In an alley-like strip of weed-ridden easement they call "no man's land," Southeast Boise chicken owners Amy Westover and her husband Jay Blackhurst have made some new friends—about 10 of them. Three years ago, they put three chickens back there, in a tiny coop with a solar-activated front door.
Now the reclaimed space has become a veritable neighborhood hangout for chickens and fledgling neighborhood poultry farmers.
"It's kind of brought this whole neighborhood together, us getting these three chickens," explained Westover. "All the neighborhood kids, once they figured out we had chickens, they came over every day because they wanted to see the chickens. We'd always be giving them eggs and they'd take them home ... I think it just really started to inspire people. Now I think there are 17 chickens back here. All the neighbors now, they've got chickens. It's kind of our chicken colony. Everyone takes care of their own flock, but they all run together."
For centuries, city and country duked it out in a battle over the locus of the good life. It was a battle in which the quiet repose of rolling meadows often won out in the end, after a time waged in the city's debaucherous and unforgiving streets.
But the recent rise of pastoral urbanism has turned that eternal battle on its head. In the span of an hour, an urban Boisean can go from plucking bulbous turnips from the garden and scattering feed for the chickens to zipping downtown in a hybrid for a patio-side Beaujolais and a foreign flick. On a typical quarter-acre backyard plot, city code allows for three hens, three bee colonies and as many veggies as your compost-enriched soil can handle. With a little practice, any urban dweller can create a symbiotic mini-ecosystem and still be walking distance from the city's thriving cultural core. City, meet country.
While the trend toward pastoral urbanism is all about food--bolstered by the crappy economy and good old-fashioned nostalgia--it has spurred new ideas about urban communities.
"My caution to you if you're on the small lots, like the North End: Get to know your neighbors really well and make sure you cultivate those friendships," warned long-time Boise bee hobbyist Dick Knapp.
But while Knapp and Westover have been at it longer than most, it's now clear that the spring of 2009 was, as writer Malcolm Gladwell might put it, a tipping point for backyard ranching.
The Bird is the Word
If you were one of the many folks trying to break into urban chicken-keeping this year, evidence of the tipping point trend was frustratingly apparent.
"People were almost fighting to get in line to get chickens," said new North End chicken owner Zach Jones. "They were gone in a half hour. D&B [Supply] said there were people who would come three or four hours beforehand and just hang out in the store and wait for the chickens to arrive. Then even after we got them, I guess chickens were so popular this year that all the stores ran out of chick feed."
While urban chicken-keeping has been on the rise for the past few years, Treasure Valley chick retailers say it really exploded this spring.
"There was an increase in interest this year," said Robin Fisher, pet and animal health buyer at D&B Supply, a farm store chain geared toward smaller operators. "We always have a pretty large interest, but looking at the numbers we sold this year compared to last year, we're up 15 percent."
Mike "Chicken Man" Stanton, assistant manager at Zamzows in Nampa, agreed, saying the store had seen a 25 to 30 percent increase this year in the sale of chicks.
But it was not just in Idaho.
Stanton, a former Idaho representative to the American Poultry Association who has raised chickens for 40 years, said it was hard to keep up with demand this spring, mainly because of unprecedented interest.
"We had a hard time getting baby chickens in because, nationwide, there was a huge increase in the sale of chickens--people wanting to raise a few birds in their back yards and stuff like that," said Stanton. "Part of it was due to the economy, and part of it is people are now becoming more and more interested in raising their own food."
From the rooftops of Brooklyn, N.Y., as profiled in The New York Times, to the mossy back yards of Portland, Ore., chickens have announced their arrival in the urban roost. With the lure of minimal upkeep and daily fresh eggs, it's not surprising that people are flocking to these utilitarian pets. But as with every new fad, overwhelming interest has led to scarcity in the baby chick market. Caldwell is home to Dunlap Hatchery, one of the Northwest's largest and longest-running chicken hatcheries, but the strain from larger local-food-crazy metropolises like Eugene, Ore., Portland and Seattle has had an effect on Boise's ability to ... ahem, pick up chicks.
