A locked up herd of law-breaking Philadelphians continued to grow in number and thrive during the pandemic. Thousands of chickens are being raised across the city, according to one estimate, despite a 2004 ordinance designed to eliminate the practice.
This particular trend in urban farming is becoming more and more popular, as parked residents view unconventional pets as a diversion during the lockdown and the concerns of increasingly health-conscious consumers about the source and the quality of their food.
Maureen Breen, president of Philadelphia Backyard Chickens, a Facebook group, said her membership had jumped 21% in the past 12 months to reach 2,700 enthusiasts. She estimates that these growing numbers translate into an increase of 12,000 chickens in the region, up from around 10,000 last year.
“Some people reuse an old shed and others spend thousands of dollars on a co-op,” said Breen, professor of accounting at Drexel University. “If you look at the budget for extras, you can make homemade eggs as profitable as buying premium eggs at the grocery store or farmers market.”
According to statistics from the United States Department of Agriculture, or USDA, the advertised prices for a dozen large, Grade A white eggs hovered around $ 1 nationally on June 18. This average was the same for the northeastern states, including Pennsylvania and New Jersey. A carton of large organic eggs – closer to the type of eggs provided by backyard hens – costs an average of $ 3.99 nationally and $ 4.03 in the Northeast.
Breen said it costs about $ 0.10 a day to feed a chicken a diet of only chicken feed – corn and soy-based pellets that look similar to dry cat food. At that price, a dozen locally grown eggs would be worth $ 1.20, Breen said. She added the start-up costs, such as purchasing an enclosure and bedding, which typically add up to an additional $ 500. “That’s if you want to keep your budget low,” Breen said. “But, I fell in love with my chickens and buy them treats.”
Over the past decade, in the back of his Fox Chase house, Breen has raised a handful of chickens. She currently has five, each producing an average of one egg per day.
“I’m a gardener and love to grow my own food,” Breen said. “Raising chickens seemed like the perfect addition. Now I can add protein to the food I provide. “
This surge in Philadelphia’s chicken population has occurred even though their breeding is illegal for most residents. The 17-year ordinance, aimed at tackling neighborhood complaints about noise and odors, restricts chicken farming to properties of at least three acres. And although most municipalities ban roosters, which crowing loudly, Philly is one of the few that also ban female hens.
“Females don’t make a lot of noise,” said David Atkins, president of the Ohio-based American Poultry Association (APA). “But when a male sings in the morning it can really annoy the neighbors. “
Locally, Primex Garden Center in Glenside, Davis Feed in Perkasie and Tractor Supply Co. in Logan Township, Gloucester County bring chicks in the spring. A chick costs around $ 3 to $ 5. Chicken breeds specialize in layers, which provide eggs, or broilers, which provide meat, while a few breeds are dual-use. Broilers were bred to grow quickly to provide tender meat when slaughtered at around two months old. Almost all backyard chickens are layers and treated like pets.
Other purchasing options are available online at Murray McMurray Hatchery or MyPetChicken.com. The chickens are posted overnight and the recipient is advised to pick them up on arrival.
Breen has an exemption to raise her chickens as she studies the impact of birds on food waste recycling. Chickens can eat leftover food, including meat, Breen said. Although the city has rarely enforced the chicken ban, Breen and other members of his group continue to push for change. So far, they have obtained 5,000 signatures on a petition to repeal or revise the law.
“Having the city respond to complaints about a neighbor’s chickens doesn’t appear to be the best use of its resources,” Breen said.
Before the pandemic, city officials had planned a regulatory review as part of an effort to support urban agriculture. This initiative was halted due to the health crisis of last year before resuming recently.
“The City of Philadelphia recognizes the needs of the urban farming community,” said Maita Soukup, communications director for Philadelphia Parks & Recreation. “To better meet these needs, Philadelphia Parks & Recreation is undertaking a city-wide planning process to develop Philadelphia’s first-ever urban agriculture strategic plan. This includes reviewing the current livestock regulations.
Soukup added that the resulting plan is now due for release later this year and will provide policy recommendations to better support local farmers and producers.
Although it seems that few of this new breed of chickens are interested in meat, society as a whole has no such qualms. Over the past year, chicken sandwiches have closed the hamburger gap when it comes to America’s most popular dining choice. Chains such as Shake Shack, McDonald’s and Wendy’s, witnesses to the success of Chic-fil-A’s signature sandwich, have recently responded with their own premium versions.
“People just have this taste for the chicken sandwich,” said Matt Fein, culinary director of Federal Donuts, whose own sandwich has been a menu staple for eight years.
This increased demand for the country’s favorite white meat and a shortage of workers in processing plants have combined to drive up prices.
“The prices are a killer right now,” Fein said. “They are astronomical, the highest I have ever seen. The price of chicken breasts for our sandwiches has increased by over 30% compared to six months ago. “
According to USDA data, domestic wholesale prices for a broiler chicken climbed 48% to $ 1.07 per pound in the 12 months ending June 18.
On average, chickens live about 10 years. Although there are various breeds, layers are by far the most popular among urban farmers. “I have four black stars and an Easter egg (the shells of her eggs are blue-green),” Breen said. “But there are also breeds that are better for producing broilers. Broilers grow very fast, so fast that the extra weight sometimes breaks their legs.
No one knows when the return of backyard chickens – a common urban practice until the early 20th century – occurred. But Breen dates back to its origins a decade ago when Weaver’s Way, a Mount Airy-based co-op, saw a surge in chicken sales.
“They noticed they were selling a lot of it,” Breen said, “so they started the Facebook page. A few years ago I got involved and we have since parted ways with Weaver’s.
Not surprisingly, during the pandemic, many residents around the city also embraced the hobby. The lockdown, for example, gave Elkins Park scientists Scott Harrison and Jessica Raushel time to focus on a hobby they had been thinking about for years.
Still confined to the house this spring, the Harrisons have finally decided to raise chickens. Scott Harrison built a chicken coop at the back of his one-third acre lot and ordered three newly hatched chickens from mypetchicken.com. A spare bathroom served as a brooder until the birds were big enough to come out.
“In the summer we get about one egg per bird per day,” he said. “It’s more than what we usually eat, so we give it away quite often. “
Harrison said that on long walks he and his wife took last year, they noticed several neighbors raising chickens as well.
“I can understand because we’ve always wanted to do that too,” Harrison said. “One of the reasons we moved here was that Cheltenham Township was one of the few places that explicitly allowed chickens. It was awesome. They produce eggs and if you really want to you can harvest them for meat as well. “
There are chicken lovers whose interest is neither in eggs nor in meat. They groom birds to participate in dog show-type competitions.
The APA, a sort of American poultry kennel club, has seen a significant increase in membership over the past 18 months, Atkins said.
“Our organization is for those interested in raising chickens and other birds for display purposes,” said Atkins, who breeds poultry in Lucasville, Ohio. “These people go to poultry shows on weekends and have their birds judged by certified judges.
“And raising chickens in the backyard is how a lot of our members started out. It’s just something that becomes a lifelong obsession.