For most, eating local means skipping supermarket produce trucked in from who-knows-where and swinging by the local farmers market or farm stand and keeping a vegetable garden. But a burgeoning subset of Hudson Valley residents are taking it to the next level and keeping livestock, especially chickens. It’s only been a couple generations since Ulster County was farm country, but here in 2011, backyard farming is bringing agriculture back in a small way.
The benefits are numerous: a sense of connection to one’s food source (in this case, eggs), the knowledge that the chickens are leading a cruelty-free life and aren’t loaded up on antibiotics, cheap and fresh ingredients for omelets and cakes, and deer tick control.
“This has been a special time for our family,” said Kelly Myers of Saugerties. “Our kids know where their food comes from, and they have learned that we have a reciprocal relationship with our land and environment.”
But there are drawbacks, too. There’s the responsibility of housing the chickens and daily upkeep, and neighbors are sometimes none-too-thrilled when you decide to play farmer. As we spoke with locals who keep chickens, a recurring theme of neighbor conflict and reticence about revealing locations, names and legal statuses emerged.
Some area animal-rights activists say keeping family chickens or old-fashioned egg farms is only somewhat better than factory farming. Hens lay for a few years but might live for double that. While some families keep the retirees around as pets, others “throw them in the pot,” one backyard farmer said, asking that he not be identified. Many professional egg farms sell meat.
Catskills Animal Sanctuary founder and director Kathy Stevens, whose most recent book is titled, “Animal Camp: Lessons in Love and Hope from Rescued Farm Animals,” said that the backyard chicken debate is often over-simplified.
“It’s a shame when people talk in sound bites about complicated issues,” she said, adding that although she’s no fan of the backyard chicken movement, it’s clearly possible to be a
“a loving and responsible chicken caretaker.” Please don’t loosen the zoning, but it’s “wrong to suspect the motives of everyone who has chickens in his backyard,” said Stevens.
The amateur defense
Town of Saugerties residents enjoy a legal right to farm chickens kept properly 50 feet away from the property line without unduly annoying their neighbors, and village residents can too if the Village Board approves a special application. In Woodstock, 12 chickens per acre are okay if your acreage exceeds one and one-half.
Saugerties’ right-to-farm law makes the swelling numbers of small-flock growers happy, but complaints from foes of family fowl are keeping Building Inspector and Zone Enforcement Officer Alvah Weeks extra busy. Saugerties’ zoning laws prohibit little cultivated for personal use and enjoyment but that changes as soon as you sell eggs – or anything else. In the village, rules are more stringent.
Thinking about keeping a small flock of laying hens? If you’re unsure of neighbor reaction, abandon all thought of making a little egg money on the down low. The neighbors may gripe about the proximity of chicken excrement, but so long as you stay amateur, you’re really okay if you follow the common-sense rules.
Chickens are foragers, and most problems arise from them wandering into adjoining properties and roads. “I get a lot of calls complaining about chickens being a public nuisance,” said Weeks. Last year, Weeks had to shut down a new chicken farm in west Saugerties because wandering birds kept getting hit by cars.
During the daytime, backyard chickens hunt for insects. Ticks are a favorite snack. In an area which has a lot of Lyme disease, they’re effective, non-toxic pest control. But don’t count on your neighbors’ gratitude. Some people just don’t want homeowners to keep chickens, period.
Redefining companions and good eggs
Coldwell Banker Village Green realtor Laure Ylvisaker has adopted a number of chickens from the Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary in Willow, a rescue organization she supports.
“They have saved so many animals from slaughter and abuse,” said Ylvisaker.
To-date Ylvisaker has not sold a Woodstock-area home with an active flock of backyard chickens, but she thinks it would be good for sales, not bad. Clients have bought in the community and then acquired chickens, she said.
“Once one starts it is hard to imagine a property without them!” she said.
Every winter morning, Laurie mixes hot oat meal with molasses, olive oil, and home-made veggie stock and feeds it to her chickens. Some of her chickens lay eggs, which are unusually delicious and a special treat Ylvisaker occasionally shares with human friends.
Ylvisaker recently received the following email from a grateful friend in New York:
Laurie, I actually thought I “knew” eggs —I usually buy mine at the Union Square green market. But if what I’ve been eating have been eggs, then your gift to us was not to be called an egg; your eggs are in a category by themselves. They were so creamy and fulsome in taste, it was unbelievable.
Roberta Jackson, owner of Green Heron Farm, an equestrian center on John Joy Road, for over 30 years, had her small flock wiped out by a raccoon.
One Guinea hen survived, probably because this type of attractive fowl cries loudly and fights hard, which protects ordinary chickens – which frighten easily – from predators.
“A friend just gave me three (chicken) hens which were being pecked at” harshly by the flock in their former residence, she said. “Now my poor lonely Guinea has some company!”
Jackson, active in Ulster County’s 4H program for two decades, said her late mother had a favorite hen named Goldie – her constant gardening companion – a devoted gulper of unearthed worms and seeds.
“They give me great joy, too,” she said. “I just love to watch them.”
Eggs are a plus, but her birds – and ducks, too – are really companions, she said.
Willow resident Sue Reynolds has run a family daycare for 20 years out of a home she built on the family farm. Collecting the eggs, caring for the chickens and learning about the cycle of life on a farm are “all important lessons” kids can learn from being around backyard chickens, she said. Her flock “is a big draw” for area parents wanting their children to learn about Mother Earth, responsibility and respect.
A bear recently whacked most of her flock but she just bought chicks mail-order for My Big Backyard, the name of her residence-provided daycare. Her chickens clean the play area of ticks on a daily basis, she said.
