Fresno urbanites connect to ag by keeping chickens

April 3, 2011 

City girl Tracy Newel had dreams of living in the country, growing her own food and harvesting farm-fresh eggs.

And two years ago, she began living that dream. She built her own chicken coop and bought several hens.

There's just one catch: She never left the city.

Newel turned a patch of her central Fresno backyard into a chicken coop where she houses three plump hens. And every day, the hens busily scratch around her lawn, eat lots of bugs and, of course, plop out an egg.

Standing in her sunny backyard, feeding her chickens pieces of a bagel, Newel marveled at her little farm in the city.

"Once I started to do this, it just seemed so natural," said Newel, assistant director of development for California State University, Fresno's Craig School of Business. "I love doing this, and I love my girls."

Across the country, thousands of city dwellers are plucking eggs from their backyard chicken coops, despite zoning restrictions in some cities. Websites, magazines, and how-to books have been written on the subject.

For many, the decision to raise chickens in the city is driven by a desire to become more self-sufficient and be part of the local and organic food movements. Others do it because they prefer to eat eggs that don't come from large-scale commercial egg factories.

Some see the trend as helping to strengthen the connection between consumers and farmers.

"I think this really helps people understand what it takes to raise food, and by doing it themselves, they recognize how much time and resources it takes," said Liza Burke, community relations manager for Seattle Tilth, an urban farming advocate.

Whatever the reason, the number of people wanting to join the flock appears to be growing, said Rob Ludlow, co-author of "Raising Chickens for Dummies" and owner of backyardchickens.com.

Although no one tracks the number of backyard chicken farmers, Ludlow uses the growth of his website as a guide. The Bay Area-based site has grown from just 50 members in 2007 to more than 82,000 today.

Members are posting at least 7,000 times a day.

"Unfortunately most people do not have the resources -- land, time, money -- to have a huge garden and raise cows, pigs, etc.," Ludlow said. "Having a handful of egg-laying hens in a relatively small yard allows people to participate in these movements without having to move."

Fresno-area feed stores and chicken breeders have seen more people looking for supplies and chicks.

"We get calls every week," said Marla Enns, owner of Chick-Ens n' Eggs, a chicken and egg seller in Fresno. "It really is amazing how much interest there is out there."

Enns estimates that about half of the urban chick raisers she meets have some experience raising livestock, but the rest are rookies. She does her best to guide them in selecting breeds and how to care for chicks.

She recalls one young couple who built an extensive coop for their newborn birds, only to find out the birds needed to be in a box under warm lights and heat.

"They got a little ahead of themselves," Enns said. "Around here, we teach Chicken 101."

Many enthusiasts must skirt local laws.

Within the Fresno and Clovis city limits, farm animals -- including chickens -- are illegal.

But enforcement usually only happens after someone has complained. Many backyard chicken owners know that.

Newel asked her neighbors if they would mind if she had chickens, and no one did. One of her neighbors even helps feed the hens. She tosses bread scraps over the fence.

"I also give away a lot of eggs," Newel said. "I have lots of friends."

In some cities, like Seattle and Davis, backyard chicken raising is embraced. Both cities have liberal policies allowing hens, but no roosters. The two cities also host their own annual tours showcasing neighborhood coops.

Last year, more than 900 people attended Seattle's City Chickens Coop tour. Organizers estimate the city may have hundreds of backyard coops.

"This has really become wildly popular," said Burke. "People are very interested in the idea of self sufficiency and producing their own food. It is very empowering and practical."

But chicken raising also has its challenges. Along with not offending neighbors, people have to protect against predators, including raccoons, foxes, hawks and even feral cats.

Tienchin Ho of Fresno learned the hard way that chickens need protection. She lost five hens to wild animals last year. Ho suspects that either a raccoon or fox snatched her brood.

As soon as she fortifies her coop, she will get more chicks.

"This has been a really fun family activity, and I don't want to give it up," said Ho, who lives in northwest Fresno.

Some families also regard their chickens as pets. At a northeast Fresno home, four chickens roaming a backyard have names: Speedy, Minerva Louise, Sea Star and Muffy. They come when their names are called.

The homeowner -- who asked that she only be identified by her first name out of concern that the city may cite her -- says her chickens freely walk around the yard with the family dog and cat. Even the gardener's lawn mower doesn't seem to bother them.

"They really are city chickens," said Caroline. "And they have really become part of our family."

The reporter can be reached at brodriguez@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6327.

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