Growing Fancy in Berkshires For Backyard ChickensBy Steve Dravis
Special to iBerkshires
03:48PM / Monday, April 09, 2012
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — They were dyeing eggs in the Alvarez household this Easter.
Gabriella Alvarez, 10, holds Freckles, one of her family's five egg-laying hens. Kyle, 12, at right with sisters Gabriella and Emily, 4, researched the subject before convincing his family to keep chickens.
They just were not using the eggs the family normally eats.
"Well ... we dyed some store-bought ones," 12-year-old Kyle explains.
That is because the egg of choice for the Alvarez family has a brown shell, sometimes one with dark speckles — the kind of egg laid by one of five hens in the family's backyard chicken coop.
Kyle, his sisters and his parents are not alone.
The backyard chicken movement is turning suburban homeowners into part-time subsistence farmers nationwide. And the trend has plenty of practitioners in Berkshire County.
"Chickens are our biggest subject as far as interlibrary loans are concerned," said Pat McLeod, director of the David and Joyce Milne Public Library. "We've bought maybe 10 books in the last six months. It's that and goats."
At Pittsfield's Hancock Shaker Village, they have a four-hour workshop scheduled for Saturday, June 2.
"This is our second year of offering a backyard poultry workshop," HSV Marketing Director Laura Wolf said. "Prior to that, we had offered a poultry session as one of our 'Return and Learn' presentations on Saturday afternoons, and attendance for that particular topic was so high that we decided to convert that into a more thorough, hands-on workshop in which participants come away with more information, experience and some supplies."
Kyle's mom, Monica, said the Mount Greylock High Regional student was responsible for sparking the family's interest in residential livestock.
"I was at a friend's house, and they had chickens, and I thought it was pretty cool," Kyle said. "I went home that day, went on the computer and started researching chickens because I really wanted to get 'em. Then I forgot for a while. But then another one of my friends got chickens, so that got me back into it."
That often is how it is with chickens: The idea spreads from friend to friend or neighbor to neighbor. Or, in the case of local author Jennifer Trainer Thompson, from one end of the commonwealth to the other.
"My parents lived down by Cape Cod in a sort of suburban neighborhood ... and one of my father's neighbors had chickens, and I remember thinking it was quite unusual," Trainer Thompson said. "I went over and looked at them and found them to be quite enchanting."
That was 10 years ago. Today, that "unusual" idea is the norm in Trainer Thompson's household, where her eight hens supply anywhere from five to eight eggs each day and inspired their owner's latest book, "The Fresh Egg Cookbook."
Jennifer Trainer Thompson's new egg cookbook was inspired by her productive hens.
Trainer Thompson, a chef and author of several cookbooks, said that store-bought eggs can ship to the supermarket more than a month after they're laid, and it can stay on store shelves for weeks at a time. Fresh eggs, she said, are better for you.
"It's almost a perfect source of nutrition, full of protein and all the vitamins and minerals, except Vitamin C," she said. "The leading cause of blindness among people 65 and older is macular degeneration, and one way to stave it off is by eating certain foods rich in a chemical called lutein. A fresh egg has more lutein than spinach."
They also taste better, according to a pair of local experts.
"They're really good," Kyle said. "They're a lot better than store-bought ones. You can taste it. You can always tell because the yolks are golden."
That may be in part because the Alvarez family, like a lot of backyard chicken keepers, supplement their bird's diet of pellets and cracked corn with table scraps and fresh grass.
"A chicken who is allowed to eat your scraps, grass, grubs and insects has a diet that is more varied than the commercial hen," Trainer Thompson said. "That is where the taste difference comes. The yolk is much, much darker. It's almost a marigold color, like an orange."
And keeping egg-laying chickens can be less expensive than buying eggs at the supermarket — after you recoup the cost of a chicken coop, which can run up to $1,500 when kits are purchased online. On the other hand, one of many websites devoted to backyard chickens, urbanchickencoop.net, reports that a coop built from scratch can cost as little as $300.
Then there is chicken feed, which costs, well, chicken feed.
A 50-pound bag of organic feed pellets can be found online for about $28. Trainer Thompson said that the average hen consumes about nine pounds of feed in a month.
You also will not need a permit to keep backyard chickens, at least not in Williamstown.
"Massachusetts law exempts all farming activities from zoning if you're over 5 acres in size, but the policy in Williamstown is if you'd like to keep animals like chickens on a smaller parcel, you can do so if you're keeping them as pets," town planner Andrew Groff said. "What we always recommend is: Talk to your neighbors and don't keep roosters."
Williamstown health agent Jeffrey Kennedy said the town offers guidelines for residents who want to keep chickens for their own use.
"We mention that they have to be on their own property and the owners have to effectively manage the manure — either by removal off site or composting — so it doesn't run afoul of nuisance standards," Kennedy said. "We haven't heard a complaint about that at all. The only complaint has been about chickens wandering onto a neighbor's property."
Of course, policies differ from town to town. In Adams, the Zoning Board of Appeals has asked the town to craft a backyard poultry bylaw after a recent dispute between neighbors.
This much is certain: The backyard poultry movement is not slowing down.
Trainer Thompson, who recently appeared in a New York Times article on backyard poultry, found out how popular the practice is and how much it is spreading.
"They asked me to do an online Q&A, and I got 140 questions or comments," she said. "I would say it was pretty evenly divided. Half were people who had chickens and loved them and had stories to tell, and the other half were people who were contemplating it and wondered if they could do it."
Editor's note: For full disclosure, Kyle Alvarez is the son of our publisher, Osmin Alvarez. We're hoping he'll bring us some eggs.