LOCALLY GROWN: Columbia cluckers not ruffling too many feathers

Friday, August 13, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 10:52 a.m. CDT, Friday, August 13, 2010

The chickens haven’t conquered Columbia. That’s not to say the hens living in backyards around town aren’t ruling their respective roosts, but they’re staying put and becoming another viable option for raising food in one’s own backyard.

In the coming weeks, you can find out what to do with those hens when they stop producing eggs or when you start to plan your fall barbecue menu.

The Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture, a nonprofit that promotes and fosters local food systems, is hosting two free “Yard to Skillet” workshops that will take you through all the steps of processing a chicken. Birds are provided, and by the end of the workshop, your chicken will be ready for whatever fresh herbs, spices and sauces you can throw at it.

Columbia chicken owners Mark and Hannah Sims plan to attend the workshop, though they aren’t ready to take their hens — Lorraine, Benedict, Suzette and Florentine — to the chopping block.

Their crew of two New Hampshire Reds and two California Whites produce about 25 eggs during a good week, though the recent heat wave has slowed them down a bit. (Click here to see a photo gallery of the Sims family and their chickens.)

Hannah and Mark were both surprised by how much personality their birds possess. They entertain their guests at backyard barbecues. They even had a chicken-warming party when they first got their chicks in March 2009. (Oops, they didn’t realize when they moved to Columbia from Chicago that they couldn’t have chickens.) Hannah worked to gather signatures for the ordinance that allows residents to raise chickens within the city limits.

It was the first time she got involved in political activism.

“It’s nice to see how the local government works and how citizen-initiated ordinances can be successful,” Hannah Sims said.

She stood up as a representative homeowner during the council meeting when the ordinance was passed.

For Hannah, the chickens have provided direction. She wants to get into urban farming full time and is pursuing a master's degree in public health at MU. She aims to bring produce and livestock to urban centers that don’t have ready access to fresh foods and recently started volunteering with CCUA.

“Food is so basic to who we are,” Hannah Sims said. "It brings people together, and we need to ensure that the way we get it is sustainable and available to everyone, and in a lot of ways that’s been overlooked. It’s nice to eat something that you’ve grown yourself — you get a lot more enjoyment out of it.”

But raising chickens is not without some challenges.  A raccoon attacked their chickens in their chicken run, but Lorraine, a tough California White, fought it off. All chickens were safe, though Lorraine carries a permanent battle scar on her neck. On Tuesday evening, Florentine got to spend some time cooling off in the house because she was looking overheated and not quite walking right. By the next day, she was fine.

“Sometimes in the early morning, they squawk a bit to be let outside, but I can’t imagine it’s any more trouble than any other pet,” Sims said.

A relatively steady supply of free, farm-fresh eggs and summer laziness have left my wife and me without the proper motivation to build our chicken coop — so far.

I also wanted to be sure we could process the chickens when the time came before we donned our urban farmer hats. We signed up for the Sept. 11 workshop at CCUA’s St. Joseph Street location. If we can cull (the technical term for kill) and clean the bird successfully, our beagle will soon have a few new friends to share the backyard with.

So what’s the scoop with Columbia chickens? So far, they haven’t ruffled too many feathers.  

Stephanie Browning, the Columbia/Boone County health director, helped draft the legislation for the ordinance and said since the City Council passed the much-clucked-about legislation in February, there have been only five complaints — all of which have been addressed, including an early sexing mistake that resulted in a rooster in the hen house.

Browning said she worked to strike a good balance between the ability to raise chickens and not infringing on one’s neighbors. 

“(CCUA) really worked to provide a training system in place to help people do it right,” Browning said. 

Gerald Worley, environmental health manager for Columbia/Boone County Health and Human Services, said the few chickens they’ve had to catch have not been an unusual challenge so far.

The few stray chickens can’t be impounded at the humane society, so the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture is acting as the default chicken pound. Since the ordinance was passed, they’ve taken in three chickens — not exactly the dangerous poultry parade some critics of the ordinance feared would overrun the city.

If you’re still on the fence about raising your own chicks, attend an upcoming workshop, or talk to local experts, such as Mary Stilwell, who helped lead the charge for the ordinance and chronicles raising chickens on her blog. She’ll be ready to answer questions at the upcoming Sustainable Living Fair.

Michael Burden is a journalism graduate student at MU, a graduate instructor and the MU campus representative for the Peace Corps.

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Mark Foecking August 13, 2010 | 5:39 a.m.

Right - the "chicken explosion" hasn't happened. There is one coop visible on my street, and I've never heard the chickens (other than the rooster that was there for a while - this may be what the article mentioned). Other than that, if anyone else has them, it's awfully hard to tell.

Actually, eggs obtained this way are very expensive when one adds up all the costs. Same with my produce - I could save a lot by simply buying at the store rather than growing it. But there's a lot of other reasons to grow your own, and they outweigh simple cost.


(Report Comment)
John Schultz August 13, 2010 | 10:14 a.m.

Paging "Dale Jones" please pick up the white discourtesy phone and tell us when your predicted chicken apocalypse will occur.

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