Friends with benefits

| 01 Nov 2013 | 02:43

Why is everyone raising chickens?

You’ve seen the Farm Fresh Eggs signs, read about the municipal battles over zoning laws that prohibit raising barnyard animals, heard the faraway – or not so far away – sound of a crowing rooster. Since there’s no poultry census, it’s impossible to say just how many fowl are occupying our zip codes, but there are a lot more than there once were. “I can say that the sale of chicken feed has been amazing over the past 12 months,” said Mark Witzl, an employee at the Tractor Supply headquarters.

Why have so many people suddenly taken to raising chickens – and turkeys and guinea hens and peacocks? Dirt set out to find a range of poultry people to interrogate. We were looking for folks who were different from one another in terms of the size and purpose of their flocks, but also who had back stories of their own that would be as captivating as, well, as watching that unique chicken behavior known as food running, which is much like the kids’ game kill the carrier. Here’s who we found.

The chicken lady Jean Blancato didn’t know anything about chickens when she adopted a down-and-out rooster with frostbitten toes from the camp where she worked. She took Tootsie to the vet, and each time the vet referred to him as a chicken, she’d correct him. “Rooster!” she’d say. She thought that “chicken” was what you called a female, and “rooster” was the male.

The vet told Blancato that Tootsie’s chances were grim. He couldn’t get up. She soaked his feet, as instructed, multiple times a day and gave him antibiotics. Five days later, she found him standing on one leg and bicycling with the other. A few months later she brought home a few old hens to keep him company. And then a few more.

Although Blancato had no experience with actual birds when she took in Tootsie, they had always held a place in her consciousness. “Mother told me that every time I drew a picture there was always a bird in it,” she said. And a friend exclaimed once that she’d never seen so many bird ornaments as there were on Blancato’s Christmas tree. Now those birds of her imagination have been incarnated, big time.

Eight years after Tootsie’s full recovery, Blancato’s 10 acre property in West Milford, called Macopin Farm, is home to a menagerie of about 250 birds, including nine peacocks and peahens. A young, vain peacock named Allen greets visitors by the front door.

Blancato sells a little of a lot of different things: she sells eggs for eating out of a cooler outside her house, and she sells eggs online to people around the country who hatch them in their own incubators. She has become a breeder of birds with sought-after characteristics, like one that lays dark chocolate colored eggs. She shows them sometimes, too, in part because it helps sell eggs if the parents are prize winning specimens. She sells chickens to people who want them as pets or laying hens. She also sells bags of compost that her chickens have picked over and turned, peacock feathers for $2 apiece, and fleeces from her sheep. She’s a one-woman show, and she really needs to downsize her flock to about 100 birds, she said, and focus more on special breeds, so that she can keep up with everything.

But there’s one thing that she’ll never knowingly do, and that’s to sell live birds to people who are going to eat them. These chickens are her pets, and her farm is as much a sanctuary as it is anything else. She has special enclosures for “special needs birds,” who, by most standards, would be nothing more than a drag on resources, including a guinea hen with pressure calluses, a ten-year-old hen named Little Jeannie, a blind rooster and a rooster that was attacked by a predator and has a badly broken wing that she wraps in gauze.

She makes sure to leave little spaces in her coops where chicks and birds low in the pecking order can hide. She spells out the word T-R-E-A-T-S when certain birds are around, because she claims they’re hip to it. If the birds can understand English, it works the other way, too. Blancato is fluent in chicken. “Mommy! Where’s mommy?” she suddenly asks, and it takes this visitor a minute to realize that Blancato has heard a very soft peeping coming from the bushes, and known immediately that the chick is looking for its mother.

Blancato talks a blue streak about each bird’s personality quirks. “She’s popular,” she says about a hen that has a bare back, which makes her look disconcertingly like a chicken you’d find at the grocery store. “Some of ‘em just love to squat for the boys.” When the weather gets cold, she puts these more sociable hens in vests to keep them warm.

The homesteaders Abel Harper is not one for small talk. He declines to discuss his name or age (two) with a stranger. The first thing he utters, holding a diminutive feed pail on the way to feed the turkeys, are the words: “I’m a farmer.”

Abel and his parents, Raheli and Jim Harper, have four cows, four laying hens, 24 meat birds which they recently slaughtered, two turkeys and a beehive. The Harpers have been homesteading for six years, two at their present home in Campbell Hall, N.Y. This wasn’t always the plan.

