Scientist and author Pat Foreman raises about 40 chickens on her small farm near Buena Vista.
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As someone who knows chickens, talks to them — yes, talks to them and listens — and is a great advocate for what they mean to the food supply, the environment and human health, Pat Foreman is somewhat underwhelmed by Richmond’s new backyard poultry regulations.
The much-talked about regulations do indeed permit residents to keep hens in their backyards, but only four of them and at the price of an annual $60 fee. However, she acknowledged, it’s a start.
“It’s a beak in the door,” she said with a laugh.
Foreman, a scientist, author and chicken whisperer, laughs a lot. So does Lisa Dearden, her partner in a venture they call Chickens and YOU Training Series. They are most serious about the importance of chickens as a sustainable food source — “My personal belief is that chickens are at the center of the local food movement,” Dearden says — but they happily inject their message with fun and puns when they talk about their favorite bird.
Dearden said they have “hatched a plan that’s still incubating” of promoting an “Occupy Backyards” movement, creating a “million-chicken march” and “bringing more and more people under our wings.”
“It’s no yolk!” said Dearden.
“Coops can have only two doors,” explained Foreman, who attends fairs and festivals accompanied by a chicken with a pleasant disposition she’s named Oprah Hen-free. “If they had four doors, they’d be sedans.”
Somewhere a rim-shot was heard.
“We crack each other up,” Dearden said.
The humor helps play into their overall mission of “changing the chicken archetype,” Foreman said, with the fervor of a holy mission. They teach classes and hold workshops and are starting something called Coop Corps America, a cross between Heifer International and Habitat for Humanity that will provide chicken coops for residents who need help starting their backyard flocks.
“We’ll know we really succeeded when we go into any major town in America and see more chickens than dogs or cats,” Foreman said. “It’s happening. The chicken movement hasn’t even begun to crest. Every single community and town is talking about chickens. It’s really gone nationwide.”
What is it about the chicken?
Foreman has researched and raised chickens for more than two decades, and she marvels at their “skill set,” beyond their obvious role as a convenient, protein-rich food source. She talks about putting chickens to work as recyclers that turn a diet of grass clippings, weeds and kitchen scraps into fresh eggs. They devour insects — Dearden said she had no Japanese beetles last year after turning the birds loose all over her small farm — and create rich compost.
“They’re the enablers of local agriculture,” said Foreman, who raises about 40 chickens in the rural hillside community where she lives near Buena Vista.
An Indiana native, she studied pharmacy and agriculture at Purdue University, earned a master’s degree in public affairs, was a Fulbright Scholar and worked as a science officer for the United Nations in Austria.
Her first experience with chickens as a focus of her professional attention came in Vermont, where she was working with a foundation trying to start a community-supported agriculture farm in a flood plain where the soil was too sandy for growing much of anything. They brought in a “chicken tractor” — a bottomless, portable cage of chickens — and moved it around. The birds ate and pooped, scratched and foraged — that is, they did what comes naturally to them — and gradually enriched the soil to the point it became fertile enough for crops.
Foreman was so impressed, she co-wrote a book about chickens and healthy soil (“Chicken Tractor”) and then another about raising “micro-flocks” in backyards (“City Chicks”). For years, she has traveled the country extolling the virtues of chickens, on scales small and grand. Her point: a few chickens in backyards here and there, raised and treated properly, can make a big-picture difference in the future of communities and the planet.
“Those who pooh-pooh local integrity food on the spurious notion that it can’t feed the world have not looked at Pat Foreman’s numbers,” said Joel Salatin, an Augusta County farmer and a leading voice of the alternative farming movement whose Polyface Farm is a pioneering model in the renaissance of locally produced food.
“She is probably America’s leading advocate for home-centric flocksters,” Salatin said in an email. “With delightful good humor and irrefutable science, Pat’s vision is to not only eliminate half of landfill garbage, but the entire industrial egg industry to boot. As if that weren’t enough, accomplishing those two tasks would increase nutrition … and give families important participatory food responsibilities, which would be far superior to sitting in front of the TV all evening.”
Lisa Dearden came to chickens from a slightly different perspective. She grew up in a small town in Ohio, surrounded by animals: ducks, rabbits, guinea pigs and even a pony in the backyard. But no chickens.
She arrived in Richmond in 1988, moved to the suburbs, and worked in sales, marketing and training. However, her life was derailed by a series of traffic crashes that left her with a variety of physical problems. She underwent nine surgeries and spent a year in bed.