"A couple of hatcheries in the Northwest went out of business so we had to find another source. Everybody here in the Northwest was looking for another source," said Fisher. "The other hatcheries, a lot of them, are already at capacity. We had to put our orders in months in advance."
For those who were able to procure poultry this year, a wealth of hobbyist resources have popped up online catering to chicken-rearing needs. The Web site urbanchickens.org offers advice on things like choosing the right chicken coop to warding off illness and disease. Backyardchickens.com boasts a message board where more than 35,000 members post questions in forums like "chicken behaviors and egg laying" and "pictures and stories of my chickens." Some sites, like mypetchicken.com, even offer accessories like handmade cloth chicken diapers.
"I wasn't aware that it was this huge movement until I started reading things in ReadyMade about making chicken coops," said Jones, a Boise Co-op employee. "It just all of the sudden seemed like people were getting chickens. And then, obviously, when it was difficult to get them, it made me realize, 'Wait a second, there's a lot of people doing this.'"
A Chicken in Every Pot Pie
So, what do you need to know in order to join your neighbors in this fuzzy-chicks-to-fluffy-omelet frenzy? First, you can keep up to three hens inside city limits and they are considered pets. Or, if your property is one acre or larger, and you dedicate at least half an acre to ranching, you can keep 12 chickens. Second, no roosters allowed.
With hundreds of recognized breeds and varieties--from the "That's a joke. I say, that's a joke, son" Leghorn of Warner Bros. fame, to the feather-footed Brahma--the main decision, for those not interested in commercial meat production, is between standard chickens and bantams. Standards produce the egg size you see at the supermarket, whereas bantams produce eggs about half that size. Bantams are essentially the lap dogs of the chicken world--good for people with limited pecking space. Various chicken breeds are also prized for the color of their basket, from bluish-green-egg laying Araucanas to pinkish-brown laying Plymouth Rocks.
"We have a Wyandotte, Australorp and Araucana," said second-year East End chicken owner Erik Kingston. "I really was looking at egg production and also temperament and hardiness. We wanted birds that would be more likely to survive and not attack us and still put out. They've been great."
Hatchlings in tow, you next need to find an enclosed space where the chicks can hang out for four to five weeks until they're old enough to be transferred to a coop. As mypetchicken.com cautions, "Ideally, you'll have a garage, workshop, basement or another predator-proof and draft-proof environment that's not in your main living space. Why not the main living space? Baby chicks, just like grown chickens, love to scratch their bedding materials, which creates a very fine dust that gets everywhere."
Jones, owner of chickens Lola, Frida and Judy, remembers this all too well.
"They lived in my room for about a month, which sucked," said Jones. "Toward the end, all my clothes that were hanging in my closet were covered in chicken dust."
Though baby chicks might ruffle a few feathers with their constant upkeep, pullets--young adult hens--are relatively easy to care for after they've been moved into their permanent coop. As varied as chicken breeds, coops can be built in a number of sizes and shapes using a variety of materials. But whether you throw down $1,200 for the uber modern plastic Eglu Cube or build your coop in the back of a rusty 1970s stationwagon, all coops have to include the same basic structures: a draft-proof, enclosed area with four square feet per chicken, roosting poles for each hen to sleep on, a nest box for every four or five hens to lay their eggs in and a closeable door to keep out the predators. Owners who can't let their chickens run free in the back yard often tack on a chicken-wire-encased chicken run. Kingston, who named his sprawling coop the Poulet Chalet, decided to wing it when building his coop.
"There are a lot of plans online and a lot of them cost money," explained Kingston. "I did a lot of research on what I saw out there and talked to other people that had birds and drew up about three different plans for a mobile coop, a stationary coop and then tore them all up and just built one from stream of consciousness."
What Will Bee Will Bee
But chickens aren't the only form of urban livestock pecking up momentum. Many in the Treasure Valley are buzzing about urban beekeeping. While the Boise Municipal Code has stringent specifications for beekeeping--only three colonies are allowed per quarter acre and they must be located 30 feet inside property lines behind a minimum 6-foot-high closed fence--a large number of newbies have reached for white suits and mesh hats over the last year.
