Urban poultry growing in popularity

Beth Rudy tends to her hens, Flossy, left, and Sally, right, in the backyard of her home at Henry Drive and Ox Road in Woodstock. Rich Cooley/Daily

Raising chickens for their eggs or meat in rural areas isn’t new, but agricultural experts say they are seeing an increase in the popularity of smaller operations for personal use in more densely populated residential areas.

Woodstock resident Beth Rudy has been raising chickens in her backyard for almost six years.

“I had friends who had chickens and they were always giving me eggs and then I wanted my own chickens,” Rudy said.

She harvests about four eggs a day from her six hens. The older chickens, she said, don’t always produce as many eggs as the younger birds.

Rudy’s son Evan and his friend Michael Lansberry built her a hen house and a yard for the birds. She got the chicks when they were a day old and raised them inside until they were old enough to go outside. Rudy does not have any roosters because she said they make too much noise and are needed to breed chickens but not to harvest eggs.

Hens walk around the backyard of Beth Rudy's home in Woodstock. Rich Cooley/Daily

Rudy spends about $20 a month on chicken feed, and she also provides table scraps for her birds. She warned against feeding chickens too much bread because they can acquire an illness known as sour crop.

Bobby Clark, senior extension agent with at the Shenandoah County office of the Virginia Cooperative Extension, said there is an increasing trend for backyard poultry.

“Some people just want to know where their food is coming from and I think there is also a contingency of people who do that, especially when they have children so that their children are exposed to animal agriculture,” he said. “It teaches a lot of important life lessons when you have some sort of animal that you care for.”

C. Corey Childs, also an agent with the extension office, agreed that the trend is growing both in rural and urban areas. People interested in urban poultry farming face some challenges, Childs said. Homeowners or property owners associations might bar residents from keeping livestock or poultry in their yards, Childs said, noting that towns are reviewing their rules to either restrict or allow the practice.

“The local food, the fresh food movement has now reached a large enough scale that people are going, ‘I’d like to have a few chickens in the backyard to have a few fresh eggs for my family,'” Childs said. “Then you also have the ability to kind of get back to nature and raise these animals, develop interaction with them.”

Beth Rudy holds her hen, Flossy. Rudy has been raising chickens for about six years. Rich Cooley/Daily

In some cases, a person gains interest in urban farming even though his family has not been involved in agriculture for generations, Childs said.

“Chickens have personality,” Childs said. “You kind of don’t think so until you’re around them and if you spend some time with them. Each one’s a little bit different.”

Maggie and Steve Steiner have several dozen chickens on their property in the Fort Valley area outside Strasburg. Maggie Steiner works at Strasburg Farm & Home Service in the Southern States location in town. The Steiners raise the chickens for their eggs, and also have eaten the roosters.

“We had the space and there’s something satisfying about growing your own food,” Maggie Steiner said. “You can tell a big difference between farm eggs and store eggs. A big difference.”

Raising chickens requires a good environment, a coop with roosting perches and, if a person plans to raise laying hens, then laying boxes, Maggie Steiner said.

Depending on the kind of chicken, an owner might need to make their living quarters warmer in the winter. Chickens also need a yard in which to run. Owners also should install poultry netting to not only keep chickens from roaming away but also to help prevent predators from getting to the birds, she advised. The Steiners fenced in their yard and placed netting across the top to protect the chickens from other predatory birds.

Virginia state law requires that a person buy at least six chickens, Steiner noted.

Backyard poultry can cost money up front, Clark noted. A person would need to buy or build a chicken coop, then purchase the animals and the necessary food.

“I’d be surprised if you could raise eggs cheaper than you could buy eggs,” Clark said.

A homeowner keeping chickens for the eggs or as poultry should exercise basic safety, Clark advised. The extension agency offers publications and tips on food handling and safety through its family consumer science program.

“Just because you’re doing it at home doesn’t mean you’re doing it safely,” Clark said.

Chicken owners need to remain on guard and protect their flocks from the latest outbreak of avian flu, Childs said. The theory is that migrating birds and waterfowl are spreading the disease, putting small and large flocks at risk, he added.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com