Urban Chicken

by Rebekah Greiman

11/19/2011

The journey from Maple Ridge to the farmer’s market fords a great divide, with ornate porches—framed by massive overflowing urns of perennials and Grecian columns—giving way to Hmong vegetable stands and Bixby garden bounty. Maple Ridge dweller Lauren Monnet straddles the two worlds with relative ease.

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But behind the façade of her bricked estate lies an anomaly: first a cluck, then a squawk, then time and place suddenly revert. Past the drive, through the breezeway that currently sports mud boots encrusted with fertilizer and a container of meal worms, the farm noises increase.

Thankfully, Monnet lives in Tulsa, a city that has openly embraced her passion for backyard chickens. But fellow chicken enthusiasts in Oklahoma City are labeled as “outlaws” and fines of up to $500 are often issued for their violations. The concerns over fecal waste and an increase in insect population are the most commonly used arguments by those residents opposed to urban chicken farms. Currently it is illegal to raise chickens within the Oklahoma City limits, if the lot is less than one acre (according to the Oklahoma City Municipal Code). With most city lots averaging 1/2 acre or less, this law prohibits the typical urban chicken farmer’s dreams for life, liberty, and the pursuit of backyard eggs.

But no one seems to be complaining about the flocks in Tulsa. The farming lifestyle can be had while the “farmer” enjoys a metropolitan lifestyle. Monnet takes advantage of Tulsa’s acceptance of chickens, housing six hens at her residence just short of a mile from the nearest Starbucks.

Emphatically, Monnet throws open the backyard gate into her other world. No golden Labs placidly bark a greeting, nor do koi ponds request the pondering of life. Instead, a flock of chickens scratches at a patch of dirt widening beneath the turf.

Monnet grabs a hen and cuddles it against her body. Chicken poop makes a talon-to-clothing transfer. Avian flu springs to mind, but she brushes the dung from her shirt as she’s done a hundred times before and picks up another hen to pet. Every hen in the brood gets a sit-down. She tosses out grapes— what she calls “chicken crack”—laughing hysterically as the birds climb over, around, and on top of each other vying for the ripest fruit.

There are people with chickens and then there are chicken people. Lauren Monnet is undeniably the latter. With a dozen eggs costing less than three dollars from the local store, she’s not doing it for thrift.

Hoping to regulate her sunnyside up food source, Monnet spends an inordinate amount of time and energy on her supply of fresh eggs. But the “food source path” seems a weak and illogical excuse. Monnet doesn’t seem illogical, stating her primary motivation “lies within the coop.”

“They are excellent companions. I think having backyard chickens is a great beginning to laying down roots—it’s kind’ve a practice run before the husband and the house,” she said. “We grew up in a large urban environment—one under a constant barrage of stimulation. So, maybe I’m seeking to rebel against that a little a bit and go back to a slightly simpler time when your evening’s entertainment is watching the chickens hunt and peck for worms.”

With her jet-black hair, fuchsia silk shirt and designer jeans, she doesn’t fit the stereotype of a chicken and garden enthusiast, if such a passion can be typecast. The only tip-off to her obsession is her gravitation towards the local chicken farmers at the Cherry Street Farmer’s Market. Amid the live music and red-faced children scarfing cinnamon rolls, Monnet seeks wisdom on eggshell thickness, feather coloration, and the proper composting methods. She arrives early, just as the vendors throw open their tents, in order to swap hen stories.

Her enthusiasm for chickens is obvious, her thoroughness for animal husbandry less so.

She lives her life around her chickens, dismissing a Saturday night out with friends in favor of a glass of wine, a sunset, and hours of chicken observation off the back porch. Her Sunday plans include tending to the “chicken salad bar”—a variety of greens being cultivated in her garage in preparation for the long winter months— and raking the compost from the chicken pen.

“My friends kind’ve make fun of me,” she said, laughing. “Elliot Nelson’s father lives behind me and he said, ‘I don’t like this chicken idea. I see you out here on Saturday nights and you need to be at McNellie’s and Dilly Deli and El Guapo. I see you out there way too much young lady.’ ”

Monnet inspects the chicken wire for holes. Cats, hawks, and foxes hide in the shadows. Lately, a neighborhood hawk has been eyeing the youngest of her brood. At such times, she admits a dog would have been a great companion and much easier to manage. But a dog doesn’t produce what Monnet pulls from the coop each morning.

“I just prefer pets that can make my breakfast for me.” She smiles and waves to a neighbor attached to some sort of collie. He asks when “omelet Sunday” will be. Lauren smiles and says, “As soon as these chicken butts lay some eggs.”

The collie neighbor strolls off, stopping a short distance away to retrieve dog poop with a plastic-bagged hand. As he moves on from the now-desecrated sidewalk, Monnet wrinkles her nose. At least the poop she retrieves can be composted.

