Tyler Dalton was driving through the suburbs near his Rockland home last fall when he noticed how many homes had chickens or goats in the yards. He knew, from documentaries he’d seen, that small backyard farms were on the rise.
Suddenly, as he recalled it, he had his aha moment. He rushed home to tell his mother.
“Mom,” he says he announced, “I think I came up with a business idea. It’s not very ordinary, but I’m gonna give it a shot. I’m gonna try being a pet sitter for livestock.”
Thus was hatched, with full parental support, Roosts to Ranches, a small business providing care for animals while clients travel or need extra help.
Less than a year later, the 20-year-old has about 25 clients, ranging from one family with six chickens to an East Bridgewater breeder with hundreds of exotic creatures.
The increase in suburbanites raising chickens and other farm animals, known as homesteading, has created new opportunities, said Bill Benner, the breeder who hired Dalton soon after meeting him.
“Homesteading has increased by 1,000 percent over the last several years,” he said from his hidden gem of a backyard farm — home to pigs, chickens, peacocks, desert sheep and rams, emus, rabbits, doves, and geese, not to mention common dogs and not-so-common koi, the bright-colored carp of Asian origin. “People are looking for healthier food for their families. The trend is to get back to earthy-type things – free range and grass fed.”
But people don’t want to feel trapped at home by their animals, added Benner, who sells some of his to wannabe homesteaders. “Tyler saw a need and capitalized on it.”
Occasionally helped by four younger sisters, Dalton works long days, sometimes stretching from 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., with few breaks. But in making the demanding commitment, he’s fulfilling a dream that he hopes will grow. Working with animals, he said, has been his passion since he was in the third grade at the South Shore Charter Public School in Norwell.
“We had to choose a workshop at school,” he said. “I always picked one relating to animals. When I was 10, I started volunteering once a week at the New England Wildlife Center [in Weymouth] and knew then that my career would be with animals.” He later worked with the cows at Hornstra Dairy Farm in Norwell and Weir River Farm in Hingham after school.
As a junior in high school, he told his parents he had no interest in going to college.
“They were taken aback, but were very supportive and just wanted to make sure I had a plan,” he said while throwing cut-up vegetables to Benner’s pigs. “I wasn’t sure what the plan would be, but I knew college wasn’t for me. Not going to college doesn’t make you a slacker as long as you’re using your experience and knowledge to build up your resume doing something you love.”
After graduation, he continued working at the farms, and late last year began spreading his Roosts to Ranches idea on Facebook and by word-of-mouth.
“It started out slowly, and I was a little discouraged,” Dalton said. “But then in April it started to pick up. Now I’m already taking reservations for Thanksgiving and December.”
His primary means of advertising? Facebook, magnetic signs on his car, and handing out business cards at feed and tractor stores and farmers markets.
Dalton’s current clients range from Plymouth to Attleboro; he said the distance he’s willing to travel depends on their needs and whether making the trip works financially for him. He charges $15 to feed and clean the cages of chickens twice each day, and up to $70 if numerous animals are involved.
Dealing with such math makes him want to improve his business sense, and he plans to take some college courses to make this a sustainable career for the long haul. “I’d love to see this become a huge thing, like a franchise. The irony is that I started this business instead of going to college, and now this business is sending me back to school!”
One of his clients, Kaysea Hart, is founder of Blue Barn Farm Share Program, a nonprofit that provides lower-income families with free farm food while providing local farms market-rate compensation for the food they grow. A homesteader herself who raises chickens and goats, she said there’s a growing need for the services Dalton provides.
“Homesteading today isn’t about survival like it was for our ancestors, but more about making healthy choices for our families and environment,” said the Hingham mother of two. “Homesteading can mean having a vegetable garden, chickens, dairy goats, and maybe a pig or cow, and even for those living in cities, a container garden on their deck.”
Hart met Dalton at Weir River Farm, and hired him to help with her animals. “I don’t think there are many, if any, businesses like his,” said Hart. “It’s very smart of him to do this. There are plenty of pet sitters and dog walkers, but it’s hard to find someone knowledgeable to care for farm animals. He knows his stuff and he connects with them. Besides feeding, he’ll trim the goats’ hooves. I can see him doing very well in his business.”
Hart said the trend of owning chickens began about seven years ago in the suburbs, and she believes it’s here to stay. “People realized the benefits of organics and nutrients, the advantages of being self-reliant, and the limited impact on the environment when you grow local,” she said. “You know what you’re feeding your animals and vegetables. Also, the influx of local farms resulted in established farms offering backyard chicken workshops.” There are also Facebook pages dedicated to homesteading, with thousands of members sharing information.
Helping families learn the process of chicken raising is another service Dalton provides. His knowledge comes from hands-on experience, but he also reads a lot.
“If someone hires me to care for something I haven’t worked with, like alpacas or bees, I’ll research them,’’ he said. “I don’t want to turn down a job because of lack of knowledge or experience.
“Learning about them and getting to know their personalities,’’ he said, “is half the fun.”Christie Coombs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.