Trading Egg Scares for Home-Raised Chickens

As the recall of salmonella-contaminated eggs in mid-August renewed a nationwide scrutiny of factory farms, Bay Area residents began dialing for chickens — ones to raise in their own backyards.

“I’ve seen tremendous interest in the past couple weeks,” said Ken Kirkland, the owner of Woolly Egg Ranch, which specializes in producing chickens for small farms and households. It’s unclear if all the calls will lead to an increase in the number of San Francisco chicken farmers, but Kirkland and others see it as part of the ongoing growth in urban homesteading that includes vegetable gardens and livestock.

Though it’s difficult to quantify how many chickens are raised in San Francisco, there are several online communities dedicated solely to raising them in urban settings. BackyardChickens.com, online since 1999, has more than 65,000 registered users of its forum, and gets millions of pageviews per month. Mission District farmer Heidi Kooy, who has four chickens, two goats, bunnies, a dog and several rows of vegetables at her house, is one of those users.

With a backyard overlooking Mission Street, Kooy began urban homesteading long before the recent salmonella scare, and feels that the four to five eggs her chickens lay on average per day are much better than anything from the store.

“With free-range, pasture-raised, organic and all the other types out there, I would just stare blankly at the egg shelves in grocery stores,” recalled Kooy. “I started raising chickens because I didn’t know what was best for me to buy.”

Originally from Nebraska, Kooy started her backyard farm as a way to maintain her rural roots. She added chickens a year and a half ago, when she found out it was legal to do so. By law, San Francisco residents may house four small animals on their property, including up to four chickens, if kept 20 feet away from doors or windows in an approved coop or enclosure.

Kooy exceeds that limit, but said she’s never received a complaint about how many she has. Her backyard, which butts up against a used car lot, houses the goats and birds in a pen no larger than two king beds stacked lengthwise. Ethel, one of the two goats (the other is named Lucy), often sits back on her haunches against the edge of the pen’s fence, gazing at Mission Street 50 yards away.

In a part of town renowned for its eccentricities, seeing a goat’s head peeking over a fence can nonetheless cause people walking by to do a double-take. Because of all the interest in what she’s doing, Kooy routinely opens up her backyard for neighbors and the public to view. “It’s great if people can see what’s possible,” she said.

The idea of urban homesteading can be traced back to an article that appeared in Mother Earth News in the 1970s, according to Erik Knutzen, co-author of the book “The Urban Homestead.” Considered a seminal book on the movement, it first took hold with adherents of the ’70s-era back-to-the-land movement, Knutzen said, but its mainstream appeal has increased since the recession hit two years ago.

“Don’t tell my husband,” Kooy joked, “but farming is really a way for me not to have to work.”

Raising your own chickens is not without its challenges, Kooy warned. Birds can be noisy, especially in the dawn hours, and one’s right to raise small livestock in San Francisco depends on the number of complaints the city receives from neighbors. People can seek out certain breeds of chicken known to be quiet, such as Orpingtons or Marans, but on some level, it comes down to the luck of the draw with any particular bird.

Moreover, raising one’s own chickens, even with organic feeds and pasture space, is no guarantee against disease and pathogens like salmonella.

Wright County Egg, which first announced a recall on August 13, traced salmonella to feedlots on all five of its farms. It produces 2.3 million egg dozens per week for national distribution. Since Wright’s initial recall, a second farm in Iowa was linked to reports of salmonella, making the combined outbreak the largest since the federal government began tracking the disease in 1973, according to the New York Times.

Regardless of where you are and how much space you have, raising livestock requires a vigilant attention to cleanliness, Kooy said. As foodies and locavores romanticize urban homesteading, the absolute necessity of cleanliness gets lost, she added.

Since last month’s recall, food activists have increased the pressure on federal lawmakers to pass a new food safety bill to enforce stricter regulations on factory farms. But urban homesteading will continue to grow regardless of recalls and legislation, Kooy said.

Mario Klip, who sells high-end chicken coops, agreed. Klip grew up in the Netherlands, where he said producing your own food is embedded in the culture. The urban homestead movement in the United States has started to catch up with other parts of the world. “Now, we’re getting to the point where the majority of people say it’s cool,” said Klip. “Things like this [outbreak] are just extra nudges in that growth.”

More than anything, Kooy is grateful for the lesson her six-year-old daughter is learning. “Though she may not realize it yet, I’m glad she’s finding out where her food comes from.”

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