Within minutes another neighbor peeks over the separating wooden fence to admire her coop. With the help of her like-minded grandfather, Monnet designed and built the coop out of mostly recycled and donated materials in the corner of her backyard, across from her garden. She welcomes the neighbor and leaves him there, then escorts me inside for refreshments. We scrape poop from our shoes before stepping onto the tiled floor and into her designer kitchen.

It occurs to me that Monnet is something of a celebrity in her community, though she humbly brushes off the adoration out of habit. Her knack for urban farming has a trendy feel to it, but she naturally blends this idealism to the sustainability of such a venture, and has fun doing it. Where once she might have hidden behind her impressive mansion, she’s now out in the open, her chickens providing the impetus for unannounced visits from neighbors she never knew.

Like Monnet, urban planners are realizing the nutritional, social and emotional aspects of funding urban gardens and farms.

Governmentally funded programs that repurpose vacant downtown lots into community gardens are drawing generations of urban occupants together. These metropolitan areas have seen a dramatic reduction in poverty by providing nutrient rich produce for the needy, a decrease in the city’s waste by composting, and a decrease in crime by providing farming occupations.

Ayschia Saiymeh wanted to change that, starting in her own midtown backyard. “People are rethinking what it means to live in the city. It doesn’t mean a freshly cut lawn and manicured hedges,” she said. “It can be your own little farm, even if it’s a quarter acre.”

Saiymeh, her brown curls tamed by an unseen barrette, ushers me from the shaded front porch to inside her quaint home. The walls have been painted one soothing shade after another. Lamps and candles are lit, but not a single overhead light is on. Her home is what a coffee shop felt like before they started selling Sheryl Crow CDs.

She leads me to the kitchen where, thankfully, a coffee pot gurgles, announcing the end of its cycle. Ayschia offers me a cup on our way out to the back porch, but not before I notice the empty egg cartons stacked on top of her refrigerator. They await eggs that might never come.

She points out the vacant hen house in the corner of her backyard, recalling hours spent with her hands buried in the dirt, watching the chickens snatch up the uncovered earthworms. The coop, however, is strangely quiet.

She explains that recently, her hens were lost to Marek’s disease, a common ailment due to improper vaccinations.

“Their names were Eloise and Jewel,” she said, quieter than I had anticipated, and I had to ask her to repeat the names. “They both had great personalities, but I have to say my favorite was Jewel.” Clearly, these were more than just egg producers to Saiymeh—they had become a representation of something more to her.

A life of sustainability spurs her on—sustainability based on food source, not trendy discovery—even when she’s had to bury a part of that dream. She tucks a disorderly brown curl behind her ear and speaks softly, describing the permaculture lifestyle that allows everything in her backyard to work in harmony. Her chickens would peck at the bugs, offering a pesticide-free vegetable garden. And the hens supplemented their diet by free ranging on her grass, while simultaneously fertilizing their own food source.

She will be incorporating her vegetable garden into the front yard eventually, allowing this symbiotic lifestyle room to expand. Saiymeh’s neighbors don’t mind, as long as they can share in the harvest. And the support from her neighbors, no matter the purity of their motives, preserves the urban farmer within.

The hours of tireless work experienced by the urban farmer is forgotten once they pull hormone-free eggs from the coop and pesticide-free zucchini off the vine. But following World War II, Americans had yet to be romanced by the word “organic”; the manual labor associated with a working farm was despised. Baby boomers fled the country life, migrating to the city with expectations of living a life of ease.

In 1950, 16 percent of Americans were small farmers, subsisting primarily on what they could grow or raise. The “American Dream,” promising an effortless life with the latest technologies, all but vanquished the working small farm. The boomers willingly exchanged their barns and tractors for attached garages and sedans. And by 2007, a mere half percent of us considered ourselves farmers. [1] But with an estimated readership of 44,000 subscribers to Backyard Poultry Magazine, the interest in the urban farming lifestyle is on the increase.

Today, summers once spent browning by the pool are being traded for afternoons devoted to weed extraction. Often, the first shared egg or ripened tomato are likely the only motivation a sidelined neighbor needs to begin growing their own food source—even if it’s just a front porch pot filled with basil.

“The city doesn’t have to be a barrier to having that piece of sustainability. I had been really inspired about things going on around the country. There was something so beautiful, so moving, and impacting about gardening,” Saiymeh recalls. “And not just gardening, but also being sustainable. Not for the sake of individualism but knowing the whole chain of what happens from your food to your table.”

Perhaps this younger generation is seeking a reconnection with a simpler time they’ve not yet been exposed to. However, this reconnection isn’t reserved only for those twenty- and thirty-somethings. And since the inception of modern suburbia, this back-to-land movement has been gaining momentum by those who hope to live off and preserve the land.

In 1954, Helen and Scott Nearing penned the book Living the Good Life, which has been recognized as a main contributor for the back-to-land movement beginning in the 1960’s. The Nearings moved to a small Vermont farm after Scott had been accused of being a communist and subsequently fired from his university job as a professor. The couple practiced organic farming and self-sufficiency, while the rest of the farming world focused on pesticides and hormonal treatments that would lead to a bigger harvest.

