People who raise chickens love the pastoral scenes the birds provide, as well as the eggs and meat.
By CATHY DYSON
Raising chickens has ruined Lisa Biever’s dining-out
experience, at least when it comes to breakfast.
If she orders eggs—poached, scrambled or sunny side up—she finds they look and taste rather anemic compared to the ones she plucks from nests at home.
“The eggs are pale and have no flavor—they just kind of taste like the box they came in,” said the King George County woman.
She’s not clucking when she says they bear no comparison to the farm-fresh eggs her hens provide.
“It’s as if they’re not even the same thing,” Biever said. “It’s the difference between a homegrown tomato and what you get at the store.”
Biever and her husband, Jason Gallant, are among seven families who make up an informal egg co-op through the King George Farmers Market.
Each family provides fresh eggs to sell for $4 a dozen, and members take turns manning the egg stand at the market, held in the parking lot of the King George Elementary School.
Each Saturday from May to November, the group sells just about every carton members bring—about 30 dozen eggs a week, said Amy Robie, who heads up the co-op.
“We’ve found there’s a lot of demand for the eggs,” Robie said. “I think a brown egg kind of appeals to people.”
GREEN EGGS, BUT NO HAM
The hues of the hens’ eggs in Robie’s flock range from beige to burnt orange and almost every shade in between. Robie also has a variety of hen that lays a pale green egg, and customers appreciate the Seussical quality, even though there’s no ham to go with it.
Robie and other co-op members are among a growing number of Americans who enjoy the “extremely popular pastime” of raising chickens, according to the website raisechickens.org. And, it’s not just for people in the country; “urban warriors have taken to keeping chickens in the thousands,” the site reports.
As livestock go, chickens are relatively easy and inexpensive, according to the King George growers. They don’t require a lot of room or special care, and they do provide a source of eggs as well as meat.
Biever has even added a few turkeys to the flock, and her family enjoys them on Thanksgiving and beyond.
“I like having them in freezer,” she said. “For any recipe that uses chicken, I use turkeys.”
SAFE FROM PREDATORS
About the only thing that bothers chickens is predators, and both women have unusual systems for keeping their broods safe.
Biever and her husband turned an old passenger van into a chicken coop. The vehicle already was out in the yard, so the couple tore out the seats and shag carpet and added roosts on one side and laying nests on another. Gallant built a boarding ramp so the van can be shut up tightly at night.
“Every animal loves chickens: snakes, raccoons, possums, foxes, hawks, eagles, stray dogs, even cats will get the little ones,” Biever said. “The van is impervious to predators.”
Biever, whose backyard is wooded, had more problems with winged predators. She copied an idea from another farmer, who criss-crossed strands of string from one tree to another. From the sky, the strings look like nets, which hawks and eagles tend to stay away from.
Then, Robie hung brightly colored CDs from the strings, which catch the sun as they blow in the breeze. They look like giant eyes, another image raptors don’t like.
FINDING SPECIAL EGGS
One of the biggest appeals of farm-fresh chickens and eggs is the manner in which they’re raised. Instead of being housed in factory-like conditions, under constant light so they’ll produce more eggs, hens are free to scratch around the yard for bugs and kernels of cracked corn. They’re not given hormones or antibiotics. They’re outside in the dirt all day and go to roost at night.
The care the chickens get means a lot to consumers.
“I like knowing that the eggs I buy are from chickens that are being raised humanely,” said Yvonne Lewko, who regularly buys eggs from Robie. “I like being able to see that the hens are healthy and vibrant. It’s nice knowing where my food comes from and that we are supporting a local farmer.”
Robie also enjoys the sound of roosters crowing, although the noise gets old when it goes on into the night. (Roosters will crow at any light.)
And she likes the presence of feathered friends.
“It’s really nice to pull up in the yard and see chickens all around,” she said.
PETS OR LIVESTOCK?
Biever said she’s glad her young children are learning where food comes from and what’s involved in raising animals. She and Robie both walk a fine line between treating their chickens like pets.
Robie said she’s learned to give names to only those who become a permanent member of the flock. The chickens raised for meat aren’t handled the way the layers are, nor are they given names. It’s very clear, from the start, what their purpose is.
Robie tries to sell eggs throughout the year so the money she gets covers the expense of feeding about 60 chickens year-round. Biever tends to give most of her eggs away, saying she becomes a popular friend when she’s handing out cartons.
She also likes the idea that friends come to visit and let their children pick out their own egg from a nest. One child was determined that his “special egg” not be eaten.
“I think it lived in their fridge so long,” Biever said, “they had to toss it.”
TO GET STARTED: Websites such as backyardchickens.com provide step-by-step instructions for people wanting to set up their own flocks. Amy Robie went for variety: a couple Ameraucanas, Australorp and red sex links (bred to be a certain color so you can tell the males and females apart). Cornish Cross is the standard meat chicken.
HOW MANY? For first-time growers, the website suggests buying chicks from feed stores because employees can help with advice. They’re usually sold in batches of 25.
HOUSING: The website sunset.com says that each
chicken needs 10 square feet to run around plus 4 square feet of house. Consumers can buy pre-made coops, which can be expensive, or use materials on hand to build their own. Lisa Biever and her husband, Jason Gallant, of King George County, turned an old van into a coop. Robie uses an old pickup truck shell as a house for her meat chickens.
DIET: Laying hens typically are fed a mash or crumble of some kind, cracked corn and ground oyster shells, which make their egg shells tougher.
BYPRODUCTS: Chickens also produce a byproduct that gardeners love. Their manure makes a great fertilizer. When Robie butchers chickens, she composts the feathers and saves the iron-rich blood to pour on the roots of fig trees.
FRESHNESS: Fresh eggs are almost impossible to peel. Robie says she leaves eggs in the fridge for up to three weeks before using them for deviled eggs or egg salad.
Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425