Last year, I grew my first cucumber, and eating it made me feel like I'd never before actually paid attention to food while eating.
I'm no foodie, but eating from my own yard fired up something inside me besides a simple digestive process. Growing it myself seemed to fill that vegetable with meaning, with grace.
I am seeking to recreate that experience on a larger scale.
This time it will be with chickens.
As it turns out, I am far from alone. Bolstered by an absence of regulation combined with surging interest, urban chicken farming is taking off in Indianapolis.
Leading that charge is a local advocacy group founded by Andrew Brake; Nap Town Chickens. He founded the organization last fall, after the huge success of his (now annual) bicycle tour of backyard coops, Tour de Coops.
Brake's aim is – as his business card proclaims – to put "a coop in every yard, a fresh egg on every plate." Currently Nap Town Chickens is fully engaged in their newest initiative, Project Poultry.
"I want to put a chicken coop in every school in Indianapolis," Brake says, and he's already lining up sponsors to do exactly that. Before Project Poultry, only one school in the area had a coop: Brook Park Elementary in Lawrence. As of this writing, over a half dozen schools have coops, and many more are in the discussion phase.
What accounts for this dramatic increase in school-based chickens?
"There's a lot of curriculum built into raising chickens, so teachers like it," Brake says. "Besides just getting eggs to eat, I want to help kids think about where food comes from, what goes into producing it, and how not to waste it."
- Mike Allee
- Andrew Brake demonstrates one way of holding a chicken. While this may look upsetting to the uninitiated, it is a common way to hold chickens, and it doesn't harm them.
Chickens eat anything
Andrew Brake is a big fan of not wasting food – it's what attracted him to chickens in the first place. At first, he didn't have a deep philosophical urge to bring people closer to their food and enjoy a more meaningful connection to healthy living.
As his own personal investment in raising chickens increased, so has his awareness of those less quantifiable rewards, but his initial concerns were simply practical: Chickens were an attractive alternative to food disposal. "Chickens will eat anything. They'll eat chicken. You can feed a chicken table and kitchen scraps, and get eggs. Then you can grind up the shells and feed them back to the chickens. In nature, there is no such thing as waste."
While some of that might sound a bit macabre, these are the kinds of natural cycles most humans are missing from their day-to-day experience. As the millennium progresses, more and more people are experiencing feelings of detachment and meaninglessness.
Putting coops into schools is a great way to help kids regain some connectivity to nature in their lives.
"I'm not trying to save the world, but it's a start," says Brake.
Rocky Ripple resident Maggie Goeglein didn't attend an elementary school with chickens, but that didn't stop her from taking the plunge. Her coop was featured on the Tour de Coops last year, and she is quick to highlight the more metaphysical benefits of personal chicken farming.
"They connect me to my place, in a world where we are encouraged to 'purchase experiences,'" Goeglein says.
She loves being in charge of quality control for the food she eats, and claims that the unseen benefits are more valuable than the obviously tangible eggs themselves.
"They help me close the loop – I have less waste in my life. I spend more time outside, I have an increased sense of home and belonging, free fertilizer for the garden, and of course there's the chicken tractor."
The phrase "chicken tractor" was a new one for me. Apparently, if you want a space in your yard to become very easy to plant in, just pen the chickens in that space for about a month. They will dig it up, fertilize it and feed themselves while they're at it.
- Mike Allee
- The colorfully painted Rocky Ripple coop of Constance and Michael Axler.
The only aspect of urban chicken farming that people haven't found an answer to is what to do with the creatures when they enter what's called "egg-o-pause." Chickens can live six to twelve years or more, but tend to stop laying regularly after three or four.
Many people are interested in eating their retired lay-ers, but not so interested in "dispatching" them personally. Goeglein agrees it's a necessary part of the process, but she raised her hens from chicks and they all have names. "I couldn't do it," she admits.
Veteran backyard chicken farmer Josh Ethington says he tried butchering his own chickens. "I can't eat chicken anymore," he says. "It's the smell."
So, ready to get some chickens? Me too. I'm not even thinking about my own retirement yet, so dealing with retired chickens can just sit on that same back-burner for a while.
I told Andrew Brake that I already had two cats – what's the commitment comparison to chickens?
"Well," he said, "they take a little more effort than a cat, but much less than a dog."
That sounds exactly my speed, and anyway I'm tired of having pets that lay things I can't eat.
Even when pickled that stuff is a little hard to swallow.
- Mike Allee
- The coop of Broad Ripple resident Debbie Nicholas. Coops come inall shapes and sizes.
Do it yourself
Where to begin? Well obviously, do a lot of research and go talk to people who have chickens. Can't be bothered?
Here's the minimum you'll need:
The coop does not have to be heated, but it does have to be free of drafts. A four or five foot cube is about all the room you need for four or five birds. The coop needs an elevated "roost" for the hens to sleep on (a horizontal pole of some kind) and an elevated space about the size of a milk crate for them to lay in. After that just line the floor with straw, wood chips, shredded newspaper, pine needles, pine shavings, sand, gravel, or nothing at all! Just don't use cedar chips. Chickens hate cedar chips. Seriously they really do.
Chickens "come home to roost." That's their thing, and they do it. Chickens will not run away on purpose, but they will get run over or eaten by local fauna just like any other small pet. Your job is to lock them in the coop at dusk, and let them out at dawn.
"The run" is the place you let them into for food and exercise. If that sounds like too much effort, build an enclosed run – then the chickens can let themselves in and out of the coop without your help, and remain protected from raccoons, foxes, hawks and neighborhood dogs. If you have an enclosed yard, feel free to let them run in it.
Keep in mind they will probably destroy your flowers and eat your vegetables, so keep those areas fenced off.
If your chickens have a good stretch of yard to run around in, your chicken feed bill can be cut in half – they will feed themselves with worms, grubs, bugs and seeds. Maggie Goeglein says that during the winter, when she has to really supplement the appetite of her five "girls," they eat about $10 of chicken feed per month. Get a hanging feeder and a water dispenser and you're pretty much set – these pets are pecky, not picky.
You may need to keep the water from freezing in the winter but hey – that's the excuse you needed to start looking into low energy solar heaters, isn't it?
As mentioned, there are no rules about having chickens in Marion County. That being said, there are rules about noise. The easiest solution? Don't get a rooster! Hens are pretty quiet, and a rooster is not required for egg production. If you want to raise your chickens from infancy, you can buy chicks at supply stores for 99c each – you can even have them delivered by mail. That process is very labor intensive, and new chicks require daily attentive care for a couple weeks. If that sounds fun, do it! The process is incredibly rewarding and can really help to develop an emotional attachment to your flock.
Not everyone is looking to form relationships with their birds. I'm just going to buy my hens, winter-hardy and fully-grown. The outrageous cost for a chicken of egg-laying age that can survive an Indianapolis winter?
Six to ten bucks.
There is a lot more to learn, and there will be the initial cost of time and money to build a coop and acquire some hens. For one weekend's worth of work, and one pamphlet's worth of knowledge, you and your family could never again have to shell out cash for eggs that Nature wants you to have for free.
As Brake so eloquently put it during his chicken coop workshop at the State Fairgrounds, "Chickens will change your life. But they're not that big of a deal."
Visit NaptownChickens.org for more info.