Backyard chicken keeper Kestrel Liedtke

This article originally ran in Salt Lake magazine's April 2010 issue.

Just Us Chickens: Which Came First? Urban Chickens or the Slow Food Movement

I'm not sure exactly when I knew I was living amid an agricultural revival in the heart of Salt Lake City. The evidence of it was suddenly just there. It was like a phrase I'd never heard before that I started hearing everywhere. I guess it started the day that my neighbor Kestrel Liedtke came by wondering if I'd seen one of her chickens. "Chickens? You have chickens?" She does.

And then I started seeing them everywhere.

I saw them along the alley where I walked my dog. There they were, two mottled brown hens strutting amid an ambitious garden. I found other clutches and coops visible from alleyways two streets over and five streets back. Almost magically, during the day, from my home office's open window, I could hear the gentle clucks emanating from Kestrel's coop, with the occasional chuckle-inducing outburst of "brock-brock-BROCK!"

"They do that when they lay an egg," Kestrel told me. 'I don't know if it's because they're proud or if it hurts. Probably a little of both."

My neighbor Sheldon from across the street knocked on the door with a carton of blue eggs that his son's hens had laid. "These eggs have no cholesterol," he bragged.

I peeked into the backyard that abuts the parking garage at our office near Trolley Square and saw a whole flock of chickens, a turkey and a duck bobbing around the cluttered yard there.

What, I wondered, is going on here? It's like when you are in the woods all alone, and you just listen, and you start hearing the creak of trees, the rustle of birds above and critters in the undergrowth. I had started listening to another beat of the city, the beat of the backyard chickens.

Household Produce

Salt Lake City was once an amazing agricultural community. The lots in the old parts of town like Sugar House are large and deep. This was Brigham Young's doing. The early plat maps for the city reflect the LDS Church leader's emphatic expectations that every household would produce, well, produce for themselves and the larger community. Many of the large lots that can be found all over the city were bountiful food gardens well into the 1950s. Irrigation systems with ditches where the storm-water gutters run now circulated water down from canals into backyard farms. In Logan, you will still find these systems in place, and in some parts of Sugar House as well. Traces Garden on 11th East, for example, still uses its water shares and its large lot to grow an astounding garden. But now SLC's fertile soil has mostly been chopped up into smaller lots, covered up with garages or given over to Kentucky bluegrass.

The chicken keeper whose yard is adjacent to the magazine's offices turned out to be Rick LaPointe, a sort of patient zero in the backyard chicken revival. He moved into his 1880s-era home five years ago to begin an experiment in what he calls "urban homesteading." Rick's a chef by trade and has slung béchamel in kitchens all over the world, from Japan to the Clinton White House. But these days he's retooling. He works on his house, writes, frets about carbon and watches his chickens, turkey and duck wander amid the compost piles on his Brigham-sized lot, smack dab against our office's parking garage.

"When I researched the old plat maps, I could see that on the back of this lot, there used to be a barn and a corral," he says. "At some point in the history of this house they absolutely had chickens and a big garden going on. I decided to reproduce that."

Rick calls himself a "keeper of carbon" and tries to eke everything he can out of his deep lot. He grows as much food as possible and aggressively composts, trying to return to the soil everything that can't be consumed.

"I'm obsessed about introducing more carbon into the property and not letting any of it go out in the trash cans to the landfill," he says. "It's counter-productive. I'm trying to turn this into a growing environment."

Rick's outlook is part of a new look at an old aesthetic. Rick's motivations come primarily from his growth as a cook and the inevitable obsession with fresh, lovingly grown ingredients. For others its roots are in the now boilerplate backlash against the way our food is produced (huge factories, scary confinement pens, chemicals, vast lakes of pig waste, etc. ... See: Food, Inc.) But I think the umbrella of reasoning above this is a turning away from the manic, always-on culture our technological marvels have wrought. When everything is at your fingertips but none of it is real, it's easy to romanticize and seek out the patience of waiting for something tangible like a perfect garden tomato or a freshly laid egg - the rebellious slow down to watch things grow. The backyard chicken is at once a useful pet and a meditation. A focus for breathing while you watch her grow and produce and serenely scratch and cluck.

"When I get home from work, instead of turning on the TV, I watch my chickens," says chicken keeper Brit Merrill. "They're just hilarious. One will find a worm and run away from the others who chase her. That poor worm. They just scratch and bathe in the dust. It's relaxing and comical."

Chicken Keeper Brit Merrill also gives advice to chicken lovers at Wasatch Community Gardens.

Legalize it

Brit is Rick's neighbor. She lives across the street to the north, and her coop is at the back of her lot, directly south of the bizarro sculpture garden Gilgal and east of the industrial Wonder Bread bakery. She acquired her first of seven chickens from Rick's unintentional acquisition of a rooster. Chickens are notoriously difficult to sex, and Rick ended up with a virile rooster named Laverne. The intended companion was a hen named Shirley. Rick says the naming error worked out fine as Laverne was more drag-queen than rooster.

"Laverne's great-grandkids are out there now, scratching in the yard," Rick says. "Shirley is still poking around. She's part of the family."

Brit is the de-facto chicken expert at Wasatch Community Gardens, which offers classes in chicken-keeping and sponsors the "Tour deCoop" every spring (see sidebar). She's also been integral in working with city planners to bring the chicken-keeping ordinances in line with urban realities.

The current law allows for 25 chickens that must be kept at least 50 feet from any dwelling. Rick's large lot allows for this, and he has a permit, but most urban chicken keepers, even Brit, operate illegally. A new ordinance will lower the number of chickens to 15 but remove the distance requirement. Chicken owners will only have to keep their coop 25 feet from a neighbor's home. This will allow for more people to legally enter the chicken-keeping game.

And according to Rick and Brit, it's a pretty easy game. Chickens are low-maintenance pets. They require a raccoon-proof coop that can be locked at night, an area to roam, and relatively inexpensive feed and scratch to eat. They love cast-off greens like wilted lettuce and the tops of strawberries. Even past-its-prime milk is a welcome treat for the hen on the go. A chicken keeper must rise at dawn to let the birds out of the coop and be available to lock them in at night, but you get to enjoy the eggs.

'When a city person sees how easy it is, and how delicious their eggs are, it's like "Why don't I raise chickens?'" Brit says. "Their eggs taste great. That's the key right there. Chickens are in many ways just like any other pet, they're social. They're entertaining, but they're like a pet with benefits. They actually give you something."

My neighbor Kestrel wanted to use her eggs at the Tin Angel, the restaurant she runs with her husband, Jerry, and her friend Robin, but food serving laws don't allow for it. So we neighbors benefit from the occasional overflow of fresh eggs.

"I just like having them," Kestrel says. "We love the eggs, and we love teaching our kids about where their food comes from."

 

A New Pragmatism

I get it. I get it all. I come from the stock of Utah pioneers, and there was always a garden in my life. My mother did her best thinking while she was on her knees weeding the green beans. Canning was a fall constant, huge industrial operations with grandmother and all the ward women bustling about the kitchen while giant pots and gossip simmered.

Perhaps it is romanticism for a pastoral past, sentimentality. But I think the motivations of my neighbors Kestrel, Rick and Brit are more than just wistful pining for days of yore. They're too young, too involved. This chicken thing, it's a sign of a new pragmatism. A synchronistic understanding that we all are missing something and we need to get our hands into the soil and get involved with our food on a tactile level.

Whatever it is, something stirs when I hear Kestrel's hens cluck, and I love that knock on the door that means she has too many eggs and I'll have a fantastic omelet in the morning. - Jeremy Pugh