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Urban poultry farms ruffle some feathers

By P.J. Huffstutter
Los Angeles Times / June 21, 2009
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MADISON, Wis. - Jen Lynch and her family live in the heart of the city but roll out of bed to the sound of chickens clucking.

Their day starts with cleaning coops, scooping out feed, and hunting for eggs for morning omelets. Eight families in a three-block radius and an estimated 150 families citywide do the same.

“It’s our slice of rural life, minus the barns,’’ said Jen Lynch, 35, as Flicka the chicken pecked at her backyard lawn.

As the recession drags on, city dwellers and suburbanites alike are transforming their backyards into stamp-size poultry farms. Victory gardens, proponents say, are not enough. Chickens are the next step.

“People are turning to things that remind them of simpler times,’’ said Ron Kean, a poultry specialist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. “If you’re smart, you can save money doing this.’’

Growing interest in backyard chickens has fans rallying for change in dozens of cities, although the urban chicken movement leaves some people squawking.

“I moved to the city for a reason,’’ said Evan Feinberg, 41, a technology consultant in Madison who said he grew up on a Midwest farm. “I never wanted to see another chicken, unless it’s wrapped in plastic.’’

Still, the idea of urban chickens is catching on. In Traverse City, Mich., officials are weighing the issue. In Iowa City, Iowa, chicken lovers have collected 600 signatures urging local officials to permit backyard chickens.

Poultry fans in Madison persuaded the city’s common council to reverse a ban on backyard hens about five years ago. The ordinance - similar to regulations in Seattle, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Baltimore - allows up to four chickens per property. The animals are to be raised for eggs, and they must be housed in a coop that is far separated from neighboring homes. (Roosters are typically banned in cities because of crowing.)

The Lynches assembled their wire-and-wood coop, about the size of a big dog house, with $40 worth of building supplies and wood salvaged from neighbors. Flicka and her sister Lucy were adopted from friends.

In exchange, the hens give the family 14 eggs a week, a bug-free backyard, and manure for compost bins.

“And they’re cute,’’ said Evie Lynch, 9, who takes russet-hued Flicka for a walk each night before bedtime. “They like to snuggle in my arms.’’

Chick hatcheries say they can’t keep up with urban orders. Murray McMurray Hatchery, the world’s largest supplier of rare-breed chicks, has sold out of its “Meat and Egg Combo’’ collection of meat birds and laying hens. Customers hungry for a standard hen must wait: There’s a six-week backlog on orders.

“I tell people we’re getting out of the country livestock business and getting into the city backyard-pet business,’’ said Bud Wood, president of the Webster City, Iowa, company.

Each animal typically lays one egg a day. Angelina Shell, who runs “City Chickens 101’’ classes at the Seattle Tilth Association, an organic farming group, admits it can be challenging trying to eat the 18 eggs her hens lay each week. “I bake constantly,’’ said Shell, 36, whose refrigerator is crammed with bright yellow-tinged quiches. “I go over to friends’ houses and they say: ‘Oh, it’s another egg dish. Great.’ ’’