Sometimes she splits poultry-related orders from large agricultural companies with purchase minimums with Woodstocker Matt Longyear, age 30. The Central Hudson lineman “saved the family farm” managing the chickens and other livestock after his mother Kathy went into grief-shock four years ago following the death of her husband in an automobile crash.
Matt’s dad bought Long-Year Farm 35 years ago, after getting out of the army following the Vietnam conflict. The couple moved to Woodstock to live off the land in peace.
“Chickens are so much fun to be around,” said Matt, who said his parents were “tickled” when he decided, in his early 20s, that he wanted to live on the family farm and help out. Not rich, the Longyears figured out a way to give their son a bit of land.
Matt, now a married father of two tiny chicken-lovers, built a house on the Schoonmaker Lane property and really stepped up to the plate when tragedy struck, his grateful mother said.
In an aw-shucks tone, Matt looked forward. “We’re raising Easter-egg chickens now,” he said, referring to a species which naturally produces green and blue-colored eggs. “Such a nice disposition, so friendly.”
Matt’s planning to buy some “dual-purpose” hens soon, referring to a chicken breed regarded as particularly good for meat once they age-out of egg-laying.
Raising chickens for eggs for your family and friends is an “outrageously great” thing to do, said John Wrolsen, a father of two who works in the semiconductor industry.
This year, Wrolsen is raising 40 hens in a mobile chicken coop.
“We use all the eggs we can ourselves and sell the rest,” said Wrolsen, who began raising hens eight years ago on a farm on Wrolsen Drive which has been in his family for 103 years. He doesn’t slaughter the family hens for meat.
They had one “really nice rooster,” he said, killed by a fox in January. The oldish rooster was one of the first chicks in 55 years to hatch from a clutch of farm eggs.
John really liked him. He doesn’t take too kindly to canine predators poaching his fowl. He shot a coyote who killed another pet bird. Wrolsen has lots of stories about fine feathered friends.
“It’s your right to eat,” Wrolsen said, aware that some people object to non-farmers booming interest in keeping hens. “Why should someone else dictate” what you are legally allowed to do in your own backyard, he said.
His advice to all would-be egg farmers is to “do great research before you dive in.”
Silence from the semi-pros
It wasn’t hard to find Saugertiesians who sell a few extra eggs. Some even do it on the honor system.
I went to a place near the intersection of 212 and Glasco Turnpike. The house was tiny but the neatly-fenced big gardens were weedless. No vehicles were in the driveway, but I did see a watchful neighbor make note of my unfamiliar car.
Next to a cooler filled with fresh eggs in recycled cartons and a coffee can for money was a small handwritten sign which read “take what you need, pay what you can.”
It was challenging to get backyard egg-sellers to say much on the record for fear of attracting undesirable attention.
The apprehension wasn’t just about getting their coffee-can robbed while they were at work. These semi-pro chicken farmers didn’t much appreciate the explosion of pop culture curiosity into their lifestyles – and their personal property.
“I just don’t want anything to change,” said one. “I’m a very private person.”
This egg-seller pays her taxes. Egg money at best pays for feed – not the myriad costs associated with obtaining and maintaining a healthy flock of laying hens. Frankly she’d rather just sell to her friends and neighbors but without a small sign people would likely forget she’s there. Less-fresh and probably lower-quality eggs cost more at the grocery store. She likes her customers and feels good about what she does. But selling to the public also essentially invites people she doesn’t know onto her property.
“I came home one day and there was an empty car in my driveway and some strangers were just walking around in my backyard,” she said. “It was weird.”
Dealing with the public takes a toll on these quiet types.
“I used to sell eggs but I just got so disgusted with how rude and stupid people were about it,” said longtime Saugerties resident Jeannie Ricketson, a third-generation chicken farmer.
Nowadays Ricketson just gives her extra eggs to friends, some of who give her food for her many animals in exchange. Ricketson is raising a few birds of several species of poultry which the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy identifies as globally endangered.
The former bookkeeper, who is much interested in local history and all things natural, also keeps bees and makes her own soap. She’s known for being extremely willing to adopt shelter dogs and cats, too.
A practical and self-reliant person, Ricketson had killed and butchered some “meat chickens” on the day I went to see Bedlam Acres, the Ricketson farm since 1958.
Urban types go Green Acres
Saugerties resident Randy Wilbur sells vaccinated pullets – female chickens under a year old, which should begin laying eggs soon – for $15 apiece. He’s put up a sign on 212 and also sells via Craig’s List.
“I’ve been selling them for three or four years,” said Wilbur. “Quite a few” people come up from New York to buy from him, he said. He finds the Brooklyn-born urban chicken fad a tad humorous, but his city-dweller customers are “nice” and “ask lots of questions.”
Most common breeds of hens begin laying eggs at age five months. Depending on how much light they receive, they’ll produce an egg a day for about eight months. Then the chickens go into a phase called “molt,” during which they lose all their feathers. Molt lasts for maybe three months. Then the hens lay eggs again.
“I just had my first chicken hatch – best experience ever!” said technology consultant Bradley Thomason, who’s working with the Rondout Valley Growers Association. Some members sell at the Saugerties Farmers’ Market.
Before moving to the Hudson Valley, Thomason lived in San Francisco, where he co-founded MiracleLabb, which offers services including web design to green and sustainability-focused organizations.
“They all have names,” said Bradley. “It’s truly a miracle to care for animals that give the gift of food in return.” His favorite thing to do right now is sunbathe in his backyard with Francine, Molly and Kodi the lucky white dog. “We’re one big happy family!” he said.