“Pretty much my life sort of fell apart,” she said.
As part of her recovery, she created a list of things that caused her stress. One was living in suburbia, so she and husband, James, moved to a wooded refuge in Goochland County — “a healing place,” she said — with fruit trees and gardens she knew little about tending on such a large scale. She took an organic-gardening class at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College that “opened this huge new world for me,” she said.
She started growing her own food and became involved in the fledgling local food movement in the Richmond area more than a decade ago. She has goats, rabbits, alpacas and a llama. She brought her first chickens about eight years ago, and she soon became a believer — “It’s like magic when you look under a chicken” and find a fresh egg, she says — and she’s had as many as a couple of dozen birds at one time. She takes in “rogue” roosters — most cities, like Richmond, don’t allow roosters — and at least one hen from a commercial operation that had been de-beaked, a not-unusual procedure to prevent pecking in crowded conditions. Dearden’s granddaughter named the hen Clover because, as Dearden said, “She’s lucky enough to come and live her days out here on the farm.”
Dearden served as president of the Center for Rural Culture, and helped operate its Goochland farmers market. She now owns My Manakin Market, a weekly farmers market in Manakin-Sabot, on U.S. 250, just west of state Route 288.
She knew of Foreman, having used one of her books, “Backyard Market Gardening,” in a sustainable-agriculture class, and suggested they hold a workshop based on “City Chicks.” A partnership formed, with Foreman providing the science expertise and Dearden the marketing and event-organizing know-how.
However, they both know what they’re talking about, and their approach makes them effective teachers, said Ana Edwards, manager of the Byrd House Market at the William Byrd Community House in Richmond’s Oregon Hill, where Foreman and Dearden taught a series of classes last year.
“They both absolutely live what they love and what they do, and that really comes across,” said Edwards, whose food-related work at the Byrd House includes not only the farmers market, but a community garden. “At the time, we weren’t connecting it to the (Richmond) ordinances so much as sort of a logical trajectory of taking control of the way we eat.”
Gaining a bit of food independence —Foreman and Dearden say in the case of a public emergency it’s nice to know you’ve got a source of nutritious food in the backyard — needn’t be difficult or expensive, they say. A satisfactory coop can be constructed simply and cheaply and much of chickens’ food can come in the form of table scraps. Just provide clean water, sufficient space to roam and shelter from predators, and keep the coop off the ground.
“Then, honest to goodness, the chickens will teach you,” Foreman said. “They’re such easy keepers. I think they’re easier than cats. Once they get to know you, they’ll start coming to you. They’ll talk to you. Mine let me know when they’re out of feed. They’ll send someone up to say, ‘Feed’s out. Come and give us some.’
“You think I’m making this up, but honest to God I’m not.”
The biggest obstacles to backyard chickens, Foreman said, are misconceptions. Chickens don’t cause bad odors, she said, as long as they aren’t confined in a tiny space, and the noise produced by hens is akin to the decibel level of human conversation except for the occasional squawk when an egg is coming out.
Foreman and Dearden said disease isn’t a major issue, as some critics think, although the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2012 reported eight outbreaks of salmonella from live poultry, resulting in more than 450 illnesses (but no deaths), the largest outbreak of human salmonella linked to backyard flocks in a single year. A CDC spokeswoman said the increase can be attributed to an increase in human contact with live poultry. Suggested preventive measures include washing hands thoroughly and not allowing live poultry inside homes or in areas where food is prepared or served.
Avian influenza also is a concern, though the U.S. Department of Agriculture said the primary risk for backyard poultry owners is exposure to wild birds.
Dearden said chickens teach “valuable lessons about companionship and the pecking order of life and watching out for each other.” She recalled the “back-to-the-land movement” of the early 20th century when residents were encouraged to grow food on a small-scale basis, and Foreman pointed out a 1918 poster encouraging backyard chickens, saying, “Even the smallest back yard has room for a flock large enough to supply the house with eggs.”
“I think we need to go back in time to move forward,” Dearden said, although Foreman acknowledges the challenge in that. “We’ve got three or four generations that have no idea how to handle anything other than dogs and cats,” she said.
But they can dream — and teach.
“Wouldn’t it be cool if you walked in the city of Richmond and people had chickens under their arms like they were walking a dog down the street?” Dearden said. “I think that would be pretty cool.”