SACO – With more and more people joining the locavore movement and demanding fresh, locally grown food, the timing is right for a talk about raising backyard chickens.
“So many people were making inquiries about the logistics of raising chickens that we decided to bring in a few experts,” said Barbara McAllister, a member of the Saco River Market board.
On April 6, the market will host a workshop on raising backyard chickens with local poultry expert Jason Harris and heritage breed expert Joseph Marquette.
Harris said there are many benefits for families in raising their own chickens, including knowing exactly what the bird has eaten and how it’s been cared for, and having fresh eggs and meat on hand.
Raising chickens can also become “a real family project,” he said, and can help teach kids responsibility and to think about where their food comes from.
“Flavor and freshness are also a big issue. I always tell people that your grocery store chicken has a 10 percent solution added to it,” Harris said.
He said the cost of having chickens will vary, depending on how many birds are in the flock and how much people want to spend on a coop and fencing.
Feeding a laying hen would cost about $35 a year, Harris said. The chicks needed to start a flock are about $2 a piece. Other costs include the purchase of a feeder and fresh water system for the birds.
Harris said families often end up treating their chickens more like pets, giving them names and taking them to the veterinarian when they become ill. For others, the birds are simply a source of food.
He said the biggest challenges in raising chickens are keeping them free of lice and disease and protecting them from predators, which can range from the family cat or dog to fox, coyote, mink, fisher cats, owls and hawks.
Harris said an adult bird should have about 3 square feet of space, including a roost, which is at least a foot off the ground, and a nesting place.
The good thing is that a rooster is not needed for egg laying, and each hen can produce between five and six eggs a week beginning at about five to six months of age, he said.
Harris said that any breed of chicken could lay eggs and any breed could be used for meat; however, there are specific breeds utilized for one or the other. In addition, several breeds have the dual purpose of producing eggs, as well as being good to eat.
He said for those who do not wish to do their own slaughtering, there are places to take chickens to be killed and cut up.
Most retailers require people to buy at least six chicks at the same time and will rarely, if ever, sell them singly or in twos or threes. Harris said six chickens would likely produce about 30 eggs a week, which is “more than enough for a family of four.”
The cities of Saco and Biddeford both allow domesticated chickens, under certain conditions, including a requirement that all those wishing to raise chickens get a permit first.
There are also varying requirements for housing the chickens and for setbacks from property lines in each community. In addition, both cities limit the number of chickens allowed to six and roosters are prohibited.
McAllister, a Saco River Market vendor who sells herbs and spices under the name of Freda’s Table, said this is the first time the market has held a workshop on raising chickens.
She said so many people these days are making the effort to buy local produce that it only makes sense they would also be interested in what they can do on their own.
McAllister said the goal of the workshop is to provide information on the importance of using fresh produce, including thinking about the conditions in which the chickens providing the eggs or the meat bought at the store might have lived in.
“When you have your own chickens, you’re in total control,” she said. “You know what they’re eating and you know the condition of the hens laying your eggs.”
“Our whole goal with the market is to raise awareness about where our food comes from and to encourage people to buy local products when possible,” McAllister said. “When you visit the market, you’re supporting 40 small businesses.”
“We’re all about community, community, community – and sharing good things and good ideas,” she added.