Coops de Ville

Photographs by Michael Piazza

The idea of keeping chickens at his home first occurred to John Ringeling in 2010, when the Food and Drug Administration recalled more than 550 million eggs for salmonella. An estimated 2,400 people were sickened from tainted eggs traced to two Iowa farms, where the FDA found salmonella in the chicken feed.

“John said, ‘If we could eat our own eggs, we’d never worry about poisoning because we’d know what we fed the chickens,’” recalls his girlfriend, Hewmun Lau. “He said, ‘Wouldn’t it be totally crazy if we got some chickens?’”

Not really, thought Lau, who lives with Ringeling in a two-family house with just a 40’x40’ yard in Somerville’s Union Square, “I grew up in Malaysia, where it is very common for people to have chickens,” she explains. “If you can take care of a dog, you can take care of a chicken. But I did worry about wintertime, as I only had seen chickens living in a tropical climate.”

The couple thought perhaps they could get some chicks in the spring, collect the eggs until fall and then say goodbye to the chickens (and hello, chicken soup). However, they heard that people were successfully raising chickens near the bike path in Davis Square. They visited Millstone Co-op resident John Landers on a frigid winter day—and saw his flock pecking about, completely unperturbed by the cold.

“We learned that, of course, if you get the right breed, the New England weather is really not a big deal,” says Lau.

And so chicken farming became a year round enterprise for the couple.  Ringeling ordered a coop online and assembled it in his tiny backyard, which until recently had been completely paved and used as a driveway, like many lots in Somerville.

Lau headed to to research breeds that were cold-weather hardy and prolific layers before ordering three chicks online: a Rhode Island Red, a Barred Rock and an Easter Egger. They arrived as one-day-old chicks, peeping away in a hole-punched overnight package to the Somerville Post Office.

The three chickens produced close to a dozen eggs on a good week, but their new owners wanted more, being avid bakers. So the couple ordered another two chicks, gave their original three-chicken coop to a friend and built another one roomy enough for five.

“We’ve been hooked ever since we started getting our own eggs,” says Lau. “I still find it pretty exciting.”

“It’s new every day,” agrees Ringeling. “We are like kids, squealing, ‘Ooh, I got three eggs!’”

The couple also has been pleasantly surprised to find themselves part of an unexpected urban network. “It turns out that there are literally dozens and dozens of people like us in Somerville,” says Ringeling. “On almost every street, there’s one person who’s raising chickens, but you’d never notice it. ”

Flocking to Backyard Birds

The popularity of keeping chickens itself is really no surprise. The hobby skyrocketed several years ago, both statewide and across the country.

What is surprising, however, is Somerville’s openness to animal husbandry. Urban homesteaders like Lau and Ringeling would be breaking the law in Boston or even in Cambridge, “the People’s Republic.” But here in the ‘Ville, folks can tend their hens—and even sell the eggs from their backyard—with the city’s hearty encouragement.

Last summer, Somerville’s Board of Aldermen passed the first urban agriculture zoning ordinance in the state. Under the new rule, residents can keep up to six hens (no roosters), two hives of bees, and sell their homegrown eggs, honey, and produce.

“People were already doing these things prior to the passing of the ordinance,” notes Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone. “But we didn’t want the city’s approach to be, there are rules if people can find them. So we took the approach of creating an ordinance that not only allows, but actually promotes the growing of healthy food.”

The mayor, who enthusiastically supported the ordinance as a part of a larger urban agriculture initiative he is spearheading, says he has been inspired by the success of Shape Up Somerville.

This citywide campaign—which seeks to end childhood obesity by increasing daily physical activity and healthy eating—was one of 12 programs nationwide to receive the highest level of recognition from First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative and the National League of Cities. As part of the celebratory national tour, Curtatone had the opportunity to meet Will Allen, who’s widely considered a leader in urban agriculture for his work as the head of Growing Power, a farm and community food center in Milwaukee. Somerville’s mayor also visited Erika Allen, national projects director for Growing Power, in Chicago, where she has established nine urban agriculture and food system projects.

“Chicago has done some really amazing things to inspire and incentivize urban farming,” says the mayor. “That really was a catalyst for firming up our response to urban agriculture.”

As urban agriculture in Somerville is regulated by several different ordinances—the new ordinance, the Somerville Board of Health, the state of Massachusetts and federal regulations—the city created a one-stop guide online to the separate sets of rules.

