THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

‘On his farm he had some ... chickens’

Mayor Menino and Erica LaFountain looked out over the new hen pen. Mayor Menino and Erica LaFountain looked out over the new hen pen. (John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)
By Andrew Ryan
Globe Staff / August 28, 2010

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Why did Mayor Thomas M. Menino cross the road? To get to his new chicken farm.

Really.

Menino opened a chicken farm. And it’s not in the City Council. It’s a real chicken farm, with almost 50 Rhode Island Red hens. Standing yesterday at the edge of the 40-by-40-foot pen, the mayor did what he always does when he meets new constituents. He tried to speak their language.

“Bawk,’’ Menino said. “Bawk, bawk, bawk.’’

To be fair, Menino had to cross a road and several bridges to get to the farm on Long Island in Boston Harbor. The hens came at the mayor’s suggestion to the 2 1/2 acre Serving Ourselves Farm, which brimmed yesterday with collard greens, plump pumpkins, acorn squash, and tomatoes engorged after a summer of sunshine. The labor that seeds, waters, weeds, and harvests the organic farm comes entirely from the residents of the Long Island homeless shelter and young people who had trouble with the law but are in a city program to help right their lives.

Duties on the farm now include feeding the three-month-old hens, which eat carrot tops, corn, soy beans, vegetable scraps, and other organic-certified feed. In November the birds will begin laying medium-sized brown eggs. Each bird is expected to produce 250 to 300 eggs annually. The eggs, like the farm’s fruits and vegetables, will feed residents in Long Island Shelter and be sold at farmers’ markets on the mainland.

The 14-year-old run farm by the Boston Public Health Commission does much more than grow up to 30,000 pounds of fruits, vegetables, herbs, and flowers a year. It provides ingredients for 2,000 meals a day cooked in the kitchen at Long Island Shelter and gives the troubled and down-and-out respite from the hardscrabble streets of the city.

“This is an oasis,’’ said Philip Heartley, 42, who after serving 16 years in prison for second-degree murder learned skills and confidence at the farm that helped him earn a job at a golf course. “It saved my life.’’

The chickens mark the latest evolution in the effort, a new challenge that will require more care than beets or onions.

Erica LaFountain, the farm’s manager, said: “It’s very different. They need attention, at least observation, daily.’’

The hens came to the farm as day-old chicks the first week of June. The breed Rhode Island Red are particularly cold-hardy with short combs that resist frostbite, features that should help the birds thrive through the winter in Boston Harbor, said LaFountain. The chickens live in a custom-made henhouse built on wheels, so it can be moved every three weeks to a different part of the farm, spreading fertilizer and reducing the potential for contamination from waste.

At a celebration yesterday of the new chicken operation, Menino, health officials, and workers on the farm gave brief remarks. The program included chef Chris Douglass, whose Dorchester restaurants, Ashmont Grill and Tavelo, buy ingredients from the farm. He used the platform to push for expanded urban farming.

“I would love, Mr. Mayor, to see neighborhoods with chickens in them,’ Douglass said. “My wife would love to raise chickens in our backyard. There’s a challenge for you.’’

Menino smiled, shook his head, looked at Barbara Ferrer, executive director of the Public Health Commission, and said: “Send health inspectors to his restaurants tonight.’’ The mayor told his share of jokes about chickens and the potential for next year to introduce “free-range cows’’ on the island.

But then Menino took a sentimental turn as he surveyed the scene, a bucolic island under a cloudless sky. He talked about the shelter, the farm, the addiction recovery facilities, and Camp Harbor View at the end of the island where city children spend the summer.

“This event to me is what government is all about,’’ said Menino. “Government has changed over the years. It’s no longer about people. When I grew up in this business, it was about how you help people’s lives be better.

“And that’s what this island does.’’

Andrew Ryan can be reached at acryan@globe.com.

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