Inspired by Living the Good Life, Jeff Siddons was determined to make the most of his midtown quarter acre. I bike to Siddons’s Lortondale home, and parked up beside a meager RV, a sailboat in need of repair, a motorcycle or two, and a gold minivan. The 59-year-old librarian and self-described “hippie boomer,” is dressed in Carhart pants and red suspenders and is waiting for me in the driveway. Jeff praises me for my mode of transportation but points out the darkening sky and offers me a ride home if “things turn ugly.” I ask him just what kind of an interview was he expecting. He doesn’t miss a beat and heartily laughs, testing the elasticity on the suspenders.

Thus far, all interviewed chicken owners have sequestered their fowl to the backside of their home. But Siddons, forever the rebel, does not follow this protocol. A chain-link fence surrounds the entirety of his property, allowing the chickens to hunt and peck front yard or back. It’s not a farming strategy; it’s a world view.

“When I was six, I raised two little chickens in an incubator that looked something like a flying saucer with a plastic dome and a light bulb,” he recalled. “I got a rooster and a hen and raised those two eggs myself. That’s what got me going.”

We push past overgrown bushes and other sundry items to what might be a backyard. The chickens take me for a predator and scatter in random directions as Siddons tries to introduce them.

“That one there…,” he pauses, looking around. “Well, where did she go? Oh, well—they’re crazy chickens.” I was never properly introduced.

Two cats, several barking dogs, a raised garden, and bee hives round out the menagerie. But the bees are back-ordered.

“I know several people in the neighborhood that have chickens. I do it because once hens don’t lay they butcher them and make them into pet food,” he said. “I can’t do much, but at least I can do the chickens and they provide enough eggs for me. Plus, I’m going to be retired in the next couple of years and I basically want some stuff to do.”

Wanting “stuff to do,” companionship, a harvest, and some solid entertainment, Siddons has transformed his backyard into his own urban farm. “I really wish I would have done this with my kids,” he said. As the dogs continued to bark while the chickens ran around my feet being chased by the cats, I couldn’t imagine introducing children into the chaos I was already experiencing. But Siddons disagrees, “My kids would have really enjoyed this.” Perhaps his children weren’t as uptight as a certain interviewer.

Siddons’s chicken coop is surrounded by a protective barrier of recycled department store shelves. He sucks in his breath and squeezes between the barrier and the actual hen house, making his way to the back of the coop to show off fresh eggs. Siddons shoots me a look of relief.

“I’m glad you’re so skinny,” he said. “My wife was worried you’d be hefty and couldn’t fit back here.”

I prefer being called “thin”, but I don’t argue with a man offering free eggs.

Opening the back door to the hen house, we interrupt a napping chicken, which he shoos off the nest. Siddons lifts up his glasses to eye a pile of brown eggs. “I’m sending you home with some eggs. I’ll try to find the ones that don’t have a lot of crap on them,” he said. He scrapes on the shell with his fingernail, chipping away a sizable amount of chicken poop. Dreams of sunny side up eggs for lunch dance through the mind, but I remind him I’m on my bike. “Well then, you’d better be careful,” he smiles and grabs two handfuls of eggs.

We squeeze back out of the coop and Siddons excuses himself to grab me an egg carton. I amuse myself with the variety of life found in his midtown backyard. In the distance, a rooster crows and the hens take notice of the sudden male presence.

Returning with the eggs, Siddons pulls on his suspenders a couple of times before informing me of yet another piece of his farming puzzle. “So, I’ve got the chickens and the other animals, the garden, the bees, and I just recently got a book on fish farming,” he said. “You can grow fish right in your backyard with the right equipment. What else would you need?”

Apparently more. With a goal to live off his land, Jeff has plans to expand his urban farming ethic by purchasing a piece of lake front property. He wants a dairy cow—a throwback to his Wisconsin roots.

After attaching the egg carton securely to my bike, Siddons sends me on my way, but not before inviting me back any time I feel the need. It’s a genuine invitation, one not usually associated with a first and very brief encounter with a stranger, but one I felt with the other urban farmers I’d met.

Pedaling towards home, I slowly weave through the unceasing parking lots of Sears, Reasor’s, and Target, babying my precious cargo. Amidst the concrete and stoplights, I felt a city trying to maintain as much country as it could.

1. According to the USDA “State Fact Sheets” of May 2011. In the Detroit area alone, the Garden Resource Program provided seeds and plants for more than 875 urban gardens within the city and surrounding areas. Crime has been noted to be lower in Detroit’s urban farming areas than in those downtown areas not participating in urban farming. Other cities following suit include Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Seattle, Chicago and Austin. On the list of cities focused on repurposing vacant lots into thriving gardens and small urban farms,Tulsa was nowhere to be found.