens has caught on in big cities and small towns across the nation.

Often inspired by the expanding campaign to buy locally produced food, “locavores” hope to avoid the carbon emissions and energy consumption that come with transporting food.

The production cost is cheap: you can buy chickens for as little as a couple of dollars, and three hens will likely average about two eggs a day. Their waste provides good nutrients for garden soil, too.

Batavia residents Charley and Connie Boyd are vegetarians who have embraced the backyard chicken movement for the eggs, as well as to reconnect with nature.

“It’s nice to be able to raise chickens humanely and get fresh eggs in return,” Connie said. “We consider them to be our pets -- they all have names ( Ripley, LeeLoo and Tamcyn) and we never intend on eating them.”

The Boyds also like consuming products that come from cage-free and hormone-free chickens. The eggs from home-raised chickens are said to be tastier and can have stronger shells, brighter, richer yolks and higher levels of nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids than their commercially raised counterparts.

“Chickens are fun, they have a lot of personality. Sometimes we just sit in the backyard and enjoy watching them. They're really easy pets and they actually produce something in return,” Charley said.

They don’t have a lot of land behind their Montclair Avenue home, but it’s enough to house a large chicken coop with an attached roofed pen, which allows the hens to have daily outside time. It also keeps them safe from predators and from flying away. The coop is currently winterized with tarps and in the warmer months the tarps are removed. Their neighbors, frequent recipients of eggs, don't seem to mind.

For some of these urban farmers, eggs are just the beginning. Unproductive hens are eventually slaughtered. The older a chicken is and the more exercise it gets, the more flavor and texture the meat will have. Since most commercial chickens are confined in small cages and killed when they are about 6 weeks old, their flavor is weaker than their backyard-raised peers, who may be 2 or 3 years old before they make it to the dinner table. However, age does not always mean quality: some older birds may have more flavor, but they can be gamier, with tough, stringy meat.

Andy Martin, also on Montclair Avenue, has been raising chickens for the past two years. The father of four young children built a coop over the backyard sandbox after his children mentioned that it would be fun to have chickens. 

“I went to the Tractor Supply store and bought hens,” Martin said. “It’s a hobby for our family and it teaches our kids responsibility as well.”

Although the family currently only uses the chickens for eggs, Martin hasn’t ruled out butchering the livestock for food once they stop producing.

“That’s why we haven’t named them and we don’t consider them to be pets,” Martin said.

Urban hen keepers are springing up around the country. Backyard Poultry, a magazine founded in 2006, caters to this segment of its audience with articles like “Chickens in the City.” On the Internet, thecitychicken.com offers tips to urban owners on how to keep chickens on a high-rise terrace and there are dozens of books on the subject, including Raising Chickens for Dummies.

Several cities have recently enacted ordinances regulating livestock. According to the Batavia Code Enforcement Office, the city currently does not have any ordinances or laws on raising chickens in the city. Pro-poultry people are free to start their own urban farms.

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