PORTLAND, Maine — For months, Daniel Strauss has looked out the window of his home on busy Stevens Avenue and noticed as many as six chickens pecking at the soil of his backyard.
The hens' owner, Jennifer Rudin, wasn't sure at first whether her city neighbor would appreciate the chickens' free-ranging, which has become routine for them since Portland approved backyard chicken farming earlier this year. But having seen how adaptable chickens are, Strauss is planning to get a few of his own.
"They eat insects, they fertilize the yard – I don't really see any downside to them," Strauss says, adding that he'd also welcome fresh eggs. "The more food you can get from your own backyard, the better."
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A trend in backyard chicken farming is taking hold as urbanites, eager to scoop up flavorful organic eggs, discover how easy it is to get started. A simple coop, a pen and a little feed are such a low entry bar that people are flocking to try their hand at keeping chickens in a tough economy.
About 150 communities have launched Meetup.com networks of hobbyist chicken farmers in the past two years, says Andy Schneider, host of Backyard Poultry With the Chicken Whisperer on blogspot radio.
"It's not that complicated" to raise chickens, says Dave Belanger, publisher of Backyard Poultry magazine, which has seen subscriptions climb 42%, from 62,000 to 88,000, in the past year. "It's hard to mess it up."
Easy entry to the world of chicken farming, however, may turn out to be a mixed blessing. Though it means fresher eggs and closer ties to nature for some, critics say it can create headaches for others.
Iowa City Mayor Regenia Bailey opposes efforts to allow backyard chickens in her community. One concern: University students often leave pets behind, she says, and the city –home to the University of Iowa – would need to develop facilities to shelter abandoned chickens.
Another problem: Small Midwestern farmers are increasingly trying to raise a diversity of organic produce beyond corn, oats and soybeans. But that movement faces an uphill battle, Bailey says, when locals who are passionate about high-quality eggs bypass their local farmers.
"We have a lot of small farmers around here making chickens and eggs available for sale," Bailey says. "My fundamental question is: Why aren't we supporting the regional economy?"
For some would-be chicken farmers, the life has turned out to be harder than it first appeared.
Ruth Hoffman keeps chickens in an Atlanta-area community where she says it may not be legal. She says she adopted three from a neighbor after the responsibilities, which include cleaning out manure and arranging for coverage before overnight trips, got to be too much for him.
Yet for Hoffman, raising seven chickens has become an easy way to get eggs from hens that she knows eat a natural diet and don't receive excessive medications. Fetching breakfast in the backyard, she says, is far more convenient than traveling to buy from a local farmer who meets her standards.
"To go through the whole process of finding a CSA (community-supported agriculture program) or a farm nearby, that's really not practical right now," says Hoffman, who has been raising chickens for a year. "It's a lot easier for me to do it myself."
The Rudins' chickens enjoy woodsy accommodations, complete with chain-link pen and two coops – one a tall shed with sloped roof and framed glass windows for summer, plus a cozier plywood structure for winter.
They have routines. Late afternoon means wandering through neighbors' yards and munching fat worms, among other treats. They don't cross Stevens Avenue, Rudin says, though cars sometimes wait for them on a side street. By dusk they're back home, safe from raccoons, foxes and other predators.
Outfitting chickens costs about $200 for lumber, plus $5 a month for feed. Chickens earn their keep by offering many benefits, Rudin says, including a tick-free backyard and lots of fun for her children, Ted, 9, and Finnian, 5, and her husband, Jon. What's more, they make free-range eggs an affordable part of the family diet.
A low entry bar for chicken farming helps explain why some communities, such as Caledonia, Wis., have blocked recent campaigns to permit backyard chicken farming. Among the concerns: Negligent practices can lead to odors and attract rodents.
But Schneider, the backyard-poultry-show host, insists the risks are no greater than those associated with owning dogs.
Some observers believe that concerns about undercutting farmers are overblown, too.
"People who have chickens or who farm in their gardens are more interested in getting to know where their food comes from" than those who don't, Heike Mayer, professor of economic geography at the University of Bern in Switzerland, said in an e-mail. "Those who have chickens will be more likely to buy a piece of meat from the local small farm."
Meanwhile, organic eggs from local providers are commanding high prices. Joseph Heckman, a Rutgers University soil scientist and proprietor of River Birch Micro Farm in Monroe Township, N.J., gets $5 a dozen for his eggs. But in terms of backyard agriculture, he, too, would like to become more self-sufficient.
"I'm going to get a cow," Heckman says, explaining that he favors unpasteurized milk, which is illegal to buy or sell in New Jersey. "Then I'll have my own little dairy with a cow to produce the milk I need for my family."