Urban chicken farmers passionate about their hobby
Published: Sunday, March 3, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, February 28, 2013 at 11:31 a.m.
John Bennett had always dreamed of having a 10-acre farm, but could never afford one. That didn't stop him from putting a little piece of the country into his half-acre backyard.
Raising the roost
Thinking about raising chickens in your backyard? The rules vary depending on where you live. Here's a quick look at what the ordinances say.
City residents who want to raise chickens for personal use are allowed two chickens — no roosters. Chickens must be contained to the property and not allowed to roam.
For more information, contact the Gainesville Code Enforcement office at 334-5030.
Unincorporated county residents must have at least 1 acre of land to raise fowl and are limited to six chickens per single-family home. No roosters allowed in residential areas.
Chickens must be enclosed or caged after daylight hours. Owners must control odors, regularly dispose of waste and make sure their animals aren't a nuisance to the surrounding neighborhood, among other restrictions.
For more information, contact the Alachua County Code Enforcement office at 374-5243.
Five years ago on Good Friday, Bennett was driving by the local Tractor Supply Co. store with his daughters, when he picked up a surprise and casually dropped it off at his family's Marion County home before returning to work.
Later that afternoon Bennett received a phone call from his wife, Sonja, who had just returned home from her job as a kindergarten aide at Wynomina Park Elementary School.
"There are chickens in my house," she screamed into the phone.
Bennett knew his wife had found the 100-gallon fish tank with six day-old Rhode Island Red chicks he had parked in the middle of the family's living room.
The Long Island native said he never imagined that what began as a whim would be going strong five years later. Bennett and his daughters, Savannah, 12, and Sarah, 16, now have 26 clucking chickens living in their backyard.
"The more chickens you get and the more you start researching, the more you want to try different breeds," he said.
Since 2008, the Bennetts have raised more than 12 breeds of fowl, from the plump, fluffy-plumed Buff Orpingtons, an English class of chickens, to the black-and-white striped Barred Rock chickens that originated in the U.S. and are typically displayed in advertisements.
Bennett raises production chickens primarily for their eggs, while his daughters breed birds to compete in annual poultry shows with their local 4-H club.
The family is passionate about backyard poultry raising, and they aren't the only ones.
Backyard chicken farming has become more common nationwide as evidenced by the scores of Internet sites offering advice on everything from building chicken coops to research on specific breeds.
City and county laws regarding urban chicken raising vary and usually include limits on the number and location. Ocala residents are not permitted to raise chickens within the city limits, said code enforcement officials. Residents of unincorporated Marion County must apply for a special-use permit and meet certain specifications, including presenting a detailed plan of the number of chickens and where they will be housed. Neighbors living within 300 feet are notified of the application request.
Gainesville residents are allowed no more than two chickens that are contained to the property, and absolutely no roosters allowed.
While there aren't any federal or state agencies that track the number of backyard chicken growers, an increase in grassroots organizations displays a growing interest in the hobby.
Backyard Chickens, a website for chicken owners, created a Chicken Forum in 2000 that boasts more than 160,000 users who post 6,000 comments per day, according to the site's metrics. The site now features more than 1,000 chicken coop designs, an extensive chicken breed database and a chicken resource-learning center.
Midwest Feed & Farm began receiving shipments of baby chicks in early February at its stores in Marion and Alachua counties. Weekly shipments of 75 to 100 1- to 2-day-old chicks will arrive at Midwest Feed & Farm stores in Ocala, Archer and High Springs through the end of April, said Beth Strength, the store manager in Alachua. They are shipped overnight via airplane from Ideal Poultry in Cameron, Texas.
Ninety-eight percent of the chicks are generally egg-laying fowl, and buyers can call to find out when specific breeds arrive at stores, said Strength.
Jacqueline Lowery, the office manager and retail buyer for the Ocala Midwest Feed & Farm, said local backyard chicken breeding has increased over the past four years. She said she believes the rough economy has motivated people to raise their own chickens, instead of buying eggs and meat at their local supermarkets.
"People are having to go back to their roots," she said. "They're planting gardens, raising their own cattle, slaughtering their own hogs and buying chickens. Things have changed in the past few years, for sure."
Since the Ocala location began selling chicks four years ago, sales have almost quadrupled, said Lowery.
"When we first started out we sold around 300 chicks," she said. "The second year we sold around 700 and the third year was 1,152."
Sales at the Archer location have almost tripled in the past seven years, said Strength.
The cost of raising chickens, in reality, is more than the cost of buying a dozen eggs at a local food market, said Strength. Chicks cost around $3 each and, when they mature, can lay one to two eggs a day for about three to five years.
Still, many find the benefits outweigh the costs in the long run. Chickens help with pest control, provide high ammonia natural fertilizer for plants and are enjoyable pets for owners, said Strength.
"Taking care of the chicks provides a fun way for kids to develop a sense of responsibility, while teaching them work ethics and healthy eating habits," she said.
And many people these days choose to eat organic and locally-grown foods.
Many commercially-raised chickens are given antibiotics, injected with hormones, are genetically modified and are sometimes raised in inhumane conditions, she said. The Bennetts have a 10-foot by 20-foot wooden coop in a shady spot in their backyard that is home to their chickens, including four grandiose Welsummers, with auburn-laced feathers and crimson combs. Some of them have names, like Lil' Mamma, a small bare-necked Turken.
Despite what his daughters may think, Bennett considers the chickens with a singular attitude.
"I strictly look at my chickens as livestock," he said. "You have to remember you wouldn't eat your dog, but when these finish laying eggs, they're going in the pot."
In the meantime, the chicks give the family a little bit of country in the middle of a city.
"We are in the heart of Ocala and you would never know," he said. "Having the chickens walking around gives me the sense of living in the country, but we live 15 minutes from downtown. I have my own mini-farm in the middle of my backyard."