On a recent sunny-side-up morning, Seth Jansen delivered two lively hens and a rental coop to Anne Miller’s home in Olivette.
Miller smiled nervously as Jansen showed her how to hold a chicken.
“Hi, little friend,’’ Miller cheerfully told her new backyard guest. “We’re going to have to get to know each other. And then we’ll come up with a name, because I can’t just call you Chicken One and Chicken Two.”
The wooden coop was move-in ready and on wheels. As Jansen maneuvered it into place next to Miller’s landscaped patio, he explained how to feed and care for the birds.
No one knows how many Americans keep chickens in their backyards, but the trend took hold locally about 10 years ago and continues to grow, Jansen said.
A 2013 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that 4 million American households would have a backyard flock by now.
Urban chicken-farming not only produces flavorful, fresh eggs, but it helps people connect with nature and develop a greener and more self-sustainable lifestyle, Jansen said.
“There's something deep within us that gains satisfaction out of doing something with the land and with animals and raising your own food,’’ he said.
Miller rented the setup for six months to help her decide if she wants to keep chickens.
“I love the idea of being a little bit close to our farming roots and really seeing where food comes from,’’ Miller said. “I think this is a fun, easy way to do it.”
Jansen was once an investment adviser. He and his wife developed their business — The Easy Chicken — five years ago after starting their own backyard flock. Now, they coach chicken-keeper wannabes like Miller and offer a “chicken concierge” service that help busy chicken-keepers maintain their flocks.
Jansen charges about $500 for a six-month rental, and he expects Miller will collect four eggs per chicken a week.
Asked about the cost per egg, he and Miller both laughed.
“Well, you don't do this because you want to save money on eggs,’’ Jansen said. “If you want to save money on eggs, you go to Aldi or something and get eggs for a dollar a dozen. But it's the overall experience that's rewarding.’’
Miller, an IT manager for World Wide Technology, sees another benefit.
“Animals are soothing,’’ she said. “I love coming home at the end of the day and sitting in the backyard and watching the wildlife. And now I’ll have chickens to take care of.’’
What Goes Around Comes Around
Thanks to the popularity of urban farming, the O.K. Hatchery Feed and Garden store in Kirkwood began selling chicks again, said Steve Krieger, whose grandfather started the business nearly a century ago.
“When my grandfather started the hatchery, it was before World War II, and then during World War II, there was rationing,’’ Krieger said. “It was actually kind of rural in the Kirkwood area, so everybody almost had a backyard flock back then because they needed fresh food.’’
The store stopped its hatching operation after the war and eventually stopped selling chicks all together, due to waning interest. O.K. now sells about 400 chicks every spring.
“There just wasn’t a call for it, but in the last 10 years we’ve gotten them again, because it’s gotten to be a really big hobby to have a backyard chicken flock,’’ Krieger said.
The chicks are from a hatchery in Lebanon, Missouri, which “sexes” the chicks and sends only the females. Roosters are banned in most cities.
Mark Diehl, whose family owns the Fenton Feed Mill, gauges the growth of chicken-keeping by the amount of chicken feed he sells in a year — more than 120 tons.
“We probably sell as much or more chicken feed as we do horse feed,’’ Diehl said. “And you’re talking about a chicken that eats three or four ounces of food a day. That’s a lot of chickens to make up that difference of food.”
The mill sells chicks year-round — about 4,000 of them in various breeds — from a hatchery in Texas.
Chickens In The City
Joe and Katy Hostman of St. Louis have kept chickens for five years in the backyard of their home in the Tower Grove South neighborhood.
They were at O.K. Hatchery on a recent morning picking out two chicks from a huddle of of chirping fluff balls in an incubator at the front of the store.
“The fresh eggs are amazing,’’ Katy Hostman said. “Joe jokes that it's the only pet that pays rent. So they give back to us, and they really are wonderful pets. Ours enjoy scratches under their wings and love to come out for treats and play in the yard.’’
At least four houses on their block have backyard coops.
“We’re hipsters,” she said, laughing.
Gardeners throughout the city have built coops in recent years. At The Soulard School, fifth-graders feed the schoolyard chickens every morning and use the eggs in a “farm-to-table” culinary arts program. The Kitchen Coffee House in Tower Grove East keeps chickens out back.
More than 2,500 people from across the region belong to the St. Louis Backyard Chickens Facebook group. They share tips on caring for hens and building coops. A recent post suggested that it might be time to organize a city poultry show.
Two years ago, the city of St. Louis changed its chicken ordinance and now allows up to eight fowl per city lot.
A number of other local communities have rewritten codes in recent years to allow residents to keep more chickens. In Florissant, for example, four hens are allowed, while Clayton allows 10 with a three-year permit that costs $50. Some, like Belleville, prohibit chickens. Jansen maintains a list of regulations on The Easy Chicken website.
St. Louis Alderwoman Cara Spencer celebrated the start of the new aldermanic session and her swearing-in on April 16 by taking her son to the Fenton Feed Mill to buy chicks for their backyard coop.
The people who built their home in the late 1800s probably kept chickens, she said.
“People have been growing their own food since the dawn of time,’’ Spencer said. “We’ve grown food in the city of St. Louis since the city was established, and we’re really just getting back to the way we’ve always been.”
Spencer is an advocate of urban farming and worked with the St. Louis Food Policy Coalition to champion the city’s latest ordinance on chickens.
Unlike many municipalities, the city’s code does not require chicken keepers to buy permits.
“We really wanted to make sure that this was accessible to anybody who wanted to participate, and we didn’t want the cost of a permit to be a barrier,’’ Spencer said.
Do Your Homework
The U.S. Humane Society takes a cautionary approach to the trend and urges people to do their homework before buying chickens. The organization notes that backyard chickens can be good companions for families and reduces their purchase of eggs laid by hens confined to crowded cages on factory farms.
“The biggest issue is people who jump into something and haven’t done their research,” said Laura Jones, assistant supervisor at Longmeadow Rescue Ranch, the Missouri Humane Society's facility for rescued farm animals.
The organization has long cautioned people not to buy chicks at Easter unless they’re prepared to provide a permanent home for them when they grow up to be hens.
Still, Longmeadow braces for an influx of chickens every spring, Jones said. And it has trouble finding homes for unwanted roosters because most communities prohibit them.
Follow Mary Delach Leonard on Twitter: @marydleonard
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