While his grandchildren compete to find the most Easter eggs this weekend, Lawrence Paul of Palm Harbor, Florida will be on an egg hunt of his own. Part of a growing movement of suburban chicken-keepers, Paul has grown accustomed to his new daily chores, which include caring for four eclectic laying hens and maintaining a backyard coop converted from an old storage shed. As the economy continues to stagnate and consumers turn more and more to locally sourced foods, residential areas across the nation are easing restrictions on backyard chickens, allowing people like Paul to spend less and be more self-sufficient during tough economic times.
Paul says his hens lay over a dozen eggs a week, plenty enough for the 58 year-old retiree. He can even offer some to friends and nearby family members. Paul uses manure from his birds to feed composting worms, which feed his tomato and pepper plants in turn. He has hopes of selling his produce at one of several nearby farmers markets.
“Its easy to be a consumer,” Paul muses, “I'm trying to be a better producer.”
Many big cities actually permit small-scale poultry operations, but the majority of suburbs springing off of them have, in recent decades, passed ordinances to ban backyard chickens. Paul's town -- an unincorporated part of densely populated Pinellas County, Florida -- was a no-chicken zone until county officials reversed a laying hen ban in December of last year. The backyard chicken legislation victory came after a long-fought battle by the local activist group “Pinellas County Citizens for Backyard Poultry”.
The same cause championed by PCCBP members, that of overturning local laws which discourage or outright restrict backyard chickens, has found fervent support and successful execution in towns across the country.
In fact, the backyard chicken movement has grown so big, it has its own national hero. Andy Schneider, a Georgia native who travels the country organizing for eased poultry restrictions, has been dubbed the “Chicken Whisperer”. Scheider launched the Atlanta Backyard Poultry Meetup Group in April 2008. It now has close to 1,700 members.
Schneider started his unorthodox career with chickens “long before it was cool” in Johns Creek, Georgia. There, he established a part time business that sold chicks on the side.
Today, his many responsibilities have burgeoned into community meeting organizer, online daily radio show host on all things poultry and sustainability, as well as being given the official title of national spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Bio-security for Birds program. Scheider also recently published his first book, "The Chicken Whisperer's Guide to Keeping Chickens".
As far as his political activism is concerned, Schneider has advised successful urban chicken-keeping campaigns in places like Gulfport, FL (which spurred the greater Pinellas County movement) and most recently in Nashville, TN. He's currently working on campaigns in Tampa, FL; Chelsea, MI and Virginia Beach. Earlier this week, activists appealed to a citywide Food Policy Task Force in an attempt to convert Richmond, Virginia city officials to a pro-poultry agenda.
"When we go to cities, a lot of times we'll ask them, 'Why don't you want your citizens to lead a more self-sustaining lifestyle? Why don't you want your citizens to save some money in this hard economic time by allowing them to raise backyard poultry?'" Schneider said in an interview with NPR. "And I'm telling you, Animal Control, I'm sure, gets way more calls from barking dogs and dogs running loose and cats than they ever have from backyard poultry."
Speaking with Inter Press Service, Schneider said Austin, Chicago, New York City, Portland and San Francisco are among cities that are experiencing the biggest backyard chicken boom. In Austin and Dallas in particular, groups have organized Coop Tours where residents travel from home to home showing off their coops.
Andrea Zoppo, program coordinator for Oakhurst Community Garden Project in Decatur, GA explains why there has been such a renewed interest in chicken raising:
The economy probably plays some role in it, and the environment, and having a vested interest in knowing where your food comes from...You don't have to go outside your community to have what you need for your family. It's pretty deep. More and more people want to be self-sufficient,
Zoppo said, according to IPS.
The OCGP holds an annual symposium providing information to attendees on the benefits of living “symbiotically” with chickens. About 50 people showed up to the fourth annual Chicks in the City event in February, which hosted a full day of workshops for those interested in raising backyard chickens.