Once a staple of rural life that fell out of necessity, keeping chickens for eggs is something more people are doing in Aroostook County, according to Linda Trickey, agricultural assistant with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.
Chickens are part of the surging interest in local farming and food, according to Trickey, who works with small-scale farmers and gardeners through Aroostook County. “I’m seeing more people interested in growing as much of their own food as they can,” Trickey said.
It was only a few generations ago that many households across Maine raised chickens, pigs and cows for food, though not necessarily because they wanted to. In the years after World War II, “it was a sign of affluence to go to the store and buy those things,” Trickey said.
“But it’s starting to come back. People are realizing the value of growing your own food.”
As a livestock, chickens are a good entryway into food sufficiency, Trickey said. “Having a flock of backyard chickens is easy. You don’t need a lot of room. Once you’ve tasted a fresh egg from your own hen, there’s nothing like it.”
The basics: In a coop, Trickey recommends having enough room for 3 square feet per bird, with straw or wood shavings as ground bedding. She recommends one nest for every four or five birds to lay their eggs and 10 inches per bird for a roost, an elevated bar the chickens sleep on. Outside, either free ranging or in fenced-in area around the coops, the birds need 5 to 6 square feet per bird, Trickey said. A flock of at least six birds is recommended, because they’re social animals and rely on each other for heat, Trickey said.
Chickens need to be fed a grain-based mixture that can be supplemented with nonmeat kitchen scraps, as well as a range of insects and other small creatures they may find in foraging. They also need to have their coops cleaned, with the wood shavings used as bedding swept out and managed for compost.
Other than that, chickens are relatively low-maintenance and cold-hardy, only needing a coop with good ventilation and no drafts, Trickey said. “They can withstand an awful lot of cold.”
Young chicks will start laying eggs after a month or so — no noisy rooster needed — and depending on the breed will lay around five eggs per week per bird for their first few years and can keep laying for more than five years. A small flock of six birds will offer enough eggs for a small family and then some. “You could do a cooperative effort, if a neighbor has a large yard and neighbors want to kick in for feed,” Trickey said.
In the Presque Isle area, there is enough consumer demand that a number of stores carry locally raised eggs, including at Bradley’s Citgo and Convenience Store, which sells organic eggs raised at the homestead of owner Mike Cyr.
But backyard chickens are not welcome everywhere. While Maine’s largest city, Portland, allows residents in all areas to keep up to six chickens under certain rules — as do South Portland and Auburn — Bangor, Lewiston and Presque Isle have ordinances prohibiting backyard chickens in their urban areas.
Presque Isle’s land use zoning regulations have been interpreted in the past by code enforcement officials to prohibit backyard chickens in the urban compact zone, an area that includes much of in-town Presque Isle’s residential neighborhoods. Several years ago, that interpretation was upheld by a court when one homeowner started raising chickens and was told to stop, according to George Howe, Presque Isle’s code enforcement officer.
Elsewhere in Aroostook County, Houlton allows backyard chickens within the town limits, but their coops must be sited at least 100 feet from neighboring property. Fort Kent’s ordinance stipulates that “odors from chickens, chicken manure or other chicken-related substances shall not be perceptible at the property boundaries.”
The reluctance of some local governments to allow backyard chickens in urban and suburban areas usually boils down to concerns about safety and smell. Chicken manure is composed of around 75 percent water and is high in nitrogen, which makes great fertilizer but gives off ammonia gas as it decomposes. A decade ago, residents of Frenchville were plagued with intense an ammonia stink wafting over the St. John River from an industrial-scale, outdoor chicken manure composting facility in St. Hilaire, New Brunswick, that later was found to be discharging untreated leachate into the waterway.
Safety and smell concerns aren’t unfounded, but they are not necessarily big problems, especially in the case of small-scale poultry, said Trickey, who raises meat and egg chickens and other livestock at her 23-acre homestead in rural Houlton.
“Chicken manure, if not managed properly, can be strong-smelling,” Trickey said. “A lot of it depends on how clean they are. The cleaner and drier their pen is, with fresh wood shavings, the less the smell will be.”
Wood shavings, such as pine, work better in coops than straw or hay at drying and neutralizing manure. That should be swept out regularly, mixed with carbon-containing organic matter and lawn clippings and set to compost, Trickey said.
On the safety side, there is salmonella, a genus of bacteria with many strains of various levels of risk to humans and other animals. But, with salmonella and other poultry pathogens, the risks are well-controlled with some best practices, Trickey said.
“I strongly encourage anyone with a backyard flock to wash your hands immediately after you handle chickens. And don’t let your kids kiss the chickens. It’s a matter of good hygiene.”
Also, she said, people should be sure to buy chicks from a hatchery certified by the National Poultry Improvement Plan, which will ensure they are free of a number of the more worrisome pathogens, including salmonella enteritidis, one of the strains commonly linked to foodborne illness.
Overall, considering the risks and benefits, Trickey said keeping chickens is a worthwhile investment. “It’s very inexpensive. Your eggs may cost a little more than what you pay in the store for most eggs, but the quality is better and you get manure for your garden.”
Trickey also noted there will be a class on backyard chickens at the Northern Maine Rural Living Day, at the Southern Aroostook Agricultural Heritage Museum in September.