“We hope that the ‘ABCs of Urban Agriculture’ makes it easier for folks to tell, at a glance, if they are really willing to put in the time and effort that goes into safely raising healthy animals and food,” says Luisa Oliveira, the city’s senior planner for landscape design. “We also hope that by outlining expectations around cleanliness, composting and noise, we can stop most conflicts between neighbors before they even begin.

The guide was drafted with the help of experienced Somerville chicken owners like Khrysti Smyth, who keeps a flock of 12 hens near Porter Square. (Existing flocks with more than six chickens were grandfathered in under the new ordinance, allowing owners to keep all their original pets until they pass away.)

Smyth started thinking about keeping chickens in the fall of 2008. After doing hours of research on coop design, breeds and chicken care, she got her first chicks in May of 2009. Soon after, she was entering a number of poultry shows and even breeding a few chickens. Today, she finds herself an advocate for urban chickens, one who’s always happy to share what she’s learned from her own experiences.

“I always try to emphasize how important it is to be respectful of your neighbors and to work with them as much as possible,” says Smyth. She practices what she preaches: well before Somerville officially banned roosters, Smyth gave hers up. (“About 80 percent of my neighbors didn’t mind the crowing, but I wasn’t going to ignore the 20 percent that did,” she explains.)

Despite the close quarters in Somerville, chickens shouldn’t be nuisances. If a coop is kept reasonably clean (Somerville requires that coops be cleaned at least once a week), it won’t smell. Without roosters, the birds aren’t noisy. And rodents won’t hang around a well-secured coop.

Feathering Financial Nest Eggs

Part of the new Somerville ordinance allows people to have a little farm stand in their front yard for a few hours a week. Residents can sell raw honey, maple syrup, eggs so long as they are stored at the proper 45 degrees, and fresh, uncut fruits and vegetables so long as the sellers test their soil and keep the satisfactory results publicly posted.

“We also thought it was important in a down economy to let people supplement their income by selling food they’ve grown,” says Oliveira, a member of the team that wrote the new zoning ordinance. “A person who has lost their job, for example, might be able to turn a green thumb into a source of revenue.”

All the chicken owners interviewed say that they have been approached by neighbors hoping to buy eggs, but that they usually do not have enough extra to spare.

“I’ve tried selling eggs a few times, but I ended up with such a huge waiting list, it wasn’t worth it,” says Smyth. “I only had an extra dozen a week.”

However, as the number of people interested in keeping backyard birds has grown, Smyth stumbled onto an unexpected career: chicken consultant. Her fledgling company, Yardbirds Backyard Chickens, offers chicken sitting, full coop construction and installation, chicken-care training, kids’ programs, and more.

“One family rented my coop and ultimately realized that their dog was never going to calm down with chickens around. Figuring that out was why they chose to do a rental, so that was a perfect use of that service,” says Smyth. “Now another family is testing out the rental coop for a few months.”

She also helps people both find rare birds or new homes for hens that have stopped laying eggs. “I can rehome chickens because I know the broader chicken community and can connect owners with someone who lives way out west in the state with 50 or 100 birds.”

Smyth already employs one builder to create her coops for clients. “I am hoping to have enough work this season to hire a few more carpenters nearby,” says Smyth.

The Chickens Came First… Then Other Benefits

Proponents of urban chickens say that they offer myriad benefits.

Ringeling says the eggs cook up better. “I love to make poached eggs. I’ve never been able to do it well with store-bought eggs. But when I use ours, it’s just so easy.”

The couple also swears by the composted chicken bedding as fertilizer. “It makes the greatest compost because it’s really high in nitrogen,” explains Ringeling, who grows tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, apples and Brussels sprouts.

Benny Wheat, who helps care for the Davis Square chickens at the Millstone Co-op, says their eggs are the only animal protein she’ll eat.

“It’s so valuable to me to have this food source right here in my midst,” says Wheat. “I am vegan because I want to make very intentional choices about my food, but I am typically too lazy to research where anything comes from. I don’t eat animal products, because it’s easier that way.”

“I also love that the chickens eat all our scraps,” she says, feeding some leftover lettuce cores to the four hens. “And they are really very sweet.”

While Wheat is checking the water and grain dispensers in her chicken coop, she spies a toddler picking his way down a dirt path that has been worn away from the bike path to the yard’s back fence. “We love your chickens!” calls the boy’s mother somewhat apologetically, when she finally catches up to him while balancing an infant girl on her hip.

“You are welcome to come into the yard and visit closer with them any time you want,” replies Wheat cheerfully.

“That’s the other thing I love about having the chickens,” says Wheat, after reflecting for a moment. “The number of people who come to visit them every day is phenomenal. It’s such an unexpected bonus.”