Raheli imagined that when she and Jim moved out of New York City, where they met in the publishing industry, they’d find a house in the woods with no neighbors. But working as a cheesemonger at Bobolink Dairy proved transformative for Raheli, 31, who grew up in White Plains, an hour southeast and a world away.

“My parents are amused,” she said. “But they like it.”

The farm job “formed my ideas of what having land and producing on the land meant, how much you can work with the land to produce your own food,” said Raheli.

Instead of a forested hideaway, the couple settled on this 10-acre spread, near the train that Jim, 39, takes to his job in mid-town Manhattan four days a week. In anticipation of Abel’s birth, they decided to return to eating meat and raise it themselves. (Jim had been vegetarian for decades, and Raheli had been vegetarian until working at Bobolink, where she started eating grass-fed beef.)

“I could raise my own soy,” said Raheli, “but I’m not going to get that far.”

A times it has seemed like tofu might have been the ticket. Two years ago, they raised 45 free range meat birds for seven weeks, and then in one night, a predator killed every one. They suspect a raccoon.

“It’s hard to face the losses sometimes,” said Raheli. “Just how much we invest in them, you know. We want a productive flock, but we also want to give them a good life, which I think is free ranging. I hate to lock them down.”

But that year of total loss on one front was also the year the Harpers began raising turkeys, almost by accident. Jim had attended a farm auction looking for a trailer to put the chicken coop on, and picked up a four-month-old turkey while he was there. The turkey roamed in the Harpers’ fenced garden until the time came for Raheli to butcher it. That part doesn’t get any easier, she said.

This year, two of the Harpers’ flock of 24 meat birds are already in their stomachs and the rest are in a chest freezer in the pantry, along with one of the cows. The two turkeys will join them shortly. The free range hens are laying eggs, acting as tick patrol and entertainment for Abel.

“We’re feeling really proud of our success with the meat birds. We’ve raised probably all our meat for the year, with the beef and the turkeys. I think it will be enough. It was a lot of fun to raise them, it was really hard to butcher them, and in the end having a freezer full of our own meat is so satisfying.”

Of all the Harpers’ many endeavors, it’s a simple one that Raheli looks back on as giving her the greatest feeling of accomplishment. “The first egg,” she said. “It just seemed like magic that an egg would suddenly appear in an old barn.”

The empty nesters Raphael Cox still visits his chickens at a nearby farm. It’s been more than two years since he lost custody.

Cox was a teenager when he brought six chicks home from Tractor Supply and installed them in a multi-colored coop with a metal roof that he and a friend built atop a boat trailer. A regular permaculture courses, Cox felt that chickens, which eat bugs and weeds and produce fertilizer and eggs, were “the big essential part” of the garden. The garden includes an Asian pear tree, a plum tree and a cherry tree, and neat raised beds full of vegetables like tomatoes, cucumbers, and collared greens, which are separated from the path by three electrified wires as an additional barrier to groundhogs that penetrate the outer garden fence.

The chicken coop was parked inside the securely fenced garden, and the family loved having the chicks around. “They’re so funny,” said Nancy Peng, Raphael’s mom. “They’re therapy for everyone, from little kids to grown-ups.” But the family’s three-quarter-acre property is located in the Village of Warwick, where you’re not technically allowed to raise fowl, pigeons or rabbits.

After a neighbor complained, they had to give their chickens away. Cox went to the town board and – with support from the Cornell Cooperative Extension – requested a waiver to the 1976 local law, but the idea met resistance and died.

Cox, now 20, attends Rockland County Community College and recently started a new job as a meat cutter at ShopRite, and Peng works in Manhattan as an accounting consultant. They don’t have time to lead the fight on this. Still, they’re convinced that they’re not alone in wanting to change what they see as an outdated rule, and they’re definitely not giving up.

Cox is diplomatic. “We also have to be courteous of our neighbors,” he said. “They grew up on Long Island, they smelled factory chickens. I can understand” their worry.

Peng, on the other hand, made no bones about calling the law downright absurd. Growing up in China, “my grandmother had chickens in the center of the big city” of Harbin. “A block away was the government center. We didn’t have much land, maybe six beds. My grandmother always had chickens, we always had fresh eggs,” she said. She motioned to the grass underfoot, which was being taken over by a squash vine, and nodded approvingly. “Our goal is, I don’t want to cut the grass. I want to utilize this. People are not smart. They don’t utilize what they have.”

“One day if it doesn’t pass,” said Peng, “we’ll just do it. Protest! If they put me in jail I will take my chickens with me. I want my co-pilots in the garden.”