As I pulled into The Bradford Store parking lot in Huntersville, Ben and Myra McLeod met me with an enthusiastic welcome. Ben, a good-looking fellow with a strong muscular build and a ruddy complexion, walked stride for stride with an attentive Myra by his side. She looked particularly stylish in her bright orange frock. Nodding in approval of my visit, they turned away in unison and ran off to continue foraging for bugs. Ben and Myra, of course, are chickens. The birds are two of an untold but growing number of chickens being raised by urban backyard farmers in and around Lake Norman. “I’ve seen a dramatic surge of interest in raising chickens just in the past few years,” says T. McLeod, the proud owner of Ben and Myra and proprietor of McLeod Organics in Huntersville. “People are demonstrating more and more interest in knowing where their food comes from.” With more than 15 years experience as an urban chicken rancher, McLeod, 54, is well known around the Lake Norman area for dispensing plain-spoken practical advice on raising backyard chickens. And his business is booming: He said he sells over 3,500 pounds of organic feed per month, and nearly 25 percent of his revenue is generated through feed, material and supplies for urban chicken farmers. Peter and Sue Robertson of Mooresville are both regular customers, and part of this growing trend. They live on about 2 1/2 acres not far from Davidson College. They are in their third year of raising chickens, keeping between eight to 10 hens, each yielding about one egg per day. “Our motivation came from a desire to eat better and healthier,” says Sue Robertson, 54, a local realtor. “We’re interested in chickens because of the quality of their eggs, the taste and knowing that they eat an organic diet.” Peter Robertson, 58, says he and his wife have invested a couple hundred dollars in their backyard chicken farm, including several coops, cages and a courtyard, all of which are under the protection of chicken wire. The couple raised their hens from chicks, which cost about $2 each, and they shell out about $35 per month for feed. Also in Mooresville, about a block from the historic downtown area, Mark and Jen McNeely, along with their neighbors, Miles and Kim Atkins, have been raising chickens for about two years. Together the two couples have 12 chickens, which they raised from chicks. “We thought it would not just be healthy, but fun and a way to help make the connection to the food supply for our three children,” said Mark McNeely. While McNeely says the chickens can be messy, and require daily maintenance, it’s well worth it. “They are incredibly entertaining and even soothing to watch. It’s a great way to spend a comfortable evening out back, enjoying the family’s company and watching our chickens be chickens.” Jan and Mark Tevepaugh in Davidson started raising backyard chickens after their son Tom became fascinated with the idea. While the Tevepaughs started with three separate coops and about 30 chickens, their current brood is a much more manageable half dozen. “If I were to share advice with anyone just starting out, it t would be that less is more,” says Jan Tevepaugh, 53. “Learn what is manageable by starting slowly.” The Tevepaughs says that becoming urban chicken farmers has given them a greater connection and understanding of where their food comes from, not to mention tastier eggs. “You can really tell the difference in the quality of the eggs,” says Jan, who sells or gives away her surplus. “The yolks are much deeper in color and the taste is far superior to that of store bought.” For several years Ryan Mitchell, who lives in northwest Charlotte, raised chickens at his home. He recently consolidated with Cooks Community Garden, which is located between Mountain Island Lake and Lake Norman. The community garden provides space for people to learn about gardening and growing vegetables. It also has an egg co-op program through which people can get fresh eggs. Mitchell also teaches a class about raising urban chickens at the community garden. But before you go out and invest in your own setup for raising chickens, McLeod hastens that you should first do your homework and understand what’s involved. “It is important to be willing to accept what nature gives us,” he says. “People need to acknowledge there is natural life cycle and they have a responsibility once they take on the role of caretaker. It’s not all cutesy and fuzziness. The rewards, however, are tremendous.”
If you are considering joining the growing flock of urban chicken farmers, below are a few things to consider:
Local laws and ordinances: The first consideration is to determine if chickens are allowed by your locality. Homeowner associations are the starting point for residents bound by covenants, conditions and restrictions, which may ban the practice outright or have certain restrictions. Municipalities surrounding Lake Norman vary in their approach.
Space requirements: According to Ryan Mitchell, people can raise chickens on a smaller scale than they may think. “A four-by-six-foot portable coop can easily accommodate two to four chickens,” he says. “The key is having the ability to move the coop and allow for foraging on a new patch of grass or soil daily.”
Startup costs: The coop is the most costly investment. Prices vary from a $100 build-it-yourself kit to more than $800 for a high-end model. Other equipment such as feeders and water dispensers are under $50. Mitchell says to keep maintenance at a minimum he uses coops with no flooring and simply rolls them to a new spot every day, leaving the organic fertilizer behind.
McLeod Organics 15915 Davidson Concord Rd. Hwy 73 Huntersville, NC 28078 704.439.4768
Backyard Chickens 101 Saturday, April 2 1 p.m. – 4:00 p.m. Fee: $20 Presented by Cook's Community Garden Cooks Memorial Presbyterian Church 3413 Mount Holly-Huntersville Road, Charlotte, NC 28216 Contact: Ryan Mitchell - 704.650.9260
www.backyardchickens.com is an online resource for backyard chicken farmers. It reports that since it started in 2000, over 115,000 people from all over the country have signed up as members.