The Treasure Valley Beekeepers Club now has a robust 50 to 60 members and holds frequent beekeeping field trips and informational talks. On a recent evening, past shooting stalks of corn and leafy rows of chard at Peaceful Belly farm, beekeeping couple Dick Knapp and Sarah Cox explained how to keep bees in an urban environment to an audience of a dozen or so rapt urban gardening students.
The two stressed the importance of educating and sharing with neighbors.
"Having people be interested rather than worried is a really important thing because people don't know the difference between bees and wasps," Cox said.
Though it would seem like bees pose more of a hazard in an urban environment than chickens, city zoning administrator Scott Spjute said he rarely receives complaints about them.
"We really don't get a whole lot of either inquiries or complaints about keeping the bees," said Spjute. "We don't require a permit; we just have some standards for the keeping of them."
In addition to sharing honey, Knapp noted that urban beekeepers can curry favor with their neighbors by always keeping a fresh water source near the colonies
"Honeybees will drink water everywhere," said Knapp. "If you're in town, they'll drink out of your neighbors' bird baths, they'll drink out of the hot tubs, they'll drink out of swimming pools. And that really gets your neighbors."
What's all the Buzz About?
Even if your neighbors are cool with a few extra bees chilling on their petunias, there's still a lot more to learn and acquire before you can handle bees with ease. Beekeeping requires an upfront equipment investment: brood boxes, frames, a smoker, protective clothing and a queen bee, which costs around $20. But if you don't want to plunk down cash for an insect, there's another way to get a queen: Catch a swarm. Surprisingly, they're fairly innocuous.
"If a queen is new in a colony, the first year she's just going to raise young and get [the colony] as populated as she can. And then if she's successful, she'll make it through the winter time and come out in the spring time. Her genes have been successful, so she'll leave that spot and take half the bees and swarm and go someplace else," explained TVBC president Steve Sweet, bent over a colony in his back yard near Boise Avenue. "When they're hanging on that tree in a swarm, every bee that stings is one less bee that gets the colony established. So the swarm is a very passive thing."
Sweet's introduction to bees started nearly 40 years ago as a way to fulfill a science requirement in college. This spring, he's already extracted about 700 pounds of honey from the 25 hives he has scattered around Southeast Boise in various spots. For Sweet, understanding bees means understanding their symbiotic relationship with Mother Nature.
"The first trees in the spring bloom around George Washington's birthday," said Sweet. "As soon as the maples bloom and put pollen out, then the bees start coming out. So, you're always watching for when the trees are blooming."
Ambling down the road in his pickup truck, bee equipment rattling in the back, Sweet punctuated explanations of basic bee biology with frequent "Look over there's." Out the open window, he pointed to fields of sweet clover and patches of wild mint; he seemed to be constantly scouting out his next colony location. Pulling off the road, Sweet maneuvered through a patch of tire-spinning gravel and into a forest of sweet clover taller than the truck.
"Dead ahead is a 12-acre parcel that was going to be developed into townhomes and condominiums," explained Sweet. "The site was slicked off, gravel was put in and then the whole project went gunnywag ... What you're seeing right now is white sweet clover. There was yellow sweet clover that came out earlier. So this is a heck of a honey crop right here ... This is just heaven for a beekeeper ... it's a great urban beekeeping hideout."
The colonies in his reclaimed urban space hummed with activity. Taking the top off the honey super--a smaller box at the top of the colony where the queen can't lay eggs and honey stores are built up--Sweet shook off hundreds of industrious bees to inspect a tray of dense, glistening honey comb. Beekeepers often tend their colonies, checking for disease and the overall health of the hive, in early to mid afternoon, the time when the female worker bees--the ones with stingers--are off collecting nectar. These painstaking inspection processes, the backbone of hobbyist beekeeping, just aren't suited to commercial beekeeping.
"When you have 1,000 colonies or 3,000 or 5,000, you have to manipulate them a lot differently," said Sweet. "You can't go in and take them apart and look at them, you just have to have a process for them. So there's a tendency to depend on chemicals to help deal with some of these problems."
