CARLISLE — For longer than he can remember, 11-year-old Kyle Bonenfant has wanted chickens. To prepare him for the responsibility, he and his father participated in a backyard chicken-keeping workshop led by Carlisle resident Terry Golson.
They toured Golson’s backyard coops and learned about breeds, behaviors, housing, feed, manure composting, and all the other ways to raise a happy, healthy flock. They even got to hold a hen.
“It was really fun,” said Kyle, who also appreciated the homemade chocolate chip cookies. “I recommend it because if you’re going to get chicks, you have to know a lot so you can get eggs to eat.”
While statistics are hard to come by, anecdotal evidence points to the soaring popularity of urban and suburban chicken keeping. Factors may include increased awareness of organic farming, appreciation of local food production, and the desire to teach children where food comes from in an age when it is possible to subsist entirely on packaged food.
Some may say there is no better example of the local food movement than collecting fresh eggs from one’s own backyard.
‘When that chicken has a name, it changes the meaning of the egg. You automat-ically respect that food source more.’
John Erikson, who owns an animal feed and supply company in Acton, Erikson Grain Mill Inc., with his brother Dave, said business related to backyard chickens has soared by 50 percent over the past two or three years. While homegrown eggs are ultimately no cheaper than eggs purchased at the grocery store, caring for chickens is relatively inexpensive and low maintenance.
Traci Torres, co-owner of My Pet Chicken, based in Monroe, Conn., said her company’s online business has increased by more than $2 million a year since its launch in 2007. Orders for certain breeds (which open each December) were sold out by Jan. 1 for the entire year.
Modern breeds lay white, brown, green, blue, and dark-chocolate-hued eggs. My Pet Chicken ships its chicks the day they hatch via overnight delivery through the US Postal Service.
Gregory Lee, postmaster of the Carlisle Post Office, said a shipment of chicks arrives at least twice a month. “Most of the boxes are screened so you can’t see in, but you can sure hear them through the holes,” he said. “Our customers get a kick out of them, especially the kids. We do, too.”
For those not ready to commit, however, chickens can be rented for a two-week period through Land’s Sake in Weston. For a $100 fee plus $50 security deposit, delivery and pick-up service is provided for two Light Brahma chickens and all their supplies.
Golson said she is pleased by the upswing in urban and suburban chicken keeping, but she does worry.
“A lot of basic animal husbandry is done very badly, which means health and behavior problems,” she said. “That reflects badly on the people doing it right.”
Although she grew up in suburban New Jersey, Golson said, “as soon as I was aware of the world, I knew I wanted animals in it.” Contrary to her parents’ expectations, Golson graduated with a degree in animal science from the University of New Hampshire in 1980. After working with horses, she turned to professional cooking. She wrote four cookbooks, as well as a children’s picture book, “Tillie Lays an Egg,” in 2009.
After Golson and her family moved to their first home in Carlisle in 1991, she adopted a neighbor’s chicken left over from a 4-H Club project.
“They’re flock animals, so you should never have just one, and the coop was falling apart so we had to build more buildings,” she said. “It snowballed from there.”
The Golsons moved in 2003 to a larger property, and they now have 21 hens, an 8-year-old rabbit that lives in a hutch in the chicken run, two Nigerian dwarf dairy goats, two dogs, and a koi pond. The property is not open to the public except through Golson’s workshops, although she does offer four live-streaming webcams accessible at www.hencam.com.
Workshop participants have flocked from Cape Cod, Maine, Connecticut, and New Jersey, with some attending solely to meet their hencam favorites: Buffy, a 6-year-old hen who mostly keeps to herself; mild-mannered Agatha, who accompanies Golson to school and library programs; Etheldred, known for her voracious appetite; and Candy, the lop-eared rabbit for whom Golson predicts “worldwide mourning” when she goes to the big farm in the sky. Indeed, Golson’s hen blog and website generate 60,000 monthly visitors, and she has fielded e-mails from Africa, Indonesia, New Zealand, and Italy.
During workshops at her home, as well as her presentations at venues around the region, Golson emphasizes that chicken keeping is easy if practiced correctly. A sampling of her recommendations: Construct a coop with at least 4 square feet of interior floor space (with adequate ventilation and light) per chicken, plus a minimum of 8 square feet in a dry outdoor area.
Hens should sleep on roosts, not on the floor or in nesting boxes. Food, water, and pine-shaving bedding should be kept clean and tidy. Chickens eat commercial feed, vegetable scraps, and bugs, but also enjoy treats of pumpkin, cabbage, and hulled sunflower seeds.
Chickens are bred to lay a lot of eggs in their first two years. However, many live at least five years, and the sturdy ones eight. In the past, these no-longer-productive hens were put in the stew pot, but today many live out their retirement as pets.
While chickens prefer ranging freely, Golson keeps hers in their spacious pens to prevent them from tearing up her gardens, or falling prey to foxes, hawks, fisher cats, coyotes, and neighborhood dogs.
“They all want a chicken dinner,” she said, “but I have very good fencing.”
Some advantages of owning chickens, she noted, are natural lawn aeration and fertilization, endless amusement with their inquisitive nature, and “wonderfully delicious” eggs that look and taste different from those in supermarkets.
Kimberly Brainerd of Concord attended Golson’s workshop because she is intent on teaching her 3-year-old son, Eston, about all the work and care that goes into producing food. Chickens are a practical choice, as eggs are a mainstay in her family’s vegetarian diet.
“Hopefully, my son will be able to extrapolate that every piece of food on the table has a long and intricate journey,” said Brainerd, who was exposed to chickens as a child on a family farm in Minneapolis, and as an adult while traveling extensively through England. “When that chicken has a name, it changes the meaning of the egg. You automatically respect that food source more.”
Kyle’s dad, Brian Bonenfant, who was a last-minute substitute at Golson’s workshop for his wife, Joy, said he “learned more about chickens than I could ever have dreamed or wanted to know.
“After we left,” he said, “I really did feel like we’re ready for chickens now.”
The family — which includes Kyle’s 7-year-old brother and 5-year-old twin brothers — has since purchased 15 chicks from Agway in Chelmsford and www.mypetchicken.com. They are enjoying the experience so much that Kyle has agreed to attend Golson’s next workshop with his mother.
Brian and Joy Bonenfant both notice a high level of responsibility in Kyle, as well as a deep respect for animals and nature in all their children.
“I’m so glad Kyle has found this interest and followed through. He feeds them, he waters them, he checks on them. I know they’re in good hands because he genuinely cares about them,” Brian Bonenfant said. “It’s not a video game that he’ll be sick of in a few weeks when he’s mastered it. This is a real growing experience.”
Golson’s upcoming workshops are scheduled from 1 to 3 p.m. next Sunday, and Saturday, July 7. The cost is $25 until next Sunday, when it goes up to $35, and each workshop is capped at 14 participants.
For more information, e-mail email@example.com or visit www.terrygolson.com.