Jane Watson and Marie DeBenedictis share more than a property line in their Proctor Street neighborhood. The Tacoma women are also co-owners of a chicken coop that uses the two neighbors’ common fence as one of its walls. The birds have the use of either woman’s yard.
Call it a co-op coop.
The women call it the Proctor Poultry Partnership.
Theirs is one of eight yard-bird units on Saturday’s Urban Coop Tour. The henhouse open, organized by Tacoma nursery GardenSphere, is in its third year.
The backyard chicken movement continues to gain popularity as urban dwellers realize that chickens, when properly managed, can be food producers and easy to take care of. The bulk of the work and cost comes up front and most of that is concentrated in the vital necessity of a chicken coop.
The Tacoma City Council amended its poultry ordinance in August, 2012 to make raising chickens easier for residents. It reduced coop setbacks from 50 to 12 feet and limited flocks to 6 adult birds or 10 with written consent from neighbors. Every municipality has its own specific regulations.
GardenSphere co-owners and brothers Gabe and Travis Valbert have been selling chicks for five years and have seen that part of their business take off. Their $4.99 chirping chicks have been sexed – only females (future hens) are sold. Roosters are illegal in Tacoma. Gabe Valbert estimates they sell 700-1,000 chicks a year.
“Which is way more than we thought we’d do when we first started,” he said.
DeBenedictis and Watson started their joint custody venture in 2009. Each woman alternates care for the chickens weekly – or longer depending on vacation schedules.
“The only way it would work is as a shared responsibility,” Watson said.
The women currently have four hens. One is a Black Star, another is an Araucana and the other two are a Blue Orpington/Araucana cross. The eggshell colors include blue, green and brown. Their hens lay about 15 eggs a week.
But it’s what is inside the eggs that sets them apart from their grocery store counterparts. The yolks are a deep orange; the dense whites are full of moisture.
“The whites make a better meringue. The yolks made a better custard,” Watson said.
Manure is used to fertilize Watson’s robust vegetable garden and DeBenedictis’s raspberry patch. Excess greens and trimmings are fed to the chickens.
Watson grew up on a farm in Wisconsin. “She knows how to cook and dress a chicken,” DeBenedictis said. So when old hens stop laying, they are not sent to a chicken retirement home.
“We make soup out of them,” DeBenedictis said.
“A lot of people who get into this don’t think about what happens after the chicken stops laying,” DeBenedictis said. They don’t enjoy killing chickens, she said, but, “It forces me to think about where food comes from.”
One hen, a Rhode Island Red, was particularly hard to let go. “She would come into my house. I called her ‘girlfriend,’” Watson said.
While the birds are inexpensive and food and garden scraps can cut down on the feed bill, there is one potentially major expense: the coop. But, as the owners on the tour know, there’s more than one way to build one.
“They (novice chicken ranchers) get stuck on that there’s only way to build a coop,” Gabe Valbert said. “It can be any shape or form. Some are made out of old bookshelves. Others are exact replicas of their homes.”
Whatever form the coop takes, they all have basic requirements: A secure enclosure to keep the birds in and predators out, good ventilation, an elevated roost, clean water and food sources and semi-private boxes to lay eggs in (though chicken laying psychology can be hard to figure out at times).
Gabe Valbert said some of his customers just raise chickens for the fun of it – they give away all of the eggs. Unlike the co-op coop, most owners don’t eat their chickens. Past eight or nine weeks, the birds become tougher than what most Americans are used to.
“Parents want their children to understand where their food comes from,” Travis Valbert said. And, even for an animal that can’t crack a smile, the birds are entertaining. “They’re quite comedic. They have distinct personalities.”
The square footage requirements of a coop are proportional to the number of chickens in it and how much freedom they have during the day. A hen house can be smaller if it’s part of a larger enclosed run or the chickens are left to “free range” during the day. But that brings up another problem.
Chickens are easy pickings for predators whether they be nighttime raccoons or daytime dogs. Both will dig under fences, and raccoons are excellent climbers. Some poultry owners also learn the winged world’s dirty little secret: bird-on-bird violence.
Tacoma chicken rancher Teri Mattsen and her husband, Mike, have been raising chickens for five years along with Teri’s mother, Susan Fields, who lives with the couple at their West End home overlooking the Tacoma Narrows. They’ve had hawks dive-bomb their chickens, but haven’t lost any yet. Except for a couple of sick chickens and one $250 vet bill (Teri: “I’ll never do that again”) they haven’t had any problems.
Teri Mattsen took a class on chickens through Seattle Tilth, but then “bawked,” so to speak, on becoming a fowl farmer.
“It seemed pretty easy but I kept hesitating,” Teri said. Finally, Mike bought six chickens one day, forcing the couple to take the plunge in to poultry parenthood.
The Mattsens’ 9-by-10-foot coop, which is also on the tour, has a “green” roof with sedums growing on it. One wall is covered with a grape vine. The attached pen allows the chickens to run during the day.
The coop has inventive features. Outside hatches allow the Mattsens to gather eggs without having to go into the coop. An inside roost rises for easy cleaning. The passage between the run and the coop has a low roof with lettuce growing on it. The greens are grown specifically for the birds.
Eggs are shared with friends, family and neighbors. One neighbor reciprocates with honey from their hives.
Teri Mattsen, once the reluctant poultry farmer, is now a full convert.
“I love them,” she said. “They’re very entertaining. They’re just characters.”Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541
TACOMA URBAN COOP TOUR
When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday
Where: GardenSphere, 3310 N. Proctor St., Tacoma.
More info: 253-761-7936; gardensphere.biz