Thursday, July 15, 2010

Chicken Keeping Workshops From NYRP, bk farmyards, Just Food

Usually, you don’t need extensive training when introducing an animal into your life. When you acquire a dog or a cat, you can play it by ear or get advice from a friend. But what about a chicken?

Most of us don’t know the first thing about keeping chickens, which is why the New York Restoration Project (NYRP), in partnership with bk farmyards and Just Food, are presenting a workshop series this summer and fall covering the topic.

Dubbed the City Chicken Institute, the series is free and open to the public, and were developed after Rachael Brody, NYRP community outreach garden coordinator, approached bk farmyards — a decentralized farming network that partners with landowners to farm on their land.

The two organizations worked together to “create this amazing, large chicken coop,” Brody said. Built in March at the Brooklyn Schenectady Avenue Community Garden in Crown Heights, it is the largest chicken coop in the city. “We want to engage more of the wider community to learn about chicken-keeping.”

The workshop series is led by bk farmyards’ farmer-in-chief Bee Ayer (below), a full-time urban farmer who keeps chickens in her backyard. The first installment, “Introduction to City Chickens,” took place on June 20.

“It covered basic anatomy, needs of chickens, a little bit of the history of chickens and how to take care of them to be healthy and happy,” said Ayer, adding that the event was a success with about 50 people in attendance.

“We had a great turnout at the first workshop,” said Brody. “People came from all over — the Bronx and Manhattan.”

The next workshop is this Sunday, July 18, from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Brooklyn Schenectady Community Garden. “It’s geared towards elementary school aged children, and so we’ll be doing some creative expression work with the chickens: drawing the chickens and playing some games. They’ll all learn how to hold the chickens,” said Ayer. “There’s a lot of kids that come in [to the garden] all the time. So I wanted to have a formal time that they could come in and do something fun.”

Three workshops will follow throughout the rest of the summer and into the fall. On August 15, attendees will learn how to properly integrate chickens into their gardens and how to build a chicken tractor, which is “like a small pen that the chickens go in that you put on your vegetable bed,” Ayer explained. “The chickens help the vegetable bed because they scratch it up so they prepare a nice bed for planting.”

On September 19, there will be a workshop for people who are more serious about keeping chickens, covering specific aspects of keeping chickens, including the time it takes, costs and where you can keep your birds. The last workshop will be on October 17 and will be about preparing chickens for the winter.

A Garden Full of Hens

Three years ago, Ayer was working at La Familia Verde, a coalition of community gardens in the South Bronx, and was having trouble finding a farmer who would deliver fresh eggs. She decided to start a chicken operation herself and sell the eggs. So she traveled to Costa Rica and worked on a farm to learn about chicken keeping and then came back to take classes and workshops with Just Food. Since then she has been interested in “pushing the envelope of what urban livestock can be.”

After opening the coop in March, Ayer visits every morning and evening to care for its 49 hens. There are eight different types of chickens, most of which lay every day. “There are some of them that lay [an egg] every three days and a couple of them lay one egg every two days,” explained Ayer. All in all, she gets around 36 eggs a day, which are sold through bk farmyards’ CSA (Community Supported Agriculture).

“That’s how we sell most of our eggs and with the extras we just sell them to people in the neighborhood,” said Ayer. “There are a lot of people in the neighborhood who want them.”

The hens roam free around the garden during the day, a surprising sight for someone walking by on the sidewalk. “Chickens really need space. To be healthy and happy I think it’s really important for chickens to be able to run around,” says Ayer. The coop is at the back of the garden, where the chickens go to roost and nest.

For someone who wants to start their own coop, Ayer says, “chickens are flock animals, you definitely need more than one. I recommend three. And then probably no more than 50 without a rooster.”

Though some people raise chickens on their roofs, she says, “I feel very strongly that chickens need to be connected to the soil… If they have a green roof it’s a little different, like Eagle Street Farm in Greenpoint. They have chickens on their roof, but it’s a green roof. Chickens are very sensitive to wind, especially during the cold months, so it’s a little hard on a roof.”

Just like any other pet, “[keeping chickens] is a lot of work and it can be really expensive. Especially if you buy organic feed.” But, Ayer says, “It’s really fun, it’s really enjoyable. I have a pretty stressful life even, as a farmer. It’s nice to be here at the beginning and the end of the day… I have chickens in my backyard as well. I love in the morning just sipping coffee and watching the chickens.”

To register for the chicken workshops, contact Rachael at or by calling (212) 333-2552. Pre-registration is required, space is limited.

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