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Poultry farming on the rise with residents interested in local eggs

Female Rhode Island Red chicks for sale at Rick's Saddle Shop in Cream Ridge.

Female Rhode Island Red chicks for sale at Rick’s Saddle Shop in Cream Ridge. / BRADLEY J. PENNER/staff photographer

The Cost of Keeping Chickens

Chicks: Range in price from $2 from catalogs to $10 per chick from feed stores like Rick’s Saddle Shop, varying based on breed and age.
Food: $15 per 50 pound bag, which feeds 10 chicks for 2 weeks, according to Rick’s Saddle Shop manager Kurry Walsh.
Coop: $300 for wood and chicken wire to build your own, or $500-$1,200 for pre-fabricated wood coops.
Eggs: Free, compared to conventionally grown eggs, $2.59 a dozen, and organic eggs, $4.79 a dozen, at Foodtown, Freehold. Hens lay one egg per day for the first two years of their lives.

MIDDLETOWN — When Mary Hussey moved into her new home off Bamm Hollow Road, she had a vision for the screened-in hot tub room off her basement: a chicken coop.

Hussey, who began raising chickens in her backyard in 2004, now shows her chickens in poultry shows and counsels others around the state on how to start their own egg-laying flock on their property. She said she has seen a big boom in interest among state residents looking to raise their own birds and eat fresh eggs.

“Initially, it’s a food thing. When you don’t have chickens, you don’t know what you’re getting into, but you know you’re afraid of the food,” Hussey said. “People don’t know getting into it how great they are — now I want more chickens and another coop!”

Rutgers professor Michael Westendorf said he has noticed a significant interest in reviving the practice of chicken-keeping, which was more common decades ago before egg farming was industrialized.

“I think food security is a big issue,” said Westendorf, who works as a Rutgers Extension Specialist in animal sciences. “When you’re reliant on trucks coming across the Delaware River to bring you eggs, I for one feel safer having some egg production be local.”

Westendorf said his office has received an increase in calls in the past 10 years from residents looking for advice on starting their own backyard flocks.

“I think people want to produce their own food if they can, buy local food if they can, and get back to a simple way of life,” Westendorf said.

Harding Township resident Abby Ray, 26, and her fiance, Thomas Gallo, 28, are among a young segment of the population becoming more interested in growing its own food. The couple keeps six chickens in a homemade coop next to a vegetable garden in their backyard.

Chickens are now the fastest growing segment of the pet population, said Kurry Walsh, manager of Rick’s Saddle Shop, with locations throughout Monmouth County. The store recently started selling baby chicks each spring.

“If you’d have told me five years ago that people would want to buy chickens, I wouldn’t have believed you,” Walsh said. “The good thing about buying chickens is that you know there are no chemicals going into the egg. When you buy Perdue at the store, you don’t know what’s in those, and you probably don’t want to, but with your own chickens, you control what goes in.”

Hens generally lay one egg every day until they reach about two years old, when production decreases, Hussey said. They’re also helpful for tilling gardens, producing compost, and controlling pests, and are often raised for meat, Walsh said.

Owning chickens isn’t for everyone, warns Hussey, and the decision must come with a lot of planning.

“Do your research first, don’t get an animal on a whim,” Hussey said. “Take time to build or buy a coop or run first, and make sure it’s secure, ventilated, and draft-free.”

Gallo, who built his coop for about $300 out of wood and fencing, said he lost his first flock to raccoons because of gaps in the chicken wire.

“The second time, I made sure it was sealed up. I buried the fence six inches into the ground and zip-tied the top together,” he said. The biggest predators for chickens are hawks, foxes, and raccoons, he said.

Gallo said he completely cleans his coop four times a year, replacing the wood chips and hosing down the roosting boxes. When clean and well-ventilated, a chicken coop shouldn’t have any odor, Hussey said. And when healthy and happy, chickens shouldn’t make any discernible noise.

“I’ve had neighbors that didn’t even know I kept chickens,” Hussey said.

In return for the upkeep, a flock of six hens (no rooster is necessary for egg-laying) will yield a dozen eggs every two days. Eggs can keep, unwashed, in the refrigerator for up to six months because of a natural sealant on them, Hussey explained. Different breeds produce different eggs, including white, brown, and even green, but inside, she said, “an egg is an egg is an egg.”

Walsh emphasized that a fresh farmed egg is a different thing altogether than a supermarket egg, noting the “orange color, and a real egg taste.” Ray said a fresh egg “stands together” when cracked open, while supermarket eggs tend to run flat when cracked.

As chicken-keeping grows in popularity, many towns are enacting ordinances regulating where and how they can be kept.

In Bloomsbury, Hunterdon County, the borough council passed an ordinance in March to legalize chicken keeping. Borough clerk Lisa Burd said that people had been keeping chickens for years until a noise complaint arose, and the council took action to ensure that people could continue to raise chickens.

Westendorf said most residents in New Jersey with a backyard and a good lawn can keep chickens without any environmental problems, and said he has worked with residents who are trying to convince their towns to let them have chickens.

“If you’re going to have six chickens in the backyard, it’s not going to be a problem,” he said.

Once residents understand their local laws, set up a coop with food and water, and buy their birds, the rest is easy, Gallo said. “There’s not much to learn,” he said. “Just do it.”

For Ray, it’s a long way from her life in the city, but leading a more sustainable life and being a better consumer are rewarding trade-offs.

“We have friends with kids who come over, and the kids chase the chickens around,” Ray said. “And now, when we go to someone’s house, instead of wine, we bring a dozen eggs.”

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