Even withstanding their dependence on chemicals, the commercial bee industry has introduced a variety of other problems.
This Bud's for You
Every spring, large-scale beekeepers from across the country truck millions of bees to giant agribusinesses so that they can pollinate the crops.
"When these huge farms of almonds in California need to be pollinated, people from North Dakota and South Dakota and Idaho bring thousands and thousands of hives of bees from here down to California, pollinate those trees and then bring them back up here," explained beekeeper Sarah Cox. "It doesn't take a lot to imagine how very hard that is on bees. And that allows diseases that they encounter in California to come back to Idaho, diseases that would've taken 20 years maybe--maybe never would've reached here in the normal flight pattern of bees--now get here in one season."
These factors, along with a handful of others known and unknown, have combined to produce the much publicized Colony Collapse Disorder, a term coined to describe the sudden and widespread disappearance of honeybees.
While it's unlikely that the commercial agriculture industry will change anytime soon, one local beekeeper has stumbled onto a pollination solution for smaller-scale local farmers and backyard gardeners--a bee co-op. For the past two years, Mary Jane Oresik has provided hives and regular beekeeping for local gardeners who want the benefits of bees--honey and pollination--without all of the work. This year, she has 17 members in the co-op, who each keep a hive in their back yard and then split the honey harvest equally at the end of the season.
"The first year I did this I broke even. But I don't include any of the labor in that. I was just paying for a lot of hardware," said Oresik. "This year, I think I'm going to be ahead because I have more members and have a helper. But I usually just turn the money back around into the hardware for next year. It's one of these unplanned ventures that I got into because I just am fascinated with bees; they're fun, and I love talking to people about bees."
And while Oresik's solution doesn't come close to addressing the problems inherent in industrial agriculture, it is a solution that's helping gardeners at the local level. Sweet sees things a little differently. While he enjoys his hobbyist beekeeping and even sells Sweet Honey to friends to raise money for his kids' college tuition, Sweet also understands the important place commercial agriculture, and commercial beekeeping for that matter, holds in this country.
"Most of the produce that's here isn't from this country. Bees aren't from this country, they come from Europe. The fruits that we enjoy, that isn't natural. All these people aren't natural. So there's an evolution in there. Is industrial agriculture right? Well, at dinner time it's right. The rest of the time, I'm not sure," said Sweet.
The Chicken or the Egg
While beekeepers stress the importance of pollination and intrigue of the hive as much as they talk honey, most chicken owners have one golden reason for their avocation: eggs.
"We wanted to get some chickens, mostly because we wanted the fresh eggs," explained Westover. "When we started looking into it, they really are so easy to take care of. So it wasn't going to be a big ordeal to have them."
Three years ago, Westover and Blackhurst brought chickens Bleachy, Motherboard and Wayne to their mostly solar powered house off Broadway in Southeast Boise. Like most urban chicken owners, the two are avid gardeners, and they realized the utility of chicken poo.
"Chickens and gardening just go hand in hand," said Westover. "So, we just thought they could help till up the garden, peck all the weed seeds out, fertilize it with their poop, then in the spring, it would be half-ready for us to plant in."
Marlayna Boice--whose three new chicks Bella, Rosalie and Alice are named after Twilight characters--is also psyched about the benefits to her garden.
"I just read that chickens will eat a lot of the bugs that we have to use pesticides for in the garden," said Boice. "It's kind of cool to think about ... this is how they used to do it 100 years ago. Now, we've gotten away from that and have to use all of these pesticides, when we could just have chickens."
While some owners let their chickens run free in the yard or, like Kingston, build mobile chicken playpens that can be moved around to aerate various patches of soil and debug the lawn, some are weary of the chickens' destructive nature.
"Chickens are terrible for the garden. Don't let anybody fool you," explained second-year Southeast Boise chicken owner Whitney Rearick. "When you start looking on the Internet there are places that say, 'Oh, they're great for the garden.' What happens is they pick at every little thing."
But Bench-area chicken farmer and beekeeper Alex Blake, who grew up with chickens on his family's farm, looks at backyard chickens as more amusing than utilitarian.
