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Behold: Charlotte's chicken underground

Source: Charlotte Observer
Date: June 16, 2008
Byline: Amber Veverka

More area folks embrace the 'eat local' philosophy by raising livestock and produce at their otherwise urban homes.

As more Americans try to shrink the distance between their plates and the sources of their food, few have been as successful as Sheryl and David Gerrard. They've shortened that distance to about 60 feet.

The Gerrards can step out behind their Plaza Midwood bungalow and listen to some of their meal-makers clucking: A flock of Rhode Island red and Dominique hens, ready for a slug-seeking stroll.

The hens don't know it, but they've got a sisterhood all over town. Some you may see as you drive past — hey, was that a chicken in that yard? — but most are hidden, behind garages, in custom-made coops or converted doghouses, forming a kind of chicken underground.

Raising backyard chickens is nothing new for recent immigrants in Charlotte. But now the practice is catching on with others who are focused on getting fresh eggs or meat. Chicken-raisers insist their birds' eggs taste far superior to store-bought "factory farm" eggs.

And if the birds range the yard in addition to getting commercial feed, they say, the eggs may have added nutrition.

The eggs do look different: A backyard bird allowed to nibble on grass and other plants produces eggs with a firm, bright-orange yolk, unlike pale, softer eggs from the store.

Some Charlotte-area chicken owners are officially sanctioned by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg animal control folks, getting their coops inspected by the city and holding permits. Others are more clandestine. But all are urban farmers, people who enjoy chickens or the food they provide.

"We've been getting into the Slow Food thing, the local food thing," said David Gerrard, explaining how he, his wife and 9-year-old son Joshua first decided to add chickens to their life. Free-range eggs were the lure, but now the chickens are just fun, Sheryl said.

"We could sit out there and watch them forever," she said. "It's like the Chicken Channel."

At the east Charlotte home of Alisha and Troy Tomlinson, the barred rock, Ameraucana, and other hens provide daily eggs. Their droppings fertilize the garden, which on a recent visit was crowned with perfect bok choy and dewy heads of green leaf lettuce.

A matter of control

It's legal to keep chickens inside Charlotte, provided you have a livestock permit, the neighbors' approval and follow rules about the number of birds and the placement of their housing (see box). A spokeswoman for Charlotte-Mecklenburg's animal control office said permit counts have not risen lately, but that the animal control officers say they know more people are keeping the birds.

Shannon, a Mint Hill resident who is flying under the permit radar, said she got her chickens last year out of concern for what she was feeding her daughter, Paisley Anne, now 22 months.

"I wanted to control what the chickens were fed and I wanted happy chickens," she said.

Livestock surprises

At Renfrow's Hardware in Matthews, where in the spring you can get three chicks for $7.50, poultry sales are climbing, said owner David Blackley.

"It's definitely increasing,'' he said, "this year even more so than last year. (People want) fresh eggs, fresh meat."

You can raise chickens on the cheap. But it's easy to spend a lot. Steve Brady stands in front of his very attractive coop and predator-proof run, painted to match a nearby shed at his Cotswold home, and figures aloud that the whole thing cost him $1,000.

Beside him, his wife, Jeanne, kind of shakes her head. No, you don't want to tally the price-per-egg of that project, but, Steve says, "If you play golf, think of the hundreds a month you spend on that!"

Cheryl Ownbey lives in western Union county, so her birds are not city fowl, but she can tell her Charlotte counterparts all about the darker side of poultry. Predators, for instance, are a problem. She got her favorite bird, Beep, out of the road one night. An escapee from a nearby meat-production chicken house, Beep was sick, but Owneby nursed her back to health.

Beep followed Ownbey around like a puppy, right up until the day death swooped out of the sky in the form of a hawk. "I cried for three days," said Ownbey.

And then there's the poultry mites, which recently overran Ownbey's coop.

Meat, or not

At the Tomlinsons', hens may provide eggs, fertilizer and friendship, but not meat. The Tomlinsons are vegetarians. Other urban farmers eat some of their flock.

The Gerrards say they'll butcher their birds as they begin to lay fewer eggs. David Gerrard said whether for eggs or meat, it's a good thing to raise some of your own food.

"If everybody took space out of their yard and did that, I think the impact it would make on the planet would be immeasurable," he said.