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Diggin' In: Backyard chicken coops gain ground as regulations ease

June 1, 2015

Coop by coop, backyard chicken keeping is gaining ground in my area of Hampton Roads, Va., and elsewhere.

Founded in 2010 with 30 chicken enthusiasts, PeCK, or Peninsula Chicken Keepers, now has 450 members, according to founder Carol Bartram of Yorktown, Va. The group networks and offers monthly meetings with speakers, as well as help for newbies.

"Many of them weren’t allowed to have chickens where they lived, and many folks were asking how to get that changed," says Bartram of that first meeting. She and husband, Scott, first became interested in backyard chickens after reading the article "City Chicks" in Natural Home and Garden magazine in 2006.

Soon after that first meeting, Bartram found herself helping a Yorktown resident get her two acres permitted for chickens. In the past five years, more and more cities and counties in southeastern Virginia changed regulations to allow hens and sometimes roosters.

"Hampton Roads as a whole is becoming more chicken-friendly," says Bartram.

"This follows a movement across the country. It’s really part of a larger sustainability movement."

Recently, PeCK sponsored a self-guided tour of backyard chicken coops, so the curious could talk to chicken keepers about the pros and cons of maintaining a small block.

Here are three backyard chicken habitats that were on that Virginia Peninsula tour:

Justice coop in Hampton, Va.

A backyard gardener for 23 years and Master Gardener since 2012, Jenny Justice always loved farm life, although she has always lived city style in Hampton.

"My grandparents had a farm in the mountains of southwest Virginia, and I loved visiting and helping with the farm animal chores," says Justice, 62.

When Hampton started talking about changing its chicken-keeping rules, Justice was soon hatching ideas for her own backyard flock.

"We got our girls – four Rhode Island Red hens — Mother’s Day 2014 when they were 10 weeks old," she says.

"It (the coop) has wonderful features that allow me to collect eggs from outside the coop and a completely fenced-in run.

"I can also open their small door to the coop to let them out in the mornings and close them up for the night, and open and close their window from outside the run. The back of the coop completely opens up to allow for ease of cleaning.

"The pros outweigh the cons: fresh eggs, manure to compost and use to fertilize the garden, weed control and the sheer enjoyment of watching and interacting with them. I love the way they run to the door of the run to greet me when I come out the back door. Of course, they are hoping for a treat of cracked corn or leftovers from dinner but don’t seem to take offense if they don’t get anything."

Gould coop in Yorktown, Va.

Niki Gould started studying chicken-keeping a year before they moved from Germany to Yorktown, Va.

"My husband thought I was crazy, but I was determined to raise a few chicks for clean eggs for my family," says Gould, 38.

For research, Gould read "Backyard Farming on an Acre (More or Less)" cover to cover, more than once, she adds. She asked her chicken-keeping neighbor many questions, and signed up for PeCK’s newsletters, read its blogs and took its coop tour.

Gould allows her chickens to roam the yard, but does keep the couple’s personal food-gardening area fenced off from the girls.

Her daughter feeds and puts the chickens away nightly, and they all watch and corral them as needed. Everyone helps with coop and yard cleanup. Even the family’s 14-year-old golden retriever lives in peace with the chickens that quietly graze around the dog when she’s in the yard.

In the yard, the hens love eating seed heads on grass and any chickweed that sprouts.

"Chickens are great gardeners, even if they do ‘replant’ things for me," Gould says.

"They’re sweet companions in the yard when I’m weeding."

Burkhart coop in Newport News, Va.

At the Burkhart home in Newport News, chicken-keeping chores help teach the kids — Isabella, 17, and Amos, 14 — entrepreneurship, work ethic and responsibility, according to their parents, Janie and Fritz.

"We home school Amos and he’s home all day, and this gives him something to tend to and care for," says Janie.

Janie grew up on a farm and had chickens along with other farm animals 35 years ago, so that experience came in handy. They connected with PeCK and related websites, especially Backyard Chickens. Their coop for 12 chickens is homemade from white fencing that was being torn down at a local funeral home. Exercise runs for the chicken attach to the coop.

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