By: Mary K Cantrell
In an urban compound on the edge of West Campus, three chickens peck and graze for feed next to their homemade coop, a structure cleverly constructed with chicken wire, two-by-fours and an old oven. The chickens, Topo, Chico and Dixie all belong to University of Texas theatre student Zach Youpa, who decided to purchase them for his small yard about a year ago. “I would encourage people to do this, there’s really no downside,” Youpa says. “You get eggs, you can show off chickens to your friends; every now and then they’ll do something funny.”
Since Youpa started his coop 14 months ago, chickens have gained popularity due to a new city program announced on April 13th. The city’s goal is to encourage and assist residents in becoming urban chicken farmers. If residents attend one of five chicken keeping classes held throughout the summer, and send in a receipt proving they purchased a chicken coop, they can get a $75 check from the city.
Chickens offer many environmental benefits, such as insect control and soil fertilization, as well as providing fresh eggs. They are also bio-recyclers and can help cut down on household waste by eating food scraps and scratching and aerating compost. Youpa’s motivation for getting the easily-maintained pet was primarily for fresh eggs, so he was surprised when he heard of the new program. “I don’t see my chickens as an environmental statement,” Youpa says. “When I saw the article that Austin was doing that I was like, ‘75 bucks, that’s a lot of money for just having chickens.’ That’s a pretty sweet deal.”
Memi Cárdenas, spokesperson at Austin Resource Recovery – the department behind the initiative – said the first chicken-keeping class filled up within two hours of the announcement. The classes are part of a home composting program put in place to help Austin reach zero waste by 2040. The program was sparked by a 2015 study which concluded that 40 percent of residential trash in landfills was organic materials. Now, the goal is to divert 90 percent of unwanted materials from landfills. “We are looking for all opportunities to make sure your unwanted materials do not go to the landfill, whether it be through recycling, through reuse, through donation, or through not purchasing what we don’t need in the first place,” Cárdenas says.
Michelle Hernandez, founder of the Funky Chicken Coop Tour– a nonprofit that hosts yearly self-guided tours of coops around Austin– and founder of Texas’ Urban Poultry Association, will be teaching the classes held by the city. She first got chickens in 2007 for practical purposes, like pest control. She didn’t expect to grow attached to them. She says watching them forage, peck and socially interact with one another was a reprieve from her IT office job. "I was really surprised at how enjoyable they were to watch, it felt like reconnecting with our food source and nature to some degree," Hernandez says.
Last fall the Urban Poultry Association conducted a study to see how much waste chickens can divert from one house’s waste stream. They studied 50 people for two weeks and found a total of two tons of waste was diverted. “That’s a pretty powerful number,” Hernandez says. "So I think that validates the need for this program."
Hernandez was involved with the inception of this program while she was working at Austin’s Office of Sustainability two years ago. She said it made sense from a practical standpoint to save the city money by paying residents a small amount to compost with chickens, versus paying city employees to pick up compost from people's homes. "I am very fortunate that the Austin Resource Recovery staff was receptive to this and the city,” Hernandez says. “It makes sense; it aligns to the zero waste goal."
She was confident urban chicken farming would pick up steam among Austin’s residents because she had seen how interested people were in the past. The first year Hernandez organized the Funky Chicken Coop Tour in 2009, nearly 700 people showed up. She says people are interested in knowing where their food comes from, and the tour informed and empowered people who were interested in starting their own coops.
Hernandez says she sees a lot of families with young kids starting coops, as parents often want to raise children who are educated about their food. The classes Hernandez is teaching for Austin Resource Recovery have all filled up and have lengthy waitlists, says Cárdenas. “We really find that right now the people most interested in our program are ones who were on the fence about getting a chicken coop, or wanting to learn how to keep chickens and this maybe was that extra motivation for them,” Cárdenas says.
According to Cárdenas, Austin Resource Recovery’s chicken rebate program is the only of its kind that she knows of. She says with the necessary green space and unique environmentally conscious attitude, Austin’s one of the few city’s where a program like this is possible. “The urban farming movement has been on a huge uptick lately nationwide, but Austin is also one of those progressive cities where urban farming is really catching on and we have the space here to do that, whereas maybe in other communities there might be a space limitation for keeping chickens,” she says.
But it won’t go off without a hitch; raising chickens in an urban environment comes with its own set of problems. Chickens can be extremely susceptible to predators that thrive in the city, like possums, racoons and pets, to name a few. "Everything wants to eat a chicken, I thought 'dang they really come into a tough life'," Hernandez says. She claims many chicken owners have experienced loss of birds due to critters maneuvering their way into poorly secured coops.
Another common problem Hernandez sees with first time chicken owners is what she refers to as a “surprise rooster.” Chickens are sexed before they arrive at feed stores, but sometimes someone makes a mistake. The Texas heat also presents a difficulty for the urban chicken farmer. Hernandez says it is imperative to have a way for your chickens to cool down during long summer months when there are multiple days in a row that are over 100 degrees.
Urban chicken owners also have to deal with the hefty cost that can come with the initial coop setup. Coops are the biggest up-front cost to tackle, with most priced somewhere between $175 to $400. Also, one coop can typically only house around four chickens. Once buyers are over that monetary hurdle, the major recurring cost is chicken feed. Both of these items can be bought at local feed and seed stores. The closest such store to Austin is Callahan’s General Store, located near the airport on 183.
Vickie Fry, sales representative in charge of the poultry department at Callahan’s, says the store’s sales have been steady ever since she started the job over seven years ago. But things like the coop tour and the chicken keeping classes have led to them gaining more recognition recently, she says. “This chicken thing is nothing new,” Fry says. “It’s just now that the city of Austin is doing classes it caused people to open their eyes.”