"Chickens in the city are really just an idea," said Blake. "People get really excited about them, but the cost of keeping chickens and getting their eggs is not really a ton cheaper--if at all. So I think people do it more for the excitement of it."
But besides the excitement, more quiches and fewer grubs, there's another unintended outcome many urban chicken owners have stumbled upon: community.
It Takes a Village to Raise a Hen
Because of the close proximity of most urban dwellings, it's hard to keep backyard chickens a secret. While it's rare to hear stories of whiny neighbors, most chicken owners sweeten the deal with regular egg bribes.
"Technically, you're only supposed to have three chickens in the city limits, but most of the people I know got an extra bird or two for insurance, assuming there would be some attrition," said Kingston. "Most people are sort of engaged in an 'eggs for tolerance' program with their neighbors. And it seems to work."
But if neighbors do complain about people having more than their allotted three chickens--or if there's a "pullet surprise," where an incorrectly sexed chick turns out to be a rooster--the city's planning and zoning inspectors take care of the problem.
"If someone phones in a complaint, we'd go out and verify the fact that they do have more than three hens, and we'd give them a notice and give them so many days to come into compliance," explained Spjute. "We don't go out and just write somebody a citation right off the bat ... we get a pretty good rate of compliance that way."
Besides getting to know their neighbors to keep zoning enforcement officials at bay, a few chicken owners say their flock has helped them form new friendships.
The Boices' 86-pound black Lab precluded them from getting chickens until they found a solution with their neighbors: they would share a coop, but keep it in their neighbors' yard. A convenient gate allows both families access to the chickens.
"It wasn't until, in passing with our neighbors, that it came up that, 'Oh my gosh, I wish I could get chickens.' They said, 'Well, let's do it next spring.' Now they have some and we have some," said Boice.
Though both families were pals before, now their kids share caretaking responsibilities.
Out to Pasture
This gets at the heart of the pastoral urban trend. While creating new relations with neighbors, urban farmers are developing sustainable backyard ecosystems--where bees pollinate plants, plants feed chickens, and chickens fertilize plants. But while a noble and fruitful pursuit, it is more often supplemental than it is a complete dietary solution. Most urbanites are still dependent, in one way or another, on commercial agriculture. As the popularity of Oresik's bee co-op demonstrates, the urban agriculturalist can be too busy to invest in complex trades like beekeeping, though they might pay someone to do it for them.
Another example of this involves chickens. What happens when hens stop laying eggs? Do their owners kill them? Or keep them as pets? Each owner has varying thoughts on the question, but most agree on one thing--it sounds gross. That is why Idaho's only humane, state-approved poultry slaughterhouse, Homegrown Poultry, has seen a marked increase in customers since they opened a permanent facility in New Plymouth in 2007.
"I have seen a significant demand, not just this year but the last three years," said Jack Kleeb, co-owner of Homegrown Poultry with farmer Janie Burns. "The trend has been upwards of 30 percent more people coming to our plant--new customers--each year."
While many of Kleeb's customers are farmers who bring in 100 chickens at a time to be processed, many are backyard chicken keepers with a few unlawful roosters they need to get rid of and no idea how to do it.
"A lot of my friends offered to kill [my rooster] for me," said Rearick. "But then when you pressed them on it, 'How many chickens have you killed and when was the last one?' ... A couple of them had done it years ago in the Peace Corps. I was like, 'What if you screw this up? You're going to torture my poor chicken. No way.'"
Though Blake did take rooster killing into his own hands, to spare the gory details, he turned out to be no rooster Robespierre.
"I didn't think to take two roosters to someone else to butcher them. I wouldn't even know where to go," said Blake. "I was actually a little bit repulsed by the process, but I just wanted to make myself do it."
As more people complete their backyard gardens with chickens and bees, more industries like the bee co-op and Homegrown Poultry will spring up. But does simplifying agricultural traditions--and contracting out the unpleasant aspects of rural life--make the desire for a slice of the country in the city any less genuine? Most would say no and that it takes more than Google to learn how to properly kill a chicken.